Monday, July 28, 2014

Orthodoxy and Adaptability

This blogpost is the culmination of a lot of my thinking lately about the future of Christianity in America.  So, for non-church people, it may seem a bit heavy, but hang with me.  Let me begin with a basic thesis sentence (I told you it might be heavy:-)

Where Christianity has been successful in world history, it has had a combination of two things: 


In other words, where Christianity has flourished, where it has taken root, where it has made it's way effectively into the lives of people of all different types and backgrounds and made a difference, it has both been orthodox (it has clung to the Bible, the confessions and the essential tenants of our faith) and it has been adaptable (it has morphed in subtle ways to meet the needs and particularities of the cultures in which it lives.  Let me offer two quick examples.

In the 5th and 6th centuries, Christianity made it's way into the countries of England, Scotland and Ireland.  It's missionaries are well known to us today; St. Patrick from Briton, St. Columba, St. Ninian are just three examples.  When these missionaries arrived in the British Isles they found a mostly tribal people who clung to paganism and pantheism.  There were literally as many gods for the Celts as there were days in the year.  There was a god for the ocean and a god for the mountains and a god for the trees.  These gods were depicted in huge stone circles like Stonehenge in modern day Bath, England, and the Great Stone Circle on the northern Scottish island of Orkney.  The missionaries brought orthodox theology from Rome.  There was only one problem - it wasn't working.  It wasn't breaking into the paganism of the local people.  Christianity wasn't relevant to the pagan Celts.  How would Christianity connect with these warring tribes?  Patrick, Columba and Ninian had an idea.  They would incorporate the pagan circle of pantheism, redefine what the circle meant, and place it right in the middle of the Christian cross (today this is known as the Celtic cross, seen in the image above).  In other words, in Great Britain, for Christianity to be successful it had to have:


Let's turn quickly to another historic example, before I try to relate why I am writing this post and why it makes so much difference for Christianity in America today.

At about the same time that Christianity was making it's way into the British Isles, it was also making it's way into Germania - the home of the ancient Goths.  The Goths, later exemplified by their great and famous leader, Clovis I, were a warring, tribal people.  A normal day for the Gothic people would begin with a great feast in the morning, where huge amounts of alcohol would be drunk.  That would be followed by huge sex festivals where women, as the saying goes, were "ravaged".  This would be followed by a long afternoon nap.  The evenings would be filled with plans to invade warring tribes.  How would Christianity ever permeate such a foreign culture?  Simple, it would adapt to the Goths in ways that would speak to the Goths.  The Jesus figure in Germania would adapt.  Jesus carried a sword and a shield.  In real life did Jesus ever carry a sword?  Of course not.  Jesus is a God of peace and forgiveness.  However, in order for Christianity to make an inroad into this very foreign culture, it would have to adapt.

So, why have I been thinking about:


Because of this.  If Christianity is to be successful in the growing foreignness of the world today, it must also remain orthodox and it must adapt.  Denominations which aren't orthodox will die (a good example of a denomination which isn't orthodox and which is basically extinct is Christian Scientism).  Denominations which aren't adaptable will also die (a good example of a denomination which wasn't adaptable is "Berean" Christianity).

Of course this formula is overly simplistic.  More time needs to be given to what orthodoxy is exactly.  More attention needs to be devoted to what kind of adaptability is too adaptable, too amorphous, too culturally sensitive.  However, it is this blog-post writer's opinion that if the American Christian church doesn't take this tension and this dichotomy seriously enough, it won't have as bright of a future as it has experienced in the past 4,000 years.

As a way of thinking about this in practical terms think about your own religious denomination (if you have one).  Is it too orthodox or too adaptable, or has it struck the perfect balance and medium to win hearts, minds and souls for the next millennium?

All For Now,

No comments:

Post a Comment