Friday, June 20, 2008

The Deck of Life is Always Shifting

One of Richard Pratt's favorite sayings is that "because the deck of life is always shifting, balance can be nothing more than momentary synchronicity." What he means by this is to imagine yourself on a boat in the open seas with the waves shifting the deck to and fro. In order to maintain one's equilibrium in an environment like this is to have one's weight in sync with the movement of the boat moment by moment. Simply maintaining some preexisting posture and never adjusting it is to guarantee a loss of footing which will leave you at the mercy of the to and fro of the waves.

While it can be argued that Richard's view gives too much deference to situational impacts on our posture, there is a good bit of anecdotal evidence to commend the truth of this view. For example, such a view is certainly true in politics. In Virginia, Republican George Allen was sailing towards reelection until a series of acts on his part that turned out to monumental blunders. Ten years ago perhaps, the mistakes he made in 2006 wouldn't have been mistakes and wouldn't have caused a problem. But Allen demonstrated that he had lost touch with how much the deck of life had shifted on him, and he lost his footing. The same has proven to be true in this year's presidential campaign. Bill Clinton, a figure anointed by a once smitten press as one of the great pure politicians of our time, contributed, perhaps considerably, to Hillary Clinton's nomination defeat by committing blunder after blunder. Once considered the 'first black president' because of the way he connected with African Americans back in the 1990s, the Clinton of 2008 lost his velvet touch and was accused of racial insensitivity more than once. Even Bill Clinton hasn't come to terms even now with the degree to which the deck of life shifted on him, and he lost his footing by failing to adjust.

Richard's view is certainly applicable to the field of theology, and it is in this context that he has voiced such a view. Simply put, if one wants to maintain a theological orthodoxy that has the kind of equilibrium to stay upright no matter how big the waves are that hit it, one cannot be oblivious to the deck shifts that threaten balance. If one chooses to stubbornly maintain a preexisting posture as a badge of honor against cultural creep, one is likely to lose balance and fall out of orthodoxy just as surely as he would have if he had gotten out of the boat and adopted surfboard liberalism that depends entirely on the waves to dictate direction.

Orthodoxy is both fixed and non-fixed. Core orthodoxy is true and doesn't change. But just because something is true doesn't mean there isn't room to understand this truth better. Those who lose theological balance are those who have trouble reckoning with this, and believe that not only is the truth of the physical resurrection of Christ fixed, but that its application and relevance are also fixed so that no additional orthodox-oriented exploration is necessary. This is erroneous, because it discards the reality that the deck of life is always shifting. When Paul says that for the sake of the gospel, he has become all things to all men so that by all means possible some might be saved (1C 9), he is acknowledging that while Jesus Christ is the fixed point upon which the Christian life rests, the Christian life itself is not fixed and must adjust for the sake of the fixed gospel. The early church understood this, because if they didn't, Acts 15 would read very differently, and the church itself might look very different.

Just to be clear, I am not advocating a situationally-dominated Christianity that adopts the CULTURAL (not biblical) orthodoxy of change for the sake of change, or change on the altar of brute pragmatism. As I've mentioned in other posts, the emergent church movement, while containing some good theoretical and even practical views, has in too many ways become a rather blanket concession to the secular spirit of our age rather than a return to some purer form of Christianity unleashed from the chains of modernism. Christianity shouldn't be in bed with either modernism or postmodernism, because both, while containing elements of truth, are ultimately hostile to the gospel. So in no way am I inverting the Reformed view of Christ transforming culture into a view of Culture transforming christ. Such a thing would require me to get off the deck entirely and jump into the open water, and while many in the mainline denominations in particular have done just that, it is not what we should do.

On the other hand, one will indeed have difficulty speaking effectively to our present environment in the West using extrabiblical categories imported from generations ago. Again, this doesn't mean that we should follow the liberals in discarding the Spirit-guided wisdom of our theological tradition throughout the ages. I am on record in saying that any individual, pastor, church, or denomination that scuttles its historical theological tradition is well on their way to departing from orthodoxy. Ignoring or 'reimagining' one's confessional tradition is an act that usually corresponds with a similar departure from Scriptural authority. But of course, the abandonment of external authority in favor of individual self-determination is often precisely the point - and the goal. The only problem is that such a view is foreign to orthodox Christianity. But none of this changes the fact that those of us who choose to plant ourselves on the deck (or more biblically, the Rock), are not immune from the cultural influences that threaten the balance that's needed to remain upright and rooted.

The challenge of the church today is not to rethink what it believes, or even to rethink how it thinks or goes about being the church in the emergent church sense. The challenge for the church is to know what it believes, know it's historical community and tradition, and know the environment it's operating in. The church cannot be slavish either to historical OR CONTEMPORARY methods of understanding itself or the world. It must employ both openness and boundaries on issues of belief and practice, and this is impossible if we've lost our sense of orientation by putting ourselves at the mercy of the waves either by not adjusting and falling down, or by abandoning ship altogether.

Just because a church building has a cross on it doesn't automatically mean that Christianity is being taught and lived there. Just because somebody routinely has Jesus on their lips doesn't automatically mean that their Jesus is the real Jesus. And just because someone announces that they are Reformed in their theology doesn't automatically mean they understand Reformed theology and are well conversant with their theological and confessional heritage. While the American church is preoccupied with its own version of 'keeping up with the Joneses' by chasing after the cultural winds, the church is in very serious danger of losing its unique identity as the body of Christ. Why? Because it's often the case that those who chase after the wind are those who are decidedly unclear about their own identity. But Scripture has an enormous amount to say about our true identity as Christians, and how that identity informs the way we live and interact with others. Maintaining this identity requires the kind of balance that keeps us upright as the deck of life continually shifts.