Sunday, May 8, 2011

Moral Formation in the Church

A number of years ago Mark Noll alerted the Christian community to "the scandal of the evangelical mind."  Evangelical ethicist J. Daryl Charles echoes these thoughts in his book Between Pacificism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition (IVP, 2005).  Although written to address the ethics of war and the Just War tradition, Charles has some introductory comments that are much broader in application for evangelical social ethics.
In The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism I lamented the absence of moral formation in the church's teaching and preaching and in congregational life.  My basic argument was this: there is no such thing as an evangelical social ethic or a broadly Protestant ethic, for that matter.  To be sure, we have elevated church growth to a virtual science.  We have written and sold millions upon millions of heart-warming and inspirational Christian "breakthrough" books.  We have made endless forays into the contemporary music scene.  And we are as "seeker-friendly" as any group on the face of the earth.  But when it comes to giving a reason for the hope within or presenting a rationale for Christian social ethics or offering an explanation of the church's traditional teaching on perennial ethical issues, we are all but clueless.  (pp. 10-11)
Charles goes on to offer some reasons for this lack of evangelical social ethics.
Is it likely that the evangelicals' relative absence in the public square is due, among other things, to an underdeveloped theology of creation, humanity and culture?  Have all of these been overshadowed by a skewed eschatology?  (I have in mind our fixation with end-time scenarios--often understood as "biblical prophecy"--that hamstrings the church's ability to wrestle with the already-but-not-yet tension of the kingdom of God).  (p. 12)
And, again, at the end of his book, Charles brings home the implications of this short-sighted eschatological viewpoint.
If Christ is indeed returning in our lifetime, as we have been taught to fully anticipate, then it is supremely difficult--nay, nonsensical--to pursue other matters over the long term that require considerable energies, strategies, finances and personal investment.  I have in mind, for example, education or certain types of vocational careers.  With Tertullian we answer the question, What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? with a firm resolve: Well, absolutely nothing.  No wonder, then, that evangelical Protestants (for example) tend not to be found among social scientists, economists, educational theorists, political scientists, legal theorists, policy analysts, politicians (football players excepted), ethicists and so on.  Why?  Because such endeavors require a vision that takes culture seriously and views "occupying" (Jesus' word) as both a Christian mandate and a high calling.  All of these vocations require a long-term perspective, and at minimum, an interest in society.  (p. 172)
Charles' words are poignant and precise.  There is a desperate need for biblically informed and theological driven reflection on today's social issues.  The church needs to step up and provide an arena for such reflection.  Discipleship of the mind is an endeavor to be taken seriously by the evangelical church.