God-Talk in a Post-Christian* Culture
We live in a time and culture that has very little constructive discourse about any hotly debated, critical topic—including topics related to God, faith and spirituality. People from all walks and persuasions have become contentious and intolerant in their approach to others. The Church has often not helped conversations because of its dogmatic approach to cultural issues, theology, and life in general. So much about our God-talk can be problematic and unhelpful. It either props up “straw-men” arguments in a post-Christian world that isn’t interested in what Christians have to say or is so out of touch and offensive that it’s actually damaging.
Much of the past and current conversation about God also feeds, at least in some places, a religious, authoritarian appetite for dominance and power. It “preaches to the choir” and maligns those outside (and even, inside) the faith. Unfortunately, this is what our world has come to expect from Christians, and largely, it’s not listening anymore. Deserved or not, the Church has a very bad reputation—especially among Millennials and Post-Millennials. We are often viewed as ignorant, illogical, insensitive, unloving, boring, anti-so-many-things, hypocritical, unrealistic, judgmental, and even dangerous.
Yet, it seems, in spite of all that, people are hungry, even starving, for more honest, meek, life-giving engagement about spiritual issues and how God intersects with culture. God is not out of style but the Church is so often out of touch. The way we engage our culture about God is critical.
Why is our conversation sometimes so unhealthy and unhelpful? Theologian Pete Enns points out that we are often driven by an unrecognized or unstated fear:
“In my experience, what is ultimately at stake for many of us is fear of the loss of some sense of certainty of how things will play out—the fear of losing control of the structured and predictable existence that our ideologies give us.” But, the call of Jesus is one of faith and by definition, faith is not certainty.
How much does fear or the need to be certain drive current displays of Christianity and its relationship with the world around it? How much does fear drive you? Let me ask it this way, what’s at stake if you are wrong in some way about some aspect of your belief system? What falls apart, doesn’t work, doesn’t make sense? What if we could be free from this debilitating fear that renders us ineffective in our conversations?
N.T. Wright, arguably the world’s foremost New Testament theologian, said that he would tell his students that one-third of what he was teaching them was probably wrong. The only problem was that he didn’t know which one-third he was wrong about. One of the most helpful things that I’ve ever learned to say in a difficult, God-talk conversation is, “You know, I might be wrong about that.” Even if we are convinced that we are right about an issue, just the willingness to admit that we are sometimes wrong, and that, in this case, we are simply willing to be wrong, demonstrates the kind of meekness that inherits friendship.
This kind of approach flies in the face of the zero-sum, win-at-all-costs, tribal approach to culture and Christianity that many espouse—a brand of faith that builds walls that keep love from touching people—a faith of division and isolation instead of incarnation.
What would it be like for the Church if we changed the way we talk about God? What if the community of Jesus-followers became a place where open, honest, no-shame and no-strings-attached exchanges could take place about God, the Bible, Christianity, life, and culture?
Maybe it would transform us from a culture of fear, convincing, proving, arguing, shaming, and belittling to one of depending on God, following Jesus, and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak and work through us as we relate to others.
I imagine an approach that leads to connection, laughter, and open-handed discussion. Conversations that are just as much about “how” we talk about God (and relate to one another) as “what” we say about God. I imagine inviting people to experience something like the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash—a practice of textual interpretation, study and debate that would seek to wrestle with our current culture in light of God and Scripture. It would invite dialogue about God and seek to reach new depths and to draw new levels of understanding from the story of the Scriptures. Midrash is debate without dehumanization; it’s loving discourse; it’s a journey to unearth the meaning of the Scriptures, which ultimately point us to God and one another.
What could be better in a world that is separating people more than leading us to love our neighbor? What could be better for a new generation that has all but “checked out” of church? What could be better for the more experienced generations that have been left deeply wanting by the shallow sugar cookies they continue to be given on Sunday mornings? What could be better during times of uncertainty and hopelessness for so many that are hungry for something more?
What’s your God-talk experience these days? As we embark on a season of more intense political debate and the challenges they attempt to address, what would it be like to build a bridge from both sides, come to one table together and have the guts to live peacefully in the tension with one another?
*Post-Christian is a term that is currently being used to describe a culture or society that no longer has Christianity as it’s dominating ethos or undergirding and understanding of what life and the world is all about—Christianity has lost is primacy and therefore it’s influence (usually being replaced by something else). In addition, the language of the Bible, Church, and the Christian subculture is becoming irrelevant or archaic.