Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Healing Christianty's Divides by Keeping Them

According to Gary Thomas there are nine spiritual temperaments, each kind pursuing God differently, and each experiencing God uniquely. I'm not one to run to DISC profiles or temperament categories, but the concept does make sense. In fact, it might explain why there are so many factions and sects of Christianity.

Back in 1929, Richard Niebuhr wrote The Social Sources of Denominationalism. In it he argues that theology is not the primary difference between Christian churches. He says the real differences are economic. Each denomination panders to the spirituality of a particular income bracket and that this is wrong because it allows the divisions of our world to divide the church. Our diverse theologies, he contends, grow out of the concerns of our individual demographic. He even goes so far to attribute certain European wars to the social unrest over religious-economic disparity.

According to Niebuhr, there are churches for the rich, and churches for the poor, and churches for the middle class. Is he accurate? Unequivocally, yes. Every demographic study bears this out. Systematic Theology I classes demonstrate this too. Which denominations have tended to emphasize the sovereignty of God? The reformed traditions which many prominent politicians and business leaders attend. Which traditions emphasize free will and empowerment? Churches of the urban poor. Which churches emphasize moral responsibility for sin and the removal of guilty? The pick-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps middle class type of church.

I don't think the solution is to divorce theology from our cultural situation, as if absolute truth can be erected beyond that of direct revelation. It is our perspective on our vices and problems that gives our theology pragmatic value to real everyday people. Nor is the solution to dissolve distinct denominations back into one homogenous universal Church. Trying to pretend there aren't legitimate differences is naive.

Back to Thomas. Thomas' answer to the conflicts between the spiritual temperaments is that all avenues are legitimate and to be appreciated. The problem is not the difference. The problem is the intolerance, in both directions. Distain for the poor is as much of a problem as contempt for the rich. Worshiping with the assistance of icons may just be what the sensate doctor ordered, and icon-o-clasts should lock themselves away in a cell. Most of us will fall somewhere in between. And that's okay.

It is good that Christianity has had so many schisms over the years. It keeps Christianity growing and evolving to meet the material needs of so many different people. What kind of spiritual unity can exist amidst such a mosaic of creeds and assumptions? How about the kind that listens to criticism from other denominations without feeling the need to be defensive. How about the kind that loves to listen to other Christian's experience of worship before we engage in apologetics. How about the kind that doesn't publicly criticize other faith traditions, but does engage in direct and friendly ecumenical dialogue and debate. Is there absolute truth? Sure, but let's not mistake the categories of our systematic theology for a new Oral Law miss held as equal with scripture.

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