13 July 2006

The Continuing Conversion of the Church (5)

Oooo-kay - I admit that the delay between installments of this series is getting a bit ridiculous. When it's done, I'll do a summary post with links to each chapter.

Chapter Five of CCotC, entitled "The Challenge of Reductionism", begins like this:

The risk of translatability is that sinful humans are its agents. The witnesses are always very ambiguous saints. They (we) never divorce themselves from the desire to bring this powerful and radical gospel under control. That means that in the process of translation, complex forms of reduction also take place.

What does Guder mean by "reduction" and "reductionism", and what consequences does this have for followers of Jesus and their attempts to participate in God's mission?

  • The nature of the church's mission mandate is to be, do, and say Christ's witness. "This ministry of witness is carried out by frail and forgiven humans, whom God chooses, forms into missional communities, and sends." The church, made up of these frail, forgiven humans, "reduces the gospel as it translates it in its witness." This reduction is "as unavoidable as [that which] occurs in the translating of texts from one language to another." Reduction occurs in the translation of the Bible, and even in the translation of God's revelation into human language and culture by the Biblical authors themselves. However, Christians "need not fear that the witness is thus rendered irrelevant, or that relativism reigns."
  • "When such reductions, which inevitably occur, are made absolute and then defended as normative truth, then we confront the problem [that Guder calls] 'reductionism.'" Guder's "thesis is that our particular Western reductionisms are the greatest challenge that the North Atlantic churches face when they seek to develop a theology of evangelistic ministry." "The reductionism we struggle with is related to our attempts to reduce the gospel, to bring it under control, to render it intellectually respectable, or to make it serve another agenda than God's purposes. Therefore, we cannot move contructively towards the formulation of a theology of evangelistic ministry without addressing...this reductionism.... To be faithful witnesses, we...must also be penitent witnesses, receiving the gift of conversion from God's Spirit."
  • The history of reductionism begins very early in the Christian story. "First, the early church reduced its understanding of its own calling and allowed itself to become one more religion in the multiplicity of religions present in the first century," becoming "preoccupied with what distinguished it from others." "Second, this fundamental reduction was linked with the church's transition from a movement to an institution." Third, "growing antipathy between Christians and Jews...resulted in a pervasive reductionism of the gospel with regard to our rootedness in Israel and the Old Covenant, and the importance of the Jewishness of Jesus and the early church." "In very subtle ways, salvation became more and more focused upon the individual, and...the person's life after death."
  • Guder recounts in detail a "spectrum of reductions" associated with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. These include: 1) a shift "from the event character of the gospel to the formulation of a defined faith system"; 2) a redefinition of eschatology from an anticipation of a future coming of the kingdom on earth to a conviction that the work of Christ on earth was complete in the establishment of the church, as "the future tense of God's kingdom came to be understood as the eternity that awaited the Christian after death"; and 3) a movement away from "the Biblical understanding of calling to witness and mission" and toward "the struggle to gain and keep salvation." The church began to make it its business to control, mediate, and manage this salvation on behalf of individual Christians.
  • With the Reformation and the dawn of the "modern" age - with its centrality of scientific rationalism - many of these reductionisms remained unquestioned. In the Reformers' emphasis on our dependence upon God's grace, the central question remained that of "personal salvation, how one became sure of it, what one did about it, and how the church related to" it. "The 'individualization' and 'ecclesiasticization' of salvation...was not fundamentally questioned." "[T]he context of Christendom remained as the guarantor and protector of Christianity as the dominant religious force in society," and mission was not a major emphasis of the Reformers. With the Enlightenment stress on the "autonomy of human reason", the emphasis on the salvation of the individual only intensified. "Contemporary approaches to evangelism, with their emphasis upon method, program, results, and measurement, are a further consequence of the victory of Enlightenment thinking, even in those parts of the church which disavow Enlightened theology."

So where are we today?

Now...the church that is to proclaim the gospel appears to have become unsure of itself and incapable of persuasive witness. There are many reasons that so many Christians and Christian groups have become skeptical about evangelism, but high among them is the inability to formulate a gospel that can break through the individualization and privitization of religion. Moralistic reductions ("we are going to bring about God's kingdom on earth") have little credibility after one century of Christian social activism with minimal results.... Those groups that practice aggressive evangelism are, upon closer examination, also proclaiming a very reductionist gospel. While they claim to be opposing the secularizing and diluting tendencies of modern humanistic skepticism, they too often define the gospel in terms of happiness and evangelize for success, counting upon their mastery of method to produce results.

It sounds like we've got ourselves in a bit of a mess, and Guder's next chapter explores further "The Reduction of Salvation and Mission" and the consequences of this mess for our missional calling. But don't worry; after that he moves on to "Implications" and the beginning of a way forward for the Church. More to come....


Cori said...

So how can we be un-reductionist? By allowing our translation, interpretation, and understanding of the Bible to be constantly under revision? By being humble in the claims we make or claim the Bible makes? By trying to 'hear' the Bible from the perspective of other cultures or paradigms???

This post helped me understand why so much of the way we preach the Bible often seems to foreign or even irrelevant to people in completely other paradigms and how it is possible to read it from so many different perspectives ...

Mike Croghan said...

Hi Cori,

Yes, yes, and yes (to your first paragraph) - or such is my limited understanding! The point is not to avoid reduction - it's as inevitable as that which occurs in translation between languages (translating the Biblical greek words philos, eros, and agape all using the same English word, "love", for example). The point is to avoid idolizing our reductions and giving them the same weight as the gospel itself. I think we do that through humility, openness to other paradigms, and openness to revision, just as you say.