Its easy when we look at the surrounding culture to identify problems and to be critical of the cultural logic used to order society. Its harder to recognize our role in the problem or to see how multiple problems hang together. Its true that every problem is a gospel problem…sin and its effects lie at the root of every societal issue and every misdirected desire. While such a perspective is most often framed in terms of rebellion, a wrong perspective of God (a lack of understanding of who he is, what he desires, and how he empowers us to live) also conditions many of the issues we see in the world (and, unfortunately, the church).
On one level, suggesting that sin is the root cause of all cultural problems may seem too simplistic. Economic collapse, ecological crisis, political power plays, the drift of morality, etc. all seem more complex than “sin” and appear to require more than the proclamation of the gospel. I would agree if by the proclamation of the gospel we mean sharing the gospel with individuals. The socio-cultural problems we face will not be solved simply by transforming the hearts of individuals. Those problems are more complex and stubborn…engrained within the social fabric…and will require a more robust conception of sin and multifaceted proclamations of the gospel in the form of situated sorts of faithful living in the world.
So, as we consider culture problems, we cannot do so simply as a critical exercise, but as a creative one centered on the enduring issues of sin that manifest in a multiplicity of ways. As long as we don’t lose sight of the core problem, we can begin to think creatively about how we might go about proclaiming the gospel (exhibiting individual and corporate faithfulness) as we seek to resist and redeem societal evils.
We aren’t, however, solving a different problem. The fallen creation brought about by humankind’s refusal to trust God and decision to establish an order apart from Him has created a situation in which we are ignorant of God’s ways. Were it not for God’s revelation of himself through the Son, the Scriptures, and the Spirit. As we seek to address the problem of sin within the complex matrix of political, social, and economic systems, we must remain focused on the proclamation of the gospel through the solutions we propose.
In focusing on sin and gospel as the problem and solution, we would benefit from learning to think creatively. The gospel is not simply a hammer, nor is every sin a nail. We have a full set of metaphorical gospel tools in our metaphorical toolbox. One paradigm for creative thinking has been developed by Gary Klein in his book entitled Seeing What Other Don’t. He suggests that there are at least three paths for cultivating new insights: (1) the contradiction path, (2) the connection path, and (3) the creative desperation path.
The Contradiction Path
The contradiction path utilizes inconsistencies, or “out of place” items that signal to us that the story we are telling requires, in one way shape or form, modification. Inconsistencies can lead to different ways of thinking about a problem or a solution.
The contradiction path assumes that we have a narrative or story that serves as a framework through which we view reality. For Christians, that story is the gospel. However, we recognize that the gospel story which serves as our framework does not account for the full complexity of the gospel as conveyed through the Scriptures. We can go back to the biblical text multiple times always learning more and gaining insight into who God is.
As we evaluate problems and solutions, then, we may ultimately find that the solutions we’ve implemented don’t square fully with the biblical story. As we gain additional insight about who God is and how he operates in the world, we must be willing to allow these insights to expand the way in which we understand the gospel and, thus, to rethink the way we proclaim the gospel in word and deed. To be clear, the gospel does not change…simply the way that we proclaim it in word and deed.
For example, in a past era, the church condemned “the social gospel,” (a movement within the church that is often portrayed as being less concerned with the verbal proclamation of the gospel and more concerned with caring for the poor and needed). The emphasis on sharing the gospel through acts of kindness rather than evangelizing verbally and having the salvation of men’s souls as the primary aim of missions was seen by some as not in keeping with the gospel. Flash forward to a new context and we find that while the verbal proclamation of the gospel is and will always continue to be essential, we may have overemphasized that proclamation by not having an appropriately balanced approach to caring for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. This insight does not demand any particular solution, but it should prompt us to consider new alternatives as we recognize that the story of the gospel does not simply call us to a verbal proclamation of Christ crucified, but to an active response in recognition of the God we serve.
The Connection Path
The connection path is, as you might guess, about making connections. It isn’t necessarily about making the same connections that have always been made. In fact, it is generally about exploring new connections to establish new starting points for evaluation.
As we enter the digital age, we have an unprecedented opportunity to hear from Christians around the globe. While God’s word does not change, His church does exist within different contexts and His people experience the world from a variety of viewpoints. As we interact with one another, we will inevitably broaden our perspectives. Take, for example, the situation of Catholics under the Pinochet regime. Pinochet instituted a program of random torture in which Catholics were not in control of their own bodies. In Torture and Eucharist, Cavanaugh describes the manner in which the Catholic Church’s practice of Eucharist served to give the bodies back to the Christian community.
In the U.S., we don’t suffer under torturous regimes, thus, we don’t emphasize communion in the way the Cavanaugh describes. While there certainly needs to be thought given to the Catholic context from which Cavanaugh speaks, the point is that the situation he describes may well provide a new connection, a new starting point for us to consider the significance of holy communion.
The Creative Desperation Path
The creative desperation path is a path that is, to a large degree, conditioned by context. Creative desperation works when we come to the end of our proverbial rope and have to backtrack to question our assumptions. When we reach an impasse in which we have no opportunity for forward progress, we have reached the point where we can follow the path of creative desperation.
For instance, we at least have to entertain the possibility that the church’s efforts to preserve the Judeo-Christian ethic in the United States has been less-than successful. Efforts to engage in politics or sway public opionion haven’t paid off in the way that, I would assume, those involved in such efforts would have hoped. We are no longer in a position where the Judeo-Christian ethic dominates the landscape.
As the church engaged in such efforts, other groups were engaged in PR and lobbying efforts of their own. Regardless, at this point, it is arguable that Christians find themselves in a situation where we may benefit from the creative desperation path. What assumptions have we made about our aims, our tactics, or our situation in general that need to be rethought? How might we rethink where we are and what we are doing? Continuing with the same tactics doesn’t seem to be the right move, so what else can we do? Those of the questions that creative desperation raise.
In the end, we need to remember that the fundamental problem we are facing is a misrecognition of God. The world does not know him. Our desire is to testify to who God is through our words and deeds. Part of that testimony, in my estimation, is recognizing our finitude and failings and adapting to new challenges without compromising our character or changing our testimony. God, after all, has not changed…we simply need to help others recognize him rightly in new situations with new challenges and new variables.