In my last post I shared some thoughts, as well as reflections on common sociological themes that exist within our Culture. The point that I made was, hopefully, simple. People have a deep connection to their religious as well as cultural convictions and lifestyles they are born or raised in. Some of it is geographical and some of it is theological, while some of it is revealed to us or realized in time. Whatever the case may be it is important to address, or at least understand, the human aspects of culture and society. As Christians we live in a tension between the world and the divine. In Augustine’s “City of God” he notes the differences and influences of two cities; the ‘Heavenly City’ and the ‘Earthly City.’ For Augustine, as well as many other theologians and thinkers, these two cities are not in conflict with one another. As I pointed out in my last post, when we realize the human aspects of the world (the earthly city), we can see how the church,( the heavenly city), has a place or an effect upon the world. What is the church’s job? Proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ and administer the sacraments. Augustine notes in IV.3 of ‘City of God’, “a man who loves God is not wrong in loving himself. It follows, therefore, that he should be concerned also that his neighbor should love God, since he is told to love his neighbor as himself.” This is the influence of the ‘heavenly city’ upon the ‘earthly city.’ The need to preach the Gospel, which loves our neighbor as ourselves. It is not found in relevance, or new techniques of philosophy of ministry. While these may be helpful and depending on the context, necessary, the need of the Gospel within the world will always be its deepest need and it will always be the Church’s number one job to do so.
Reflecting upon this, and in light of several conversations I have seen, heard and had, a few things have come to my attention as well as some questions to be asked from here. First, how does the Church cultivate a culture within itself to go into the world and love its neighbor? And second, how do we as individuals continue to live within the tension of two worlds while allowing the Church to not only be somewhere that we go, or are, but be sent into the world with the right tools? In other words how do we let the heavenly city influence us as we live within the earthly city? I believe that this answer is much simpler than we will want to make it. Most of the time we will run to the bookstore, or amazon, and pick up the latest material on ‘incarnational ministry.’ Maybe we will try and find a conference about missions and get a group from our church to attend. Maybe, if we are so bold, we will just go and see what happens and hope some people come along! These are ways in which we often respond to a desire for growing the church, or even trying to make sense of how the heavenly influences the earthly. I believe the answer to how we create a culture that has a presence not only within its community, but in the world as well as grow its current goers in the faith starts somewhere that we may not realize. It starts with Aristotle’s understanding of ethics.
You might immediately tune out after what I just said but here me out. What I mean is this; Aristotle in Book II of his discussion on virtue ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ said “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit.” What does he mean by this? Put simply Aristotle understood virtue in two ways. First, virtue is concrete. It is character or integrity as oppose to simply passion. Passion is too unpredictable. Sure, maybe every once in a while someone will do the right thing, but creating a culture built on character through habit was much more likely to happen as oppose to passion. Second, virtue requires a choice and the choice is a means to an end within itself. People must choose to be virtuous and therefore must understand that there is no reward other than being virtuous to be gained from helping the old lady across the street. What Aristotle advocated for was this; if we desire to be a virtuous culture or person we must cultivate, through habit, within ourselves the thought of doing the virtuous thing. Now, how I am connecting these things together you may ask? Here is how.
While I do not think we can just cut out Aristotle and make it a standard for our ministry, I do think that the notion of habit, or consistency, is incredibly important not only for creating a church culture that seeks to love its neighbor, but also bring the neighbor into the doors and keeping them there. Think about the last time you went to Church. Maybe last Sunday, or maybe a mid- week service. What was the service about? Maybe you can recall, but can you recall two weeks ago, or three, or four… I cannot recall the last few weeks other than the series title. Imagine if when we left Church we remembered what the service was about, we meditated about it throughout the week and then we showed up again the next week or to a bible study or mid- week event and the same, or similar thing, was cultivated in us. We would be thinking about the same thing, or similar things, for one maybe two or three weeks in a row! We would not walk out of Church encouraged and joyful only to forget what happened by dinner or maybe Monday or Tuesday night. If we take Aristotle’s understanding of virtue we can quickly see how habit, or consistency, can begin to have a large effect upon the heavenly cities influence upon the earthly city.
The Anthropologist Peter Burger, also a confessing Christian man, understood culture in this way. Culture is cultivated by institutions. Institutions create what he calls, legitimations, or standards by which the institution is held together. The people with the culture reflect upon what is being maintained and make meaning out of them. This is how culture is created. While this may seem like a nihilistic approach to all of life, and make you say “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2).Whatever the case, what we come to is this. A culture that is cultivated by the Gospel lives in light of the Gospel. When someone asks “what does this Gospel mean for me?” shortly after they will ask, “what does the Gospel mean for my neighbor?” This is how the culture is created. With the habit of the Gospel. With songs that affirm passages that are read aloud. With verses read by entire congregations aloud. With sermons that dig deep into those versus and are thematic within an entire service. When we seek to be apart of a service that in its entirety is worship, not simply music and sermon. When we seek to be habitual about how we hear the Gospel each week we cultivate a culture within the local church that is made up of mature believers. Then the awakening occurs within us that the same Gospel we confess and hear is also for our neighbor.
When we sing songs, or hymns, for several weeks in a row. When we read scripture in between hymns as a corporate body. When the sermon and the songs and the scripture all affirm the same topic we walk away not simply knowing what the service was about but meditating upon the versus, and the songs and the sermon more and more. We are more likely to make habits of seeing more versus that tie together. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should just be people who become traditionalists who can get the right answer in Church, and if we really are honest we are more traditionalistic than we would like to admit. Nor am I advocating for any particular style of this. We are free in Christ to decide! But I am talking about cultivating a culture that is driven and known by the Gospel. The Church’s identity is found in the Gospel, not what it does. But loving of our neighbor is a result of deep spiritual maturity and understand of the Gospel. When we do this, hear the Gospel proclaimed and affirmed every week, we not only begin to see our personnel growth become more mediatory throughout the week but scripture becomes one beautiful revelation of Christ to us rather than a bunch of different types of literature. We meditate upon the same songs week after week and we begin to create a culture of that meditates upon the word as well as goes into the world with the right tools, or the right sword. With this we can begin to see when the Church cultivates faith, through the word and sacrament, a culture of church- goers moves form focusing inwardly during a service to looking ‘extra nos’, or outside of us, for unity as well as for spiritual formation. We become spiritually mature people who meditate upon the word throughout our week and we in turn ask ‘what does this word, or the Gospel, mean for my neighbor?’ The heavenly city begins to impact and have its effect upon the earthly when we first, realize its deepest need, the Gospel, and second, creature a culture of people who not only believe the bible but meditate on it daily as a result of the Church cultivating faith, through the word, within its people.