Christianity Crisis

.. ss supportive of traditional parenting skills. This is especially true of younger evangelicals, for example, who tend to share society’s view that a working mother can have just as secure a relationship with a child as a mother who does not work. A culture of traditional, shared meanings is strained by the explosion of new symbols generated by modernity and supported by the mass media. Words traditionally deemed to be profane or vulgar are now commonplace. Even the accepted definitions of life and death have been reinterpreted by modern symbolic meanings. The person is left to choose among the offered symbols and the cultural lifestyles they represent.

A Crisis of Concepts In a traditional society, people experienced the reality of life in a way shared by others who had the same experience. There was consensus as words clearly described the shared experience and the meaning it had for the culture. Modernity has fragmented that consensus as words no longer have the clear meaning they used to have. The meanings of marriage and family, for example, have been opened to biased interpretations that accept a variety of referents for the concept. Language has eroded as conceptual clarity has been replaced by conceptual ambiguity.

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The Problem of Erosion In his discussion of symbolic realism, Bellah claims that biblical language originally carried a truth that could not be reduced to empirical propositions. l3 There was a noncognitive quality to symbols that expressed reality as true. Modern consciousness looked behind this symbolic meaning to find the precision in thinking that science required. The result was “symbolic reductionism,” the search for truth in the experiences represented by the symbols rather than in the symbols themselves. Bellah believes there has been a return in social science to an acceptance of a higher view of symbols.

Reality is not found only in objective symbols but also in non-objective symbols which depend on an interaction of subject and object for interpretation. His claim of symbolic realism rests on this subject-object complex and the wholistic position which accepts symbols as constituting reality rather than just describing it. Modern culture, however, has difficulty with the notion of symbolic realism and continues to espouse symbolic reductionism. The biblical notion of wisdom is a case in point. The concept suggests an insightful use of knowledge which is not reducible to empirical means.

But today, any knowledge not based on what is considered to be “facts” is often deemed invalid. Consequently, wisdom loses much of its credibility as a modern form of knowledge. In a computerized age, information has taken the place of wisdom and fact replaces faith as the basis for knowing truth. The erosion of biblical language has led to symbolicreductionism. As modern life incessantly produces new meanings to replace the old, biblical language gives way to symbols that relate those meanings to modern life. In biblical language, the meaning of a work-life was described by the concept of a vocation to which a person was called by God.

In a secular society, the biblical meaning of a vocation has little relevance. In its place, the concept “career” has evolved to describe work as “a race..which affords opportunity for progress or advancement in the world” (Oxford English Dictionary). With the erosion of biblical language, new concepts and the modern life they describe fill the void. According to Bellah, theologians and social scientists share some responsibility for restoring the integrity of biblical language in everyday life. Cooperation is possible because “theologian and secular intellectual can speak the same language.

Their tasks are different, but their conceptual framework is shared.” l5 The task of the theologian is to describe reality with biblical language and to assert its truth. But according to Bellah, concepts constitute reality when they are put into practice. The biblical principle should be interpreted for modern life so it becomes part of a believer’s lifestyle. This task of interpretation is to be shared by the social scientist. The Problem of Ambiguity Bellah suggests that, although current language is saturated with terminology that is biblical in origin, the language of popular psychology provides an alternative and often conflicting system of symbols.

Consequently, “the Biblical and the contemporary or psychological terminologies are hopelessly confused, and it does not always seem that the Biblical discourse carries the determining weight.” l6 Conceptual ambiguity occurs when we lose sight of this fact. Many believers blend, often irresponsibly and unconsciously, language that is both biblical and modern. Biblical concepts such as wisdom and vocation may be used interchangeably in the same text with the modern concepts of information and career. Used out of context in this way, each concept loses its proper meaning. When such concepts are treated as abstractions with no clear referents, it is not always apparent they represent competing worldviews.

That is not to say that clear separation between biblical and modern concepts is possible or even desirable. Living “in the world,” we need information and we need to understand which career concerns are appropriate. But not being “of the world,” the believer first needs to seek wisdom and be guided by a calling. Our objective should be to understand how biblical concepts are to be given priority and when modern concepts are to be used with discrimination. Theologians and social scientists, together, can work toward this objective. Sharing a conceptual framework supporting biblical and modern language, they can establish principles to help the believer to be more conscious of competing conceptual systems. They must also reach some agreement on the interpretation of conceptual meanings and the application of them to individual situations. The Hidden Threads Paradigm l7 When Bellah suggests that theologians and social scientists share a common “conceptual framework,” he seems to imply two things.

First, that some concepts have a biblical meaning that is still appropriate today. Second, that social scientists may share with theologians in the interpretation of that meaning in modern life. Specifically, theologians may interpret the meaning of the concept then, while social scientists may interpret its meaning now. It is this suggestion that underlies the idea that there are “hidden threads” in scripture: “Christian principles for social behavior in agreement with social theory.” l8 Such principles describe a reality found not only in scripture but also in modern life and, especially, in the application of scripture to modern life. Much of the study of hermeneutics, I’m suggesting, should center in the description and analysis of these hidden thread The Dimension of Continuity Modern life demands new language for the new experiences it generates. Either new concepts must be developed to refer to these experiences or old concepts must be adapted to describe them. Some experiences, however, are not unique to modern life and have the same meaning they had in biblical times.

These experiences may be appropriately referred to by biblical concepts. The dimension of continuity refers to the extent to which the meaning of an experience is or is not limited to a particular culture. An experience lacks continuity if its meaning is limited to a particular culture and could be referred to as culture-bound. Another experience would have continuity if its meaning is not limited to a particular culture. The modern experience of a work-life directed only by the modern corporation or profession, for example, is culture-bound. It has no continuity from biblical times and should be referred to as a career.

While the social scientist might interpret the meaning of such a modern work-life, it would have no meaning for the theologian. But the experience of a work-life which pursues “a task set by God” is not culture-bound. It has continuity from biblical times and may be referred to as a calling. This type of experience may be interpreted by the theologian as well as those social scientists who accept the validity of such a work-life experience. At least three questions must be asked to determine whether an experience may be referred to with a hidden thread on the dimension of continuity.

Does the experience have a meaning bound by culture or not? If not, does the experience have a biblical meaning that finds expression in modern life? If so, can the interpretation of that meaning be shared by both theologian and social scientist? The Dimension of Universality The dimension of universality refers to the concepts used to describe experiences that are not culture-bound. Concepts are not universal if they can only be used to describe the meaning of experiences that are culture-bound. A concept that has universality cannot accurately describe the meaning of an experience that lacks continuity and vice versa. The calling, for example, is a universal concept that appropriately refers to “a task set by God” as a work-life experience that is not culture-bound. It should not, however, be used to refer to the modern work-life experience that is culture-bound and best referred to as a career. Similarly, the concept of career might best be reserved for a modern culture-bound experience and not one that is continuous.

Since a hidden thread is a concept that describes a non-culture-bound experience, it is both continuous and universal. At the other extreme is a concept that is neither continuous nor universal because it appropriately describes a culture-bound experience. Between these two extremes are two other types of concepts: those that are not continuous but are universal and those that are continuous and not universal. Combined, these four types of concepts describe a wide range of experiences found in the shift from a traditional, biblically-based culture to one controlled by a modern world view. Although these last two types of concepts are not our primary concern, they offer intriguing questions for analysis. The “career missionsary,” for example, is a non-universal, continuous concept. It describes a process whereby someone presumably called “to a task set by God” has made such a calling a career.

Does this concept point to possible motivational shifts in the missionary’s work-life or is the term merely an inappropriate use of the concept. Similarly, the idea that one may be “called to a career” (universal-non-continuous) raises other questions of motivation. Does the use of such a phrase imply the socialization of some secular interests? Most hidden threads are valued highly, especially by believers. Consequently, they may be used rather loosely and without a clear referent. Joy is such a concept.

As a biblical concept, it refers to a sense of gladness in time of difficulty as one has faith in God. But secularization in modern socierty has weakened this meaning and the idea that gladness and difficulty might be found together is gradually lost. In its place, the culture-bound concept of fun is used to describe a form of happiness without seriousness. Gradually, fun becomes the preferred concept to describe happiness in modern life. While joy may still be used, it has lost much of the integrity of meaning it had as a biblical concept.

At least three questions must be asked to determine whether a concept qualifies as a hidden thread on the dimension of universality. What is the inherent meaning of the concept as developed in scripture? Does the concept refer to some experience found in modern life? If so, can the meaning of that concept be interpreted by both theologian and social scientist? In modern life, the integrity found in a hidden thread and the experience it refers to should be maintained as the concept is applied to daily living. The experience it refers to should be described so it is faithful to the biblical meaning while losing none of its usefulness in the modern world. In this way, hidden threads offer biblical constants that may be used to measure and interpret those inconsistencies in faith and practice found within the church as well as in the world. Conclusion A major concern of this paper has been the current problem of modernity and its erosion of biblical concepts.

In l970, Bellah suggested that “modernization itself is so endlessly subversive of every fixed position, no matter how great an achievement it may have been originally.” l9 Developing this subversion theme, Guinness notes the seductive quality of the process of modernization: “Something new is assumed, something old is abandoned, and everything else is adopted. In other words, what remains of traditional (religious) beliefs andpractices is altered to fit the new assumption.” 20 At the same time, Hunter argues “that modernity is inimical to traditional religious belief.. Its symbols and its structure are deeply contrary to religious, supernaturalistic presuppositions.” 2l Consequently, he predicts religion will either “seek to preserve its religious heritage” or offer a bargaining creed as a compromise. l9 The dilemma of the church involves plotting a careful course between these two options of preserving and compromising. If the church is to maintain a viable ministry in a rapidly changing world, it must avoid the traditional separated approach while also avoiding the worldliness that comes from unwitting approval of modernity’s attractions.

Without such avoidance, religion’s cultural style rather than its orthodoxy is likely to suffer as a syncretism of evangelical faith and modernity emerges. 22 Looking for a wedge into this syncretism of modernity and Christian orthodoxy, the argument has suggested that social science and theology, together, may interpret those inherent truths found in that conceptual framework shared by them. Basic to this conceptual framework, hidden threads provide a link between a traditional world of religious meaning and a modern world devoid of such meaning. Our culture needs an engagement of scripture and social science, in which a tension must be both perceived and maintained if any basis for applying biblical principles to modern life is to be discovered. The church and the believer need to recognize this tension and deal with it realistically if the hermeneutical task is to be pursued with faithfulness and integrity.