Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Challenging the Sacred Cow of "Holistic Mission"

It seems like I hear this concept expressed everywhere I go these days. I was listening to a lecture by N. T. Wright the other day and he said it. I heard the pastor say it on Sunday in the Church I was visiting in Ottawa. My students say it. Fellow professors at Tyndale say it. It is like a mantra or a slogan. It seems to characterize much of the contemporary Evangelical movement today in the way that "justification by faith" must have been on everyone's lips in 16th century Wittenberg or "the social gospel" must have flown around the University of Chicago Divinity School in the year 1910.

What is this concept, you ask? It is "holistic mission,"that is, the idea that the mission of the Church is comprised of two equal elements: (1) preaching the gospel of personal salvation by faith in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and (2) working for social justice, especially for the materially poor.

Where did this idea come from? It has a specific historical context, namely the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the late 19th and earl 20th centuries, which is still ongoing. In this controversy, the liberal, modernist side not only advocated an anti-supernatural, rationalistic approach to biblical criticism and theology, which was rooted in modern Enlightenment rationalism and opposition to the sacramental universe posited by Medieval Christianity, but it also advocated the logical implication of such a worldview shift, namely, a change in focus from the after-life and the world of the supernatural to the here and now and the natural world. Instead of being preoccupied with salvation from sin and heaven and hell, the natural implication of adopting a modernist, naturalistic worldview was to redefine salvation in terms of social justice in this world here and now.

The Fundamentalists were the Traditionalists who seemed so odd and out of place in the modern world because they did not grant the premises of modernity such as materialism, the autonomy of the self and dualism, which were seen as the unquestionable implications of Newtonian science. Fundamentalists were a curious amalgam of the Medieval and the Modern. They were clinging to something good and precious that they did not quite understand and this gave them a slightly kooky appearance. Those who did understand what was at stake were the Catholics like Belloc and Chesterton, and later Tolkien and Lewis, and they understood what was at stake because they were happy and self-consciously Medievalists.

But the Fundamentalists were more right than the Modernists. The Modernists were sold out to the idea of changing Christianity into a religion that fit into the metaphysical slots the modern world had ready for it, much as the gnostics attempted to fit the Biblical narrative into the slots that Greek cosmology had ready for it. In both cases, the Incarnation didn't really fit and neither did the whole sacramental metaphysical system in which God as Creator is both transcendent and immanent simultaneously. The cross did not fit either; nor did the whole idea of redemption from sin by the blood of Christ and the hope of eternal life with God in a transformed and renewed creation in which heaven and earth are reunited.

Modernists wanted a naturalistic religion in which words like God and Spirit become symbols of aspects of human experience, rather than names of actually existing beings. The kingdom of God becomes something to be built in this world, contrary to the express words of Jesus to Pilate. Heaven is brought down to earth and hell becomes just another term for capitalism. The socialist revolutions of the 19th and early 20th centuries impressed themselves on the modernist mind as the most obvious examples of what it might mean for man to bring in the kingdom of God on earth. The elixir of revolution was a heady brew and its fervor became a substitute for the lost passion that evaporated with the decline in belief in sin, God, forgiveness and salvation.

The struggle between orthodox Christianity and Modernism continues on many fronts today unabated. Liberal Protestantism, having taken over most of the historic Protestant denominations, has also colonized much of the Roman Catholic Church in the West. Evangelicals are exiles and like all all exiles are disorganized and disoriented, which means that the most bizarre and self-contradictory oddities manifest themselves in Evangelicalism from time to time. Conservative Roman Catholics at least have the comfort of the papacy, which has yet to succumb to the charms of modernism, even though it has had to compromise with a great deal of evil in order to avoid schism.

The biggest problem facing Evangelicalism today is that it is cut off from its roots in Medieval Christendom. The loss of a living awareness of a sacramental universe in which God and man are intimately related and faith and reason work together harmoniously is a grievous wound. Evangelicalism, like all Protestantism, is constantly tempted by an arid rationalistic materialism. And like the Popes, Evangelicals often find it necessary to compromise with the prevailing trends in the modern world in order to maintain some sort of uneasy truce with the institutions within which they operate.

Advocating the concept of "holistic mission" is a well-intentioned attempt to recognize the best of traditional Christianity and the best of the modern world in a synthesis that does justice to the most legitimate concerns of both. It is an attempt to define evangelism (preaching the gospel) as not more or less important than doing "justice" (working for social democracy). But there are two problems here.

First, the definition of "justice" here is a modern not a classical definition. Instead of it meaning "giving to each one his due" it now means a kind of social engineering designed to level incomes and produce equality. It therefore is not about justice, but about equality primarily since not all inequality is actually the result of injustice, even though some is.

Second, it is impossible to have two highest priorities in practice. While in theory, both evangelism and social justice are equal in priority, in practice one will always take precedence over the other and the tides of modernity are flowing in one direction with great power. So the result of moving from the priority of evangelism to holistic mission will always be a gradual drift toward the social gospel described by H. Richard Niebuhr as being: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

So the drift toward "holistic mission" in contemporary Evangelicalism is a drift toward liberal Protestantism and the modernism that is strangling the life out of it. It is time for this sacred cow to be challenged. In my next post, I will discuss the proper theological relationship between evangelism and works of charity and justice.

1 comment:

penny farthing said...

This is awesome. I've never heard this history explained so concisely. Looking forward to your next post on this.