It is indisputable that Christianity, as practiced by the institutional church, is thriving in the global south (centered in Africa, Latin America and Asia), where the majority of Christians now live, and is declining precipitously in the western world, especially among those many millennials in America who now designate their religious affiliation as “none.”
Given that reality, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, in his excellent book Future Faith, calls Christians in the Western World to listen carefully to their brothers and sisters in Christ in the global south about their views regarding the Christian faith that are at odds with dominant Western Views.
I heartily agree with Granberg-Michaelson’s call for such careful listening on the part of those of us who inhabit the Western World. At the same time, a careful reading of his book points to the need for a two-way conversation open to the possibility that residents of these two worlds have much to learn from each other. Granberg-Michaelson calls for this two-way conversation when he indicates his “hope and trust that it [his book] may start a conversation” (4). In what follows, I will elaborate on four elements of such a needed two-way conversation pointed to by Granberg-Michaelson, concluding my consideration of each element with a proposal for a specific “leading question” to get the conversation started.
ME FOR THE COMMUNIUTY OR THE COMMUNITY FOR ME: Granberg-Michaelson accurately points to the excesses of individualism in America where an inordinate focus is on the rights of individual members who “then make agreements and social contracts for how best to preserve those rights” (111). As an extreme expression of such individualism, Granberg-Michaelson points out that Ayn Rand “took individualism to such extremes that selfishness became a virtue, dismissing altruism And self-sacrifice and advocation a radical laissez-faire capitalism free of any government interference” (112, 113).
What is clearly missing from such hyper-individualism is recognition that “we are social beings, and collectively we decide – through various political processes – how best to secure the rights of all who belong to a shared community” (111,112). And to talk exclusively about “rights” is to ignore the possibility that “rights” and accompanied by “responsibilities” toward other members of the various communities in which we are embedded.
Granberg-Michaelson accurately notes that “when Jesus calls people to follow him, he calls them into a community and not to private individualistic fulfillment” (114); and he, therefore, expresses appreciation for the fact that “Non-Western cultures … often begin with the primacy of the community, stressing the values of belonging and mutual relationships” (49).
But Granberg-Michaelson also notes the potential excesses of a focus on community that contradicts the fact that, in addition to being individuals, we are indeed individuals. He notes in particular the extreme of Marxist ideology which “declared that all supposed individualism was an illusion since the real destiny and circumstances of working people were completely controlled by those who owned the means of production” (112).
In light of the above, it appears to me that “me for the community” or “the community for me” is a false choice in the sense that both statements contain some elements of truth, but neither statement captures the whole truth. It is not “either/or,” it is “both/and.” And, as for all both/and positions, the primary need is to create a proper “balance” between two positions that become untenable when taken to their extremes (it being my belief that the extreme views in both the western world and the global south are out of balance).
So, if it is the case that voices from the global south that focus on “me for the community” are more in accord with the teachings of Jesus than voices from the western world that focus on “the community for me” (on which both Granberg-Machaelson and I agree), there are non-extreme elements of truth in both foci that need to be acknowledged and integrated into a coherent whole.
It appears to me that Granberg-Michaelson agrees with my plea for such integration when he suggests the need for “a healthy political dialogue between the primacy of individual freedom and the responsibilities of upholding the common good of society” (112).
In that spirit, the first “leading question” that I suggest should be discussed in a two-way conversation between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south is: What is the relationship between my Christian responsibilities as an individual and my Christian responsibilities as a member of a Christian community and other communities?
RATIONAL OR SUPERNATURAL APPROACHES TO KNOWLEDGE: Grandberg-Michaelson describes this contrast between predominant views in the western world and the predominant views in the global south as follows: “Western, Enlightenment culture placed a priority on the mind’s ability to know truth through rational thought and inquiry. … Non-Western cultures often assume that supernatural forces, both good and evil, are the means that unlock knowledge and truth” (50).
Once again, I believe this is a false choice. My elaboration of this belief will not draw extensively on Granberg-Michaelson’s book (although I encourage you to read his helpful insights). Rather, I will draw on the results of my struggles with this apparent dichotomy over many years, which I have reported on in a number of my past writings As you will now see in summary form, my search for a both/and position will embrace elements of both western and non-western thinking.
The version of this apparent dichotomy with which I have struggled has focused on trying to make sense of the relationship between a Christian saying I have acted in a certain way because it reflects my rational understanding of what the Bible teaches and a Christian making some experience based assertion that sounds like “I did that because God told me to do it.”
The latter assertion based on intense religious experience suggests that there can be a “supernatural” source of knowledge based on personal religious experience that is not the result of rational deliberation. Granberg-Michaelson notes that this belief is particularly pronounced in the Pentecostal Christian tradition, where preachers see their “purpose” as “not so much to expound well-reasoned theological truths as it is to incite an intensity of spiritual experience” that “grip[s] one’s whole being and all the senses” (93)
My response to this apparent dichotomy may surprise those readers who know that my formal education is as a scientist. Scientists attempt to capture that portion of reality that is amenable to investigation using the scientific method of testing hypotheses about the nature of observable phenomena. That is an exercise in rationality.
But it is a gross expression of human hubris for a scientist, in his/her role as a scientist, to assert that the portion of reality that the scientist has the method to investigate captures all of reality. Such a narrow view of the scope of reality (called “scientism”), may indeed be true, but its truth, or not, cannot be ascertained using the method of the scientist (that is a “metaphysical” question that I believe (contrary to much scholarly opinion) philosophers/theologians can investigate – which is a topic too complex to address here).
So, I believe there are aspects of reality that are not subject to any scientific or other modes of rational inquiry. And such mysterious aspects of a broad view of reality could include some very strange things, including even “literally hearing a voice from God” (which is how some biblical passages are interpreted); even though I have never heard such a voice and I believe that, even if such a voice could occur, that is not the primary means by which God communicates with Christians as to what they should do.
This all points to a possible connection between rational and supernatural approaches to knowledge. I do not take any claim to special knowledge based on reported human experience at face value. Such claims are not self-authenticating. Many atrocities have been committed for years by Christians claiming a direct “experiential pipeline to God.” Any such claim must be tested against adequate understandings of teachings in the Bible as to what does and does not foster God’s redemptive purposes; which “testing” is a form of rational inquiry.
In light of the above reflections, a second “leading question” that I suggest should be discussed in a two-way conversation between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south is: What is the relationship between rational and non-rational claims as to how to live well as a Christian and how can one evaluate such claims?
BELIEFS BASED ON CHRISTIAN VALUES OR CUTURALLY BASED BELIEFS
Given my own efforts to orchestrate respectful conversations among Christians relative to human sexuality issues, on this website and in the book Respectful LGBT Conversations that emerged from that online conversation, I found Granberg-Michaelson’s chapter on “Defeating Divisive Culture Wars” (163-190) especially compelling; helping me to add two new dimensions to my view as to conversations needed regarding this contentious issue.
As a context for the first new dimension, Granberg-Michaelson notes that while such conversations about human sexuality must include consideration of issues like biblical interpretation, which must be “honest” about “the diversity of faithful biblical interpretation” (175), and scientific knowledge (both elements of the conversations I have orchestrated about human sexuality), there are two prior dimensions that need to be addressed: “honesty about faith and culture” and “honesty about the role of politics in the church’s discernment of moral issues” (175). In this section, I will briefly consider this first prior dimension (savig the second dimension for the next section).
Granberg-Michaelson’s accurate claim is that “attitudes in the church toward same-sex relationships are invariably shaped by cultural contexts in any culture. Advocates may sincerely believe that they are resting on the ‘Bible alone,’ but the Bible is always translated, interpreted, and understood through a particular cultural context. That is true for every Christian” (175-176).
To illustrate this point, Granberg-Michaelson notes the cultural influence on the positions taken relative to same-sex relationships by most of his Korean Christian friends: “Most of my Korean Christian friends … are opposed to any acceptance of same-sex relationships. They also are shaped by a culture where family honor and fidelity to one’s clan is huge value. Transgressing traditional familial expectations form one’s parents, grandparents. relatives, and even ancestors comes with a formidable cost. That doesn’t settle whether the views of my Korean friends are right or wrong, but simply recognizes that those views are held within a cultural context” (175). Grandberg-Michaelson then goes on to describe how “The same is true for African church leaders” (175).
It appears to me that those of us in the western world do not feel as beholden to maintaining fidelity to the views of those who have come before us regarding same-sex relationships (and other moral issues) as Granberg-Michaelson describes for his Christian friends from Korea and Africa. We appear to be more open to exploring the possibility that those who have come before us “got it wrong.”
This points us to another “leading question” that should be discussed in a two-way conversation between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south: For any given moral issue, what is the effect, if any, of the previous positions that Christians in our culture have taken relative to that issue on our understanding of Biblical passages that address that issue?
BELIEFS BASED ON CHRISTIAN VALUES OR POLITICAL AFFILIATION
A second dimension that I should have paid more attention to in my online conversation about human sexuality is embedded in Granberg-Michaelson’s accurate claim that there is a need for more “honesty about the role of politics in the church’s discernment of moral issues” (175).
Granberg-Michaelosn wonders out loud about “why it came to be that relationships between gay and lesbian persons took center stage as the key ethical concern consuming the attention, energy, art ofand focus of much of Christianity in the United States” (180).He accurately asserts that “Part of the reason was simply politics – specifically American politics” (150), noting that “When the Religious Right emerged on the US political scene, traditional ‘family values’ became a rallying cry for support, including opposition in general to affirming the rights of gay and lesbian persons and specifically against any possibility of same-sex marriage being legalized” (180).
Granberg-Michaelson concludes by asserting that “it was not a process of careful biblical reflection, deep theological study, or discerning cultural analysis that primarily motivated the churches’ unending focus on the ethics of same-sex relationships. Instead this was fueled by those who adopted this as a calculated political strategy in the US electoral process” (182).
Once again, as in the above section calling for honesty about cultural influences on Christian beliefs, Granberg-Michaelson is not addressing the question of whether the position of the Religious Right is “right or wrong.” Rather, he is rightfully calling for honesty as to the significant role that politics plays in America in shaping the beliefs of Christians about same-sex relationships.
At this point a reader may ask “What is the problem with letting your political affiliation inform your beliefs about same-sex marriage or any other moral issues?” The problem arises when Christians uncritically embrace the position taken by their political party without asking whether that position actually comports with Christian values. My painful experience in orchestrating some local conversations about public policy issues is that too many Christians embrace the views espoused by their political party without “digging down deep” into their Christian values to ascertain whether the position of their political party fits with those Christian values. As Christians, our positions on public policy issues, and everything else, should be based on our understanding of Christian values.
My knowledge of politics in the global south is almost non-existent. So, I am not in a position to reflect on the influence of politics, if any, in the various countries in the global south on views regarding same-sex relationships. My educated guess is that this influence is significant. But whether that is the case or not could emerge from a two-way conversation between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south around the following “leading question”: What role has your political affiliation played in shaping your views about same-sex relationships (or any other moral issue) and to what extent do these “politically shaped” views comport, or not, with your understanding of Christian values?
Well, as those who have been following the postings on my website know, I am always seeking to formulate some good questions that can be starting points for respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements about contentious issues. Inspired and deeply informed by Granberg-Michaelson’s excellent book Future Faithl, my reflections above suggest four “leading questions” that I believe could be good starting points for future conversations between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south.