The Christian Gospel in Our Situation

31 Aug

I’m beginning a new series of blogs. This may be a preview of a new book of theology. I’m especially interested in your comments. This installment is long, over 900 words.

Gospel and Situation 


I turned recently to the book that started me in the study of theology in the 1950s, volume 1 of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. One of Tillich’s major points is that the Christian Gospel takes on meaning as a response to the deep questions posed by our culture. He interprets the early centuries as asking the question of mortality, perishing, to which the Church responded by proclaiming Christ as the “medicine of immortality.” The medieval period asked questions of guilt, to which the Gospel was preached as justification of guilty persons by grace through faith. Tillich perceived the twentieth century as seeking answers to alienation, and so he framed the response in therms of the new being in Christ that overcomes alienation with reconciliation.

The Gospel takes the shape that meets culture’s questioning. Joseph Sittler made a similar point when he said the Gospel plays a melody, but always within the counterpoint of its cultural setting. Counterpoints change, and even though the Gospel does not change, its import depends on the counterpoint in which it is played.

I have been asking myself, what are the deep questions raised by culture today? What Gospel shape responds to our culture?

Tillich probed to the deepest layers of culture to discern its questions. Culture takes many forms, but what underlies its shape and its questioning?

A powerful sense of uneasiness pervades our present cultural situation. By uneasiness I mean a lack of fit between us and our world—an uneasiness in face of uncertainty and apprehensiveness as to our place in the natural and social worlds in which we find ourselves.

We could speak of a situation of the absurd—the absurdity of existing at this time, in the apprehension caused by feeling our lack of fit. This is real cognitive dissonance for us as  persons in the world. We don’t mesh with our world.

Take a look at some cultural manifestations of unease/lack of fit.

II. I’ll at ease in the natural world

The natural environment. We seek a just and sustainable

relationship with nature. But that requires a fit between us and nature, a synchrony between human culture and the natural systems that form our environment. However, that synchrony is missing, and that is the cause of an underlying apprehensivess, because we know deep down that nature does not tolerate non synchrony. We know “nature bats last,” just as we know that despite our best efforts, we cannot escape from natural processes—planetary warming being the most prominent today.

Over the course of their long existence, humans have tried mightily to escape from the rigors of natural processes, or at least to bend them in our favor. At her most recent time at bat, nature has dealt us climate change—a stunning event that shows us how small and vulnerable we are, even as it places demands upon us to act in ways that can ameliorate certain aspects of its impact. Our cities, our agriculture, and our accustomed ways of living are a poor fit with nature.

Human history is filled our optimism that nature can be tamed, handled in ways to make it friendly. Dissonance has revealed itself, and with it has come a multi-layered human response. At one end of the spectrum is denial of nature and refusal to act in new ways. But the spectrum also includes half-way gestures that take nature into account, in clearly inadequate measures. Some individuals and communities are taking drastic actions to achieve a synchrony with nature. Planners are devising responses to climate catastrophes. Running through all of these responses is a faint hope that a future generation can achieve synchrony. And a lurking fear that catastrophe is inevitable.

Our behavior toward nature is frequently and rightly characterized in terms of arrogance and recklessness. But these are expressions of something deeper—a sense of being overwhelmed and out of joint over against nature. We frequently speak of warfare between us and nature; we proclaim victories and sometimes defeats. Medicine is often depicted as part of the battle, and our victories are wildly cheered. Nature is portrayed as the Other, resulting in traditions of separating humans from nature, rather than recognizing that we are part of nature and have evolved as animals within the continuum of natural evolution.

Medical research and practice bring a particular focus to our dissonant relationship to nature. Medicine constitutes one of most massive collective enterprises in history. It’s an enterprise dedicated to countering the natural processes of evolution. Genetic intervention, surgical procedures, transplants and implants, pharmaceuticals, and behavior modifying  are the strategies of contemporary medicine—to  cure disease or alleviate its progress, to deal with accidental injury, and to counter the processes of aging. 

Medicine has been enormously successful, and yet at every step it, too, walks the edge of fear and unease. The testimony of medicine is clear: Unless humans accept their situation as victims of natural selection, if they seek a different role, massive strategies must be employed to “fix” them; synchrony must be re-defined. Since the “natural” synchrony of humans with evolutionary nature is not acceptable, we attempt to fashion a new synchrony.  The price we pay is an ongoing dissonance between us and our world.

This blend of successful redefinition and painful dissonance is nowhere more visible than in the process of aging and communities of elderly persons. Life expectancy has been extended successfully, but the care and maintenance of the elderly pose problems. How is care of the elderly to be financed? What the elderly living for? Are the elderly taking resources from other important areas? The life of many elderly is marked by deep unease.

(a) Phil Hefner. 8/30/2021

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