Sunday, April 08, 2007

New Life the City Shall Attain

That is the title of the Sunday school class I hope to develop and lead within the next year or so: a class on the local church's role in the revivification of a down-and-out city. Specifically, though, it is meant to be an action plan of how my church (and other likeminded ones in my area) can work in/learn from Beaver Falls. This weekend has been very fruitful for my thought process, since I was blessed with a large amount of time to think and no real resposibilites (past baby care).

I remember being asked a number of years ago, by the then college chaplain, why I wanted to stay in Beaver Falls. Thinking of the psalm verse that became the title of this post, I said because God loves Beaver Falls (one of the few times I've used a phrase such as "God loves..." in any context, I have a problem of not knowing who or what God loves on any consistent basis). The chaplain, being the good Reformed man that he is, responded, "How do you know God loves Beaver Falls, He could very well hate it and hold it under a curse." My response to that remark has been forgotten in the foggy mists of history, but my further reflections on it I can tell here.

(By way of necessary introduction...)

I do not believe that God saves us to go to heaven when we die. At best, that is a naive way of reading Scripture, at worst, it is pagan inspired heresy. Instead, as I told a Bible class recently, we are saved to a purpose: salvation is always accompanied by calling. Romans 8 vividly lays this out, we are saved to respond to the groaning of creation-under-bondage and bring it liberty, if only in part now. Sin has affected the whole of creation, including sociological aspects such as dwelling together in cities, and redemption is just as total. Redemption has as much to do with us loving God as with us loving our neighbors (who are in the image of God and, potentially at least, possibly remade in that same image). The place of heaven in all of this is slightly different than we've been traditionally led to believe: "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

If our prayer (and therefore our vow) is to have heaven break forth onto the earth (see Revelation 20-22), then our place matters very significantly. In fact, part of the Christian failure is that our articulation of the "good life" (or, in Matthew's terms "heaven on earth") lays precisely on our insistence of the abstract as the proper realm of theology. The abstract is applicable anywhere, which is to say it is homeless. Abstractions, for all their necessity (and they are both necessary and unavoidable and created with equal ultimacy to specificity), tend to make everywhere the same. Wendell Berry, one of my favorite writers, speaks about this with his onus: industrial agriculture has made an abstraction out of the specific places of agriculture and instead of leading to helpful agricultural norms, has destroyed every place it touched. Theology is the same way. There are norms, good and pleasing and helpful norms, but if they stay abstract the tendency will be towards violence: others must always and everywhere believe what I (or we) believe, otherwise they are worse enemies of the faith than pagans. Homeless theology has produced homeless Christians. No vision of the "good life", though, can be separated from a specific place of a small enough scale to allow proper human care to flourish.

Each part of this is important and cries out for explication.

Firstly, Christianity is so much more than theology, taken in the abstract (some think that a Reformed person saying this is an oxymoron, I assure you, it is not). Christianity is itself a halaka, a way-of-being-in-the-world. It is a vision and an action plan to see the "good life" or "heaven on earth" take shape in the here-and-now, always looking to the future when God will vindicate and perfect our actions and always looking to the past to see where others have succeeded and others have failed. Being a Christian, above all else, is an allegiance to continue the work of Jesus in bringing God's light to the world. It takes the specificity of Jesus' work in Israel and expands it to the whole world by making it specific to each culture and area that it influences.

So, secondly, Christianity must have a specific place. Each place is different, having different needs at different times. The halaka must be adaptable to that place. A revival of the parish system, where the local church is concerned most of all with local (that is, the neighborhood in which it is situated) needs makes the most sense, instead of the cookie-cutter churches we have rising up today that trying to help everyone everywhere and end up helping no one nowhere.

Thirdly, this leads to the idea of scale. Our society, our culture, has lost the idea of proper human scale. Admittedly, it is a nebulous, sort of amorphous concept. What is proper scale for one may be hubristic to another. Granted. However, there are limits that can be discernable (isn't this what the work of the arts and sciences is supposed to help us figure out?): no one human can care for an infinity of anything--that's why there is the division of labor. To do so is the supreme act of arrogance, akin to the rebellion of Adam. The strange thing is, as we have lost any sense of scale, we also have lost the ability to take care of those things within our scale. We may be able to track, understand, and internalize news international, national, and celebrity, but we lack the ability to cook our own food, make our own clothes, or repair anything we own. It is nothing but a form of slavery; we trade the mess of pottage in the present for future rewards that currently are intangible.

Lastly, flourishing. This is another word for the "good life". In Hebrew it would be shalom, brought on by our tseddaqah, our faithfulness to God's way of seeing "[His] will be done on earth as it is in heaven".

It may well be that the place I am called to be, that is to work, play, learn, love, and probably die, is under a curse. In fact, I know it is (Genesis 3). However, I am an agent of the conquering king who has set me to work. His people are here to do their predestined work, to bring shalom through tseddaqah. Now it is all about brainstorming how to accomplish that out of the realm of the abstract.

It certainly will involve a lot of risk and a lot of failure, but our God is the God of Resurrection. In that confidence, we can sing, "New life the city shall attain..."


Ian said...


This is great stuff. I'd love to chat about it sometime. Maybe we could grab a cup of...oh, wait...;)


Anonymous said...

maybe there is something to get us back to sunday school...

Anna said...

Hi Russ,

I like your response to the idea that Beaver Falls is under a curse. Of course it is; but it is being redeemed with everything else. This post helped me think through things; I'm doing my senior thesis on common grace and natural law, and this definitely ties in. Thanks for your strivings towards faithfulness!

Anna Speckhard