Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Convictions and Moral Discernment 3

We began this series here discussing critical variables in moral discernment, using an interpretive model with 4 dimensions that I learned from Glen Stassen.  Beginning with the lower right box, the dimension on basic convictions, we have discussed the critical variables here and here. In so doing, we have discussed how differing views of God (or whether God exists) and how God acts in the world are paired with differing views of human nature in shaping our basic moral outlook.  We also discussed two other pairs of critical variables, differences over justification and sanctification (or forgiveness and discipleship) and their relationship, and differences over the nature of Christian love and its relation to justice (variously defined) lead to major differences in ethics.

The final critical variable which Stassen identifies in this dimension of moral discernment is the mission of the church in the world.  That is, if we think the Church’s primary mission is to save souls (one by one) from a world going to hell, then we will pay less attention to movements for social change–and we will see the church primarily as a preaching station.  (The revivalist D.L. Moody gave this as precisely his reason for ignoring most of the major social issues of his day and Billy Graham gave similar answers when asked why he said little about segregation and other evils throughout most of his ministry.) If we have more of a social gospel view, then we expect the church to get actively involved.

The patterns and options on these matters is fairly large.  One of the pioneers of sociology of religion, E. Troeltsch, in his classic, The Moral Teachings of the Christian Churches, divided the major church/world options into “church,” “sect,” and “mysticism” types.  H. Richard Niebuhr refined this in one of the most influential small theology books of the 20th C., Christ and Culture–dividing  the choices into those who see the church as part of the larger culture (Christ of Culture–primary example in his day was Protestant liberalism); those who see a radical opposition between the church and the world (Christ Against Culture–HRN placed Tertullian, Tolstoy, and most Anabaptist groups here–but few Anabaptists have thought HRN was depicting their stance accurately); those who see the church and the world in a great synthesis (Christ Above Culture–e.g., Medieval Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy during the era of the Czars); those who who have a dualist or Two Kingdoms view (Christ and Culture in Paradox–e.g., Luther;  HRN’s brother, Reinhold); and those who see the church as a pioneer that transforms the surrounding culture (Christ Transforming Culture–e.g., Calvin,;F.D. Maurice; HRN’s own view).

HRN’s classic has been highly criticized, especially by those whom  he labelled as “against culture.” I would say that all Christians participate in their  wider cultures selectively.  For example, even in societies in which prostitution is legal, no one expects there to be Christian brothel owners.  Those Christians who object to all use of alcohol may or may not want alcohol consumption to be illegal, but they certainly would find the idea of Christian  bartenders to be absurd.  Likewise, those of us who are Christian pacifists, object to Christians joining the military and some of us obect to Christians in police forces.  But this does not mean we “withdraw from” the culture or don’t wish to transform it or are blanketly “against culture.” 

In the wake of HR Niebuhr, several books have taken up the question anew.  I recommend especially the following:

Authentic Transformation:  A New Vision of Christ and Culture by Glen H. Stassen, Diane M. Yeager and John Howard Yoder.

Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective by Craig A. Carter.

The Transformation of Culture:  Christian Social Ethics After H. Richard Niebuhr  by Charles A. Scriven.

Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers:  Seeking the Peace of the City–An Anabaptist Theology of Culture by Duane K. Friesen.  This gem needs to be more widely discovered.

I’d also like to recommend the following books on the church as very helpful  on this issue:

Avery Dulles, Models of the Church.

Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament.

Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.

Frederick Herzog, Justice Church

Letty Russell, Church in the Round.

Juergen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit.

Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis:  The Base Communities Re-invent the Church.

Others could be added.

Now, just as with the other critical variables, The mission of the church in the world is a basic conviction of Christians.  But there is usually an analogue in other religions or non-religious moral systems which plays a similar role in moral discernment.  Think: what institution does this moral or religious system see as the primary locus redemptive activity in the world.  For Judaism, this role is not played by the synagogue, but by the people Israel (not the modern nation-state of Israel) scattered among the nations, fulfilling the role of the remnant called to seek Tikkun Olam “to heal the earth.”  Similarly, Islam is not mosque-centered in the same way that Christianity is church-centered, but they would have similar debates as to the role of Islamic leaders vs. laity, of the role of an Islamic state (and whether such is possible or desirable) of Islamic courts (whether or not these have legal standing), etc.

An orthodox Marxist would see the revolutionary vanguard as playing this key salvific role.  A fascist would see the state as salvific and so, in lesser form, do all nationalists.  Anarchists and radical  forms of personalism see individual moral action alone as valuable.  Maybe some moral  systems would see the locus of redemptive activity in the Labor movement or (vice versa) in private enterprise.

So, whatever institution is seen as the main human agent of redemptive activity in the world is the analogue for this critical variable concerning the mission of the church in the world.  And differences over what kind of actions said institution should take, what kind are or are not legitimate, etc. correspond to the kinds of arguments we see Christians have concerning the relationship of the church and the world.

P.S.  With this we are done with the dimension of Basic convictions or Ground of Meaning Beliefs in Stassen’s model of understanding the  complexities of moral discernment. (We will see that this model helps us see why people who seem equally logical can come to very different moral conclusions on a number of issues. ) If I, the lowly student, were to modify this model any, I would add the role of eschatology or how one sees the future or the END–either personal end (my life, afterlife, etc.) or the end of ALL.  Glen Stassen believes this is contained in his question about difference in how God works in the world.  But I have come to see that different outlooks on eschatology lead to such radically different outlooks on personal and moral ethics, that I would add this as a separate critical variable. (I’ll have to do an eschatology and ethics series here one day.)  Again, there are non-Christian parallels.  Orthodox Marxism has an eschatology: the fervently held belief in the eventual collapse of capitalism, triumph of communism, and withering away of the state.   Further examples could be multiplied.

When this series continues, we turn from the dimension on basic convictions to that of “loyalties and interests” (and passions, affections, virtues).

[Here your author engaged in a self pity-party that he has removed.] 🙂


April 21, 2009 - Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment, theology


  1. Michael,

    I have just read this post and am about to go back through your previous posts in this series. Briefly, I could probably be fairly described as a non-Christian, but I do not think of myself as an anti-Christian. If I were so arrogant as to think that I had nothing to learn from Christians my oppportunities for learning would be extremely limited. I would like to commend you on your thinking and writing. I just wanted to make my presence known to you and let you know that you have attracted at least one reader “outside of the faith”. I am here to learn and think, not fight.

    Comment by Steve Schuler | April 21, 2009

  2. Thanks, Steve. I was more frustrated with Christians who wanted to take small posts and run with them in all directions, but ignore longer posts that were designed for extended conversation.

    I have had some of the most productive dialogue on this site with those of other faiths or no particular faith. All are welcome here.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 21, 2009

  3. Hi Michael,
    I’m sorry I don’t have much to contribute reflection-wise on this point, except that the bit about our views of salvation having an obvious effect on how we ‘get involved’ seems to me quite true.
    I do want to register my interest in an eschatology and ethics series. For me eschatology is one of the biggest pieces of the Christian political puzzle, perhaps alongside of Christian theological/philosophical anthropology (i.e. dualism vs. monism).
    But anyway, even when I’m silent I appreciate the posts.
    Keep up the good work!


    (ps: I do believe you say ‘capitalism’ where you mean to say ‘communism’ in the discussion of Marx’s eschatology…)

    Comment by Daniel | April 22, 2009

  4. Daniel, thanks for the feedback. I have removed the self-indulgent pity party in the 2nd postscript. Thanks for the catch on Marxist eschatology. I wrote “capitalism” twice and the second time should have written “communism.” I have corrected it, thanks.

    I’ll do the eschatology and ethics series, but I have to finish this one and I promised a series on the death penalty in April and I’m beginning to run out of month. 🙂 I would get these done more quickly if I didn’t get distracted with current political events and use this blog as a place to vent anger or express humor, etc. Some of that is okay, but I indulge too often. And then those posts get feedback that the theological ones don’t, which reinforces my distractions in a vicious cycle.

    Back to eschatology: Technically, I think Glen is right that this is a subset of the variable about God’s action in the world. But, as you say, eschatology plays a very large role in approaches to social ethics (there is a reason why Moltmann’s political/liberation theology begins with A Theology of Hope) that it deserves to be its own “critical variable” in the dimension of basic convictions in his discernment model.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 22, 2009

  5. […] Convictions and Moral Discernment 3 […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Moral Discernment « Levellers | April 27, 2009

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