post-Christendom Ireland (3) distance and belonging

This post continues to unpack the argument of my paper “Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture”

Public theology has been defined as

‘the attempt to address matters of common or public concern in the community in light of the special truth claims and insights of Christian belief’.

It therefore seeks to engage in dialogue with policy makers and public institutions to make a constructive contribution towards the building of a better society but does so by offering a distinct voice, shaped by the overarching gospel narrative on which Christianity rests.

One of the most powerful and beautiful books I’ve ever read is Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (1994). It inspired me to study for a PhD and provided a key theme for that research. In it he talks about the tension facing the church of ‘distance and belonging’ – a critical distance from its host culture alongside an engaged belonging within that culture.

So, while belonging to and participating constructively to the renewal of their own culture, Christians will simultaneously be ‘dissenters’ from a secularist understanding of that culture that attempts to exclude the Lordship of Jesus over all cultures.

A couple of things to say here and I wonder what you think of this tension:

1. Some Christians seem to assume their job is simply to assert Christian truth and (somehow) expect society to order itself to Christian principles and all will be well. This is what Oliver O’Donovan calls (in the quote below) ‘abstract idealism’. Volf would call it ‘distance without belonging’.

2. Other Christians appear afraid of speaking with a distinctly Christian perspective. What other voice does the church have but to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ the living Lord? This failure of nerve leads to what O’Donovan calls ‘colourless assimilation.’ Volf would call it ‘belonging without distance’.

The church will frame its political witness with authenticity, avoiding the characteristic evils of abstract idealism and colourless assimilation, when it stands self-consciously before that horizon and confesses that it looks for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. (Desire of the Nations, 288)

Comments, as ever, welcome


One thought on “post-Christendom Ireland (3) distance and belonging

  1. Hmm ive never heard these terms before but ive definitely lived them. When i was first born-again i used to go street preaching around the city centre of dublin. I remember distinctly the night i felt that something was wrong with our preaching. I was arguing with my friend i was out with that no-one understood what justification was so preaching it was pointless. I said to him if you asked a random person on the street what the word meant they wouldnt have a clue. Naturally my friend asks the nearest person to him, which happened to be a methadone/heroin user. His reply indicated he didnt understand the term.

    In my head i have an audience all the time. This audience is my friends from Cork. Whenever im in a bible study, a class or preparing a sermon, i think of how i could explain it to them. Its been a hard few years.
    For the record ive yet to come close to explain imputation in anything near a concise and clear manner. .

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