Distinctions and Generalizations

October 12, 2012

in Some Things to Think About

We live in a world filled with information. Media, Facebook,  email and mobile phone connectivity push information at us continuously. In fact. our lives are so completely full of information that we constantly need to make quick judgments about whether we should pay attention or not, or whether something rings true or not.

We ought to use critical thinking to make better judgments about what is true versus what appears to be true but isn’t, in important areas of our life. Much of what we encounter in the media or Facebook has some “spin” or bias connected with it and it requires some effort to sort out what is true. That’s especially important for Christians.  Jesus claimed to be “The way, the truth and the life.” Therefore, we ought to try to see things with “the mind of Jesus” to better understand the truth in the complex situations we encounter.

On the 7:30 Report last night in Australia a story was featured about the Victoria Police’s investigation of how the Catholic Church mishandled paedophilia cases in the past. Too say the least, the report was damning. This story was about the Catholic Church but it didn’t just affect Catholics. News about any Christian or any Christian church reflects on us all. Therefore we need to be able to help people outside the church understand how we Christians view such ugly incidents. This involves making some important comparisons and distinctions, rather than just generalizing, “Religion / Churches / Christians are all ___(epithet)____!”

Three important comparisons

First, I’d like to make three comparisons so help clarify some basic concepts that many people use quite loosely.

  • Church and organizations (government, corporations, etc)

Every Christian church is an organization. Like every organization, the primary interest of its leaders is the survival of the organization first and achieving its purposes second. There has to be an organization in order to be able to collectively work toward its goals. Where the church organization differs from other secular organizations (perhaps) is in its values. How the church survives, and how it achieves its purposes is paramount. The end doesn’t justify the means. Thus, church organizations are (and should be) held to account not just against the usual organizational criteria, such as ethics and following the law, but also each should be measured against its own espoused value system.

  • Religion and other institutions (legal system, healthcare system, etc)

Religion is also a human cultural system, which organizes itself to communicate certain foundational ideas and ways of thinking. There are no precise boundaries that limit ‘religion’ on our planet, so religion is a global cultural system. To a large extent, religion is out of the control of any church. In modern scientific terms, the Christian religion is a complex system that emerges from the interaction of enormous numbers of phenomena at all levels of all Christian churches as well as outside the church. This is exactly how the global legal system, global healthcare system, global economic system and all global systems work. In general all leaders are powerless to control how their specific brand of complex global system behaves and evolves. In fact, all these systems interact with one another, and influence each other’s emergence. The global system of religion is shaped as well as shapes, as we well know, by global political and economic events. That said, churches need a global understanding of how the system of religion works (or doesn’t) to advance the cause of love and peace on this planet

  • The Kingdom and reality (two views of “what is”)

We Christians also make another comparison, which hardly anyone else understands. We believe that, besides day-to-day reality, we also live in God’s Kingdom. Therefore, in addition to the realities of ‘church’ and ‘religion’ I described above, there is the real Kingdom of God. That is the fundamental meaning of who Jesus is – “I am the way, the truth and the life.” What is the Kingdom? Is it ‘pie in the sky by and by’ as some cynics describe it? Or is it “what is” right now? Some Christian scholars describe the Kingdom’s reality as being “already but not yet” fully present. The cynics would say the “already” bit is so tiny as to be non-existant. They may be willing to concede a hidden reality that only exists in some individual Christian hearts, but not many of those. I am of a different opinion, which I’ll cover in the next part of this blog.

Important distinctions

So, what about the paedophilia news story? What distinctions ought we Christians to make in understanding this ugly situation that involves all of us?

  • As an organization, the Catholic Church ought to be criticized. The way it handled paedophiles was inept and didn’t follow its own ethical or moral value system. I suspect that the Catholic Church organization is already taking steps (like any corporation or goverment organization would) to find the flaws in its governance processes that allowed this evil to persist for so long. And, the wider society has a right to keep criticizing the Catholic Church’s efforts. None of this means, however, that the Catholic Church ought to be condemned and destroyed. That would be like saying close down a major bank because fraud was discovered in some of its transactions.
  • Religion has a lot to answer for, which goes well beyond paedophilia. I won’t catalogue the evils that have been done in the name of religion down through the centuries. The distinction to be made, however, is whether those of us who are ‘religious’ need, advocate and support this institution — or are those who say “I’m spiritual but not religious” on the right path? The value of religion is its global power and capability to bring God into the world’s affairs. (That power is also its human weakness). For Christians to say that we don’t need religion is ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ on a global scale. The question is, how to help the global Christian religious culture to evolve toward something that is closer to a “godly presence.” That is the task I have decided to support in this blog — transformation of the global Christian religion through ‘bottom-up’ transformation of all local Christian communities. Had local Catholic communites taken more responsibility for paedophilia, this current situation would likely have been fixed long ago.
  • Perhaps the most important distinction we Christians need to understand and apply is between living in a secular reality and living in God’s Kingdom. I described the ‘already but not yet’ idea above. My personal view is that the ‘already’ part is far more powerful than we Christians allow ourselves to imagine. The mystery of the Body of Christ is having a profound effect (in God’s time) on our everyday secular reality. The story of the “final days” is being written right now — and we individual Christians in our local communities are the Change Agents. So, in the paedophila case, we are responsible for changing the church and religious system that allowed that evil to persist — beginning right in our own local church, whether we are Catholic or not. It’s not a case of “That’s a Catholic problem.” We are all brothers and sisters, in one Body. Bottom-up change begins with the Spirit’s actions in each individual Christian when such outrages occur.

© 2012, James Harlow Brown. All rights reserved.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John Brown October 15, 2012 at 3:18 am

You bring up many good points in comparing the Church to other organizations. Criticism today is a tidal wave of the new transparency, or how do seeds of dissent travel today versus years past. Even to say that the knowledge of paedophilia within the church is much more prominent because of the new ways knowledge travels to us. I call it a tidal wave because it grows in strength, becomes too big for the Church to ignore it any more. No longer can the Church use its influence to hide these sins, it must now face this problem.

I believe the question that many people pose is what kind of organization will the Church show itself to be in handling the problem. Will it be a nimble organization that understands how badly this negative “marketing” reflects upon them. Will they understand they are under a new scrutiny in this transparent society and are in competition with other organizations for participation? Or will they stay the same trodding, governmental like organization who answers to no one, who strongly believes they are in complete control of their inner activities, and completely control those who participate with restricting dogmas.

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