One of the challenges of ‘making sense of it all’ in the 21st century is resolving the apparent conflicts between science and religion. I say apparent because I have degrees in both engineering and physics, and a certificate in theology, and after reading widely on the subject, I can’t find any real conflicts except those that result from misunderstandings of either science or theology.
Today people seem ready to accept the notion that human beings are comprised of ‘mind, body and spirit.’ It seems to me, therefore, that they should be well-disposed to accept different types of human knowledge, each of which sees a different aspect of reality — scientific (mind), experiential (body) and religious (spirit) knowledge. Interestingly, where this holistic view of knowledge seems to be struggling to be accepted is in the church. In this post, I will deal with a particular question to illustrate the challenge that Christians face in making sense of ‘church’ using these three types of knowledge.
Did Jesus and the Holy Spirit “design” the church?
Is the church solely a spiritual creation of God? Do we only need religious knowledge to understand the church? Or like other human social institutions, does the church “self-organise” over time, like any other complex adaptive system, emerging and evolving in response to a diverse set of changing cultural factors and human needs? Do we also need scientific knowledge to understand the church? And where does experiential knowledge need to inform our understanding of church? Where do our senses, desires, emotions and other experiences enter in?
In a way, these are the same questions we ask when we want to understand Jesus. Did he grow, like any other human, shaped by his genes as well as nurtured by his family and community and culture, or did God intervene in his human development? How did his experience as a human affect his growth? How does our experience of human beings help us understand him? Would Jesus have been profoundly different if he had been born in New York City in 2011? The church teaches that Jesus was fully man and fully God, which implies that he grew to maturity like any other man. Should the term ‘fully human’ apply to the church as well? It seems obvious to me the church is like Jesus, as we are are, fully human and yet somehow transcending itself, as divine, at least potentially. Therefore, Jesus and the Holy Spirit shape the church in the same mysterious ways that God shaped Jesus’ growth, respecting the natural processes of our world, and Jesus’ experiences as he matured.
The church evolves over time yet remains the same forever
It seems that God intends human beings to be free to understand and shape the church, “guided” in some subtle, mysterious way by the Holy Spirit. Interpreting the metaphor “guiding” involves resolving political issues of power and love. [See my post, Power is what make love generative] This, in turn, raises the question of the role of professional religious women and men in the church as leaders in guiding the church’s growth. One of Jesus’ most powerful inputs about this human political issue was washing the feet of his disciples right before he died. He clearly meant to demonstrate how to balance power and love. We don’t know what was in Jesus’ mind but he was a wise person and understood the dangers inherent in power so he established a principle which today we call “servant leadership.” This points toward the way that Jesus wants professional religious people to “guide” the evolution of the complex adaptive system we call church.
Like every other part of the church system, the roles of professional religious evolve over time. One might disagree and say that the religious metaphor of the body of Christ overrides the scientific systems metaphor — that the fundamental spiritual dimension of the body stays the same. Hands remain hands, the head remains the head. Leaders are the head and ordinary people are the hands. The Christian challenge in making sense of the church is to discern how the religious “body” and scientific “complex adaptive systems” metaphors are to be interpreted. What is stable and unchanging about the church and the leadership of religious professionals and what evolves and changes? To me, the solution lies in understanding how the Holy Spirit works in the church.
How does the Holy Spirit work in the church?
In the scientific view, every human organization is a complex adaptive system comprised of individual human beings who give the organization its life. To better understand how this works, and how the Holy Spirit works, I want to use a simple metaphor to help you understand what scientists mean when they use the term ‘complex adaptive system.’ I will describe church as a living ‘ecosystem’– a forest, with its trees and leaves. The entire worldwide church is like the forest. Individual local churches and Christian communities are like trees. When trees are healthy and growing the forest expands. Similarly, when local churches do their work well the entire church succeeds.
Each Christian in a local church is like a leaf on a tree. There is something special about leaves. They have a unique capability, although they are only a very small part of a tree and a forest. Leaves create food for trees. Each leaf has the power to transform light from the sun and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into food for the tree through a unique process called photosynthesis. The leaf also exchanges oxygen back into the atmosphere. Without leaves there would be no trees and no forest, a lot less oxygen and probably no other life on planet earth for that matter. Leaves have the ultimate power to grow forests—just as individuals have the ultimate power to grow and guide all organizations including the church.
We can see in this metaphor how the Holy Spirit (grace) works through individuals to transform local churches and so the entire church. Imagine that, in this metaphor, God is like the sun. Just as photosynthesis works with the energy of the sun through leaves to enable trees and forests to grow, there is collaboration between God and individuals to create special ‘food’ that organizations and the church needs to grow as well as heal their wounds. Even though a single person is just one leaf, if she is linked with the Holy Spirit she can bring something powerful — a new idea, new actions — to nourish her local church, and ultimately the entire church and world. This simple metaphor for the reality of complex adaptive system helps people begin to see they aren’t alone or powerless to change things in the church. Together with the Holy Spirit, they become the way the Holy Spirit works to transform the church.
What about Experiential Knowledge in understanding church?
The rational (scientific) and religious (spiritual) understanding of church are not sufficient because they ignor the human experiential dimension of church. The experiencial is perhaps the least understood view of church because it is also the least understood (though very common) dimension of human life. Historically, we have valued the thinking dimension of human beings more highly than the feeling, intuitive dimension. [This is one reason many more men are church leaders, compared to women.] I explained some ideas about this dimension in another post, Sometimes not thinking is better than thinking. Our desires, emotions, intuitions and experiences are what energize us as humans (or not). In that sense, the life of the church arises in a special way, from the desires, emotions, intuitions and experiences of all Christians. How these are shared, to create and energise the larger communities and church of which we are part depends on how we share this with other Christians. That happens in many diverse ways: through music, art, poetry, sacraments, celebrations, Bible Study insights, and many others. These are the mysterious ‘fountain of life’ of the church. Cultivating and ordering the gifts of individual Christians to serve the growth of the church is a primary work of professional religious women and men.
Making sense of church in the 21st Century.
As I have tried to point out in this post, church cannot be easily understood. Making sense of church requires Christians to expand their knowledge in three dimensions — scientific, religious and experiential. Why should they do this work? Why not just stay at their current level of understanding? Simply put, the church is a pilgrim church, and must always strive to move ever closer to the holy place that God has prepared for it. If we Christians see the church as having already arrived at that place, perfect, complete and unchanging, we are simply not paying attention to the signs of the times or the Bible! “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” [Ephesians 2:10] Our work isn’t finished. That must be obvious. So making sense of the church in our times is about discerning, over and over, what is the work that God has prepared for us to do as local and a global church? I will discuss this in Part 3 of “Making sense of it all.” Making sense of this work has to do with discerning what science, our experience and our religious knowledge tells us about the 21st century.