Introduction to Social Concerns

    From a relatively recent point of view, that is from roughly the middle of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century, conservative and liberal Christians have held opposing views when it comes to direct involvement in au courant social concerns. That is not to say there have only been two views out there.  Indeed, according to the neo-orthodox author H. Richard Niebuhr in his 1951 nouveau classic, Christ and Culture, there have been at least five main postures Christians have adopted on how they should relate their faith to their culture.  (See also an important book entitled, Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson, who is an orthodox and conservative evangelical that writes with great insight and erudition.)

    Niebuhr’s work allows the reader to see these views spelled out in juxtaposition to each other, but systematic discussion of these issues goes back as far as Augustine. And despite the weight and number of those who have intended to speak for these theologies and ideologies, the conversation has continued to this day without complete consensus.

    Regarding the theologies, the present locus of effort (without necessarily endorsing what it has to say) has been the attempt to understand the texts of the Old and New Testaments in their ancient cultural situations. That is, the attempt has been to view the texts and contexts to see the roots of the theology and morality which transcend those situations in various ways. A contemporary example of this might be Walter J. Houston’s Contending for Justice; for an interesting review of it use this link.

    Less careful works tend to merely find proof texts for ideologies where the assumptive ideologies seem to prevail in the interpretation of the text.  A glaring example of this was the ad hoc biblical defense of slavery in America in the 18th and 19th century.   

    However, while it is vitally important to work out the methodology of how one integrates one’s Christian commitment with social concerns--something we will only introduce here--it is also very important to realize that for your colleagues social concerns may be their sine qua non. That is, your credibility in their eyes may depend largely on your willingness to be involved in changing the status quo in the direction your colleagues desire and in ways that involve the force of the state to accomplish those changes.

    This is where many of the problems that can cut off fruitful discourse raise their ugly heads.   While there can often be an agreement about certain “goods” to be aimed at, like obtaining equality, political and civil rights, or the alleviation or amelioration of suffering, a common cause for disagreement often surfaces when the issue of whose definition of those goods is culturally normative. This because those definitions typically carry with them implied baggage about the nature, extent and distribution of those goods.  

    Beside those “opportunities” there can also be disagreement about the means to obtain those goods. For instance, while the ends may justify some means, do all means justify the ends they purport to bring about? And should the power and “sword” of the state be the means to bring about these goods?

    These sorts of puzzles create ample opportunity for talking past one another and can form the basis for questioning the motives and judgment of those with whom you dialogue--and vice versa. And so it is wise for all of us to consider these sort of nuances to better season our speech (and actions) with salt.

    The content of this section on this site is aimed at helping you by 1) providing resources to help you think through how your own theological views can be or are properly expressed in social concerns, 2) helping you have a greater understanding of where your colleagues are coming from, 3) helping you navigate the potential communication land mines and distractions that seem to emerge in this field, and 4) helping you express your social concerns as a spiritual formation practice that has both intrinsic value and the potential for instrumental value in the communication of the gospel. © Academic Connections, International