I have been co-teaching a workshop the past four weeks on the Witness of the Church. It has proved to be a great deal of fun and particularly challenging in a few areas. In any case, we have been unpacking some themes in Scripture that give form to the idea of God’s people as witnesses.
In the first week we talked about how a witness primarily has to do with a way of being as opposed to any of sort of doing that we appropriate to what it might mean to be a witness. Simply put, God has made us witnesses in Christ. It is a part of our identity and therefore it is part and parcel to what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Witness as Identity is foundational in understanding what it means for Church as a witness to Jesus Christ. It is all about learning to be what we have already become.
The second week we talked about how a witness is relatable. In our humanity we have the opportunity to relate to people. As we come to recognize our need for Jesus, we begin to have compassion on others because we too see that all need Jesus. D.T. Niles said it best when he quipped “the Church is made up of beggars telling other beggars where the bread is”. This encapsulates what we were trying to get across to our students. We struggle to look for what is common between all humans (oftentimes because it is easier and takes less work to notice the differences) but it is imperative for the Church to recover this mentality if we are to be faithful witnesses in the world.
The third week we discussed how a witness is to be unashamed of the gospel. The reality that many of us are unwilling or ironically too ashamed to admit is that we often find that are ashamed of the gospel. Perhaps more ashamed than we sometimes realize. We can do two things when we realize our shame: 1) we can stuff it and power through or 2) we can acknowledge it, bring it to Jesus, and ask where we have learned to feel shame about Him. We often feel a certain guilt about this, but we cannot shake the feeling when we are put in situations when we are tempted to hide our true selves and the true Jesus. In the beginning of this workshop I offered a historical perspective that attributed much of this internal shame on the influence of the Enlightenment on our culture and in the Church. There are three implications of the enlightenment that I have seen that give way to our feelings of shame and embarrassment when it comes to acknowledging what we believe to a watching world.
The first enlightenment influence that I exposed was the emphasis on the human faculty of reason. During the enlightenment, scientific method, logic, and reason became the primary means toward truth. Empiricism was becoming the primary way of understanding science, history and so much more. If the history you proposed could not be proven without empirical (observable) evidence, then there was no weight to your belief or understanding. Thus, the enlightenment completeley rejected any sort of superstition as valid. This emphasis on reason, scientific method, empiricism, and rejection of superstition or myth is still alive and well in our culture. How has this made us ashamed of the gospel you ask? Could it be that we have become convinced that the gospel cannot stand under the weight of reason, science or empiricism? We have become ashamed of the gospel in part because we believe that it cannot be intellectual, reasonable, or empirically true. Why have we come to believe those things?
Next, I unpacked about the primacy of the individual in enlightenment society. Since reason was elevated as the primary human faculty, the individual was also emphasized in this culture as well. During the enlightenment the individual within society began to trump the community or society as a whole. The needs/wants of the community became secondary to the individual. Thus, these 18th century Europeans detached themselves from tradition and history in order to maintain a more invidualistic understanding of life. Essentially, people of this day began to place more stock in their independence and self-reliance and no longer did they see the value in depending on others. Again we must ask: How has this type of cultural influence made us ashamed of the gospel? We are often ashamed because the gospel tells us that we are needy and dependent. The gospel tells us that we are way more needy than we ever dared imagine and it dismisses the folly of self-reliance and independence. Thus, when we encounter our post-enlightenment culture that thrives on individualism, we also sometimes encounter our desire for that independence while knowing full-well that what we believe directly oppresses such an ideology.
Lastly in this workshop, we talked about the partition that was created in society during the enlightenment. Things that once lived together before the enlightenment soon were separated. For instance, before the enlightenment, math and art lived together in harmony. Da Vinci was a great example of this fusion. He was a mathematician, an inventor, and a brilliant artist. Today, we see this reality in college when math majors and art majors are often on opposite ends of the spectrum. In this time we also saw the beginnings of the separation of church and state. During the enlightenment religion soon had literally no voice in the public sphere of life as it once did. One of the major influences of the enlightenment on our culture was the privatization of religion. At one point and time, religion (namely Christianity) had a major voice in the public and civic sphere of life. No longer was this the case in enlightenment Europe. The rejection of superstition in civic culture played a large part in this. Once again we must ask: How has this cultural influence made us ashamed of the gospel? In short, the enlightenment has made us feel ashamed of the gospel because it taught us to think that Christianity is something not worth sharing. The enlightenment taught us that Christianity was only meant to be practiced in private.
These cultural influences are stronger than we realize and in order to renew our mind with truth we must first do the work of making the implicit, explicit. Oftentimes culture is implicit, meaning if we don’t question it then it is usually assumed and not understood. There is a call for the Christian to know and understand culture in order that we might properly engage in culture and so as to learn the ways in which we have been discipled by our culture instead of Jesus himself.