Three Questions for the Church

Where does this idea come from? It is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

At different times, people have different needs, but also different explanatory models for the world.

Obviously, the understanding of the world of a three-year-old is different from that of an adult. Otherwise we certainly have a problem.

Understanding is growing and we are building on what we already know. So there are two ways to learn: in one way, we insert what we newly acquired into our existing knowledge, in the other, the new knowledge forces us to rethink what we have already learned.

Our lives consist of long phases in which the first way of learning prevails, and then occasional paradigm shifts, where the new forces us to change our worldview.

I would like to add to Wittgenstein here: until we are forced to do so by our circumstances, we will not take those glasses off. And then, we only replace them with a new idea or set of glasses.

However, we will not throw overboard everything we have learned so far, but we will see whatever remains with different eyes. The new worldview will build on how we have seen the world so far, but perhaps recognize the old ways as a somewhat naive simplification or as a special case. Let’s call that transcende and include.

There are many examples in science, the best known is probably Newtonian physics as a special case of relativity theory, which then developed into quantum physics. (This sentence is certainly not a valid representation of facts for a physicist, but hopefully understandable for the layman.)

In our visible and experienceable world, Newtonian physics offers the necessary laws to make sense to the processes around us with sufficient accuracy. It even allows quite good predictions for physical behavior.

Not so in the large and subatomic area, where we need relativity theory and quantum physics.

In exactly the same way, we can show that young children have no concept for future rewards, which they only learn around 5-7 years of age when they develop the ability to control and contain current behavior with future expectations: if I do not take this candy now, I will receive two later as promised. If I am good now and suffer in this world, then I will get to heaven.

God himself has put humanity on a growth path of knowledge. We first had to learn to distinguish between ourselves and others in order to be able to live together. Later, we learn to make our own decisions contrary to the family, so that we can then learn to belong to larger associations and communities through morals and ethics. We break out again and recognize the value of ourselves, and later also of the others.

The church is in an interesting position. We say that it is the tool that God wants to use to change this world. But is that characterisation correct?

The church as we understand it today is the tool to teach people who cannot yet distinguish between right and wrong, or who define right and wrong in selfish categories themselves, a God-given morality and ethics.

The community teaches the selfish power-man that there is a higher authority that creates order. This is wonderfully visible in the history of the exodus.

God, as the god of power, defeats the Egyptian gods and the Egyptian army, and cares for, protects, directs, educates and punishes the people of Israel where necessary during desert migration. They experience God’s power and his miracles.

After living in a culture of power that functioned according to the law of the jungle, power demonstration and miracles were necessary to bring the Israelites closer to the existence of the one true God. It was what they understood at the time.

Even today, signs and miracles happen in cultures that evolve from power structures and tribal cultures. Again, God shows himself to man as a higher authority.

The consequence of this is a system of order, hierarchy, God-given declarations, absolute truth.

This is an important step in the development of humanity, but not the end goal. God wants to make us mature sons and daughters with whom he can have fellowship, not hierarchically organised subjects who do the right thing because God wants it that way (or the pastor says so).

Can the church lead us onwards? What could be next steps?

Eventually, God wants our image of himself to die and our self-image to grow: less selfish than in a power structure, but also less adapted and slavish than in a God-given hierarchy.

And then further steps follow, which the church not only does not recognize and advocate today, but can hardly take.

For me, three questions arise from this situation:

  • How do we prepare the average church member for the next major paradigm shift?
  • What does a community look like that attracts people who have already made the next paradigm shift and have therefore alienated themselves from the existing church?
  • What does a congregation look like for people who want to let their children grow organically in the same church through all the stages of development, even if they have already gone through these paradigms themselves and recognized their limitations?

Perhaps it is the answer to this third question that can provide us with possible answers for the first two.

In the words of Spiral Dynamics: what does an integral community look like that allows the child to learn structures and morality instead of being brought up anti-authoritarianly (although the necessary self-control and interpersonal values are still much too complex for the child) just because the parents have reached this stage of development.

How can a yellow community pick up people in the place where they are and continue to accompany them through vMeme after vMeme? How can the community of the second tier help people to strengthen poorly integrated former vMemes?

Perhaps the answer will be that we need an organic network of different vessels that can be traversed individually and that have learned to pass on people when the time comes. But I don’t want to anticipate the answer here.

If we know what a blue step could look like in such an organic structure, this may give us ideas for the redesign of today’s community. In the same way, the programs for Orange and the discussion groups for green could serve as a model for a relevant church during this time.

For too long we have tried to make the church relevant to a society that knows that there are concepts like right and wrong, but that it’s not black and white, by merely renaming the categories of right and wrong. But Rumi says: There is a field behind right and wrong. That’s where we meet.

Integrate and transcend. That’s what it’s about. Do not reject what you have learned, but rethink, adapt, build on it, and continue to grow where necessary. And sometimes it looks like what we loved had t die, and yet we will rediscover it later in a more valuable form. Death and resurrection in a different form.

Perhaps it is time for the church and the image of God we know to die and to be found, invented, thought and discovered anew. Probably not by everyone, but by those for whom the time has come.