Delicate Ecosystems

I just cracked open Michael Horton’s latest edition for Crossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series, Calvin on the Christian Life. You could say that I have my fingers in too many books at the moment. What happens is that I may get some good syntopical reading, or may just force out some relationships of thought that really aren’t there. You can be the judge. I’m almost through reading Francis J. Beckwith’s Politics for Christians, which makes entering in the world of Calvin and Geneva even more noteworthy. One term that really sticks out to me from Beckwith’s book is moral ecology. Beckwith grabs this expression from Political theorist Robert P. George to explain the delicate ecosystem of virtue in a culture. Christians aim to work with unbelieving residents to promote good culture for their community out of love for neighbor. As we participate as citizens, our concern for a just environment is coupled with a concern for our neighbor’s virtue. If we truly love, we shouldn’t merely care about our own goodness, but that of our community, and more specifically, our neighbor. Beckwith recognizes the power of influence that film, books, advertising, and other forms of media have on a culture, demonstrating how a well-crafted story or “a string of well-fashioned words has the power to change minds and hearts.” He explains with the illustration, “Just as a polluted river has the potential to negatively impact fish, wildlife, recreation and industry, a polluted culture can impair the moral ecology of a community” (69). Although the author is referring to the secular community at this point, I couldn’t help but think about how easily the church is influenced by the narratives that our secular culture likes to sell. One of the storylines that Beckwith continues to counter in his book is that our faith is a private, personal matter that should never inform our decisions in the real world. Rather, he affirms that the articles of faith behind our convictions on controversial political matters such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia are very capable of intelligent debate in the public sphere. Faith isn’t irrelevant, it has content that must be applied to living. Even within the spiritual walls of the church community, I think there has been a lot of confusion in this area. Some professing Christians have separated the content of their faith so far from the so-called Christian life, that it has little resemblance to God’s Word to his covenant community. One often hears the word “spirituality” from a professing Christians who have followed their own path to godliness and worship instead of the orthodox doctrine of the church. And anyone who points this contradiction out is labeled unloving. Now there seems to be two competing sides between doctrine and life: cold truth, or loving action. This is where my Horton book comes in:
Calvin would not have even comprehended the idea that is usually assumed in the word spirituality as we use it today: namely as a private island of subjective and imaginative irrationality surrounded by a sea of objective and public reason. “Piety” (pietas), not spirituality, is the Reformer’s all-encompassing term for Christian faith and practice. Even this term has lost its value in modernity. We’ve learned to draw a line between doctrine and life, with “piety” (like “spirituality”) falling on the “life” side of the ledger. The ancient church saw it differently: eusebia encompassed doctrine and life. It could be translated “piety” or “orthodoxy” without any confusion. Calvin assumed this overarching horizon. Doctrine, worship, and life are all one piece. The doctrine is always practically oriented, and practice is always to be grounded in true doctrine. (17)
That led me to just one more connection: my Sunday school class lesson. We studied John 13:31-35. After the scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, which foreshadows his work on the cross, and then Jesus identifying and sending off Judas as his betrayer, he gives the disciples a new commandment. A new era is breaking in. Jesus commands his disciples to love one another as he has loved them. Of course, there’s much to discuss here, but my teacher ended with how a Christian’s love is one of Word and deed. You cannot separate the two. They meet perfectly in Christ, and his people now have the company of his Spirit, who applies his Word and gives us the power to obey it. While the narratives of our secular media may be contributing to a polluted culture, God’s Word is life giving. It’s purpose may not be to transform the culture in this age, but it certainly transforms his people who sit under it. Maybe we don’t have a good word for this kind of doctrinal living that isn’t filled with negative connotations anymore, but I’m willing to try and give eusebia a comeback if it will help the moral ecology of the church. Of course, I’m always good with using the word orthodox.