Last time we looked at the relationship between gospel and culture. We discussed the Accommodation View and the Isolation View, both of which we found to be inadequate, as well as the Transformation View which we found to be theologically and biblically more satisfying. Today I want us to ask a slightly broader question: What is the relationship between theology and society? The gospel is one facet – indeed arguably the foundation – of Christian theology; but it remains only one facet. And culture is the expression of the general ethos of a given society; still it does not exhaust what we mean when we talk about society – it’s crucial to it but not comprehensive of it. For these reasons, I would like to broaden our scope as we consider the relationship between theology and society.
The two main points of today’s lecture has to do with: (1) the strong interconnection between theology and society; and (2) how worship is everything. To begin, then, we ought to define a few key terms.
By “theology” we mean simply: discourse about God. The two Greek words “theos” and “logos”, which comprise the term, mean “God” and “word” (cf. McGrath, 2010: 102). So Christian theology is enquiring about, engaging with, and explaining God. By “society” we mean that “enterprise of world-building” – whereby schools, governments, religious rites, the arts, and other institutions and practices – are humanly constructed typically in the fashion of what sociologist Peter Berger calls a “dialectical phenomenon” (cf. Berger, 1967: 3).
A simple (if simplistic) example of what Berger means would be: the social institution of legislation whereby a collective of human persons write into the laws of a society certain prohibitions which coerce all those belonging to said society to abide by them. Society can be simply defined as the infrastructure of the realm of human interaction.
Finally, then, by “worship” I mean something as what the late Harvard (then University of Chicago) theologian Paul Tillich defined as “faith,” calling it “ultimate concern”: “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. . . . If [the object of faith] claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and  promises total fulfillment” (see Tillich, 1957: 1). Everyone worships something: worship involves everything we do, think, say, and feel: the only question is whether what we worship is worthy of and befitting a truly flourishing human life.
To look at the first part of this lecture: What is the relationship between theology and society? Does theology, when properly construed and practiced, necessarily impact society? Isn’t theology, especially certain branches of academic theology, too abstract, even abstruse, to make a dent in the real world?
I think we should acknowledge that certain forms of theology (perhaps all too often) function as mere exercises in intellectual theorizing. But even then – such as Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God – theology was done for the sake of helping the Church better understand and engage God and his world. (Anselm offered his Proslogion [Discourse on the Existence of God] as a prayer, after all!) Even the sometime mind-numbing Medieval metaphysics was meant to serve and equip the Church who in turn was meant to serve the world at large.
Various divisions of theology, e.g., practical, historical, interreligious, etc., have an even more obvious social effect – whether as instruction for the Church and her rituals and traditions (practical theology), or as wisdom on engaging the faiths other than the Christian one found in society (interreligious theology). So major theological divisions inform how we approach everything from church governance to church-government relations. But also Christian theological categories or themes such as Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Glorification have direct bearing on how we think about, live in, seek to shape, and pray for the world in which we live. Theology is the Christian’s view of the world which, sometimes consciously and other times less so, inform our actions within it. Simply and profoundly, theology is inherently culture-shaping and society-making.
I shall return to this point about the strong interconnection between theology and society below. But for now, I want us to see that, if this is true – that theology is inherently society-making – then it would behoove us as Christians be like the men of Issachar “who had understanding of the times” (1 Ch. 12.32). Because theology is transformative, and because what we believe will impact ourselves and the society in which we live, we must theologize well. Also, not only must we have a good grasp of our theological heritage; we must analyze well our social-cultural moment in order to best appropriate the theology we hold. In short, we must draw from the riches of Christ’s wisdom in our theology, and we must be in tune with the Holy Spirit to see what he is doing in the world around us.
For this reason, I would suggest that we would do well to consider the steady study and prayerful ponderings of those who have walked before us.
According to Guinness, three global menaces seem to confront humanity: namely, Islamism, illiberalism, ideological consumerism (Guinness, 2014: 19). Guinness goes on to describe what he sees as three crucial factors most likely to shape the human future: globalization, the Christian faith in the context of advanced modernity, and the sovereignty of God (25-26). To note, Guinness is very quick to add that no one but God knows the future, how it may or may not be drastically different from what our best analysis suggests – doing so by discussing the importance of the sovereignty of God. What I want us to see is that these three factors are not ideas which impact individuals who in turn impact the world; rather, they are conditions we find in the world – globalization, modernity, and God’s sovereignty – already present and active, conditions to which humans are responding. They are bottom-up, not top-down. They have to do with what is called the “sociology of knowledge” or “world-setting” rather than the strict “history of ideas”: that is, the conditions and constraints of a given society which influence how individuals and groups within that society think, act, speak, and interact with one another. Allow me to further explain what I mean.
According to Guinness (26.1-2), modernity plays an indispensible and inestimable part in shaping society. Guinness tends to focus on the “sociology of knowledge” whereby the “spirit, systems and structures” of modern life impact the way we think and the ideas that help make up the plausibility structure (to borrow a term from Peter Berger) of a given society. The current of culture conditions the construction of worldviews.
And here is where I would like to return to my point above about the strong interplay between theology and society. Not only is theology inherently impactful on society; society impacts theology. What do I mean? Well, it is almost an immediately apparent fact that all theology is done within the context of a given social-political culture. Whether it’s Karl Barth, the giant early twentieth-century theologian and principal author of the Barmen Declaration, writing profoundly on the singular Lordship of Christ in response to the false lord of Nazi Germany’s Hitler; or the liberation theologies coming out of the social-political context of an economically embattled South America; or contemporary theologians responding to climate change, sex-trafficking, global poverty, and interreligious conflict – whatever the contexts, that they had and always will have an impact on the theologies which emerge out of them is undeniable. These examples suggest the reverse direction in which the relationship between theology and society flows: the theology-society interplay is dialectical.
Biblical basis for the interconnection between theology and society. By the way, we know that this strong view of the relationship between theology and society is also biblical. We find from the very beginning, God calls humanity to: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1.28). This divine injunction given to humanity is what theologians often refer to as “the cultural mandate”; so called because here Yahweh is charging humanity with the task of creating, sustaining, caring for, and even naming all that is around us. In short, in response to God (theology), humanity is tasked with culture-shaping (society). Theology is originally designed to be transformative.
In addition to understanding the relationships between gospel and culture and between theology and society, there is a third relationship that might help us to grasp the importance of theology in everyday life: and that is by way looking at the relationship between worship and life. And here we will bring the discussion down to a very practical level of looking at the attrition rate of Christians after college.
According to Horner (23), who draws on Steven Garber, the three most important factors that have helped college students remain faithful to Christ are: (1) the having of a worldview sufficient to engage and expose competing worldviews; (2) the having of a mentor as well as a disciple; and (3) the choosing to live in community with fellow followers of Jesus – in short, credibility, continuity, and community; that is, credibility of worldview, continuity of discipleship, and community of believers.
What does Horner mean when he writes: “From a biblical perspective, worship is everything and everything is worship” (30-31)? Worship is everything: worship is what drives our lives; we all worship something (Ro. 1.18-25); it orients who we are and what we do. At the same time, everything is worship: every dimension of life is a part of the arena of worship; that is, the whole of life is an act of worship (Ro. 12.1-2, 4-8); everything we do is an act of ascribing to God or some idol – some “object” or other – the worthiness he (or something) possesses such that he (or it or they) hold our attention, allegiance, and affections.
If this is true – that everyone worships something, and that everything we do is worship – then there is one crucial question that emerges: what is worthy of worship? Surely, any object could fit the bill; but the question is: which object should? And how are we to determine the answer to this question? The answer is: whatever is most worthy of worship. While utterly simple considered one way, indeed almost tautologous, this response is also quite profound: if worship is everything and everything in life is a form of worship, then it makes profound sense to worship the most worthy thing or being; and this kind of worship, as you would expect, comports with what it means to flourish as a human person since worshiping a most worthy object just is to worship well or best. It’s not exactly like, but still analogous to, eating the best foods, drinking the best drinks, and thinking about that which is most worthy of our intellectual activity: worthiness is a function of our flourishing; that is, what is most worthy comports with what is most flourishing.
So when we rightly consider college or marriage or career or recreation, we see these dimensions of life as a means of worshipping the Creator of these goods. We may enjoy them in their own right insofar as they are indeed goods of creation; but we must also understand how they are to be used for the greater good of glorifying God. As Horner puts it, “Fearing God is seeing everything in relation to him” (31).
We need to have a long view of the Christian faith. When Plantinga writes (as you’ll read next week in the preface to his book) that St Augustine is “as close as we get, after Scripture, to a universal Christian voice,” he would seem to agree with the idea that evangelical Christianity is older than the Roman Catholic or Reformed or Anglican Christian traditions: it is the faith of the disciples and of the blind man who now could see: it is a faith which is founded on and flourishes on the announcement of the good news of the Christ who is come.
Works Cited: Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor, 1967); Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: an Introduction (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2010); Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957)