Do you prefer Coke or Pepsi?
Do you like cats or dogs?
Are you Democrat of Republican?
Do you believe in God or are you an atheist?
We have built ourselves a culture that is deeply rooted in a necessity for polarity. We love to dichotomize things. It’s this or that. Maybe that’s because it’s a clean, seemingly easy way to think about things. Or maybe it’s because we like an idea of tribalism that allows us to pit ourselves in different camps knowing that we have a clear identity that way. Whatever the reason, we have been doing ourselves a great disservice in doing so.
Now, let me say, this is not a post about how the answer always lies somewhere in the middle. That is often a problematically simplistic way of approaching various topics and experiences that renders an unfair analysis of the situation at hand. However, this is to say that we could do a much better job of complexifying the way we engage with the situations and ideas that work to construct the experience of our lives on a daily basis.
One such issue that many of us often wrestle with, even without thinking about it, comes through in our faith experience. We now live in a digital age where we have quick and easy access to an unthinkable amount of resources and information (the merits of which are a whole other debatable topic entirely). The reality of that is that we are taking in such a rapid amount of information in an incredibly short period of time, and find ourselves gravitating towards perspectives and experiences that we can draw connection with, that we often agree with. That is true in our lives of faith as well as anything else; we turn on TVs, tablets, phones, enter a quick search to find an inspirational message about God that falls in line with a way of thinking we may agree with and repeat that process day in and day out. Easy enough.
However, we’ve got ourselves a dichotomy here even if we don’t realize it. Our lives of faith seem to be becoming more and more divided into what might be considered individually oriented or communally oriented expressions and experiences of faithful living.
For instance, all it takes is a quick google search to find pastors of mega churches preaching to massive congregations of people, each time presenting a message of all the ways God can provide for people in their individual lives, how God has been working and how God can be working if only people give themselves up in name and witness before God. The messages talk directly to people in a way that makes people feel as though the preacher is speaking directly at them, to them, about their life and about their experiences.
On the other hand, we can look around and find preachers who’s sole purpose is to highlight concerns of social injustice, wrong doing, ways we are coming up short, and who want to pound the pulpit until people listen or open their eyes and see the social damage being done, and want to do something about it.
Now, both camps have plenty to offer and are valid in some elements of their approach. Both camps also have their areas of concern and in need of being addressed, the largest arguably being their commitment to that one polarity only.
We would probably be hard pressed to find faith communities that found a perfect balance between the two. In our current social climate, we continue to ask people to choose, one or the other. Do you submit to an individual relationship with Jesus Christ as the holy Lord and Savior, or do you look to Jesus as a social prophet who’s life and ministry provides a profound road map for how we can live our lives in order to bring about social transformation?
My question would be, why not both?
I will admit – I have fallen victim to this dichotomy. It is hard not to. And I have found myself to be on the social end, finding individual expressions of faith to often be selfish and limiting. With that being said, I have had to face my own shortcomings with this belief system to realize that individual expressions of faith are not only important, but they are necessary to a healthy life of faithful discipleship.
This is what I mean by complexifying the issues. It is not so much about finding a “middle” ground, but find how two seemingly contradictory or opposing views can actually be in conversation with one another, if not occasionally working together.
Our individual relationships are important. They fulfill us, help us through the tough times that are hindering us in our journey, give us reason to believe in the hope of tomorrow. On the other hand, if our faith stops there we are not living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus came for the sake of the people, communally. Jesus lived a ministry that sought out others AND embraced the value of developing a meaningful and personal relationship with God. For those of us who believe ourselves to be on the “social side” of our constructed dichotomy, we must soon accept the importance of a the need for personal growth, development, and peace. For those of us who understand ourselves to be in the “individual” camp, we must soon realize that such peace and growth means very little if we cannot become excited about living in ministry with others.