Not Thermometers but Thermostats
By Scott Nelson
I hear plenty of conversations about the need for Christians to understand their contexts through cultural analysis or for churches to become culturally “relevant.” Those individuals and congregations seek to be a kind of thermometer that accurately measures the surrounding climate. They would be troubled, then, to read a letter written to church leaders from a Birmingham jail.
There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
These words from Martin Luther King, Jr., are a reminder that Christian living is not satisfied with mere cultural relevance but also embraces cultural transformation. How might the church stretch beyond cultural analysis to become an agent, a participant in Christ’s work to fashion our culture’s development?
First, let us recognize that cultures are plural, dynamic, and fluid. As Kathryn Tanner writes in her Theories of Culture, they are not “self-contained and clearly bounded units, internally consistent and unified wholes of beliefs and values simply transmitted to every member of their respective groups as principles of social order.” Rather they are, as theologian Sheila Greeve Davaney describes them in her essay “Theology and the Turn to Cultural Analysis,”
internally pluralistic, continually in process of being made and remade, conflictual, and importantly, lacking unifying or unchanging cores, essences or centers that provide their inhabitants stable identities, roles, or direction. Culture is the process by which meaning is produced, contended for, and continually renegotiated and the context in which individual and communal identities are mediated and brought into being.
In short, culture is messy, constantly defined and redefined by its components, with no externally binding power or point of reference, nor any solid or unchanging core. By themselves cultures can’t fundamentally change; they can only shift shapes. Only God can transform cultures; cultures do not transform themselves.
We see this first at Christ’s incarnation, and again at Pentecost, when by the Spirit the church is born into culture. The church cannot separate itself from culture any more than the incarnate Christ could avoid being human. Cultural transformation is a participative process; when Scripture says that Christians are to be in the world but not of the world, it speaks to the dialectic inherent in God’s work of cultural transformation: change comes from Christ, but it also comes from culture. The two cannot be separated.
The dialectic of cultural transformation being both from Christ and participative is worked out in three ways: analysis, critique, and reconstruction. Analytical action is descriptive; it is discerning context, becoming aware of one’s surroundings. All thermostats are thermometers; as such, if the church is a thermostat, it must also be a thermometer.
Cultural analysis entails moving beyond self-awareness to an awareness of others, because culture is not contained in a solitary self. Therefore, just as the participative nature of cultural transformation mirrors the incarnation, the analytic action of cultural transformation requires a Christlike selflessness, or a decentered self, in order to begin to see and describe culture.
The purpose of the church’s cultural analysis is made clear in critique. Discerning context is not for theoretical knowledge but so that value judgments might be made and negotiated in the process of cultural formation. The Christian critique, according to Graham Ward (in his Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice), “[calls] into question the extent to which teleologies of transformation . . . can be (a) achievable; (b) desirable; and (c) transformative in terms of hope for a better human flourishing.” Critique accounts for human sinfulness and the false gods that are at least latent in every culture. Critique might trace the distortions that have contributed to a particular culture or decry the dangerous potentials to which current cultures are heading. Critical action names right and wrong, good and bad; it tests everything, holding on to the good and avoiding every kind of evil (1 Th. 5:21).
Seeing, describing, critiquing, naming good and bad—these together still fall short of becoming a thermostat, however. In contrast to a thermometer, a thermostat reads the context, discerns the need for change, and acts. Reconstruction, therefore, according to Ward,
is about first unmasking the theological and metaphysical sources of current mythologies and revealing the distortions and perversions of the current secularized forms. Then we need to reread and rewrite the Christian tradition back into contemporary culture.
Christ offers the world a new way to understand our lives and a new way to live. He reconstructed the disciples’ understandings of Scripture and prophecy, giving them new habits and new practices. As the church is sent from Christ to participate in cultures, it must also reconstruct—in the pattern Christ set down, as it is empowered to do so by Christ—all that has been bent and broken by sin.
This process of cultural transformation is recurring, interrelated and multidirectional. Just as culture has no solid core or external boundary, its transformation has no beginning or end. As Christians, we see that transformation is taking place—indeed, that it is what God has been up to all along. As the church, we are called into that action; as King said, the church is called to be a thermostat. For King, that meant acting to transform the powers that perpetuated injustice in the racially segregated south. Today the church continues the work of being thermostats—in the pattern Christ set down, as it is empowered to do so by Christ.
Scott Nelson is director of theology for Forge America. He is completing a doctoral degree in congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary.