To begin Chapter 1 of Making the Best of It, John Stackhouse lays out some important definitions.
Culture is the response we give to two “make” questions when think about a particular society:
- What do they make?
- What do they make of it?
As Martin Marty wrote, culture is, “everything humans do to, and make of, nature.” (14) So it is partly about the physical artifacts, but it is also about the meaning society gives to various actions. Niebuhr wrote:
Stackhouse wants to be sure we differentiate this understanding of culture from the idea of culture as “refined living” or “sophisticated tastes.” He also highlights that even in relatively small societies there is differentiation of groups within society and caution is needed when we talk about dominant culture in a pluralistic society. Stackhouse doesn’t get into the sociological distinction of culture and society (society being the community that has a culture), and says the two terms will be used almost interchangeably for this discussion.
Stackhouse points out that there is no word in either of the biblical languages translates as “culture.” “World” is a term that overlaps with our sense of culture but it is not identical.
Stackhouse reviews several Greek terms that are translated world. Some uses of kosmos probably come closest to what we mean by culture. It can mean “the whole of creation” or “the world of humankind,” or “the inhabited world.” In some contexts it clearly incorporates what we mean by culture. Uses of the term run the range of positive, negative, and neutral dispositions.
Church can run have a broad range of meanings from sacred building, to congregation, to international denomination or the entire community saved by Jesus Christ. Stackhouse writes:
Kingdom of God
In one sense, God is sovereign over all, so all creation is the Kingdom of God. But here we are talking about the sense in which it is so frequently meant in the New Testament. Concerning “Kingdom of God” in the synoptic gospels, Stackhouse writes:
The reign of God is here but it has not reached its fullness, so in this sense he says the Kingdom of God is “already, but not yet.”
As we move into John and the rest of the New Testament, we see other euphemisms for the Kingdom of God. John speaks of “eternal life.” Paul tends to talk about “salvation.” Because the “Kingdom of God” imagery is deeply tied up with Jewish culture, gentiles would not have related to the term; thus the need for other depictions.
Church and the Kingdom of God
The church is not the Kingdom of God. Stackhouse points out that individuals and groups within the visible church do not always follow Jesus. Some that may appear to be in Kingdom of God are not. But then there are also those who we might not expect to be a part of the Kingdom of God who are a part:
Furthermore, the influence of God’s Kingdom has been spreading, bit by bit, wherever individuals, groups, nations, and transnational realities have been influenced for the better. In our day, for example, the increased profile of universal human rights in national and international politics – with particular attention to women, children, and the poor (recognizing that women and children constitute most of the poor) – is an example of the spread of the influence of the Kingdom of God incognito, so to speak. It is obvious that the international order is far from Christian in its identity and conduct. In that crucial sense it is clearly not the Kingdom of God. Nonetheless, the Kingdom of God is partially and mixedly, but also really, present in the extension of these values into spheres previously not deeply shape by them. (21)
A final important distinction Stackhouse makes is that while there is considerable continuity with the Old Testament version of the Kingdom of God, there is also discontinuity as well, particularly in the political sphere.
I suspect some of Stackhouse’s definitions may be controversial with some of my readers, especially his thoughts on the Kingdom of God. The more I read about Second Temple Judaism, I’m inclined to think that Jesus had something not all that dissimilar to what the Jews had in mind in terms of a massive resurrection, Israel being restored to greatness, and the gentiles drawn into worshiping God. It is post resurrection that the Kingdom of God begins to take on new textures. Some scholars I respect argue the Kingdom of God must be tied more specifically to the presence and action of actual communities intentional in their worship of God, and would not consider the development of certain values and outcomes (like the emergence of human rights) to be an expression of the Kingdom of God. They see more of a one-to-one correspondence between “church” and “Kingdom of God.”
With some qualification, Stackhouse’s views correspond very closely to mine in these definitions. How about you?