A theory of everything?
In the 1950’s one of the great scientific races of all time ended. The discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, the building blocks of life, opened the door to many more significant scientific breakthroughs in our time. This discovery has had a huge impact on our understanding of life as we know it, and in particular has provided the framework for some very significant developments in the areas of medical research and criminal investigations. In the twenty-first century a new race is on, for the elusive “theory of everything”. The challenge here involves drawing together multiple, widely accepted, but at times seemingly contradictory theories (such as quantum theory, the theory of relativity, string theory, etc) under a single unifying whole – the so-called, but yet to be discovered, “theory of everything”.This challenge is proving particularly elusive for scientists, but I believe the church also needs to embark upon a similar quest lest it continue on a path of segmentation and eventual separation. As I see it, there tends to be three main focal points that people, by virtue of personality, interest, culture, upbringing or otherwise, tend to be drawn towards within the church; worship, mission, and social justice. Of course, these three categories are not mutually exclusive, nor an exhaustive representation of the possibilities that exist, and they are of course generalisations as well, but from my observations it appears that people tend to lean towards one of these particular areas more heavily than they do to others. The danger here is that people lean “too far”, becoming exclusivist in their approach to Christian living and misunderstanding and even looking down upon others who do not share their views or passion in their particular area of interest. For example, those who lean in the direction of “worship” tend to place a great emphasis upon the weekly gathering. A lot of preparation goes into this meeting, with practices, musical arrangements, sourcing new songs, movie clips, decorations, sermon preparation and so on. These are all worthwhile activities for worship is a good thing. We are created to worship and enjoy God’s presence, but without the added dimensions of mission and addressing the issues of injustice that exist within the world we risk becoming “Sunday” Christians; only interested in the next service and never actually engaging with the world around us. Similar dangers abound in the other two categories I have suggested. Those who lean towards “social justice” are passionate about righting the wrongs that exist within the world. This particular emphasis has received much attention in the last five to ten years and rightly so. Before that time we’d rarely even heard of phrases such as “fair trade” or “people trafficking”. Sure, the church had been involved in dealing with these issues in the past but what has changed dramatically is how accessible the solutions have become. The average Christian now has the opportunity to become a part of the solution, not just your heavyweights like John Wesley, William Wilberforce, or W.T. Stead. Simple things like what thinking about what chocolate, tea and coffee we purchase are making a difference for those who produce these commodities. Recently we saw Cadbury in the UK and now in Australia release “fair trade” labelled chocolate, as a direct result of the pressure that has been placed upon this company from those with a particular interest in social justice issues. However we must remember that Christians are not the only ones trumpeting this horn. This is not a bad thing, of course. The more, the merrier. But the danger is that as we address these issues the “why?” becomes detached from the “how”. There is a significant threat that social justice activity loses its theological framework, and so successes such as the “conversion” of Cadbury, become “human” successes and not God’s. We put the pressure on the company and we convinced them to change their ways. We forget to acknowledge and thank God for his activity in sanctifying one more of the impure and unjust structures that have existed within society. I could continue, but you get the picture. I guess what I am trying to suggest here is not that we stop any of these activities. That would be an absolute travesty. Nor am I suggesting that those who have a particular bent towards “mission” should suddenly stop and get on with the “real” issues of worship or addressing social justice issues. Again, that would just be arrogant and misguided. Rather, I would like to propose a “theory of everything”; a theological framework that I hope each of these emphases, and indeed others that come to mind (education, youth and children, aged care etc.), can be one part of. If each of us can hold onto this “theory of everything” then perhaps there is the opportunity to see ourselves as contributing to the whole, and thus benefiting each of the other areas. So here’s my suggested “theory of everything” summed up in a phrase I picked up in Clark Pinnock’s Flame of Love – “social sanctification”. If we try and look at this issue from God’s perspective here is what we see. In creation God saw that everything was “very good”, in other words the whole was holy – it was “socially sanctified”. Then sin enters the equation and causes all the problems that we see within individuals and society as a whole. But, against the popular myth that sin caused “separation from God”, God remains very much interested in his creation. He does not separate himself from his people, but rather sets about the task of “sanctifying” that which is no longer “very good”. This takes place by means of floods, covenants, the calling out of a particular people as a royal priesthood, a sacrificial cultic system, the provision of land, the continued self-revelation of God’s self by means of the Scriptures, and ultimately through the Christ event and the sending of the Holy Spirit into creation. We also possess the eschatological hope that is revealed in passages such as Revelation which reveal a time when creation will ultimately be re-created (note not destroyed), and return to a state of being “very good” once again. This is, as I see it, God’s ultimate purposes in the world, and I describe this process as “social sanctification”. The miracle is that God invites us to be involved and equips us for the task in this ongoing process. Within this broader category of “social sanctification” we can see many possible sub-categories that contribute to this ultimate goal of restoring creation to being “very good” once again. These include, but are not limited to, the three main categories listed above. Worship; restoring right relationship between humanity and God by means of attributing to God the praise that he is due as God. This is social sanctification and addresses the rampant individualism that sin is founded upon and continues to infect society with. Mission; eliminating the barriers that exist preventing those who are not a part of the people of God from entering into fellowship with the Triune God and true fellowship with creation. This is social sanctification and responds to the call of God to share the good news of the Gospel with the entire world. Social justice; directly addressing issues of injustice and inequality that particularly affect the poor, disadvantaged, marginalised of society, not forgetting issues related to ecology, for the betterment of all creation. This is social sanctification and recognises that the Christian faith is not just about “me and my relationship with Jesus”, but about God’s restorative activity within the world which we are called to be a part of. The more I think about this theory, the more it resonates with me, and the more I think it has value within the Christian church. One of the major problems that scientists face in their pursuit for this elusive theory is that a “theory of everything” must be a theory of everything. It must encompass every known scientific endeavour and include all possible outcomes. So too for this theological “theory of everything”. So it’s time to take this theory from the hypothetical and trial it within the test tube. Does it fit? Does it work? Are the outcomes consistent? Is it possible for all Christian activity, thought and practice to be conflated beneath this umbrella? The task is massive, but I think the call to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) calls for such an endeavour. I would value your input and thoughts.