The Kingdom of Heaven, Theories of Culture, and the Missional Church

In this post I will connect the term The Kingdom of Heaven with Kathryn Tanner’s ideas in Theories of Culture. ((Tanner, Kathryn. Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.)) I will then propose that this is a missional imagination of how the Trinitarian God is at work in the world.

What prompted these thoughts

This week I have been working on a sermon for Advent 1 from Daniel 3:8-30. Here we read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Adednego as they refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol as they were in exile. The Gospel lesson was from John 18:36-37 where Jesus says that his Kingdom is not from this world.

All of these elements converged to get me thinking about what it means to be not from this world and to be a church in exile, or, as Hans Küng calls it, a Pilgrim People. ((Küng, Hans. The Church. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968.)) The following two illustrations depict two different ways of imagining the Kingdom of Heaven and her relationship to the world.

fig. 1: An oppositonal, antagonistic, and dualistic view of the the relationship between the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of the World.
fig. 1
An oppositonal, antagonistic, and dualistic view of the relationship between the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of the World.
fig. 2: An integrated, holistic, missional view of the relationship between the Kingdom of Heaven that is in, with, under, against, and for the host culture, mediated and incarnated by the church in the power of the Holy Spirit as a prophetic partner to the proletpic promise of God's Kingdom.
fig. 2
An integrated, holistic, missional view of the relationship between the Kingdom of Heaven that is in, with, under, against, and for the host culture, mediated and incarnated by the church in the power of the Holy Spirit as a prophetic partner to the proleptic promise of God’s Kingdom.

Key Sources for these Ideas

As I was creating these illustrations I realized that they are heavily influenced by three sources from my academic research.

First, I see a connection to Kathryn Tanner’s Theories of Culture. ((Tanner.)) Tanner posits that there has been a shift in how the term culture is used in anthropology and cultural studies from the modern era to the postmodern era. The modern notion of culture, Tanner suggests, viewed individual cultures as static, homogenous, bounded sets that are separate from all other cultures and can be observed empirically by the detached scientific mind. Christian culture, then, under the modern rubric, saw itself as a separate culture that stood above and against the cultures of the world. Tanner challenges the modernist notion of culture and suggests that cultures are actually porous, dynamic, multivalent, and polycentric realities that constantly vie for power externally and internally in the world. Christian culture, likewise, is not a single entity, but is, in itself, a porous, dynamic, multivalent, and polycentric system that exists as a parasite ((this is a playful term Tanner uses to denote how the church is not a culture within itself, but is one that draws life and identity from within its host culture. The church has a symbiotic and/or parasitic relationship with her host culture)) within all the host cultures of the world.

In my illustrations I am replacing the term culture with the term Kingdom, but I think I mean the same thing. The kingdom denotes a way of being in the world; a lifeworld, worldview, or modus operandi. ((Here I am borrowing from Habermas‘ term lifeworld.)) Jesus brought a way of being, not a political regime. That is what he meant when he responded to Pilate by saying, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” ((John 18:37 (NRSV).)) Jesus’ kingdom is not about a physical space or time, but it is about bearing witness to God’s way in the world.

The second influence comes from Dr. Gary Simpson’s presentation of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (see fig. 3). Here Niebuhr identifies five ways that the Western church has understood the relationship of Christ (the Kingdom of Heaven) and the World. Simpson explained that the Christ Over Culture paradigm is one that looks like fig. 1 and is the dominant imagination of the Kingdom of Heaven in the evangelical mind. Christ and World in Paradox, Simpson claims, is the Lutheran imagination. Here God is at work on both sides of the equation through Law and Promise. God is at work in the world systems of power, government, and Law as well as at work in the good news of the Promise of salvation through Jesus and the restoration of all things. This is why the church should not stand in antagonistic opposition to the world, but should be a prophetic partner ((this is Simpson’s argument in Critical Social Theory)) in the world to expand the kingdom of God within each host culture.

The Five Great Traditions in the West as described by Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture. This illustration came from a presentation given by Dr. Gary Simpson.
fig. 3
The Five Great Traditions in the West as described by Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture. I made this illustration during a presentation given by Dr. Gary Simpson.

The third influence comes from Dr. Keifert’s course lectures and from David Tracy’s book To Understand God Truly. Tracy suggests that God cannot be known directly, but can only be observed through secondary means as God acts in the local congregation. Theology, then, is about, against, and for, the local congregation if it wants to understand God truly. Keifert builds upon this and, adding a Lutheran twist, suggests that the theological task is done in, with, under, against, and for the local congregation. I would propose that, in the same way, the Kingdom of God is present in, with, under, against, and for the various host Kingdoms/Cultures of the World as it is incarnated in the church and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Missional Imagination

I believe this image (fig. 2) paints a helpful missional vision of the church. The missio Dei is to bring about God’s promised future and the church is invited to participate in this mission as a prophetic witness. We, the church, are called to be in the world, but not of the world by participating in the world, praying for the welfare of the city/culture in which we exist (Jeremiah 29:7), and stand as an active witness–through our actions–to the way of Jesus, baptizing them (immersing them in the reality) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them (through example) to obey Jesus’ commands (to love God and love neighbor). ((This is my reading of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20. The baptism Jesus calls for is not a ritual, but a immersing of life and the way of life in the world.))

One thought on “The Kingdom of Heaven, Theories of Culture, and the Missional Church”

  1. Jesus brought a way of being, not a political regime. That is what he meant when he responded to Pilate by saying, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”6 Jesus’ kingdom is not about a physical space or time, but it is about bearing witness to God’s way in the world

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