Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”

In an earlier post, I suggested a “Chalmers Option“—the pursuit of a holistic vision of living out the kingdom of God that could overpower and push out competing temptations. I’m reacting to visions (explicit or implicit) of Christian faithfulness that fail to challenge the comforts of cultural status quo. This “expulsive power of a new affection” would necessarily lead to a radical revision of the way of life in which we’ve been stewed.

Labeling this construct as I did is ever-so-slightly self-serving. I mostly interact with this blog (and the Internet more generally) wearing my “private citizen” or “interested bystander” hats rather than in any professional capacity. My day job is relevant here, though. I serve at a ministry called The Chalmers Center, which is named for Thomas Chalmers, though we’re probably better known through the book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself than by our name.

We focus on helping Christians to think differently about poverty and then do something about it. This is a much larger project than just offering “best practices for alleviating poverty.” It requires people to fit a “new affection” sort of revolution into their thinking, and shift their behavior accordingly. This is a needed precursor for churches to actually impact their communities (particularly in low-income neighborhoods) in ways that recognize, respect, and restore the mutual brokenness of all people and the broken systems they create.

A Christian approach to bridging the divide between people with wealth and people living in poverty has to wrestle with this brokenness. “Poverty” is not simply a lack of material goods: people can be materially poor (lacking wealth, access to social capital, education, a healthy “pride”, etc.), but we can also be poor in other ways (lacking humility, meaningful relationships, generosity, etc.). Separating “the poor” from the mainstream in our thoughts and actions strips them of their dignity as God’s image-bearers.

This is a hard leap of understanding for most, both because our “affections” are warped by the surrounding culture and because we often act out of an anemic theology. Christianity has always wanted to flirt with Plato, preaching the Gospel in all its spiritual and eternal aspects while reducing the body to a vehicle for personal piety. When we slide this way, whatever one may choose to do with that body (aside from a few unpardonable transgressions) is not terribly relevant, so long as the soul is saved and sanctified. This is not simply a Protestant problem, though the Reformers’ needed focus on justification has particularly pushed their theological descendants toward emphasis on metaphysical over embodied ministry.

Something in our finite knowledge wants so badly for the truth to be either all spirit or all flesh. The mystery of the one true Gospel is precisely that it requires us to recognize that it is all of both. My friend Dr. Carl Ellis has a helpful framework to think through this point. Holistic theology has two complementary parts: an epistemological “A-side” and an ethical “B-side” If you play either the A-side or the B-side without the other, you’re not hearing the full symphony. Both are necessary for full faithfulness, even when we don’t realize it, and choosing sides is a dangerous temptation.

Perhaps our willingness to look past the two-sided nature of our responsibilities before God stems from a desire to “be OK”, to find a narrative for brokenness that comforts and acquits us.

“A-side” theology teaches us the totality of man’s Fall in the Garden, but somehow we manage to rationalize this cosmic upheaval to a simpler problem of personal sin. This downplays the depth and breadth of our rebellion against God, allowing us to judge those wrestling with consequences of the Fall as lacking personal responsibility and reassuring us that our relative “blessedness” means we’re making the right choices. Such a view makes it very difficult to wrestle with our own complicity in the systemic brokenness around us in a “Christian nation” like the United States.

“B-side” theology, drawing on the Old Testament, teaches us that the whole community is deeply connected, and every injustice taints and corrupts the whole nation. Just like we distort “A-side” teaching, though, we can rationalize this into a focus only on large-scale problems that downplay every person’s need of redemption from sin. If the brokenness we wrestle against is “out there” or someone else’s fault, we can go on about our lives without the hard work of repentance.

Part of the Chalmers Option, then, has to be learning to grapple with both “sides” and their implications for how we live each day before God and man. This opens our hearts to a wider vision of Christ’s kingdom and the church’s role as “the pillar and support” of that truth (1 Tim. 3:15), but also a wider vision for repentance.

It calls us to see our great guilt in the ways we have allowed deficient theology to shape our culture, even the ways we deliberately handicap our reading of Scripture to conform it to our favored sin patterns. If we have eyes to see, it shows us that the reason that we even need to contemplate a “Benedict Option” to preserve the church against a hostile culture is at least partly due to the church’s role in creating that culture.

These realizations should breed a humility that points us back to dependence upon God to forgive, heal, and sustain us. That dependence can lead us, finally, to the love that has the capacity to drive out the weak and failing accommodation to comfort and consumption that has too often characterized the faith in the West. In that “new affection” is our ancient hope.

W. H. Auden, in “As I Walked out One Evening” sums it up well.

“O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.”

Semper reformanda.

Further Thoughts
Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church
The Spiritual Vitality of Place

Photo: Grace Episcopal Church, St. Francisville, Louisiana, June 2016.

2 thoughts on “Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”

  1. Pingback: Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church | Hardscrabble

  2. Pingback: Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option? | Hardscrabble

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