It may just be that I’m getting older - I didn’t want to say old! - but it seems to me that there’s more talk than ever about what you might call ‘the nature of society’. Whether it’s about the definition of marriage, and who gets to define it (why should there be a Marriage Act in the first place?), a society’s response to regime brutality leading to mass asylum seekers, the impact of the society on the environment around us, or even whether everyone ought to expect and be able to purchase a house, the question of what is, and what ought, a society look like is front and centre.
What’s more that talk is both from the wider culture, and also from Christians.
But it’s pretty confused.
It’s confused, from the side of the broader culture, because post-modernism was essentially a deconstructive (or perhaps destructive) movement. It exposed problems, for example how so often ‘meta-narratives' are just power plays, but it offered little by way of constructive alternative. Have you noticed how rarely you hear the word ‘postmodern’ anymore? That’s because as a negative movement it has run out of steam. But it has left the nature of society up for grabs. And hence the endless debate and discussion. The thing is, there’s no agreed foundation, common set of values, or most importantly, vision for the purpose of a society, to give that discussion any coherence.
And it’s confused from the side of the church too. My take is that we have been nervous about doing what is called ‘public theology’, or a theologically informed vision of what a society should look like, as distinct from what the church should look like. There are good reasons for that nervousness - it can be a distraction from an essential part of what we are called to do, which is to win people for Christ, and instead promote a lot of navel gazing and theorising. But the point is that although it can descend into that, it doesn’t have to.
It seems to me that right now, the cultural confusion we see around us provides a very significant opportunity for gospel proclamation. There is a hunger for a substantial vision of what a society can be. But at the same time, we are not well equipped, with little substantial public theology work being done. That is an urgent task!