Collapse is a terrifying word, is it not? Economic collapse. Political collapse. Ecological collapse. A collapse is sudden, violent, destructive. It makes headlines. The conceptual collapse has never been breaking news. But these collapses are at least as destructive as the former, and far more common.
This is an inevitable consequence of two inescapable truths.
Humans are finite. God is not.
Job reached enlightenment when he said “I spoke of things … too wonderful for me to know.” As humans, we can only hold so many things together in our mind at one time. God is more than we can understand. It is not just God’s scale, or God’s complexity that makes it difficult. God embodies ideas that seem mutually exclusive. Finding a happy balance between mutually exclusive extremes, what Aristotle called The Golden Mean, is not that difficult for people. But comprehending that justice and mercy are not mutually exclusive, but are both always and in all circumstances good and true is mind-wrenchingly difficult. To believe that it is possible for God to be both perfectly merciful and perfectly just requires awareness, focus, energy, and concentration.
In the end, when we are tired or hurried or overwhelmed, our categories and principles collapse into something simpler. Something unipolar, something less than biblical, something that is certainly not “too wonderful” for us to know.
It is almost inevitable that we will tend to be either just or merciful, but not both. It is almost inevitable that our understanding of sin will be based on guilt or shame or impurity, but not all three. It is almost inevitable that we will primarily view Jesus as God or as man. It is almost inevitable that we will be speakers of the word or doers of the word.
And it is no surprise that integral mission is difficult, maybe even impossible. We are trying to hold it all together, and it is too wonderful for us! So we collapse, and we lose one or the other, and lose touch with the truth. Just spend a second thinking about all of the individuals, churches, and denominations that lost touch with mercy, or with justice, or with proclamation. Remember the consequences.
But the collapse is not inevitable, or more accurately, the inevitable collapse is not inevitably final. The Holy Spirit working within the church allows us as a whole to hold on to ideals and complexities that none of us could live out consistently on our own. The church can call its members back to truths that do not fit easily within them. Dare I say that, as a church, we are more truly the Imago Dei than we are individually, and we are far greater than the sum of our parts. Integral mission can’t be the same quest for personal decisions for salvation that we sought in the 19th and 20th centuries. The unit of “conversion”, so to speak, must be the church. This is our task in the 21st century: for the church itself to be converted to a Christianity that is too rich for any of its members to live out alone.