Voices: Exploring the new world in the 21st century

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The late Jules Verne, author of 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, called the sea the “Living Infinite.” Yet the vast waters that surround us don’t seem as infinite as they once did.

Garrett Vickrey 150Garrett Vickrey

The world is shrinking. And the increasing lack of headroom is ratcheting up anxieties. These anxieties drive support for President Trump’s “America First” mentality. A new world is emerging, and it remains to be seen how Christians will respond to the challenges ahead.

When Christopher Columbus began exploring the so-called “New World,” his discoveries caused great excitement throughout Europe. Columbus sought a western path to the far east. He found the Bahamas instead.

Similarly, John Cabot believed he had arrived in Asia when he landed in Canada, claiming land there for King Henry VII. Excitement over the possibilities of this new world began to spread throughout Europe. Expeditions were launched under the auspices of diverse flags, all wanting a piece of the new pie.

TBV stackedA whole new world

These early expeditions opened up trade in a whole new world. Ships were launched. Goods were exchanged. Poor swine-herders like Francisco Pizarro made a fortune. The business of exploration was promising enough for Columbus to leave behind his life as a weaver. But not all Europeans experienced the blessing of this new wealth. The very foundation of wealth was changing.

The medieval era was transitioning to something new. The foundation of wealth for medieval Europe was land. Kings had it; the poor worked it. The owners of land lived quite well by renting their lands out and requiring their renters to provide them with service and a share of their crops.

Suddenly, gold and silver, which had been in short supply, began flooding from the new world back into Europe, resulting in skyrocketing inflation. The economy was changing. Is there a place in the new world for old world people?

Many in today’s emerging world can sympathize. The exploration of trade routes to the East Indies has evolved over centuries into globalized world markets, remaking economies and nations worldwide. The conversation about the ramifications of globalization need to be worked out in dialogue. Right now, few of us get beyond sound bites about what this means for “workers” or “corporations.”

Some are trying to return the world to glorious eras where we know our roles. But like 16th century Europe, we know if we ignore the new world out there, it will pass us by.

Faithful engagement

How can we as faithful Christians engage this emerging world in faithful ways? Here are three elements of Christian faith that can help us in this new world.

First, recovery of the early Church’s understanding of Creatio Continua should underlay our image of God’s relationship to this world.

God is still creating. Creation is continually upheld and sustained by God’s Word through the Holy Spirit. God continually calls forth, dwells in and provides for creation. Whatever new world is emerging is still a world that reflects the image of the Creator.

Second, incarnational ministry demands that the spiritual practice of empathy be given significant space within the liturgy of the church.

Life in the digital age provides too much space for empathy to dwindle. There is a great chasm formed between what we see on screens and what we feel. We protect ourselves from the emotions of others.

Christ came to dwell with us. To feel what we feel. We must do the same. We must practice empathy. We must, as the hymn encourages us, “Let our hearts be broken for a world in need.”

Finally, we always must keep the vision of the New Jerusalem before the eyes of the world.

The failure of our imaginations keep us locked into imitations of previous failures. How can Christians in the 21st century help the world grasp images of God’s new creation?

Harmful outsourcing

Far too many churches have outsourced the work of social transformation to the political realm. Too many churches have hedged their bets that simply putting “the right kind of Christians” in powerful political roles will create a more sympathetic environment for people of faith. This cloaked identity politics needs a refresher in the much-maligned doctrine of original sin. G.K Chesterton once quipped that original sin is “the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable and validated by 3,500 years of human history.”

People of faith know their frailty. Often, we fail to espouse our corporate infirmity. Yet even in our sickness, the health of God’s new creation is found. Here, there, every now and again, God’s kingdom bursts forth in beloved communities where the hungry are fed, the naked clothed and the stranger is welcomed.

Churches need not bless everything that comes with the dawn of a new era. There is a time for resistance when the dehumanization of certain people groups becomes normative through political talking points, when fear is lifted as a virtue and greed revered.

We find ourselves again in fleets of small vessels cast out upon the “Living Infinite,” crossing toward some great unknown. But like Jesus’ first disciples, we must never forget the One who is on the boat with us.

Garrett Vickrey is senior pastor of Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio.

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