Loving God with a Social Imaginary of Expressive Individualism

What does it mean to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength?”[1] I have pondered this question numerous times in my journey of faith. Loving God with all my strength was “easy” to practice as it meant faithfully attending Sunday gatherings, tithing, and generally living with a decent moral compass. Loving God with all my mind had brought me to Regent College to wrestle with some of the skeptical questions I have had, prior to which have either been dismissed with juvenile responses or left unanswered. Despite all the good deeds and contemplation thus far, ironically, it seems that at this juncture of my journey I am reminded once again, to have faith like a child and to love God like a child. I believe this disposition is most crucial to the Christian and to the church. Simply put, love God with all your heart.

Loving God with all your heart is crucial to the Christian and the church because it is central to the greatest commandment, referenced above. Our hearts contain our identity, character, and attitude, thus loving God in this manner requires our whole selves, which I believe is the very essence of being in relation with a living and dynamic God. And being in relation with God further reveals our identity, shapes our character, and aligns our attitude. It is from this foundation that all other expressions of love and action ought to take place.

This disposition is crucial to the Christian because a deeper understanding of our identity helps clarify and fulfill our purpose. Understanding ourselves and discovering a purpose is ubiquitous in the narrative of the modern West. For the Christian, we may rephrase this as identifying God’s purpose for me, hearing the call of God, living a life honoring to God, being faithful witnesses, or searching for a vocation, to name a few. Despite any criticism of contemporary culture, this is the main thread that weaves through the lives of countless individuals, Christian or not. Without a proper understanding of one’s identity, it will be difficult to live a life of purpose that is distinct from someone who does not have a relationship with God. Self-centered, consumeristic, and immanent lives plague the Christian in the modern West.[2] Perhaps loving God with all our hearts will move the Christian to a God-centered, giving, and transcendent life that will be a blessing to those around him or her.

The church being the body of Christ, made up of different members, ought to consist of these individual Christians and as a whole, love God as a community. I believe that without the first commandment being exercised fully, it will be exponentially more difficult to follow through with the second commandment, that is, love your neighbor as yourself.[3] While simplistic, perhaps this definition of church is ever more necessary in an ever more increasingly complex society. Church is more about going to church or doing church and is being pulled in endless directions of identifying with either a tradition, political party, or particular stance. Perhaps the foremost identity the church ought to reestablish is to love God with all our hearts. This may seem too philosophical for those who do not sit in academic institutions or too airy for those who are busy standing in the corner of marketplaces, but I would argue that bridges must be built across all gaps of Christian communities to affirm a unified identity.

While important in a local setting to be an example of love and peace to the community, it is equally important to establish this identity in the broader biblical narrative and global context. It is crucial to understand the history of the people of God represented through Israel as well as in the early church. The current narrative engrained into most is Western Christendom, however a retelling of the Christian story is critical particularly for those in the modern West. I believe this must start from academic institutions that emphasize this particular narrative over the lost Eastern Christianity and of even more relevance, the burgeoning Christianity in the Global South. Without a humble, unified identity, there is no hope for a global ecumenism to flourish.

Without a renewal of the heart to and for God, without a proper identity, redeemed character, and humble attitude, I believe the church will no longer have any relevance in the modern West. Just like the empty cathedrals in Western Europe serving as tourist attractions to ancient days, it is only a matter of time before church and Christian would become irrelevant to the fast-paced, changing culture. Whether in Vancouver where folks are mostly politely ambivalent to any religious overtone or where the bright lit crosses littered throughout the city of Seoul hold little to no meaning of hope, the need for a renewed love for God is ever more necessary.[4]

This change of heart is very much needed in the modern West and quickly wherever modernity and affluence reach next. It is particularly more pressing where Christianity was once fruitful but now is becoming more secular. Growing up in the Greater New York area, I have certainly felt the cross-pressures between faith and questioning.[5] Raised as a nominal Christian by parents who were “first-generation Christians,” it was easy to become an atheist once I learned about evolution and science in my early years and later in my adolescence mostly living between either as an agnostic or Moralistic Therapeutic Deist.[6] This was the foundation that I stood on, albeit being shaky, and the lens that I saw the world through. Inevitably, I became a product of the secular age.

Plagued by a “profound dissatisfaction with a life encased entirely in the immanent order,” whilst faithfully attending Sunday gatherings and participating in mid-week communal activities, I began my own quest to search for a deeper meaning than what I had known thus far.[7] This journey began with exploring a myriad of “meaningful activities,” from volunteering at soup kitchens to joining professional student organizations and because of my religious background, an attempt to read the Bible seriously with an open heart and mind. What remained were the tugs of the transcendent. In Evangelical terms, the grace of God. While my personal spirituality was growing and the relationship with a living God blossoming, I was still dissatisfied with the status quo of Christian belief and activities, oscillating between a self-righteous attitude and a “holy discontent,” as some have described. After relocating to Vancouver in an attempt to explore God not only in an academic manner, but also at ground level in the “real world” of downtown, I am still on this journey that started years ago.

This past summer, my wife and I took the time to explore what it means to be the church without strictly defining it to a tradition or local gathering. Personally, I am still asking God what it means to be a good and faithful servant,[8] and in tandem feeling the pull of asking what it means to be the faithful church. While we were so accustomed to having a regular rhythm on Sundays, which demarcated our weeks, I wanted to challenge ourselves to worship God not only on Sunday with the gathered body of believers—although that no longer is the case as most churches accommodate to the non-believer, seeker, or whoever else—but to live a life of worship every single day without having the crutch of the rhythm of Sundays. This season of exploration has led us to encounter so many different expressions of communities attempting to live faithful lives. There are a select few who voluntarily choose to live in an impoverished area to see greater flourishing to those in the margin, without treating mercy as a ministry program. There are those who want to engage with their local community through housing refugees and aiding them to be assimilated into a foreign country, without any stipulation of first believing in the same belief. There is a leader who seeks to be deeply embedded in rich traditions, however does not want to be limited to be congregation focused, but rather community focused. There is another leader who realizes the urban context and culture they are centered in and thus seeks to be a resource ministry to all those who come by and alongside them.

Clearly, there is a desire for change in various capacities with a common theme of focusing on the larger community. It is encouraging to see these glimpses of impact of faithful churches. However, most of these efforts come from the “institutional community”. While I believe that the traditional models of church and the work that the institutional church does is necessary, in the Age of Authenticity,[9] in a culture of growing distrust of centralized power, in the spirit of innovation and disruption, perhaps there can be new expressions of being the church.[10] But more than creating a new model, more than assessing what may be the most efficient missional strategy, more than discussing what tradition or doctrine is right or wrong from debates over centuries ago, more than attempting to determine what political party or stance is righteous, more than anything else, it is to first and foremost be certain that there is a genuine love of, for, with God with all one’s heart. I believe this is most relevant in our day and age, where authenticity of the individual and the whole is at stake.

Love God with all your heart may seem subjective and my very proposition is one that has already been doused with “the social imaginary of expressive individualism.”[11] And there is a plethora of arguments against this spirit from traditional religions and institutions.[12] But what if we can be open to a different “take” rather than assuming the existing ‘“spin” – an overconfident “picture” within which we can’t imagine it being otherwise, and thus smugly dismiss those who disagree’?[13] How can this disposition be cultivated and encouraged?

First, it is a simple, yet difficult question of asking what do you truly believe? What do you truly love? If we were given the space to slow down, if we were given the space to be frank with ourselves without fearing any judgement or the need to go along with a herd mentality, maybe then there will be a clearer identification of what our hearts desire. Equally important is studying our own culture and language. Without leaders realizing the limitations of the language they have assumed and used, it will be impossible for anyone else to see the blinders they may have put on. Scholars such as James Smith and Charles Taylor provide such a rich contribution to this conversation, but there is a need to make this available to the masses in a way that is engageable and understandable.

A practical application for the leadership for the church is to teach the biblical narrative in light of an exilic motif.[14] As secularity and its ideologies continue to grow at rapid rates and Christians, their language, place, and values are being pushed further to the margins, there is an abundant source of wisdom and hope in forging an identity rooted in exile. From the literal exile of the people of Israel, to the exile and diaspora in the early centuries of the church, adopting this identity as our own in the modern West may give us the right lens to correct our posture and attitude in our culture and society. A change of heart, a “conversion of the church” is core to the vast amount of issues facing Christian witness and living.[15] “While many traditional churches will never be able to make some of the radical shifts necessary to thrive in the new cultural reality, they can participate in the renewal of the church by supporting these kinds of initiatives.”[16] Hopefully, traditional churches will have the ears to hear and listen carefully to the changing tone and landscape of this modern age.[17] With a humble heart and child-like faith and love for God, perhaps then the Christian and the leadership of the Church can exercise a “prophetic imagination,” which “leads us to recall that exile is a time for people to consider where they have come from and to discuss what traditions and practices from the past no longer function effectively as ways of doing ministry or articulating faith in a new contextual reality.”[18] With a renewed love for God, the Christian and the Church can then practice new skills and competencies that provide effective witness of God and perhaps then can any real ecclesial unity flourish with global participation and cooperation.

This brief reflection on the contemporary age and the church may seem urgent and necessary, however I must frankly conclude that this concern is a far second priority compared to the immediate influence I have as a Christian—first, knowing that all must begin with my own love with God and second, to my wife, my toddler daughter, and my immediate communities.[19] The wisdom from exilic prophets are rich, yet, I am also aware that it is not a prophet’s duty to change the hearts of the people of God and it is ultimately the work of the Spirit.[20] Prophets are held to a higher responsibility to obey, they are tasked with doing ridiculous acts to speak to the people of God, and even sometimes have the love of their life taken from them.[21] I am glad that there are a few who find this concern a noble call and I hope that it is rooted in a deep desire to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

[1] Mark 12:30 NIV.

[2] The concept of immanence and secularity in this essay is adapted from James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

[3] Mark 12:31.

[4] South Korea is an interesting case study of the dramatic rise of Christianity in the early 20th century followed quickly by modern advancements, and now facing the challenges of secularity only a century later. See Robert Lee, The Influence of Economic Prosperity on Religious Flourishing: A Case Study of South Korea (Research Paper, Regent College, 2019).

[5] Smith, 14.

[6] The term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” comes from Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[7] Smith, 89.

[8] It is interesting to do a careful study of the parable of the talents where this commendation is found. While preachers may use this passage to distinguish different “talents” of individuals doing the work of God, it is primarily a parable couched in economic terms, found in the greater Mount of Olives discourse, regarding the end times.

[9] Smith, 85.

[10] While weighing out the pros and cons of the necessity of institutions and traditions is outside the scope of this brief reflection, I do believe that they are necessary. But just like the Hilton hotels did not become obsolete with the disruption of Airbnb or taxi medallions with Uber, I believe there ought to be more room for the institutional and traditional church to accommodate the changing the times.

[11] Smith, 85.

[12] Ibid., 90.

[13] Ibid., 94.

[14] I am indebted to the vision presented by Lee Beach, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015).

[15] Beach, 148.

[16] Ibid., 152.

[17] Ezekiel 2-3.

[18] Beach, 144.

[19] In reference to the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern found in Steven Covey’s, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (New York: Free Press, 2004), 81-91.

[20] Ezekiel 2:2.

[21] Ezekiel 3:18-21; 4:12; 24:15-27.