‘Blogs are great places for pithy assertions, but not for in depth analysis’ – or so one speaker at last week’s Social Policy Association conference in Belfast suggested.
I fear there is some truth in that statement. However, what I hope to do here is rather to point to an idea that I think represents a valuable tool when it comes to understanding and talking about the relationship between the church and wider society: namely, shalom.
Shalom is often rather inadequately translated as ‘peace’. In fact it represents a very holistic notion of wellbeing, including: physical health, good relationships, justice, having sufficient material resources, making a meaningful contribution to society and being safe and secure. Significantly, shalom is inherently relational and presents the wellbeing of individuals, families, communities and societies as inter-dependent. It is understood to be relevant to whole cities and societies, regardless of a person’s religious beliefs: all can participate in bringing it about, and in receiving the benefits that it comprises. ‘Human flourishing’ is perhaps the closest concept to shalom in social policy speak: both terms acknowledge the relational and multi-faceted nature of human wellbeing.
As such, we might think of shalom as what the ‘social engagement’ or ‘social action’ work of the church is oriented towards. Except that there’s a problem with that. Because among the good relationships that the concept of shalom encompasses is a good relationship with God. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom as ‘the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight’ (1996, p. 10). Contrasting shalom with a secular notion of ‘the good life’, philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff notes that ‘the Old Testament writers … would say that one’s life does not go well… if it does not incorporate being rightly related to God’ (2013, p. 19).
Similarly, the concept of ‘salvation’, often conceived of as a primarily individual experience or choice, can also be understood as both social (e.g. having relevance for communities too) and holistic. Arnold (1996) describes salvation as: ‘a reality with at once spiritual and physical, individual and communal, objective and subjective, eternal and historical dimensions’. Thus, a reconciled relationship with God is seen to have far-reaching implications, rather than being solely a personal and spiritual matter distinct from the rest of one’s life.
On this basis it is difficult to justify a strong distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘social’ work of local churches. One might argue rather that both the shalom-seeking and salving work of the church and of God are inseparable and orientated towards human flourishing in good relationship with God. What this means in practice needs to be the subject of a much longer piece, but here I simply suggest that, understood in this relational, holistic way, shalom might serve as a valuable concept in identifying possibilities for collaboration and innovation in a variety of contexts that contribute to human flourishing, whilst also honouring diversity, integrity and difference.
More in-depth analysis on these themes to come!