Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Christianity and the World

This post is the last of three summarizing the essays of James Davison Hunter's book, To Change the World. The previous two can be found here and here.

Hunter's first two essays were, as he would say, largely negational in that they served to point out and explain the mistakes commonly makes when dealing with culture and with power. The third essay is arguably the most important as it is where Hunter summarizes the common paradigms the church holds and lays out the groundwork for an alternate paradigm for engaging with the world; to be "in" the world but not "of" it.

First, the goal: "for Christian believers, the call to faithfulness is a call to live in fellowship and integrity with the person and witness of Jesus Christ." This faithfulness is not a detached, monastic life of personal piety but is embedded in our cultural, political, economic, and personal context. Living out this challenge of faithfulness requires us to understand this context, the "character of our times". And in America, this task has never been more difficult. Though we are the most powerful and influential nation in the world, the culture that underlies all of our various institutions is fragmented, jumbled, and confused. Americans are "committed and hopeful" but also "strongly distrustful of the major institutions" and "confused about their own nature and purpose in this life."

Each of the "political theologies" described in the previous essay sums up the challenge to faithfulness in America differently. For conservatives it is the tide of secularity; for liberals it is inequality; for neo-Anabaptists it is the corruption of the church by the spirit of this world. These are all very real challenges; where they are mistaken is in how they present their chosen issue as the problem the church faces, over and above the others. Hunter believes "there is not one single challenge to Christianity that eclipses all the others in importance." He presents two challenges that, while not all-encompassing, require immediate and thought-out attention from the church. These are the challenges of difference and dissolution.

The challenge of difference is as old as the church: how do we as Christian approach and relate to the world at large that is at heart completely different from the coming Kingdom? In our pluralistic society that has no dominant culture save the mainstream mass of blandness in which everyone partakes but does not take pride, this question is more pressing than ever.

This pluralism or marked difference between the church and the world poses challenges for Christian faith. Our heterogenous culture removes the social supports for faith that once existed in the age of "Christendom". "Strong and coherent beliefs require strong institutions enveloping those who aspire to believe." More than ever before, our tendency is to drift away from authentic faith toward ambivalence and uncertainty. "While is it possible to believe in God, one has to work much harder at it because the framework of belief is no longer in place to sustain it." And, of course, difference also brings with it the challenge of syncretism, keeping one's faith true to God and free of compromise with other worldviews.

The other, more recent challenge is that of dissolution--the dismantling of the basic assumptions that connect us to reality. Our civilization is founded on the assumption of a strong link between words and the realities they represent. As I argued in a previous post, this assumption has problems of its own. Whatever the case, modern thinking is increasingly eroding this link away. At its mildest, this line of thinking rightly questions the strength of the association between words and the world, but in more extreme forms it questions our ability to really know anything outside our minds.

This brand of out-of-control skepticism is very dangerous. If the meanings of words become fluid and open to interpretation, we lose our ability to talk about any of the concepts or values on which our civilization is founded. "The forces of dissolution lead us to a place of absence, a place where we can never be confident of what is real, what is true, what is good; a place where we are left wondering if nothing in particular is real or true or good." The aforementioned pluralism has also contributed to the confusion; the gaps in correspondence between the words in different languages loosen the connection between word and reality.

Modern trends in communication and technology also contribute to the challenge of dissolution. It "shrinks" the world, making geography and spatial reality less important in how we experience life. Television and, even more so, the internet compartmentalize the world and put the parts together in incoherent ways. The profit-seeking nature of communications companies mean that entertainment becomes the primary way of representing just about everything, and advertisements get jumbled in with real content in increasingly sneaky ways. It's a testament to the spirit of our times that it's possible to feel closer to a celebrity you will never meet than to your next-door neighbor.

"An environment that is constituted by surface images and simulations and that is fragmented and flattened cannot help but undermine the reality to which Christian belief and faith point. The words we use simply fail to have the same kind of traction they once did." Some Christians recognize the cultural forces behind this decay of meaning  and resist them, but many more innocently go along with it.

Basically, Hunter argues that the world is in a period of change faster and more sweeping than any before it. The cultural field is ripe for the development of a nihilistic worldview, which he defines as "autonomous desire and unfettered will legitimated by the ideology and practice of choice". One of the best and most hard-hitting sentences of this essay is, "In America, nihilism of this kind tends to foster a culture of banality that is manifested as self-indulgence, acquisition for its own sake, and empty spectacle that makes so much of popular culture and consumer culture trivial".

To meet these challenges, the church needs more than sincere faith: it needs wisdom and a plan for engaging the modern world in light of these challenges. Here Hunter draws correspondences between the three "political theologies" described in the last essay and three more general paradigms for pursuing faithfulness in the world: "defensive against", "relevance to", and "purity from". Recognizing these paradigms has been one of the most helpful parts of the book for me.

"Defensive against" seeks to retain the distinctive character of Christian orthodoxy within the world at large even as Christianity continues to exert much less overt influenced on culture than it did, say, 100 years ago. One side of this goal is the development of "parallel institutions" mirroring the world's systems of music, education, media, and so on. The other is a mindset of conflict against the world and a desire to reclaim lost cultural ground via evangelism and direct opposition to perceived enemies of the Christian faith and worldview. They seek to re-enshrine God in the social order and, by doing so, heal a fallen culture. This paradigm is, of course, held by conservative Christians and fundamentalists.

"Relevance to" tries to keep Christianity connected to the pressing issues of the day, and adapt or "resymbolize" it to be a better fit with modern culture. (Hopefully while still retaining correct doctrine) Like "defensive against", this paradigm has tended to have a proprietarian relationship with American culture, feeling a spiritual pressure to pursue social and political change in the form of humanitarian reform and policy change. It is relatively unconcerned with the purity of its doctrine, which is seen as a "conversation". Its goal is to redeem Christianity in the public view, but its methods are generally vague and highly marketed to fit in with the culture at large.

"Purity from", like "defensive against", seeks to preserve the distinctiveness of the Christian faith, but differs in that it effectively views the world as a lost cause, fallen to sin and unredeemable until Christ returns. Its focus is instead on reforming and redeeming the church to restore its authentic Christian witness and "city on a hill" status. It views the church as essentially different from and separate from the world, an insular enclave to be zealously protected. In this, it hold to an even stronger "us-versus-them" mentality than "defensive against".

Hunter then moves on to how each of these paradigms addresses the challenges of dissolution and difference. To "defensive against", difference seen as a real or potential threat to doctrine to be guarded against. The term "Judeo-Christian" has come to represent the range of acceptable differences defended by conservative Christians. "Relevance to" tries to downplay or deny difference, or change the church's public face to minimize it, risking the loss of the distinctiveness of Christianity in the process. "Purity from" views difference as spiritual darkness, and for the church to separate itself as a community of light.

The challenge of dissolution is the task of reconciling the Word and the power it once had with the modern world. "Relevance to" is willing to renegotiate the meaning of the Word to remain applicable to the world. It is more concerned with what the church does than with what it believes. "Defensive against" fiercely defends the truth of the Bible against any attempts to undermine it, but at the same time has been quite willing to co-opt and exploit the technologies that have contributed to this undermining. The gospel and Christian life are put through the same blender of information that characterizes the mainstream media, which somewhat confuses its message. "Purity from" simply retreats from anything that damages the integrity of the gospel. They try to fight this confusion through incarnation, the "unity of belief and practice", but only within a liturgical or church context.

In summary, all three paradigms pursue various means to minimize the tension between their faith and the world. "Defensive against", in its attempts to reshape the world to better fit its faith, has manifested itself in "ways that are, on the one hand, aggressive and confrontational, and on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential." Being "relevant to" the world tends to come at the cost of losing the distinctiveness of authentic Christianity. And the pursuit of "purity from" the world, has led to the disengagement of parts of the church from large areas of life. The question remains: "How can one be authentically Christian in circumstances that, by their very nature, undermine the credibility and coherence of faith?"

After all this criticism, Hunter stops to affirm the good the church is still doing in the world. Where the Bible is taught, the love of Christ is shared, and the Spirit moves through people, God is very much at work and real good is done. What the church lacks is leadership that deeply understands these times and can offer a more adequate vision of faithfulness for them. Rather than directly addressing the aforementioned two challenges, these paradigms have focused on secondary problems (i.e. politics and shaping culture), blaming their failures on just "not being Christian enough".

Hunter then takes a moment to unpack the term "formation" as he uses it. He means more by it than simply sharing the gospel and observing spiritual disciplines. it is the task of holistically making disciples who are able to flourish and cultivate faithfulness in every area of life. The problem for many American Christians is not that their faith is weak or inadequate, but that they have been largely shaped and formed by a culture and a world that are increasingly incompatible with their faith.

A role of the church in this task of formation, then, is to provide an alternative culture to the world's. Formation that renews all of life requires a culture that reaches into every area of life. Creating this community is less natural than it used to be and requires a good deal of intentionality--I think of the Christian expression "doing life together" as an example of this. This vision of this culture/community is nothing less than God's plan of shalom. He presents an interpretation of the Bible, previously shared during Spring Break, based around shalom as God's original design for creation, the loss of shalom in the fall, and His restoration of it through Christ. And the church is part of this restoration!

The tension between the clashing natures of the church and the world, which the three paradigms all try to deal with in their own ways, is irresolvable, he argues, a fact we'll have to live with this side of heaven. Peter describes this tension in his first letter. In the one hand, we are "aliens and strangers in the world" (1 Peter 2:11) and a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation". (2:9) On the other, we are supposed to be subject to the institutions of this world (2:13-17). How do we do this? One of my favorite quotes in the book, by Miroslav Volf, goes: "Christian difference is...not an insertion of something new into the old from outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old." It's the challenge of being "in the world", but not "of the world".

Hunter recognizes that "culture and culture-making have their own validity before God that is not nullified by the fall". It is dangerous to merely see culture-making as merely a means to an end, evangelistic or otherwise. Our God-given responsibility to develop and steward creation, fallen though it may be, is still in effect. Our task of "world-making" also means seeking out and affirming expression of truth, nobility, justice, or beauty outside the church--putting the aphorism "all truth is God's truth" into action.

But at the same time, we should realize that while contributing to culture and creation is good in God's sight, it is not inherently salvific; we cannot build the Kingdom of God ourselves, but instead God Himself will establish it for eternity. Believing otherwise tends to lead to thinking in terms of trying to "take over" culture or win the "culture wars", the effects of which don't need to be restated. Here the neo-Anabaptist school of thought is correct in its critique of the Christian left and right's Constantinian attempts to shape culture after their own vision, but it goes too far in suggesting that culture-making has no spiritual significance at all. Any good brought about by this work is a result of caring about something more than creating good--simply honoring God and recognizing His role as the creator of all things.

At the same time, we must keep in mind that though the fall is not complete and hopeless, it does affect every area of life, and so all worldly institutions exist as "parodies" of God's true redemption. Cities, states, economic systems, education, and other systems are all pale shadows of how it is going to be, and by making them the ends toward which we strive, we commit idolatry. Our vision of God's true shalom shows these institutions for what they really are.

So even while affirming the good in the world, the church must recognize its corruption and distance itself from all that is fallen in its institutions, systems, and philosophies. But this resistance does not simply mean decrying all the evil you see and preaching hellfire down on it; "subversion is not nihilistic but creative and constructive." In other words, the church resists the evil in the world by constructing and presenting a better alternative.

Formation, then, also entails learning to live this alternate reality of faithfulness in the midst of a fallen world. We are not just saved by Christ from our sins, we are also saved for the purpose of partaking in God's original mission of shalom. This entails being able to discern everything in the world that does not fit into shalom and reflect in life this vision of peace. Hunter sums up the enactment of this vision in the church with a fourth paradigm: "faithful presence within".

"Faithful presence" is somewhat more difficult to grasp today because technology has been weakening the very idea of "presence". Formerly nearly all interactions were carried out via direct physical presence in a concrete place; the presence and the place were both important. Today cell phones, television, and the internet allow us to be present everywhere and yet nowhere, and radically alter (even devalue) the notion of place. "Consciousness, experience, identity, physical presence, and the landscape around us, in short, are disembodied through these technologies." This in addition to the weakening association between word and world in the challenge of dissolution.

The Bible offers a radical contrast to this. In the creation narrative, God spoke, and it was so. This is the ultimate in connecting Word and world. God's word have absolute authority and ring with absolute truth. Likewise Jesus taught the truth with authority on earth. In general, God's word as enacted in a particular time and place in history. The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate example of this: God actually becoming man and stepping into the space and time He created. From here we get to Hunter's central argument in this essay: incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of difference and dissolution. specifically, the incarnation of God's word of love in us, the church. Time to unpack what that entails.

For an example, we go into a summary God's faithful presence to us. Hunter makes four points here: God actively pursues us, He identifies with us, He offers us true life, and He makes this life possible by His self-sacrificial love. The goal of this faithful presence is to restore our relationship with Him. To God we are the "other", just as the world outside the church is "other" to us. and so, just as God has been faithfully present to us, we seek to be faithfully present to Him, pursuing Him not as a means to some higher goal but as the highest goal to which we aspire.

Likewise, faithful presence also means that we are fully present to each other, to people both inside and outside the church just as God loved us while we were still in our sins. We have to get over the temptation to view the "other" as danger or darkness. We also seek to be faithfully present to our tasks (more on that in my previous post) and within our spheres of influence, or within the scope of the power we've been given.

This all sounds well and good, but though Christians can agree on the need for unity in the church, the three common paradigms tend to split on the matters of work or social influence. "Relevance to" focuses largely on maintaining ethical behavior, which while good, is not terribly revolutionary or distinctive; there are plenty of highly ethical people who know nothing of Christ out there. "Defensive against" claims to want to keep God as the lord over all of life, but its approach to work unintentionally contributes to a hidden dualism. As I mention in my previous post on work, a common tendency of evangelicals is to view the "kingdom significance" of work as stemming from its role as a platform for evangelism--instrumentalizing work as a means to spiritual goals. "Purity from" has an even more distinctive view on work, regarding it almost as a necessary evil, a means to support oneself, one's family, and the church with no spiritual significance at all. Consequently, it fails to provide any help for Christians employed outside the church in how to be faithfully present in the majority of their waking lives.

He moves on to the matter of leadership, defined in part as "a set of practices surrounding the legitimate use of gifts, resources, position, and therefore influence (or relational power)". (You can see how much more thorough Hunter is than my cursory summary of him) We all operate in multiple spheres of influence in which we may be leaders or followers. It's hopelessly simplistic to simply divide people into the "leader" and "follower" camps, between those who have influence and those who don't.

Hunter's interpretation of the "go into all the world" command of the great commission of Matthew 28:16-20 is that the church is being sent not just to every nation but into every area of social life and structure. In one sense or another, we are all missionaries. And "every area of social life" does include the higher echelons; some Christians will be called into positions of power.

This introduces a new tension between the humble, servant leadership exemplified by Christ and the apostles and the elitistic, status-driven system of power in the world. In this system, "status" is measured more by quality then by quantity and is not very easily transferable between individuals, which is a big part of its prestige. People with status tend to be jealously protective of it and their social circles. This dynamic of exclusion is antithetical to the kind of community Christians are called to develop. So, then, to the extent that we exercise leadership, we must recognize and live with this tension of power, rejecting the systems of elitism and celebrity that tend to surround social status in America.

In light of this, Hunter says that a community of faithful presence must meet peoples' essential needs for faith, hope, and love--in other words, meaning, purpose, and affection or belonging. "The practice of faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness--not just for Christians but for everyone."

Obviously much of the character of the modern world is antithetical to these ideals and practices. In our "market society", the rationale and language of capitalism spill into every area of life, even faith ("church-shopping"). This pragmatisation of everything is fundamentally nihilistic (remember his definition of nihilism as "autonomous desire and unfettered will legitimated by the ideology and practice of choice"). In other words, everything becomes about what we want, what is best for us. Faithful presence is an assault on the spirit of this present age--not a negational, equally nihilistic one like fundamentalism has become but a "bursting out of new creation from within it".

Hunter gets even more practical next, describing some practical ways he sees for individuals in various fields to practice this theology of faithful presence. I won't go into all the examples he gives, but here are summaries of a few:

  • An automotive company that frames its business around the question, "what do we owe our customers and employees?" and helps pay for college education for its employees' children.
  • An art gallery in Washington, D.C. with art inspired by and presented to the people of Anacostia, an area of the city highly stigmatized by poverty and violence.
  • A Kansas city business that "mentors" people instead of managing them.
  • A tech entrepreneur who invests his profits in projects that "foster human flourishing and the common good".
  • A grocery store cashier who greeted her customers warmly and by name every day and ended her conversations with them by promising to pray for their families, to the point where people would endure huge waits to get into her line.
These are just examples; there is no single strategy for enacting faithful presence. This is a challenge to be undertaken both by individuals and institutions--remember that the ignorance of the role of institutions was one flaw that dooms so many attempts by Christians to "change the world". It is the very challenge of truly being the church in the modern world, and a "quietly radical" alternative to the three previous paradigms for engaging with the world.

We see a great example of faithful presence in the Bible, in the Babylonian exile as documented in Jeremiah. The Israelites, having been deported back to Babylon, we hoping and expecting that God would soon rescue them and restore them to their old status. But the prophet Jeremiah had different news. He told the Israelites to settle down, start families, and plant vineyards, because they would be in Babylon for quite a while. This did not mean that God had given up on Israel, but that their exile was the place where God as at work. They were even supposed to work for the good of their captors (29:7)! God called them to be not defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed into the culture in which He'd planted them, but faithfully present within it.

Hunter believes that this approach is illustrative of how we should engage with the world around us. Like the Israelites, we are to be committed to the welfare of the cities in which we reside, even if they are indifferent or hostile to us. Faithful presence is a recognition that we share a world with others and a decision to partake in its flourishing--not just leave it to burn.

He then sums up the tensions the church must not just accept, but cultivate. First, within itself: the desire to do good and its own mistaken tendencies in manifesting that good. A huge part of addressing this tension is abandoning the Constantinian approach the church has used for so long in dealing with the world, seen today in language like "redeeming the culture", "advancing" or "building" the kingdom, or simply "changing the world". He thinks it is time to leave such language behind, along with its ressentiment-driven political methods of engagement and "culture war" mentality. And within the church, schisms and differences between denominations must be held lightly. The church seems almost made for these schisms (have you ever heard of two denominations deciding to merge?), but where they exist these differences give us a chance to love and tolerate "the other" in our midst.

And, as discussed earlier, the church must cultivate the tension between itself and the world. This means pursuing the world in love even while acknowledging all its evils and fallenness, the same way God has pursued us. It means offering an alternative culture of plausibility in which faith can flourish. Rather than rejecting the idea of the church as an institution, it means embracing it as the only institution that can really offer an alternative culture than the popular one.

And finally, back to the title: "to change the world". A dangerous starting point, since it's based on "the dubious assumption that the world, and thus history, can be controlled and managed", which risks making the pursuit of a specific culture or course of history the end goal and expression of our faith and God a means to achieve it. All the good the church has done and continues to do in the world is a side effect of its true purpose of worshipping God and honoring Him in all we do. Christ's victory on the cross over the powers and institutions broke the "necessity" of history and society and proved that with God, truly anything is possible. "It is this reality that frees all Christians to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in their relationships, in their tasks, in their spheres of influence, and in their cities."

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