While traveling over the holidays, I read To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by J.D. Hunter. Hunter offers a fascinating overview of Christian interaction with culture in the West. From Hunter’s perspective, the irony is that Christians desire to shape, transform, and change culture but have miserably failed to do so. The tragedy is that the three primary Christian approaches to political theology (conservative, progressive, and neo-anabaptist) are not only incapable of achieving their intended goal but actually strive for the wrong goal. The possibility lies in what Hunter describes as an embodiment of faithful presence in our relationships, in our tasks, and in our vocations.
The book’s breadth is massive, surveying the American theological tradition and narrowing it into three camps. The construction of a single approach moving forward – “faithful presence” – is provocative. While the ambitious scope undoubtedly leads to some caricatured constructions, Hunter’s pointed critiques are incredibly insightful and challenging. There is so much to engage in this book – politically, ethically, theologically, and ecclesiologically. If you have not already, I highly recommend reading it.
As I finished the book yesterday, I wrote down these four quotations that are worth sharing:
Another way to describe the dilemma for religious faith is that pluralism creates social conditions in which God is no longer an inevitability. While it is possible to believe in God, one has to work much harder at it because the framework of belief is no longer present to sustain it. The presumption of God and of his active presence in the world cannot be easily sustained because the most important symbols of social, economic, political, and aesthetic life no longer point to him. God is simply less obvious than he once was, and for most no longer obvious at all – quite the opposite (203).
[The foundation of a theology of faithful presence] can be summarized in two essential lessons for our time. The first is that incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference. For the Christian, if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours, it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us and in doing so, a trust is forged between the word spoken and the reality to which it speaks; to the words we speak and the realities to which we, the church, point. In all, presence and place matter decisively. (241)
It is essential, in my view, to abandon altogether talk of “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” “building the kingdom,” “transforming the world,” “reclaiming the culture,” “reforming the culture,” and “changing the world.” Christians need to leave such language behind them because it carries too much weight. It implies conquest, take-over, or dominion, which in my view is precisely what God does not call us to pursue – at least not in any conventional, twentieth- or twenty-first-century way of understanding these terms. (280)
The ideal is to shift to a post-Constantinian engagement, which means a way of engaging the world that neither seeks domination nor defines identity and witness over against domination. For most, this will mean coming to terms with the past. Christians must recognize that though it clearly benefitted in many fundamental and extraordinary ways from people of faith and the good ideals of the Christian tradition, America was never, in any theologically serious way, a Christian nation, nor the West a Christian civilization. Neither will they ever become so in the future. The goal for Christians, then, is not and never has been to “take back the culture” or to “take over the culture” or to “win the culture ways” or to “save Western civilization.” Our is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture, and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever – spiritually speaking – exiles in a land of exile. Christians, as with the Israelite’s in Jeremiah’s account, must come to terms with this exile. (280)