I have been on a long spiritual journey; I am sure that many of us have been. This week’s reading and our last reading gripped my soul in substantial ways. Something must be happening in me. But answers to spiritual longings do not usually come in fancy packaging. In fact, the content that touched my soul this week was John Davison Hunter’s simple, common sense thoughts. The author says, “The church will not flourish in itself nor serve well the common good if it isolates itself from the larger culture, fails to understand its nature and inner logic, and is incapable of working within it—critically affirming and strengthening its healthy qualities and humbly criticizing and subverting its most destructive tendencies.” I loved these concepts. I do not want to be isolated from the larger culture. I don’t believe that Christians are to be isolators but embracers of the world in which they live.
Every culture has its own myths to describe itself. Even Christian theological systems have their myth structures, and James Davison Hunter reminds his readers of several interesting myths in this week’s reading. His reading, for me, had many connections to other readings in the LGP from this semester: social theory, public theology, capitalism, evangelicalism, and other familiar themes. Frankly, this book at first was a tough read, but after several early mornings of pushing through, I finally came to a great appreciation of Hunter’s thesis. Hunter writes:
God, then, does not speak through empty abstractions or endless circumlocutions. Rather, in every instance, God’s word was enacted and enacted in a particular place and time in history. In all, presence and place mattered decisively. Nowhere is this more evident than in the incarnation [italics mine].
Word and world, then, came together not so much because words describe the world accurately or because words correspond to reality. Rather, word and world come together through the word’s enactments—both the fact that God’s word is always enacted but also the way his word is enacted.
This, in short, is a theology of faithful presence [italics mine]. It 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 humans 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.
Earlier in his book, Hunter compares and contrasts three Christian political, theological systems, as he confronts power and politics in American culture. He first describes the Christian Right and this movement’s myths. Secondly, he deals with myth structures of the Christian Left. Finally, he includes and thought-provoking chapter on the Neo-Anabaptists. He then describes these three political theologies as “defensive against” (the Christian Right), “relevance to” (the Christian Left), and “purity from” (the Neo-Anabaptists). On reading these chapters, I found myself constantly thinking that each of the systems was deficient in some way. I used to be an activist, both on the right and then on the left extremes. I had thought, at times, that these systems were the answer to changing the world. But then after some serious disillusionment, I found myself asking a lot of questions: Is it really through political activism that Christians will change culture? Society? The world? Who is actually correct – the far Left? The far Right? The militarists? The pacifists? Not finding answers, I threw in the towel altogether for a season. I was tired of being in the middle of “theological culture wars.” We are a polarized nation politically and spiritually. Candidly, it is a confusing mess–a wild ride, to say the least.
Hunter takes a shot at answering these concerns by offering an “alternative way.” I found assurance in Hunter’s model, particularly in his correct notion that, “God is at work; the Holy Spirit is still very much active.” In spite of a lot of tension in the church, which is not always a bad thing, the Holy Spirit is working in the world today. Hunter then focuses on the notion of discipleship becoming a primary work of the Church. This kind of one-on-one ministry presupposes that one is being actively guided by the Holy Spirit. Hunter then advocates for a completely new paradigm shift that he calls “Faithful Presence Within.” He also points out how this faithful presence is played out in the world.
According to the text, the first action is that Christians be fully present to each other. This refers both to those within and those outside the Christian community. It is not merely about the Christian sub-culture; it is also about the other. “To welcome the stranger—those outside the community of faith,” says Hunter, “is to welcome Christ.” Secondly, Christians are to be fully committed to “tasks,” in all they do, including their work, eating, drinking—everything. From a Biblical perspective, this is a clear expectation for followers of Christ. Finally, Christians are to be faithfully present in their spheres of social influence; these include families, communities, and institutions.
So, can Christians really make a difference in the world? Yes, but how we go about this task will determine the kind of influence we will have. We will either be influencers for good or influencers for evil. Hunter is arguing for a relational approach rather than a political one. Personally, I agree with this approach. This attitude gives me hope. This approach gives me a way that I can be the Christian I am in ways that rely on God and that I can do without shame and embarrassment in a world wanting to see authenticity, transparency, vulnerability, and love.
Political presence or faithful presence? Perhaps we need both. But I think I know what works best for me. How about for you?