I think James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World delivers on explaining the irony and tragedy of Christianity in the late modern world. As I read, I kept hoping that it would also deliver the possibility as well. And I believe it does.
I agree with Hunter on his broad categories of what the Church’s response has been to the pluralism, post-Christianity and dissolution of culture in America. In fact, I see part of myself in each of the following reactive positions: defensive against; relevance to; and purity from.It would appear that I have practiced syncretism as I have struggled with the reality of Christianity in my specific, daily context.
My upbringing is one of evangelical conservativism and I have no doubt that a discussion of this book’s premise with my family, or most of my colleagues, would underpin what I already know – conservatives are scared and angry about what has been ‘taken’ from them by humanistic secularism. We must, therefore, win as many as possible to Christ and fight hard against the social and moral issues of our time. Hunter’s metaphor is poignant and sad: ‘one hand has been open and offering the good news of the gospel, while the other hand has been tightened into a fist ready to fight.’I would be lying if I did not admit I have a few toes in this camp.
While not announced publicly, my husband and I have a non-profit that has recently absorbed the Catalyst entity. My husband spent the last quarter of 2018 appointing a board of directors and is currently the chair. Imagine my surprise when Hunter uses Catalyst almost exclusively when explaining the ‘relevance to’ category. His reference to our obsession with celebrity Christians, rebranding ‘the church’ campaigns, and the vagueness of its mission stung a bit, but he is not wrong. Suffice it to say, we also have a few toes in this camp as well.
This is a more recent response I have considered, especially as I have moved toward ecumenical spiritual disciplines and have been drawn to what Christian mystics and monastics through the centuries have to offer to modernity. I have been frustrated that my fundamentalist background shielded me from the gifts of withdrawal from the world and the retreating to spiritual community. As I have studied the roots of monasticism in the Middle Ages I wonder about their antidotal relevance today. They do ‘sanctify time, as if to show that all time belongs to God and our use of time finds meaning only if we do our tasks, both religious and secular, to honor and serve God.’Yes, I have a toe or two in this camp, if even theoretically.
Lamenting and grappling with our loss of mainstream influence (defensive), adapting our ecclesiology to connect with culture (relevance), or establishing a separatist movement (purity) have value to offer moving forward. But what Hunter asserts is that none of them is adequate for the task at hand. We need a more holistic approach and Hunter offers hope of an alternative way forward. He dismantles all hope of ever recovering our ‘Christian nation’, but presents a theology of ‘faithful presence’ instead. Faithful presence – where we affirm what we have in common with the secular and resist what demises shalom and where we deeply love one another.
My personal research interest was piqued with the application in his third essay that included a holistic approach to work and the primacy of loving God. Hunter’s work will make an important contribution in my study because he values the goodness in work and indeed, spends a great deal of time defending it. But he also cautions against its idolatry.His thorough entreaty of holding what we do for God subservient to knowing and loving God himself is a real treasure to me – both in with my research topic and in my life.
I conclude with a longer quote from Hunter that resonates deeply with my experience and research direction. So how do we change the world?
The question is wrong because, for Christians, it makes the primary subservient to the secondary. By making a certain understanding of the good of society the objective, the source of the good—God himself and the intimacy he offers—becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective.
To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don’t get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do . . .
Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 214-9.
Hunter, To Change the World, 215-6.
Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. InterVarsity Press, 2013, 97.
Hunter, To Change the World, 247.