Cities of God
Christianity meets culture.
Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By TERRY EASTLAND
To Change the World
Photo Credit: Erich Lessing
The Irony, Tragedy,
A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought
These two books concern the same general and difficult topic, one as old as the early church: the relationship of Christianity to culture. To Change the World takes up how Christian believers, their “citizenship in heaven” (as the Apostle Paul put it), should relate in this life to the world around them. James Davison Hunter, a University of Virginia sociologist who came to national attention almost two decades ago with Culture Wars, offers a paradigm for Christian engagement that he calls “faithful presence.” Accordingly, believers, sharing with nonbelievers a world that is more and more religiously pluralistic, are to seek “its overall flourishing.”
Hunter presents his theology of faithful presence having spent much of his book arguing against forms of engagement that seek to transform culture in Christian terms, a quest that often ends up in politics. Because Hunter makes America (actually the America of the past 60 years) the focus of his inquiry, he treats individuals and organizations that will be familiar to an American audience, bluntly telling them “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’”—doubtless not an exhaustive list. Neither the Christian right nor the Christian left (Hunter’s terms) will be happy with his downbeat assessment of their prospects.
Hunter’s critique of what may be called transformationalism begins with a look at what its advocates in America have achieved. And he is not impressed. He finds their record “mixed,” and provides reason to think it might not improve. Culture changing, he writes, assumes that if you can change the hearts and minds of enough ordinary people, the culture itself will change. But this idea of cultural change is “almost wholly mistaken. . . . [C]ultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production.” But believers wanting to change the culture most often have been found working the “social periphery” and not the “cultural center” where those dense networks exist. Their influence has proved strongest where it counts least: “in tastes that run to the lower middle and middle brow rather than the high brow.”
Thus, writes Hunter, “for all the talk of world changing . . . the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.” And if it were close, “the results would likely be disastrous.” World changing entails the use of power, he says, and transformationalists, regardless of where they reside on our political spectrum, “cannot imagine power in any other way than toward what finally leads to political domination.” For them, changing the culture means electing a candidate, passing a law, and altering a policy. To be sure, this being a free country, they may pursue those activities; but too often their efforts seethe with “resentment, anger, and bitterness” for the wrongs they believe they have suffered. As a result, they “undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance.”
Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms is a careful explication of a theological tradition that is concerned with the same question To Change the World addresses: how believers should relate to this present world. David VanDrunen, a theologian at Westminster Seminary in California who is also a lawyer, reports among the answers to that question the one given by the remarkable Epistle to Diognetus, written in the late second century in the face of a culture hostile to Christianity. It did not presume that society should be Christian or even imagine that “as a goal to be achieved,” writes VanDrunen. Of course, that goal did become imaginable in the fourth century, thanks to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the empire’s embrace of his religion. As a result, when Augustine was writing his great work The City of God, he had before him the idea of a Christianized society as “a very real and plausible option.” And yet he rejected it. Augustine thus refused to commend to believers a conception of the Christian life that entailed pursuit of a theocratic state—or, in the modern vernacular, a culture transformed.