Christian sociologist James Davison Hunter has written one of the most important studies of what it means to be faithfully present in the modern, increasingly post-Christendom world that I have been describing over the last two weeks. His magisterial book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010, has helped many of us think about how to live faithfully in the modern context. Perhaps the most important question that Hunter asks, and answers, is: “How might Christians in the 21st century live in ways that have integrity with their traditions and are more truly transformative?” I have attempted to provide some response to this same question by writing about living in a time of cultural and spiritual captivity as “a colony of heaven,” or as “aliens.”
Hunter suggests that what is really needed is a different paradigm of Christian engagement with the world, one he calls “faithful presence”–an ideal of Christian practice that is not only individual but institutional. His model works out both in relationships and in our work. It is not an Anabaptist vision of life because it reaches into all spheres of social life. Hunter offers real-life examples, large and small, of what can be accomplished through “faithful presence.” I believe he is right when he says that such practices will ultimately prove to be more fruitful, exemplary, and transfiguring than the more overtly ambitious attempts that we have been trying for the last four decades.
Hunter’s book is filled with great quotable paragraphs but one that stands out, at least in terms of what I have been writing the past two weeks, refers to the whole idea of a post-Christian culture itself. He says:
It is often said that, although many vestiges remain, American culture has become post-Christian culture. This is certainly true, but a statement like this is almost trite, for it fundamentally understates the changes that have taken place in late modernity. It may be more accurate to say that we are witnesses to and participants in a cultural transformation that radically challenges and deconstructs, if not inverts, the ontological and moral substructure of inherited social institutions, inherited conventions of everyday social life, and the inherited frameworks of understanding and experience. How this transformation will turn out is anyone’s guess, but it is essential to come to terms with both the enormity and complexity of the change and to face its implications squarely, for it means that the context in which faithfulness is pursued today is quite different from anything seen before (Note: I cannot provide the exact page reference for my quotation here since I copied these words without the page reference and cannot find the page at this moment.)
Why We Should Let Go of Our Worldview
If there is anything that has become popular among both modern evangelical Protestants, and many very conservative Catholics, it is the idea we have come to call a “worldview.” While I have a guarded respect for this development, namely that people adopt ways of thinking and living that shape their view of the world around them and these views are variously Christian or non-Christian, I question the basic worldview enterprise at a profound level. Why?
The world views that I hear so many Christians discuss are almost all, with only a few minor exceptions, profoundly rooted in assertions that are deeply connected with both Constantianism and late modernity. If the world of Christendom was basically Christian, or fundamentally the result of the gospel of Christ, then we need not worry overmuch about the church. What is needed then is to help the church relate better to the world and culture around it so that the world and the church can again relate to one another more effectively. But if the world/culture is “basically Christian” then “conversion, detoxification, and transformation are not needed. All that is needed is a slight change of mind, an inner change of heart, a few new insights” (Resident Aliens, 29).
I believe we need much more than a change of mind, or a better worldview. We need more than new insights. I believe we need a profound “detoxification and transformation” or what the authors of Resident Aliens have called a new “conversion.” This can only come when we stop trying to change the world and start seeking God for the renewal of the church by a Christ-intoxicated vision of the kind of Christian community that is radically centered in the Lord Jesus Christ. We need what my dear friend David Bryant rightly calls a genuine “Christ awakening.” I do not believe that we will seek for such a transformation until we give up on saving Christendom culture. I also believe most pastors do not see this need and will not so long as we do church by the old ways of Christendom.