This is the third in a series of posts interacting with James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. You can find the first post here and the second here. These posts are part of a larger discussion on Hunter’s work that is happening in the Global Missional Leadership cohort of George Fox University’s Doctor of Ministry program. You can join in the discussion at www.dmingml.com and by using the #dmingml tag in your tweets and facebook status updates. I should note that all citations of Hunter’s book will make reference to a Kindle location, not a page number, by using the format “loc. #”.
Now we’ve come to the third and final essay of Hunter’s book. Titled “Toward A New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence,” this essay represents Hunter’s best attempt to move beyond what is wrong and what can’t happen, to a set of solutions and engagements he believes, if implemented, will change the trajectory of Christianity in the late modern world.
He begins the essay with a reminder that “for all Christian believers, the call to faithfulness is a call to live in fellowship and integrity with the person and witness of Jesus Christ” (loc. 2673). This challenge is not new to our generation or our society, but it is tempered by our cultural realities. Consumerism and democratizaion have so permeated even the most mundane routines that it has led the average American to a life marked by contradictions. They are “committed and hopeful yet . . . also strongly distrustful of the major institutions and their leaders, dubious about the future of the nation, and often confused about their own nature and purpose of life” (loc. 2694). This presents a challenge to faithfulness. What does it mean to be a faithful Christian living in 21st century America?
Before answering that question, Hunter launches into a discourse on two related challenges, which compound and often cloud the way forward. The first of those is the challenge of difference. This challenge is rooted in pluralism, and the result is a fading away of any single dominant religious belief or perception of what is true. Instead there is a smorgasbord of belief and practice from which to choose, and pluralism resists weighing the value of those choices. The second challenge is one of dissolution. Words have lost their meanings or, rather, their meanings are continually subject to redefinition and reinterpretation with little or no attention paid to traditional or orthodox usages. Words can no longer be trusted to adequately portray the ideas, concepts, and truths to which they point. The net result of difference and dissolution is a freedom of will unattached to any higher power, “a culture of banality that is manifested as self-indulgence, acquisition for its own sake, and empty spectacle that makes so much of popular culture and consumer culture trivial” (loc. 2891).
The response to these challenges by the main Christian camps, notes Hunter, has been “defense against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from” them. The Christian Right has championed the “defense against” paradigm, viewing difference and dissolution as threats that must be actively opposed, typically by legislation and adjudication. The Christian Left has employed the “relevance to” paradigm, trying to point to that which makes Christianity distinctive in the culture, especially a focus on justice and mercy. The Neo-Anabaptists have embraced the “purity from” paradigm, seeing difference and dissolution as darkness and attempting to separate their community of light from the darkness, often through nonviolent protest and resistance to the State.
In Hunter’s estimation, all three of these responses are inadequate for pursuing faithfulness. He is quick to point out specific examples of people and organizations that have been, and are, pursuing faithfulness through their presence in the world, however, he asserts that these are the exception, not the rule. If we are to see more people and organizations living out faithfulness, what is needed “is a leadership that comprehends the nature of these challenges and offers a vision of formation adequate to the task of discipling the church and its members for such a time as ours” (loc. 3079).
The primary task, then, is the formation of disciples. This “requires intentionality and it entails the hard work of teaching, training, and cautioning believers with wisdom in the ways of Christ so that they are fit for any calling and service to him” (loc. 3094). The problem is not that this kind of formation doesn’t exist. It is that too often it fails to recognize that another kind of formation is also happening: Christians are being formed by a post-Christian culture marked by the difference and dissolution discussed above.
The key to Christian formation that supplants cultural formation is community which must “embody a vision of renewal and restoration that extends to all of life . . . a vision of order and harmony, fruitfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy, and well-being” (loc. 3100). In short, “the vision of this community . . . is the vision of shalom” (loc. 3106). Such a Christian community will heed the call to embody shalom, and the tensions that result, because they desire to pursue faithfulness to God in a world that is not as it ought to be. They understand that, at its core, this means they are to “live toward the well-being of others, not just to those within the community of faith, but to all” (loc. 3134).
At this point, Hunter offers one of the most helpful dialectics found in this book: the call of Christians to live in “affirmation and antithesis.” A life of faithfulness will always be strung between the tension of testifying that “culture and culture making have their own validity before God that is not nullified by the fall” (loc. 3160) – affirmation – and at the same time “recogni[zing] the totality of the fall, . . . [that] all human effort falls short of its intended potential, all aspirations exist under judgment, and all human achievement is measured by the standards of the coming kingdom” (loc. 3210) – antithesis.
The Christian community – specifically the church – is called to the work of the formation of individuals who can recognize, and live in, the tension of affirmation and antithesis. As one whose job it is to create environments of discipleship and formation for my church, I leapt out of my seat when I read,
Beyond the worship of God and the proclamation of his word, the central ministry of the church is one of formation; of making disciples. Making disciples, however, is not just one more program – it is not Sunday School, a Wednesday night prayer meeting, or a new book one must read. Formation is about learning to live the alternative reality of the kingdom of God within the present world order faithfully. Formation, then, is fundamentally about changing lives. It is the church’s task of teaching, admonishing, and encouraging believers of the course of their lives in order to present them “as complete in Christ,” “fit for any calling” (loc. 3241-45) emphasis added.
Now for the last turn that Hunter makes in the book. He unpacks a developing theology of faithful presence. Key in this is understanding how such a theology is to address the challenges of dissolution and difference. Hunter’s answer is rooted in the incarnation. God demonstrated his faithful presence when he pursued us to the point of physical incarnation, identified with us in our temptations and sufferings, and offered life to us through his sacrificial love. Those movements of pursuit, identification and the offer of life through sacrificial love are what the church’s faithful presence must reflect.
This, then, necessarily affects our relationships with each other, the tasks we undertake, and the spheres of influence within which we move. All of these must reflect God’s faithful presence and benefit the well-being of others. This leads believers “to yield their will to God and to nurture and cultivate the world where God has placed them . . . [because] a theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly” (locs. 3481 & 3483).
Hunter transitions, then, to a discussion on leadership. In sum, leaders are needed to guide the Christian community into faithful presence. Leadership is not as simple as the leader-follower dichotomy. Those who lead follow someone, and those who follow are often leading others. “[T]he burden of shalom falls to leaders. Thus, the obligations of shalom fall to all of us to the extent that we wield any influence at all” (loc. 3725).
At this point he makes clear that he is not advocating an individual will-to-power leadership mentality. He fairly well dispatched of that notion in Essay I. While leaders are crucial, faithful presence must be realized institutionally. Here he references back to his first and second essays where he asserts that institutions, not individuals, change culture through the collective power they wield. Leaders within those institutions (Hunter calls them “elites”) are the ones that direct the application of the institutional power. For Hunter, institutions and networks are the key not because they are above the effects of difference and dissolution, but because institutions actually possess the power and ability to change the world.
Finally, he offers a model of engagement that centers on Jeremiah 29:4-7. Here, it is best to let Hunter speak for himself:
A theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them and to actively seek it on behalf of others. . . . The enactments of shalom need to extend into the institutions of which all Christians are a part and, as they are able, into the formation of new institutions within every sphere of life. A premise of this view is a recognition that Christians share a world with others and that they must contribute to its overall flourishing. This imperative is captured by the image of of a “new city commons.” . . . commitment to the new city commons is a commitment of the community of faith to the highest ideals and practices of human flourishing in a pluralistic world. (loc. 3846-56)
This, of course, comes with considerable tension for the church. Not least of which is the language that is needed for this kind of engagement with culture. Herein lies one of Hunter’s greatest grievances. The language that has been used to describe Christian engagement with the world in which they live has been oriented around domination instead of presence, thereby setting up an adversarial stance instead of a faithful one. This is the nexus of the book’s sarcastic title, “To Change the World.” Hunter views a shift in language as essential:
[We must] 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. (loc. 3864-68)
So, it is not an issue of semantics, as some of his critics have suggested. For Hunter, it is of critical importance that we expunge these phrases from our vocabulary because they are ultimately unhelpful and too often result in misdirection. Instead, the language of faithful presence should center around “enacting shalom” and “seeking it on the behalf of all others” (loc. 3961).
Now, dear reader, I must ask for your forgiveness. This post has gone on too long. Yet I still have a bit more to say. Up to this point I have recapped (perhaps in too much detail to use the term “recap”) Hunter’s arguments in his final essay. Now, if you’ll indulge me bit longer, I’d like to add some of my own thoughts on the book in general and the idea of “faithful presence” in particular.
Broadly, I agree with Hunter’s prescription of “faithful presence.” The dominant modes of thinking and acting within the Christian community have yielded little in the way of cultural change over the past several decades. That must change. How that changes is as important as the change itself. However his attempts to envision what faithful presence looks, feels, and sounds like leaves much to be desired. As a result he comes perilously close to offering a new idealism to supersede the idealism he railed against earlier in the book. It is quite possible that readers will leave the book thinking that all they need to do is change their heart and mind to reflect Hunter’s ideals.
Hunter has received great criticism for the combative tone toward the “hearts and minds” paradigm of world change in his first essay. I think such criticism is justified, and there is little denying that his tone had the intended result. People have read the book (or at least skimmed it and read reviews by others). His assertion that the errant and counterproductive individual will-to-power hero myth for world change cuts to the quick for most Christian organizations. Their missions are built on the idea that God does use individual agency to implement change and God does care about hearts and minds.
This is the point at which Hunter is so often misread. He does not disagree that God cares about and uses individuals. Instead, he rejects the assumption that such use of individual agency for change is normative, and constitutes the most effective strategy for cultural change. Here, I agree wholeheartedly. American Christians have neglected to understand the importance of institutions and networks in preparing the circumstances in which God uses an individual.
Hunter’s challenge to Christians is one of faithful presence in creating and cultivating these networks. It is from within these networks and institutions that God will raise up individual actors to direct the flow of power and influence. I’ve said in other places that God does not call us all to be David, or Moses, or Paul, or Esther. If you reread any of these biblical hero accounts, you will quickly see that God was working to prepare circumstances and networks through which a single person would be utilized to great effect. Of course there are exceptions to this, but they remain exceptions.
As a brief example, read the story of Esther. Her greatness was not in her resolve to change the world. It was in her faithful obedience (in the face of great fear and uncertainty) to act in accordance to what she already knew to be right and true. She was the product of a network of faithful presence. Mordecai did not form an organization to gain access to the Queen so that he might win her heart and mind for the Jews. Her heart and mind were already won because of the influence of the collective faithful presence of her people, the Jews, by which she was raised.
We may not all be called to be an Esther, but we are all called to be a Mordecai. We are called to lives of faithful presence in our work, our relationships, and our spheres of influence. Instead of trying to convert the hearts and minds of individual influencers (or “elites,” to use Hunter’s term) we should be cultivating networks and institutions that shape those who will be influencers, so that when they find themselves in positions of great power, they will know what it means to act “in such a time as this.”