Friday, October 08, 2010

The Thesis: Our Key Assumptions on How to Change the World are Wrong

As a sociologist James Davidson Hunter begins To Change the World with an analysis of the social theory that has guided Christians (it needs to be kept in mind throughout that while Evangelicals are highly profiled, Hunter is including both Mainline Protestant Churches and Roman Catholics in his critique) through the past one hundred years or so. To do this he first gives a synopsis of the project of “world making” by which he means the creation mandate given to Adam and Eve to cultivate and keep the garden and subdue the earth, which he interprets to be the whole human enterprise of creating culture. Theologians have traditionally spoken of this as the creation mandate and there is general agreement that sin did not lift this mandate and therefore culture is an outcome of our mandate to “make the world.”

Currently Christians are not happy with the culture that has been created, especially Christians in North America, and Hunter agrees with their analysis that the Christian culture of yesterday has been severely eroded. Because he is writing for the American church, I will humbly undertake to comment on how I see the relevance of his analysis to Canada. I will venture to say that Christians in Canada also are not happy with the culture in which they live, and that they desire to change it.

Later we will notice that this is precisely what Hunter advises us not to do, that is, we need to stop desiring to change the world. But first, how do we think we can change the world and how has that shaped our action?

Essentially Christians have accepted the very popular understanding of culture that has been widely adopted by politicians and by educators. Hunter says:

"The substance of this view can be summarized something like this: The essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals—in what are typically called “values.” Values are, simply, moral preferences; inclinations toward or conscious attachment to what is good and right and true. Culture is manifested in the ways these values guide actual decisions we individuals make about how to live.He says: . . . . By this view, a culture is made up of the accumulation of values held by the majority of people and the choices made on the basis of those values.” P. 6

Thus, in this view, the culture changes when individuals change their values. Change the values, change the culture. In the past one hundred years Christians have approached this project of changing the values of individuals in three ways, choosing one method exclusively, or working a combination.

First Christians have approached the project through Evangelism. The impact on values that is made when a person is truly transformed by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and discipled can be profound. Thus, through evangelism Christians have sought to change the culture by seeing one person at a time become a Christian, one person at a time re-orienting their personal values to the values of Scripture. In so doing they have hoped that somewhere they would reach critical mass, that is, if enough people in Canada would be truly converted, become true and devoted followers of Jesus Christ, then the culture of Canada would shift back to a Christian culture. The success of the past sixty years of evangelism (post World War II with the rise of Youth for Christ and Billy Graham through the campus ministries and the Jesus People movement until today) is obvious. Around the turn of the century I recall reading an article in the New York Times that spoke of the Christian resurgence as being a third Great Awakening. However pollster George Barna gave Christians of all denominations a rude awakening when he noted in several books that Christians display values that mirror those of the surrounding culture. So "change individuals -- change culture" is not working.

The whole project of evangelism has come under withering attack in recent years by certain voices in the evangelical left (Brian McLaren to mention one) and the Anabaptists. In the name of the Creation Mandate they call for us to notch evangelism down on the priority list and to ratchet up the renewal of cultural forms. That is, if evangelism is the pathway to changing the culture of North America, it has failed, so these voices say, so let’s try something else.

The call to substitute, or downplay, evangelism for the Creation Mandate is worthy of a lengthy critique. But here, a few words. First we should remember that C. S. Lewis stood against this morphing of evangelism into renewal of culture when he pointed out that cultural forms do not exist but that individual people exist, that is, individual people have ontological status. So, “the laboring class” or what have you cannot be saved and will not live in eternity, but individual laboring people can be saved and live in eternity. Later Hunter argues that when Jesus told us to “obey” all that he had said that this would include the Creation Mandate. I am a fan of the Creation Mandate, and certainly it is part of the Christian’s obedience. But, evangelism, that is the evangelism of individual people who can be immersed into the waters of baptism, is the heart of the Great Commission.

Hunter does not call us to abandon evangelism – he is totally in favor of evangelism. What Hunter says is that by itself bringing people to Christ will not change the culture. The focus on the conversion of people which we find in the book of Acts is absolutely critical, but I personally have learned the hard way how resistant the overall culture is to change and agree that evangelism by itself will not bring such change about.

Second, Political Action. After evangelism, political action is the strategy of choice to change the world for Christians.

The logic is simple. Values are shaped by law, and law is shaped by the values of law-makers, i.e., legislators, judges and heads of state. So, when Christians sit in those positions with Christian values they will make good laws which in turn will create a Christian culture.

While Hunter affirms politics as a legitimate sphere of human activity and one in which Christians are properly to be involved he sees the current situation where “politics is the tactic of choice for many Christians as they think about changing the world” (p.12) However, he says, politics by itself does not shape culture. I would point out that politics, as part of the on-going stream of human activity, does play a role in shaping culture, and for this reason the hard work of political leaders should not be minimized as being either unimportant or ineffective. However, while I agree with Hunter that politics by itself does not shape culture, in Canadian culture politics is the focal point for power, perhaps even more so that in the United States because the Canadian people look to government to solve many of life’s problems.

A second issue in regards to the Christian involvement in politics is the question of Christians and power. Politics and power walk hand in hand, so many Christians (again—not only evangelicals) in America have faced the question: “does the cultural mandate call for us to brazenly seek power-- to have a “will to power?” and many have answered “yes.” The ironic implications of that decision are playing out before our eyes.

Third, Social Reform.
In every society there are various institutions which mediate between “citizens and the state and market.” (p.14) These are voluntary institutions and they have been used to bring about moral reform by “addressing particular problems with the family, schools, neighborhoods and civic associations.“ Illustrations of these voluntary social movements include, among others, “the fatherhood movement, the marriage movement, the character movement, the teen-abstinence movement.” (p.14) Hunter points out that these movements have contributed to culture but again have not created the desired cultural change sought by Christians.

Thus these three activities: evangelism, politics and social reform are the three projects of choice for Christians to change the culture to a Christian culture, to change the world if you please, by changing the values of individuals one person at a time with a goal of reaching a critical mass at which point the whole culture will shift. Hunter says:

"At the end of the day, the message is clear…. If you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world. This account is almost wholly mistaken.” (p. 17)(emphasis mine)


Jim McGarvey said...

For the Christian, evangelism, political action and social reform operate in a spiritual context. A regenerated heart should give both momentum (motivation) and direction to political action and social reform. Historian Keith J. Hardman in his book, The Spiritual Awakeners, writes of the three Great Awakenings noting how these awakenings "energized the churches and poured countless new converts into them…In each of these three periods the church has poured its zeal for righteousness into the bloodstream of the nation…Renewed and empowered Christianity has been the single most important moral factor in making America great." Hardman goes on to cite various areas that were affected by these energized Christians. "Regarding the impulse toward democracy, the history of American revivals shows that they have promoted equality and democratic ideals…Regarding the humanitarian impulse, antislavery, prison reform, women's rights, temperance, concern for the poor and downtrodden, and philanthropy of a hundred different kinds has flowed in abundance from the awakenings." Charles Finney, one of the great revivalists of the nineteenth century believed that evangelism and Christian activism went hand in hand. Hardman writes, "Since the late 1820's, Finney had been moving in the direction of including reform in his program for awakening, and his evangelism meant that converts would immediately be put to urgent work in the battle against sin. 'Every member must work or quit. No honorary members,' was a motto of his." Hardman discusses the results."During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, evangelical Christians organized thousands of societies toward what they were convinced would become an empire of benevolence that would begin alleviating every vice and problem...Finney entered zealously into the leadership of the movement, sharing it with reformers like Weld, Tappan, and many others. Almost no phase of life in America was untouched. Temperance, vice, world peace, slavery, education, Sabbath observance, profanity, women's rights, the conditions in penal institutions – all those and more had specific societies devoted to their betterment." My hope is that history repeats itself. I believe a spiritual awakening is the prerequisite to both political action and social reform governed by a Biblical worldview.

Royal said...

Any number of historians have noted that the awakening sparked by evangelicals like Wesley and Whitefield let to reforming movements that in turn had a significant impact upon culture. Indeed the lengthy, but ultimately successful crusade of Wilberforce against the slave trade in the British Empire can be directly traced to the evangelical movement sparked by Wesley and Whitefield. So it's puzzling to me how Hunter can be so definite that significant and dramatic change cannot be brought about by Christians who have a strong impulse to be involved in the Creation mandate.

Royal said...

Any number of historians have noted that the awakening sparked by evangelicals like Wesley and Whitefield led to reforming movements that in turn had a significant impact upon culture. Indeed the lengthy, but ultimately successful crusade of Wilberforce against the slave trade in the British Empire can be directly traced to the evangelical movement sparked by Wesley and others. So it's puzzling to me how Hunter can be so definite that significant and dramatic change cannot be brought about by Christians who have a strong impulse to be involved in the Creation mandate.

Larry said...

As significant as the awakenings in the past have been, they happened if a different context. Part of Davison's premise is based on the seismic global, technological and political shifts in the past 50 years. Even Wilberforce's attempts to change the slave trade laws took over 30 years. This idea that we can go back to a previous "state of affairs" is just not realistic.