Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stop Driving in Circles, Turn on a GPS

I am going to take another trip. Where am I going? And what will I do when I am there? The answer shapes the means of travel, cost, time etc. The destination is everything. We have to know the final destination, and we have to know how to get there. Yes, I am one of millions of men who will be forever grateful to whoever invented the GPS.

The evangelical church seems to be driving without a GPS. In fact, we seem to have left the map at the last rest stop. What is the end? What does it look like? How are we supposed to get there? Does anyone have any idea?

For the church, what we believe about the end times is determinative in setting priorities and putting into play the methods we use. Somewhere in the mid-1980’s evangelicals became so fried with useless bickering over the fine points of eschatology that they fell into what I would coin as an "a-eschatology" which in reality is a solid step toward anti-supernaturalism. But I don’t want to get into that here. Instead I want to think about the fact that the very phrase “to change the world” is inherently eschatological, and therefore we cannot think deeply on the topic without surfacing our own eschatological assumptions and without examining their impact on whatever ministry project we are engaged in.

Here is my take on the relevance of eschatology to James Davidson Hunter’s book: To Change the World.

Hunter speaks of the Christian Right as having taken a position toward the current culture as “defense against.” He does not deny that there is good reason for this as the current culture is extremely harmful on many fronts to faith and also to people. I wish to ask, apart from Hunter, does the eschatology of the Right influence this “defensive position?”

Through the early twentieth century two factors shaped the evangelical stance toward society. First, liberalism, which proclaimed social engagement as the way to bring in the kingdom, caused evangelicals – including A. B. Simpson and Alliance leaders, to react by abandoning social engagement. Second, the rise of dispensational eschatology provided a theological underpinning for a stance that can be described as social non-involvement. It worked out this way. Please be aware that I know that the following summaries are not nuanced and are overly brief.

Dispensationalism positioned itself this way: if Christians are going to be raptured, and if then immediately thereafter a terrible and earth devastating tribulation is going to erupt, and if, after that Christ is going to return and rule, then there is no need to be involved in the improvement of society, no need to seek to establish justice or work for peace, because all of those efforts are going to be swallowed up in the tribulation. Christ will establish justice and peace when he comes; hence the main work of the church is to evangelize so that as many people as possible are spared from the future tribulation. Thus evangelism became the one and only focus of the evangelical church.

No one should gainsay the impetus to evangelism which this view inspired. However, there were two factors which evangelicals were not thinking about when they disengaged from culture. First, culture is the air we breathe and just like air we are not always aware of it. Evangelicals were in a culture which, while not an evangelical culture, and not a Christian culture, was nonetheless tied to enough Christian reference points to create a certain illusion of being a Christian culture. Consequently, evangelical cultural disengagement from approximately 1900 through the 1970’s was done from within a certain cultural comfort zone, however illusory that comfort zone might have been. Thus, they disengaged, but their disengagement did not leave them with a sense of danger.

When Francis Schaeffer pulled the fire alarm with How Shall We Then Live? everything shifted. Evangelicals suddenly tuned into culture and saw serious and real threats to their lives and their children’s lives. For Schaeffer the flashpoint was abortion; for Dobson, the rise and legitimatization of pornography; and other issues were targeted by other evangelical elite leaders, all of which triggered the rise of what we now identify as the Christian Right.

At the same time, Hunter points out; one of the tactics of evangelicals was to attempt to shield themselves from the culture by setting up what Hunter calls a parallel culture. The mainstream culture has rock music; we can do that with Christian rock! And entertainment stars? We can do that too. You want publishing companies, and television shows, even comedians; we can do all of that. In this way, through the creation of a parallel evangelical culture, we maintained the defensive postion of dispensationalism. Withdrawal from the world, withdrawal from the surrounding culture while we wait for the cataclysmic end, continued as the order of the day.

While trying to stay safe in its parallel evangelical culture, evangelicalism also took a cultural offensive by becoming involved in the political right. I would suggest that this shift from political non-involvement to involvement was caused by a weakening of dispensationalism and an uncritical absorption of the program of alternate eschatological matrixes. This weakening happened in part because of the excess of dispensational writers in predicting the end of the world, and also in interpreting current events and predicting that various end time events such as the rise of the antichrist were going to happen within the immediate future. When these predicted events did not occur, some pastors and theologians found themselves ready to move on to a different eschatology. For many this void was filled by the resurgence of post/a millennialism.

Enter post/a millennialism. These old relatives who had been banished to live in the evangelical basement now began showing up for dinner dressed in newly pressed tuxedos. I put these two together because while there are differences as far as the interpretation and timing of the appearance of the Antichrist, the conversion of Israel, etc., there is a commonality in regards to the possibility of a worldwide presence of the Kingdom of God which does not arise as a result of the sudden and cataclysmic coming of Christ, but instead arises from the work of God’s people in fulfilling the creation mandate and by the evangelization of the world. This I believe is at least one of the sources of language which speaks of “building the kingdom” and it seems to underlie much of the current talk about being a “missional church.” Many emergent church writers reflect this view which is clearly articulated by N. T. Wright.

At the same time there is a dissonance in current talk about the Kingdom and the missional church. This dissonance is found in the obvious disjunction between the call to reject the Constantinian project of making a Christian society, and the desire to see the kingdom of God fill the earth. I would ask some simple questions. In relation to the environment: how do Christians hope to see the environment restored without the whole world culture becoming Christian in the sense of being a people who see the environment as a gift from God and understanding that we are charged with caring for it? Likewise, justice for women, the end of poverty, -- how are any of those issues to be finally, once and for all resolved without a worldwide Christian society? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. In essence the a/post millennial project is the Constantinian project.

If I may I would like to risk reducing all of this to a small sentence. The project of the post/a millennialist is to bring in the Kingdom rather than to bring back the King. This brings us to Hunter’s forceful points, that while this or that particular effort at change may be successful, in the final analysis this is a neo-Constantinian project with the ultimate goal of changing the culture of America/Canada/the world into a Christian culture, a project which in reality is failing and cannot succeed. And, I will add, this is something that A. B. Simpson and Karl Barth both clearly understood.

I believe the shock with which Hunter’s book is being received by evangelical leaders is because there is an underlying awareness that Christians are not accomplishing their “change the world” agenda. At the same time there is a cry, a shout, to try harder, sign this petition, write a letter -- and on and on. Some of that is needed, but it can be just a continuation of the power agenda. On the other hand, should we go back to cultural withdrawal and wait for it all to burn? Should we collapse into Christian quietism? Who wants that?

Surely there must be a way forward.