The next chapter of James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World is like the previous chapters — full of good and true information, but to what end? The same data does different things in differing eschatological paradigms. A postmill guy like me takes it as a prophetic given that the gospel has been transforming the world, and will continue to do so until the earth is as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the water covers the sea — and how it will manage all this in the details is not really my department. It will happen, and watching it all unfold should be really cool. But whether or not it is happening and is going to continue to happen is a question I don’t spend any time on at all. So when I look at history for evidences of how the gospel has had a transformative impact, I am looking for something that I already know is there. This might seem like special pleading, but no more so than a Christian biologist assuming that design exists in a newly discovered life form. God knows what He is doing, right? God promised a world made new, right?
But in other paradigms involving the future of history, the question is not so open and shut.
“But my question is not so much about the residual effects of a once robust and pervasive Christianity that continues to define the contours and character of American society but about the capacity of present-day Christianity to reproduce itself in ways that influence the larger world for good” (p. 79).
The question concerns where contemporary Christians are situated in our culture, and what sort of limit that situation places on their capacity (important word) to exert real cultural influence.
In a previous chapter, Hunter has indicated his view that cultures are changed from the top down, and from central institutions out. While this is clearly not the whole story (as Hunter also acknowledges), it remains an important part of the discussion. And near the end of this chapter, where Hunter shows how far away from the top evangelicals are, and how far out on the margins they are, he says that this is why nothing profound is going to change anytime soon.
“Against the prevailing view, the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don’t believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, to think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted” (p. 89, emphasis his).
In response to all this, I would want to make two basic points. The first has to do with his use of the word “capacity” in the first citation, and his use of the phrase “they have been absent” in the second. A lot rides on both of them — not only on the accuracy of the statements, but on the reasons that might be given for the accuracy.
First, capacity is a very different thing in a uniform situation and in a fluctuating situation. Just as the evolutionary framework doesn’t have intellectual room for catastrophes like a global flood, so also the gradual decline into cultural apostasy doesn’t have room for convulsive reformations or revivals. The unbelieving mind loves to think this way. Not only is the road to Hell paved with good intentions, but the whole thing is on a slight slope downwards, two degrees at the most, and no runaway truck ramps are needed — “since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation” (2 Pet. 3:4). Because the unbelieving mind is all about control, uniformitarianism is the most helpful way for the unbelieving mind to maintain the illusion of that control for itself. This pervasive assumption in the unbelieving world easily affects Christian scholars like Hunter, and it is assumed that “nothing is going to change at this rate,” which is quite true, but why do we assume that “this rate” is a constant, like the speed of light?
The biblical story shows us this pattern again and again. This is God training us to think about history. God delivers His people, God’s people rejoice, God’s people forget Him and worship idols, God chastizes them by bringing them into affliction, the people cry out to God, and God delivers His people. Repeat.
Now there is an important qualification that has to be made about this pattern. There is a linear aspect to history, and there is a cyclic aspect to it. The linear aspect is fundamental, and the cycles are subordinate to that line. The line, over all, is going up, which means that each repeated cycle represents a new advance — we are better off at the end of the tenth cycle than we were at the end of the third one. To put it in tangible terms, we were far better off at the conclusion of Whitefield’s awakenings than we were at the end of King Josiah’s reformation. Postmill thinking does not require us to believe that the kingdom improves every day in every way, or that the whole thing takes off like the space shuttle. It is more like five steps forward, three steps back, seven steps forward, six back, three steps forward, one step forward, and then two steps back.
What this means is that Christianity has latent “capacities” that have burst forth many times in church history, but which are not bursting forth most of the time in church history. When it happens, historians fall into the common scholarly sin of thinking that description is explanation, and the fact that they can show the antecedents to the Reformation now does not mean that they would have been able to predict the Reformation had they been given seats on the fifty-yard-line in 1516.
An American business executive captured the issue nicely when he said that “nothing was ever accomplished by a reasonable man.” The Spirit came upon Luther, and all of sudden a number of impossible things began to happen. God has always done it this way, and when He does it the next time, we will be as surprised as we always are. The capacity of the Christian faith to introduce major transformations with little advance warning resembles the capacity of volcanoes in Iceland to do the same thing.
My second point concerns the curious use of the phrase “they have been absent.” On the facts of the case, Hunter is quite right. Christians have been absent from the citadels of power. Why? Because the secularists are vigilant to guard their gates and police their corridors. If I have “been absent” from work, the reasons for this should be noted. It matters whether I am at home in bed pretending to be sick so that I can watch the big game, or if I am in a strange house helping my captors make the ransom video.
In a sense, this observation is true, but only in a tautological way — it is as though one GI says to another one on the beaches of Normandy, “You know, the only reason we are stuck behind this sand dune like this is because we haven’t captured Berlin yet.” Well, yeah.
America has been the scene of raucous culture wars from the beginning. Yale was founded because Harvard had gone bad, and Princeton was a refuge for evangelicals after Yale had gone bad. In these culture wars, both sides know about the war, and both sides are fighting it. The issue is not trying to convince Christians to simply gravitate to certrain influential spots. Those spots are defended, and defended by a canny and fierce enemy.
So is not as though Christians could just stroll into the important cultural centers, or walk in unimpeded provided they were willing to do the work. At a dinner we had with Robert George when he came out to speak for NSA’s commencement, Peter Leithart asked Dr. George how he managed, um, to get by at Princeton, being as outspokenly conservative as he was. He replied that it was with both guns blazing — and that he advises young academics to do the same thing. If you keep your head down, they will find you anyway, and then when “the hit” comes, all you have done is provide your adversaries with plausible deniability. Lots of people don’t get tenure, ya know?
Christians know all about the influential centers that Hunter talks about — and have known about them for a long time. I have been privileged to know a number of faithful Christians who have gotten graduate degrees from prestigious universties, and it really was a dicey proposition for them. Some keep their heads down, and manage to survive — but the price tag is one of personal compromise. When they get to a position of influence, they can’t use it because they discover that they misplaced their soul somewhere along the way. Or they fly the flag nobly, and are taken out. A mere handful survive without compromise because the machine gun fire is withering. Anybody who thinks that the secularists don’t guard their prize institutions ferociously is being naive. But I understand what they are doing — they have to guard them because a large number of Christians have them under siege.
Remember what happened to that poor editor sentry at the Smithsonian journal who let some ID guy publish a peer-reviewed paper? It was thunder, lightning, and blue ruin.