Christian Civility and Discerning the Spirit

It's not just about being polite.
January 7 th 2011
Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in a Uncivil Worldby Richard J. Mouw (InterVarsity Press, 2010). Also "Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy" by James K. A. Smith (Eerdmans, 2010).


We typically associate "civility" with "being polite." But is politeness all there is to civility? More importantly, does this constitute a Christian civility? How does a Christian civility differ from a general notion of civility? Like these other notions, is it only concerned with what we do or don't do? Or, in distinction from them, is it also concerned with how we see and our posture and orientation in the world? Might there be another layer to Christian civility to which we haven't been attentive? I think so.

In his recently revised and expanded edition of Uncommon Decency, Fuller Theological Seminary president and philosophy professor Richard Mouw presents (as he did in the first edition nearly twenty years ago) a notion of Christian civility, or "convicted civility," that attends to the questions mentioned above. Mouw argues that faithfulness to one's principles and beliefs and politeness to those who disagree with these principles and beliefs is fundamental to any Christian civility. Similar to what Phaedo remarks Socrates embodies in the Phaedo (89a), Christian civility involves disagreeing with dignity as well as dignifying those who disagree. This faithfulness and politeness (or respect) are, according to Mouw, fundamental to a Christian civility. Yet, they do not exhaust it. Christian civility is more than what we do; it is also about our view of reality (53). It is about our perception. Our way of seeing and understanding the world, according to Mouw, and how it is informed by God's revelation, constitutes the Christian nature of our civility.

While Mouw does not explicitly state it, it is assumed that this perception—that is, seeing things in light of God's revelation—is the mark of Christian civility. (I am reminded of Søren Kierkegaard's remark in Works of Love that the mark of a Christian is primarily how she understands things, not necessarily what she does—which, humorously, for Kierkegaard means she can read the poets!) Being polite is not a unique characteristic of Christianity. Anyone can be polite. Being polite because of God's command to be polite and one's understanding of others as "special creations" of God is a unique characteristic of Christianity. Consequently, as with appreciating art—in which knowledge of a work's era, artist, audience, or genre informs and deeply enriches one's response to it and appreciation of it—Mouw says a Christian civility is a civility deeply informed by God's revelation. How we see things matters.

But having this perception—that is, having a Christian understanding of things and seeing them as such—is not enough. As Mouw notes, in order for this understanding to inform our actions, we need to participate in practices that cultivate it. In short, we need a spirituality to enforce and enable it. We need the church. The church, with its liturgical practices and spiritual formation, teaches and forms us to be civil. By its own "civility" and incarnation of a particular perception and way of being in the world, the church cultivates this civility in us. Through its liturgy and sacramental practices, we learn how to treat others and are trained to treat others in this way. (I often think about how the Lord's Supper cultivates courtesy and hospitality. Next time you get in "line," pay attention to how the line forms.) The political life of this redemptive community informs our redemptive living in the politics of other communities.

We cannot be civil on our own. To be civil, we need both perception and spirituality, instruction by God and intimacy with God.

While Mouw is right in emphasizing what one might call the "anthropological impetus" for civility, as well as the spirituality needed to buttress it, I don't think that both of these characteristics comprehend what a uniquely Christian civility might look like. In particular, I don't think the revelation of others as "special creatures" of God exhausts the theological resources of revelation for Christian civility. There is another layer to Christian civility we need to attend to that can, I think, move us toward a thicker and deeper understanding of Christian civility.

This other layer is God's presence in creation, and in particular, his action within it. We need a Christian civility that is informed by a thorough sensitivity to the Spirit's presence and work in the mundane of creation, including our civil encounters. We need a Christian civility that is not only informed by revelation and spirituality, but discerns the Spirit in the civil. Here, I think James K. A. Smith can offer something to the conversation.

As he states in the preface in Thinking in Tongues, Smith (Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and author of many books) is primarily and exclusively concerned with articulating a distinctly Pentecostal philosophy and offering what he thinks this philosophy might have to offer to conventional philosophical discussions in the areas of epistemology, ontology, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of language.

What has "Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy" to do with the "Uncommon Decency" of Christian civility? On the surface, nothing.

Yet, Smith's objective in Thinking in Tongues has more to offer the discussion of Christian civility than one might think. He does not address civility directly, but he nevertheless addresses a concept that can inform the discussion. (That being said, while one shouldn't expect Smith to offer a criticism of or proposal for a Pentecostal vision of public life, given that he is primarily concerned with laying the foundations for a Pentecostal philosophy, I couldn't help thinking that this is certainly an area that needs to be further explored and developed. What might a Pentecostal vision of civility look like? How might it differ from other Christian traditions?)

In Thinking in Tongues, Smith attends to the concept of surprise. He argues that a central element of a Pentecostal worldview—and, more importantly, an "authentically Christian" worldview—is the element of surprise. The term "surprise," however, can be misleading. For the Pentecostal, Smith argues, a surprise is not really a surprise. It's not unexpected. When God shows up, it is expected. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost marks a distinctive presence of God in a dynamic and "surprising" way. There is an expectation of surprise. (To be fair, Smith's call for a more dynamic sense of the Spirit's presence in creation is not novel. Theologians for the past century, beginning most notably with Karl Barth, have reminded us of the Spirit's work not only in salvation, but also creation. What is novel, though, I think, is Smith's emphasis on the expectation of "surprise"—a hermeneutic of surprise.) The challenge Smith presents for us is that this expectation, this "eye" for the "surprise" of the Spirit in creation, is not just a characteristic of a Pentecostal worldview in particular, but a Christian one in general.

A Christian civility, then, in light of Smith's challenge, would take note of the Spirit's presence and work in all aspects and rhythms of creation, including civil encounters. It would be one attuned to the "surprise" of the Spirit's working and acting before our eyes. Not informed by regnant worldviews like naturalism or deism, a Christian civility informed by an "authentically Christian" worldview would acknowledge and discern God's active presence in creation.

Too many notions of Christian civility assume God is absent or only observing in the everyday events of public life. We need a more trinitarian and eschatological understanding of God's dynamic relationship to creation and how we relate to God and live within this creation. Smith challenges us, in a general sense, to take seriously the "logic of the Spirit," as Hans Urs von Balthasar so eloquently put it. Such a logic, such an understanding, encourages us to move about the world with fear and delight, being sensitive to the Spirit's presence and work in all things, including those we come into contact with in public spaces.

We need to allow this sensitivity to the Spirit's presence and work in the public sphere to shape our imagination and inform the situations in which we practice civility. We are, as Mouw rightly notes, before the divine gaze—the face of God (coram Deo). But, as Smith reminds us, we are also before the drama of God. Creation is inundated with what Abraham Kuyper called the "intensive grace" of the triune God's action. We are surrounded by the gracious activity of God. We need to be mindful of this at all times, especially when we are in public spaces. God cannot be monopolized. We need to treat others with civility not only because they are created in God's image, but also because they may be the very vessel through which God speaks to us and others. It should make a difference to understand that our interaction with others is not only before God, or in response to God, but a result of God and God's interacting in our interactions. We need to discern the Spirit's presence and work in our civil encounters, for such discernment is an important layer of a Christian notion of civility.

Topics: Religion
 

Kyle David Bennett is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Caldwell University in New Jersey. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with his wife, Andrea, and their two kids, Elliott and Miles. You can connect with Kyle here.

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