Embracing the Paradox
Embracing the Paradox

Embracing the Paradox

Charles Colson, Andy Crouch, and James Davison Hunter debate our calling to live faithfully. None is entirely right nor entirely wrong. But all three are contributing nuance to the crucial question of how Christians must serve in the public square.

June 25 th 2010
So we are confronted with a paradox. Culture—making something of the world, moving the horizons of possibility and impossibility—is what human beings do and are meant to do. Transformed culture is at the heart of God's mission in the world, and it is the call of God's redeemed people. But changing the world is the one thing we cannot do. As it turns out, fully embracing this paradoxical reality is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian culture maker.
—Andy Crouch, Culture Making (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

James Davison Hunter has a way of ruffling feathers, not only outside, but also within the Christian community.

His recently published book, To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010) critiques much of what passes for Christian public engagement—from the right, left, and Anabaptist perspectives—as sincerely misguided and "participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist." This has sparked a debate on the pages of Christianity Today.

Charles Colson, Andy Crouch, and Hunter—all of whom in the last decade have written influential books regarding the Christian's cultural calling—have emerged as the leading figures in this debate. Given that this coincided with Cardus's emergence as a think-tank over the last decade, each of these books has influenced our own thinking regarding basic cultural questions. Cardus's mission to renew social architecture emerged out of the conviction that faith was not being appropriately represented or understood in the public square, that institutions matter (and by that, we did not just mean government, the family, and the church), and that the solutions to our problems were long-term and cultural, rather than short-term political fixes. As we tried to sort through what this meant in practice, we were helped by these authors as they were published.

Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey in How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale Publishers, 2000) argued that Christians needed to understand and live their faith as a comprehensive worldview, not simply as a private salvation solution that provides primarily post-death benefits. They developed the implications of this worldview for the various dimensions of life, including how we do politics, academics, church, and entertainment. The biblical truths regarding creation, fall, redemption, and restoration provide an accurate diagnosis and prescription for life and when believers live out of that reality, they contribute to creating a new world of peace, love, and forgiveness.

Andy Crouch argued in Culture Making that changing culture requires more than worldview. He focuses on the embodiment of worldview, arguing that the artifacts of culture—the "stuff" we use and produce—are at the heart of determining how we understand and change the world. While acknowledging that Christians need to at times engage in the gestures of condemn and critiquing secular culture, Crouch calls for a posture of cultivating and creating cultural artifacts as more effective and faithful means of social engagement.

Hunter explicitly challenges the approaches of Colson and Crouch. The predominant evangelism, politics, and social reform strategies practiced by Christians today are "fundamentally flawed" and do not live up to their "world-changing" promise. Instead, Hunter argues, we need to work from a more complex culture paradigm. It is not the truth of an idea which makes it influential in a culture-changing way, but rather "the way (ideas) are embedded in very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols." Christian witness in our time has been compromised because we mistakenly have thought that changed individuals will change culture, when in fact it is "cultures that ultimately shape the hearts and minds and, thus, direct the lives of individuals." That being said, Christians have mistakenly made culture-change an end when at best, it should be a secondary consequence of our faithful presence in the culture in which we find ourselves.

The differences between these perspectives are real and should not be minimized. Neither should they be exaggerated. The ongoing debate illustrates how each approach logically led to quite different emphases and priorities. Hunter's argument for "faithful presence," taking a time-out from coercive political engagement, is critiqued as leading to an inevitable passivity, a remaining silent in the face of injustice and suffering. Hunter, on the other hand, critiques both Crouch and Colson for not paying adequate attention to the cultural infrastructure, exaggerating the import of cultural products—be they political decisions or artifacts—and developing strategies that are based on individualism and not heeding the primary institutional dimensions of cultural movement. The retort usually involves critical references to elitism and not accounting for the providence and power of God also in blessing the day of small things.

The debate is insightful, as it puts the spotlight on different dimensions of the complex process that is cultural engagement which taking any of these works on their own might overlook. However, even after the 1200 combined pages and ongoing discussion, the entire terrain still has not been mapped. With a few exceptions, the debate has focused on the theological, political, and aesthetic spheres without adequate accounting for the economic. Institutions are often presented as normative givens, even though the structures are changing as the debate is taking place; sorting out what is normative and what can be thrown away is a day-to-day challenge to which not enough attention is given. And while the concepts of power, authority, and responsibility are regularly tossed around, developing a more common understanding of their roots would be helpful.

Such limitations are inevitable and each admit, as must we all as we deal with the "now but not yet" nature of God's kingdom, that there is a tension that accompanies any proposed paradigm. The challenge of leading while serving, of affirming the good of creation while condemning the brokenness of the fall, of realizing that this line between good and evil does not run between me and others but right through the middle of my own heart—these are tensions that accompany our temporal existence.

I doubt any of these authors would disagree with Hunter when he concludes that changing the world is not a primary objective of Christianity but rather secondary "to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do." Obedience, not outcomes, ought to be impetus for our activities. A robust doctrine of creation and providence make clear that our daily and social activities are not simply things we do as we "put in time" waiting for the eschaton, but an essential part of our obedience.

Such basic biblical truths are not in dispute. Still, a very different analysis of our present predicament implies quite different prescriptions. Hunter calls us to "faithful presence," Crouch speaks of "postures of cultivating and creating," while Colson describes "embracing, understanding, contending for, and living" out of truth. None are mutually exclusive, but neither are they the same. Reflecting on a coherent amalgam can be a humbling experience.

Secularists who dismiss any talk involving religion and public life as "theocratic imposition" rarely notice the diversity that exists within the Christian community regarding these questions. Perhaps the reason they see Christian public involvement as such a threat is because they evaluate all such activities within the very human desires of taking over, of fighting and of winning. And perhaps the reason secularists think so is because as often as not, Christians have engaged in the public square in a triumphalist manner, more interested in leading than serving. Acknowledging and lamenting misrepresentations of the gospel is a useful and honest exercise.

But that is not a reason to pack up and go home. Even while we admit the imperfections of how Christians live their public square lives, we can also point to the good works and applied biblical truths that provide a preserving social salt as Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. We ought not to hide the gospel and its life-affirming, social flourishing impacts under a bushel. God's word has social wisdom to offer and we should share that good news. To not proclaim this is to proclaim a truncated gospel and disobey the injunction to always be ready to give reason of the hope that is in us.

Are we called to change the world? Yes—just as we are called to be holy. We can no more change the world than we can change ourselves. But our inability to change ourselves is not an excuse of unholy living. Neither is our inability to change the world a reason to hide in our privatized bushels. It is precisely because our involvement is faith-inspired that a very different calculus is invoked to measure the results of our activity. When the benchmarks for our success are linking our activities with world-changing consequences, we are almost always on the wrong path.

Colson, Crouch, and Hunter provide insights regarding how to apply our calling to live faithfully. None is entirely right neither any entirely wrong. In a cultural context in which Christians are being challenged to conform to a "no-truth" paradigm, living culturally-engaged lives which by our daily postures and practices proclaim that we bow the knee to God's truth is, in itself, a form of witness. Wisely choosing the tactics and approach requires a discerning wisdom and humble graciousness, ready to listen and learn from others. There are no formulaic answers. The existence of paradoxes of kingdom life in a fallen world is in itself a daily reminder of our own finitude and the limitations of our influence in the context of God's eternal plans, even for those who have achieved elite status in the central institutions of power.

We need not answer, but embrace the paradox. The result will be a posture of humble confession, prayerful dependence, and thankful living. It will also continue to seek to understand the world in which we live, recognizing that wise and stewardly strategies are more God-honouring than foolish and self-serving ones. But at the end of the day, it isn't about changing the world, for the Christian knows that work already has been done.

Ray Pennings
Ray Pennings

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?