The Church and the Common Good
Can we equate the church's eternal mission with temporary politics?
The Sundaies of mans life,
Thredded together on times string,
Make bracelets to adorn the wife
Of the eternall glorious King.
On Sunday heavens gate stands ope;
Blessings are plentifull and rife,
More plentifull then hope.
—George Herbert, “Sunday”
And what is worst of all is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial.
—T.S. Eliot, “The Idea of a Christian Society”
Start by granting the alarmists the truth of their worries, every single one. Grant it all. Christianity in North America is in, if not mortal, then irreversible decline. Stipulate that we are living in a kind of cultural interregnum, and the die is cast against the church. The deluge is at hand; repent and believe the bad news.
What to do? Not in two centuries, not in two generations. What to do now?
Two options present themselves. Roughly speaking, these can be pictured as either retreat or advance, withdrawal or engagement. One says, Do not be unequally yoked; come out of fallen Babylon; uncouple your fate from Leviathan. Shore up your heritage, full of riches; hunker down for the long defeat, accepting the best terms of surrender available under the circumstances. The other option says, Double down on your commitments; unlearn the privileges of power; reengage on equal footing with those who were always your neighbours, never your subjects. For fear is never a proper basis for Christian action: the church’s mission is witness, and witness means martyr.
These options have been assigned to saints: Benedict and Augustine, respectively. (Or Noah and Daniel, if we want to stick with the Bible.) All things considered, the latter is preferable, though at least on a certain interpretation, the distance between the two is slim—close to nil, in fact. One thing the former gets right, however, is a principle of ecclesiology that neither should forget, one that will inform any successful response on the church’s part to the challenges of modernity. I mean what the church is for, its telos. Because when the church is made an instrument of ends other than its own, however good in themselves, the result is distortion: of the church’s faith, of its life, of its mission. The paradox being that when the church is least focused externally, in the sense of the immediate consequences of this or that public action, it most benefits the societies in which it sojourns. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “the Christians [of the past] who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
In a world of failing institutions and falling rates of religious commitment, it seems natural to delineate the church’s many benefits, either as an apology to the church-critical or as an invitation to the church-curious. The church is good for the world: good for those who join it, and good for those who do not. The church is a blessing to those in its orbit, one among many sources of the flourishing of all.
And what benefits there are! Studies have found that the more committed a churchgoer you are, the happier you are likely to be; and not only happier, but more generous with time and money, more involved in your community, more sensitive morally, and so on. “Why I do/you should go to church” is a popular genre not only because the question is one our society is increasingly asking itself but because there is a surfeit of material from which to supply answers.
But these exercises in extolling the instrumental benefits of church membership are both misleading and counterproductive. They are the diminishing returns of playing by the rules of public reason, where utilitarianism reigns. They are scraps from that emaciated king’s paltry table, and they lead to an equally emaciated church. Join the church because sociology can predict the increased likelihood of prolonged marriage and a higher tax bracket. Come worship with us because you’ll realize we add a value-proposition to the things in your life you already care about.
The temptation is to make the church’s mission a function of whatever society values at the moment. (The church, with apologies to St. Anselm, as that civic organization than which none greater can be conceived.) What the church essentially is and is for is lost; and with it, the possibility of divine rather than merely human blessing.
From here we branch off in the direction of either church or politics. Since this is a matter of priorities, let’s start with the church.
In a secular age it may seem necessary to translate the church’s native God-talk into more legible language. And there are good reasons to do so, given a certain audience, genre, or goal. Alan Jacobs’s recommendation that Christians learn how to “code-switch” in public is a salutary one; communicating in a way your neighbours understand is a very simple way to love them.
The risk, though, beyond forgetting our native language even among ourselves, is communicating the opposite of what we intend: that the church is a natural community, a voluntary organization like any other, whose “member benefits” are of a piece with those of similar groups. With the ubiquitous caveat: like others, only better—deeper, richer, more lasting, more fulfilling; “with a difference,” as Stanley Hauerwas puts it. Community, family, belonging, devotion, mutual care, neighbour love, social justice, spiritual practice, contemplation, psychic relief: the desire for such goods is common to all, including the nones. The truth is that the Christian church is not distinguished by its possession or mastery of such things. Sometimes it seems never to have heard of them. Many communities offer them, religious and non-religious. Competing for consumers in a marketplace of personal fulfillment is a fool’s errand. It corrupts the church’s mission at the source.
What distinguishes the church from other communities? What makes it qualitatively distinct, more than merely natural? God.
What distinguishes the church from other communities? What makes it qualitatively distinct, more than merely natural? God. God, the one God of Christian confession, the living God who raised Israel’s Messiah from the dead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Triune Lord proclaimed by the good news about Jesus: this is what makes the church the church, which is to say makes the church God’s people, which is to say a community unlike any other in the world. All answers to the query why one goes or ought to go to church should be glosses on the name of God.
Some churches are better positioned to manifest this distinction than others. For the proof is in the pudding, and a church’s worship ought to display its eccentric character as a matter of course: that this assembly is about some reality other than itself, its words and deeds directed externally, not inwardly. Christian communities that lack the sacraments or continuity with the church’s long tradition—or, regrettably, both—are disadvantaged here. Their minimum of resources, often a principled minimalism, may rise to the occasion; the sparse austerity of the liturgy may testify to a sort of doxological ascesis. The sobriety of worship leaves no doubt: “Say what you will about ‘the Calvinist God,’” Marilynne Robinson writes, “he is not an imaginary friend.” Iconoclasm at its core is a liturgical program; it wants nothing less than to purge the mind’s factory of idols.
Too often, though, lack of tradition or sacramental liturgy leads to DIY worship. Uprooted because unrooted, such worship follows the whims of popular culture, always one step behind; while the Spirit blows where it wills out of freedom, the winds of culture blow out of bondage: to the new, the different, the superficially pleasing. So it happens that worship of the fearsome and holy God of Israel becomes entertainment, made to order. Shop for your preferred style, stay a while. We’ll make you feel right at home.
Richly sacramental worship, on the other hand, though by no means a failsafe antidote to these pressures, succeeds in its principal aim: to make God the centre, the object, and indeed the agent of worship. Because the liturgy, if it remains exclusively the work of the people, is a failure. It is and thus must become the instrument of the Holy Spirit, who is the condition of the possibility of true worship. The sacraments are not merely symbolic (the low Protestant error); they are effective, making present what they are signs of. The finger of the Baptist in Grünewald’s altarpiece becomes the finger of the Lord, writing the law of Christ on the hearts of the faithful. God is other but not elsewhere, transcendent but also present, in the people, in the word, in the elements of the sacred meal.
If the only adequate reason to go to church is a gloss on God’s name, the sacraments are the church’s own corporate, embodied glosses. They are how we speak God, make God communicable, not only to the ear, but to the eyes and nose and hands and mouth. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Seeking, we listen; listening, we eat; eating, we live. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
Why go to church? To feast on Jesus.
Isn’t all this just a little, frankly, weird? What sense does it make, in an increasingly secular culture, to double down on the sacramental and supernatural? Isn’t this a recipe for turning people away rather than inviting them in? How could that be faithful to the missio Dei?
The first thing to say—the whole point—is that the warrant for these judgments is not and cannot be consequentialist. They are a matter of substance, not strategy. The sacraments are essential to faithful Christian worship, as are continuity with the tradition (creeds, ecumenical councils, doctrinal development) and the communion of saints (no hop-skip-jumping over one or two millennia of the church’s life). We receive, maintain, and transmit these practices because they are faithful to God’s call, not because they produce measurable results.
So pragmatic reasoning here is a nonstarter. If faithfulness leads to smaller numbers while our neighbours, even an entire culture, are baffled by our strangeness: so be it.
A better question to ask is what might result if the church committed to this tack, if, that is, it ceased attempting to make itself superficially appealing, subordinating itself to market trends, and instead re-centred its life on the—weird—worship of the Triune God.
It seems to me that, for the foreseeable future, the North American church would undergo at once a disconcerting contraction and an invigorating revitalization. The former, because it is undeniable that, in this land of religious entrepreneurialism and congregationalist Protestantism (but I repeat myself), many people would find such a state of affairs unrecognizable, alienating, or just boring. The latter, because the church would have returned wholeheartedly to its lifeblood—the living presence and adoration of the Holy Trinity—and in purifying itself of every effort to accommodate the demands of the marketplace, it would be free to fulfill the great commission without qualification or fear.
Recall the alarmism with which we began. We do not know the future, and we should not speak as if we do. But even if the doomsayers are right, the gates of hell will not have gained one inch against Christ’s church. His promise is sure. The only option available to us, now and at all times, is to be faithful, come what may. And because providence permits what it can turn to good, we have reason to be confident that faithful witness will, in the long term, bear fruit befitting repentance.
Repentance is not a peripheral concept in public theology. The church has much to repent of. Part of the integrity of the church’s witness is accepting—better, confessing—not only its failings and errors in the past but also the ways in which the church is itself responsible for some of the biggest problems besetting both believers and non-believers today. Lauren Winner’s new book, The Dangers of Christian Practice, details painfully why Christians cannot simply revert to their long-held practices, cannot close the church’s doors and wait for the rain to pass: sin touches everything, and the church above all should recognize the damage sin has done, to itself and to the world. Imagine the earth becoming unlivable, and the chief polluters, blaming others, escaping to another planet, sheltered in a ship bound for the heavens. The metaphor is far from a stretch; it’s barely a metaphor.
His promise is sure. The only option available to us, now and at all times, is to be faithful, come what may
Hence the skepticism behind questions about the church and the common good, and overhasty appeals to the latter in order to justify the former. But if what makes the church distinct is its speech about and worship of God—the whole sacramental suite constituting its life—how does the church edify its neighbours? In what ways, if any, is it a political community, the body of Christ within the wider body politic?
The first and primary answer is that the church is political simply in virtue of being itself, the worshipping community of discipleship to Jesus. The church’s politics consists in the witness it bears to the kingdom of God, manifest in the liturgy and evident, brokenly, in the lives of ordinary believers and their life together. Divine blessing subtends natural blessing: what redounds to the benefit of the church’s neighbours is a function of its common life, a byproduct of its members doing nothing more than being in the world what they are made to be in the liturgy: children of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus.
That the doxological is political is not news. So let me sharpen the point. In Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, Paul Griffiths imagines what it might mean for the final rest (quies) of heaven to be enacted by the church in via. His proposal is a particular kind of quietism: a quietism, that is, “with respect to political interest, not with respect to politics simpliciter.” It is a quietism “of consequentialist interest in the consequences of political advocacy, a cultivation of a sancta indifferentia” regarding the narrowly measurable and altogether unknowable effects of political advocacy—advocacy that Christians should continue, note, but because of the intrinsic rightness of the cause, or because of a policy’s beauty or fittingness, or because the Lord wills it. Not because “studies show . . .” Such “quietist ascesis of political interest in the consequences of what we advocate in the sphere of politics” is one pole of a continuum. The other pole is Vox.
This vision of Christian political action—the extremity of which Griffiths uses as a scalpel to dissect the rotting corpse of our politics—is bound to provoke unease, distaste, and likely immediate rejection. It is worth considering, however, because it challenges so many notions we take for granted. Indeed, the hyper-Augustinianism animating the proposal (a sort of Catholic Calvinism that suggests a depravity so comprehensive that it undermines any optimism or sentimentality about human life) knows us better than we know ourselves.
At bottom it is a radical call for epistemic, moral, and theological humility. For we cannot know either the actual or the unintended consequences of the policies for which we advocate; nor can we know those of the policies we oppose. We must assume our opponents act in good faith, even as we admit we act from mixed motives ourselves. If we fail, we may trust that providence has allowed it, for reasons opaque to us; if we prevail, we are in an even more precarious position, for we will be responsible for what results, and we will be tempted to pride. In any case, what good comes, we receive with gratitude. What evil comes, we suffer with patience.
Quietism, in short, is politics on the pattern of the martyrs, who, like Christ, did not consider victory “a thing to be grasped, but emptied” themselves, entrusting themselves in faith to “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being the things that are not.” Christ forsook the sword as a means of establishing justice in Israel; the kingdom came instead at the cross.
Banished is every utopia, including the confident Christian rhetoric of justice in our time. As St. Augustine teaches us, the only true justice is found in the city of God, whose founding sacrifice constitutes the only true worship of God. The celebration of this sacrifice is the eucharistic liturgy. Approximations of this justice in politics are difficult to assess in the moment, not to mention predict in advance. The church therefore cannot be codependent with politics. Its hope lies in a future not of its making.
How, you may ask, is this not secession from politics, a status quo–baptizing desertion of the common good? Answer: Because Christians remain as engaged as ever, even to the point of laying down their lives, only without the vices that attend a realized eschatology (activism absent resurrection): the desperate need to win, the entitled expectation of success, the assumption of God’s approval, the forgetfulness of sin, the recourse to evil means for good ends. Domine, quo vadis? Christian political witness is figured by St. Peter—the rock on which the church is built, surely an ecclesial sine qua non—following the Lord back into Rome, certain that his end is near, but equally certain that all his noble plans and good deeds are not worth resisting the call. For the End is not in his or any human hands, and depends not one iota on our efforts.
The church’s politics consists in the witness it bears to the kingdom of God, manifest in the liturgy and evident, brokenly, in the lives of ordinary believers and their life together.
Christians in the West have been so bewitched by centuries of being in charge that we think the only alternatives are choosing to exercise influence or choosing not to, the former a function of “engagement,” the latter a function of “disengagement.” But consider Christians in Egypt or Iraq, for millennia a small but resilient minority in their homelands. Should we judge them faithful or unfaithful, missional or monastic? Doubtless the church should seek to bless the societies in which it finds itself, including politically; but are such opportunities always ready to hand? Must we force others to listen to us? Relevance requires more than effort; irrelevance is not a sin.
In the 1960s the American church stood at the apex of its cultural and political influence. Some of this influence contributed to the common good (on Griffiths’s definition, Martin Luther King Jr. is an exemplar of Christian quietism, as are all believers who labour for justice on principle, willing to die but not to kill). At the same time, the church and its witness were deeply wounded by racism, not to mention the household gods of Mars and Mammon. What if, in the 2060s, the American church has shrunk drastically, its societal influence a shadow of its former self—yet believers of every race gather together around the table, feasting on the risen Christ before being sent out by him to love one another and their neighbours in his Spirit? What if the majority of the secularized nation mostly ignores these quirky walking anachronisms, but cannot help admiring, from a distance, their undying devotion to their Lord found in the least of these, the poor, the sick, the alien, the prisoner? Would such a change in the church’s affairs count as decline or improvement?
If the heavens open, the ark will be ready. But Scripture teaches that the flood, far from figuring judgment or damnation, figures instead “baptism, which now saves you.” Whatever future awaits us, it will be a means of God’s saving love, not only for the church, but for the world as well. The prophet promises that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The waters rise to drown us with Christ. The world itself is an ark.Subscribe