A generation of Christians has been inspired and challenged by James Davison Hunter’s popular work, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World 1st Edition. Published five years ago, the book promotes a particular approach to cultural engagement (“faithful presence”) that stirred a wide and rich conversation across Christendom.
Its influence continues to endure, whether in stirring individual imaginations or shaping the arc of institutions. To reflect on that influence, The Gospel Coalition recently rounded up a series of essays on the topic, including a range of voices such as Collin Hansen, Al Mohler, Hunter Baker, and Greg Forster. Titled Revisiting Faithful Presence, the collection is available for free as an ebook.
The responses vary in praise and critique, uncovering new insights, posing new questions, and exposing lingering cracks and gaps. In doing so, they’ve inspired me to once again return to the book myself.
Though each offers its own compelling angle, it was Greg Forster’s essay (“To Love the World”) that stuck with me the most, reminding me of some of the key areas I initially wrestled with, particularly Hunter’s lopsided elevation of common grace and the embedded materialism in his framing of culture.
Such gaps are worth noting not only because they exist in To Change the World, of course. Indeed, each represents a frequent tension in our broader discussions on cultural engagement. Demonstrating the nature of that tension, John Seel points out some of his misgivings with the responses, particularly Forster’s essay, the basic points of which he struggles to understand or re-state. Seel is no stranger to these discussions and brings a great deal of weight in his own analysis, so I was a bit startled to find the disagreement starting so far from where it appears to (actually) begin.
Forster has since responded in kind. On the topic of common grace, for instance, Seel argues that Forster “asserts a quasi-Constantinianism that belies common grace,” characterizing Forster’s position as “salvation or nothing.” Having read Forster’s essay, the rush to these sorts of absolutes is peculiar. As Forster explains in response, there is, behold, a position of tension somewhere in between.
Common grace can take us (i.e. culture) to certain distances by itself. But yes, the power of the Holy Spirit we do, in fact, need:
There is a middle ground between believing common grace does everything and believing it does nothing, and Constantinianism is not the only model for how the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit can impact a community beyond the bounds of the church. If Seel thinks that what I wrote constitutes Constantinianism (even of the merely “quasi” variety) he needs to get out more; I look forward to showing Seel’s characterization of me to Patrick Deneen the next time I find myself debating him. As C. S. Lewis said in another context, “if the Patagonians think me a dwarf and the Pygmies a giant, perhaps my stature is in fact fairly unremarkable.”
I say common grace is not sufficient by itself to do all we need, and Seel claims on this basis that I believe “it’s salvation or nothing.” Apparently for Seel it is, culturally speaking, common grace or nothing. Common grace by itself can maintain some level of order and public justice, such as the order of first-century Rome, and this is certainly not nothing. Jesus and Peter and Paul did not think it was nothing when they taught their followers to obey and honor the emperor. But the Romans did not get rid of slavery, or stop carrying unwanted infants out into the forest and leaving them there to die a slow and painful death of starvation, until the Holy Spirit moved through the church to expose the evil of these practices. Common grace may or may not have been enough, culturally speaking, for Philemon; Onesimus needed more.
As for Hunter’s embedded materialism, the confusion continues.
Seel acts bewildered at the notion, when, for me, it presented one of the more glaring misses in my initial reading of Hunter. When it comes to politics and the economy, Hunter places these squarely outside of culture, approaching each as spheres doomed to domination by materialistic forces.
As Forster argues in his original essay:
Hunter’s analysis of political action is deeply materialistic. Materialism is the view that there is no reality higher than that of material objects and forces, and if Christianity is true any materialistic analysis must be false. But because Hunter has chosen to treat politics as if it were not a part of culture, his description of it cannot avoid materialism. He defines politics solely in terms of coercion; justice may come in, but only superficially. His treatment of economics elsewhere in the book, such as it is, is equally materialistic and therefore equally false. He thinks economics is about money, and the higher meaning of our stewardship and cooperative labor is peripheral.
If we cannot agree that politics and economic exchange are ripe spheres for “faithful presence,” in severe need of a Christian liberty that actually sets the captives free, we are missing something significant.
The pursuit of a rightly imagined Christian vision for cultural engagement involves all sorts of struggle and tension. We’re bound to disagree at plenty of points. That sort of disagreement is healthy, and it’s bolstered by the sorts of essays offered by The Gospel Coalition’s book: voices that come together to illuminate strengths, weaknesses, and continuing struggles in the church.
Forster’s essay, along with the many others, offers a mix of celebration and critical engagement. While I wouldn’t expect us to find total unity on these matters any time soon, the actual points of departure and disagreement ought not be as muddled as they apparently are.