In for a penny, in for a pounding, I always say. I really don’t want to talk about the whole “three worlds” thing again, but I’m going to, because it allows me to segue into something I do want to talk about. I just completed a book project, so I’m gonna take the time to do this stuff. Buckle up; it won’t be brief.
My friend Brad East claims that the “negative world” thesis is self-evidently true: “publicly professing to be a Christian in the 1950s was — on balance, no matter who you were or where you lived, with relatively minor exceptions — more likely than not to enhance your reputation and/or social status and/or professional-political-familial-marital-financial prospects.” In response to that I would again emphasize the distinction between the profession of faith and actual Christian living. As far as I’m concerned, a world in which the public profession of faith is rewarded but serious Christian practice is discouraged is not a positive world. It’s a Whited Sepulcher World.
I would also add that the exceptions are not “relatively minor” unless you consider the experience of Black people in America to be minor. White Americans, especially but not only in the South, have long been suspicious of what gets taught in Black churches. In her Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs narrates how the slaveholding leaders of her community demolished the church the local Blacks had built with their own hands, and then made sure they were taught by preachers whose only biblical text was “Slaves, obey your masters.” And then, of course, if you were a churchgoing Black family in my home town of Birmingham during the supposedly “positive world” era you might find that your church is bombed and your children killed. Again, this isn’t ancient history to me: the girls killed in that bombing were born less than a decade before I entered this vale of tears, which I did in a hospital about two miles from their church. I lived close enough to that church that I could have heard or felt the explosion, though I don’t remember whether I did.
So in the simplistic three-world formulation the word “world” is doing a lot of work, work it’s not capable of doing. A “positive world” for middle-class conservative white people who don’t speak out against the evils of segregation and naked hateful racism is not a positive world for Christians tout court. You can actually see Brad implicitly acknowledging that the whole debate is too vague when, at the outset of his post, he does what Aaron Renn does not do and narrows the frame of reference to the attitude of the “nation’s elite institutions” – which institutions, of course, are not our whole world.
But even if you do that, the story is more complicated than the three-worlds framework suggests. For instance, though a lunatic fringe insisted (and still insists) that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, millions of American voters were clearly reassured by his longstanding church membership and open affirmation of the Christian faith. There’s no way he could have been elected President without being explicitly Christian – and I think it’s fair to say that the Presidency is an “elite institution.” America has never elected an avowed atheist as President, nor a Jew, nor a Muslim, and indeed the electorate taken as a whole still seems to think of some profession of Christian faith an important qualification for office. (That may well change in the future, of course.) But the kind of straightforward profession of belief in Jesus Christ that we saw in Obama, and before him in Jimmy Carter, would at any previous time in our history have been a red flag. Too much religiosity!
So there are many vectors here of varying power and varying directionality. Let me turn, then, to Derek Rishmawy’s response:
Nevertheless, it does not seem inane, politically, or pastorally irrelevant to ask the question: is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan? Is that a question that is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice?
I’m gonna say No. I’m gonna say that the question is indeed irrelevant, and for several reasons. First, because within the Empire conditions for Christians varied from time to time and place to place. Even at the height of Christian power there were pockets of pagan dominance; and let’s not forget that the reign of Julian the Apostate came after Constantine. Historians may be able to look back and see clear patterns, but no one at the time could have had that kind of assurance. No one knew that Constantine’s support for Christianity would succeed, or that Julian’s opposition to it would fail. Christians then had to face whatever reality confronted them in any given place, at any given moment — as do Christians today. And sometimes adherence to an abstract account of the-situation-in-general can obscure what’s right in front of your face.
I’m emphasizing how contextually variable the circumstances of Christians always are because simplistic accounts lead to strategies. The most profound problem with the three-worlds account is not that it’s wrong, though it is wrong, but that it’s supposed to yield a strategy. And let me be blunt about this: Whenever Christians decide that they need a strategy, they’re writing a recipe for disobedience to the Lord Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas has always said in response to people who say that the Church needs a social strategy, “the Church is a social strategy.” And here’s Lesslie Newbigin:
When our Lord stretched forth His hand to heal a leper, there was no evangelistic strategy attached to the act. It was a pure outflow of the divine love into the world, and needed no further justification. Such should be the Church’s deeds of service.
The Church’s job is to be the Church, and the Christian’s task is to be like Christ, and strategies invariably get in the way of both. In fact, I believe that, generally speaking, though the people who hold them typically don’t realize this, that’s just what they’re designed to do.
One of the more curious ways Christian “strategic thinking” plays out these days is in the use, by people who hold some version or another (there are several) of the negative-world hypothesis, of the example of Israel. It seems to me telling that the Catholic integralist strategy for infiltrating the corridors of power relies exclusively on Old Testment examples. Likewise this recent post by Kirsten Sanders critiquing Tim Keller’s Areopagocentric emphasis on the need for Christian persuasion:
Certainly such a view on persuasion is one way to read the biblical text. But there are other biblical accounts, too, where Israel encountered a changed world and needed to learn how to live there. Israel in Babylon wasn’t doing a whole lot of cultural exegesis or persuasion. They were learning how to pray while they longed for home.
Indeed – but this neglects the essential fact that Israel were recipients of a Promise, while the Church, while inheriting that same Promise, has also been given a Commission. Jews typically don’t proselytize because they aren’t asked to. It’s always useful for Christians to look to “captive Israel” for consolation and example, but not at the expense of heeding the Commission that led Paul to Athens and the Areopagus.
Moreover, where would we Christians be if the Apostles and the holy martyrs had adopted the negative-world strategy? We would not be, is the answer. I don’t know whether there can be bitter laughter among the company of heaven, but if the martyrs know that we American Christians, beneficiaries of extraordinary legal protections for our professions of faith and inheritors of centuries of faithful stewardship, are complaining that we can’t try to persuade people because our world is too negative, then they are certainly laughing, and not in a way that would be musical to our ears.
So if having a strategy is wrong, what’s right? This is the part I actually want to talk about. What follows may seem personal to the point of self-centeredness, but if you bear with me I think you’ll eventually see why I take this path.
A while back a friend, another Christian writer and scholar, paid me a visit and as we sipped our whisky commented, “You know, Alan, I can’t think of anyone else who has had a career remotely like yours.” And it’s true: I have had – for good or ill or (more probably) both – a very strange career. Just a few weeks ago I met with a group of Christians leaders, leaders in various fields quite different than mine, who wanted me to explain to them how I have ended up writing for the publications I write for. My response came in two parts. The first part was this: I asked them to reflect on the fact that they were the very first people ever to ask me that question. And the second part was this: The key, I said, is that I have never had a plan.
I mean, Do I really look like a guy with a plan?
A while back some Christian writers and editors stirred up an online contretemps by criticizing other Christian writers for seeking publication in “more prestigious” secular outlets. I didn’t weigh in because every online contretemps is definitionally stupid and anyway I had already made my views on this matter clear. But for those who haven’t memorized my blog history, here’s the story: I was perfectly content when I wrote my non-academic essays almost exclusively for Books and Culture and First Things, but then First Things started turning down everything I sent them and Books and Culture was shut down. I was asked to write for Christianity Today but when I suggested topics I was told that they were too academic. So when Alexis Madrigal encouraged me to write for the Technology channel of the Atlantic, and then, later, Chris Beha asked me to write for Harper’s, I did. I didn’t have a plan or a strategy – I just stopped knocking at the doors that had been slammed in my face and started going through the doors that were opened to me in welcome. Obviously there are limits to such a practice – if the Nazi Herald Tribune had asked me to write for them I would have declined – but I didn’t see anything wrong with writing for the Atlantic and Harper’s, especially they have always allowed me to make my Christianity known.
Whether I have been a good Christian witness in the public sphere I am not in a position to say. It’s very possible that I have totally wasted my opportunities, and I have often prayed that this topic not come up when I go before the Judgment Seat. But whether I have used those opportunities wisely or not, I got them precisely because I didn’t have a strategy. Instead, I had certain commitments – commitments that I wouldn’t abandon, some of which were overtly Christian and others of which were implicitly so: for instance, I wanted to write rigorously but also as elegantly as I could manage, I wanted to be deeply scholarly but also fair-minded and honest, and while non-Christians can do all those things, I am committed to them because I believe that I have been entrusted with the stewardship of certain gifts that come from God. That conviction also helps me to perceive that maybe, just maybe, if I get interested in something that doesn’t appear to be directly related to my Christian faith I may in the end discover connections I could not have anticipated. (See e.g. my persistent fascination with Daoism and anarchism.)
My conviction, for what it’s worth, is that Christians should have commitments without strategies, but instead tend to have strategies without the requisite commitments. Let me tell you what I think that leads to.
Thomas Aquinas says that hope is the virtue that lies between the two vices of presumption (praesumptio) and despair (desperatio).
Integralists, by and large, are presumptuous: they want to rule the world, but decline to ask whether they are fit to rule the world. They think being on the right side is all the justification they need. It isn’t. When Thomas Merton was Master of Novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani, he would constantly remind those novices that they were in monastic life not because they were too pure for the world — which they thought they were: big stars for Team Catholic — but because they were too weak to flourish there. Christian formation begins and, I think, ends in the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
By contrast, those who decline to try to persuade others of the hope that is in them on the grounds that the “world” is too “negative” for that are in the grip of a kind of despair – not in relation to themselves (presumably they do not doubt that God is gracious to them) but in relation to their neighbors. To those people, I would just say that if God can speak through Balaam’s donkey He can speak through you.
Thomas says that the presumptuous and the despairing alike have something important in common, which he calls the status comprehensor – they are fixed, immobile. The despairing don’t think they can go anywhere; the presumptuous don’t think they need to go anywhere. Having a strategy pushes you towards such a stasis: by choosing in advance a particular path to follow, you are foreclosing on all the other possible paths. You are making yourself deaf to God’s unexpected calls upon your life.
What characterizes the hopeful Christian, Thomas says, is the status viator – the state of being a wayfarer. Thus Josef Pieper refers to “the wayfaring character of hope.” Wayfarers know their destination but aren’t sure how to get there; all along the way they look for signs indicating the best path, and seek help both from their companions and from those they encounter on the road. They know that they have to be flexible and agile; they know that their enemies are Aimlessness and Fixity. They trust in a Guide they cannot see; they listen for His still small voice. Maybe things will be better than they expect; maybe worse; unquestionably different. But they make their way along the pilgrim road, because they hold firm to this twofold truth about Jesus Christ: “As God, he is the goal; as man, he is the way” (Augustine, City of God XI.3).
As a wayfarer you must have a destination but you must accept the inadequacy of any strategy. You must be willing to sprawl.
Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed,
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.