It was inevitable that I would read James Davidson Hunter’s book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010). The book has generated a lot of buzz in the blogotubes and for a time I’m pretty certain one of my friends was doing his morning devotions from it. So I read it and I’m glad I did. Hunter is an exceptional writer.
Personally, I am hesitant to embrace or endorse his overall vision for cultural engagement mostly because I’ve left the entire discussion of cultural engagement to those with much larger brains than my own. But one of Hunter’s points resonates with me.
On pages 234–235 Hunter writes the following (bold/italics his):
Let me finally stress that any good that is generated by Christians is only the net effect of caring for something more than the good created. If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.
It is clear at this point that the very source of affirmation—its motive, its logic, and its telos—contains the second moment in the dialectic: antithesis. Antithesis is rooted in a recognition of the totality of the fall. In this light, all human effort falls short of its intended potential, all human aspirations exist under judgment, and all human achievement is measured by the standards of the coming kingdom.
In the present historical context, this means that Christians recognize that all social organizations exist as parodies of eschatological hope. And so it is that the city is a poor imitation of heavenly community; the modern state, a deformed version of the ecclesia; the market, a distortion of consummation; modern entertainment, a caricature of joy; schooling, a misrepresentation of true formation; liberalism, a crass simulacrum of freedom; and the sovereignty we accord to the self, a parody of God himself.
As these institutions and ideals become ends in themselves, they become the objects of idolatry. The shalom of God—which is to say, the presence of God himself—is the antithesis to all such imitations. Always and everywhere he relativizes the pretensions of all social institutions to power, fellowship, joy, freedom, and authority. Always and everywhere his presence declares that human endeavor is never the final word.