To Change the World: Part 5, Faithful Presence

This is the final post reviewing James Davison Hunter's book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. My two-part reviews of Essays 1 and 2 of To Change the World:

Essay 1, Part 1: Confused about Culture
Essay 1, Part 2: The Weak Culture of Christianity

Essay 2, Part 1: Christianity and Ressentiment
Essay 2, Part 2: What about those Anabaptists?
In Essay 2 of To Change the World Hunter discussed the cultural failures of three Christian groups: The Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Anabaptists. In Essay 3, the final essay of To Change the World, Hunter summarizes the "paradigms of engagement" we see in these groups regarding how each understands its relationship to the larger non-Christian culture ("the world"). Hunter's summary of the paradigms of engagement for the Right, Left and Anabaptists are:
"Defensive against": The paradigm of the Religious Right

"Relevance to": The paradigm of the Religious Left

"Purity from": The paradigm of the Anabaptists
Hunter goes into some detail analyzing each of these paradigms and finds each, in the end, to be wanting. His closing assessment:
[T]he desire to be "relevant to" the world has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be "defensive against" the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on the one hand, aggressive and confrontational and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. Finally, the desire to be "pure from" the world has entailed a disengagement and withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. All want to engage the world faithfully, yet all pursue that end in ways that minimize the inherent tension that comes with being ones who are called to be "in the world but not of it."

My point is not that these paradigms of engagement are equally problematic, but rather that none seems to be a fully adequate way of making sense of or pursuing faithfulness in our world.
So how do we go forward?

Hunter first provides some groundwork for his paradigm of engagement, a paradigm he calls "faithful presence." In contrast to "defensive against," "relevance to," and "purity from" Hunter suggests a form of engagement with the world characterized by a dialectic of affirmation and antithesis.

The first move of the Christian response to the world is affirmation. This is important for Hunter on both theological and practical grounds. Theologically, affirmation simply reflects God's primary stance to the world found in Genesis: "It is good." Practically, affirmation helps overcome the negativity and ressentiment that now characterizes the Christian witness. Hunter summarizing this:
The first moment in the dialectic is affirmation. Theologically, affirmation must be the starting point because the story of life begins with God's creative initiative and the affirmation he declares on it at each moment of creation--of earth, vegetation, light, animals, and man and woman. "And God saw everything that he had made and behold, it was very good." ... The significance of affirmation as the first moment in the dialectic is accentuated in a larger public culture defined, in large part, by negation. As we have seen, the public witness of Christianity has for too long, shared in, contributed to, and deepened the negational character of this culture.
The practical upshot of this affirmation is the recognition of a "common grace," locations where Christians partner with others, most of whom will be non-Christians, in projects that cultivate truth, beauty and goodness in the world. As Hunter notes, this common work--Christians partnering with non-Christians--in "world building" or "culture building" isn't, strictly speaking, the work of the Kingdom of God. But this work has value in the eyes of God.

More, it is actually very important that Christians consider this work to not be "Kingdom work." Christians don't labor in the world to "win" the culture wars or "take back" the culture for the Kingdom.

So Hunter is keen to note that any cultural work during the move of affirmation is never to be consider a means to "advance the Kingdom." No, culture building, be it in the arts or sciences or wherever, is an end in itself, a form of loving God and loving one's neighbor. Hunter on this critical point:
If there are any benevolent consequences of our engagement with the 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.
The second move of the dialectic is antithesis. In the moment of antithesis the church recognizes the fallenness and disarray of all human institutions. In light of this the church functions as a "community of resistance" seeking ways for the "constructive subversion" of human systems and institutions when they fail to manifest God's Shalom. Importantly, this subversion "is not nihilistic but creative and constructive." The work of subversion is to help the world see the good it aspires to and to assist it (often by performance) in imagining new ways of living that move us closer to that goal.

This is just a brief sketch of Hunter's dialectic of affirmation and antithesis. Given this new paradigm of engagement how are Christians to live in this manner? To answer this question Hunter suggests that affirmation and antithesis occur in a mode of existence he calls "faithful presence." Hunter roots this model of life in God's faithful presence, most clearly seen in the Incarnation where God "tabernacled amongst us." In a similar way, Christians are to be "faithfully present in the world." Hunter sees this presence manifest in three areas:
1) Being faithfully present with each other in the community of faith.

2) Being faithfully present in our jobs and "worldly" activities, working in each as if we were "working for the Lord."

3) Being faithfully present in our spheres of social influence--"families, neighborhoods, voluntary activities, and places of work."
In short, rather than being defensive, relevant, or pure in relation to the world, we are simply present, faithfully so. And what this means for Hunter is that:
[W]here and to the extent we are able, faithful presence commits us to do what we can to create conditions in the structures of social life we inhabit that are conducive to the flourishing of all.

...faithful presence in our spheres of influence does not imply passive conformity to established structures. Rather, within the dialectic between affirmation and antithesis, faithful presence means constructive resistance that seeks new patterns of social organization that challenges, undermine, and otherwise diminish oppression, injustice, enmity, and corruption and, in turn, encourage harmony, fruitfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy, security, and well-being. In the normal course of social life, the challenge and alternative that faithful presence entails is not so much a direct opposition through a contest of power but, as Miroslav Volf puts it, a "bursting out" of an alternative within the proper space of the old.

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2 thoughts on “To Change the World: Part 5, Faithful Presence”

  1. The common work or graceful giving of one's time and talent is irrelavant to "faith". And "world changing" can only be done in small spheres, if one sees a need for change, unless one wants to become an oppressor.

    Those that are empowered by position or money do disservice to those at the botton, always, when they seek a transformation of the world at a large scale, because systems will always fall short of understanding the part. Yet, parts are necessary to carry out the greater "whole".

    Much has been written on building teams in this vein and good leadership always considers each member on the team, so the 'whole" can win their goals. Problems become manifest when all the team members are not on board with the vision, for whatever reason. (sometimes through the fault of leadership, and sometimes the fault of the team member, but often-times it is the fault of both).

  2. “To Change the World” is a question poser more than a question answerer. I searched for the words “faithful presence” after finishing Hunter’s book yesterday and was directed to your excellent five-part review. Thank you for confirming and clarifying a lot of what I thought I understood from the book. The “faithful presence” part is a stepping off point, though, that for me is going to require a lot of work.

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