Work, Culture, and Faithful Presence
At the end of his Confessions, St. Augustine meditates on the days of creation and the work and rest of God, reflecting,
"There also you will rest in us, just as now you work in us. Your rest will be through us, just as now your works are done through us. But you, Lord are always working and always at rest. Your seeing is not in time, your movement is not in time and your rest is not in time. Yet your acting causes us to see things in time, time itself, and the repose which is outside of time."
This Spring, in the last months of Fellows, we have increasingly turned our attention to our work in the world, our applied responses to the larger theological categories we studied in the Fall and Winter: the Trinity, the Bible, Justification, Sanctification, and many others. Our most recent readings have pertained to the Christian's relationship to his/her culture. A key text for our discussions was James Davison Hunter's To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. This book, which we read over the period of two weeks, prompted particularly engaging discussions and some strong reactions. Asking the questions, "why have Christians' efforts to change the world so often failed or gone awry?" and, "given the ideological/philosophical challenges facing Christians in the twenty-first century, how should Christians live out their faith in a modern American context?", Hunter offers a critique of the often politically-oriented strategies of cultural change adopted by Christians on both the right and left, and proposes a different paradigm of Christian engagement, one that he terms "faithful presence." This model of Christian practice does not follow the common Christian responses of being defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed into the dominant culture, but rather proposes that we be faithfully present within it, even as God called the exiles in Babylon to live among a hostile culture as God's people, reflecting in their daily practices their distinct identity. Hunter's template for Christian cultural involvement applies to both individuals and institutions, to our relationships, our work, and to all our spheres of influence.
For me, Hunter's book, though flawed in certain aspects, was one of the most thought-provoking and helpful texts we've read, and I plan to return to it after Fellows is over. His intellectual and sociological history of the political theologies of American Christians from across the doctrinal spectrum is particularly penetrating-he gives a coherent epistemological framework to attitudes and approaches I've noticed and felt without being able to articulate. And I found his description of faithful presence to be challenging and inspiring and worth further consideration.
Our work on earth, which includes the work of culture-culture making, culture influencing-is so often plagued by questions and doubts, by attempts and failures and frustrations as we seek to know how we are to live in the world, how we are to follow God's model of work and rest. But we can take peace in the knowledge that it is not all up to us, that, as Paul writes, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth." Or to return to Augustine's meditations that I began with, "Of your gift we have some good works, though not everlasting. After them we hope to rest in your great sanctification. But you, the Good, in need of no other good, are ever at rest since you yourself are your own rest."