Withdraw or engage: An old debate

Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas argue in Resident Aliens that world changed sometime in the late 1960s. The old Christian hegemony over American culture collapsed. The book is largely an effort to describe why this collapse is a good thing and situate the church as “a colony” within a culture that does not understand or value the church.

I’ve spent many years since reading Resident Aliens trying to understand the argument and decide whether I was persuaded by it. I run hot and cold with it.

Today, I came across a blog by a UMC pastor at Day 1 – the self-described voice of mainline Protestantism. In the post, the pastor lays out the primary mainline alternative to the vision in Resident Aliens.

Well, the earth did move, and the sky did tumble down, and the world into which I was born came to an end.  We do live in a post-white, post-segregated, post-male, post-Christian, post-modern, post-Enlightenment, even post-American world, as Fareed Zakaria has noted in his recently-published book.  And yet, the world that has come to an end is the world in which orthodox Christianity flourished.  What’s a Christian to do?

Some seek to vociferously defend Christianity’s traditional claims–that women cannot be ordained, that Jesus offers the only way to practice authentic human spirituality, that homosexuality represents some sort of perversion, that human beings are somehow inherently stained by what has classically been referred to as “original sin.”  Frankly, i don’t subscribe to any of those convictions.  And, neither does most of the world.  What many in the Church fail to recognize is that the world is leaving the Church behind, and the sad estrangement that characterizes the Church’s relationship with the world grows each day.  Most of Christianity in the world today retains this pre-modern, pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment feel.  But, what about those of us who see ourselves as Christians and wish at the same time to embrace the realities of a changed world?  That’s the challenge that faces us here at Day1.  Many do not recognize the fact that the progressive, kind, intelligent message that we at Day1 call “the message of the mainstream Church” has actually become the message of the minority.  But, it is this minority voice that has the opportunity to meaningfully re-connect with the world and bring the smart and kind message of Jesus to bear upon the experiences of our human family, even as we Christians embrace and celebrate the truths that other faiths bring to our mutual human experiences.

You have this sharp contrast in tone, then, between these two camps. The one argues against chasing after the world and only writes of the Enlightenment with a barely hidden snarl. The other sees history leaving the sorry old church in the dust and seeks to devise ways to catch up.

Is either view correct? Are both? How should we in the church relate to the world around us?

Seems like all the big questions are also very old ones.



6 thoughts on “Withdraw or engage: An old debate

  1. It seems to me that both parties are offering a definition of “Orthodox Christianity” that sounds rather like be a 1950s politically-conservative racist and sexist bigot.

    They both agree on what ‘Orthodox Christianity’ looks like; what they disagree about is whether or not this was a good thing or a bad thing.

    This is a good example of why I believe that modernist liberalism and fundamentalism are just flip-sides of the same theology. Their only disagreement is whether or not the theology is good and helpful.

    I differ from both of these points of view in that I don’t think that their definition of ‘orthodox Christianity’ had much to do with what Jesus taught. It was simply a religion where ‘worldly’ values of ‘the power of the elite over the non-elite’ had co-opted Christianity to justify itself.

    American Christianity seems to suffer too much from the conflating of political ideologies with theological ideologies. I don’t believe in either capital punishment or abortion on ‘Christian’ grounds; this seems to throw many American Christians into a tail-spin of incomprehension of exactly where to ‘slot’ me.

  2. Pam,

    If I wanted to understand your take on theology better, what should I read – other than the Bible.

  3. It won’t necessarily apply directly to what I said above, but probably anything by Tom Wright – ‘Surprised by Hope’ is a good place to start and I tend to dip in and out of some his doorstop books.

    ‘Exclusion and Embrace’ by Miroslav Volf would be a good one or ‘Free of Charge’.

    One of my big hermeneutical mirrors is Girardian philosophy and James Alison gives Christian theological expression to this in ‘The Joy of Being Wrong’ and ‘Raising Abel’. Those two books probably had the most radical effect on my theology.

    Also, I take literary criticism and redaction criticism very seriously and, therefore, biblical ‘story’ very seriously. I think that there is more truth in the ‘meaning(s) of the story’ than whether or not events ‘really’ happened and I tend to bracket that question.


    Hugely simplistically, Girardian philosophy says that human societies down through the ages have attempted to purify themselves and maintain internal cohesion by identifying, demonising and expelling scapegoats. The US has played this card brilliantly since WWII; first with ‘international communism’ and then with ‘international Islam’. If you keep the people focussed on the enemy outside your borders, you can avoid internal unrest.

    Christian Girardian theology says that this human desire to scapegoat others is the manifestation of our sinful natures (‘original sin’ if you want to use that word). Sin is behavioural and relational; it arises from our admiration of others and our refusal to peaceably admire and imitate them but rather our tendency to turn our admiration into an ‘I’m better than you’ competition. At our worst, we need to scapegoat and eliminate the competition (You can begin to see why I think an ‘orthodoxy’ that excludes is not Christianity at all.)

    The Christian story turns scapegoating on its head. Jesus peaceably imitated the Father rather than competed with the Father and we are called to peaceably imitate Jesus. The powers and principalities of the world crucified Jesus in what should have been yet another triumph of the scapegoatting mechanism, but God turned that paradigm upside down in the resurrection – death became God’s triumph rather than sin’s victory. (Requires a belief in a ‘real’ resurrection)

    Girard isn’t exactly someone you try to summarise and I’ve walked where angels fear to tread but I thought I’d give you an idea rather than just send you away to read the books!

    1. Thank you for the effort to help me understand.

      I have recently started reading Volf and find him quite interesting and persuasive. Of course, I’m always persuaded by the last book I read.

      I note with some interest – after reading your comment to me – that he reads Girard but usually wants to modify or change Girard’s emphasis. Makes me want to read Girard to see whether I find him or Volf more on target.

      I like Tom Wright a good deal as well. I don’t have any of the doorstoppers, but I have read Surprised by Hope and a couple of the others of that size.

      1. Girard himself does not purport to be a theologian. He was an anthropologist by profession and came to Christianity through his anthropology. I first came across James Alison as a Christian theologian using Girardian anthropology and then I came across Volf at theology college. I only noticed that you were reading Volf after I made my first post. Girard is more difficult to read than Volf and I’d say Alison is also more difficult than Volf.

        1. Well, your first comment – along with something not on the Internet – got me to pull Volf down off my shelf and open it. So, I can thank you for that.

          Sounds like if I ever wade into Girard and Alison, I’ll have to blame you for that. 🙂 Thank you for sharing the information.

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