Living in truth, however dark the times…
Anxiety and discouragement and even despondency are reflected in the mood of many Christians these days—as well as anger. What will happen in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage? Obviously, religious liberty will become front and center as the implications of the Court decision play out in the daily lives of many Christians whose faith practices run afoul of the new ruling.
However, this dark mood has been building for quite some time. Against the talk of doom and gloom by many alarmists, Dr. Os Guinness points out that this is “not Christian language at all. We should always speak the language of faith and hope and mission.”
Speaking before the court’s ruling, Dr. Guinness reflected on cultural momentum that has been underway for at least a century: “We are living in 500 years of western dominance, which is clearly now declining. … Will we have a vision of faithfulness that will be true to our Lord and adequate to the extraordinary times in which we’re living?” Our cultural moment requires “an unshakeable, unwavering confidence in the power of the gospel.”
These comments were made in a talk discussing one of Dr. Guinness’s recent books, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Hour—an insightful and encouraging volume that could hardly be more timely. The following extended excerpt is from Chapter 4, “The Secret of Cultural Power.” Here, Dr. Guinness draws on the writings of St. Augustine and numerous other Christians for insight in coming to grips with the challenges of our present moment.
The deepest and most comprehensive exposition of the place and power of the church in culture is St. Augustine’s City of God. In A.D. 410, Alaric and his Visigoth had sacked Rome, and the event sent shockwaves around the civilized world. The fall of the “eternal city” was a fall beyond belief, and a raging argument broke out between Christians and pagans as to who or what was to blame for the disaster. Were the pagans right that the gods abandoned Rome because the Romans had abandoned the gods—for the one true God of the Christians? Had Romans lost their patriotism and their allegiance to Rome because they now put God above Caesar? Or was it that Christians, with their ethic of love and forgiveness, were simply too soft to be the rulers of a vast and sprawling empire that required stern and often brutal control?
Three years later Augustine decided to enter the debate, and in 413 he set out to offer his own answer, The City of God, which took him a decade or more to complete and became his magnum opus. The first ten books refuted the pagan charges with a series of powerful but somewhat predictable replies. But in the later books, he reflected more deeply on the human story, and set his grand vision of history and his theory of the two cities: the City of God and the City of Man.
Dr. Guinness goes on to explain the nature of the two cities and clarify the Christian’s dual citizenship.
At the heart of humanity are two humanities of the heart: those with a love of self and a heart dedicated to themselves, and those with a love of God and a heart dedicate to God. From these two hearts grow two humanities, two ways of life and eventually two cities: the City of God, which is the heavenly city typified by Jerusalem, and the City of Man, which is the earthly city, typified earlier by Babylon and then by Rome.
What is of decisive importance is the relationship between the two cities. Here and now, and in the short term, they are intermingled, indistinguishable and often hard to tell apart. But starting from quite different origins and leading to quite different destinations, they are mutually exclusive and utterly and completely different in the long term. Christian allegiance is therefore to the heavenly city, not the earthly. As citizens of the City of God, we are merely sojourners on earth and therefore never more than “resident aliens” in the city of This World.
What Augustine’s earlier classic Confessions was to the individual seeker—the journey of faith toward personal fulfillment in God—his City of God was to nations and to the course of history—the path toward the kingdom of God and a world of peace, justice and shalom. Just as individuals must decide what is true and what is to be their view of the world and their way of life, so individuals must decide whether they give their allegiance to the worldly city or to the heavenly city.
Ever the theologian, Augustine builds his case on the teaching of Jesus and the Scriptures.
Augustine’s vision of the two cities and their relationship ties in powerfully with both the understanding of Jesus and the recurring biblical theme of the relationship between those who are faithful to God and the world in which they live. As Jesus says in his prayer to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane, his followers are to be “in” the world, but “not of” the world. St. Paul captures the same tension in his famous challenge to the Christians in Rome. Do not be “conformed,” but “transformed” through the renewal of your minds. For the early church, this tension was prefigured in the Exodus. The Israelites were to “plunder the Egyptian gold,” but they were not to set up a “golden calf.” In the more recent words of the Hartford Declaration in 1975, Christians are called to be “against the world, for the world.”
What we have here in the teaching of Jesus and the Scriptures, and amplified in Augustine, is the very heart of the secret of the culture-shaping power of the gospel in the church. When the church goes to either of the two extremes, and is so “in the world” that it is of the world and worldly, or so “not of the world” that it is otherworldly and might as well be out of the world altogether, it is powerless and utterly irrelevant. But when the church, through its faithfulness and its discernment of the times, lives truly “in” but “not of” the world, and is therefore the City of God engaging the City of Man, it touches off the secret of its culture shaping power. For the intellectual and social tension of being “in” but “not of” the world provides the engagement-with-critical-distance that is the source of the church’s culture-shaping power.
The power to shape culture always comes from God through the work of his Word and Spirit. Yet, the church has three distinct areas of responsibility: “engagement, discernment and refusal.”
First, the church is called to engage and to stay engaged, to be faithful and obedient in that it puts aside all other preferences of its own and engages purposefully with the world as its Lord commands. Second, the church is called to discern, to exercise its spiritual and cultural discernment of the best and worst of the world of its day, in order to see clearly where it is to be “in” and where it is to be “not of” that world. And third, the church is called to refuse, a grand refusal to conform to or comply with anything and everything in the world that is against the way of Jesus and his kingdom.
How well has the church done in maintaining the “in but not of” tension? Dr. Guinness’s answer is realistic and anything but flattering.
In recent times American Evangelicals, in their foolish failure to learn from the mistakes of Protestant liberalism and their passionate desire to escape any taint from their recent fundamentalist past and to be “relevant” and “seeker sensitive,” have largely forgotten the required doubleness or the deliberate ambivalence of this stance. Evangelicals little realize how much they have become the spiritual smiley button of suburban America.
T. S. Eliot was more faithful as well as more realistic when he wrote, “It must be said bluntly that between the Church and the World there is no permanent modus-vivendi possible.” Christopher Dawson used the words of John Henry Newman to make a similar statement: “It is the very function of the Christian to be moving against the world, and to be protesting against the majority of voices.” Reinhold Niebuhr was equally blunt: “The modern church regards this mundane interest as its social passion. But it is also the mark of its slavery to society. Whenever religion feels completely at home in the world, it is the salt which has lost its savor. If it sacrifices the strategy of renouncing the world, it has no strategy by which it may convict the world of sin.” Earlier, G. K. Chesterton put the issue beyond question when he observed, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”
Under the power of God, these three factors—committed engagement, cultural discernment and courageous refusal—combine to generate the creative tension with the world that becomes culture shaping. It is still always God’s power that changes culture, but it is God’s power at work in his people who are aligned with him, living-in-truth and serving his purposes in their generation.
It is true that the greatest power comes when a critical number of Christians live in truth together in this way in a society. But even when there is no such critical mass, living-in-truth is the calling of every individual Christian, for each Christian is himself or herself the arena in which the struggle takes place between the pulls and pushes of the world and the call of Jesus. This means that out of each individual conversation should come a silent personal revolution that transforms the personal lives of the converted, which will lead in turn to a social public revolution in wider society, as such a way of life and thought spreads and is demonstrated by the people of God together.
The Christian, then, does not believe in modern revolutionary change that is effected from the outside only, for such change is always too shallow and does not last. But nor is the Christian ever content with merely being “present” in the world. The key to changing the world is not simply being there, but an active, transforming engagement of a singularly robust and energetic kind. And importantly for many Christians today, we must go deeper than a shallow, purely intellectual understanding of worldviews. What changes the world is not a fully developed Christian worldview, but a worldview actually lived—in other word, in Christian lives that are the Word made flesh again.
This extended excerpt is a section entitled “The City of God and the City of This World” in Chapter 4 of Os Guinness’s Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (pp. 78-82). A talk on Renaissance was given by Dr. Guinness earlier this year to the Christian Union of New York City and is available by clicking here.