Many Christians look at the state of society with growing trepidation. Is the Christian faith and its worldview/values being increasingly sidelined? What will that mean for society as a whole? And what will that mean for us, who are not ‘of the world’, but invariably live in it?
A recent research done by George Barna on American society highlights that the nation’s “shift away from the Biblical worldview” is “the most rapid and radical cultural upheaval [it] has ever experienced”.
Some Singaporean Christians find such talk to be defeatist – we are not America, and surely if we live faithfully, we will “be the head and not the tail”. Yet in my personal interactions with unbelievers that are millennials or younger, I have noticed that the Christian faith is viewed in an increasingly negative light – whilst it was previously seen to be irrelevant or illogical, it is now taken to be an insidious threat.
In the book “Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference” by Timothy Keller and John Inazu, various Christian thinkers in America offer their views on how they can live in a society that has become increasingly post-Christian and polarised.
I found this book to be not just illuminating, but also refreshing and hopeful. And for the sake of brevity, I will only offer a brief summary and some reflections on three contributors out of many: Kristen Deede Johnson (a theologian), Tim Keller (pastor) and Tom Lin (former missionary and current parachurch leader).
Kristen Deede Johnson
Kristen Deede Johnson provides the perspective of a theologian, tapping on the thoughts of Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine lived in a time of great political chaos. It was during the sack of Rome that he wrote his landmark work on political theology - ‘The City of God’. He sought to counter the charge made by pagan Romans that this calamitous defeat was a divine judgement by the pagan gods, as the Roman Empire had only recently become officially Christian and had ‘abandoned’ their traditional deities. He did that by decoupling our view of God’s kingdom from any earthly “political arrangement”, even though it may be outwardly Christian.
Augustine asserts that Christians ultimately belong to the heavenly city, a city where "Christ is King" and has the ethos of loving God and loving others. At the same time, they are also a part of an earthly city (whether Rome, or Washington, or Singapore), which has a very different set of values, one that is rooted in the love of self.
The image provided by Scripture is that of exile – God’s people are placed in a foreign land (Babylon), longing for a return to their home country (Jerusalem). Just like the Israelites, we are not expected to turn the nations we are placed in into Israel; but neither are we to separate ourselves from the nations we are placed in, for we are to seek its “welfare and shalom”.
Johnson says that Augustine’s framework helps us to trust in God’s sovereignty – that the direction of history and society is held in God’s hands, and not ours.
Most of us are familiar with the pastor-theologian Tim Keller, and he supplements Johnson’s view with that of an experienced practitioner. He notes that in his many years of ministry, he has discovered that “biblical, evangelical faith” is out of step with both liberal, secular culture, and traditional, conservative culture.
While the former’s “individualism and relativism” meant that God’s laws was set aside in the quest for self-fulfilment, the latter was often beset by “self-righteousness and bigotry”.
In his ministry in New York City, which is widely known as a liberal bastion, he notes that Christians have to navigate the tension between assimilating to its culture wholesale, and living in a wholly separate bubble.
Keller believes that we do not have to be sophisticated interpreters of our culture to achieve this balance; rather, internalizing the Gospel actually helps us have a fruitful witness to and engagement with society at large.
This is because the Gospel forms the “habits of the heart” – humility, tolerance, patience, courage. The gospel cultivates humility by removing the pride that build barriers, as we stand justified before God only by grace. It develops tolerance and patience by granting us a robust hope that people can be changed, and a love that perseveres in reaching out across differences. Finally, the Gospel grants courage, as it grounds us in God’s acceptance, and thereby enables us to face condemnation and criticism from the world.
Tom Lin speaks from the perspective of an Adventurer – someone whom God has called to take risks, and led down on unexpected paths, from a star student and athlete, to missionary to Mongolia, and finally leading the American InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
He notes that a hankering for former glory often means that church ends up “petrified” like Lot’s wife – stuck in the past, unable to recognize fresh opportunities, and move forward and grow to what God intends it to be.
He shares this amazing example of how Christian Varsity students in one university campus asked fellow students in the Freethinker’s Society (basically an Atheist fellowship) to join them for a weekend of community service. As they served together and built relationships, they grew in “trust and respect”. It was not long after that the members of the Freethinker’s society approached the Christians to do Bible study with them, and learn more about the faith that drives them.
Tom Lin concludes that Christians should not be afraid to acknowledge the “good, true and beautiful” in the world, even though it resides in individuals who have very different values or goals from us. Christians can meaningfully engage, and participate in society, by “drawing near” to others who are different and finding “common ground” with them.
To summarize, Johnson gives us a healthy and much needed dose of historical and theological perspective – that the Church has across the millennia dealt with much more severe existential threats but still endured, and that we ultimately belong to a kingdom that is not of this world.
Keller gives us a view of how God’s kingdom advances, not primarily through a cultural Christianity, or the enshrinement of Christian laws from top down, but through men and women who embody the Gospel and draw in others, one soul at a time, into God’s fold.
And finally Lin gives us a framework of how we can form a bridge with the world so that the Gospel may be expressed – by finding common ground with them, and recognizing God’s given opportunities that come our way.
May we shine in the world like stars in the night sky, as we hold firmly to God’s Word of life!