To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
By James Davison Hunter
(Oxford University Pres, 368 pages, $27.95)
I don’t consider myself an exile, but I do consider myself a Christian. James Davison Hunter would say that’s impossible. According to his thesis in this wordy, challenging book, exiles are what Christians in this 21st century are called to be. He expects us to be literal Jeremiahs, living in Babylon.
I take issue with the idea that we should flee from the very civilization that we made — and I include Christians in the “we” — and the civilization that we are called to renew. The hype on Hunter’s book cover predicts this idea will “forever change the way Christians view and talk about their role in the modern world.” Putting aside for a moment the idea that anything published by Oxford is going to affect more than a small fraction of the practicing Christians in the world, I have to wonder just what the agenda is here. The book is endorsed by a former Yale divinity professor (who now works for Hunter — ahem, no conflict of interest) as well as a renowned Canadian philosopher of secularity who ran for office five times as a socialist and lost every time. A modern Jeremiah, perhaps?
James Hunter grew up a fundamentalist, attended evangelical Gordon College, became counter-cultural, and took a PhD in sociology at Rutgers. Patrons of cigar bars everywhere know to fear the zeal of the smoker who quits. Hunter now teaches at the University of Virginia, where he heads the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is perhaps best known for his controversial book of a decade ago on the “culture wars,” a term he claims to have invented.
The essays in this latest volume are old stuff that he’s collected from his contributions to various websites and on video in the form of lectures he’s delivered around the country. His uber-rant, uniting all his lesser ones, is primarily against conservative Christians, and his number-one target is not, as you might expect, some professor at Dallas Theological Seminary but the popular “born-again” author Chuck Colson. Attacking the “worldview mentality” as a form of German Idealism or Hegelianism, Hunter is knocking down a straw man. He calls many of the people he doesn’t care for “naïve” or worse, which is less than civil, and I have to wonder why — if he wants to pick this fight — he wouldn’t take on the academic giants of the Reformed perspective — Kuyper, Wolters, Walsh, et al. — rather than those without academic credentials. It’s akin to criticizing fast food for its poor recipes.
Hunter’s slanted version of church history is incomplete and highly selective, and he seems to regard the Church fathers as unlettered yahoos. Many of them were in fact Christian Platonists, and some, like Saint Paul, Hellenized Jews. He never even raises Saint Thomas’s baptism of Aristotle. Hunter has an apparent extreme dislike for evangelicals — mostly because of their tactics but also because of their values — and yet he has virtually nothing to say about Catholicism, which is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to Christianity. His critique is entirely focused on America, which is myopic given that Christianity has more adherents in the Two-Thirds World than in the developed parts of the world today.
But all of this is a setup for Hunter’s new view of culture, which is not that new at all, but instead a rehash of Pierre Bourdieu and the anti-technological views of Jacques Ellul. Like his intellectual senior, Ellul, Hunter is proudly counter-cultural, and his Cartesian logic often takes away on one page what he offered up the page before. From his position as armchair social theorist, Hunter dismisses altogether the contributions to public life of Christians. He’s especially contemptuous of D. Michael Lindsay’s recent award-winning empirical book, Faith in the Halls of Power, even though to my knowledge Hunter has himself never worked in the political arena, run a company, or done anything outside the academy.
Hunter has no time for politics or economics. As an anti-individualist at pains to carp against the “great man” or heroic versions of history, Hunter offers instead a grand sociological narrative. He wants us to accept his post-political, narrow, negative view of power. His pacifist view of what the Bible says comes straight from the pages of neo-Anabaptism. He’s loudly anti-modern, anti-American, and anti-globalization. American civilization, he says, is “a bundle of contradictions.” And resacralization of it is not possible. Instead he calls for even more redistribution of wealth and the “koinonia” of church-based community, a new form of late modern monasticism.
This is no Allan Bloom thesis. Hunter calls for a “critique of the entire modern world.” For him pluralism is a dangerous evil (hence his earlier diatribe against the “culture wars”). He thinks American culture was never Christian — ignoring the faith of the Founders — and he believes that most Americans today are nihilistic and post-Christian. The data from recent polling suggests otherwise. The skepticism of modernity may be bewildering to him, but Hunter would be well advised to reread the classics of political thought and especially works on Gnosticism, like Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, if he wants to play political theorist.
His so-called “new political theology” leads to cultural, not political, engagement. For him politics is unfulfilling and compromised. Hunter does not care for “defenses against” culture, “relevance to” culture, or “purity from” culture. He is no Christian realist like Niebuhr. His alternative vision is rather focused on disciplining the Church. The Old Testament term Shalom, curiously, is the hallmark of his preferred engagement. And as he admits himself, his biblisistic call is “simple, even platitudinous.” He borrows the metaphor of “aliens” from other leftists, stressing the tension between history and revelation, describing a “dialectic of affinity and antithesis.” Hunter distances himself from any sort of triumphalism. He wants no City of Man and reacts against Constantinism. Institutions, though important to culture, should be leaderless and without authority. (Presumably this means they would also wither away.)
The final chapter of Hunter’s book is the most original and also the most radical. Following Hauerwas and others, he calls for “faithful presence,” the kind of human flourishing that is revealed through sacrificial love, the state where the Word becomes flesh. He employs the language of servant leadership without crediting its author, Robert Greenleaf, or Greenleaf’s many followers, who daily put it into practice. However, Hunter offers no moral philosophy or virtue ethics, only Bible verses.
In essence, Hunter’s many ponderous social theories remind me of the leading American philosopher who said, “Sociology is a bogus intellectual enterprise, hiding ideology behind the claim to be a science.” Nevertheless, Hunter does finally admit “ideas not just social forces sometimes do change history.” Or to quote Richard Weaver, ideas have consequences. This admission calls Hunter’s whole undertaking into question. Which is it? The ideas of the Church fathers, of Augustine, of Aquinas, of all the Christian precursors of the modern university are not so worthless after all? He can’t have it both ways.
But then maybe he can, because for all his apparent anti-establishment cultural leftism, Hunter is quite an elitist. One of his biggest theses is that only what happens to the center-periphery crowd — highbrow campuses and the New York Times — truly counts. But bemoaning the lack of civility in America and then starting a name-calling exercise does not exactly elevate this dialogue. Hunter is so dismissive of other theories (i.e., “Barna is just a pollster”) that he comes off as blindly arrogant. He’s apoplectic about the right, especially the Christian right (which he says peaked in 2004, without any supporting data), and yet has little to say about Catholics except when he puts down the entire natural law tradition in a single sentence in the course of attacking the late, loquacious Father Neuhaus.
In the end, Hunter has offered little that is new or terribly cogent. He’s a late modern neo-Anabaptist using the language of sociology to express his hang-ups about the exercise of power. There is no political theory, and no awareness of Christian Democracy, which has been making and remaking culture for centuries. The only political Christians he feels a need to use kid gloves with are the Evangelical left arrayed around sojourner Jim Wallis (God’s Politics).
By focusing exclusively on the Church as an institution, instead of looking at the life and identity of Christians in all their variegated vigor, Hunter fails to comprehend the complete social architecture of his subject, which ranges from committed persons to families to civic associations to schools to the state itself. His attempt to decouple the political and the public fails because it is both too cute and suffers from a lack of correspondence to reality. The Hunter thesis will surely not make the world a better place. Nor will it help Christians find a road map for living in the complex and spirited world we inhabit in AD 2010. It may actually badly confuse the secular world about the purpose and direction of faith. After all, the faithful in all the Abrahamic traditions were and are called to be all of these — prophets, priests, and kings.