I want to take this chance to share a few reflections on the idea of “gospel worldview” as we Manna-ites (and many who have benefited from such works as Al Wolter’s Creation Regained) often conceive of it, in terms of a story consisting primarily of four major plot-points: Creation. Fall. Redemption. Glory.
As a pushback against the a-historical existential approaches we may have been used to before college, it is certainly an advance to realize that the gospel is not simply a time-less message calling people to a moment of existential decision (although it certainly includes that), but an on-going story of God’s work in the world in which we may find ourselves playing a part. Over the past year, however, I have come to realize that there are also significant lacunae in such an approach that desperately need to be addressed if the “narrative gospel” we hear in gospel worldview is actually going to move beyond the realm of “theoretical framework” to something that actually gives people a story to live in and for. These thoughts are actually still quite scattered in my mind, but I hope that trying to articulate some of theme here might spark some fruitful discussion on the issue.
Please note that I am in no way criticizing the idea of a “gospel worldview”. My hope is to draw out implications of the idea that might not have been considered enough among the evangelical communities in which such a notion is now taking root. I’m trying to ask the “What Now?” questions that hope to point us beyond the “anti-dualism”, “pro-cultural-engagement” rhetoric that tends to characterize much of the conversation to address the kind of questions that practically confront us once we’re trying to live our lives.
Thesis 1: Beyond Epistemology
Evangelical discussions of “story” have been quite popular, but often without specifying which story we ought to be living in. Creation-fall-redemption-glory certainly does a good job of abstracting out of the historical narrative of the Scriptures, but it also does not substitute for the almost-2000-years of church history that have happened ever since and which constitutes the continuing story of God’s work in history. It is one thing to make the epistemological point that one ought to be thinking more in the categories of “story” and “narrative” instead of “systematic theology” and “existential decision” and a different thing to actually get to the story or theology itself.
In other words, in “gospel worldview”, we are given the lineaments of a story, but we are actually lacking the story itself. Hopefully, this point will become clearer as we continue.
Thesis 2: Beyond Evangelicalism
Part of the reason evangelicalism is having a problem getting “beyond epistemology” is that, in a large part, its fundamental story is one that repudiates the value of stories. As such, even when it has shifted to trying to think of things in a “storied” format, it will nevertheless remain in the world of epistemology rather than take seriously what its own epistemology implies: taking tradition seriously. A large part of this has to deal with the fact that American evangelicalism was birthed as a part of a particular tradition – that of political liberalism – for which the rejection of tradition is part and parcel of its own “tradition”. Writers like Andy Crouch and Jim Skillen can push the the “good of politics”, but not to the extent that they get down to the real questions of political philosophy: how ought we to live?
Consider, for instance, Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith’s reviews of Crouch’s Playing God and Skillen’s The Good of Politics, two recent books on politics and power that have recently been published. In the former, he notes how Crouch’s attempt to push back against the dominant Nietzschean “myth” of power as primal conflict fails to mention that it is precisely this “myth” that also underlies the Hobbesian, Lockean, and Rousseau-ian ideas of “social contract” that lie at the foundation of the American political experiment. In the latter, he notes that, appeals to “creational norms” and the “common good” end up underwriting what looks like “a pretty standard liberal democratic game”.
But does “engaging in politics Christianly” equate to “politics as usual” in a liberal democracy? (This is, by the way, why Eric Gregory’s class on Christian Ethics spends most of the second half addressing the question of “Christianity and Liberalism”. It is among THE questions of our day and age.) The answer is not clear. The problem with contemporary “gospel worldview” approaches to the question, however, is that they are often blind to the fact that this is even a question, owing to the own foundational narratives we tell ourselves without thinking. We need to be aware of the structural conditions in which we live, that we may be aware of the perennial temptations that may come as a result of them and what that might mean for our witness as Christians today. For that, we’re going to need more specific stories. In other words, we need to take history and tradition a lot more seriously than we have before.
Thesis 3: Beyond Swimming the Tiber
Some of the most cogent contemporary critiques of liberalism, unsurprisingly, come from Roman Catholics who trumpet the importance of “tradition” over and against the mere procedural rationality that tends to characterize approaches dominant within the context of liberal democracy. Those who trumpet this view have a particular narrative of church history which informs contemporary thought and behavior, one expressed quite powerfully by thinkers and writers such as Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue) or Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation). Simply put, these narratives seem to paint church history in a way that puts the “fall” at the Reformation rejection of Catholic tradition in favor of “sola Scriptura” and the cultural malaise in which we find ourselves today as an unfortunate working-out of the implications of those intellectual decisions which found their roots in the intellectual debates of late Medieval Scholastic philosophy. (There are also Calvinist/Reformed versions of this, with Arminians typically getting the short end of the stick. This is not to mention various Anabaptist approaches – read: Hauerwas/Yoder – which will locate the “Fall” as far back as the onset of Constantinian Christianity.)
While the distinct advantage that many self-consciously confessional approaches hold over your generic evangelical one is the fact that they are self-consciously aware of the particular historical narrative they are living in (although how true this is in the context of American society is up for contestation. At the very least, they are in theory committed in a way that many evangelicals are in theory not.), these – with Catholic narratives like MacIntyre’s and Gregory’s included – often fail to adequately grapple with the reasons that liberalism came to be attractive in the first place: the problem of being unable to adjudicate between the various meta-narratives being offered by differing confessional traditions.
In short, merely adopting the standpoint of one or another confessional tradition is an insufficient antidote to the problem of putting flesh on the bare bones of the gospel-worldview framework that confronts us today. This is, interestingly enough, the approach that characterizes another Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, whose 2007 book A Secular Age challenges the ways in which scholars have traditionally approached the questions of secularism and religious pluralism that are part and parcel of this conversation about liberalism and story.
Thesis 4: The Importance of (Trinitarian) Theology
Without spending too much time bringing up various -ology’s which might confuse more than contribute, I want to make the hypothesis that any real solution to the current malaises that confront us today are going to require innovative re-articulations of the perennial truths that have grounded the Christian faith from the very beginning. Indeed, part of the reason that “narrative” approaches to the faith work in the first place is that in Jesus Christ God’s future has telescoped forwards into the present so that through the Spirit, we can know that the workings-out of history will have the contours we affirm it has. It is Trinitarian theology that underlies a narrative approach to the faith that takes seriously the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, presence (in the Eucharist), and second coming in our past, present, and coming future.
In other words, if we want the concrete historical story we tell to be faithful to the God whose image we claim to reflect, we are going to have to do some serious reflections on what that God is like in order to understand who we are and where we stand in history. In particular, I might add, we are going to need ecumenical theological reflection that transcends the countless divisions among theological traditions and finds a way of articulating a coherent meta-narrative for all Christians to identify with and live out. This will not be easy. The Enlightenment attempt to do this by doing away with tradition is the intellectual forefather of much of contemporary evangelical (and liberal!) theology today. How to affirm their goals while avoiding their mistakes will be a challenge for our generation to face.
Thesis 5: A Woe-fully Inadequate Attempt
I do not want to end this post on “story” without at least attempting to offer a bare outline of a kind of stories we might be able to tell about about ourselves and where we stand in church history.At the same time, however, I want to emphasize how inadequate my feeble attempts to do so are.
Christians in the West are, after a long period of cultural hegemony, finally confronting the reality that the values of Christianity and those of the broader society at large have less and less in common. Indeed, we are at the same time realizing that much of what we thought we had in common might not have actually been compatible after all. The privatization of faith, the divide between the “religious” and the “secular”, “faith” and “reason”, the social organization of churches into “denominations” and their role in public life – these and more are legacies with which we Christians today have to grapple, asking again and again the question of whether walking in these ways is compatible with the truth of the gospel. The task before us is not so much the task of coming up with “distinctively Christian” ways to engage in previously taken-for-granted tasks, but to push back against the individualizing forces of modern society so as to recover the reality of a historical community testifying to the world of the presence and love of the One God who dwells in and among us. We do what we do as members of the ekklesia (“called out ones”/”church”) of God, whose gifts are not for ourselves, but for one another and for the world as sign, foretaste, and instrument of the kingdom that is already-but-not-yet. Who we are must be grounded in who we will be; and what we do must be grounded in the holistic vision of human flourishing of the new heavens and new earth.
Democratic liberalism was an attempt to curb the violences of the past in which competing visions of human flourishing clashed to the extent of shedding blood in search of their realization. Our danger is the opposite: instead of fighting and dying for various ideologies that might lack the universality of the Kingdom of God, it is all-too-easy for us to lapse into the complacency of living lives which do not quite appreciate what it is that is worth living: to experience the particular ennui we know as “boredom”, to partake of the activities we call “entertainment” in search of – not responsibility nor self-transcendence, but “fun”. The message of the cross and “dying to self” are translated into terms of suffering under various societal obligations instead of the existential risks of positing what it means to be human; to chase the ladder of success because one knows not what else to do instead of sharing the deep self-knowledge that allows one to truly empty oneself and take on the form of a servant.
As I have said, this is abut a woefully inadequate attempt to start a conversation that I think needs to happen. We who care about “gospel worldview” need to get past the “lens” part to realize that we are born into an ongoing story of how God is working in the world, and how merely having the right “lens” doesn’t actually help you navigate where you are in that story. Indeed, recovering that story is actually quite difficult in a world which emphasizes how everything that is worth having in life can merely be bought or sold, a world that tries to convince us that the dominant narrative we ought to be concerned about is the narrative of ourselves and what “experiences” we’ve had or “successes” we’ve attained. That we are not the primarily determinants of our selves and future might be the first truth we need to hammer into ourselves. We were born with histories and backgrounds, and these histories and backgrounds hold claims over us that we cannot so easily deny, even if they also find their transformations in Christ. This great cloud of witnesses hovers over us as we run, walk, or stumble through our own race. Will we persevere?