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Cultural Engagement After the World’s End

March 3rd, 2023 | 13 min read

By Jackson Shepard

Evangelical discourse about cultural engagement betrays a dichotomy that was never meant to be. As we bicker and quarrel about what the priority of the Church should be—are we to make disciples or transform culture?—we bifurcate the tension at the core of the apostolic Gospel, separating into competing camps. At its heart, this tension is eschatological, having to do with the last things, the end of the world. It concerns the manner in which the boundary between this present age and the age-to-come is porous. And if this barrier is fuzzy, a solidified system that attempts to encapsulate the Church’s mission in one breath will certainly miss part of it. Yet that is what the bulk of evangelical discourse has done. The antidote to our thinking is the renewal of a properly Christian eschatological framework, which can show us how the chief concerns of each of these camps—the Church’s distinction from the world and the Church’s mission for the world—ultimately spring from the same source: the presence of the future age-to-come within the history of this present age.

To understand this, we need to understand how the Gospel is inherently eschatological, for it is the inbreaking of the world-to-come into “natural history” as we know it. This may seem strange to us. In our current conception, eschatology deals with the end, that is, with something other than right now. This is because we conceive of time as totally linear: Point A moves forward to Point B. If the world is still here, that means that it has not ended yet. But this is a misconception of the Christian understanding of time. A proper eschatology teaches us that “the world,” the order of creation as it stands against God and with the devil, died when it killed Christ. Alexander Schmemann reminds us, “By rejecting and condemning to death Christ, the Life and the Light of all life, it has condemned itself to die, to be the world whose form and image ‘fade away.’”[1] Indeed, Christ “was the heartbeat of the world and the world killed him. But in that murder the world itself died.”[2]

If Christ, the Son of God made Son of Man, contains within himself the very meaning and order of the entire cosmos, then his death at the hands of the cosmos signals the death of the cosmos itself. “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:10-11).[3] There is no end more tragic. This is why St. Paul can say, “The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). The Apostle stands on one side of the gulf, namely, the “new creation” (Gal 6:15), but “the world” stands on the other. The world is no more, its demise ensured. Our Lord cries out during his sojourn on earth, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (John 12:31, emphasis added).

The flip side of the old world’s death is the new world’s birth. Just as the world is already gone, the new creation is already here. The kingdom of God, which is the world-to-come, is here now. It is “at hand” (Mark 1:15). Again Schmemann writes, “This very world—its time and matter, its life, and even death—have become ‘means’ of communion with the Kingdom of God, the sacrament, i.e. the mode, of its coming and presence among men.”[4] Thus, there is no “world-denying” impulse in this framework, just as there is no quasi-secular materiolatry, the fixation on matter qua matter, time qua time, this world qua this world. It is hard to recognize that kind of materialism as Christian. But, make no mistake, the material world is of great weight for this eschatologically driven perspective. The kingdom of God truly enters into our world and transfigures it. Through the resurrection of Christ, the world-to-come invites this world into its presence, beckoning it to journey further up and further in, always remaining above it even as it is “at hand.”

The cosmos is “passing away” (1 John 2:17). We live now in the tension of the already and the not yet. But these are not merely conceptual categories. Rather, they are weaved into the very fabric of reality. The world is gone and will be gone. We can only speak of this with the language of present progression: it is fading away. It is not as if the world is any more “faded” today than it was yesterday; the process is not linear. The cosmos simply is passing away from the time of Christ until the time of the end.

How does one describe something that has already died and still is yet to die? St. Gregory of Nyssa depicts it as a snake with a mortal head-wound, whose “tail is still animate with its own spirit and is not deprived of vital motion,” though the snake itself has received a decisive blow.[5] Such is the death of sin according to Gregory. It is already and not yet. The New Testament likewise refuses to cut the tension, standing squarely in the middle of the two truths: “the world is passing away.” The “last things” with which Christian eschatology concerns itself cannot simply be found on the last page of the Cosmic Calendar, as it were. The end of the world colors every page from the time of the Christ event to the consummation.

The infusion of this properly eschatological perspective is much needed in contemporary evangelical discourse, particularly surrounding our efforts of “cultural engagement.” Those hungry for something beyond individual, invisible salvation long for the transformation of culture. They lament the loss of Christendom, the public proclamation of Jesus as Lord. For these, evangelicalism’s fatal flaw is its narrow-minded naiveté. On the other hand, there are some who are concerned first and foremost that the Church be the Church. A too optimistic engagement with the world, the desire to transform it apart from the sincere conversions of individuals or families, is a denial of its primary mission. The Church and world are clearly distinct; to blend them is to tarnish the Church rather than sanctify the world. Better to have a small Church of true believers than a national Church of mostly false ones.

Permit the generalization for a moment, since I do believe it gets at something true. Each of these perspectives has some merit to it. But they both share an unchecked eschatological assumption. I do not mean to suggest that the members of both camps are all premillenialists or postmillenialists, partial preterists or persnickety preppers. In fact, these categorizations are likely part of the problem. For eschatology has become, in Schmemann’s words, “merely the chapter which we usually find at the very end of our theological manuals,”[6] instead of something “shaping and permeating the whole Christian faith as its dynamic inspiration and motivation.”[7] Eschatology becomes speculation upon “what the end will look like” rather than the essential meaning of the people of God, “upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:14).

Whether it is believed that Christ will arrive before or after a literal thousand-year kingdom, or that He will return to a Christianized planet or the culminating plot of the Antichrist in Jerusalem, most of our eschatological discourse neglects the interpenetration of this age with the age-to-come and does not draw the layered conclusions that follow from this fact. This is not to say that these debates are meaningless. Rather, these matters about “the last things” are to be situated within this larger eschatological-apocalyptic framework. Christians’ “citizenship in heaven” means that the presence of the Church on earth is the presence of heaven on earth (Phil 3:20), even as we await deliverance from “this present evil age” (Gal 1:4). How many of us, in hearing from Hebrews that the apostates had once “tasted . . . the powers of the age to come” (6:5), were unaware that God’s future glory was available to our sense perception in the present, let alone that we ourselves have tasted it regularly in our own Eucharistic liturgies?

Our narrowly linear eschatology is, ironically, a prodigal son of the more layered eschatological framework of the past. “It is indeed the mark of Christian eschatology,” Schmemann notes, “that, by revealing the eschaton, the ultimate end and thus the ultimate ‘term of reference’ of the world, it posits the world as history, as a meaningful process within a linear time.”[8] The future kingdom of God is the anchoring point for “this world,” and thereby provides rooting and structure to the succession of days and years that we know as “history.” Only against the transcendent realm of the world-to-come can this present age be properly measured and fitted. But the kingdom is not such a measuring rod merely as future, but also as present. The Christian eschatological framework reveals “the Kingdom of God as the Beyond which nevertheless is present within time as its leaven, as that which gives it its value, meaning and orientation.”[9] Without the telos of the kingdom of God, which is simultaneously already and not yet present, the world becomes untethered and quickly spins out of control.

When the fruit of this Christian theory of time—a coherent sense of history, a telos towards which the world is moving—is divorced from its root, we arrive at a secular world, that is to say, apostasy. The proof that we inhabit a truly “post-Christian world” is that “even the most secular, the most anti-religious and anti-Christian ideas and ideologies” which we encounter “are the fruit of a secularized eschatology.”[10] For it was the Christian vision of the eschaton that first posited the saeculum, the age of history, that we now take for granted. The tree is felled but its apples still consumed. Soon enough, they will become worm-ridden and poisonous. The ones who consume the fruit are in turn consumed by it. Progress is the idol of our age, and it has driven us mad.

Evangelicals have by no means abandoned belief in the age-to-come as future. However, it seems fair to say that we have disregarded it as present. This is borne out by the fact that our debates about eschatology concern either this present age or the age-to-come, but not the manner in which they intermingle. Moreover, such intermingling is a static fact. The Church does not usher in the kingdom of God through a form of inevitable historical progress. But neither is she doomed to fail as the days march on. Somehow, both can be true. We need to reconfigure our entire conception of time, such that we can see the presence of the future world in present history as the basic fact of the Church’s existence. This is, to be sure, deeply mysterious. But it is the mystery which checks our idolatry. History can be neither strict forward progress nor constant regression if its very existence depends upon the eschatological world which is always bleeding in but never losing its transcendent inaccessibility.

What would an evangelical approach to culture look like if it was undergirded by the acknowledgment that we stand on the brink of the end of the old world and the beginning of the new, that we exist at the overlapping of the ages? For we are suspended over the cliff, gazing at the end of the age, which is why the New Testament reminds us repeatedly that we are in “the last days.”[11] But it is also true that we experience the eschaton even now, as we live in “newness of life” (Rom 6:4). As we lift our heads to heaven, we simultaneously watch “Satan fall like lightning” (Luke 10:18) and Christ rise like incense, as He is “received up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). Indeed, St. Simeon prophesied long ago that Christ was “destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). We live in the in-between. The world, as world, both dies and lives, falls and rises, rejects and receives the Christ of God. It is ending, and it is beginning.

I recognize at this point that I may very well be accused of having my head in the clouds. How on earth (literally speaking) does any of this apply to contemporary discussions in evangelicalism? I have two responses, first a retreat to Chesterton and then a more substantive one. Regarding Chesterton, I echo his approval of the poet who “only asks to get his head into the heavens,” over against “the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head,” for “it is his head that splits.”[12] We ought to be much more comfortable with mystery. I do not mean an anti-intellectual laziness, but an acknowledgement of the apophatic infinitude that stands beyond our comprehension. Perhaps if we possessed this contemplative frame of mind, we would be better prepared to have these conversations with a bit less wrath and fury. The age-to-come enters into this present age through the witness of the Church. Christian, you really taste the future kingdom of God through your participation in worship. So attend, rejoice, worship, pray. That is the first lesson.

Here is the more substantive reply. This eschatological perspective really does shake up our categories for cultural engagement. Let us return to the two dueling frameworks existent in our evangelical world, since an eschatological overhaul of our thinking would result in a more thorough assessment of both positions. To those who value cultural transformation and not merely individual conversion, we must affirm their desire as good and right. Christ announced the coming of the kingdom of God, which is a reality that touches upon everything. We ought to eschew our presumptions about the Church, that it is primarily invisible, anti-sacramental, individual, and concerned primarily with the soul. The Church speaks directly to politics and technology, funerals and weddings, education and households, and the larger societal calendar, to name a few examples. To love our neighbors surely means to love our neighborhoods as well, desiring that they flourish to whatever extent possible under the wisdom of the Church.

But even as these things are affirmed, we must also agree with the other side that all of this is accomplished by the Church simply being herself. The Church is the company of the baptized, who are called to live in faithful love towards God and their neighbors. They are called to make disciples, to teach them how to read Scripture and pray and how to share the Gospel with their neighbors. The world is in fact “passing away.” Therefore, the Church is on pilgrimage. This world will never be our home. We must never forget that it killed our Lord. We must attend to and resist the siren song that whispers in our hearts, “Go back to Egypt. Return to Babylon.” “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). We have been crucified to the world, and the world to us.

It seems to me that only the eschatological option can truly make sense of the apostasy of the West that we mentioned above. Those who reckon with this fact often retreat from any notion of public Christianity. If the Church simply narrows her focus, shrinks the circle of her influence, everything will be fine. “The Gospel” becomes, in their hands, something non-political, non-cosmic. But on the other hand, those who regret the tearing of our social fabric long to return to the way things were. Their solution is to fight, to try and get it back. The former group compresses the content of the Gospel. The latter refuses to acknowledge the reality around us, lacking a conception of a Church in exile, and thereby instrumentalizes the Gospel. I am asking that we desire Byzantium while being content with the desert. This can be summarized with Johannine language, familiar to many under the guise of a cliché: We are in the world but not of the world, all of which is for the life of the world (John 6:51; 17:14, 18).

The answer to our questions concerning cultural engagement, therefore, is to build the Church, but to build the kind of Church that can transform the culture. In other words, we really do need to focus on the Church and not “the world,” but it must be the sort of Church that can serve as the heartbeat for the life of the world. The only kind of a Church that can save the culture is one willing to be persecuted for it and, indeed, by it. Consequently, our goal must be to create churches that are both local and catholic. We must commit ourselves to strengthening local congregations that are truly local, teaching them to see themselves as part of a place, and to see that place and the people in it as the target of their evangelism. Church leaders or members who set out to fix “the culture” must first ask what they are doing to fortify their own congregations. Additionally, these local congregations must partner with other congregations, both in their immediate locale and elsewhere, both in their ecclesial tradition and outside of it. It is not good for man to be alone. An isolated church is a church in danger. Only a catholic Church, instantiated locally, has the ability to form disciples, and by this act, to transform the world. I do not see how a congregation that neglects either of these dimensions can make it for much longer.

The eschatological framework which we have discussed above balances out the two impulses. Only a Church that sees herself at the end of the world has the ability to resist the allure of power and comfort in this age. And only a Church that sees herself as the sacrament of the world-to-come can offer this world something of substance. The entire frame of reference turns upon the already and the not yet. Such a Church knows how to be abased and how to abound (cf. Phil 4:12). It is neither dismissive of decadence nor suspicious of success. It resists both the excesses of pessimism and optimism, quietism and “loud-ism.” It is societal and monastic, world-affirming and world-denying. How else would we imitate a Man who laid down his life in the world for the life of the world?

Footnotes

  1. Alexander Schmemann, Church, World, Mission (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), 29.
  2. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018), 31.
  3. NKJV used throughout.
  4. Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, 29-30.
  5. St Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Discourse, trans. Ignatius Green (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2019), 126-7.
  6. Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, 74.
  7. Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, 28.
  8. Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, 79-80.
  9. Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, 80.
  10. Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, 82.
  11. E.g., Acts 2:17; Heb 1:2; 1 John 2:18.
  12. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2007), 10.

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