Despite formidable remnants of power, the western late-modern system and its globally imperial philosophies are collapsing under the weight of their internal inconsistencies and increasingly visible external shortcomings. For evidence of our collectively culpable failure, one need only look to the hastening marginalization of family and communal authority to state power. One need only turn to the collateral damage of our degraded natural resources to technologically facilitated post-industrial consumerism. One must merely gaze upon the rampant, intractable poverty, fragility, and violence endemic to our nation’s crumbling global hegemony.
With ever-increasing clarity, the primacy bestowed upon rights-bearing autonomous individuals and their violent, ever-encroaching state reveals itself as impotent where it is most needed and enmeshed with the most egregious instances of human suffering and moral decay the world over.
In spite of the mountain of evidence, for many, these limitations are reasoned away as failures to properly implement liberal principles or to fully realize the totalizing ‘enlightenment’ of the overall project. Yet, in the wake of our failed handling of the shocks of this year — whether a global pandemic; a national reckoning with systemic racial oppression; or a divisive election cycle — such rationalizations grow weaker by the day.
The philosophical cracks and fissures — made all the more obvious this year — will only serve to speed the impending functional reckoning of America as a nation and, with it, the global order it helped create. As such, 2020 may be remembered as the turning point year in which the underpinnings of our society were — for the broader public — called into mortal question and found desperately wanting.
Given the degree of oppression and depravity created and perpetuated by our present system, there exists a temptation for post-liberal thinkers to celebrate and hasten its demise. Yet, the coming collapse is not to be cheered. It will undoubtedly usher further destruction of ways of life of already marginalized people. It is naive to expect a collapse of prevailing global power structures (and accompanying worldview) to render any near-term result but a severe and ubiquitous suffering for which the world is fundamentally unprepared.
A Way Forward
“What we need today are practices fostered in local settings, focused on the creation of new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and the creation of a civic polis life. Not better theory, but better practices.” ~ Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed
As a singularly rare community which both predates and rejects the tenets of liberalism and is inextricably enmeshed with its rise, the Church is uniquely positioned to bear witness to such a set of new, “better practices.”
Yet, in order to take up this mantle, the Church must courageously accept our complicity in the suffering wrought by the present global system. We must reject our place as merely “another economy of power, yet another sovereignty competing on the field of battle.”
Rather, we must adopt a radically hopeful, eschatological view of our own suffering (and embrace of it) as both our birthright as Christians and key to the deeply political change we wish to bring about in ourselves and the crumbling world we’ve helped perpetuate.
On the Centrality of Repentance
In the New Testament, the word translated as ‘repentance’ is the Greek μετάνοια (metanoia), “after/behind one’s mind.”
Metanoia describes a state beyond merely feeling sorrow for an act. Rather, it implies a fundamental change in thinking, living, and being.
To become a people capable of being for an imploding world what it needs, the Church must repent — in this transformative metanoia sense — of significant aspects of our history.
In her 2020 book Jesus and John Wayne, Kristen Kobes Du Mez’ is convincing in her depiction of the tattered history of evangelicalism in America. “Despite evangelicals’ claims that the Bible is the primary source of their political and social convictions, evangelicalism must be seen principally as a cultural and political movement rather than a community defined chiefly by its theology.”
DC Shindler also confronts our ontological misinterpretation of the Church in the inaugural issue of New Polity – a new journal of post-liberal political theology with a generally Catholic integralist lens. “The Church was never meant to be one institution among others, lying next to the world, with all of its mundane business.”
Yet, it is.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to look at the historical and present identity of the western Church today and see it as anything if not fixated by: 1) a soul-level grasping for state power (instead of God the Father) as its prime hope for salvation and 2) an insistence on the isolated individual (instead of the binding, intertwining Holy Spirit) as the prime unit of that community.
Such modes of prioritization — being as they are, aligned with the prevailing regime — are drivers of our material success within this system. Yet, the material gains emanating from our idolatrous posture toward the state and self can only be rightly viewed by the Church as spoils of a sinful past (and present). As such, they must be repented. We must find our metanoia.
Repentance of Dependence on the State
The Church in America, in its most recognizable forms today, exists as an institution of waning (yet significant) power and influence under a modern liberal state. Thus, it is towards the coercive power of this state that we look desperately for help in maintaining the status quo of our power and influence.
The Church is global and in many places marginal. However, its seat of power is fundamentally western and influential. As an institution, the western Church consistently prioritizes its own safety and stability and looks to the state to enforce its positional security. This status quo frequently metastasizes in attempts at legislation of Christian morality on a secular world; mass consumption of products at the end of grossly exploitative supply chains; and widespread support of wars of aggression.
Such behaviors uphold a global hegemonic system disproportionally benefitting western Christians at the expense of the majority world. As an institution within a powerful, established system these features might seem to be intractable. Yet, as a community of believers formed by a set of intrasystemic values which transcend the system, they are aspects of our present identity which can and must be repented and overcome.
The Church is also richly multi-ethnic. Nonetheless, the seat of the church’s institutional power is overwhelmingly white. As an institution in a white-dominant society, the white-dominant Church tends to prioritize the temporal trappings of its racial identity above the eternal blessings of its identity in Christ. It has consistently used its influence to direct coercive state authority to ends which further racial oppression. Such a history leaves Church complicity with systemic racial injustice as a key feature of its legacy in this country (and world).
In his recent book After Whiteness, Willie James Jennings conceives of this failing as representative of a neutered, dumbed-down, white, western theology. He beckons us to refuse to settle for cheap grace, but to seek “real, untamed grace.” For Jennings, our prayer must be for “the kind of grace that replaces our fantasies of power over people with God’s fantasy of desire for people.”
And our “fantasy for power over people” is nowhere expressed more clearly than the relationship of the western Church to the poor. Globally, the Church is comprised of both rich and poor. Nonetheless, the western church’s institutional power is fundamentally and consistently co-opted by the wealthy. As an institution, the church reveals this bias through dependably hypocritical rejection of government intervention when it might support the vulnerable and open arms when it advances the status quo dominance of the wealthy. We must learn to see the hypocrisy in such policy stances.
Even more critically, we must begin to refocus on the centrality of the witness of the Cross as we conceive of our relationship to the poor. Jesus took on the burden of material poverty (and its accompanying vulnerability to violent death), not to idealize it, but to show love and solidarity with others who suffer in it. Early liberation theologians and more contemporary voices have noted that it is only once we begin to embrace our call to solidarity with the poor that we can begin to see them as humans known and loved equally in the sight of God.
In so doing — in rejecting the protection and power bestowed by the modern state upon the wealthy, the powerful, and the white — we might begin to move closer to becoming the kind of community which is capable of bringing the particular good news of a crucified Christ to the world.
Repenting of Focusing on the Individual
We must reject and repent more than just our systemic sins. A deep enmeshment with our ultimate cultural norm of individuality also causes American Christians to place our individual stories at the center of a narrative which is meant to be about Christ.
Though the Church is intended as a united body, we are, in practice, operating more like disembodied individual parts each in headlong pursuit of our eternal and temporal salvations. We rely on simplistic, individualistic ‘sinner’s prayer’ models of atonement as substitutes for dealing with our complicity with injustice in a fallen, intertwined world. We often cling to our individual ’beliefs’ as concrete absolutes which might shield us against the doubt and uncertainty inherent to true faith lived out in the messiness of community. In his The Christian Imagination, Jennings warns that our conception of salvation will inevitably become “hyper-localized to a single relationship: God and the one being saved” if we are not vigilant in pursuit of whole communities transformed by Christ.
And once we have centered the story of salvation unduly on ourselves, it becomes all too easy to buy fully into the prevailing cultural mandate — that we must, at all costs, pursue meaning for our lives via material/experiential acquisition and external validation. 2020 has offered up a damning example of such behavior. For instance, when the recommendation to wear a mask becomes a ‘rights violation,’ our heralded deontological ethic of ’rights’ proves itself a flawed, systemic justification for selfish, unhealthy behaviors which require nothing in terms of responsibility to our neighbors and community. Statistically, Christians in America are as guilty as any other demographic of such widespread forms of individualistic hypocrisy.
The fraught past of American Christianity — the failures of this past year, these past decade, these past centuries — have fundamentally stripped our ability to form reliably positive legacies for ourselves which are also remotely believable by non-Christians. As such, our status in this society — a society largely constructed by and for wealthy, white, powerful western Christians — is rapidly decaying. As we feel earthly power slipping from our hands, we mistake its disappearance with persecution. We often confuse possession of basic necessities with a comfortable position in the world; freedom to preach with protection by powerful groups, instruments of service with means of power. This confusion, this narcissistic, failure to grasp the nature of the reality around us tarnishes our reputation all the more.
In sum, the Church will never be able to embrace its authentic historical reality or eschatological purpose while simultaneously clinging to the violent, oppressive reality of state power and influence. Further, it cannot be the body of Christ as long as it exists in practice as a group of disconnected individuals each in headlong pursuit of salvation through the means of our times. Repentance of this suite of systemic and individual sins must be chief amongst the priorities of a post-liberal Church. It will be impossible for us to authentically form God’s kingdom on this earth while we are so inextricably affixed to this world’s greatest deceptions.
On the Centrality of Character and Community
“The first casualties of an exploitative revolution are character and community.” Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America
As we extricate our souls from the exploitative, revolutionary grip of a violent state and our violently selfish egos, we must boldly dive into the unpleasant specifics of what we must be willing to endure as we watch the edifice of the State and self collapse.
Our aim must be to re-become a Church which works – against towering odds – to reclaim the virtues of character and forms of community necessary to hopefully imagine the radical possibilities of encountering our own suffering as our patrons and self-protective measures fall away.
Ironically perhaps, to transcend the perils and traps of our place within modern society, the Church must first devote itself to an acceptance of its own particularity.
The notion of particularity is often interpreted as a liberal, relativistic claim on Christianity writ large as ‘one particular opinion among many.’ This conception obscures the radical nature of the idea. Accepting particularity is, in truth, accepting reality. It is a rejection of the flawed assumption that we understand ourselves clearly — our motives, our circumstances, the effects of our actions, etc.
Moreover, it is a divorce from the deluded belief that we, as the ‘Church among us’ have a fully complete view of God’s goodness. It is an acceptance that, in spite of the total otherness of God, we aspire to be witnesses to His transcendent, yet, ultimately unknowable world beyond.
In his Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of an all too common belief in: “isolated individuals who, wielding an absolute criterion of what is good in and of itself, choose continually and exclusively between this clearly recognized good and an evil recognized with equal clarity.” For Bonhoeffer, such human omniscience is impossible — even for the Church. In reality, isolated individuals cannot truly exist in a broken, interconnected world any more than good and evil present themselves to our limited, particular view in their pure form.
Particularity may be viewed rightly as a humility about who we are; what we know; and what we cannot know.
Particularity allows us the grace to remember that we are a people unalterably shaped and changed (though not defined) by both liberalism and technology.
Particularity affords us the self-awareness necessary to honestly “examine the role of culture in shaping both ecclesial life and theological identity” both Christian and that of other religions.
Particularity grants us an ability to accept our present reality where hearing the ‘word of God’ in its typical forms creates trauma for many because of Christianity’s fraught history and because of the chasms separating our various histories. Particularity, thereby pushes us into a more authentic view of the true ‘good news’ and how to share it.
The good news is not ‘an answer’ that we as Christians — with our broken stories and co-option to human power — have somehow captured and can thus project to the world. It is something much more slippery and difficult for our minds to grasp — shaped as they are by modernity’s clarion call to possess a totalizing, fortified knowledge and from that knowledge develop technologies which can turn it into a salvation.
The true good news is an authentic reconciling with faith. Sociologist and lay theologian Jacques Ellul suggested a true faith is one postured toward, “a God who does not incarnate some natural force or who is not the abstract and hypostatized projection of one of our own desires or aspirations or values, faith in a God who is different from all that we can conceive or imagine – who cannot be assimilated to belief. For this God cannot be assimilated to one of the representations that we might easily multiply.”
In other words, the good news of faith is a rejection of the liberal categories of assimilation and certainty and an acceptance of the reality of our particularity in the face of a truly ultimate God.
Along with such a hope and doubt-filled faith in the Almighty, the good news is a reimagining of hope about the nature of our earthly reality. It is not found in some flawed longing for earthly protection from our own suffering and grief. For the Christian, hope must be found in the eternal instead of temporal. But, this is not some pie in the sky theology. The kingdom of God is breaking into the world already, but it is a very different kingdom offering a very different hope.
Particularity, then, identifies us as a people who are formed by gravity of the Bible’s essential message to us. It is a faith in an ultimately unassimilable God in whom we trust to transcend the particular cravings of this world, including our own.
What we are left with is a hopefulness about how our particular knowledge of the Sermon on the Mount must radically coexist with the terrifying reality that when the modern world collapses, there will surely be despots with hydrogen bombs and legions of anti-Christian mobs waiting in the wings.
Our authentic hope must not be grounded in our illusion of protection from our own suffering from such forces. Nor can it be found in our delusion of absolute knowledge. On this earth, it exists only in the painful re-learning of what it means to be a particular community which is about something beyond all this.
Confront Fear with Courageous Love
Embracing the particularity of the Church in this manner raises the potential for a community reborn. Such a community is free to build its families apart from a false acceptance of the totalizing control of the state — even as that state exists in parallel. It is free to be for the world what it cannot be for itself via a radical posture towards worldly deceptions of power, violence, greed, and oppression.
Yet, before such fruit can spring forth, we must learn to wield the instrasystemic virtue of a supernatural courage to face the fear which is all around us. This Christian courage will be required to reject the protections, influence and false beliefs which, today, bind the Church to our current order.
Given the level of extant disintegration in our proximate and ecclesial communities, prioritizing such courage as a paramount virtue of our new community implies a number of dramatic shifts to our aspirations, namely:
- A smaller Church: It is difficult to imagine the full breadth of the ecclesial body in America accepting the need to exchange its exploitative, protected status for a marginal, particular one. Maintaining the same homogenous enclaves we’ve become accustomed to is not realistic. A clinging desperate fight from these wings of ‘the Church’ is inevitable and many will certainly fall away. In the near term, we must either choose to remain an incongruent body or to become a much smaller one.
- A more counter-cultural Church: A true, abiding courage to face the reality of the world will call upon the Church to speak out against unrighteousness and injustice. Yet, it must learn to do so in a very different way. A post-liberal Church must radically reject the temptation to pursue influence within a violent state system. It must reject outright the idea that authority emanates from the state. Instead, it must show the world a new politic. Only in so doing will it diminish the power of the state (and the accompanying status quo).
- A more marginal Church: As we reject the tools of state power and the overarching narrative of self-centrality, we will necessarily lose influence within our present system. As we demonstrate opposition to the status quo, we will inevitably incur persecution. In these shifts, we will cease to exist as an institution condoned by and complicit with the state. Instead, we will become a belligerent to the system and (since we do not fight back with the tools of this world) a vulnerable one subject to its wrath.
This ‘throwing off’ does not imply an apolitical or separatist character. We must not retreat out of the world to create a new Church. Indeed, we cannot and be true to our calling. We must continue to live in this world and be formed of a different politic – one of love, radical love in the face of our own imminent suffering and demise. It is only through such an embrace of our own crucifixion that we can hope to see the world turn to a crucified Christ.
Only in taking such a risk can we transcend the cycles of violence which define and propel the liberal order while still living faithfully in its midst.
In the The Moral Imagination, acclaimed peace-building theorist and practitioner John Paul Lederach, speaks of this loving, courageous risk as the very foundation of a kingdom of true peace.
Risk is mystery. It requires a journey. Risk means we take a step toward and into the unknown. By definition, risk accepts vulnerability and lets go of the need to a priori control the process or the outcome of human affairs. It is the journey of the great explorers for it chooses, like the images in the maps of old, to live at the edge of known cartography. Risk means stepping into a place where you are not sure what will come or what will happen.
For a people who have long existed at the very pinnacle of a violent and oppressive system, assumption of such risk is a necessary first step towards a greater clarity about the nature of our reality and purpose.
Replace Delusion with Lamentation
“If you want to learn something of what genuine change means you must listen carefully to the voices of people who have suffered greatly.” John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination
If much remains uncertain, one thing should be clear. The coming collapse will bring our own suffering (and that of others) to a degree we likely cannot yet imagine.
As we embrace this notion with fear and trembling, we will gradually learn to overcome our delusion that suffering somehow equates to despondency. For the Christian, suffering is, decidedly, not the ultimate end to be avoided. Re-imagining suffering eschatologically will be key to our ability to help ourselves, our families, and a world of others grieve well. We alone can be a people who remembers for the world that “suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character, hope.”
This learning to grieve and live through grief is perhaps the essence of a post-liberal Church’s good news to a collapsing world. Remembering and inculcating lamentation as a key Christian virtue will build in us a powerful new capacity to speak usefully and truthfully to:
- the long-suffering vulnerable of the world whom the Church has forgotten and made ‘other’;
- those who formerly (in liberalism) believed they could buy, bully, or ignore their way out of suffering, but now find such means impotent; and
- the Church itself – remembering a truthful account of who we are and what the world is not.
On the Centrality of Preserving the Good
As we acknowledge liberalism’s failures, we must not be reactionary or driven by ideology. Rather we must become a people able to identify and carry forward those ways in which the Holy Spirit has imbued the intellectual underpinnings of modernity with elements of truth best not left in the wake of its imminent demise.
Tara Isabella Burton helpfully treats this issue in a recent discussion on post-liberal epistemology. She notes rightly that we must preserve aspects of the vision which has risen through (or, as Shindler would suggest, in spite of) liberalism. We must be a community which safeguards broad acceptance of human equality; creative freedom; and open communication while moving past liberalism’s propensity for human interchangeability; fundamental unrootedness; and relational nihilism.
In this manner, prayerful discernment of the good to be retrieved from liberalism’s ashes must also rank high amongst the priorities of a post-liberal Church.
What All of This Means
“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” ~Alasdair MacIntyre
As we close, it is important to reiterate the primacy of understanding the authentic nature of our own stories. The liberal world uses its language to obscure reality. Our particular station within late-modernity equips us exceedingly well to tell expedient or revisionist or therapeutically ‘helpful’ versions of our stories, but not authentic ones.
An authentic version of the story of the Church includes the highest highs and the lowest lows of human history. Our story includes solidarity with Christ — at the Sermon on the Mount, on the tormenting cross, and beyond the grave. Yet, it also includes, just as truthfully, full complicity with the racism, hypocrisy, fearful self-protectiveness — and above all violence — of the modern state.
So, what then with all this knowledge? What are we to do once we know our stories?
A true knowledge of our stories — one which repents our complicity and hopes in our redemption — can only lead us to embrace our own earthly suffering as the new and historic embodiment of an authentic politic of love in a fallen world. For, it is only in our marginalization that we will find our truthful identity as followers of a Christ crucified for the world. Equally critical, it is our only hope of fulfilling our Great Commission — facilitation of a truthful, eschatological proclamation of good news to a fallen world amidst the ashes of liberalism.
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