Christians concerned with contextualizing the gospel (i.e. thinking and living missionally) should consider the liabilities of the culture and society they inhabit. The excesses and vulnerabilities of various cultures are places where the gospel should come to bear. In western democracies for example, the notion of freedom is one with which Christians thinking missionally should engage with the gospel, pointing out how only in Christ is true freedom found.
Major questions surround and overwhelm thinking Christians these days. Consider the way in which the conversation over racial injustice has been fraught with confusion over social media with Christians launching barbed attacks at one another. It seems we cannot even see clearly on what issues should be engaged with on this side of heaven. However, what should concern us more than current events are the cultural ecosystems which produced these events.
The incessant breaking news reports and notifications beckon are attention. There seem to be unceasing “breaking news” stories and injustices in our world. This is not to encourage some gnostic or stoic uncaring view of current events. Christians should engage with the cares of the society around them as reasonably as they can considering the God given limits established on our intellectual and relational capacities.
But, it is to say, that most of our current events are downstream of larger cultural questions regarding the vision of the good life. Considerations must be made regarding the various models of the good life in society because our vision of the good life will invariably shape society. Why? Because by considering some of the liabilities, we can see and show how the gospel might make headway. Liabilities are those areas of any culture, which based on it’s prior commitments, are inconsistent with a Christian worldview.
Take freedom and free market economics or capitalism as an example. Based on the ungirding value of freedom, capitalism can be considered inconsistent with a biblical worldview when it promotes greed and power. Anarcho-capitalism functions as a reductio-ad-absurdum in this example. The cultural value of freedom in large part contributes to the vision of the good life in America. This is not to say that either capitalism and the value of freedom are inherently bad. In fact, there are good reasons to conclude that liberal democracies paired with free market economics have promoted the common good of many people.
Liberal societies are those which are based in some principle and prior commitment to liberty or freedom both personally and culturally. They are typically concerned with the rights of people and creating a society which honors those rights. This may be confusing In America because liberalism is typically wed with a political party but historically both conservatives and liberals are inheritors of the political, cultural, and philosophical foundation of liberalism.
However, as Patrick Deenan points out in Why Liberalism Failed, the conservative value of economic freedom and liberal value of individual freedom run into problems when detached from virtue. With all of this said, what might be some potential liabilities of liberal societies and how can we exploit them for gospel proclamation? How can we exploit the weakness of the world around us for gospel advancement? First let’s look at the potential liabilities:
Liberal societies are typically modernistic in their approach to people. Modernism is an approach to the world built on the enlightenment which values personal freedom and discovery. Post-industrial revolution liberal societies champion efficiency, linearity, and production. The rise of the self-help industry is a prime example of how these values shape our approach to human development. It is a whole industry of literature devoted to making people more productive, efficient, and effective.
Modernism approaches human development (discipleship) efforts with a rigid linearity such that we assume if we do certain things, it should have certain outcomes, always. This is seen in the church in discipleship approaches which create linear schemes where there is clear sequentiality in what comes first, head knowledge or heart knowledge. Modernism treats human development – discipleship – as a mechanical process, assuming that if we do certain things, we can guarantee certain outcomes. It makes people out to be machines which when given the correct inputs must produce the desired result.
The most obvious example of this today is in journalism. The entire field of journalism is predicated on the idea that you can have a neutral approach to the facts. This embryonic liability has only been exacerbated and exploited by the collapse of traditional media by social media. The death rattle of establishment media in their crying about Facebook news is just a sign of their soft-underbelly. They know they are not neutral.
Rather than traditional gatekeeper institutions who held the keys to the ‘facts’ and the relevant ‘information,’ in this new age anyone can publish any ‘facts’ and ‘information’ they see as correct. This has given rise to the concept of alternative facts. Why? Because the idea that facts are neutral is a liberal construct. This is the secular idea that you can be a neutral representative of ‘the facts’ without any prior intellectual commitment or belief.
Rafael de Arizaga hit on this point wherein “liberalism…masks its true formative character under the guise of neutral legislative technology.” In fact, liberalism drifts into a totalitarianism because it props up theorists and experts as neutral arbiters of what is true. Consider the recent yard signs which claim to ‘believe the science’ as if ‘science’ were some settled and final determiner of all that is true. To make matters worse, we become blind to the authority which guides and is exerted by the experts because we’ve been told they are not being authoritative.
Hence, the generic appeal or moral pungency of calling on people to ‘believe the science.’ This also delves into the waters of the separation of church and state. When liberalism is reduced to freedom, that very freedom can be exploited by people who would use that freedom for unvirtuous self-interest. What are we to make of neutral experts who have attempted to predict the presidential election results but have miffed in a major way twice in a row. The idea that one can neutrally interpret the predicted behavior of people is over-baked and has proven itself wrong in the polling.
In liberal societies, especially those built upon the prior two liabilities, there is a high degree and propensity to excess. Imagine a car with the alignment off. Liberalism which is wed with a dehumanizing anthropology and an appeal to the neutral experts invariably will drift toward the ditch of excess. Why?
Because both of those liabilities are secular and materialistic approaches to life. They are non-spiritual in the sense that they offer no spiritually transcendent viewpoint or commitment. When our only hope is the material world with no vision of spiritual transcendency, we seek to leverage whatever we have now in our possession in order to get the most out of life.
After all, YOLO. This is the core message of the book of Ecclesiates. When all we have in life is eating and drinking, we might as well eat and drink as much as possible. Patrick Deenan nicely summarizes how both conservatives and liberals take the concept of liberty and place excessive weight and emphasis on it in Why Liberalism Failed. Conservatives practice excess with economic freedom and liberals with moral freedom.
How might Christianity exploit these vulnerabilities for gospel advancement? What could it look like for Christian-witness to come to bear on these opportunities? Christianity can offer a way out of this journey to the end of the world by offering three things.
First, Christianity offers a robust and holistic anthropology and philosophy of human development. Rather than treating people as computers which require the correct discipleship code in order to produce maturity, Christianity offers a more humble and human understanding.
We are limited creatures who do not possess uninhibited capacity for freedom. Embracing our limitations actually frees us from the illusion that we can and even should be all-knowing and all-powerful. Liberalism in this way inherently produces feelings of shame in people. If everyone is supposed to possess the capacity for unlimited exploration, thought, reflection, development, and progress, then what are we to make of ourselves if we find ourselves ‘crippled’ by life?
What are we to make of ourselves when we have panic attacks that prevent us from self-actualizing the possibilities we can imagine? We are left to conclude that something is wrong with us as created beings. That God made a mistake. This is the core message of shame. That we are somehow we are unworthy of love, not because of sin, but because we cannot ever live up the liberal ideals. And in this way, liberalism deceives us from our core problem. If we are distracted by thinking that our primary problem in life is that we cannot be more uninhibited, more free to do what we want, we will fail to grasp the gospel, the good news, that we are limited beings who sin and need a Savior.
The idea of what qualifies as faithful, authentic, and virtuous human progress and development is contested. Benedict XVI for one calls into question the virtue of progress for progress sake. As an example, Trinitarian theology offers a compelling philosophical underpinning by which we could propose a mutuality and equality to processes of human development pulling from the reality that God is three in one. Three persons who are equal and exist eternally in community.
A robustly Christian anthropology will take into account our relationality as a primary and foundational concern. Instead of machines to be programmed and fine-tuned, we remember our humanity and relationality reflecting our relational Trinitarian God.
A Theory of Knowledge
Second, Christianity offers an approach to knowledge which is based in the prior commitment that all knowledge is derivative of the God who gives knowledge. We may seek to expand and add to knowledge but that expansion is held in check by the reality that all knowledge already belongs to God. Thereby, any added knowledge is simply derivative and revealed by the grace and generosity of God. The idea that we are the end-all be-all meaning makers who discover new, previously unknown information, is pride by another name. We receive knowledge as revealed by God and through his creation.
Yes, we can make great scientific discoveries and pontificate about new ideas. We can create new business and original art pieces. But, the idea that all of this is somehow all-dependent on us, the individual, is well, very modern. Instead, Christianity engages with knowledge from a place of dependency and humility, two things lost on people who have imbibed at the well of liberalism for far too long. Dependency might as well be seen as a social stigma in our time.
However, biblically, dependency is exactly what we must admit in coming to God at all. When we rediscover our dependency as people, we rehumanize society. And in rehumanizing society, we will show people a vision of the good life that is less idealistic (and perhaps disappointing in that way) but more relationally satisfying.
Third, Christianity offers a moral tethering in which we believe that excess and the pursuit of material satisfaction as penultimate is unhelpful and immoral. Furthermore, because of God’s ultimate knowledge (and our derivative knowledge) and our holistic anthropology, we re-align the steering to more regularly avoid the ditch of excess. Because Christianity rejects greed as a morally acceptable virtue, it has a built in vision of the good life which guards against excess.
That is not to say that Christians themselves embody this virtue but it is to say that Christianity by default promotes a vision of the good life which runs counter to liberalism in some ways. Throw in the ad-mixture of a robustly Christian anthropology and understanding of derivative knowledge, and we have a vision of the good life which will lead to greater Shalom in our world. As long as the church is captivated by a vision of the good life which is inherently dehumanizing, prideful, and excessive, it will cease to connect with a culture desperate and dying in want of something more. It’s very vulnerability, that of wanting more, is a value to be exploited not a virtue to be embodied.
Just as Piper’s Christian hedonism was the connecting point for many of an earlier generation, today the opportunity lies with these liability of liberalism which all pave the way to destruction. By exploring three liabilities of liberal societies, we can gain insight into some of the pain points of people in society and expose opportunities to show how the gospel is better.
Christianity offers a vision of the good life which proves more satisfying and humanizing. We could call it Christian liberalism much like Piper called his iteration Christian hedonism. Christianity promotes a version of liberalism that is rooted in a vision of the good life which prevents freedom run amok.