Centuries ago, when the Jews were in exile and in despair, they cried out to God, “How should we then live?” (Ezekiel 33:10). The same question rings down through the ages. How shall we live today?
The birth of the Son of God two thousand years ago still remains the defining moment of history. Jesus founded a church that could not be destroyed—not by the deaths of his followers in the Coliseum, not by barbarian hordes or mighty Turkish emperors, not by modern tyrants or the power of sophisticated ideologies. After two thousand years, we can affirm that Jesus Christ is indeed the same yesterday, today, and forever. This alone makes the opening decade of this millennium a cause for jubilation, a time when Christians boldly and confidently recommit to engaging contemporary culture with a fresh vision of hope.
Yet my sense is that most Christians are anything but jubilant. And for good reason. We are experiencing some of the same sense of exile that the Jews did in the time of Ezekiel. We live in a culture that is at best morally indifferent. A culture in which violence, banality, meanness, and disintegrating personal behaviour are destroying civility and endangering the very life of our communities. A culture in which the most profound moral dilemmas are addressed by the cold logic of utilitarianism.
What’s more, when Christians do make good-faith efforts to halt this slide into barbarism, we are maligned as intolerant or bigoted. Small wonder that many people have concluded that the “culture war” is over—and that we have lost. Battle weary, we are tempted to withdraw into the safety of our sanctuaries, to keep busy by plugging into every programme offered by our megachurches, hoping to keep ourselves and our children safe from the coming desolation.
Right after signing the contract for How Now Shall We Live? and while still plagued by writer’s remorse (was I really convinced that this book needed to be written?), my wife, Patty, and I visited old friends for a weekend and attended their local evangelical church, which is well known for its biblical preaching. I found the message solidly scriptural and well delivered. That is, until the pastor outlined for the congregation his definition of the church’s mission: to prepare for Jesus’ return through prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship, and witnessing. In that instant, all lingering doubts about whether I should write this book evaporated.
Don’t get me wrong. We need prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship, and witnessing. But if we focus exclusively on these disciplines—and if in the process we ignore our responsibility to redeem the surrounding culture— our Christianity will remain privatized and marginalized.
Turning our backs on the culture is a betrayal of our biblical mandate and our own heritage because it denies God’s sovereignty over all of life. Nothing could be deadlier for the church—or more ill-timed. To abandon the battlefield now is to desert the cause just when we are seeing the first signs that historic Christianity may be on the verge of a great breakthrough. The process of secularization begun in the Enlightenment is grinding to a halt, and many people believe that the new millennium will mark “the desecularization of world history.”
On the verge of a Christian breakthrough?
Do we sound delusional? Or like Pollyannas wearing rose-colored glasses? If you think so, consider just a few signs of the times.
First, several cultural indicators are at long last reversing, which suggests that some of the most destructive pathologies are beginning to decline. Consider the American data. According to Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin, writing in the December 2007 issue of Commentary magazine, the rates of both violent crime and property crime fell significantly between 1993 and 2005, reaching their lowest levels since 1973. Teenage drug use has declined significantly in comparison with the 1990s. The use of ecstasy and LSD, for example, has dropped by over 50 percent. The number of abortions performed annually in America reached a high of over 1.6 million in 1990, but has since dropped to fewer than 1.3 million, the lowest level since the practice was legalized in the USA in 1973. And the American divorce rate today is at its lowest level since 1970.
Second, moral discourse is reviving. Just a few years ago, it was all but impossible to discuss serious moral issues in public forums. In 1997, for example, I was invited to a popular week-in-review program where Washington talking heads dispense inside-the-beltway wisdom to the masses. In the course of the discussion, I suggested that the breakdown of the inner cities has a moral component— only to be greeted with incredulous stares. After an awkward pause, the host quickly changed the subject. But only a year later, as a result of the White House scandals, I was asked to appear on most major news shows in the country to discuss, of all things, the nature of repentance. Today many people are actually willing to admit that private immorality has public consequences.
Why are cultural trends shifting? Because modernity has played out its destructive logical consequences. All the ideologies, all the utopian promises that marked the last century have proven utterly bankrupt. Americans have achieved what modernism presented as life’s great shining purpose: individual autonomy, the right to do what one chooses. Yet this has not produced the promised freedom; instead, it has led to the loss of community and civility, to kids shooting kids in schoolyards, to citizens huddling in gated communities for protection. We have discovered that we cannot live with the chaos that inevitably results from choice divorced from morality.
As a result, people are groping for something that will restore the shattered bonds of family and community, something that will make sense of life. If the church turns inward now, if we focus only on our own needs, we will miss the opportunity to provide answers at a time when people are sensing a deep longing for meaning and order. It is not enough to focus exclusively on the spiritual, on Bible studies and evangelistic campaigns, while turning a blind eye to the distinctive tensions of contemporary life. We must show the world that Christianity is more than a private belief, more than personal salvation. We must show that it is a comprehensive life system that answers all of humanity’s age-old questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Does life have any meaning and purpose?
Only Christianity makes sense
Christianity offers the only viable, defensible answers to these questions. Only Christianity offers a way to understand both the physical and the moral order. Only Christianity offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation. Only Christianity offers a way to live in line with the real world.
But if Christians are going to carry this life-giving message to the world, we must first understand it and live it ourselves. We must understand that God’s revelation is the source of all truth, a comprehensive framework for all of reality. Abraham Kuyper, the great nineteenth-century theologian who served as prime minister of Holland, said that the dominating principle of Christian truth is not soteriological (i.e., justification by faith) but rather cosmological (i.e., the sovereignty of the triune God over the whole cosmos, in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible). The entire cosmos can be understood only in relation to God.
The church’s singular failure in recent decades has been the failure to see Christianity as a life system, or worldview, which governs every area of existence. This failure has been crippling in many ways. For one thing, adult Christians cannot answer the questions our children bring home from school, so we are incapable of preparing them to answer the challenges they face. We cannot explain to our friends and neighbours why we believe, and we often cannot defend our faith. And we do not know how to organize our lives correctly, allowing our choices to be shaped by the world around us. What’s more, by failing to see Christian truth in every aspect of life, we miss great depths of beauty and meaning: the thrill of seeing God’s splendor in the intricacies of nature or hearing his voice in the performance of a great symphony or detecting his character in the harmony of a well-ordered community.
Most of all, our failure to see Christianity as a comprehensive framework of truth has crippled our efforts to have a redemptive effect on the surrounding culture. At its most fundamental level, the so-called culture war is a clash of belief systems. It is, as Abraham Kuyper put it, a clash of principle against principle, of worldview against worldview. Only when we see this can we effectively evangelize a post-Christian culture, bringing God’s righteousness to bear in the world around us.
How now shall we live?
Evangelism and cultural renewal are both divinely ordained duties. God exercises his sovereignty in two ways: through saving grace and common grace. We are all familiar with saving grace; it is the means by which God’s power calls people who are dead in their trespasses and sins to new life in Christ. As God’s servants, we may at times be agents of his saving grace, evangelizing and bringing people to Christ. But few of us really understand common grace, which is the means by which God’s power sustains creation, holding back the sin and evil that result from the Fall, and that would otherwise overwhelm his creation like a great flood. As agents of God’s common grace, we are called to help sustain and renew his creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and society, to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall.
Christianity is a reasonable faith, solidly grounded in human experience. It provides a worldview that fits the structure of reality and enables us to live in harmony with that structure. The Biblical categories of Creation, Fall, and Redemption provide the means to compare and contrast the various ideas and philosophies competing for allegiance in today’s world, for they cover the central questions that any worldview must answer:
- Creation—Where did we come from, and who are we?
- Fall—What has gone wrong with the world?
- Redemption—What can we do to fix it?
These basic worldview principles—creation, fall, redemption—can be applied to the restoration of culture. It illustrates how we can use these principles as tools not only to critique the false worldviews holding sway today but also to build a new culture. In everything from politics to education to the arts, the Christian worldview provides a more coherent way of living in the world—and living out a biblical worldview renews the culture in whichever arena of life God has placed us.
Is there yet time in this epic moment, in the dawn decade of the third millennium, to revive the church’s sense of hope and to bear witness to the immutable truth of biblical revelation? Can our culture be rebuilt so that all the world can see in its splendour and glory the contours of God’s kingdom? Emphatically yes. The late Pope John Paul II in the year 2000 urged Christians everywhere to work to make the new millennium a “springtime” of Christianity. We can still make these early years of the millennium the beginning of a new season for the faith.
For that to happen, however, we must first listen to the answer God gave his people when they cried out, “How should we then live?” Through the prophet Ezekiel, God admonished his people to repent—turn from their evil ways and turn toward him—and to show their neighbours that their hope was in his justice and righteousness.
God’s word to us today is precisely the same.
This article is a revision of the introduction to Charles W. Colson and Nancy R. Pearcey’s How Now Shall We Live? (1999)