It can be frustrating to be a Christian. We claim to know the secret of the universe, and to know him personally. Jesus is the centre of history, the Way, Truth, and Life, the one in whom everything—everything—coheres. Our good news is good news about everything for everyone, the kind of news that everyone needs if they want to avert utter disaster.
Large numbers of people do not listen. It does not matter how attractive we make Christian faith. It does not matter that we explain that the good news follows the grain of the world’s design. To many, it violates all common sense. They do not find it the least bit plausible. When we speak of our good news, they do not or cannot recognize it as good news at all.
Frustration has probably been a perennial temptation, but it is especially intense today. We argue that abortion is an assault on the most vulnerable, that it constitutes a war against one of the glories of women, the capacity to conceive and give birth and nourish a new human being. We insist that marriage is designed to be a union-in-difference that foreshadows the ultimate destiny of the cosmos. We argue that contemporary biotechnologies mechanize and commercialize human beings. Few listen. Few find our arguments meaningful, much less persuasive. Christians often complain about media caricatures, but there is no media conspiracy here. When we resist abortion or insist that marriage requires a man and a woman, all they hear is the retrograde bigotry of meddlesome prudes.
Many readers will have spotted an allusion to what sociologists of knowledge call “plausibility structures.” Plausibility structures are social arrangements that provide support for beliefs in a context of moral and epistemological relativity. We are all heretics now, Peter Berger argued, because in the conditions of modernity none of us endorses without question a traditional way of life. We all choose the way we live, and we do so in complete awareness of other choices we might have made. This is highly disorienting, and so we need social support to maintain our chosen ways of life. “Plausibility structure” highlights the fact that our beliefs about the world take shape and are sustained within certain social and cultural contexts. We need to be around others who believe and act as we do, and the co-believers who surround us can make our beliefs seem inevitable. If everyone I know is Amish, being Amish will seem as natural as spring daffodils.
When the institutions of media, education, law, social science, and so on, all tell us that marriage is nothing more than a temporary erotic partnership, that fetuses are lumps of tissue that a woman has a right to remove from her body, that homosexual desires and acts are morally indifferent, there is pressure to believe it. How can you argue with science? Anyone who disbelieves will stick out. Anyone with a different message will be perceived as unbearably arrogant.
Frustration is an understandable response, but it is an ineffective, dangerous public stance. It can lead to withdrawal. It lends a dose of bitterness to our public rhetoric. It can burst out in violence. We need an antidote to frustration that will enable a public stance infused with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. How might we cultivate that? Well, one of the ways we learn the virtues is through exemplars. I suggest there are lessons to be learned from the Scriptures on just this point.
Why Christianity Isn’t “Conservative”
At the beginning of her history, Israel lacked everything that made an ancient nation a nation. It had no king, no temple, no priesthood, no land, virtually no people. The patriarchs moved from place to place, setting up a temporary tent-city here and there, building an altar wherever they stopped. Yahweh had called Abram from Ur and promised him, so Paul says, the world. Yet, as the writer to the Hebrews famously put it, Abraham died without seeing the fulfillment of any of these promises. Eventually the promises were fulfilled, and they are still being fulfilled. Abraham’s seed is still multiplying like sand and stars, blessing nations, inheriting the earth. For Abraham, though, it was a matter of faith; he saw only the indistinct outlines of a city on a distant horizon.
At the exodus, Israel’s world shifted. Moses came down from Sinai with instructions for a new style of life and worship. Abram did not have to worry about purity regulations; Sarah was not unclean after childbirth; Jacob was not excluded from God’s presence because of a nocturnal emission. Abram could set up an altar wherever he wanted, and he did not have to rely on a caste of sacrificial specialists to approach God. He was his own priest. After Sinai, it was all different. Israel had to observe purity rules and avoid defilement. Not just anyone could approach or touch an altar, but only the select few, the descendants of Aaron, who alone were designated as priests.
Some did not like the innovations. The rebellion of Korah was a “conservative” reaction against Moses. Korah insisted that every Israelite was a priest, fully qualified to approach the altar. Judged strictly by tradition, he was exactly right: he stood for the old-time patriarchal religion. Solomon’s temple was another innovation, centralizing sacrifice at a single sanctuary (as per Deuteronomy 12). By contrast, Israel’s high places were centres of “conservative” religion. Many high places had been places of worship much longer than Mount Moriah. The tradition of high-place worship was strong and settled. Israel had always worshipped on every high hill and under every leafy tree, and who was Jeremiah to challenge it?
Like Moses and Solomon, Jesus was a revolutionary, as was Paul. The coming of the kingdom brought radical change in priesthood and worship. Purity rules and ancient shades and grades of holiness suddenly became obsolete. Sadducees and Pharisees and later Judaizers were the conservers of sacred tradition. It is no wonder they attacked Jesus and the apostles with such vehemence. Jesus disrupted the foundations of Jewish life and threatened Israel’s future.
Faith, Hope, and Love in the Meantime
From this partial and highly selective account, we can draw some lessons. Lesson number one is about faith. Abraham organized his entire life around promises from God that he did not live to see. He put more confidence in God’s promise than in his own observation. That is what it means to live by faith. Faith is humble, but it can appear absurdly self-inflating. If Yahweh’s promises were to be believed, Abram, a wealthy but minor sheik meandering through Chaldea and Egypt, carried the destiny of the human race in his knapsack. Egypt fought its wars, Babylon built its towers, but the events of lasting importance were taking place in a corner—in an aged man’s terrorized dream, his hope for an heir, the day he cut the foreskins of all the men of his household, a visit by three men to Abraham’s tent, the birth and near-sacrifice of a son.
In faith, we organize our lives around what God has promised, not what we can see. What has he promised? The mountain of the house of Yahweh will be established as chief of the mountains, to which nations stream to learn Yahweh’s instruction, to beat their swords into ploughshares and never learn war. The small stone of the kingdom grinds the monument of empire to powder, then grows into a mountain that covers the earth. The smallest seed sprouts into a tree where the birds and beasts find refuge. Jesus is Abraham’s seed and David’s son, given the nations as his inheritance to rule.
Lesson number two is about hope. Abraham’s faith was “hope against hope” (Romans 4:18). Sarah was barren; God said Sarah would bear a child; believing God, Abraham hoped for a son. Abraham owned no land; God promised him the world; believing God, he hoped to inherit what was promised.
Hope is grounded in an “ontology,” beliefs about the way the world is, beliefs reflected in Israel’s history of revolutionary innovation and grounded in creation. God made everything from nothing. As Lord, He can and does remake the world. As the German-American thinker Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put it, to confess the creed is to confess that the world ends again and again. At bottom, the conservatives of the Bible—Korah, the priests of the high places, the Sadducean priests—denied that God is creator. They did not believe that the God who made the world remained active in it. “Conservatives” cannot hope; they do not want to hope. They want the world to remain in steady state forever. Hope looks to a living Lord, an active God who works and reworks, who molds a pot, breaks it, and moulds it again.
Hope is anti-frustration because hope gives us confidence that the world will not forever remain as it now is. At present, the gospel and the way of life it implies sounds like a noisy gong and clanging cymbal. The eyes and ears of many are closed. But we serve a God who heals the blind and opens ears with a touch. Today, the plausibility structures neutralize our message, but the living God tears down plausibilities to raise fresh ones.
In faithful hope, we know that something more than history is on our side. We do not have to rush; we do not have to rage; we can check our rashness. We can speak with gentle kindness even to enemies; we can mortify our instinct to be provoked by opposition and failure. Thus we come to lesson number 3: In hope and faith, we can speak and act in love.