“Unity is proper to the creator, complexity to the created world.” Oliver O’Donovan
“We must claim this city for Jesus!” “Our society needs the gospel!” “We need to get out of the pews and serve the city!”
I was young, but years later, I can still remember our minister’s impassioned plea and our congregation’s enthusiastic response. We all wanted to proclaim the good news, to engage, to serve—to make a difference. But how? As young evangelicals, our theocultural imaginations seemed capable of generating two principal ways we could serve the common good of our city: more charity, and more evangelism.
The thought never even entered our minds that the businesses, sidewalks, book clubs, restaurants, hospitals, and coffee shops we developed and maintained Monday through Friday had anything to do with the common good of the city. These earthy institutions and vocations were largely superfluous, incidental to the higher spiritual ends of feeding the poor and preaching the gospel. We simply could not imagine anything beyond these two ends.
A similarly anemic social imagination reared its head again when I was in college. My peers and I debated each other to exhaustion over which institution—the state or the free market—was ultimately responsible for the common good. Occasionally a pious student would pop up, claiming that the church was the only institution of value, but it seemed the only thing we could all agree on was that one institution, and one institution only, had to win out.
But as a student, I tired of what seemed like shallow and myopic visions of the common good. Human flourishing had to be more complex than a booming GDP, a vast welfare state, or a full church. These allor- nothing stances that had become so common in American public discourse began to sound increasingly hollow.
In my search for an alternative vision of the good society, I came upon a number of authors who seemed to argue that the human person is more than merely a rational consumer, a client of the state, or a soul in need of saving. The human person, they argued, was an infinitely complex creature with a variety of aspects, interests, vocations, and communal attachments. Because of this complexity, modern reductionisms will always fail to do justice to the human creature. Human beings, they argued, demand a complex social architecture that reflects humanity’s many gifts, passions, needs, and aspirations.
The “common good,” therefore, is also not simple; it is complex. So it could never emerge from a simple tax cut, government program, or evangelistic crusade; rather, it must grow out of a pluriformity of communities and institutions, each developing in their own unique way. Reducing the common good to a single aspect of life—economic, political, or spiritual—simply did not tell the truth about who the human person was created to be.
From these scholars in theology, philosophy, political science, sociology, and even architecture, I began to see my desperate need for a deeper and more complex understanding of both the common good and the social purposes of God. I needed to be able to describe how citizens who are active in a wide variety of vocations and institutions all contribute to both the kingdom of God and the flourishing of their social architecture in their own unique ways.
First, I needed a robust theo-cultural imagination that valued vocations and institutions which are not directly concerned with either evangelism or charity. I found that imagination espoused most vividly in the theology of Abraham Kuyper and the neocalvinist school of thought he founded. Kuyper’s famous Lectures on Calvinism laid out a passionate theological argument for the divine weight placed on vocations in the arts, sciences, family, and associational lives of the people of God. Each of these vocations, according to Kuyper, contributes in its own unique way to the complex common good God desires. They are not temporary sideshows in the history of the world, but integral aspects of God’s story of creation. As such, these various vocations and spheres of life must be valued, protected, and developed for the good of all.
Two contemporary followers of Kuyper’s public theology, Bob Goudzwaard and David Koyzis, wrote outstanding books analyzing the ways in which an uncontrollably large market and state can endanger the complexity of the social architecture. According to Goudzwaard’s Capitalism and Progress, an over-emphasis on the free market and its guiding values of efficiency, power, and profit can endanger the integrity of the university, family, church, and artguild— for if these smaller spheres of life begin to adopt marketplace values as their leading functions, they will inevitably lose their Godgiven distinctiveness and purpose. In a similar vein, David Koyzis’s Political Visions and Illusions demonstrates how modern political ideologies can be used to justify the state’s direct control and management of universities, families, churches, and art galleries.
Both Goudzwaard and Koyzis skillfully demonstrate that if God wills a social architecture that is both complex and free, then Christians must be wary of economic and political forces that seek to reduce that complexity to a singular good. Any state or market system that claims to unify all created things under its banner has grasped a throne it dare not sit in. As Oliver O’Donovan says, “Unity is proper to the creator, complexity to the created world.”
But a theological vision was not enough. I needed a more complex understanding of social dynamics as well. For that I turned to a group of social and political scientists interested in the concept of “civil society.” Broadly defined, civil society includes a vast range of voluntary associations. Anything from bowling leagues to neighbourhood associations, labour unions to hunting clubs, churches, Boy Scout troops, and even a group of old ladies cracking a deck of cards would count. As long as the organization was voluntary and organized in some way, it was in.
Civil society advocates argued that these institutions, though often ignored by the state and the market, provide society with a tremendously important social space in which people can organize, discuss, learn, grow, mature, and cooperate around a wide variety of issues and activities. Through this social interaction, participants develop habits of deference, cooperation, compromise, conversation, and trust, or what social scientists call “social capital.” This social capital is vital in the construction of a strong social fabric that makes economic and political cooperation possible. As a result, while politicians and entrepreneurs may tell themselves that their institutions benevolently make card games, labour unions, and neighbourhood associations possible, civil society advocates argue that the reverse is often the case.
Three widely cited and foundational works on civil society are The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays (edited by Don Eberly), the multi-authored Habits of the Heart, and Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Eberly’s collection of essays provides an excellent and accessible introduction to the debate from a wide variety of voices in sociology, politics, and philosophy. Robert Putnam’s work does a magnificent job of tracing the socially destructive rise of individualism in American life. Putnam demonstrates how America’s stress on self-reliance, self-expression, and selfactualization has had a devastating effect on its previously vibrant associational life. Likewise,”
Habits of the Heart argues that while it is true that the gospel of individualistic freedom is the ruling narrative of America’s (a)social life, Americans continue to feel an aching desire to belong, an existential yearning for something bigger than themselves. The tragedy, according to Bellah, is that while Americans ache for a vast network of communal attachments, they lack the necessary language, practices, and virtues to cultivate, protect, and sustain them.
So where will these resources that make associational life possible come from? How can the rich social architecture of North American life be restored and renewed? Corwin Smidt’s Religion as Social Capital collects a growing list of sociological research that seems to indicate that communities of faith may be an important resource of associational renewal. According to Smidt’s group of sociologists, houses of worship tend to instill a set of beliefs, virtues, and habits that pull their participants beyond themselves and encourage them to gather, serve, donate, compromise, collaborate, and organize for ends beyond their individual selves. According to sociological research, religious participants give more, volunteer more, and are more politically active than fellow citizens who do not participate in weekly worship.
Closely related to this civil society literature is the fascinating sociological work of Ray Oldenburg on the vital social importance of cafes, coffee shops, bars, and hair salons. According to Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, these “third places” contribute to the common good of society in a number of intriguing and often surprising ways. These places of leisure and conversation, according to Oldenburg, provide a vital social function in which people can mourn and celebrate, relax and work, gossip and network, play
and relax. Oldenburg cites British sociologists who claim that the traditional British pub is the only place where a citizen’s thoughts and actions are not being in some way arranged for them; in the other kinds of public buildings they are the audiences, watchers of political, religious, dramatic, cinematic, instructional, or athletic spectacles. But within the four walls of the pub, once a man has bought or been bought his glass of beer, he has entered an environment in which he is a participator rather than a spectator.
Oldenburg argues that for the modern citizen—who daily feels run over by the seemingly cosmic forces of the market or the state— good conversation over a cold beer can return a sense of agency and identity that is vital to the integrity of not only the individual, but society as well. Oldenburg convincingly demonstrates how regular participation in a local coffee shop, beer hall, or other “third place” has the potential to contribute to the health of families, democratic politics, economic exchange, and even religious participation.
Finally, Eric O. Jacobsen’s wonderful little book Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith adds something significant to this construction of a more complex common good. Jacobsen argues that Christians interested in the good society must take particular interest in their community’s physical architecture. Jacobsen asks his readers a number of poignant questions: What does the design of the modern American city communicate about this country’s values? How do suburbs, drive-throughs, and freeways shape our characters and understandings of the common good? In the spirit of Winston Churchill who famously quipped, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” Jacobsen forces Christians to realize the deep impact a city’s physical architecture can have on their social, political, and spiritual health.
What does it mean to “claim a city for Jesus”? What is the common good that Christ desires? Believers in a God of chipmunks, walruses, and eagles can never be satisfied with the tropes of profit, power, or prayer as the end-all definition of human flourishing. From these and many other works, I am beginning to see that my church of entrepreneurs, politicians, pastors, waitresses, lawyers, builders, card players, coffee shop owners, and Girl Scout leaders are each contributing to the common good and the glory of God in their own unique way—vital vocations, every one.