The late Bernard Zylstra, a political philosopher and a mentor to many Christian social activists, wrote in the little booklet Challenge and Response in 1960, “Millions of Christians are spread over the face of the earth today. In one way or other they are all confronted with the question, What does God ask of me at this time? That question can only be answered when the Christian knows God’s message, that is, His Word, and secondly, the spirit of the times.”
I have tried over the years to develop a discerning attentiveness to the spiritual tectonics of the times in which I live. What an earlier immigrant generation of Dutch-Canadian neocalvinists called gereformeerde voelhorens, zeitgeist antennae, if you will. I have found the development of such deep-going cultural discernment to be an immensely difficult effort.
Despite the difficulty of this task, I remain convinced of its immense importance. Without wise discernment, without the ability to identify the relationship, as Bernard Zylstra insisted, between the Word of God and the spirit of the moment, we will not know what God asks of us in our time.
One of the wiser men of our moment, the cultural critic Denis Haack, writes that
If anything is certain for Christians today, it’s that we find ourselves living among people who do not share our deepest convictions and values. If we are to be faithful as Christians in such a pluralistic setting, we need to develop skill in discernment. An ability to respond winsomely to those who see things very differently than we do, instead of merely reacting to the ideas, values, and behavior of the non-Christians around us. An ability, by God’s grace, to creatively chart a godly path through the maze of choices and options that confront us, even when we’re faced with situations and issues that aren’t specifically mentioned in the Scriptures.
The first strategic challenge to the present generation of Christian cultural activists is not knowing what to do about the challenges facing us. The first strategic challenge is to identify correctly what those challenges are, at root. In this essay I will suggest that there are four major root challenges to Christian cultural faithfulness in these times, and that we have a long way to go before we will adequately understand their true nature and most significant implications for us.
The most perplexing of these root challenges is also the most immediate to most of us: the challenge of modern liberalism. I am at turns amused and frustrated by my academic colleagues who continue to insist that we live in postmodern times. The suggestion that somehow the spiritual force of modernity has been exhausted and replaced by something altogether different simply does not ring true to what I experience in my own daily work nor to the cultural forces I see at work in the world.
Following the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd I understand modernity to be a spiritual force that has bound and guided an historical epoch, and a spiritual force that emerges out of the dialectical relationship between two beliefs: a belief in the moral and intellectual autonomy of the human person, and a belief in scientific and technical control over nature.
The most forceful expression of this spiritual force—so forceful that Francis Fukuyama considers it to represent the teleological end of history, in the hegelian sense—is liberal capitalism. Other contenders to represent this force—with the foremost of these being communism, fascism, and national socialism—having been consigned to the ash heaps of history. But liberal capitalism is not losing steam, and not relinquishing its hold on the reins of the leading cultures of our time. To the contrary, it is assimilating the elites of an ever-growing number of cultures around the world, and extending its reach ever more pervasively into every nook and cranny of those cultures where it enjoys hegemonic power.
Lest I be misunderstood, this is not a screed against constitutional democracy or a market economy, both of which I belief are blessings to humanity with rich potential for responsible cultural action. Instead, I am concerned about the spiritual power that animates both liberal democracies and capitalist economies. It is a spiritual power that seeks to combine unfettered individual liberty with the commodification and bureaucratic subjugation of all of nature—and that recognizes no law or power beyond or independent of nature.
I am astonished by the power of liberal capitalism to persuade even those whose deepest commitments should predispose them against the libertarian erosion of communal ties and the grasping extension of market logic beyond its proper economic sphere that there is no alternative. Living in a society guided by liberal capitalism is like being submerged in an acid ocean stretching to the horizon—there seems no possible escape, and the very flesh is being eaten off our bones.
Having seen the pragmatic power of liberal capitalism in action up close, in the shaping of the decisionmaking of marxist politicians in Africa and of evangelical social activists in North America, I am perplexed by the difficulty of figuring out how to live faithfully to the gospel, in every sphere of life, in the smothering embrace of a society that is radically and comprehensively guided by this sweetly destructive force. Given that there is no new found land remaining to which Christians can repair to establish a new city on a hill, how should we now live, in the very midst of this often so seemingly welcoming but yet so profoundly antagonistic social order?
The second and most obvious of these challenges is the challenge of Salafiyyah Islam. This is the movement in contemporary Islam that seeks to return to that religion’s purest roots in its first three generations, generations known collectively as the Salafi, or predecessors. It is a complex movement symbolized in popular sentiment by Osama bin Laden and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City on September 11, 2001.
It is easy to mistake Salafiyyah Islam for a simplistic, even backward historical force. There is no doubt that its intentions are anachronistic and reactionary, desiring to return Islam to its most ancient practices and at the same time to extend the territorial supremacy of Islam over all of the earth. But it is by no means unsophisticated in either an intellectual or an organizational sense. Salafiyyah Islam has a theoretical base that has taken careful account of modernity in its historical expression in every sphere of human life, and that has found it not only inimical to the teachings of the Koran, but also inadequate for the cultivation of a wholesome human society. The contemporary adherents of Salafiyyah Islam are technically competent in the arts of war, and organizationally adept at the social technologies of terror and subversion.
What is not at all clear is how Christians should respond to the struggle between modernity and Salafiyyah Islam for global hegemony. I have heard Christians argue that within the context of North America we are more closely cobelligerent with Muslims, against liberal modernity, because of our supposedly shared concern for religion finding a space within a secularist political order, and because of our supposedly shared concern for what is here often term a “social conservative” stance on issues like marriage and abortion. I have also heard Christians argue that within the context of what first Bernard Lewis and then Samuel Huntington has termed the “clash of civilizations,” Christianity and liberal modernity are—as the religious expressions of “Western civilization”—closely allied against the global expansion of the Islamic ummah.
While there are several sets of such multilateral inter-religious relations in the world (yes, liberal modernity is religious in nature), the relation between Christianity, Islam, and liberal modernity is perhaps the most difficult to understand, particularly when we try and comprehend the relationship simultaneously on a local and a global scale. What seems expedient globally does not always seem to make sense locally, and the reverse. Should Johnny Christian go to war in Iraq to help establish a liberal democracy at the historical heart of the Islamic caliphate, while at the same time marching hand in hand with Yusuf Islam back home in Washington D.C. against abortion on demand?
It might seem strange to go from modernity and Islam to a more concretely geopolitical entity, but the third challenge facing us in our moment is China. Conceiving of itself as the Middle Kingdom, or the central political entity in the world, China has succeeded to assimilate several waves of religious change and barbaric invasion, while maintaining this vision of itself. At present it seems to be in the process of extracting from modern capitalism certain key elements of economic organization, while refashioning its official communist political order into something resembling a blend between the fascism of Benito Mussolini and the nine-rank mandarin bureaucracy of the Tang dynasty.
Both China itself and the overseas Chinese communities—the approximately 34 million Chinese people who live throughout Southeast Asia, North America, and Australia—have been fertile fields for the expansion of the Christian faith.
China is at the same time repressive in its relations with independent Christian churches, and welcoming to scholarly engagement with Christian intellectuals. An example of the former is the arrest of approximately ten Catholic bishops and priests who have been and jailed or sent to labour re-education camps as recently as April of 2005. An example of the latter is the Chinese Studies Program at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where numerous scholars and theologians in Christian studies from academic institutions in China and Hong Kong have been involved in short-term lecturing and research since 1992, and where each year up to ten doctoral students, in their second year of studies at key academic institutions in China, do academic research on dissertation topics in the areas of Christian philosophy, theology and Chinese studies.
The relationship of China as a geopolitical entity to Christianity as a religion has fascinating and troubling world historical potential. David Aikman, the author of Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, suggests that China might in this century become substantially Christian, and explores (in an interview with National Review‘s Kathryn Jean Lopez) some of the consequent options:
What would a non-Christian China be like if it became a superpower capable of rivaling the U.S.? Probably dangerous and unpredictable. A Christian China would be far more likely to view its role in the world as containing a global moral responsibility, an “Augustinian” national self-view, if you like.
China presents its own Christians with a cultural challenge very different from that presented by liberal modernity, but perhaps no less perplexing. How does one live within an established social and political order that is at once seemingly tolerant of and fundamentally antagonistic to one’s most basic commitments and convictions. For Christians in North America, one additional question is how we relate to Chinese Christians as our co-religionists in a complex geopolitical situation, particularly given the high probability of serious international conflict between America and China in the twenty-first century, predicted by pundits like Robert Kaplan?
The last challenge I want to identify is the challenge of post-Western Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In books like The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins and Whose Religion Is Christianity?: The Gospel beyond the West by Lamin Sanneh, it is argued that Christianity has burst forth from its primarily European and North American context over the past hundred years to become a religion weighted toward the global South: there are now more Christians, and a more vital Christian religious practice, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, than there are in the countries of the North Atlantic. The rapid secularization of Europe and Canada particularly since the 1960s—that is, the mass displacement in personal belief and public influence of Catholic and Protestant Christianity with liberal modernity—and the even more rapid Christianization of Africa since 1900 are perhaps the most significant features of this turn of events.
This shift in religious demographics gains additional weight if it is considered that North Atlantic Christianity has in many ways internally accommodated itself to liberal modernity, for instance in the doctrinal acquiescence of liberal Protestantism to the key intellectual notions of liberal modernity, and in the pragmatic adjustment of evangelical Protestantism to consumerism and a celebrity-focused media culture. By contrast (although this is an over-simplification), Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America (give or take a local syncretism or two…) is attempting to be more orthodox both in faith and life, leading, for example, to the contemporary conflicts within the Anglican communion between African and Asian bishops (on the one hand) and British and North American bishops (on the other hand) over the question of the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the priesthood.
While, from my Christian perspective, the growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is an exciting historical development, this massive shift in religious adherence has as yet resulted in only limited positive social change.
The most obviously troubling problem in this regard is the devastating AIDS pandemic in Africa, which is almost entirely the result of personal sexual practices that are in every respect at odds with a Christian sexual ethic. In the long run, however—if we are to take as an example the slow emergence of Christian cultural influence in western Europe between, say, the deposition of Romulus Augustus as Roman emperor in AD 476 and the crowning of Charlemagne as Imperator Romanorum in AD 800—it is entirely possible that Christianity will result in a rich cultural flowering in Africa, in every sphere of life.
The sociologist David Martin has documented the social effects of the emerging pentecostalism of Latin America, most famously in Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (1990). According to Mr. Martin, this explosion is already bearing significant social consequences, not the least of which is the relatively rapid alleviation of poverty among the pentecostal poorest of the poor. Admittedly Latin America is a very different case from Africa. Whereas in Africa mass conversions have been taking place over the past hundred years from an autochthonous paganism to a missionary evangelical and Catholic Christianity, in Latin America, Pentecostal and more broadly evangelical conversions are taking place in the context of hundreds of years of a hegemonic Catholicism.
The situation is different yet in Asia. There Christianity continues to be very much a minority religion, despite its rapid growth. Like Africa but unlike Latin America, Christianity is very much a newcomer to much of Asia. Unlike Africa, the competing religious systems in Asia have proven to be much more overtly tenacious. The evidence of Christian cultural influence in Asia—outside of South Korea, perhaps, and some overseas Chinese communities—remains very limited.
How are we as Christian in Europe and North America to relate to our fellow Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America? Against the background of a rising Christianity in the global South, what—perhaps more broadly—are our responsibilities for Africa, Asia, and Latin America? As I have written elsewhere,
My Africa problem is not whether there is something wrong with Africa, or whether something should be done about it if there is. Both reliable research and my own direct experience assures me that something is indeed very wrong with Africa, and I have no doubt that something should be done about it. My problem has to do with what should be done, and by whom. More particularly, what is my own personal responsibility toward Africa, and how does that responsibility weigh up against my other responsibilities?
Similar questions trouble me about Asia and Latin America.
These four root challenges to Western Christianity—liberal modernity, Salafiyyah Islam, China, and post-Western Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America—are of equal importance, even if only the first has an immediate and intimate influence on our daily lives. Christianity is a global religion, and Christians share a responsibility for one another and for the planet as a whole, regardless of our particular location.
I have friends who argue that all that we need to do—indeed, that our only appropriate action—is to take part in the life of our local church, to nurture our immediate family and friends, to cultivate our own garden or farm, to steward our own business, to help govern our own parish or township. This localism I reject for its neglect of a serious and active taking up of responsibility for negotiating the global challenges listed in this essay. Yes, we have local responsibilities, but they must be balanced with our global responsibilities. In this sense must cultivate an earnest Christian cosmopolitanism in our generation—a cosmopolitanism very much in evidence, for example, in early international calvinism.
All I have done here is to point at four big challenges. What these challenges mean for us, and how we are to address them, will require much study and debate—and at least this is clear: that Western Christians must think through these issues in partnership with Christians from around the world, if we are to truly understand the implications of what we discover.
I fear I have to disagree with V. I. Lenin, from whom we have borrowed the title of this series, “What is to be done?” He wrote:
It is not a question of what path we must choose (as was the case in the late eighties and early nineties), but of what practical steps we must take upon the known path and how they shall be taken. It is a question of a system and plan of practical work.
There is as yet much thought that needs to go into what path we must choose. Perhaps our greatest difficulty is that we cannot avoid taking practical steps even as the path ahead remains, to a large extent, unknown.