This may be a tad tardy, but Jeff Bilbro’s write-up and assessment of the conference about Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed caught my eye for several reasons. One was the relatively under reported and under acknowledged comment by one of the presenters. According to Jeff:

Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Seminary, articulated the conference’s animating questions when she asked whether Christians can find within a pluralistic space opportunities to live radically faithful lives. The danger, of course, is that a liberal, pluralistic space will so malform Christians that the distinctive character of a gospel-formed life is warped.

That way of framing both Jeff’s subsequent remarks and the discussion of Patrick’s beef with liberalism represents well the reaction of some Christians to modernity in its twenty-first century form. But this starting point also makes assumptions that need argumentation as much as explanation. One is precisely what radical Christianity is. Another is whether liberalism has the capacity, unlike the gates of hell, to defeat Christianity.

It is a Protestant cliche, but if you consult the Bible you find few demands for Christian practice that make liberalism impossible for believers. The first pope (according to some) listed in his second epistle the following markers of Christian obedience (whether radical or not):

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.

The quote could go on but those verses from 2 Peter 1 are enough to raise a question about what exactly the apostle is demanding from Christians that make liberalism so intolerable or require radical alternatives. Of course, the point could be that capitalism and liberalism make it hard to be Christians. But the Bible is replete with a call to suffering, not to mention the example of martyrs for the faith that come from church history. The problem with liberalism may not be that it makes Christian practice too hard but that it makes it possible to avoid suffering. Believers may worship freely, instruct children in the faith, and engage in acts of charity. That’s not exactly Benedict’s rule, Christendom, or Calvin’s Geneva, but it isn’t awful either.

Another way of raising the question about radical Christianity is to consider the sorts of loyalty that modern social structures demand of Christians. Here again the example of the early Christians up against the at times arbitrary and brutal politics of the Roman Empire lower the stakes. Ben Witherington, for example, observes that those New Testament scholars who tried to read the early church as a subversive, even radical, element in Roman society, committed to resisting the cult of the emperor, are not paying attention:

Jesus does not say there are no other kings or kingdoms. What he does say is that Pilate only ultimately has authority from above, which presumably means from the one God! In other words, Jesus sees human governments much the same way Paul does in Rom. 13— as having some power and authority granted from above.

This does not give the human governor or government the authority to: 1) pretend to be a deity; 2) abuse the power they have; 3) prosecute Jews or Christians for bad faith, or infidelity. But it does give them, within limits, the right to bear the sword, to raise taxes etc. In other words, justice and peace and order are their limited tasks. In short, the Kingdom of God is higher and more important than human kingdoms, not least because they are on the clock, and time is running out for them. 

The idea that late modernity’s times require some form of Christian enterprise that is different from those that governed the way most believers lived for at least 500 years (minus monks and nuns) seems odd. It is, of course, naive to turn a blind eye to the cultural decay that prevails. It is also historically innocent to think that today’s decadence is any worse than that which led Noah to build an ark, as if liberalism and capitalism are worse than the fall.

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D. G. Hart is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College. After completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, he taught at Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary before directing academic programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is the author of several books, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee); The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press); and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelical Protestants and American Conservatism (Eerdmans).

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this, Darryl. I think I mostly agree with you. When I reviewed Jamie Smith’s Awaiting the King, I concluded with a similar sentiment: “So, can the church that liberalism needs survive liberalism? Of course. With God, anything is possible, and he is the source of our hope. But it may be that his ecclesia, his called-out ones, will be a blessing to our neighbors to the extent that our loves are formed by participation in his liturgies.”

    But I also think our reigning liberal order represents a particular temptation precisely because it is marked by “the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies.” Hence it can seem to be a friend of Christianity in ways that the Roman Empire was obviously not. But I think (contra Smith) that liberalism is mostly a false friend of Christianity. It’s not harder to be a faithful Christian today than in other eras, but fidelity today may require a different posture vis-à-vis the state-economy complex than it did in previous times.

      • I read the linked article. Keeping the Sabbath: Now there’s a really “radical” idea. Might require a smart phone holiday, among other things. We don’t do screens of any kind on Sundays. Turns out I’m even more of an old fogey than I thought. I’ll probably have to renounce square wheels, next.

        • I agree as well. My family is certainly trying to live the faith a more “thickly.” I’m also skeptical, though, that we can simply look at how we used to do things as a model. Hart is right: the core problems haven’t changed. I think that the shell those problems are clothed in has changed significantly, though, and so I’m open to arguments that more radical or at least different responses to those problems might be required. As I indicated in my comment below, I think Rieff was right, or at least, right enough: Western culture since the late 19th century is unique in that it is the first civilization in history to solve the problem of human frailty and failings by arguing that there are no legitimate grounds for defining such a thing as “failing” or “sin to begin with, there being no sacred authority of any kind that could give teeth to such a judgment.

  2. “It’s not harder to be a faithful Christian today than in other eras, but fidelity today may require a different posture vis-à-vis the state-economy complex than it did in previous times.”

    Also, as D.B. Hart, Tony Esolen, and others have pointed out, we don’t really know what a post-liberal, post-Christian “paganism” will look like, but it’s probably neither safe nor wise to assume it will look like the paganisms of old, especially if Nietzsche (and Dostoevsky) were right about these things.

  3. ” It is, of course, naive to turn a blind eye to the cultural decay that prevails. It is also historically innocent to think that today’s decadence is any worse than that which led Noah to build an ark, as if liberalism and capitalism are worse than the fall.”

    I don’t disagree with that at all. What historians should notice, though, is Our decadence is in important ways fundamentally different than Their decadence, and if that’s true, then perhaps we will have to think about new responses to new versions of the same problems. This is ground on which I find Philip Rieff’s conception of culture entirely persuasive.

  4. I’ve just discovered the FPR this morning and found this article most interesting. Christianity is, by definition, radical because Jesus lived a radical existence and called all his followers to similar living — sacrificial not only for those we love and who love us, but sacrificial for those who hate us. Nobody teaches that. Hardly anyone lives it. Yet it’s clear throughout his teaching.
    I’m lost in the muddy middle of our modern politics and culture, confused also in my position between generations (I’m 55.). But it seems that both political ends of the tug-o-war ignore the necessity of self-sacrifice in order for a nurturing society to thrive. Maybe that’s why your blog’s message of local, close community is appealing (and I think will become more appealing) — one can only sacrifice for someone who is close; only then is the sacrifice personal and appreciated as love. The feeling of belonging we all crave must be accompanied with sacrifice, not “what can I sacrifice now so that I reap more later,” but “what can I sacrifice for my neighbor for his benefit.” That’s investment.

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