By: Joe Morris Doss
At the Threshold has noted previously that strategic decisions were made and acted upon by a determined and focused group of wealthy Americans as the Conservative Movement gained ascendancy. Most of these people were not active members of a Christian church, and even fewer had strong feelings for any one of the several faith communities. Yet, they invested heavily in the church. They did so for purely political purposes. Readers of modern historical material about activities such as are documented in Dark Money (Jane Mayer) and Thy Kingdom Come (Randall Balmer) will not find this surprising.
One of the important strategic goals was to convince the public, through manipulation of the media, that Christianity is politically conservative by its very nature and limited in scope to private matters of personal moral behavior, individual “spirituality,” and otherworldly aspirations. For those reasons, it was asserted, Christians support liberal causes only as the church becomes captured by a secular agenda, e.g. the “gay agenda,” the “feminists agenda,” etc. In such a light, the proper public role of the church should be to support laws and policies that will suit the views of its most conservative Christians and impose laws that they consider “God’s will” for human society.
The conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote an April 30 op-ed in which the accepted assumptions that identify Christianity with conservative political positions are exemplified. Speaking at an evangelical seminary he had no compunction about addressing his audience as though he was speaking for all of Christianity. Thomas lamented the failures of Christian influence in American government, noting the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage as an example of the secularization of society, and compared the situation of the present day church to that of the early church, “when it was the target of persecution.”
“That Christians seem to be losing ground in what has erroneously been called the “culture wars” may not be a bad thing. It might force them to re-think their primary calling, which is to a kingdom “not of this world.”
This Christian vision is narrow and shallow. If it is taken as the vision of the church there can be little wonder that we have lost the imagination of society.
In striking contrast, on the morning that I read this opinion I next picked up an excerpt from Belief in God in An Age of Science by John Polkinghorne. (All quotes and references are taken from Part 5.) The author is a world-renown physicist who is also a noted philosopher and theologian. As a student of the physical makeup of the universe Polkinghorne is not to be turned away from interest in creation – its physicality, its order, and its purposes. From the very beginning in the first century the church courageously opened its mind in search of the full truth being revealed to them in the Jesus story. It certainly refused to ignore God’s design and commitment to creation.
This is not the place or the occasion for a sufficiently in-depth theological exploration, but perhaps some rudimentary sketching will offer a hint for why I found the comparison of the two essays so arresting. Polkinghorne is aware not only that transience and death have always been part of the world of human experience, but that today we realize how mortality characterizes the whole universe itself.
“Not only has it looked very different in the past from its appearance today, but eventually, after many more billions of years, it will change again, ending either in the bang of cosmic collapse or the long-drawn out whimper of an ever expanding dying world.”
The author links our own hope for resurrection with the resurrected universe and offers his studied hope that both we and it will be made new, just as God raised Jesus by transforming his dead body into a new form of embodied life.
“I have never felt that the perpetuation of the race, or of life itself, or—least of all—of selfish genes, represented sufficient fulfillment to make sense of the history of this world. The fact that we now know that all these carbon-based entities will one day perish only makes the point more clearly. If cosmic history is no more than the temporary flourishing of remarkable fruitfulness followed by its subsequent decay and disappearance, then I think Macbeth was right and it is indeed a tale told by an idiot.”
Polkinghorne perceives a deep yearning, an intuition of hope within the human spirit, that is expressed by no less than the atheist philosopher, Max Horkheimer, in his cosmic fancy that the murderer should not triumph over his innocent victim.
“Theology is—and I consciously phrase it carefully—the hope that injustice, which is typical of the world, will not have the last say… a yearning that in the end the hand of the killer will not remain on top of the innocent victim.” (Horkheimer, “Die Sehnschucht nach dem ganz Anderen,” Gesammelte Schriften, VII, s. 389, as quoted here.)
If we consider profound Christian hope and thus the role of the church in politics, we must reach into such deep and complex issues and, yes, we must consider even the “end things,” how it is all to turn out if God’s will is to be fulfilled. Only God can take from death the last word and if the human intuition of hope – that all will be well and that the world makes ultimate sense – depends on God. But, as frightening as it may be, God has made us agents of the divine will.
What Polkinghorne has to say as a profoundly modern Christian thinker sounds to me like solid Pauline scripture, surprised not that the whole world is in the process, groaning in travail though it may be, of coming to the new birth in which there shall be justice and peace – shalom – but that each of us is loved by God as though every one of us is a whole cosmos. This is a Christian vision that can charge the people of the earth with energy and a passion for justice.