In the most recent installment of the White Horse Inn Mike Horton interviewed Dr. Craig Carter, author of Re-thinking Christ & Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective. Amongst other salient points, Carter makes what I think is a helpful distinction between Christendom and Constantinianism. (I am inclined to think he overstates things to deem the latter as “heretical,” nevertheless, his distinction bears consideration.)
Yet not everything was as helpful. While I agree, for example, that Catholicism does much better at fending off the tide of modernity against the so-called “culture of death,” I am not convinced that the assumptions which underlie a censure of the “culture of death,” are those that confessional Protestants have much stake in at all. We do better to distance ourselves from that which begets the natural conclusions of one form of moralism or another. Other comments made also seem to reveal how Constantinianism can tend to be evaluated with more ideological than theological measures. Where some discern conservatism others think they hear a progressivism; thus eschewing the transformative nature of Constantinianism, both can be less cognizant of what really ails: confused theological understandings of nature and grace, creation and redemption (about mid-way down, under Q.6).
But the segment of the interview which really knit my brow came in two parts. At one point in the interview (about 20:18 minutes in, to be exact) Carter claims approvingly that, between Acts and 300 A.D. the early church fathers did indeed transform culture. Horton then asks a rather leading follow up question:
“Do you think the difference is that they didn’t set out to transform the culture, but they set out to defend the Christian faith and pursue their common callings, and the culture ended up being transformed; whereas, when we set out to transform culture it tends to happen in the other direction?”
Carter responds in the affirmative, characterizing it as “the great irony in history.” The early church created a “Christian culture” that rushed in to fill the void when a pagan culture, for whatever reasons, crumbled, and then the “Christian culture” became dominant (insert implied glee). And I guess that’s when all the good stuff took root. And “if we do the same thing they did” maybe modernity will take a hit. (Of course, Carter takes pains to point out that he doesn’t see modernity going away like paganism did back then. It’s not clear why he thinks this, but my hunch is that this vague and convenient caveat reveals that deep down he may not be buying his own argument. His inner two-kingdomite may understand that there really is nothing new under the sun and that any notion of transformation is religious fantasy.) Later, toward the end in the roundtable discussion, this notion is picked up again and tossed around approvingly.
I have heard this perspective before. Apparently, the transformation of culture is the goal. What it turns on is the modus operandi. We’re not supposed to work at it, but just let it happen as we go about our creational tasks. I picture a man walking backwards, at once insisting he is not trying to get from A to B while periodically peaking over his shoulder to see how close he is getting to B. My grandfather had a term for the beast-of-burden sense of such cardinal direction, and it was never meant as a compliment to he who thought backing into a thing was the right way to do it.
To the extent that there is an eye toward cultural transformation, I can’t help but think this is a bit of finger crossing. The early church is referenced. (This always makes me nervous as it almost always ends up being one form of Golden-Ageism or another.) Ideals about what sort of ideational and behavioral posture Christians are to have are linked up with what is deemed cultural cache. Here is the formula: Pick whatever is universally thought of as good for your particular cultural place and time (literacy, abolition/civil rights, education, art). Explain that the only way any of these things came about was “fill-in-the-blank.” If you’re a theocrat, fill in the blank with Constantine; if you’re a transformationalist, Kuyper; if you’re an anti-Constantinian two-kingdomite who still might nurse a need to have a seat at the table, well, it might be hard, but just go with someone somewhere in the dawn of western culture and the early church. Fast forward to the present, and this is how whatever is deemed as ailing culture will be rectified. And if you are in the last group, this means you are to go about your sacred and secular vocations without much fanfare, and voila, things will look up (whatever that really means).
But here is my awful dilemma. I was reared to be quite conscientious about my vocations, even as it was an upbringing in unbelief. We paid our bills, brushed our teeth and did our homework, took out the trash, were loyal to friends and family, sought the general welfare of our neighbors. And, to be quite frank, not much of that changed after I converted to true religion. Of course, perspective changed in terms of impetus, allegiance and wherewithal. Even so, in all my years now as a believer, I can’t say that putting my nose to the proverbial grindstone and doing what ought to be done, even in grateful response to the gospel, has yielded much of any “transformation” of my immediate circumference, to say nothing of that which lies well outside its reach. I am a loyal spouse and father, a good employee, a tax-paying and courteous neighbor, an active and faithful church member. I pay my bills and (mostly) obey traffic laws. I help with homework, PTA and benevolence committees, do dishes, fold laundry and wait my turn in DMV lines. Yet, I can’t say with any measure of confidence that I have made my own little corner in the kingdom of man “better” (in fact, just as often it seems like I make things worse). If the early church forebears backed into glory, I haven’t done the inconsequential man’s equivalent of overhauling philosophy, medicine, law, statecraft, art or education. It sure seems like I do way more maintaining than transforming. I can’t even get my drive-through orders to not return to me void. What gives?
At the risk of flirting with prosperity gospel, maybe I don’t try hard enough? But, beyond the fact that I feel fairly well exerted by the end of each day, that can’t be it. After all, the suggestion here is that being deliberate is exactly not what one should be. I understand this follows the counter-intuitive formulation of those of us who would a theology of the Cross, in an anti-Bull Durhamish sort of way (“don’t build and they will come”). But, being an insufferable contrarian who also thought his grandfather was onto something, I am quite suspicious that their coming is the point in the first place. Besides, counter-intuition doesn’t always work and common sense is actually what is needed. Getting something done, like transforming culture in ways Carter suggests, really does require deliberation. Call me kooky, but something tells me my wife won’t buy the plea that my conscientious effort at minding my own business reading a book will get the dinner dishes clean or the homework done. So if the question is going to be framed this way, where effecting change really is the goal however tangential, then the outside-in theocrats and inside-out transformers easily win. Maybe I am just a sore loser, but I’m not ready to cry uncle just yet.