Terry Eastland at The Weekly Standard recently reviewed both David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, two books I am myself slowing eating. Eastland is equally impressed with the insight of both authors to their respective tasks. First Hunter:
Hunter’s critique of what may be called transformationalism begins with a look at what its advocates in America have achieved. And he is not impressed. He finds their record “mixed,” and provides reason to think it might not improve. Culture changing, he writes, assumes that if you can change the hearts and minds of enough ordinary people, the culture itself will change. But this idea of cultural change is “almost wholly mistaken. . . . [C]ultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high prestige centers of cultural production.” But believers wanting to change the culture most often have been found working the “social periphery” and not the “cultural center” where those dense networks exist. Their influence has proved strongest where it counts least: “in tastes that run to the lower middle and middle brow rather than the high brow.” Thus, writes Hunter, “for all the talk of world changing . . . the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.” And if it were close, “the results would likely be disastrous.” World changing entails the use of power, he says, and transformationalists, regardless of where they reside on our political spectrum, “cannot imagine power in any other way than toward what finally leads to political domination.” For them, changing the culture means electing a candidate, passing a law, and altering a policy. To be sure, this being a free country, they may pursue those activities; but too often their efforts seethe with “resentment, anger, and bitterness” for the wrongs they believe they have suffered. As a result, they “undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance.
The two kingdoms, VanDrunen emphasizes, “exist for different purposes, have different functions, and operate according to different rules,” and Christian engagement with the civil kingdom (or culture or world) must take those differences into account. In particular, as citizens of the spiritual kingdom, believers submit to “the redemptive ethic of Scripture.” But as citizens of the civil kingdom they “can engage in genuine moral conversation with those of other faiths . . . without making adherence to Scripture a test for participating in cultural affairs.” Likewise, as citizens of the spiritual kingdom, they “can view the state and other institutions as temporal and destined to pass away.” Yet as citizens of the civil kingdom they “can have keen interest in promoting the welfare of human society here and now.
Eastland then also offers an insight himself about Hunter that is well worth considering:
Oddly, To Change the World has little to say about two kingdoms, notwithstanding its rooting in a millennium and a half of Christian reflection. And what the book does say is a caricature: According to Hunter, the doctrine leads its adherents “to increasingly withdraw into their own communities with less and less interest in any engagement with the larger world.” Hunter fails to consider such evidence as VanDrunen has weighed and which supports the proposition that two-kingdoms doctrine encompasses the idea of promoting the welfare of society, or as Hunter himself might say, its “overall flourishing.
That James Davison Hunter has no affinity for two kingdoms would seem surprising, since it is a doctrine that offers no support to the world changers he challenges at every turn. On the other hand, there is an ambiguity in To Change the World that makes one wonder whether Hunter’s dismissal of two kingdoms is a product of his sympathy for, yes, world changing. The ambiguity arises in his discussion of faithful presence, and it concerns the critical issue of redemption. For while Hunter emphasizes that “culture-making . . . is not, strictly speaking, redemptive or salvific in character,” and that “world building” is not to be confused with “building the Kingdom of God,” he also says that the church should “offer an alternative vision and direction” for prevailing cultural institutions and seek “to retrieve the good to which modern institutions and ideas implicitly or explicitly aspire.” Putting aside whether the church is even capable of offering such vision and direction, or of retrieving such goods, it would seem without authority to do so—unless it is now being charged with (to borrow a phrase) “redeeming the culture.”
Such is the allure of transformationalism that one of its most vigorous critics seems unable to abandon it.
Indeed. It would seem that the siren song of Christian transformationism as being an inherent and unquestionable aim of Christianity is hard to resist for even one of its most trenchant and insightful critics.
For my own part as a long time two kingdom adherent, I have to admit I have found this read on two kingdoms over the years, namely that the doctrine engenders some sort of withdrawal, very puzzling and even ironic. Out of broad secularism, I cut my spiritual teeth in broad evangelicalism which is all about transformationism, soft and hard. And, among other things of course, it was precisely the world-flight piety of withdrawal that forced me to seek the older patterns of Christian expression which seemed, well, more worldly. Raised in broad secularism where worldly engagement was obviously no problem, I found the transformer-evangelical world to be characterized by being turned in on itself, a ghetto with its own weird culture. If one was so inclined there would be no need to even leave the biosphere of schools, magazines, music, books, and general network of sanctified personal relationships. And it seemed the only legitimate way to touch earth was to don the evangelism spacesuit, then rush back into the capsule. Or, in its harder moments, throw rocks from inside the cave. Two kingdom theology was actually the gateway to being able to guiltlessly touch the earth once again with no proverbial strings attached. As I recollect, this trading in of world-flight for world-affirmation was enough to earn the whispered personal title of “carnal” or “worldly” amongst the evangelical transformers.
So from where I sit, it is actually the opposite of what Hunter suggests of two kingdom theology. Ironically, it is in fact transformationism that begets world-flight. And this is because it thinks there are redemptive ways to go about creative tasks, which is a perfect formula for creating a Christian sub-culture and ghetto to inhabit. It is actually when we abandon the idea that Christianity implicitly has a direct and obvious bearing on the plethora of worldly cares, and embrace the understanding that creation is just fine as-is and needs no redeeming, that we step out of our man-made spiritual enclaves and dig into the good earth God created.