Dallas Willard, best known for his book The Divine Conspiracy, passed away on Wednesday morning, he had pancreatic cancer.
To me he was best known as a profound thinker in the area of spiritual formation and discipleship. I have always said of him to others that he was writing books today that will be classics in the Church a hundred years from now. You should read his books. If you do, make sure you have a highlighter and a pen.
Below is a link to an article written by someone who knew him well.
Secularization. Its proponents desire to rid the public square of all religious influence, relegating religious beliefs to the private realm. Some advocates of secularization are no doubt “pure” in their motives, truly believing that the commonweal is better off free of all religious influence. Others seem bent on ridding society of certain religious influence (read Judeo-Christian ones).
Put in practical terms, the message from our culture is, “You [Christians] can come to the public square but while you are here, you must not allow any of your Christian convictions to influence the decision-making process thus affecting the culture at large. Leave your convictions at home!” D.A. Carson addresses the naiveté of Christians who think there is ground to be gained by playing along with the culture:
“Consider, for example, the oft-repeated advice that if we wish to influence the broader culture through the media and in the corridors of power we must translate our Christian values and priorities into secular categories. . . . If all our energy is devoted to making our stances acceptably popular by appealing to goals that are broadly secular, it is a short step to enabling those secular values to take precedence over a Christian frame of reference that bows in principle to the Lordship of Christ. . . . Moreover . . . our opponents are likely to sniff out our Christian beliefs anyway, and then they will blast us for hiding them and trying to appear secular when we are in reality religious wolves in secular sheep’s clothing. . . . Worse still, our form of discourse may be signaling that we think secularists are right: we ought to avoid making any appeal to our ‘religious’ convictions because we support the separation of church and state. . . . If Christians are not allowed to argue in the public arena as Christians, then implicitly we are supporting the contentions of Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins and their friends, to the effect that atheistic secularists are the only people who are arguing their case from a ‘neutral’ position (Christ and Culture Revisited, 196-197).”
The claim that anyone today argues from a neutral position is a fallacy. Further, Christians have not been commissioned by Jesus to be neutral. So, the idea that one can come to the public square, sans religious beliefs, is erroneous and everyone knows it! Richard Dawkins can no more look at the world without viewing it through his atheistic perspective than Billy Graham can without viewing it from a Christian perspective. The old understanding of tolerance (see Carson’s treatment in his latest book The Intolerance of Tolerance) would not have expected anyone to do that but would have made room for competing truth claims to be hammered out and for people to decide for themselves. The situation today is not one of a culture that is neutral but one that demands that God be expunged from civic life and for those who believe in Him to be marginalized and minimized as anti-intellectuals still living in the dark ages.
So, what we really have in the call for secularization is a request that Christians stay home altogether! Put another way, we are not far from the wholesale disqualification of Christians themselves—not just their viewpoints—from every form of public discourse strictly on the basis of their religious beliefs.
H. Richard Niebuhr set the bar for modern conversations about Christ and culture and, more particularly, what is to be done about what he called “the enduring problem” of human culture. This series is an attempt to facilitate dialogue about the enduring problem using Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture as a foundation. The reader is invited to read Niebuhr’s book and join this conversation.
In the paragraphs and series installments to follow, I will attempt to capture the essence of what Niebuhr is saying and in the process add my own insights. I will make every effort to clearly delineate between Niebuhr’s voice and my far less significant one.
I. The Problem
The Many-Sided, Complex Debate (Pages 1-2)
The debate over “the relations of Christianity and civilization” is many-sided and complex, even counterintuitive at times. This was Niebuhr’s take in 1950 and the “debate” has morphed into a civil war with many fronts in our times. In fact, the lines of battle can be found between the Church and the culture, the evangelical church and the so-called “nominal” or “main-line” denominations, and now between increasingly entrenched factions within the evangelical church. Contrary to Niebuhr’s assessment, I’m less certain that the Church is bewildered about these things and more concerned that it is awash in the same postmodern diseases that afflict the culture and even in heresy. 1
The “question of Christianity and civilization” is not new and has not been approached by the Church with any unanimous consent. Niebuhr reminds us that “Christ’s answer to the problem of human culture is one thing, Christian answers are another.” It was his assessment that the Christian centuries have witnessed various approaches to the problem and that Christ is “answering the question in the totality of history and life in a fashion that transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts.” In other words, somehow God is using, piecemeal, the best of all the Church’s efforts over the centuries.
It is precisely at this point that I feel Niebuhr is misunderstood by some of his critics. Some seem to read Niebuhr too prescriptively as though he is vouching for and recommending all of the five approaches. By his own account he is setting forth “typical Christian answers” in an effort to “contribute to the mutual understanding of variant and often conflicting Christian groups.” That Niebuhr considers that Christ is “answering the question” and employing various elements found in the Church’s efforts over the centuries may give rise to the idea that there is a universalistic bent to Niebuhr’s optimism (something that we will have to consider in earnest when Niebuhr commends to the reader the work of F. D. Maurice beginning on page 218), but for now it seems innocuous enough to suggest that perhaps all sincere attempts at answering this question have perhaps had some merit in their approaches.
The Bottom Line: Jesus Imperils Culture (Pages 2-4)
Next, in an effort to illustrate just how long the enduring problem has endured, Niebuhr enlists the commentary of Rabbi Joseph Klausner who defends the “repudiation of the Nazarene on the grounds that [Jesus] imperiled Jewish civilization.”2 Klausner’s complaint is that Jesus, thoroughly Jewish, endangered Jewish civilization by “abstracting religion and ethics from the rest of social life”3 and essentially by ignoring the culture instead of reforming it. Klausner, from a typical “bottom-up” perspective, produces a long litany of ways in which Jesus snubbed the Jewish nation. Klausner’s conclusion is that “Jesus ignored everything concerned with material civilization: [and] in this sense he does not belong to civilization.” Klausner goes on to say that the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people has been vindicated by “two thousand years of non-Jewish Christianity.”
If Niebuhr is a faithful interpreter, Klausner is saying that the Jews were right to reject Jesus because he ignored the daily ins and outs of Jewish national life and failed to bring reforms that would have been useful or meaningful to the nation as He found it. Instead, Jesus’ mind was too much on heaven and became of no earthly use. Jesus was a threat to Jewish culture. To Klausner, the preservation and betterment of Jewish culture would have been far more important than any of the “pie-in-the-sky” spirituality that Jesus had to offer.
The demand that Jesus, or the Church for that matter, pay homage to the culture—any culture—is to blatantly suggest that the priorities people have embraced and the culture they have created is far more important than any agenda God might have for the culture. It is to say that people come first. But, in truth, Jesus imperils culture! He comes with His agenda. It is not His interest to appease humanity, leaving undisturbed its petty interests! This kind of discussion always reminds me of a quote from Miroslav Volf:
The question is also whether all those unappreciated small and great van Goghs in various fields of human activity would not draw inspiration and strength from the belief that their noble efforts are not lost, that everything good, true and beautiful they create is appreciated by God and will be appreciated by human beings in the new creation.4
Imagine the idea that God’s priority would be us and our work and our efforts! Surely this is one of the bloody battlefields in the struggle to address the problem of human culture pitting human interest against God’s desire that His “Kingdom come and His will be done.”
NEXT: The common arguments in defense of culture against the gospel.
1 Deep, irreconcilable lines of division can be seen between conservatives and liberals in the political arena, and between liberal Christians and conservative ones. Within evangelicalism the battle lines have been drawn between theistic evolutionists and six-day creationists with Intelligent Design proponents in the middle, and between supporters of gay Christianity and evangelicals who still hold to the values of home and family found in Scripture. Adding to this mix is a revival of a bottom-up, social gospel energized by something called emergence Christianity whose chief proponent, Phyllis Tickle, calls for an end to sola scriptura, among other things. The concept of evangelical seems all but lost at the present moment.