Reflections On The Church, History And The World

Apr 30th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

As the world moved past the devastation of World War II in the 1950s and 1960s, and as the Cold War ended in 1991, the assumption was that the world, especially Europe, had learned some important lessons of history.  But Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine harks back to the 19th century, when big powers crushed small powers at will.  Columnist Frank Bruni writes, “What I see on the faces and hear in the voices of so many of the people around me is sheer disbelief about Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and a brutal war in Europe: Aren’t we supposed to be past this? Didn’t history move on? The Wall came down, the Cold War ended, and democratic liberalism was the wave of the future, which wouldn’t be so kind to strongmen like Vladimir Putin.  Well, Putin didn’t get the message. Nor did plenty of others around the world. Our notions about history were innocent and disregarded most of it . . . In Europe, so devastated and so educated by World War II, sovereign nations wouldn’t be invaded just because their neighbors were mightier, meaner and more rapacious. That was a grandiosity and folly of the past — before the European Union and before all of our ‘advances,’ a word we’ve used so frequently and clung to so tightly, as if the accretion of knowledge and the epiphanies of science were guarantors, or at least harbingers, of affluence and peace.  This perspective wasn’t just overly optimistic about history’s arc. It was blind to the present — to the unabated factionalism in the Middle East, to the blood spilled on borders all around the world, to the enduring and enduringly potent strains of territorialism and tribalism, to human nature. We are creatures of magnificent grace, capable of extraordinary altruism and empathy, and I usually choose to focus on that. But we are also acquisitive, aggressive, envious, suspicious. Look no further than the theaters of political warfare here in the United States — exemplar and tribune of the West — for evidence aplenty of that . . . Embarrassment, vanity, viciousness: History never moves on or gets past these forces, which drove invasions and conquests in centuries past and will drive invasions and conquests in years to come. There should be no great shock about Russia’s audacious attack on Ukraine — only profound sadness and painstaking thought about what to do and what’s to come.”

Furthermore, David Brooks writes that “the 21st century has become a dark century because the seedbeds of democracy have been neglected and normal historical authoritarianism is on the march.  Putin and [China’s President] Xi seem confident that the winds of history are at their back.”  All of our 20th century assumptions are now being challenged.  Deeply divided at home, the US faces adversities it has not seen in decades.  We who name the name of Christ are a part of this nation and we must turn, not to politics, but to God for our comfort, for our hope and for our stability.  I have been reading widely in several different areas lately and have reached several conclusions about the evangelical agenda for the 21st century; about the priorities evangelicalism should be promoting.

  1. We need to simply begin talking more about God, not politics, the most recent cable news reports, or our most recent big purchase.  Mark Galli, recently        retired from Christianity Today, has challenged me:  “Charles Taylor calls [the age we live in] the ‘secular age.’  In previous times, belief in God was simply assumed, and if one didn’t believe, you felt compelled to justify atheism or agnosticism. Today the opposite is the case: Believers feel compelled to justify their faith (to themselves and sometimes to others). It is the rare believer who has a deep and abiding sense of God’s existence and presence and feels no compulsion to do this.  This means we live day to day in a world that has sidelined God. God isn’t part and parcel of education, the arts, medicine, business, the legal system, government, and so on. One can operate in any sphere and be relatively successful without ever thinking about God. In fact, you may be looked upon with deep suspicion or hostility if you try to introduce God into the workplace.”

Correctly, Galli also observes that the walk with God is arguably difficult:  “A cursory reading of Scripture reveals that a relationship with God is not a steady upward march of spiritual enlightenment; instead, it ebbs and flows, grows and shrinks, experiences successes and failures. Israel’s mercurial relationship with Yahweh—from the exodus to settling in Canaan to exile from the land and return—is the classic paradigm of the spiritual journey. Furthermore, God seems indifferent to what culture counts as expertise—note among many examples, the anointing of David, who was seemingly the least qualified among his brothers to become king (1 Sam. 16).”

“Anyone minimally acquainted with the dynamics of the spiritual life understands that efficiency is not in the equation. Prayer and contemplation, as well as love for the marginalized, are utter wastes of time from the standpoint of immediate results that clearly make a difference. Long stretches in the faith journey show little-to-no evidence of obvious growth. And there are moments when the very ground of faith seems to be pulled out from under us: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  So, one reason we struggle to give our all to loving God is this: We live in a world that discourages us from thinking about God as an ever-present daily reality.”

  1.   I just finished reading a new book by Robert Tracy McKenzie, We The Fallen People.  McKenzie reminds us that our nation’s founders did not believe that humans were innately good or virtuous; indeed, they embraced the fundamental proposition of human depravity.  Patrick Henry “admitted to feelings of dread when he contemplated the ‘depravity of human nature.’”  Samuel Adams argued that “Ambitions are lusts for power . . . are predominant passions in the breasts of most men.”  McKenzie shows that the “Framers’ views on human nature were compatible with an orthodox Christian standing . . . [They also affirmed that] If the dignity of imago Dei gives us hope that a government of the people might flourish, the corroding effects of original sin persuade us never to take self-government for granted.  Given humankind’s fallen state, a free and just society is as fragile and unnatural as it is precious.”  For that reason, he cautions, “to live out a heartfelt conviction of original sin, we must run from every effort to meld Christianity with a particular political party, movement, or leader.  The reason for this is twofold:  For one, we’ll recognize the folly of placing unlimited confidence in any earthly deliverer.  If the effects of the fall touch every era in every land, they also mark every political institution we revere, every political party we champion, every incumbent we cheer, and every candidate we vote for.  But because we know the effects of the fall also linger in us, we’ll know that we can be lured into political idolatry all the same, and we must be on guard against that perpetual danger.” [p. 268]  He also concludes that “The mantra of monarchy, that ‘the king is never wrong,’ and the dogma of democracy, that ‘the people are always right,’ are both false.  To assert either ‘is to speak the language of a slave.’  Human nature is no different in democracy than in any other state . . . None of us can be trusted with power as individuals, and our character doesn’t improve when we become part of a majority, regardless of what politicians seeking our votes may tell us.” [p. 204]  This book has reminded me that as I focus more on God (as argued in #1 of this Perspective), I must also embrace the key axiom that I  am a fallen creature, and that my dependence on God, as His child because of my faith in His Son, is more important than anything else in life.  It is even important when I engage in the various aspects of my citizenship role in this democratic-republic.
  2. Finally, it has occurred to me that American civilization, and especially those of us who fit into the nebulous category of “evangelical Christian,” have lost the use of a moral vocabulary in our conversation.  As a part of #1 in this Perspective, I would like to see Christians talk more frequently about sin, redemption, grace, mercy, compassion—and agape, the self-sacrificing, other-centered love of Jesus Christ.  Our normal vocabulary focuses so much on self, selfishness and self-indulgence.  Christians should utter the moral vocabulary of Scripture.  As we talk more about God, we should use the moral vocabulary that is important to Him.  Perhaps this is a dimension of what Jesus meant when He declared that we are His salt and His light in this dark world (Matthew 5:13-14).

See Mark Galli, Peripheral Vision (18 February 2022); Frank Bruni, “Putin Is Teaching Us a Brutal Lesson about History” in the New York Times (24 February 2022); David Brooks in the New York Times (18 February 2022); and  Robert Tracy McKenzie, We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy.

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