James Davison Hunter on ‘faithful presence’

A final post on James Davison Hunter’s big book To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.

In the three previous posts I’ve summarised his critiques of three common Christian approaches to culture:

The Christian Right – what he calls ‘defensive against’

The Christian Left – what he calls ‘relevance to’

The neo-Anabaptists – what he calls ‘purity from’

Hunter offers an ‘alternative paradigm’ called ‘faithful presence within’, which he contends is better than the three above because it get beyond either a desire to ‘reclaim’ or ‘take over’ or ‘change’ the world [Christian Right and Left] or an identity formed in opposition to such Constantianian language [neo-Anabaptism].

‘Faithful presence within’ , says Hunter, is a post-Constantianian engagement with culture. Christians are ‘in exile’ and their task is to be faithfully present to each other and to the world. Especially to those outside the church, Christians are ‘to pursue others, identify with others, and labor towards the fulfilment of others in sacrificial love’ [244-45].

It calls Christians to be ‘faithfully present’ within their work, within their spheres of influence, within all of life and so on. To use their gifts for the flourishing of others wherever they are. He gives several illustrations of Christians making a positive difference in and through their lives – this is much more local ‘salt and light’ than big ambitious plans ‘to change the world’.

Now I’m summarising fairly brutally – this is a really well written thoughtful book peppered with wisdom and insight and packed with learning. It is a valuable resource on thinking about faith and culture and politics. It will repay more than one reading.

BUT here it seems to me that Hunter is not saying anything as new or ‘quietly radical’ [272] as he seems to think he is. It sounds close to Stackhouse’s call for Christian realism and the task of Christians to pursue Shalom in Making the Best of It. It owes more than he acknowledges to the neo-Anabaptist call for the church to be the church. His criticisms of that movement seem to me to be forced.

His vision that through such ‘faithful presence’ the world can be changed for the better just a little bit at a time, seems to sit oddly with his earlier criticisms of Christians who hope to change the world ‘one life at a time’ and with his reflections on cultural change which, he argued, happens from the ‘top down’ not from the ‘bottom up’.

This is not to say that I disagree with where he ends up. I think he is spot on in his overall argument that too much Christian political action is wildly optimistic, unreal and concerned with controlling others.

The culture is like the weather (especially in Ireland). As a follower of Jesus you can’t control it or even predict it very well. You’ve got to ‘make the best of it’ wherever you are – in terms of faithful discipleship for all of life, and in terms of being a blessing to others.

One final comment – although mentioned in the quote above, one  theme I find curiously absent here is love. Love for God, love for neighbour. It is love that seems to me to lie at the heart of discipleship, evangelism, ‘social action’, business, economics, cultural engagement and so on. I wonder if there is more to be said about a theology of love and its role in ‘engaging culture’ and ‘changing the world’.

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2 thoughts on “James Davison Hunter on ‘faithful presence’

  1. Hey Patrick. I found it a fascinating book, patchy, but more than worth the investment of time. I wonder about your ‘love’ comment above. I enjoyed his stress on incarnation and particularly the examples he produces in the final chapter (from what I remember) of ways in which Christian faith was expressed in incarnational ways. I wonder whether, in the evangelical world anyway, an inordinate stress is placed on the cross as an expression of love to the exclusion of incarnation. And that his faithful presence is therefore predominantly an expression of love.

    Just wondering.

  2. Hi Glen. Thanks for dropping by. I found it a brilliant book in many ways, maybe I could have said that more clearly. Really helpful in thinking clearly about ‘changing the world’. And persuasive in his criticisms of the ‘power games’ that Christians can end up playing. I liked his approach, I just wasn’t that convinced it was a new, radical 4th way. In many ways it reminded me of some Christians I knew growing up in the North who modelled ‘faithful presence’ by their constructive and sacrificial engagement with the world – the ones who were never in the headlines!

    On the love thing – I was just wondering out loud whether a worked out theology of love will help protect against the temptation to control or defeat, or withdraw from others. This is what I’ve found absent from some Irish examples of political engagement here recently – heavy on defeating enemies and fearful of the future, but pretty silent on what it means to love those enemies.

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