The transformation of society to become more like the Kingdom of God, identified in an earlier article concerning alternative Christian approaches to life in a secular world, was further elaborated on by Dick Keyes, Director of the L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, Massachusetts, at the annual L’Abri conference on Feb. 3-4 in Rochester Minnesota.
The New Testament, Keyes said, has led Christians “through every conceivable political [and] economic arrangement that you could imagine.” He used two metaphors to refer to contemporary Christian approaches to the world, that of chameleons, and musk oxen. Chameleons change their appearance in different situations, and thus resemble Christians who choose accommodation to, and even assimilation by, the secular world, while musk oxen, whose behavior resembles that of separatists, form a defensive circle when they feel threatened. In terms of Jesus’ metaphor of salt and light, chameleons have lost their saltiness – they are no longer a preservative for society – while musk oxen give no light – they hide the gospel from the wider world, at least as it pertains to social relations. Neither transforms society to righteousness. In a sense, Keyes said, both approaches are ways of being “conformed to the pattern of the world” (Rom 12:2). Christians should be a “dissident minority … pulling against society,” not a “resonant minority” which is simply part of the status quo.
A good example of the “chameleon syndrome,” he said, is the World Council of Churches and its slogan: “the world sets the agenda for the church.” This does make the church relevant, but unnecessary, and, it should be added, it makes Christians increasingly like the world in their beliefs and actions. The other alternative, separatism, results in what Keyes called “tribal Christians,” who “speak in a tribal Christian dialect, so that … some Christians are not even understood by non-Christians … [they] read only tribal Christian books, listen to only tribal Christian music, but feel very right, good, spiritual, and safe.” Such separatist groups will need many more rules than the New Testament provides, since, “within a tribe, you need an answer for everything.” A “tribal Christian subculture” is a place where legalism flourishes, because rules are needed for a measure of self-sufficiency. The aim of such a subculture is security from the world, but it does not give security from God, who requires Christians to be salt and light, Keyes said.
Keyes noted that it is possible to inadvertently become part of one type of Christian group by objecting to the other. Those who find “chameleon Christianity” objectionable may gravitate to become insular, defensive Christians, while those who are offended by defensive, protective, legalistic environments may become “chameleons,” taking their cue from the world.
“Transformation” is a word shunned by some, because it is understood as “arrogant and triumphalist.” Keyes does not shun the word “transformation,” but does see a danger of being simplistic in approaching cultural transformation, particularly in believing that political success will be decisive, since transforming a culture is extremely complex. But, he said, “if we are salt and light, we can’t avoid being transformative.” Referring to the often quote admonition of Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles of Babylon, true disciples should “ seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,” (Jer. 29:7). Keyes noted that the exiles in Babylon were “a kind of prefigurement of the church age.” Christians in this age are referred to in Scripture as “exiles and strangers on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).
Keyes referred to the major liberal social movements of the twentieth century that have transformed the West. These include “civil rights, the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement versus the Vietnam War, the environmental movement, and feminism.” Keyes said that “each of these produced major changes in law and public policy … but none of them started with politics, none started with attempts to access legislation in favor of these positions.” These changes “started through the channels and institutions of culture making.” The “legal impact,” then was “inevitable.” This was contrasted with public impact of the Scopes trial (1925), in which the “public shaming” of traditional Christians led to decades of withdrawal. A Christian subculture then developed of educational, charitable, publishing, and broadcasting organizations within which an extensive measure of life could be lived by believers. Only after World War II did Christians begin to reach out again to the wider world.
Keyes then directed his attention to the future. He referred to the speculations of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Hariri predicts that by 2050, 60% of the American population will be “economically and politically irrelevant.” This is because technological advance makes possible economic advance through automation, and the elimination of many workers. Levin sees “an increasing disconnect between consciousness and intelligence.” Two kinds of humanism will replace the existing liberal humanism. “Techno-humanism” will “come out of medicine and brain science,” and will focus more on “enhancement,” that is to say, making human beings different from what they have always been, and less on “healing.” Ambitious futurists “see immortality within their reach.” A second kind of “humanism” or “god” will be data, which will increasingly govern our lives, i.e., people’s lives will be regulated by what data show promotes what is thought by social engineers to be a good life. Hariri believes that “traditional religion” will continue to exist, but will be a “rear-guard operation.” While he admits that Christianity had a major role in the scientific and democratic revolutions of recent centuries, he believes that this will not continue in the future.
Keyes believes that the “new humanisms” are so anti-human that there will be non-Christian as well as Christian opposition. He said that one question that the new humanisms will not be able to answer will be the meaning of life, since science and technology do not tell us what it is, unless one assumes that the absence of a scientific-technological answer means that life has no meaning. The future humanisms will also favor elitism, which will also elicit opposition. “There will be great pressure to devalue all but the exceptional individual.” This is because the new humanisms will agree with Harari that “the equality of all people is a fiction that comes with belief in a creator God.” Western society’s continued belief in human dignity and equality is “cut flower,” cut off from its roots, and will dissipate as society becomes less Christian. Family, community, and all intermediate structures in society will also be under pressure. Christians must wrestle with these issues “creatively, theologically, imaginatively, practically, prayerfully, together, and over time.”
Keyes next discussed the importance of community. This, he said, is “a human need, which ought to be a special characteristic of the church of Jesus Christ, which is, of course, the body of Christ.” The church need not be “tribal,” but can “encourage and equip us … [for] the outside world.” Keyes noted that William Wilberforce was part of a group of believers in an informal association called the “Clapham Group,” which, Keyes said, was more strongly bound “than most Benedictine Monasteries.” The Clapham Group met together for forty years, from 1790 to 1830, for “worship, prayer, discussion, based in a local church.” It included 15 families, some single people, some wealthy, “some well-connected,” who did “research, organization, confrontation, pressure on the whole British system.” Large amounts of time and money were available to some of these members, and they were invested in the effort.
In describing ways that Christians can be salt and light in the world, Keyes said that God’s calling is “not necessarily to win, but to be faithful to him each day.” Christians may leave this world for eternity not knowing the results of their efforts. These results may be “great things which are wonderful and positive,” or they could “only slow down the disintegration of a society.” He quoted Reinhold Niebuhr: “nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.” He said that “God is in this for the long haul.”Google+