Notes on James Davison Hunter's *To Change the World*

Summary of the Negative Argument: Illusions, Ironies, Tragedies

Illusions

  • People assume that the state is democratically controlled by the people, but the beauracratic state is essentially autonomous (see Max Weber, Lewis Mumford, Robert Michels, Jacques Ellul)
  • There are no political solutions to the problems people care about. Politics can provide a platform for dissent and for establishing public procedures. There is no real political solution to the absence of decency, the spread of vulgarity.
  • Laws reflect values rather than generate/instill values or resolve conflict over values.

Ironies

  • Values cannot be “achieved” politically because politics is finally about power.
  • So many things have become politicized that values themselves are now politicized.
  • No group in American history has done more to politicize values than the Christian right and left.
  • Christianity could be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than power, but because of Christians’ embrace of politics, Christianity has been reduced to a political ideology.
  • The politicization of Christian values has acted as something to hide behind. Political participation often amounts to avoidance of responsibility in actually engaging in the values that have been politicized.

Tragedies

  • Theological truth and historical reality have been distorted in the church as the history/identity of America have been conflated with the life/mission of the church.
  • The human experience becoming politicized is actually the church accommodating the spirit of the age.
  • Politics are now the dominant witness of Christianity to the world.
  • The problem is especially acute for Christian conservatives.
  • Christianity is now lacking robust and constructive affirmations and is instead characterized by how it negates and opposes all else.
  • Rather than being defined by it’s cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by its rhetoric of (1) its sense of injury in the current political situation, and (2) its ambition of opposition to others

Quotations

Indeed, one cannot deny that prophetic judgement is a part of the biblical narrative and the tradition of God’s people, but is the Kingdom of God to be known predominantly by its negations?

The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians – and Christian conservatives most significantly – unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry.

Summary of the Positive Argument: A Theology of Faithful Presence

The Challenge of Faithfulness in Our Context

How a Christian engages with the world depends on “the context of complex social, political, economics, and cultural forces that prevail at a particular time and place. Our times are somewhat “new” in the scope of the world’s history and there are two distinct challenges to a Christian’s faithfulness in our present context.

It is critical to note that their effect [these challenges] is primarily manifested not as problems that can be seem, objectified, analyzed, and responded to but as a complex array of assumptions so deeply taken for granted that they cannot be fully grasped much less questioned.

Difference (Essentially, Pluralism)

  • Pluralism isn’t necessarily new, but the average American today has experienced it more frequently and intensely than most in human history.
  • Despite the culture war, no one culture or perspective (worldview?) dominates.
  • To imagine extensive, multilayered understanding and agreement is implausible.
  • Sociologically speaking (See Peter Berger), social institutions and conditions are needed to reinforce ones beliefs (these are called “Plausibility Structures”)
  • Today Plausibility Structures are more fragmented among worldviews, thus they are necessarily weaker.
  • We are surrounded by a multiplicity of perspectives, each of which may seem credible.
  • The act of will now required for a Christian believer to have their beliefs in God’s love and judgement on a daily basis is now much greater.
  • “God-talk” is essentially meaningless outside of the church.
  • There is constant pressure for various faith traditions to be affected by and assimilated into others (syncretism).

Dissolution (“Deconstruction of the most basic assumptions about reality”)

  • Trust in the connection between people’s words and the world is greatly weakened.
  • “We have the capacity to question everything, but little to affirm anything beyond our own personal whims and possessive interests.”
  • The Enlightenments question for certainty led to pervasive skepticism.

Electronic Media have transformed the nature of consciousness and culture as well. These media:

  1. Transform time and space so that time is shortened and space is shrunken to the point that they almost disappear
  2. Compartmentalize the world and place its part together in incoherent ways (news of famine, ad for ED medicine, basketball championships all juxtaposed)
  3. Drive towards entertainment as the primary format (despite the content) because of commercial interests
  4. The illusion of intimacy is broadcast in extremely public ways (intimate conversations with celebrities, private details told to all)