I had lunch with another reverend today, not the Reverend of record, mind you, but another remarkably bright pastor committed to a tradition and a place, in this case a Holiness tradition that I'll leave unnamed for now. We were discussing the idea of a non-material Christianity, which is to say, the ability for people like myself to practice redeeming the world without being beholden to a particular narrative. Four and a half years ago, I wrote this little parable because I was frustrated at the lack of cooperation between theists and non-theists, primarily from the resistance generated by theists. Many seemed more concerned with a form of theism tied to a particular narrative than in actually repairing the world.
I understand that much of fundangelical theology is not concerned with repairing the world; instead, they opt for a wait until the end approach to eschatology that is borderline triumphalist and despondent at the same time. "We can't fix it, but Jesus will really fix it when He comes back." It is this sort of despondency that gets a full critique in Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy, and now, even more so, in the continuation of that work, co-authored after Willard's death by Gary Black, Jr., The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fullfilling God's Kingdom on Earth.
I read Willard "religiously" as a young minister, but it wasn't the theology that attracted me to him. Rather, it was his role as professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, an unapologeticaly secular school, that helped me choose to pursue my love of philosophy. Willard's thesis in the first Divine Conspiracy was that "God's 'divine conspiracy' is to overcome the human kingdoms of this world with love, justice, and truth." It's clearly more detailed than that, and for my non-theist friends, it is not a theocratic call to arms. Willard was no theocrat, and though I have zero experience of Black, I assume if he and Willard were friends, he is no theocrat either.
The thesis behind the new work is that this divine conspiracy must be carried out by (unfortunately) Christian leaders. I say unfortunately because the task of healing the world need not be limited to one sect of theists, but I don't fault the authors for extending their own narrative into additional arenas of life, specifically "government, education, business or commerce, the professions, and ethics." The authors flesh out the thesis a little on the same page (34):
When leaders, spokespersons, and professionals...become organized with the critical institutions of our society to most positively influence contemporary life for the common good, blessing, goodness, and grace will flow over the land as the waters fill the seas (Hab. 2:14).
Much of the book is concerned with delineating these professions and their attendant responsibilities to help bring about God's divine conspiracy in the world, but not before the authors touch on something that the reverend and I discussed today: moral authority. Willard and Black rightly point out that leaders without moral authority cannot lead; unfortunately, the Church as a whole is flagging in the area of moral authority. Witness the recent plagiarism scandals that caused the celebrity pastors' congregations to simply shrug their shoulders. How does an institution founded on the importance of ethical witness not call leaders to account in those situations?
When the Church has been the de facto hegemony for generations in this country, identity formation ceases to be important. In fact, only the churches that work with minorities and the marginalized will develop a solid Christian identity, and as segregation and slavery taught us in the South, that identity will often be necessary in the face of the hegemonic forces of cultural Christianity so as not to be robbed of moral authority or effective witness. In short, identity formation in fundangelical circles, especially the predominantly white church, will not take place because their identity as the dominant culture combined with their inability to recognize privilege will carry them wherever they want to go, and it's a very short step to relegating ethics to textbooks so that the insitution can survive even as its witness dies a gasping, wheezing, powerless death.
Willard is at his best when discussing ethics, and the chapters on authority are worth the price of the book, especially for leaders in any field. Black mentions that Willard's class on business and professional ethics was always popular and full at USC, and that is a credit to his clarity and honesty when dicussing ethics. If the narrative you are shaping your life around does not produce practices consistent with that narrative, what use is the narrative?
On the other side of that, though, is the idea that if the narrative leads you to focus on the narrative as important above praxis, as in you insist on basic beliefs before repairing the world, then you might just as well put your narrative on a pole like the bronze serpent and worship it. Repairing the world is the task of all, not just theists, and it is at particularly this point that I have to disagree with Willard and Black. I don't care about the theological justification for tikkun olam, I care about the repairing of what is broken. The creation was good, is good, and can be good, and that requires the work of all of us.
Progressives get no pass here, either. It's no good to fashion new progressive theologies while deconstructing the text when it's convenient, and then quoting the text when useful from the other side of the coin of convenience. You are constructing a theology in midair. Why hold onto the narrative at all?
The narrative, if it's to be useful at all, must generate practices based on a particular identity, and in this case, Willard and Black at least understand that Christian narrative ought to form Christian character. That is more than the multicampus purveyors of spiritual McReligion understand, and the authors rightly call them out near the end, especially those who run their churches like a business. The "kingdom of God" is not a business, and one will look long and hard to find Jesus making any such reference to it in his parables. But if the narrative creates a special class of leaders whose task it is to bring about the kingdom, then it will miss the larger possibility that a non-material form of the same desire, which is to say those of us outside the narrative who care about redemption, can be an effective ally in the task of tikkun olam.