Thinking Humbly About Changing the World


I read James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World several weeks ago. On the whole, I found it to be a really helpful contribution to the discussion about how Christians should be engaging the world around them, and what precisely they are doing—and just as important, what they are not doing—when they do so.

Hunter proposes a paradigm for engagement that he calls “faithful presence within,” which he defines as a calling for Christians to nurture and cultivate this world in which God has placed us.  I think what he has to say here is good, especially because he approaches the issue with a good deal of theological sensitivity. The book isn’t one to overstate its case, or to rely too much on rhetoric. Hunter is careful with what he says, and that makes his conclusions all the more useful.

Let me quote just a few paragraphs that I find especially well-put.  First, Hunter is very careful not to leave the impression that Christians’ faithful presence within the world is a matter of bringing in or building God’s kingdom.

“It is important to underscore,” he writes, “that while the activity of culture-making has validity before God, this work is not, strictly speaking, redemptive or salvific in character. Where Christians participate in the work of world-building, they are not, in any precise sense of the phrase, “building the kingdom of God.” This side of heaven, the culture cannot become the kingdom of God, nor will the work of Christians in the culture evolve into or bring about his kingdom. The establishment of his kingdom in eternity is an act of divine sovereignty alone and it will only be set in place at the final consummation at the end of time. . . .  Perhaps it will be that God will transform works of faith in this world into something incorruptible but here again, it is God’s doing and not ours.”

But he goes on some pages later:

“Even if our tasks in this world do not have “ultimate significance,” that does not mean that the tasks we perform have no spiritual significance. . . .  Indeed, when our various tasks are done in ways that acknowledge God, God is present and he is glorified. Such tasks may not be redeeming, but they can provide a foretaste of the coming kingdom. . . .  To manage a business in a way that grows out of a biblical view of relationships, community, and human dignity before God has divine significance, irrespective of what else might be done from this platform. Policy pursued and law practiced in light of the justice of God is a witness to the right ordering of human affairs. Inquiry, scholarship, and learning with an awareness of the goodness of God’s created order is a discovery of what is truly higher in higher education. And, not least, reflecting the beauty of God’s creation in art or music is nothing less than an act of worship.”

Hunter finds a biblical example of faithful presence in the situation of the Israelite exiles in Babylon. Commenting on Jeremiah 29:7, he writes,

“Clearly it would have new justifiable for the Jews to be hostile to their captors. It also would have been natural enough for them to withdraw from engaging the world around them. By the same token, it would have been easy for them to simply assimilate with the culture that surrounded them. Any of these three options made sense in human terms. But God was calling them to something different—not to be defensive against, isolated from, or absorbed into the dominant culture, but to be faithfully present within it. On the face of it, this was not a posture of radical and prophetic challenge to the powers that be, but neither was it a passive acceptance of the established order. The people of Israel were being called to enter the culture in which they were placed as God’s people—reflecting in their daily practices their distinct identity as those chosen by God.  He was calling them to maintain their distinctiveness as a community but in ways that served the common good.”

On the last couple of pages of the book,  Hunter finally asks and gives his answer to the big question:

“Will engaging the world in the way discussed here change the world?  This, I believe, is the wrong question. . . .

The question is wrong because, for Christians, it makes the primary subservient to the secondary. By making a certain understanding of the good of society the objective, the source of the good—God himself and the intimacy he offers—becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective. When this happens, righteousness can quickly become cruelty and justice can rapidly turn into injustice. . . .

To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don’t get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do. . . .

Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better.”

There’s much about Hunter’s thought and articulation here that I find very helpful.  I appreciate, as I said, his theological sensitivity.  He understands that the establishment of the kingdom of God is a work that God and God alone performs, a biblical truth that prevents a boatload of error from creeping into our theology.  He also understands, rightly I think, that Christianity is not primarily about creating social well-being.  (He says it is primarily about glorifying God; I’d only add that that glorifying is to be done especially by witnessing to Jesus in the world, that is, by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples.)

What I appreciate most, however, is Hunter’s humility.  For a book titled something as in-your-face as To Change the World, one would really have expected a more in-your-face conclusion than, (I paraphrase) “Can we change the world?  Well, who knows?  Probably not.  But we can perhaps, just perhaps, make it a little better by living godly lives as aliens and strangers in it.”  (The word “Irony” in the title begins to stand out, doesn’t it!)  That’s a humility, I think, that is born of the very same theological care I mentioned before.  Hunter knows that the world is fallen, he knows that God—and God alone—will finally set it right one day, and in the meantime, he wants simply to live a life that will commend that God and his gospel until that final day comes.  There’s a humility there that we can all learn from.

Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.