Sacred & Secular: How Should Christians Interact With the World?

vocationLetter IIn his classic work Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton asks whether one can “hate [the world] enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?”In this quote Chesterton – likely much to his chagrin – expresses something more in line with the reformer Martin Luther, setting Christ and culture in a paradoxical tension.

As sociologist James Davison Hunter has noted in the past, there is a tension between the church and the world that should not be minimized; there must be both affirmation and antithesis. According to Hunter, Christians can engage in world-building, but this is not kingdom-building (and it will not evolve into the kingdom this side of heaven). This affirmation is balanced with a constructive subversion of the negative aspects of the world. Hunter’s vision boils down to a doctrine of vocation – of being faithfully present in the world.

There is a danger when taking this approach of dichotomizing life into the sacred and the secular and thereby forcing the Christian faith wholly into the private realm. A proper doctrine of vocation should not result in a separation of the sacred from the secular, but of that which glorifies God from that which doesn’t.

The approach of Hunter and of Martin Luther before him assumes that what is glorifying to God is not limited to the strictly religious – the priest is not a class above the carpenter. As Andy Crouch observed in his book Culture Making, this idea “frees us from having to give a ‘religious’ or evangelistic explanation for everything we do. We are free to simply make the best we can of the world.” Granted, even with this qualification this approach should not be totalized. As Crouch says, the classic Christ and culture motifs of H. Richard Niebuhr have “worn grooves in Christian thinking, steering us toward the assumption that there must be one right answer.”

But there is not necessarily only one proper motif or posture, every culture is comprised of various cultural goods which might require many different motifs (what Crouch elsewhere calls ‘gestures’). Sometimes we may need to stand against culture, other times in conjunction with it, other times working to change a part of it within our sphere of influence, and other times standing apart from it.

Christ Before Culture

If one is seeking a more ground-level approach that can be used across the board, a ‘Christ Before Culture’ posture might be appropriate. Rather than have Christ transforming culture or being above culture – as laid out by Niebuhr – we might simply give Christ the priority of being before culture.

The Christian faith comes with certain presuppositions and principles that should affect how we live our lives in the world; our priority should simply be to take these principles to heart and apply them to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, what ethicist Scott Rae might call “determining what virtues or principles have bearing on a case.” We live in the world, and are called to live in a way glorifying to God, applying our principles to our environment to discern how we should act.

One such way we might exercise this discernment or live out the vocational tension of glorifying God in the world is in answering the call to do justice. This can be achieved by working to glorify God in whatever role He has called us to.

As Hunter notes elsewhere, everyone has a relative sphere of influence and we can live out the implications of our faith in those spheres. Thus, whenever we have the opportunity or ability to strive for justice through fairness and integrity we can pursue that. Sometimes it will be necessary to pursue this justice based on merit, other times by providing equal opportunity, and perhaps others by providing for those in need. By doing this we allow ourselves to customize our approach to the needs of the circumstance rather than trying to shoehorn all needs under one approach; or as Timothy Keller has put it, doing justice can include everything from “direct relief, individual development, community development, racial reconciliation, and social reform.”

Each individual can use the influence they’ve been given in their vocational sphere to strive for justice in these areas, and if necessary, band together with their fellow Christians to increase their influence.

Furthermore, Christians can pursue justice in this approach by looking at the world through the lens of their principles and the virtues of the faith. We begin with certain assumptions and principles derived from our faith – ie, we give priority to Christ – and then we work up from there to discern how best to do justice based on those assumptions in their sphere of influence.

One concrete example of how this might be worked out practically is given by Hunter in his book To Change the World, pointing to a not-for-profit housing corporation sought to provide safe, clean, affordable housing to the poor. The corporation did this because it was working from the principle – derived from Scripture – that all are created in God’s image and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity. They gave Christ the priority – to the cultural desire for profit – and used that to determine what their ideals should be; they then used their given sphere of influence to provide housing for those within their reach. They gave priority to Christ , allowed him to color their duty to their neighbor, and then implemented that duty within their sphere of influence using their vocational ability to engage in world-building and be faithfully present in the world. This particular group sought justice through directly providing for the poor, though others in different spheres of influence and different contexts might choose to seek justice by other means; this model allows for them all.

Vocation

This vocational approach avoids many of the pitfalls common to Christianity’s interaction with the world at large. It avoids conflating the public with the political, because it doesn’t get its meaning through its political importance but through the individual’s attempt to glorify God. Its goal is not to force its ideology upon others but to live out its ideology alongside them. 

This approach guides both individuals and the church corporately toward faithful, effective presence in culture. When we seek to live our lives for the glory of God – in tension between hating the world and loving it, between the sacred and the secular, between affirming and providing an antithesis to the culture – we are freed from the worn grooves that force us into partisanship or box us into one method of doing justice. As Hunter says, this “frees all Christians to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in their relationships, in their tasks, in their spheres of influence, and in their cities.”

We do not collapse the sacred/secular distinction, but we do both at once, realizing that the sacred is anything done to the glory of God and that it can thereby enter into all parts of our lives.

We can work to influence that which is within our spheres, whether institutions, companies, or households, and seek to engage the world in a way that honors our God. As Hunter notes, the things we build will not evolve into the kingdom this side of heaven, but as Andy Crouch would respond: all our efforts should be “bound up in this prayer – that what we make of the world will last after the world itself has been rolled up like a scroll.”

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