Summarizing a central argument of his Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat told Ken Myers in a recent interview, “A lot of the most influential theologies in American life today are theologies that take various worldly ends as their primary end.” Prosperity preachers turn seven-figure incomes and slick cars into sacramental marks of God’s favor. Oprah religion reduces God to a guarantor of “personal psychological well-being.” Nationalisms of the left and the right invoke God to sanctify policy agendas.
It’s a common charge and identifies a real evil. Theologians from Augustine to Luther and beyond warn about the subtle idolatry of using God as a technique of self-gratification or a handy tool for human betterment. When the church becomes worldly in this sense, she not only betrays her Lord but herself. The church is to be a community that eludes the dominance of the world’s powers; she is the people that proves the gods of this world are no gods at all. When she is captivated by those gods, she loses her reason for being.
Yet critiques like Douthat’s don’t grasp the revolutionary challenge of Christian dogma. They don’t quite recognize the worldliness inherent in Christianity. It’s no accident that Europe, with its roots in Christendom, is the birthplace of humanism and secularism. For Christians, piety and politics can never be cleanly distinguished. To know the Christian God is to know the God who is worldly. (I haven’t yet read Douthat’s book, so he might acknowledge these points.)
From the first page of the Bible, God is revealed as Creator. Painful as it may be for us to admit, God doesn’t need us or the world. The world is the result of a completely free act. Yet, the story he tells about himself opens as the story of himself with the world. When the curtain opens, we don’t catch God in a monologue. His shows himself first as the God who speaks all things into being.
Scripture continues as the story of God and the world. Yahweh chooses Abraham out of all the nations and promises to be his God. God even incorporates this choice into his name: He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel. Later, he identifies himself as the God of exodus: “I am Yahweh, who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Robert Jenson has spent the past half-century reminding us that the God of Scripture distinguishes himself from false gods with a name that incorporates people and events into his very identity.
With the incarnation God goes further. He doesn’t simply choose a man from among men. He becomes a man among men. And Jesus remains a man when he returns to the Father. If you were granted a visionary peek into the inner life of God, you’d see a glorified man sharing creation’s throne with his Father and Spirit. Mystics of other religions might be able to float beyond creation into a sea of sheer divinity. Not Christian mystics: On the top rung of the ladder is a bit of creation, the glorified but still incarnate Son, a sacrificial Lamb who yet bears the stigmata of a Roman cross and spear.
Athanasius states the goal of the incarnation in classic form: God became man so that man might become God. Jesus the incarnate Son doesn’t enter the inner life of God alone. The Son joined himself with humanity so that humanity might be incorporated into God. Through Jesus and the Spirit he gives, God dwells in his people, and his people dwell in God. We might say—hesitantly, reverently—that in the incarnation God made himself a “means” of human fulfillment.
The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth pushed the point back to the pre-dawn of the world. In his stirring re-envisioning of the Reformed doctrine of election, Barth emphasized that election is not only God’s decision concerning human beings and the world but his decision concerning himself. By election, God chooses what kind of God he will be in relation to the world he creates in freedom. He wills to be God only by being God-for-us and God-with-us. He refuses to be God-without-us or God-without-world.
What Barth says about God’s choice before the beginning is consistent with what Christians believe about the end. Christians don’t expect to leave the world behind when history reaches its consummation. Scripture holds out the promise of a new heavens and a new earth, this world transfigured into the kingdom. Christians hope for the resurrection of the body, this flesh transfigured by the Spirit.
To affirm Christian dogma without falling into the heresies that Douthat rightly decries, we must distinguish. We engage the world, but without adopting the world’s standards. We serve the world, but without worshiping the gods of this world. Christian worldliness is cruciform: We seek the world’s good by denying ourselves and sharing the cross of Jesus. To get this right, we have to move in circles: We worship God, but worshiping the Triune God drives us back to the world God rescues; we serve this world, but we offer up our service to God, the God who rescues the world.
However we keep our balance on the tightrope, it is clear that we cannot follow Jesus without sharing His passion to see the world redeemed. For Christians, the issue is never whether to be worldly but how.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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