For at least a generation if not more, no book has had a bigger impact on the American evangelical world’s understanding of our cultural situation than James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. I have been honored to be part of the public discussion of this profoundly transformational book. In the recent book Revisiting Faithful Presence, published by the Gospel Coalition, I joined a number of fellow evangelical thinkers to assess the current state of the big conversation that Hunter’s book started five years ago. Unfortunately, in his review of Revisiting, John Seel misrepresents what I wrote about To Change the World.
Seel falsely claims that I accuse Hunter of providing “cheap and easy answers.” I said the opposite; I praised Hunter for exposing and discrediting the “cheap and easy answers” of inadequate approaches, such as those of the Christian Right and Christian Left.
Seel falsely claims that I blame Hunter for the failures of the Christian Right. I said the opposite; I praised Hunter for exposing and discrediting the failures of the Christian Right. I said it was primarily due to Hunter’s influence that the Christian Right is not reemerging, even though external conditions for such a reemergence are now favorable.
Seel falsely claims that I attacked Hunter for having a “revisionist understanding of culture.” In fact, when I wrote those words I was praising Hunter for showing us the errors in our understanding of how culture works and equipping us with a revised (i.e. improved) understanding.
Seel falsely claims that I said Hunter makes moral formation impossible. I said Hunter’s account did not include some critically needed elements of moral formation in the areas of sexuality and justice to the poor, so if the church adopted Hunter’s approach without adding those elements, it would fail to achieve moral formation in those areas. Seel himself stresses that Hunter’s book does not provide literally everything the church needs and that it shouldn’t be expected to do so; why am I blamed for saying the same?
Seel falsely claims that I called Hunter a materialist. I said that his analysis of political and economic action is unintentionally materialistic, because he treats these spheres of activity as categorically separate from culture. Hunter himself says this categorical separation is “finally unsatisfactory”; I was only showing why it is so. Politics and economics must be treated as subsets of the category “culture,” not separate categories.
Seel falsely claims that I called Hunter unpatriotic. I said no such thing and never would. I don’t know Hunter, but it seems extremely unlikely that he has invested all this effort in helping us understand how to love our culture effectively without loving it himself. And even if I had some reason to think he was unpatriotic, what would it matter? I was evaluating a book, not a man. I said that an approach to a culture that portrays its political and economic systems as demonic forces (which Hunter does) will not be able to create attachment to that culture in those not already attached to it. The question is not whether Hunter is patriotic—I’m sure he is, but if he weren’t, I wouldn’t care—the question is whether we can help people love their communities while literally demonizing those communities’ systems of public justice and mutual labor.
Seel accuses me of a “quasi-Constantinianism that belies common grace” because I do not think common grace alone would have been sufficient, by itself, to produce a social order characterized by freely virtuous and self-controlled citizens. There is a middle ground between believing common grace does everything and believing it does nothing, and Constantinianism is not the only model for how the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit can impact a community beyond the bounds of the church. If Seel thinks that what I wrote constitutes Constantinianism (even of the merely “quasi” variety) he needs to get out more; I look forward to showing Seel’s characterization of me to Patrick Deneen the next time I find myself debating him. As C. S. Lewis said in another context, “if the Patagonians think me a dwarf and the Pygmies a giant, perhaps my stature is in fact fairly unremarkable.”
I say common grace is not sufficient by itself to do all we need, and Seel claims on this basis that I believe “it’s salvation or nothing.” Apparently for Seel it is, culturally speaking, common grace or nothing. Common grace by itself can maintain some level of order and public justice, such as the order of first-century Rome, and this is certainly not nothing. Jesus and Peter and Paul did not think it was nothing when they taught their followers to obey and honor the emperor. But the Romans did not get rid of slavery, or stop carrying unwanted infants out into the forest and leaving them there to die a slow and painful death of starvation, until the Holy Spirit moved through the church to expose the evil of these practices. Common grace may or may not have been enough, culturally speaking, for Philemon; Onesimus needed more.
Seel seems determined to portray everything we said in Revisiting Faithful Presence, including not only our criticisms but even our praises, as some kind of vicious attack. He seems determined to believe we have some kind of axe to grind. But we don’t—I certainly don’t—and I trust that any unbiased reader who consults the book will see this. We wrote in a spirit of consideration and discernment, not of defense, attack or any other knee-jerk reaction.
The greatest compliment we could have paid Hunter’s book is the one we paid it on the title page: we still think it critically important to revisit. How many books attract this kind of attention five years later? Anyone who shares my opinion that To Change the World is one of the most important books written for the church in many years should be glad to see any group of people giving it such attention. I wish there were more communities where the importance of this book were realized the way it is realized among the evangelical church—but then, it has often been the role of the evangelical church to champion truths and concerns when they are neglected by other social leaders.
Seel says “this is an ongoing story we are writing together.” I hope he considers the contributors to Revisiting a part of that “we.” In order to write this story together we need to value one another enough to listen to one another. The various social sciences all have to listen to one another; social scientists and theologians need to listen to one another; scholars, integrators and practitioners need to listen to one another. We all know things the others need to know, and we won’t learn anything if we only listen to people who are like us.
Greg Forster is the author of six books and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness.