Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Presumption and World-Changing

I've just finished reading James Hunter's book, To Change the World, and I thought that instead of writing one big review, I'd handle it in little bits of reflections on various points he has made. Yet before I get into particulars, let me quickly summarize my view of the book. I think it has a number of profoundly important points for today's Christians. It's very helpful that these points come from an academic, someone who studies the subtleties of history and culture professionally. On the other hand, I imagine that for this very reason many of these points will not be well received. At times Hunter seems to let himself get a bit preachy; either I am underestimating or he is overestimating the weight of his theological opinions in the broader Christian context. The first essay is especially good, because it sticks to an empirical argument with all the evidence needed to convince the average Christian of something he might not already know. The end of the book is a little less satisfying, with Hunter providing a lot more opinions than direct evidence in support of those opinions. All in all, I would recommend this book to any Christian. It is worth reflecting on.

This evening the thing that stuck out in my mind was the insightful challenge Hunter offers to presumption. Anyone who reads my blog will know that I am something of a free market advocate. What may or may not be so clear is that my primary reason for believing in free markets over state led development is precisely this issue of presumption. How arrogant to think that we could possibly conceive of an equitable distribution of goods, and then act it out through force of the State! The politics of presumption are the worst kind of politics, in my opinion. That is why my political philosophy moves in any direction that challenges our tendency to think we know how best to organize the particulars of society.

Strikingly, Hunter's critique of today's Christian attitudes toward social change is fairly similar:
Let me say further that the best understanding of the creation mandate is not about changing the world at all. It is certainly not about "saving Western civilization," "saving America," "winning the culture war," or anything else like it. The reason is that so much of the discussion surrounding this kind of world-changing is oriented toward the idea of controlling history. The presumption is both that one can know God's specific plans in human history and that one possesses the power to realize those plans in human affairs. There is a fine line between presumption and hope, as Aquinas observed, but in our culture, such presumption nearly always has tragic consequences. (page 95)
Elsewhere in this book, Hunter says that the church ought to provide a challenge to the prevailing market ideology. Yet I can say without a bit of irony that I agree with him completely. Indeed, what makes the free market free is that people continually challenge its dominant paradigms. Moreover, I will be the first to assert that we are far too quick to associate markets with materialism. Life is far more than material goods. Indeed, the value of those goods is intimately linked with the value of life itself. When the value of goods becomes the measure of the the value of life, then something has been turned upside down. I certainly cannot fault anyone for challenging the materialism of our time, and I dare not say that such materialism is good for a free society.

But to get off the subject of economics, the dangers of presumption always loom overhead whenever we start thinking about how to make the world a better place. Hunter rightly warns against trying to control history. Somehow we are tempted to draw a false dichotomy between absolute control on the one hand and a purposeless existence on the other hand. We pretend to believe that if we cannot decisively shape the world around us, we must then have no real reason to be here. Somehow we find ourselves grumbling at the thought of embracing a very small role in this grand universe. We tell ourselves that being full of love for all people necessarily implies being full of big ideas for governing their lives. There is, of course, an equal but opposite temptation, as well, which is to become apathetic in the name of not imposing on anyone. There is a fine line to be walked carefully.

It is good to remember as Christians that we don't change the world; God does. The challenge is to constantly fight against presumption. I find I am always tempted to think I know more than I really do. I suppose it takes a little presumption to post my thoughts on the Internet for everyone to see, but I can assure whoever is reading this (if anyone) that I have no intentions of changing the world through this blog. Just think of it as my own form of "faithful presence."

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