Smith, president of Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary, AB, Canada, told participants at the virtual colloquy the church has often found itself feeling “in over its head” when responding to changing culture. Fear and panic have often moved the church in the wrong direction, leading it to fail in “inculturating” the gospel (communicating it in terms and practices relevant to the culture in which it exists).
Secularity is not a problem for the church, in Smith’s estimation. It provides opportunities for the growth of religious ideas, scholarly interaction, and expansive missions. Secularism, however, does present a serious threat to the body of Christ because it, as a political paradigm, seeks to drive faith and religious expression from the public square.
The confusion of the two—secularity and secularism—might be what has led the church to develop a complex set of responses to the culture which are not, as a whole, effective, he said. Importantly, none of the responses are entirely new, as many scholars in the early history of the church were confronted with similar opposing ideologies.
According to Smith, the church has chosen to respond to times of cultural change and crisis in four ways. Three of them are ineffective.
The first is to assume the gospel is not counter-cultural and “bracket” the faith around Sunday morning. This response he termed the “go along to get along” version of the faith, where Christians are fundamentally secular in their outlook during the week. They see faith as privatized, and that is something Scripture shuns.
Second, some in the church have chosen the monastic response or the “Benedict Option,” as Smith put it. In this response, like Benedict of Nursia who gathered monks at the monastery of Monte Cassino in Northern Italy, the church withdraws from the city—the epicenter of human life—to avoid conflict and the testing of faith in the culture. Smith said this idea is “gaining currency” today as some Christians advocate a parallel approach.
Third, the church has sometimes chosen to respond by going to war with the culture. This “culture war” view assumes North American society was at some point anchored in classical Christian doctrine, or at least that the Christian was voice was “privileged” in most fields, he said. Though the culture war began to heat up in the 1960s and has continued unabated, it actually began in the late 19th century, Smith said. Now, the push back against secularism has led to efforts to recapture educational institutions, denominations, legislatures, and the courts.
Smith, however, advocated a fourth method—the idea of “faithful presence” in the culture. In this idea, he said, the church should come to understand it is not in a new set of circumstances. He pointed to the exilic and post-exilic prophets of the Old Testament as examples of how to lament present circumstances while simultaneously offering a vision of restoration and hope. Most importantly, they prayed (as Jeremiah instructed) for the peace of the city to which they had been sent by God.
“The fundamental posture here is not adversarial. They did not need to worship the false gods in order to be at peace with the worshipers of the false gods,” Smith said.
He also said the church “post-Christendom” should draw upon “the wisdom of those in the pre-Christendom era.” Augustine, for example, writing during the fall of Rome and the collapse of the western empire, wrote of the tension between the City of God and the city of man. There was and always has been a tension between responsibility to Christ and civic duty, Smith said. The church can learn from men like Augustine how to navigate the tension in this era.
Smith also pointed to the “historic minority churches”—in places like Pakistan, Lebanon, and Japan—as examples where the church has been small, but politically astute and culturally influential. Faithful presence for them, he said, has been “a way of life.” And their faithful presence has been a redemptive presence, he added.
In fact, according to Smith, the church has no right to speak to political or social problems until it has been present. Only when it is present can “principled compromise” be achieved and only then does it know the real meaning of speaking truth to secular power. In some cases, Smith said, that will lead the church down the path of suffering.
However, not engaging—failing to be faithfully present—carries an equally dangerous threat.
“The greatest threat to the church in a post-Christian secular society, and I am quoting the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams here, is not external to us, but internal to us,” Smith said.
Faithful presence, Smith said, requires the church to develop its practice and thought along three lines—the liturgical, catechetical, and missional. This means developing a worshiping community with a “deep sense of transcendence, a “teaching-learning community” which desires to undertake principled scholarship to seat Christianity in the culture, and vision for “radical hospitality” as part of the mission of the church.
Smith also offered his ideas on what the call to engage the culture means when “sustaining the scholarly vocation.” He said scholarship is part of the mission of the church, meant to both change and stand with tradition. It is to be “dynamic, but accountable; prophetic, but not a maverick,” he said.
“Intellectuals are not archivists,” Smith said. “They speak a new and present word to this time and this place. That is the work of a prophet.”
In fact, he said, the faith “calls for intellectual rigor” even if the work produced doesn’t have an immediate impact. It must also guard against threats to the vocation, among those pragmatism, sentimentalism, and partisan propaganda. Pragmatism becomes a threat when the church, or worse, the government seems value career competencies over intellectual pursuits. Smith said, however, the church needs ministers who think “critically, confidently, creatively, and compassionately.”
Sentimentalism, he said, is the “openness to emotion without the corresponding life of the mind.” Christianity shuns this, Smith said, because sentiments are fleeting and do not transform. He described Christian scholarship as “the genius of Christianity—the uniting of the heart and the mind.”
Smith also cautioned the attendees to avoid “partisan reductionism.” That is, he warned against the use of a set of political, economic, or religious ideas as a theoretical prism which shames or dismisses other ideas (more complex ideas) before they are given due consideration. It can also threaten when it uses data incorrectly, bending it toward an ideological end.
All three of the threats to the vocation of Christian scholarship are compounded by anxiety and the age of distraction in which the church lives, he said.
The condition of the world and the challenge it presents to scholarly vocation lends itself to the idea theologian Karl Rahner called “Christian pessimism,” Smith said. In this understanding, “toxic positivity” is rejected in favor of a realistic assessment of the world. Christians should be able to feel the angst of the world, but in practice lament it like the exilic and post-exilic prophets and point to the existence of hope.
Hope dismisses fatalism and resignation, Smith said, and it pushes on knowing—as Isaiah 43 declares—God goes with his people into the water and the fire. Hard times are certain to come, Smith said. But, as the eschatological vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. illustrated, the long arc of history bends toward justice and shows God is moving history toward accomplishing his purposes. Smith said Christians must “let God do God’s work in God’s time.”
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“We lament, but we do not despair. We persist, but we are patient. We get discouraged, but we know where to find renewed hope,” Smith said. “We cannot walk this road alone. There is no such thing as a solitary hopeful person. We are always in community and ideally in communities of hopeful resilience and, as leaders in these communities, we know how to cultivate this hopefulness.”