An Adventurous Colony in a Society of Unbelief

Lately I’ve been really inspired by the book “Resident Aliens” by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (available on kindle). If you claim to follow Jesus, yet you are burdened by boredom, then something is wrong and you are practicing an inferior form of Christianity. You just might be trapped in Babylon’s system of consumerist servitude and depressing narcissism. Come out of her, and come back to Jesus!

Here’s an excerpt from the book (chapter three), about what it means to truly follow Jesus:

 

The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.

Our current situation is made all the more tragic when one compares the societies produced by the liberalism of the Enlightenment with the high-sounding rhetoric in which they were born. “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” These words from the Declaration of Independence remind us of the great sense of adventure that accompanied the creation of our society. The liberal adventure was the creation of a world of freedom. By labeling certain principles as naturally “self-evident,” by offering equality and rights, the Enlightenment hoped to produce people who were free. Detached from oppressive claims of tradition and community, holding the significance of their lives within themselves as an individual, natural right, being given the independence to fashion their own future, they were to become free.

It was an adventure that held the seeds of its own destruction within itself, within its attenuated definition of human nature and its inadequate vision of human destiny. What we got was not self-freedom but self-centeredness, loneliness, superficiality, and harried consumerism. Free is not how many of our citizens feel—with our overstocked medicine cabinets, burglar alarms, vast ghettos, and drug culture. Eighteen hundred New Yorkers are murdered every year by their fellow citizens in a city whose police department is larger than the standing army of many nations. The adventure went sour.

There was a time when unbelief also appeared to be adventuresome, when the denial of God was experienced as an exciting new possibility, a heroic refusal to participate in oppressive social convention. In our day, unbelief is the socially acceptable way of living in the West. It no longer takes courage to disbelieve. As Alasdair Maclntyre has noted (in The Religious Significance of Atheism [New York: Columbia University Press, 1969], p. 24), we Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve! A flaccid church has robbed atheism of its earlier pretensions of adventure.

The Good News, which we explore here, is that the success of godlessness and the failure of political liberalism have made possible a recovery of Christianity as an adventurous journey. Life in the colony is not a settled affair. Subject to constant attacks upon and sedition against its most cherished virtues, always in danger of losing its young, regarded as a threat by an atheistic culture, which in the name of freedom and equality subjugates everyone—the Christian colony can be appreciated by its members as a challenge.

Here we become uneasy with our image of the church as colony. To be a colony implies that God’s people settle in, stake out a claim, build fences, and guard their turf. Of course, in a hostile world, a world simplistic enough not to believe but sophisticated enough to make its attacks on belief in the most subtle of ways, there is reason for the colony to be en guarde. Yet when the church stakes out a claim, this implies that we are somehow satisfied with our little corner of the world, our little cultivated garden of spirituality or introspection, or whatever crumbs are left after the wider society has used reason, science, politics, or whatever other dominant means it has of making sense of itself.

Our biblical story demands an offensive rather than defensive posture of the church. The world and all its resources, anguish, gifts, and groaning is God’s world, and God demands what God has created. Jesus Christ is the supreme act of divine intrusion into the world’s settled arrangements. In the Christ, God refuses to “stay in his place.” The message that sustains the colony is not for itself but for the whole world—the colony having significance only as God’s means for saving the whole world. The colony is God’s means of a major offensive against the world, for the world.

An army succeeds, not through trench warfare but through movement, penetration, tactics. Therefore, to speak of the church as a colony is to speak of the colony not as a place, a fortified position, be it theological or geographical. The colony is a people on the move, like Jesus’ first disciples, breathlessly trying to keep up with Jesus. It is an adventure with many unknowns, internal arguments over which turn to take in the road, conversations along the way, visits to strange places, introductions and farewells, and much looking back and taking stock.

When we are baptized, we (like the first disciples) jump on a moving train. As disciples, we do not so much accept a creed, or come to a clear sense of self-understanding by which we know this or that with utter certitude. We become part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone. Too often, we have conceived of salvation—what God does to us in Jesus—as a purely personal decision, or a matter of finally getting our heads straight on basic beliefs, or of having some inner feelings of righteousness about ourselves and God, or of having our social attitudes readjusted. In this chapter we argue that salvation is not so much a new beginning but rather a beginning in the middle, so to speak…

The Bible is fundamentally a story of a people’s journey with God. Scripture is an account of human existence as told by God. In scripture, we see that God is taking the disconnected elements of our lives and pulling them together into a coherent story that means something. When we lack such a truthful, coherent account, life is likely to be perceived as disconnected, ad hoc. In trying to make sense of life, when we lack a coherent narrative, life is little more than a lurch to the left, a lurch to the right. This is the world seen through the eyes of the “CBS Evening News”: disaster here, insoluble problem there, and then the inevitable “now this” followed by a commercial that helps us recover our sense that our world is all right (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death [New York: Penguin Books, 1986]). No wonder modern humanity, even as it loudly proclaims its freedom and power to choose, is really an impotent herd driven this way and that, paralyzed by the disconnectedness of it all.

The Elijah Revolution will bring the sense of adventure back into our lives as Christians!

God bless,

 

Peter Goodgame

January 11, 2012


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