Civilization, Confession, Persuasion – Part II

Joseph Minich
Monday, September 12th 2022

In Part 1 of this essay, I argued that Christians have an interest in cultivating public sites of theological negotiation and persuasion in precisely those locations where a critical mass of human wondering suggests the need. The free appropriation of orthodoxy (“confession” is always a task in the present-tense) and knowing where maturity is demanded depend upon this. For Protestants, it is presumably to the shame of Rome that it admitted no inquiry beyond its status quo. Good-faith engagement with questionable ideas does not intrinsically bespeak a loose-handed relationship to orthodox formulae, but often the desire for ever-deepening persuasion concerning them – the desire to witness their continued stability as they are brought to bear on whatever question raises itself before the bar of man’s mind. Moreover, such good-faith engagement reveals a humble relation to the truth, a relation that figures it suspicious that all human insight belongs to a single community or moment in time – figures it suspicious (that is) that there are no surprises. This can be a go-to hunch without falling into relativism. To have such an instinct is just to live in reality – or stated negatively – to not be foolish and drab.

But we can say more. We just do participate in an increasingly complex world of theological negotiation. The question is not whether such spaces will progressively emerge and complexify, but only whether they will actually serve (rather than superficially numb) the cravings that produce them in the first place. The irony, of course, is that the latter is a parasite on the former.

Highlighting this fact also makes more clear the aforementioned connection between challenges in the church and challenges in civilization writ large. The predictable tensions in confessional communities over the last several centuries are the tensions of being precisely the kind of civilization that we are, with the precise mental and practical habits that we have. Unpacking this connection is crucial in order to make my larger point about persuasion, and so I will briefly do so by engaging what I take to be the brilliant core of Tom Holland’s recent, Dominion, which (in my judgment) captures the matter so precisely.

Allow me to summarize the insight of Dominion in two ways. First I’ll describe the kind of “theory” Holland seems to be using. And then I’ll describe how Christianity fits into that theory. Implicit in Holland’s elegant narrative is some notion that any culture really is just a collection of civilizational habits that distinguish one from the other. These can be mental or practical habits – taking ideas to be something like “habits of thought.” The public triumph of a new habit is always a triumph in the context of a lived world of very particular concerns and questions. New habits are basically stable “answers” to these questions in practical or mental life, usually both together. Though Holland does not himself make the connection, it would not be unfair to say that what he describes is a civilizational equivalent of Thomas’ emphasis on the individual’s dialectic between mind and will in the individual human soul. And indeed, it is that very tension which drives civilization toward “resolutions” of life and mind. It is an especially stunning achievement to have that tension be a “conscious” one. In man as well as the civilization that emerges from him, it is remarkable when reform and repentance are in-built “consciously” in the subject (i.e. we habitually “reform”). Crucially, practical habits sometimes survive without the specifics of the mental journey that produced them, but sometimes they don’t.

Viewed in this way, our very lives and selves make little sense apart from the received mental and practical habits that Christianity increasingly worked into civilization. You can call this providential or accidental, but it is a fact of history. Even movements away from Christian mores, such as the sexual revolution of the last century, are unimaginable apart from values (even if distorted in this case) that find an origin in the “Christian” sexual revolution that historians can identify in the first centuries AD. (Hint: the thread through each is some value for human happiness and peace.) We forget that many of our received impulses and habits were actually the result of a push for human enlightenment. And we forget, then, that our very own agitations and revolutionary impulses are but “echoes” of this originary “motion” – the slow habit of begrudging accommodation, or at our best moments, enthusiastic repentance.[1]

This has implications both for our civilization generally and our confessional communities specifically. Concerning civilization, the implications for the right and left sides of the political spectrum are immediate. That we can and ought to constantly be moving toward civilizational righteousness is absolutely correct, and no path can be trusted which says otherwise. But likewise, no path that is not deeply (heart-felt-ly) grateful can possibly be the path of civilizational righteousness. Our enormous civilizational wealth is so close to us that we cannot see it. We, rather, see through it. It is the “us” that we often don’t even know except in a superficial way, just as individual men frequently do not know themselves.

This same tension (between past and future, between continued persuasion and free appropriation) is reflected in confessional communities as well. Bavinck knew it,

The religion and the theology do not now exist, anymore than the church. There are only differing churches and similarly different theologies. This will be the case until in Christ the church has attained its full maturity and all have come to the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. This unity cannot be reached by force but can best be advanced if each person thinks through the faith of his own church and makes the most accurate presentation of it. It is not apart from existing churches but through them that Christ prepares for himself a holy, catholic church. Nor is it apart from different ecclesiastical dogmas but through them at the unity of the knowledge of God is prepared and realized…..Concealed in the ‘now’ is what is to come.” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:85)

Recall that Bavinck’s previously-mentioned “royal road of liberty” applies in both the government of the church and in ruling the world. In both spheres, for instance, there are analogous conservative and liberal anxieties, rooted in common narratives, and common strategies for policing the ideological boundaries. Debates about the Confession are the cousin of debates about the Constitution. Uniting civilization and church, it becomes clear, is man (who straddles each).

Ideally, of course, this relationship between church and civilization ought to be asymmetrical. Presumably, the church ought to be an aid to civilization. A central insight of the Reformation, on this score, is that this calling is not simply a matter of the institutional church, but rather of the Christian as a Christian in their vocation (or the “organic church” as the collection of these). What raises the life of one’s neighbor is precisely to live as a Christian before them. The church just is the renewed humanity, that cross-section of Adam’s race that is united with Christ in the Spirit and in whom the presence of Christ (as light shining out of the temple) warms the world. The New Testament assumes that it is ordinary that the Christian is visible most fundamentally in living attractively. And this applies to the task of persuasion as well. Already a largely Christian habit in its influences, it would be a tragedy if we became cynical and failed to continue perfecting this craft of attracting whole persons. More than tragic, it would be futile. Modern man is exposed and can only avoid error by truly knowing. Shot-down questions do not cease to exist, but only find willing tutors. As C.S. Lewis understood, however, this is an opportunity rather than an inconvenience.

“Plain men are being forced to bear burdens which plain men were never expected to bear before. We must get the truth for ourselves or go without it. There may be two explanations for this. It might be that humanity, in rebelling against tradition and authority, has made a ghastly mistake…..On the other hand, it may be that the Power which rules our species is at this moment carrying out a daring experiment. Could it be intended that the whole mass of the people should now move forward and occupy for themselves those heights which were once reserved only for the sages?…..If so, our present blunderings would be but growing pains. But let us make no mistake about our necessities. If we are content to go back and become humble plain men obeying a tradition, well. If we are ready to climb and struggle on till we become sages, better still. But the man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her/himself is fatal. A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction. On or back we must go: to stay here is death.” (Miracles, 66-7)

The church as an organism, in its general teaching office, has the task of persuading others precisely through the wide wonderings of the human mind, complemented by the magnanimity of a life that offers itself in good-will. This does not belong to any vocation specifically, but to all vocations relatively. The reign of loving persuasion exists in that dimension of human experience where all human interaction is a form of guidance, of mutual teaching. This does not negate an asymmetry of burden or distinctive office. Rather, gifts and offices are precisely given to the aid of the exercise of general office.

Bringing the matter full circle, behind the organization of civilization around the tools of persuasion lies a judgment (by man) about man himself – that man must be ever approached with reverence as a co-sovereign. This is not just a matter of “not stepping on one another’s turf,” but of giving and receiving freedom by co-participating in the very relational space that brings it into being. None of this is to imply that we produce the new creation. Rather, we are midwives of the labor pains that herald its arrival, and which animate the work that approximates the final order of things in a limited way. There is a deeper judgment behind this one, however. It is a vision of God Himself. God Himself, in His wisdom, chose the path of persuasion. Instead of forcing man’s subjection, He has made us alive through His enlivening beauty. To be terse, we must value persuasion because we are sons of God and want to value what He values.

Of course, conversion is not something that can be accomplished by humans directly. But crucially, a human’s lived act of judgment (the public unity of one’s mind and heart – one’s offered act of self ) is precisely the icon of God, precisely the chief portal to “see Him” and be attracted to Him in the created order. It is, of course, Jesus Christ (and none of us) who has truly born this task. But precisely to the extent that we are Christian, the new order of things that is centered in His person has been donated to us such that His being and Spirit radiate through us to our neighbor – cultivating a relational space in the world where love quite literally covers and defeats the attempted relational destruction of our sins. To stand next to a Christian is to stand next to a man on fire.

The project of continuing to marry persuasion and freedom is not, then, a mere matter of increased accommodation, but rather of increasingly achieved real co-dominion. The program of persuasion is rooted in our created nature, of which God’s covenant was the surrogate, of which Christ is the Redeemer, and of which humanity under the influence of (minimally) the effects of Christ’s reign have been the beneficiaries. To the extent that we have been habituated into the motions of adjudication through persuasion, we enjoy the impact of the gospel on human civilization. Any Protestant orthodox project that negates this is self-consumptive. Any project that is constitutionally cynical about what can be summoned out of a human person through the Spirit underestimates both the hunger of humans and the fullness of God. Let us pursue the project of orthodoxy as Protestants. Let us be found among those who can say, “We persuade men.”

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.

This article was originally published at MR on June 18, 2020.

[1] One mistake this makes possible is that we compare a certain feature in our civilization and a certain feature in another civilization, and overstate the similarity. To be sure, there is overlap. Different cultures speak about the importance of “compassion,” for instance. But these values are never possessed in a merely abstract way, but in a concrete way. And what we fail to see is what compassion actually looks like (how it is particularly interpreted) in our civilization. One quickly finds out, when a more rigorous comparison is made, that one is quite attached (after all) to the particular manner in which that common value was inflected in one’s own civilization. Compassion rooted in humanism will look quite different from compassion suspended elsewhere. And so what we actually like turns out to be compassion-in-this-mode.

Monday, September 12th 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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