Article Dec 3, 2015

Questions about Christians and involvement in cultural transformation

I recently listened to a podcast of the White Horse Inn in which Michael Horton featured the ongoing transformation of Mackenzie University, a prestigious private university in Brazil with more than 40,000 students, into a Christian university.

Let me say at the outset that, even though I have serious questions, which I’m going to express in this piece, about Michael Horton’s two-kingdoms approach to the relation of Christianity and culture, I count him a gift to the church. When it comes to what goes on inside the church (except for obvious denominational differences), I tend to agree with him. But when it comes to how the church should relate to the secular culture, I disagree with his two-kingdoms approach, rather espousing a more positive transformational approach to cultural engagement more like that of a Wesley or a Kuyper. So don’t let these friendly critiques of Horton’s views on culture be taken as a lack of excitement about his views on other things.

His account of Mackenzie University was a very compelling story. Essentially, it is a story of reformation. The president of this historically Presbyterian university, now its chancellor, received his Ph.D. at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and he desired to reform the university and attempt slowly to return it to its Christian roots. Now the university’s divinity school has moved away from its formerly Protestant Liberal theology, and every faculty member now embraces conservative Presbyterian theology.

One of the reasons I found this story compelling is that I wondered to myself, “Is it even theoretically possible that Yale, my own alma mater, which was once committed to theological orthodoxy, could be reformed in this way?”

The reason I was so intrigued by this question is that Horton and others from the two-kingdoms approach to Christianity and culture demur from the view that Christians should be trying to transform culture. Yet here was a two-kingdoms advocate rejoicing in the ongoing, gradual reformation of Mackenzie University—a secularized university in a modern, secularized Western nation—back toward its Christian moorings.

A lot of questions came to my mind:

What’s the difference between reforming an institution or field of study or cultural system and transforming it?*

If the theological seminary of a secularized Western university can be reformed, would it be possible for the whole university to be reformed?

If the theological seminary of a secularized Brazilian university can be reformed, would it be possible for a theological seminary at a secularized American university to be reformed?

If the theological seminary of a secularized American university could be reformed, would it be possible for the whole university to be reformed?

It seemed to me that two-kingdoms advocates who would rejoice about the divinity school of a secularized Western university being reformed would think that it was, at least theoretically, possible for a whole university to be reformed. It would also seem that such two-kingdoms advocates would think such a reformation would be a good thing, a positively good goal—that they would laud the president’s attempts at reforming Mackenzie University.

More questions flooded my mind, like the following: If it’s a good thing for a prestigious university in a secularized nation to be reformed back to its original Christian roots, and that’s something we would laud a university president for attempting to do, then why would we not laud a government leader for attempting to reform a nation-state back to its more theistic roots?

Many conservative theologians have been invited to Mackenzie University to speak at the theological school. No doubt, while they are down there, they encourage the president in his work of reformation, even if they are two-kingdoms advocates. I asked myself:

What would a two-kingdoms advocate do at some point in the future if he were called in to a small nation-state in Africa—let’s imagine for a moment—whose prime minister and the majority of whose parliament was made up of conservative Anglican, Baptist, and Assemblies of God laypeople? What would his advice to them be regarding legislation about, say, abortion or same-sex marriage or sex-trafficking? How would he advise them? Would he say, “Don’t try to bring about change—transformation—to the culture based on the beliefs of the Christian church”?

And then I thought of so many of my good, faithful, evangelical friends who really want to engage the culture from a Christian perspective just as I do but shy away from the word transformation. In some cases, I think, this is because they think it must mean a total transformation—such that, if you want to see cultural change and transformation in the direction of Christian values, you’re necessarily talking about a complete Christianization of everything, in this life (but surely that’s not what most so-called transformationalists are aiming at).

Shortly before listening to the story about Mackenzie University, I had read an article at the Huffington Post about a new art conference, the TRAC conference, which is trying to bring representational art, or classical realism, back into prominence in the arts community. The convener of the conference, artist and professor Michael Pearce, said, “All of us, the people in this room, are slowly changing the direction of the cultural ocean liner. I want to thank you for participating in that. We really, really need to do that. We need to change the direction of the ship.”

What I wonder is, is an artist who wants slowly to change the direction of the “cultural ocean liner” in the art world attempting to bring transformation to the art world? I would think so. And let’s say that, after 20 years, the percentage of his kind of art sold at auction goes from 20 percent to 40 percent of the total art sold, as a result of such efforts for change. Does that count as transformation, even though the transformation is not total?

Another question that came to mind regards personal spiritual transformation: Those of us who don’t believe in entire sanctification or Christian perfection think that we are gradually being transformed spiritually, even though we will never be totally transformed in this life. Why then should we shy away from thinking we should be attempting to bring slow, gradual transformation to a given sphere of culture, whether educational, artistic, scientific, political, etc.?

These are questions that I think are worth asking, as more and more evangelical young people are considering the “Benedict Option” (which I briefly discussed in a recent post). Is it possible to have a broadly Augustinian approach to cultural influence and change—call it “transformationalism,” call it something else—from the vantage point of Christian teaching that is not triumphalistic or unduly negative (in the way that too much political rhetoric from the religious right has been)? And is it possible to embody that mentality in a way that respects the institutional separation of church and state and religious liberty, for which Baptists have been on the leading edge since the early seventeenth century? And is it possible to do that from an eschatological perspective that doesn’t necessarily see complete transformation as occurring this side of eternity?

I like to think it is.


*My guess is that two-kingdoms advocates would say that churchly things such as a school of theology can be reformed, which of course involves their (at least partial) transformation, but that something in the secular sphere cannot be. But would this rule out, say, the business or physics or political science departments at Mackenzie University? Could they be considered churchly and thus reformable / transformable?