Piecing together the puzzle…
“First find the four corners” – good advice, especially for people piecing together the puzzle of connecting Sunday to Monday. The first corner piece might be called unprecedented. If so, horizontal, imagination, and institutions might be the other three corners and frame a more realistic picture of changing the world.
One of the more dire pronouncements Philip Rieff made before his death in 2006 was that we live in an “unprecedented present age without moralists and religions.”1 Before, every society looked up for guidance. A sacred canopy ordered social life, from the earliest pagan religions to “the complex rational world of ancient Athens to the enchanted mysticisms of aboriginal Australia.”2 Later, it was the great monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. People today look sideways or inward – but not up in a down economy: half of all US young adults no longer self-identify as “Christian” and 15 percent of all adults check “no” religion.3 It’s unprecedented.
With the vaporizing of the vertical, Rieff said the sacred order – be it fate or faith – became a fiction. Appeals to the vertical (e.g., “the Bible says”) are now verboten. “There is no lighthouse keeper. There is no lighthouse. There is no dry land. There are only people living on rafts made from their own imaginations,” lamented John Dominic Crossan.4 Unprecedented however doesn’t mean the end of the world. It means the first of its kind. If pointing vertically is gauche, we can point horizontally to gain truth, through our shared human experiences. That’s the second corner piece.
C.S. Lewis often pointed to everyday experiences in explaining Christianity. “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”5 His faith looked up (“I see it”) but it also looked around (“by it I see everything else”). Lewis didn’t deny historical proofs, but frequently used daily pointers instead. The gnawing sensation in a stomach for example did not prove that bread exists. But it did point to our bodies being repaired by eating. “In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.”6
The challenge of a horizontal approach is that it requires Christians to explain reality, not simply expound on religion. That’s not unprecedented. Consider the “patient saints of Clapham.” They opened minds to a shared reality by reframing the imagination – the third corner. The English abolitionists pieced together the puzzle of abolishing the slave trade by issuing a journal, writing letters, distributing pamphlets, public speaking, creating “conversation launchers” (e.g., the Wedgwood plate), and making every effort to persuade by reframing how people imagined the slave trade. This movement was “one of the first great flowerings of a very modern belief that the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings,” Adam Hochschild notes.7
This process of reframing imagination requires summoning new metaphors, or pictures, to describe reality. The Clapham group reframed slaves as people. A few years later, Thomas Huxley reframed “smart” people in an unprecedented age. In his inaugural address at the opening of Johns Hopkins University in 1876, Huxley described himself as an agnostic – meaning “smart” people don’t know The Way, Truth, and Life with certainty.
“If you use the same words to describe the world, you’re sending the message that nothing’s changed,” Alan Weber says. “Change the language, and you change the way people think.”8 Weber left Harvard Business Review because he believed HBR kept using the same jargon even though the business world was changing. He launched Fast Company. In the same way, the content of the gospel never changes, but the context does. Every time a culture shifts – and that’s a rare occurrence – those who summon new metaphors will likely have their definition of reality taken seriously, according to John Witte, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.9 Yet even new metaphors for faith won’t change the world. We need a fourth corner piece.
“America is not ruled by a person, it is ruled by institutions,” Lebanon’s Muhammed Hussein Fadlullah recently noted.10 Arab leaders observe what Christian leaders often overlook, that you change the world through culture-shaping institutions – overlapping networks in media, education, law, architecture, literature, and popular culture. It’s why the Indian automaker Tada bought Jaguar – not for the cars but for the distribution network. Tada’s $2500 auto might be a great idea, but it’s not going to change the world without overlapping networks of media, dealerships, salespeople, and repair shops.
This is a two-fold challenge for faith communities. First, they tend to believe an aggregate of individuals will change the world since people are changed from the inside out. But the reality is that people are changed just as much or more from the outside in by institutions and worldviews become ways of life through overlapping networks of institutions, not individuals.11 Second, even when some faith communities do see the importance of institutions, they tend to create religious ones – think of Christian films and music and schools – that are routinely ignored by the wider world. They rarely shape culture-shaping institutions in the wider world – but they could. Since we’re embarking on an unprecedented age, it’s a wide-open race to define reality. Faith communities could become recognized as the first to find the four corners.
1 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 7.
2 Rieff, Deathworks, p. xxii.
3 The study was conducted in 2008 by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and funded by the Lilly Endowment.
4 John Dominic Crossan, quoted by J. Richard Middlton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be: Biblical Truth in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), p. 62.
5 C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1980), p. 140.
6 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949).
7 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 366.
8 Alan Webber, founding editor of Fast Company. Interviewed by Keith H. Hammonds in “The Life of the Party: The Take of How Fast Company Came to Be,”Fast Company, March 2006, p. 42.
9 Mars Hill Audio Journal, Charlottesville, VA, volume 91.
10 Robert J. Pollock, “A Dialogue With Lebanon’s Ayatollah,” Wall Street Journal, March 14-15, 2009, A7.
11 Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).