Rear View Mirrors – Part One

Michael Metzger

A false virtue…
Christians are to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (I Peter 3:15). Has anyone recently asked you to give the reason for your hope? If the research is right, few Christians are asked and few can answer.1 But the problem might not be the person in the pew. It might be that modern day Christianity has made a virtue out of a vice. To fix this problem, you’d have to pull your car over and peer into the rear view mirror. What – your faith has no rear view mirrors?

Of course not, said F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Gatsby, Americans believe in the green light, “the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.” According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, our defining feature is how we live now (and always have) in the future tense.2 But never looking back means never learning how we got to where we are today. A poignant example is “casting a vision.” When you look in the rear view mirror, you see that “vision casting” is very recent. More troubling, it yields a false virtue that accounts for why few people ask about our hope. Ready to look back?

We begin way back, about 500 years, to the dawn of the Enlightenment. This was a philosophy that threw off the ancient “four chapter” gospel for a new world confident in scientific advancement. Using the tools of technology, we could now see the future – like predicting harvests and humidity. “Progress” became the new paradigm. Optimism was the new result. But the Enlightenment overlooked the fact that the human heart and history are different than humidity and harvests.

By the early 1800s, “progress” had gone from innovative to inevitable with the Whig Theory of History, which holds that progress is the essence of the human story. From backroom politics, “progress” fanned out to boardroom paradigms with the writings of German economic theorist Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber’s “Charismatic leader” prodded “progress” with his or her “supernatural” qualities to see the future.3 But this supernatural charisma wasn’t drawn from the Bible as much as from the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). It was produced rather than a gift of Providence.

Nietzsche understood that the Enlightenment had evicted the idea of eternity, so he suggested that people stop hoping for happiness in the next life. There is no next life, said Nietzsche. There is no grace, since there is no God. We instead need a charismatic leader – a “superman,” Nietzsche called him – to paint a preferable future in this life.4 Weber agreed when he said that modern capitalism needed an “economic superman,” with charismatic qualities that are available to all, to see the future.

Weber said the scary side of seeing the future is that the charismatic leader is the least stable individual. Visions often don’t come to fruition. Christianity anchored charisma in creeds, as the late Philip Rieff noted: “There is no charisma without creed.”5 But Weber didn’t subscribe to creeds, so charisma had to be anchored in personalities and institutions, such as business corporations. If you drive up the road to the twentieth century, this is why “vision casting” is an integral part of leadership development.

When Weber’s theory of the charismatic leader was applied to the sociology of religion, charisma and “vision” became church management tools to produce motivated congregations. Even Martin Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers unwittingly played a part in this. Charis originally meant gift and was only bestowed by God, but nineteenth-century Protestant theologians who subscribed to the priesthood of all believers began to see charisma as a program of growth derived from curriculum rather than an act of Providence with grace derived from creed. The new church leader was a charismatic individual who would “cast a vision” for the church’s future. By looking back you can see how the Judeo-Christian idea of charisma was run off the road. Optimism became the new virtue, since optimism and vision come from “optic,” seeing.

The only problem is that optimism is a false virtue, writes Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School. It’s false because optimism “does not pay attention to truth.”6 The truth is that no one, except God, sees the future. The reality is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. There are, however, “more idols in the world than there are realities, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche.7 Is it possible that we have made an idol out of vision casting and optimism? In the Bible, idolatry is making anyone or anything, other than God, responsible for my sense of well-being today and tomorrow. Optimism gives us a false sense of well-being about tomorrow. But perhaps the ancient church can save us.

G. K. Chesterton said that the church is “the only thing which saves a man from being the degraded child of his own age.”8 He was referring to an ancient church, one you can see only with rear view mirrors. The good news is that we can attach a pair of mirrors and look back before the Enlightenment to fix this problem. When we do, people will ask us about our hope. Hope – this is a clue toward recasting vision. Tune in next week for the rest of the story – and drive carefully until then.

1 George Barna, Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2005), p. 32.
2 C. f., David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004).
3 Max Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organisation (translated by A. M. Henderson and T. Parsons, New York, NY: Free Press, 1947).
4 Roberto Cipriani and Laura Ferrarotti, Sociology of Religion: An Historical Introduction, translated by Laura Ferrarotti (published by Aldine Transaction, 2000), p. 40.
5 Philip Rieff, Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us (New York, NY: Pantheon, 2007), p. 4.
6 Stanley Hauerwas and Thomas Shaffer, “Hope Faces Power: Thomas More and the King of England,” Christian Existence Today: Essays on the Church, World and Living in Between (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1988), pp. 200-201.
7 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ (London UK: Penguin, 1968), p. 21.
8 Robert Kniller, As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 272.


Morning Mike Check


The Morning Mike Check

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  1. Interesting and thought-provoking.

    I did find it a bit ironic, however, that – after talking about rampant idolatry – you say “perhaps the ancient church can save us.”

    Isn’t idolatry the looking for salvation [or “sense of well-being”, as you put it] from anything/one other than God?

    Picky on the use of words, I know. But we are so easily inclined to idolatry, that it seems constant vigilance is a very good thing indeed. You know that it’s written that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” [Matt 12:34]

    You have a gift in your ability to diagnose, and a wonderful way of causing us to re-think the “norm” and come at it anew, and renewed. Thank you!

  2. Is that really the Biblical definition of idolatry? Shalom, that well-being, is a thing that God gives through His creation, which He called good, and devaluing that in favor of the non-detectable is condemned as demonic in 1 Timothy 4:1-5.

    Idols are anything which we place alongside or before God. Alternate allegiances which interfere with our fealty to God. That can indeed be a sense or reality of well-being, but that does not derive by necessity from shalom. Alternate fealties can be one’s job, career, self-esteem, political party, denomination, denominational confessional document or magisterium, pleasure, money, and many other things. but none of those are in essence or by necessity idols, they only are if we come to owe them fealty that is not relativised before God and what God has spoken.

    This vision-casting business is certainly a false guidance, putting ones’ trust in business and psychological techniques instead of in God. The rejection of the ancient creeds and the Bible in favor of ‘vision statements’ and ‘mission statements’ is another example of taking guidance from a different shepherd than the Good Shepherd.

    You are basically spot on, but you would do well to distinguish between a thing in its very essence or nature, and the use or relationship of a thing. That of course is a simple but reflective application of the basic Biblical structure of Creation-Fall-Redemption.

  3. Isn’t our “optimisim” anchored in faith? This could be a fine line for some in leadership positions who know that their employees respond to the leaders diposition. A little PMA (positive mental attitude) goes a long way while we await God’s plans…

  4. Mike – may I challenge your statement that ‘optimism and vision come from “optic,” seeing’? Optimism comes from the Latin optimus, in turn from optare – “to choose” or (another source) related to ops “power, resources”. Optic on the other hand is from the Greek optikos “of or having to do with sight”, from optos “seen, visible” and ops “eye”. So we can be optimistic without hubris, and need to ground that optimism in ‘the sure hope we have’.

  5. Good word, Julian – I stand corrected! Dallas Willard says grace means you don’t have to get it all right. I’ve adopted the 80/20 rule – 80% of what I write is close to the truth… the other 20% needs correction, such as you offer. Well done. And thank you!

  6. It’s so easy to stand on the touchline and point out mistakes – thank you rather for playing the game in such a stimulating and imaginative way week by week. I love DoggieHeadTilt and recommend to anyone who’ll listen. Fully Reliant On Grace!

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