Hunter Book

James Hunter, Neo-Anabaptists, and the Ekklesia Project

EP Endorser and former regular bLOGOS contributor, Mark Ryan, shares his review of a book likely to be of interest to many in EP.

James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (Oxford, 2010) begins with the claim that Christians are called to do just that: change the world. This vocation is grounded in Christian identification with the creating and re-creating God of scripture who issues what Hunter calls “the creation mandate.” Asserting that modern persons understand world-change primarily as cultural change, Hunter launches into a sophisticated, clear discussion of culture and the dynamics of cultural change.

In the first of the three essays that make up the book, Hunter debunks conceptions of cultural change which trade in some form of individualism–the notion that changing individual hearts and minds causes cultural change– and advances a nuanced, social view that gives priority to networks formed by a cultural elite. His account serves as a touchstone by which to analyze the stances of Christian movements in America seeking to carry out the creation mandate. He presents these analyses and critiques in essay two, in which he identifies three Christian movements: The Christian Right (Dobson), the Christian Left (Wallis) and the Neo-Anabaptists (Yoder, Hauerwas). What Hunter offers to these movements is an awareness of what they look like from the perspective of the sociologist. How such a theoretical self-understanding might contribute to transformed practice within these movements is a complex question, but I believe he hopes it will lead to improved practice.

A Neo-Neitzschean World

But first, Hunter must offer an account of the social landscape of America today. This is the cultural context in which the Christians he is addressing live and must engage if they are not to be entirely passive. Hunter’s picture of this late capitalist and postmodern world is rightly haunting. We live in a world which discounts the common good, making the building of character and substantive public deliberation increasingly difficult. Furthermore, a postmodern climate makes us less and less confident that our words have purchase on reality. In this atmosphere, the great temptation is to reduce public engagement to play of naked power, of interest against interest. This is the “Neo-Nietzschean” predicament.

Each of the three Christian movements named by Hunter is ultimately undone by its failure to properly grasp and respond to the Neo-Nietzschean character of contemporary American civic life. The endeavors of the Christian Right and Christian Left fit too neatly into the partisan politics and ongoing culture war they fuel. Hunter observes further how their mutual animosity expresses the dynamics of polarization and resentment characteristic of a Neo-Nietzschean world. He sees in the Neo-Anabaptists a further display of resentment and the tendency toward polarization, but I will return to this below.

Power and Politics

Hunter further accuses the Christian Right and Left of making “politics” a primary part of their strategies for engaging the world. For Hunter, “politics” has been so usurped by the Neo-Nietzschean cultural forces that to think in its terms is to be co-opted. To see one’s struggle as a political one necessarily means giving in to these terms. Having described in three parts the inadequate ways today’s Christians – especially in America – have endeavored to change the world, Hunter turns to the constructive portion of the book, beginning with a theology of Christian “engagement.” At the heart of this theology is the notion of Christians’ “faithful presence” in the world. Hunter contemplates God as Creator and Incarnate Word to show how God himself models such faithful presence, laying out the conditions for Christians’ response to God’s self-revelation as imitators of God. God’s characteristic activity toward us consists in “pursuit, identification, and the offer of life through sacrificial love.”

He notes how God’s faithfulness addresses a crucial malaise of our time: the tenuous grasp words have on reality for us in late modern societies. Enactment of the Incarnation–Word become flesh–in the private and public lives of Christians becomes the means of alternative relationships. Through sacrifice and commitment, Christians are to enact trust and thus resist tides toward dissolution and difference. Hunter turns finally to the question of what this theology of faithful presence might look like in practice. Here some of his insights derive from a sociological understanding of the way power functions in human relations, both personal and institutional.

Most basic is his contention that power is unavoidable; we must exercise it. Indeed, Christians are to transform it. But power relations are also complex, coming to play in all our roles. Just as no one exercises it absolutely, so no one is totally without power. This account of power allows Hunter to accept its reality in human life and name its temptations. There is no question that gross disparities can quickly arise as power is allocated. The Christian is to name such disparities and ameliorate them.
Hunter uses examples from the New Testament to show how power may be transformed toward a more harmonious social order. For instance, to expose the dangers of status and elitism, he draws on the example of Paul who, though he used his cultural advantages to the end of spreading the gospel, counted them “trash” in and of themselves. This would seem to suggest that Hunter is challenging the Christian to use what power may come her way instrumentally. Not sought as an end as itself–counted as “trash”–power is accepted as a temporary means of making modest improvements in the world. This vision of transformed power provides a support for Hunter’s call to Christians to be faithfully involved in their culture and its institutions. While the Christian Right and Left have mistakenly adopted worldly power as an end in itself, the Neo-Anabaptists have mistakenly attempted to have nothing to do with power.

Hunter and the Ekklesia Project

I now turn to the way in which Hunters’ treatment of power focuses his engagement with the Neo-Anabaptists. It is here we can appreciate his skills as sociologist. He asserts that Neo-Anabaptists have a robust theology that successfully resists co-option into liberalism or American nationalism. However, in Hunter’s view, Neo-Anabaptists fail to extend this theology into a vision of Christian life within the worldly institutions that claim much of our time and energy as well as accounting for many of our neighborly relations. ‘Why do they reduce the life of Imitatio Dei to the parameters of the church?’ he asks. His critique, then, focuses on Neo-Anabaptist ecclesiology.

Hunter claims that because they fail to understand power and its pervasiveness, Neo-Anabaptists try to keep their hands clean. A focus on the church, in other words, is a way of avoiding the theological task of describing Christian involvement in such institutions as family, corporation, schools, etc., where power must be confronted.

This suggests a close association between Neo-Anabaptism and the Ekklesia Project. We in EP have asserted that an authentic Christian ethics and politics must have its roots in the church and its practices. We lament the current state wherein Christians do not live up to what our churches confess. We infer that this means that churches are not performing their task of formation–shaping the cultural imaginaries of their members. Thus, an endorser of the EP like Rodney Clapp can remark in his blurb for the book The Magic Kingdom of God by Michael Budde that Mickey Mouse may be exerting a more powerful influence on our outlook today than Jesus Christ. The failure of the church is then equivalent to having our sense of what matters shaped by forces such as consumerism and nationalism that are foreign to the gospel.

The debate between Hunter and the EP, several of whose members he cites in his discussion of the Neo-Anabaptists, is then theological and ecclesiological. EPers, I believe, will have natural sympathy for Hunter’s criticisms of the Christian Right and Left because one of our driving concerns is the church’s ability to name the powers and principalities. The ecclesiological debate involves the importance and nature of formation in the church. I believe the EP welcomes Hunter’s recommendation that the church focus on formation of its members. Yet there seems to be misunderstanding insofar as Hunter denies the nature and purpose of such formation as political. Therefore, the ends that church formation must serve will be alien to the church itself.This leads to the theological debate centered around what Hunter calls Christians’ “faithful presence” as imitatio dei in order to change the world.

Finding Common Ground

I think there is some common ground here as EPers also desire to resist the Gnostic character of human relationships, corporations and spiritualities of our day. Hunter, however, seems to think our focus on the church compromises our ability to be faithfully present. As an endorser of the EP, I am inclined to think that Hunter here is making both an ecclesiological and theological mistake. The ekklesia, in my view, is the source of Christian faithful presence and not merely instrumentally. For the role of the church in God’s story is that of a foretaste and embodied witness of the friendship to which God calls all people. This gives rise to the eschatological nature of the Christian way of imagining the world. There is a sense in which Christians confess that God has already changed the world and this makes possible our “creation mandate.”

Hunter locates the Neo-Anabaptist movement, and by association the EP, within the cultural landscape of contemporary America. As said above, this social landscape consists in a Neo-Nietzschean politics set within a cultural imaginary of relativism and ephemeral human relations. Within such a context, the radical ecclesiology of EP is transformed into just another location through which naked power asserts itself and resentment takes hold. Hunter approvingly quotes theologian Charles Mathewes to the effect that Hauerwas and his followers promote a “passive-aggressive ecclesiology.”

The passiveness here mentioned refers to an alleged unwillingness to accept power as it is offered and dirty our hands. But because Hunter does not affirm the political end of formation in the church–that Christians are to instantiate an alternative politics–he renders Christian action a mere instrument within the world’s power game. Yet the church, through its worship of Jesus as Lord, enables the Christian to be critical toward the world’s conception of “power.” The worship of Jesus Christ–the crucified God–gives a new shape to power. (2 Corinthians 12:9) It allows, in other words, the Christian to envision power in a form that the world will consider madness.

One of the things that Hunter does not seem to fully appreciate about the EP is how its church-focus is at the same time a liturgy-focus. The church is not for us so much an “identity,” as the name of a concrete set of practices. The practices of liturgy have corporate worship as their center, yet they by no means cease once such worship has ended. Considering the ways in which Christian liturgical practices gather us from and send us into the myriad institutions and relationships of our lives might lead Hunter to a yet more sympathetic understanding of the EP.

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