Are Christian arguments dead dogs in the world?
Soren Kierkegaard suggested that many Christians conceive of the Church as a fire brigade whose task is to run about extinguishing fires in the world. This is wrong, Kierkegaard said....
“Strictly speaking, it is not I who am ringing the fire bell; it is I who am starting the fire... For according to the New Testament, Christianity is incendiarism. Christ Himself says, “I am come to set fire on the earth, and it is already burning.”
(Attack Upon Christendom, tr. by Walter Lowrie, Princeton University Press, 1944.)
I thought of Kierkegaard today while reading Peter Leithart's comments on a recent debate over homosexual marriage between Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan. In his piece Dr. Leithart laments the inability of Christian arguments to penetrate the nut of modern American secularism. A scattering of quotes from the piece and then several comments...
- I came away . . . deeply impressed with the difficulties that Christians have, and will continue to have, defending a biblical view of marriage to the American public. It will take nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard, much less to become persuasive.
- That leaves Christians with the option of making theologically rich, biblically founded arguments against gay marriage. But do we have the vocabulary ready to hand? And even if we do, does the vocabulary we have make any sense to the public at large?
- In the end, these dilemmas may not matter. Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness.
- Whatever the political needs of the moment, the longer-term response to gay marriage requires a renaissance of Christian imagination. Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.
What more has God ever expected of His witnesses than that they "speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness?" Hasn't it always been the case that the wisdom of God is folly to the perishing, that the Kingdom and its message are hidden from those who "ever seeing never see and ever hearing never hear?"
The need for the "Spirit to give ears as He pleases" is not unique to our day but ubiquitous throughout history.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, "For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God."
Surely the needs of our day are no different than Corinth's. We do not need "nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard." Nor do we need "a renaissance of Christian imagination" producing a "people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture." What we need is precisely what Paul sought in his approach to the sophisticated, pagan Greeks of Corinth: a "demonstration of the Spirit and of power."
Honestly, you'd think on reading Dr. Leithart that what America needs is more C.S. Lewis (wiith perhaps a pinch of Tolkien and George McDonald) if it's ever to be persuaded that homosexual marriage is wrong. But imagination will never conquer the world for Christ. Imagination is the mental creation of what is not physically present. It stands against experience and reality. We don't need imagination. We need power--and power comes by faith, not imagination.
Homosexual marriage is no tougher nut to crack than the message of the Cross. Christian witness has always depended on the power of the Spirit. Christian witness has always spoken words of folly in the eyes of the world. This is not new.
Dr. Leithart's words are surprisingly pessimistic coming from a man who believes that the triumphant Church ushers in the millennial kingdom of Christ. Are we firemen? Is this the role of the Church and her people? Running around trying to put out fires? Or are we arsonists? Christ said that He came to cast fire on the earth. Who are we to do otherwise?