Let’s Keep Bickering: Assembled and Accommodating

Part four of a series.

Eschatological continuity emphasizes joining with others to serve the common good of the community, going beyond the walls of the church to form civic community with those who believe differently in the service of common causes. Eschatological discontinuity emphasizes accepting differences and compromises, coping with the world’s rejection of the church’s message and the church’s work in a spirit of patience and grace.

Dan Scott captured this paradox in something I heard him say off the cuff in a conference lecture: “Christians should cultivate a strong sense of civic solidarity with their spiritual enemies.” The challenge is to fully acknowledge civic solidarity and spiritual enmity at the same time.

The faith and work movement emphasizes that the gospel calls us to serve the common good. That is our theology of vocation. The “common good” means the good that is common between the church and the world – good things that serve not only the church, but everybody.

But can we even have a common good without a common god?

In one sense, yes, because the world’s failure to acknowledge God does not change what is actually good for human beings – the things God has ordained as good for us. Since our neighbors are human and so are we, all the things that are good for humans are good for us in common (justice and mercy, food and shelter, etc.) In addition, as members of the same civic communities we also share in common whatever particular goods are specific to those communities (obedience to the laws, knowledge of our shared history, etc.)

If we forget this, if we think that good works happen only among those who agree that those works are good, the church becomes ghettoized and self-referential, caring only about what Christians do among other Christians. This is where the idea that only the clergy have a vocation and work in the kingdom of God comes from. That’s why the faith and work movement emphasizes the gospel call to serve the common good – it is because vocation includes the vocation to serve the common good that vocation is for everyone, not just religious professionals.

But in another sense, no, we can’t have a common good without a common god. For the social world functions not in terms of what is good but what is held to be good. If we expect everyone in a fallen world to agree about what is good, and demand such agreement as our right, endless culture war is the result. All the “real Americans” know what is good, and it’s only an evil cabal of extreme people (left-wingers, right-wingers, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, secularists, evangelicals) who have stolen what would otherwise be – by some sort of divine right, apparently – “our” governance of “our” community for “our” values.

I got my doctorate in a field, political science, that is formally divided into subfields, primarily (in US departments) American politics, comparative politics, international relations and political philosophy. My subfield, political philosophy, is the red-headed stepchild of the discipline, and for generations there have been periodic movements to stamp it out.

When I was in graduate school, the chair of our department thought that the division of the discipline into subfields led to overspecialization, and introduced reforms intended to eliminate official recognition of the divisions. I agreed that overspecialization was a problem, but I opposed the reform on grounds that the adherents of the much larger and stronger subfields would simply swamp political philosophy and, in effect, eradicate it. “Let’s work together” would not mean “let’s learn from each other” but “let’s all do it my way.”

“But don’t you think,” asked an advocate of the reforms, “that if the people in the other fields don’t value what you do, it’s because they don’t understand it – meaning they’ll see the value of it when they’re exposed to it?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I remember replying. “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

I did want to find common cause with the larger subfields. But I wanted to do so from a position where our rights as a minority – and a minority whose identity and work was not universally accepted as legitimate – would be protected.

When we remember that Jesus’ return will renew the earth and consummate God’s good work that has been ongoing in creation since the beginning, we will seek to build moral consensus with our neighbors in order to carry on the good work now.

But when we remember that Jesus’ return will bring a catastrophic confrontation and judgment upon a fallen and sinful world – and that this traumatic revolution of affairs is not supposed to begin until Jesus returns – we will accept differences with grace and strive to cope with pluralism through compromise, without demanding a social unity only Jesus’ return can bring.

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