It’s a strange thing to retreat after you’ve won a battle, but that just about sums up how I see Christian engagement in the public square at the moment.
On Facebook, in newsletters and on the blogs, it seems to me that time and again I’m reading of how the culture is coming to get us, and we need to watch out. This was perhaps most eloquently expressed by Steve McAlpine in his blog post last year, referencing what he called Exile Stage 2 - our context now is not just one of an indifferent culture, but a hostile one, in which Christians are brought into the public square, not to be engaged with but to be “flayed”, and in which therefore it makes no sense at all to speak of renewing the culture. Indeed, “‘heretic' will increasingly surface in Second Stage Exile when describing traditional Christianity”.
Now, the thing I want to suggest is this: all of those characteristics of Exile Stage 2 represent, in a very significant sense, a massive Christian victory, a singularly successful effort of cultural renewal by Christians. We won a decisive battle!
Let me explain.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s - and this is the first time I have embraced my second half-century status by recalling that I was there in those days as an adult - Exile Stage 2 was inconceivable, and for a very simple reason. The issue, an issue which was unavoidable across universities and colleges and schools and newspapers, was relativism. The mantra ‘all truth is relative’ would be wheeled out mid-way through just about any discussion or debate, closely followed by ‘all morality is relative’. Post-modernism was in full, and hopelessly naive, swing.
And so Christians went about their business, namely the business of bearing witness to Christ, and to being light and salt in the world. In tutorial rooms and coffee shops and pubs and offices and sports changing sheds, we made our case, an essential case for the proclamation of the gospel - that neither truth nor morality is relative, and the view that they are is both self-contrdictory and immoral.
And we won!
We won that cultural battle, we renewed the culture as we proclaimed the gospel.
Which is precisely why the accusation against the gospel now is along the lines of ‘you Christians are immoral and unjust in your stance' rather than ‘all truth and morality is relative’; they now agree with us that truth and morality are absolute, because we persuaded them of that! And now they are trying to use precisely our point against us - and you know what they say about the sincerest form of flattery!
Which is why it is such a strange time to retreat, having just won a significant victory. It’s not the time to hunker down, put up the shutters, and wait for the onslaught. Rather, now is the time to keep going and to take the next hill.
And what is that? In my view, it’s that Jesus’ view of human flourishing - a life of complete heart, soul, mind and strength love for God and a love for neighbour that is akin to one’s love for oneself - is so life giving, so just, so good, that it make complete sense to entirely turn your life upside down, and reorient it toward God in Jesus Christ and away from self (called repentance and belief) to obtain.
That is the real ‘culture war’ now - not that all ways of life are equally valid as visions of human flourishing, because everyone now agrees that they aren’t; rather, what is a genuinely good vision for human flourishing? And that is a battle worth engaging with, rather than retreating from!
Of course, the ultimate battle against sin and death will not be won until Jesus comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, when creation is liberated from its bondage to decay and obtains the freedom of the glory of the children of God, and righteousness is at home. But as we wait in hope, there is a good fight to be fought - and it will be won as much by lives that demonstrate it - personally and in community - as by words that explicate it. But then, Jesus told us that would be the way.