We have asked our John Jay Fellows to assist us by writing reflections on each of the five courses covered during the John Jay Fellows program. Recently, we wrapped up our first module, which focused on the areas of Christian Worldview, Christian Engagement in the public square, and what our goals for engagement ultimately are. Central to our focus is a consideration of the creation, fall, and redemption/restoration themes and how they shape a Biblical worldview.
Current John Jay Fellow, Garrett Bell, offers our first reflective essay on this module, the first in a series of five pieces in our Learning Together series.
Christian Foundations for Culture, Society, and Politics
By Garrett Bell
As the first module of our semester comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on all we have read and my reason for being here at the John Jay Institute. Though my public education prepared me for a specialized career in Sociology, one that would aspire to the pursuit of the good of society and human flourishing, it was built on a foundation of sand – emphasizing only humanitarian efforts and the liberation of oppressed populations. While these ambitions were rightly aimed at engaging culture and rejecting the Durkheimian distinction of “sacred” and “profane” spheres of religious life (as detested by author Albert Wolters in Creation Regained), ultimately they committed the opposite fraud. That is, they denied the role of divine truth and the resurrected body of Christ in my attempts to love my neighbors and promote peace and order. There were no discussions as to why human suffering exists, nor why we are called to alleviate such suffering. Even in those classes which explicitly dealt with law, my professors and classmates rarely considered how justice ought to be defined. Instead, we settled for a surface-level awareness that certain human rights should be fought for, all the while maintaining that absolute truth is fleeting and malleable. Justice was considered relative, dependent on the culture and even on the individual.
Simply stated, this is the effect of a modern age that has tried to construct a civilization from valueless compromises and neutral processes. As Christopher Dawson states in his essay, Civilization in Crisis, “Custom and tradition and law and authority have lost their old sacredness and moral prestige,” and instead, “they have all become servants of public opinion and of the will of society.” What is thought to be good and worth pursuing is “floating on a tide of change.” My educational experience was indicative of that. The modern temptation to accept science, democracy, and humanitarianism as essential elements of civilization, while simultaneously discarding the importance of transcendental truth generally, and Christianity specifically, is tantamount to cultural suicide: sawing off the branch upon which we sit. To do so ignores the centuries of Christian thought that influenced democratic formulation. Consequently, the super-rational element of human psychology is ignored and the spiritual unity that bonds and regulates society is disintegrated.
For Dawson and J. Gresham Machen, the solution to this impending catastrophe is to be found in the reformation of higher education and the breaking down of intellectual barriers which prevent Christianity from getting its hearing. By reinstating a religious education, they argue, we can recover the lost channels of communication that have been choked out by secularism and restore contact between religion and modern society.
I believe that the vision of Dawson and Machen is manifesting itself at the John Jay Institute. As James K.A. Smith articulates in Awaiting the King, we are forming a Christian political theology that “is rooted in the substance of the gospel and the specific practices of the cruciform community that is the church. The public task… is not just to remind the world of what it already knows but to proclaim what it couldn’t otherwise know – and to do so as a public service for the sake of the common good.” On a daily basis, we are striving to recover our own cultural inheritance. We are learning to communicate this inheritance to a sub-religious and neo-pagan world through politics, law, literature, art, and education. We are striving to reunite the world of spiritual reality and the world of social experience, and ultimately, remind our neighbors what a redeemed human life looks like.