If you read Jeremiah 29:11, every high school yearbook has, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you, to give you a future and a hope,” right? We all remember that verse. What’s the context of it? Seek the good of the city. Where were those exiles? Babylon.
Historically, Christians have gone to the center of the empire that’s where Christians ought to be. We ought to flee to where culture is created, plant and stay firm, and be shining lights in the firmament as we hold forth the word of life.
This is, I think, what this whole conference is about: It’s what the Wilberforce legacy is about, that we cannot give into an “Eeyore” worldview the outrage culture, the we-have-lost culture. I call it the Eeyore worldview: “The culture is dying. I can’t find my tail.” I have to tell you, this has never characterized the people of God, who have gone into these dark places.
Europe is advanced in its decay as a cut-flower civilization, far advanced from where we are in America, where there is still this vestigial memory of Christian things.
Europe is now so far gone that some of the leading atheist philosophers of the continent are now saying to the Christian community, “Please don’t change. Go back to being orthodox. Go back to being really Christian.” It is dawning on them that even though they don’t want to be Christians, they understand that the Christian community historically has always been a ballast against violence and radicalism and insanity.
Isn’t that exactly what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in “Life Together,” where he said, where was Jesus when he did this great work of atonement on the cross ? He was in the middle of his worst enemies. And so Bonhoeffer says in “Life Together,” the place for a Christian to be is not in the seclusion of a cloistered life, the holy huddle, our little bubbles. But he said it’s to be in the center of the city, in the thick of its foes.
COVERAGE: The 2016 Wilberforce Weekend
That gives us a lot of freedom to just let our flag fly for Jesus. I think about the line that is in the unpublished original preface to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” It was re-released in 1972. They included this, but in the original in 1945, it was not there. He said, “What good is liberty for if it is not to tell people stuff that they don’t want to hear?” Hey, that’s good news for us, because we are telling people a lot of things that they don’t want to hear.
One of the most popular intellectual rock stars in all of Europe is Gianni Vattimo. He is an Italian philosopher. He is an atheist who is also a Catholic. He says things that don’t make sense to us, like, I’m a Catholic who embraces the death of God. And he took Saint Anselm’s famous statement, crede ut intelligas or “I believe in order to understand,” and rebranded it as credere di credere, which means “I believe that I believe.”
What I fear is that the Christian community [has] sort of adopted that posture and stance of soft thought. We only want to talk about the things that are comfortable for us to talk about.
What’s ironic is that people like Gianni Vattimo and his conversation partner in a famous book a couple of years ago, Rene Girard, said free markets, democracy, enlightenment and holding back the tide of violence is thanks to Christianity. If you guys go bye-bye, the rest of us atheists are in a lot of trouble.
Slavoj Zizek is a leading philosopher from Slovenia [and] an apoplectic, Marxist, atheist philosopher who has become very chatty about the importance of Christianity for the life of Europe. After reading G.K. Chesterton’s famous book, “Orthodoxy,” [Mr. Zizek concluded] that the atheist radical universe, deprived of religious reference, is the gray universe of egalitarian terror and tyranny.
Wow. So what is the message here? It’s instead of leaning back, it’s lean in and confess the things that only we can confess. And this is all encapsulated by the theory of a man who really changed the world. If you want to know where relativism comes from, it comes from a 19th century German philosopher named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and he gave this worldview, saying that cultures developed in these moments of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Marx said, what is the thesis? Capitalism. What is the antithesis? Revolution. What is the synthesis? Communism.
Now Hegel said each era stands on its own. The wings of Minerva only spread at dusk. We don’t know until the end of an era whether or not what happened in that era was good or bad because we have the benefit of hindsight at that point.
But there is a missing step in that traditional presentation. After the antithesis, Hegel says, there has to be something called the “negation of negation.” And what is the negation of negation? You know what Zizek says? The perfect example of the negation of negation is the cross.
In the ancient Roman world, the cross was regarded as the political tool of oppression of suppressed people by the Roman government, and by dying on the cross and forgiving the sins of the world, Jesus negates the terrible negation of that political domination of the cross and reverses the story, and now the cross becomes a positive thing.
We have to be the new negation of negation. We have to be OK in saying no. William F. Buckley Jr., famously defined conservatism as standing athwart history and yelling, “Stop!” What is Christianity? Christianity is standing athwart culture and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Let me close with a nod to another famous theorist. Her name is Hannah Arendt. She was a Jewish philosopher who wrote the book “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” She talked about how the Jewish people have survived millennia of persecution and Holocaust, and she said what makes them different is that they know that they are a pariah in a culture. And they embrace being the pariah.
No, the cool kids aren’t going to like you, but by being a conscious pariah, the Jewish people historically have risen to heights that other ethnicities and races can’t match pound for pound and proportionally.
So maybe it’s time for us to be OK with thinking of ourselves as the conscious pariah. Paul writing to Titus, says, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passion and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age while we wait for the blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ.”
• Gregory Alan Thornbury, Ph.D., is the president of the King’s College in New York City. He is the founding dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University in Tennessee. This excerpt is from his April 8, 2016, remarks at the Wilberforce Weekend in Arlington, Virginia.