It is often the expectation when discussing Christian involvement in politics, the focus will be on the merits of particular issues such as abortion, gender identity, religious freedom, environmental responsibility, or social justice. But what I have found in both personal conversations and and observing the social landscape is that those types of conversations often end in frustration, hurt feelings and even anger. One of the biggest reasons is the lack of a common social matrix built on trust and shared values. There cannot be debate on social issues if we cannot agree on basic facts, or if information from certain sources is discounted because we do not trust that particular source of information. We cannot confront the common issues that are facing everyone if we do not believe our success is connected with those around us or that our perspectives our valued by others. How did we get here and what role has the church played?
Me, Myself, and I
In his excellent book ‘The Second Mountain’ political commentator and author David Brooks describes his view of the current cultural moment:
For six decades the worship of the self has been the central preoccupation of our culture – molding the self, investing in the self, expressing the self. Capitalism, the meritocracy, and modern social science have normalized selfishness; they have made it seem that the only real motivations are the self-interested ones – the desire for money, status and power. They silently spread the message that giving, care, and love are just the icing on the cake of society.
When a whole society is built around self-preoccupation, its members become separated from one another, divided and alienated. And that is what has happened to us. We are down in the valley. The rot we see in our politics is caused by a rot in our moral and cultural foundations – in the way we relate to each other, in the way we see ourselves as separable from each other, in the individualistic values which have become the water in which we swim. The first mountain culture has proven insufficient, as it always does.
In Brooks metaphor, life consists of two mountains. The first mountain is defined by climbing after personal fulfillment – a prestigious job, personal happiness, or a comfortable life. The second mountain is the climb to find joy in something outside yourself – a vocation that serves others, building a lasting marriage, community involvement, or in religious faith. Most people start up the first mountain, but whether through disrupting life circumstances or by finding the first mountain unfulfilling, some move on to discover the second mountain.
Our society has become a conspiracy against joy. It has put too much emphasis on the individuating part of our consciousness – individual reason – and too little emphasis on the bonding parts of our consciousness, the heart and soul. We’ve seen a shocking rise in mental illness, suicide, and distrust. We’ve become too cognitive when we should be more emotional; too utilitarian when we should be using a moral lens; too individualistic when we should be more communal.
My own life experiences have led me to many of the same conclusions. I look back on my upbringing and nearly every major influence of my life had strong individualistic overtones. From my family and church the emphasis was on personal moral behavior, personal responsibility, and a personal relationship with Jesus. From the public school environment there was a strong element that focused on doing your own thing, discovering yourself, and living out your own morality. Many of these ideas are, in the right context, good in and of themselves but there was very little discussion of how to move from personal to communal values. I accepted this individualistic environment -not without reservations- because it was what I knew and what I had experienced. If you would have met me at that time I would have argued in favor of that environment. Self-reliance was the sign of a strong person, or so I thought. But the lingering voice of those reservations grew louder over the years.
Seeking a Community of Worship
God created us to be communal; such a hyper-individualistic society goes against our nature, as evidenced by the dysfunction that Brooks mentions. But we cannot entirely deny the image of a Triune God inside us – we will seek community where ever we can find it, even if that community is a counterfeit of the deep, God-centered community we were intended to participate in.
We often seek community around shared interests- enjoying the same music styles, fascination with the same hobbies, and passion for the same sports teams. I don’t think it is a coincidence that most sports teams refer to their fanbase as a ‘nation’. That word is important because it conveys a sense of belonging. You are not an isolated individual cheering on a team; rather you are a part of something much bigger than yourself, a nation of those who share in the same joyful triumphs and lament the same heartbreaking defeats. You are not alone. In our individualistic society, people crave the sort of belonging they find here.
This type of community is what I call shallow community. A shallow community draws people together around a shared passion and creates a feeling of belonging and acceptance; while deep community draws people to a shared mission and creates a feeling of love and vulnerability. Shallow communities are easy to hide in; deep communities expose our fears and wounds in an atmosphere that allows for healing. Shallow communities make you feel good about yourself; deep communities ask you to sacrifice for others. Shallow communities are fun; deep communities are transformative.
Politics captures our passions so profoundly because we find some of the elements of deep community. It goes beyond the feeling of belonging to ‘Hawkeye Nation” or discovering that others are passionate about growing African Violets or baking artisan breads. Politics offers us moral urgency, and gives us the opportunity to express this urgency in community. We can belong to a like minded group while finding purpose in addressing the substantive issues facing our society. And if our side loses, then we can point to the millions of people who cast their vote for the same candidate or cause to remind ourselves that we are not alone. Politics imparts what child psychologist Robert Coles calls ‘moral companionship’.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his classic novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov”, takes this concept a step further.
“But man seeks to worship what is beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find something to believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of all men individually and all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they have slain each other with the sword. They’ve set up gods and challenged one another: “Put away your gods and come and worship ours, or we will kill you and your gods!”. And so it will be until the end of the world, even when gods disappear from the earth, they will fall down before idols just the same. Thou didst know. Thou couldst but not know this fundamental secret of human nature.”
Because political philosophy must necessarily address issues of morality and social relationships, it will also necessarily have a spiritual dimension. In an increasingly secular, hyper-individualistic culture, the ‘craving for community of worship’ is too often fulfilled by political affiliation rather than true spiritual community. Political philosophies replace theology in determining an individual’s core beliefs, and political parties take on the role of organized religion in providing moral companionship. This leads to political leaders beginning take on the status of cult leaders.
The Failure of the Church
Perhaps the biggest reason as to why this has happened is that in many, if not most cases, the church has been swept along by the self-oriented, individualistic current; passively accepting if not actively embracing this culture. “The changes that have overtaken the West have revolutionized everything, even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves.” says Rod Dreher in ‘The Benedict Option’. We define church as attendance of a worship service rather than embracing the New Testament vision of church as participation in a God-centered community. Scholar Francis Schaeffer notes, “The Christian community and the practice of that community should cut across all lines. Our churches have largely been preaching points and activity generators. Community has had little place. In the New Testament church this practice of community was not just a banner, but cut all the way down into the hard stuff of the material needs of the members of the community.” These words are from the book “The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century”, which was published in 1970. Sadly, I don’t think anything has substantially changed in the following 51 years.
The result of the failure of churches to provide deep communities of worship has been the rise of tribalism. “Tribalism” writes David Brooks, “seems like a way to restore the bonds of community. It certainly does bind people together. But it is actually the dark twin of community…These days, partisanship for many people is not about which political party has the better policies. It’s a conflict between the saved and the damned. People often use partisan identity to fill the void left when their other attachments wither away – ethnic, neighborhood, religious, communal, and familial.”
Events like the January 6th assault on The Capitol are not just the result of a lack of solid theological teaching, though I think that is a part of the problem. It is the end product of people trying to find spiritual meaning and their place in a culture that lacks both a solid intellectual foundation for Christian belief as well as a lack of meaningful deep community attachments. For Christians to counter this culture we need churches to be places of moral companionship that results from both deep teaching and formation of deep community. In my next post I will explore this further.
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If you are interested in the books referenced above, here are links where you can purchase them. *I receive a small percentage from any sales generated through this link.*
Click on the above link to buy the Second Mountain by David Brooks.
The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, 5 Volumes
By Francis Schaeffer / Crossway
Dr. Schaeffer was one of the 20th century’s champions of reasoned faith. Though he died in 1984, his influence continues through his writings. This affordable set contains all 22 of Schaeffer’s books. Five indexed 6″ x 9″ softcovers, from Crossway Books.