“Culture is far more profound at the level of imagination than at the level of argument.”

Here’s an interview with sociologist James Davison Hunter about his interesting new book To Change the World: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/16.33.html.

Hunter is most famous as the author of Culture Wars.  In his new book he rejects both the religious right and the religious left views of culture, arguing that both sides are too rationalistic, individualistic, and too assimilated to cultural power. We need to go beyond teaching individual Christians to have the right worldview. Instead we need to make disciples who are faithfully present in all the institutions of culture without necessarily trying to coercively change those institutions.

Without having read the actual book, it seems to me that Hunter has some good points. What I’m not sure about is his rejection of the neo-Anabaptist movement of Yoder and Hauerwas

Hunter seems to think Hauerwas is calling for withdrawal from cultural institutions. Perhaps this is correct. He also suggests that Hauerwas’s view is too political and hence, ironically, dependent for its identity on the Other of the Empire. Again, perhaps this is correct. But the criticism I can’t understand is that Hunter seems to think that it is possible for Christians to be public but not political. He wants Christians to be engaged in public institutions without losing their distinctive Christian identity but also, apparently, without challenging the political assumptions of those institutions.

In the interview, Hunter argues for a “post-political witness”. He says “First, we must disaggregate the life of the church and the life of the nation. Second, we must renew a distinction between the public and the political.”  The first point is the Hauerwasian position of post-constantinianism.  But the second point seems, at first, highly un-Hauerwasian.  Hauerwas would say that the Church is essentially political and is a challenge to all secular politics.

The important point of disagreement is that by “political” Hunter seems to mean “coercive”. He gives the example of abortion. Instead of trying to use the law to coerce people into behaving Christianly, the Church should make publicly known that we will adopt all unwanted pregnancies. Hunter claims that “That would be a public—but not political—act. Such an act leads with compassion rather than coercion.” But, from Hauerwas’s perspective, this is still a political act. By declaring publicly that “there are no unwanted children”, the Church would be challenging one of the assumptions of American politics. We would be declaring that, because we have a different King, we have a different way of seeing the world. The is a basically Hauerwasian move.

Hunter also sounds very much like Hauerwas when he calls for a distinctively Christian imagination:

“Culture is far more profound at the level of imagination than at the level of argument. Deep structures of culture are found in the frameworks of our imagination, frameworks of meaning and moral order that are embedded in the very words we use.”

This, by the way, is why aesthetic activities such as art and worship are so central to transforming culture: it is through worship (or its secular analog in the institution of Art) that we learn to imagine and new frameworks of imagination are grounded.  Hunter doesn’t think this is political because he seems to think of politics in terms of political party rather than in terms of worldview. He says:

“There’s a difference between the weather and the climate. Contemporary politics is like the weather, changing day to day or week to week. But culture, in its most enduring qualities, isn’t about the weather at all. It’s about the climate. Changes in the climate of culture involve convoluted, contested, and contingent dynamics.”

I don’t think Hauerwas would disagree with this view of culture or the implications for how Christians should relate to culture. The only disagreement is about the word “politics”. I tend to agree with Hauerwas here. If we, like Hunter, seek to exercise social power the way Jesus did (as Hunter explains, in humble submission to God and with compassionate non-coercion), then we will, as Hauerwas sees, be declaring our allegiance to Christ rather than to the coercive power of the secular government. In other words, being Christian is necessarily a political position.

Being Christian is to declare that Jesus is Lord and Washington is not.

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