Friday, August 23, 2013

A Chastened Activism, part 2

Nuh uh. I am.So I finished reading Wigg-Stevenson's The World Is Not Ours To Save.  I'm struck by how much its thesis matches that of Ehrenfeld's Arrogance of Humanism, which I've already referred to several times.  In fact, the "activist" spirit whose fundamental orientation concerns Wigg-Stevenson just is Ehrenfeld's "humanism" - "the conviction that all problems can be solved by people."  Ehnrenfeld's conscious abandonment of this perspective, together with his refusal to reach explicitly for a metaphysical eucatastrophe, is what gives his book its elegiac quality.

Wigg-Stevenson, though, does want to commend Christian hope, but he knows very well that "hope" must not be so deployed as to render insignificant our present existence, its glories and sufferings. How then does he address the relationship between present and future? Like this:
...the contours of the coming kingdom call to us from the future, like the memory of a reality that doesn't yet exist. When we respond to this call, the present is shaped as an echo or shadow or trace of what will be.  (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (Kindle Locations 965-967). Kindle Edition.)
 He expounds the "peaceable kingdom" vision of Micah 4 and gives a range of examples (from Britain in the second world war, from his own anti-nuclear work, and from apartheid South Africa) which, he says, illustrate this response from afar to the contours of the coming kingdom.

In the last chapter he has some detailed advice for evangelical activists.  Here is a particularly hard-hitting point:
An evangelical variant of the moral arbiter tactic has sprung up like kudzu over the past decade. It involves taking a cause not usually associated with political conservatives, which a majority of evangelicals continue to be, branding it with the evangelical label, maybe through a signed letter from evangelical leaders, and then attempting to use the "man bites dog" shock value for the purposes of political positioning. The terrific irony of this tactic is that it pays for its campaigns out of a stolen checking account, because its efficacy depends wholly on the political capital built up by the Religious Right... After about ten years of this, most media and elected officials have wised up, and our broad new agenda doesn't surprise anyone anymore. As a result, evangelical political salience has dropped, which in my estimation is a good thing, since it requires us to engage public issues from a deeply and clearly biblical basis, rather than relying simply on the political cachet of the evangelical label and a few representative endorsements. (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (Kindle Locations 1965-1972). Kindle Edition.)
Climate change campaigners take note!  The ellipsis that I introduced into the above quotation conceals a characteristically self-aware admission: "The Two Futures Project" (his anti-nuclear organization) "has profited from this very trend." Wigg-Stevenson wants to steer us away from an activism which sees Christian faith as a means to some already-determined public good, and towards the question "What unique and authentic contribution can the Christian church make in the public square."  (He lists nine modes, not exhaustive, of such contribution.)  This last chapter provides a detailed positive alternative to Screwtape's vision of using activism to delude believers:
Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist's shop. Fortunately, it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner...(C.S.Lewis, Screwtape Letters)
Batman photo by Flickr user Mark Strozier, licensed under Creative Commons

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