The whole secret of the practical success of Christendom lies in the Christian humility, however imperfectly fulfilled. For with the removal of all question of merit or payment, the soul is suddenly released for incredible voyages…And this gay humility, this holding of ourselves lightly and yet ready for an infinity of unmerited triumphs, this secret is so simple that every one has supposed that it must be something quite sinister and mysterious. Humility is so practical a virtue that men think it must be a vice. – GK Chesterton, Heretics, 1905
Humility is in short supply. Even in the best of times, it can be hard to come by, but this year’s harvest looks especially thin. To be sure, the current dearth of humility is not driven by an excess of intellectual certitude. Quite the opposite. COVID-19, police brutality, widespread unemployment, systemic racism—if any word describes the times, its “unprecedented.” What we’re left with, then, is a sort of paradox—an age of ambiguity marked by hubris and hauteur. What gives?
In moments of disquietude, we humans tend towards reductionism, to oversimplifying the world around us in an effort to find some semblance of assurance and stability. Put differently, uncertainty produces anxiety and abhors ambiguity—in turn, the typical response is to absolutize and retreat into a blinkered, black-and-white mode of being that eschews nuance and subtlety.
To be sure, Christians are not inured to this kind of myopia. Martin Luther once quipped that the Christian life is like a drunken peasant trying to ride a horse—the peasant falls the horse on one side, just to climb back up in the saddle and promptly fall off the other. In other words, our intellectual and moral tendencies drift towards absolutes, right and wrong, good and bad. But wise, thoughtful, Christ-like living often demands that we eschew these extremes between black and white and, instead, embrace the in-between, the gray.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
In the present moment, this tendency is nowhere more apparent than in the public square. Our national political discourse is more polarized than ever, a reality only further exacerbated by a COVID-19 induced social isolation that makes it increasingly difficult to move beyond our own sociopolitical echo chambers. In light of these challenges, Christians’ civic engagement has, not surprisingly, patterned itself after Luther’s drunken peasant. On one end, a growing number of Christians find appeal in the Benedict Option, a sort of strategic, cloistered retreat from civil society modeled after the monastic traditions of St. Benedict, most recently advanced by Rod Dreher, among others.
And while the curb appeal of the Benedict Option is certainly understandable, this sort of resigned detachment from civic life is often at odds with core tenets of Christian social teaching, such as the Biblical mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Despite its clear limitations, political and civic institutional life directly affects ourselves and those around us, either for ill or for good (and, as is often the case given our eschatological “in between-ness,” some of both). As such, a renoncement of engagement with civic life fails to honor and advocate for persons made in the very image of God.
Alternatively, many are tempted to minimize or downplay traditional Christian social ethics in an effort to more neatly comport with one of our country’s two dominant political parties. To be clear, the allure of this approach is no respecter of persons, as Christians of both Left and Right are tempted to soften their stance on politically sensitive issues in an effort to find greater harmony and synergy with their political stream. This is, of course, problematic inasmuch as neither political party neatly aligns with the vision of human flourishing outlined in the pages of scripture.
To illustrate, consider two examples: abortion and care for the poor. In both the Old and New Testament, the Bible outlines and develops an ethic of the innate dignity and value of human life—imaged after the likeness of God himself—from the womb to the grave. Consistent with this view, the canon also clearly and regularly condemns the oppression and marginalization of the vulnerable, most especially the materially poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants. The Bible takes this a step further, instructing Christians to actively deny themselves in order to meet the needs of their fellow man. As is (I think) readily obvious, these two Biblical ethics tend to be championed differentially across our country’s dominant political parties—while the Right tends to stand against abortion’s devaluation of human life, the Left is generally more engaged in advocating on behalf of the materially poor and marginalized.
To be sure, the potential attractiveness of cultural capitulation in exchange for political power is understandable. In his 1991 Sonning Prize speech, Czech President Václav Havel depicted this phenomenon in lucid detail, describing the seductive allure of “the wide range of perks that are a necessary part of political life”—though politics itself is normatively neutral, the temptation to power “places greater stress on moral sensitivity” than we are used to acknowledging. Ultimately, however, the pasteurization of Biblical convictions for the sake of political palatability fails to uphold Christ’s command to advocate on behalf of all peoples, even when such a stance comes at the cost of political power. At the end of the day, the Benedict option and overzealous, uncritical political engagement are two sides of the same coin, with both approaches missing the mark, albeit on contrasting ends of the spectrum. That is, one suffers from an under-realized eschatology, while the other is hampered by an over-realized eschatological vision. We have fallen off the horse on one side, just to clamber back on and promptly find ourselves belly-up on the other side.
A Way Forward
Recognizing these tendencies, then, begs the question: how might we chart a way forward that cuts a path between the extremes, proactively engaging in public life without sacrificing Biblical fidelity on the altar of political expediency?
In 1909, Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck penned an essay entitled “Calvin and Common Grace,” in which he articulated and expounded upon the Reformer’s development of the doctrine of common grace—God’s providential maintenance and care for culture and common life—and its relation to salvific grace, the redemption of God’s people by grace through faith. For Bavinck, man’s redemptive engagement with culture is intimately tied to a proper understanding of the extent of man’s depravity and God’s extension of saving grace.
Like St. Augustine, Calvin is mortally afraid of pride, whereby man exalts himself above God. His strong insistence upon the inability of man and the bondage of the will is not for the purpose of plunging man into despair, but in order to raise him from his lethargy and to awaken in him the longing for what he lacks, to make him renounce all self-glorifying and self-reliance and put all his confidence in God alone…Humilitas thus becomes the first virtue; it grows on the root of election…it places us for the first time in the proper relation towards God and our fellow-man. For it reconciles us to the fact that this life is for us a land of pilgrimage, full of perils and afflictions, and teaches us to surrender ourselves in all things to the will of God…It likewise teaches us to love our neighbor, to value the gifts bestowed upon him and to employ our own gifts for his benefit. (122-123)
Put simply, redemptive engagement with culture begins not with culture itself, but with a clear-eyed assessment of our own fallibility. An appreciation of our own “bondage” is what calls us to Christ in the first place, actuating what Bavinck describes as “the first virtue”—humility. Finding ourselves “in the proper relation towards God and our fellowman,” we are able to engage the world around us with intentionality and humility, and still stand a fighting chance of bypassing the temptations at either end of the spectrum of cultural engagement.
First, a rich awareness of the all-encompassing nature of God’s sovereignty, grace, and beneficent care for all creation necessarily elevates the created world and human culture as providential gifts to be celebrated and enjoyed. To be sure, this does not suggest that such social fora are faultless, but that God’s redemptive power is at work in society and culture, and thus both are ripe for repair and redemption. Put differently, a robust appreciation for common grace encourages us to move beyond the Benedictine option in recognition that God’s goodness extends to all spheres and facets of human experience, including the mess that often is our political and shared civic space. In the words of Bavinck, “There is no part of the world in which some spark of the divine glory does not glimmer” (118).
Second, a recognition of the expansiveness of common grace allows us to enter public life with a sincere appreciation for the contributions of all persons of good will, Christian and non-Christian alike: “…they [pagans] retain only fragments of truth, not the one, entire, full truth. But even such fragments are profitable and good” (103). Recognizing the redemptive power of common grace even among non-believers (hence the “common” nature of this grace, as opposed to the salvific faith applied to followers of Christ), Bavinck acknowledges the insights and wisdom that emerge from all corners of the public square, and encourages Christians to honor such contributions. “It behooves the Christians to enrich their temple with the vessels of the Egyptians and to adorn the crown of Christ, their king, with the pearls brought up from the sea of paganism” (104). Practically, these views encourage a generous “catholicity” (120) and “democratic element” (129) in social and public life as Christians actively honor and celebrate the common good, regardless of its provenance.
The trick, of course, is to recognize these contributions while also holding true to the biblical vision of human flourishing—coming alongside others on points of common ground without laying aside our own convictions. In our current era of identity politics, such willingness to partner across partisan or religious lines is often derided as a sign of convictional infidelity and capitulation, a heuristic for identifying the traitorous amongst us. This view, however, misunderstands conviction as a sort of moral intransigence, often failing to appreciate the fact that conviction and compromise are not mutually exclusive terms.
Certainly there are some issues, bound by clear commands from God himself in the pages of scripture, that are truly “non-negotiable.” In a pluralistic society such as ours, however, one need not abandon core tenets of the faith in order to appreciate places of common ground with our neighbors. Indeed, those who have spent the most time engaging with an idea or belief ought to be the most humble and charitable in their engagement with those that disagree—not because they have lost a sense of conviction or slipped into some sort of moral or philosophical relativism—quite the opposite. Instead, these individuals have engaged with the most thoughtful, insightful, and piercing arguments against their own position and, nonetheless, have come to embrace it. During this process, one comes to realize that there are plenty of smarter, wiser, more insightful individuals than oneself who observe the same phenomena, read the same books, listen to the same podcasts and, nonetheless, come to markedly different conclusions.
In sum, honest, deep, and thoughtful engagement breeds humility and charity—not a lack of conviction, but a charity that comes from sincere engagement and, in turn, humble conviction. In an increasingly polarized culture most notable for its tribalism and “cancel” impulse, we desperately need men and women who can maintain their position at this point of equilibrium between the extremes—holding fast to creedal convictions while celebrating God’s providential dissemination of common grace to every corner of our culture.
 To be clear, these characterizations sketch the contours of the argument with a very broad brush. For example, it is certainly possible for a social conservative to fully embrace—both in faith and practice—an incarnational care for the poor and simultaneously hold the conviction that individuals and the church are responsible for such work, not the state. Again, the point here is not to totalize, but simply to highlight the dissonance between Biblical fidelity and political platforms.