STRANGERS AND PILGRIMS ONCE MORE: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World. By Addison Hodges Hart. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014. 148 pages.
AWhat does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in a post-Christendom world? This is a question that Christians living in the West are being forced to ask, because the old age of Christendom is crashing down around us. This is happening whether we like it or not, and we’re past the point of no return. We can try doing CPR on the old cultural and societal foundations of a “Christian civilization,” but the body is dead. For many in our midst this is a crushing blow, and the grief is strong. Others among us are cheering – either because they despised a Christianized civilization or because they deplored a Constantinian Christianity.
Addison Hodges Hart, a retired pastor and college chaplain, as well as the author of the recently published The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd: Finding Christ on the Buddha's Path (Eerdmans, 2013), invites us to imagine what this new world will look like. His is a future-oriented vision, but even as he helps guide us out of the ruins of Christendom, he doesn’t regard the age of Christendom being a dark age. There is much to abandon – especially the coerciveness that often went with Christendom – but there are also important gifts, including theological legacies. Still there never was a golden age to be restored in the present. That said, from now on we go forward as strangers and pilgrims – much as we were before the embrace of Constantine.
Hart uses an ancient medieval theological methodology of sic et non (yes and no), contrasting what must be abandoned on the journey forward and what can be affirmed. This is, Hart insists, a “book opposing Christianity to Christendom, or, at least, recognizing them as different and even often at odds in both basic principles and practical results – in both their roots and their fruits, to use the language of Pragmatism” (p. 1). As to what Christendom is – he defines it as the alliance of church and state that goes back to Constantine. It is also Western and European in orientation. It is clear why Christendom is collapsing – the center of the Christian faith has shifted east and south.
We begin by saying no to Christendom – to the cultural alliance that has undergirded Western Christianity for nearly fifteen centuries – and saying yes to Christianity – a community of exiles. In this new context, we face many challenges, including the rise of an atheistic scientism. Interestingly, the one place where Christendom seems to be holding on is in the United States, where connections continue to be made between Christian faith and empire.
If this old age is passing away, what will it look like? One expression is seen in the abandonment of dogmatism in favor of dogma. Many might see no difference between the two, but Hart is very clear that dogmatism is coercive, whereas dogma is simply foundational beliefs – such as are expressed in the Rule of Faith or the Apostles Creed. These early statements have a sense of open-endedness in their simplicity. They leave room for conversation. Hart goes into some detail about attempts to add too much definition and adding in doctrines that seem tangential – such as the Immaculate Conception. The cure for dogmatism, Hart writes, can be found in the pragmatism of William James, such that it is by the fruit that we might judge dogmas.
Even as we say yes to dogma (foundational beliefs), we can say yes to the Bible without giving in to Biblicism. We can give heed to the Bible, but Biblicism flattens out the Bible so that every word has equivalent value and allows for little or no critique. To avoid such a problem, we must read it as we would read any book – with open and critical eyes. Hart lifts up the idea of progressive revelation – such that over time the vision of God present in scripture develops and matures. In a seemingly Barthian way Hart distinguishes between the Bible and the Word of God. The Word is Jesus, and the Bible is the Word of God in so far as it leads to Jesus. He rejects what he calls a “monophysite” Bible, one with one divine nature and new human element. Hart takes us on a tour of the Biblical story and then shows us why inerrancy will not work. By taking this route, the Bible can be a signpost on the way to God.
We are, Hart writes, to affirm “sacramental unity” while rejecting “sacramental division.” Baptism and the Eucharist should be signs of Christian unity – representing the gift of Jesus to the church. Unfortunately they too often have served as barriers to unity. In part this is due to Christendom, which enforced uniformity over unity. The expectation that institutional forms of Christianity held out before the world is that one must submit to this authority or stay away. We’ve seen this recently as some in the Christian community use the Eucharist as a political weapon. For Hart there should be no barrier to the Table. Closed communion is, he writes “the illusion of Christendom that has made it seem so, along with the idea that dogmatism trumps charity and that doctrinal purity – that ultimately impossible achievement – is more to be desired than Christ’s own open invitation” (p. 114).
The final chapter contrasts evangelism with polemicism. Hart believes strongly that the gospel should be shared. But, he does not believe that polemics is the right means to that end. Evidence will not bring a verdict, if by evidence we mean “rational proofs.” It is one’s life – the fruit of one’s beliefs that will speak to the hearts of those around us. Polemical debates, ultimately, are unwinnable. Thus the only credible evidence for the faith is our lives. With this we return to the pragmatism of William James – fruitfulness is the key. In laying out his vision of evangelism, Hart offers a very helpful and practical set of guidelines for interfaith conversation. Perhaps we should expect this from the author of a book who encounters Jesus in Buddhism. The foundation of our conversation is to be found in Huston Smith’s “universal grammar” – the universality of the religious impulse. There are many differences, but there are also bridges to understanding that can and should be pursued.
What Hart seeks to offer is a word of guidance to Christians who find themselves once again living in the world as strangers and pilgrims rather than as settled citizens of Christendom. As you read the book you will find that Hart doesn’t exactly fit our categories. Some might judge him to be overly conservative, while others might see him as liberal. He critiques liberalism for being too mushy and evangelicalism for being too beholden to neo-conservative politics and the vestiges of Christendom. I’m not exactly sure where he stands on homosexuality, but he is concerned about the loose sexual mores of the contemporary age. I am certain that he stands strongly against the coziness of American Christianity and American imperialism.
Much has been written in recent years about imperialist Christianity and the end of Christendom. Often it is post-modernism that is the chosen means to overcome this tendency, but Hart prefers Pragmatism. Interestingly enough Church of Christ psychologist and writer Richard Beck suggested that Progressives might find a better intellectual grounding in Pragmatism than they would in postmodernism. Why? Ultimately both point to the importance of fruit as a sign of faith. With that in mind, we can begin our journey as pilgrims and strangers. And as we begin the journey, Hart offers an excellent companion for the journey.