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Humility, Hope and the Divine Slowness

by Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw is provost of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. This article is one in a series from the Christian Century magazine: "How My Mind Has Changed. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


John Reeve, the 17th-century leader of the British sect known as the Muggletonians, strongly opposed the idea of an earthly millennial kingdom. He was convinced that Jesus had no interest in returning to earth to establish a political administration. After all, he asked, didn't Jesus suffer during his last stay on earth? Why would he want to come back as a politician and suffer again? I must confess that I am tempted, as I think back over this past decade as an evangelical social ethicist, to add my own spin to Reeve's argument. Even if Jesus didn't suffer enough during his first earthly tour of duty, isn't it likely that he has had his fill of "Christian politics" by now? Hasn't his capacity at least for political suffering finally reached its limit?

Ten years ago I was devoting much attention to the New Christian Right. At the beginning of the 1980s, "born-again politics" was being heralded as a major new force in North America. It is clear today, however, that the New Christian Right lacked the vision and leadership to live up to its promise -- or even to justify the fears of its opponents. While many New Rightists remain active in the abortion controversy, the enthusiasm for a more comprehensive political program has dissipated. The Moral Majority no longer exists, and several prominent New Right preachers have experienced public humiliation.

I did not altogether oppose born-again politics when it appeared on the scene. I spent my early years as an ethicist trying to convince my evangelical kinfolk that the gospel does indeed have clear political implications. The New Christian Right signaled a change of agenda: the arguments with Bible-believing Christians about whether the gospel is in fact political gave way to questions about the actual content of Christian politics. This struck me as an important advance.

And it was. Evangelicals are more aware these days of the political dimensions of the gospel than they were 20 years ago. But it is also clear that they have much theological homework to do on social, political and economic questions.

A staff member of a mainline church told me after a speech I gave recently that, much to his surprise, he agreed with just about everything I said. "Tell me," he asked, "how does a person like you survive in the evangelical world?" One thing that helps, I replied, is that I really am an evangelical.

Labels can outlive their usefulness, and those of us who insist upon being called "evangelical" must be sensitive to changing alignments in the Christian world. But I still find it helpful to assume a label that points to the centrality of the evangel, the good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.

To be sure, there is more to the gospel than a message about individual salvation. But there is not less to the gospel than that. I am encouraged by the increasing Christian awareness that proper discipleship requires us to take up the causes of peace, justice and righteousness. But no program of liberation is fully adequate that does not offer people the new life that comes from a personal acceptance of the claims of the gospel.

It is precisely this strong emphasis on the personal dimension, of course, that has made it so difficult for evangelicals to think clearly about structural issues. The categories necessary for a theological understanding of corporate life do not come easily for us. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the current of anti-intellectualism flowing through most pietism -- and the North American conservative evangelical community is essentially a coalition of pietist movements -- makes it difficult for evangelicals to work hard at mastering those categories.

Evangelical political embarrassments of this past decade are due in good part, I am convinced, to this kind of theological failure. New Right preachers were unable to cultivate a political perspective that could provide the nuances and staying power necessary for coping with complex political realities. Furthermore, their past patterns of cultural and ecclesiastical separatism have left them with few role models outside of their own groups. I for one would have been immensely pleased if, for example, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson had gone to the Roman Catholic bishops for some private tutoring on matters of public moral pedagogy.

When it comes to political discussion, evangelical Christianity very much needs to cultivate those "communities of memory" whose cultural importance was underscored by the authors of Habits of the Heart. The resources of a forgotten past must be mined for their present relevance. Some people are already attempting to do this. For example, evangelical colleges and seminaries are conducting promising discussions on a variety of traditions of ethical discourse, including Anabaptist, Reformed, Franciscan, Puritan, African-American and Wesleyan. These ethical explorations must be intensified, and more time must be spent probing some very basic questions.

As a teenager I read J. B. Phillips's Your God Is Too Small. Though I can't remember any of the book's contents, the title has served me well as a reference point for thinking about the doctrine of God. Throughout my adult life I have regularly asked myself what variation on Phillips's title best summarizes how I and my closest spiritual kinfolk are limiting the deity. In the 1960s I came to see that my understanding of God had been too interwoven with racism and nationalism. During the next decade I thought much about how my concept of the deity had been too North Atlantic. The 1980s have given me opportunity to think about how patriarchal assumptions have distorted the doctrine of God.

Obviously, we learn none of those theological lessons once and for all. They are subject to ongoing reflection. But if I had to choose the variation on Phillips's title that best captures my most recent exercises in corrective theology, it would be your God is too fast.

I have been thinking a lot about God's "pace" in recent years. The importance of this topic became strikingly clear to me over lunch during an ecumenical consultation a few years ago. The small group at my table consisted of evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Somehow the question of "creation science" came up. While none of the evangelicals present promoted the idea of a literal six-day creation, we all had close ties to people who held literalist interpretations. So we tried to explain the phenomenon to our Catholic friends, putting the best face that we could on the literal-creationist perspective.

The Catholics had a difficult time generating any sympathy for the position we were outlining. Finally one Catholic scholar threw her hands up in despair, exclaiming in an agitated voice, "Don't these people realize that God likes to do things slowly?"

Her rhetorical question brought the issues into sharp focus for me. What she took for granted is precisely what many of my evangelical kinfolk do not realize; they insist that God likes to work fast. They think the only proper way to honor God as the creator of all things is to assert that God created everything quickly. And what holds for the deity's "macro" dealings with the universe applies also to the "micro" issue of individual salvation; if a person has genuinely been "saved," she would have known when it happened -- there is no mistaking the salvific activity of a God who is fond of doing things quickly and decisively.

I am convinced that one reason evangelicals have such difficulty taking questions of racial and economic justice seriously is that the problems in those areas seem so intractable. If God works quickly and decisively, then the fact that these problems haven't been solved yet must mean that God doesn't care very much about these particular areas of human concern.

The obvious defects of this way of viewing the processes of social change point to the need for a proper theological understanding of divine slowness. Both Catholic and Reformed thought provide resources for developing a deep appreciation for a more deliberate divine pace. In each case -- exemplified by the Reformed fascination with the idea of providence and the Roman emphasis on the development of dogma -- the notion of human history as an arena for the developmental unfolding of the divine purposes looms large.

The developmental understanding of God's attitude toward history does have important psychological and cultural corollaries. The imitatio dei seems to play a role here -- we tend to adjust our human pace according to our sense of how fast God is moving. The Reformed community has a long history of resisting all-at-once, perfectionist schemes, both in its understanding of the individual spiritual pilgrimage and in its programs of political reform. And my Roman Catholic friends are fond of quoting the Ignatian reminder that "God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines" -- a sentiment that would sound very strange to many evangelical ears.

These less dramatic expectations seem quite appropriate to me these days, as do the theological themes that serve as their foundation. Not that I have sworn off everything associated with the theology of quickness and decisiveness. In his study of ''immediatism", in antislavery movements, historian David Brion Davis distinguishes between a subjective immediatism, according to which people directly and forthrightly condemned the slavery system, and a more programmatic immediatism, which looked for quick and simple solutions to the problem.

On many issues I am a subjective immediatist. Apartheid, for example, is a phenomenon that seems to demand decisive moral clarity. It is the more programmatic variety of immediatism that makes me nervous. But I would not even condemn that without qualification. I celebrate the sudden conversions that many individuals have experienced, and those signs of God's active intervention in human affairs force me to accept the possibility of sudden conversions of social structures as well. But I don't expect them as simply a matter of course.

Nothing about this new appreciation for development and slowness means that I have become a neoconservative. To be sure, I have learned some important lessons from the neoconservative movement, which has become an important voice in Christian dialogue about public policy during this past decade. At the very least, neoconservatism has helped me to understand more clearly the uneasiness that I have long felt toward the political and economic remedies that liberationist and radical Christian thinkers sometimes advocate. In that respect the neoconservative movement has introduced some balance into the intellectual dialogue.

One important lesson that we all should have learned from the neoconservatives by now is that the intentions behind many of our efforts on behalf of the poor and the oppressed do not always match the results. Indeed, immediatist-interventionist solutions often make matters worse in the long run. Furthermore, the fact that a specific policy or system does not intentionally aim at bettering the lot of the oppressed does not mean that it will not in fact eventually produce beneficial effects for them; poverty-stricken people are often served better by schemes that emphasize the production of wealth than they are by redistributionist programs. Those things seem to me to be important for Christians to admit.

But we must also acknowledge that not all immediatist-interventionist solutions fail to deliver what they promise. And not all that encourages the production of wealth benefits the poor in the long run. Thus I am also nervous about neoconservatism.

I have developed a cautious attitude toward programmatic solutions offered in the name of the gospel. But I do not face the next decade without reference points for evaluating programmatic proposals I am convinced, for example, that the God of the Bible does want us to commit ourselves to the cause of the poor and the oppressed. A willingness to focus on this cause in a very sustained and serious manner is itself an important reference point in formulating public policy. This doesn't eliminate the need for continued discussion about who among the wretched of the earth most need our direct ministry of compassion and empowerment. A serious dialogue about that topic can be very healthy, especially when accompanied by the firm conviction that the issues are so important that informed risk-taking is an urgent necessity.

Another subject I've confronted is pluralism. I am more ecumenical at the end of this decade than I was at the beginning in that I have a deeper appreciation for the ways in which God's gracious dealings with the Christian community make positive use of a variety of theological, denominational and liturgical schemes. I have become more pluralistic not merely in accepting plurality as a fact of life, but in considering some kinds of diversity to be very healthy for Christians.

One place in which I have been exploring the relationship between pluralism and ecumenism is in the book-length manuscript on public pluralism that I have been writing with a philosophy colleague, Sander Griffioen of the Free University of Amsterdam. This research project has occupied much of my scholarly attention for the past ten years.

Other events have reinforced this interest. Most important has been my move in 1985 from Calvin College, a midwestern school known for its strong Dutch Calvinist identity, to a west coast evangelical seminary characterized by a fascinating mix of denominational and cross-cultural diversity. I have discovered Fuller Seminary to be an exciting experiment in what David Hubbard describes as "evangelical ecumenism."

Also during the past decade I have as a board member and as an active participant in various consultations worked with the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota. This experience of wrestling with ecumenical issues has profoundly influenced my understanding of the proper contours of theological pluralism.

The institute's unique "first-person approach" to ecumenical dialogue has allowed me to be ecumenical without compromising my sense of evangelical integrity. And it has also provided me with a circle of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and mainline Protestant mentor-friends -- Margaret O'Gara, Tom Stransky, Tony Ugolnik, Roberta Bondi, Patrick Henry and Bob Bilheimer -- toward whom I have developed a strong sense of theological and spiritual accountability.

One of the major problems in properly understanding pluralism as such is that we must take into account so many pluralisms these days -- ethical, sexual, political, religious, theological, liturgical and others. No single evaluation covers all of these; there is no way of deciding for or against pluralism as such. To affirm the existing variety of Christian liturgies or political parties is one thing; it is quite another thing to affirm the existing variety of religions or sexual lifestyles. A theology of pluralism must take seriously the plurality of pluralisms.

The real challenge, of course, is to promote an appropriate pluralist sensitivity without slipping into an "anything-goes" relativism. The Bible offers encouragement. For example, the heavenly choir endorses an important many-ness when it sings the great eschatological hymn to the Lamb who shed his blood as a ransom for men and women "from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God" (Rev. 5:9).

It is precisely this vision of the culmination of God's plan, I am convinced, that provides the necessary spiritual resources for struggling creatively with the challenge of pluralism. Wheaton College's Arthur Holmes has put it nicely: humility and hope, he observes, are two very important spiritual characteristics of the Christian's intellectual life. We know that only the Creator has a clear and comprehensive knowledge of all things; thus we are humble. But God has also promised eventually to lead us into that mode of perfect knowing that is proper to us as human creatures; thus we hope. These attitudes can give us a patience that can enable us to accept complexities and live with seemingly unconnected particularities without giving in to despair or cynicism.

There is no better way to cultivate the appropriate blend of humility and hope than to remind ourselves constantly of our Christian identity as participants in the Lamb's global network. A self-conscious awareness of our actual involvement in this complex community of rich particularities can induce us to keep talking together even when it seems like we have run up against ultimate pluralisms.

Someone said about my recent book, Distorted Truth (Harper & Row, 1989), that my comments on "the battle for the mind" struck him as a George Bush-like call for a kinder, gentler evangelicalism. I have no quarrel with that characterization -- as long as we remember that kindness and gentleness already appear on the Apostle's list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5.

I do hope that evangelicals will become a kinder and gentler people in the coming decade. To appreciate better God's slowness is to see that we are living during the time of the divine patience, a long-suffering in which we are called to participate. Nor is the cultivation of patience, in both our personal lives and our public involvements, a mere temporary strategy, as John Murray Cuddihy seems to suggest when, in his excellent studies of the concept of civility, he advises Christians that the best way to gain a civil disposition is to postpone triumphalism until the eschaton. Kindness and gentleness are themselves the very stuff of eschatological existence. The ultimate triumph of sanctifying grace in our lives will occur only when we have learned not to grasp for a triumphalist spirit. The triumph that we await is not our triumph, but the victory of the Lamb before whom all our knees will bow and all of our tongues -- evangelical ones -- will join in the larger ecumenical chorus that will declare that Jesus alone is Lord.

Evangelical involvement in the present public dialogue must be characterized by a kindness and gentleness that is fitting for creatures who are on their way to the eschaton. Not that there is no room for prophetic critique in our struggles with the crucial issues of contemporary human existence. But those corrective words must reflect our status as a people who have ourselves fled to the cross for healing and correction -- and who, having received there some measure of repair, are emboldened to point others to the Source of the tender mercies that have touched our lives.

I begin the 1990s with a stronger sense than ever of the mystery of the divine majesty, as well as of the mystery of our own created complexity. But I also sense in myself a new enthusiasm for reflecting carefully on these profound mysteries.

Allan Boesak has often remarked that North Americans have a difficult time thinking theologically about apartheid. And that is unfortunate, says Boesak, since bad theology has contributed much to South Africa's problems and good theology is an important part of the solution. My move from a college philosophy department to a theological seminary is one expression of my conviction that Boesak is right. In fact, while considering recently whether to move into seminary administration, I heard one of the most convincing arguments from a friend, herself an academic administrator, who preached a fine little homily to me about administration being a very important context for thinking theologically about people and institutions.

These remarks construe the theological task rather broadly, of course. But that seems quite proper. My understanding of the scope of theological reflection continues to be guided by John Calvin's advice in the opening pages of his Institutes: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of our human selfhood are intimately intertwined. Theological reflection requires that we relate all the information we have about God to all that falls within the scope of human concern.

That is no easy assignment But given my own most recent assessments of the divine pace, I am convinced that we have God's permission to take our time.


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