The Church contra Echo Chamber

Nicolas Poussin
Echo and Narcissus, 1630
Oil on canvas

In his recently-published, and thoroughly insightful, conclusion to the Cultural Liturgies trilogy, theologian James K.A. Smith articulates a particularly-challenging (and surprising) précis for what a Christian political theology ought to be. Following the lead of Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart, Smith speaks Hauerwas to Kuyperians and then Kuyper to Hauerwasians, resulting in a re-furbished and refined view of the Church qua polis, not disjunctioned from the political polis (as it is in Lutheran Two Kingdoms doctrine) nor in charge of the political polis (as it is in NAR “Kingdom Now” dominionism, and several other postmillennial variants) nor its own entirely separate political polis (as the modern Roman Catholic Church functions). These are all, Smith asserts, false leads.

Instead, Smith maintains, following the claims he makes in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, “implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics” (Smith, Awaiting the King, 54), thus, “to naturalize politics is to obfuscate it” (Ibid., 67n31). All in all, the Church is supposed to be a bearer and re-producer of a public theology that calls for more than just evangelistic conversion but actually the re-making and the re-shaping of society as a whole. In Smith’s terms: “The church’ public legal pedagogy, far from being some covert theonomy [i.e. NAR dominionism], is rather an antidote to statist absolutism” (Ibid., 94n6).

The picture of the Church that Smith proclaims is one where the Church has its own cultural center-of-gravity, and that the Church’s role in society is as the arbitrator and the navigator of both the ultimate questions that, in a “secular” society, have been left untouched as well as the penultimate questions that make for our political discourse. This leads to the very serious connection that Smith makes between evangelism and justice: if a society is to be just, it cannot be just apart from conversion; so the dichotomy between “evangelicals” and “social justice” is false one, based on secular premises. To evangelize a secular society is to re-establish a vision of heavenly justice in its midst, and, thus, to occasion to greater liberation of that society.

 

It is with this vision of the Church in-hand that I find the term “echo chamber” to be a disgusting, anti-biblical, secular reality that must be confronted at the Church-level. In our society, as we have been discovering, there are “red” and “blue” and “Trumpist” and “libertarian” and “Marxist” -colored glasses. When we look at our Facebook feeds, we see what matches what we like — because what we like is what benefits the algorithms of the Facebook platform. Much ink has been spilled about how people can try to cross the aisles, learn from people who hold different beliefs, and enter into civil discourse with them.

But as a pastor, I am shocked that so few of these “civil engagement” discussions mention the presence of the local church at all. My sense is that there is a belief (often substantiated) that the local church is part of the problem of our (un)civil bifurcations. After all, there are liberal / progressive churches, and there are conservative / fundamental churches, and some of these lines-in-the-sand go all the way back to a wide variety of church-splits from the mid-20th century (from the ELCA / LCMS, to the PC(USA) / PCA, etc.). The (catholic) Church’s witness in this country is, thus, all-too-often, a bifurcated witness. Isn’t that, at the end of the day, if Smith’s assertions on the Church’s role as polis is correct, part of how we got here in the first place?

Still, I think that there is great power in the (catholic) Church’s ecclesiological function in being the arbitrator of truth, maybe even more importantly, of discourse. Just as our liturgical practices serve to re-enact the Story “in a way that sinks into our imagination” (Ibid., 61), so too our political witness serves as form of “breaking down the dividing walls” between “Liberal” or “Conservative” or “Moderate” or “Libertarian.” The Church is a unity of diversities. It ought not be a choir singing in unison (why not have one voice?); it is one that sings with melody, harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint.

And the truth is that the best establishment, the strongest institution for addressing our “fractured republic” is the very one that has been written off from the start as foundationally significant for the republic’s existence. The echo chamber is not some aberration of the American experiment, it is the natural consequence of a libertarian freedom taken without the arbitration of institutions that navigate the ultimate questions. The only possible way to bring any semblance of unity, to preserve any sense of a democratic coalition in today’s bifurcated America, is for the Church to play its political role. This is not, as Smith asserts over and over again, for the Church to be theocratic or theonomist; this is, instead, for the Church to provide the space wherein civil discourse can be that between believers of equal integrity. Neither is this for the Church to back down on some of its core moral claims — like on matters such as abortion or caring for the poor — but rather allows for the multiplicity of political imagination necessary to accomplish helpful policy towards those claims. In short, the Church recognizes that there is more than one way to peel a potato (because skinning cats always seemed mean for me), allows for the multiplicity of those discourses in its midst, and encourages brotherly-love between believers who disagree on these matters.

 

One of the crucial implications of this — and my sense is that some won’t like this — is that the Church cannot abide the reduction of political views into bigoted caricatures. If the Church’s moral teaching is founded (in part) on brotherly-love then it both holds in esteem the dignity of its members as made in the Imago Dei and holds accountable members who transgress against this dignity. If the conservatives in the Church (and I’m thinking in one body, here, but also in the Church catholic) bristle against the political thought of the liberals, they are free to do so; but they certainly cannot behave in any manner that would deny the dignity due their liberal brothers and sisters. And the same goes the other way around. Political discourse in the Church must be diverse (it must have multiplicity in its views) and it must be civil (it cannot deny dignity to its co-members). In short, CNN and FOX News cannot demonstrate a model for what the Church looks like as a polis; instead, it must gather from its own two thousand years’ history to engage, discuss, challenge, provoke, and hold accountable.

This includes — this must include — a willingness to treat the (political) Other as a brother. We find a pattern for this in the Letter to Philemon (in part), how Paul appeals to Philemon instead of using his authority and power. Paul calls Philemon and Onesimus to equality in the Church, and tells Philemon that, whatever he decides to do with regards to Onesimus, he must do it in the context that Onesimus is a brother in Christ. However conservatives and liberals (and etc.) interact in the Church, they must do so in the context that the (political) Other is brother or sister in Christ. All-too-often, evangelicals and mainliners have used politics as the dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy, and, thus, have reasoned themselves out of the hard work of reconciling brothers and sisters.

At the end of the day, this is the Gospel-power of the Christian political witness: that the liberal and the conservative is not “the Other,” but my brother, my sister, and my co-heir with Christ in His Kingdom. And this is the unique, supernatural power that the Christian Church has to bear witness against the echo chamber dysfunction of our late modern American society.

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