Wednesday, May 24, 2006

do evangelicals simply postpone the inevitable?

Evangelicals make strong claims about the power of the gospel, that is true. So why, then, do they tend toward pessimism when it comes to eschatology & social expectation? Again, if the stories that people tell embody their hopes, why are evangelicals attracted to the negative? This is the central question that Daniel Johnson, associate professor of sociology at Gordon College, asks in his essay "Contrary Hopes" in The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg (Eerdmans 2004), 27-48.

In the section "The Contrarieties of Evangelical Social Hope," Johnson admits that there are several answers. A minority of evangelicals take salvation to be largely an inner, spiritual affair. Therefore, they do not see the need for a social conscience. "Christ is to come back . . . to receive his own. . . . nothing else of the world need be transported" (33). This does not reflect the majority of evangelicals, nor the social history of that movement. Evangelicals have historically displayed a social hope. But, as Johnson continues, this hope is tempered greatly by an emphasis on depravity. "The evangelical community has been less sanguine than most about the prospects of actually fulfilling social hopes in the present age." (35) Set in the foundation of depravity, an immovable point of human limitation, is the doorway of apocalypse. Apocalypse opens a way past human limitations into possibility and reveals "the coming-to-be of the "like new" world that is the ultimate object of social hope" (36). Thus, evangelicals do not arrive at hope without first crossing an apocalyptic end.

Such juxtaposition of absolute finality and social hope is the primary gestalt of Johnson's argument. Evangelicals, he says, actually express social hope in the form of stories of civilization gone wrong. Citing Sacvan Bercovitch, Johnson says that American jeremiads are meant to motivate rather than squelch social action.

Johnson offers several reasons for this paradox, grounding each in changes to the society at large. In the section "Hope Lost or Reconfigured?", he begins by noting that culture as a whole, religious or otherwise, has lost the ability to sustain social hope. For one, so many social groups exist that no one can contribute a solid enough narrative upon which great hopes can be hung. The result is a kind of communal melancholy: "the collapse of compelling shared narratives has made conventional forms of social hoping unsustainable" (41). For another, as technological prowess has reduced the threat of natural calamity, it has also introduced new forms of threat, such as nuclear catastrophe. This new class of threats empty apocalyptic hopes, since the end we usually thought of has now been replaced by global, technological calamity. Instead of embracing our apocalypse, we want to avoid them. Hope is hoping such things do not happen, and especially not today. Finally, the expression of social hope in politics used to discover itself in the distribution of wealth, but now consists largely of arguments over where to put various technological "bads" - nuclear power plants, chemical storage facilities - and in the avoidance of risk. Politics is about distributing risk, at much an anti-hope. "If many of the principle actors in a political environment are accustomed to engagements wherein "avoidance imperatives predominate," then they have little cause to entertain positive visions of what the world could become. Still less do they have cause to come together in pursuit of such visions." (46)

Johnson concludes this section by noting that the burden of managing risk has become personalized. Each person is responsible for governing her own exposure to risk in innumerable areas using many different forms of "insurance" (monetary or otherwise.) In the face of risks arrayed in such overwhelmingly complexity, hope becomes a protest against the possible, rather than a campaign for it. "In short, the principal orientation toward the future in evidence today encourages a negative form of hoping...[a] guarding against discretely determined negative outcomes....this may help to account for [evangelical's] satisfaction with purely negative expressions of social hope." (48)

Anyone interested in changing the tide had better take Johnson's diagnosis to heart.

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