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Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference

Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference

by Timothy Keller
John Inazu


Learn More | Meet Timothy Keller | Meet John Inazu

The Theologian

Kristen Deede Johnson

I grew up near Washington, DC, surrounded by politics. I helped with the campaign of a friend’s father as he ran for state office, watched our friendly county supervisor become a US congressman, and learned new insights in government class. When I became a Christian and began to encounter questions like, “What does God want you to do with your life?” I thought politics might be the answer. So the summer after my first year in college, I headed into the city with thousands of my peers to explore the world “inside the Beltway.”

That summer I began to realize that my Christian convictions and my political convictions were not particularly integrated. So I started asking questions about how my life in Christ informed how I think about our common life together—in politics and in the church. Little did I know then that these questions would lead to a calling as a theologian and a lifetime of theological reflection about how, in light of the larger story of God’s redemptive work and the identity and hope we find in Christ, we might engage in political realities.

As I began this exploration of how my faith connected to politics, I was trying to make sense of what I experienced that summer on Capitol Hill. As I attended intern events, I noticed a tone quite different from what I had encountered in other settings: anger, anxiety, fear, a sense of embattlement in the face of active opposition, a drive to mobilize one’s side. Baffled and concerned, I returned to my studies at the University of Virginia where I discovered professor of sociology and religion James Davison Hunter. Through my interactions with Hunter and his 1992 book Culture Wars, I found ways to make sense of my summer experiences and to further explore my questions related to faith and politics.

Hunter helped me see that underneath the political conflicts of the late 1980s and early 1990s lay differing systems of meaning and moral authority. On the surface were opposing political convictions about everything from what it meant to be a family to what constituted art; underneath those political disputes were competing and irreconcilable notions of the nature of reality, truth, and what it means to be a human being. Political actors did not necessarily recognize the existence of these deeper, animating layers, yet these dynamics were behind the conflict between those who wanted to “conserve” morals, truths, and ways of living from the past (conservatives) and those who wanted morals, truths, and ways of living to “progress” as times and knowledge changed (progressives). These two groups often acted as if they were at war over the future of America.

A crucial part of Hunter’s argument was that this level of conflict was evident at elite institutional political levels (for example, within Congress and the nonprofits and lobbying organizations connected to Congress) but not in the culture at large. Hunter’s work helped explain why, as an outsider, I felt jarred by the war-like language and atmosphere of the different events I attended on Capitol Hill. Things are different now. The conflict that Hunter diagnosed at elite levels is increasingly evident all around us. We can no longer imagine this conflict limited to certain pockets of our political life. Instead, it pervades our social media feeds, family relationships, and community interactions.

Even before this cultural conflict widened, as I continued to learn more about the nature of the political climate, reading about the breakdown of civil society and exploring the intellectual currents that were shaping culture, I became more concerned about the future of my country. I wondered whether we had the intellectual and moral resources needed to sustain the American experiment through the pluralism and deep divisions in our midst. These concerns helped propel me to attend graduate school to become a theologian.

Another part of my motivation to study theology was a passion for discipleship. My faith had come alive through a youth group that placed a strong emphasis on following Jesus as disciples. We met in discipleship groups, went on discipleship trips, and studied the life of Jesus with his disciples to learn more about what it meant to live as disciples and make disciples of others. And yet it didn’t take long to recognize that it’s not always easy to know what following Jesus looks like in a particular time and place. As I learned more about culture and its formative power while working as Hunter’s research assistant, I found myself with even more questions about what it means to be a faithful disciple in the intellectual, cultural, and political realities of our day.

My call to become a theologian was shaped deeply by these questions of faith, politics, culture, and discipleship. I began this calling with questions and concerns about how faith shapes our political thinking, the prospects of the American experiment, and the state of discipleship within American Christianity. But as I learned more of what it means to be a theologian, I increasingly located these concerns within a larger theological framework of hope. This was not because the underlying problems dissipated, but because over time I was able to view our contemporary pluralistic context and our callings as disciples through a longer and more hopeful theological lens.

Learning from the Past

My theological guide on this journey was Augustine of Hippo. When I read Augustine’s writings, I discovered that even though he lived hundreds of years before I did, he also wrestled with questions of faithfulness and pluralism. As I was trying to make sense of the relationship between Christianity and politics in a time when much in our culture seemed to be shifting, I learned Augustine had also lived through a tumultuous cultural and political period. I was encouraged by his wisdom and perspective as he wrestled with what those changes meant—both for Christians and for the larger world. Augustine helped me realize that the tensions and anxieties I had encountered in Washington were understandable responses to cultural change. At the same time, he reassured me that we are part of a long faith tradition that has survived tremendous political and cultural turmoil because our faith is rooted in Christ, not in any one political system.

Augustine was surrounded by a variety of religious convictions and cultural practices, many of which he explored before his conversion to Christianity in AD 386. In addition, he lived in a confusing political time. In a shocking turn of events, Rome—the eternal city, as it was known—was conquered in 410. Rome was a spiritually symbolic city within the Roman Empire, the first political regime to tolerate and ultimately embrace Christianity. Rome had played a formative role in the development of Western Christianity and was home to many Christians. The city’s defeat and suffering at the hands of its conquerors confused both Christians and non-Christians alike. Many blamed Christianity for the demise of the city, and Christians wondered how to live faithfully through this political upheaval.

To help Christians make sense of these unexpected political realities, Augustine drew on Scripture to argue that in this age before Christ’s return, we find ourselves with two cities. One is the heavenly city, of which Christ is King and of which his followers are citizens (see, for example, Phil. 3:20; Eph. 2:19). This city is made possible by the saving work of Christ, who redeems and reorders our loves so that we can love God and serve others in love. The other city is the earthly city, marked not by love of God but by lust for power and domination. This city is a result of sin, which continues to manifest itself as people seek their own good over the good of others and use their power to dominate rather than to love and serve.

As Christians, our primary allegiance is to the heavenly city, not to the earthly city in which we live. In the earthly city, we are pilgrims, never fully at home, because our ultimate destination is the heavenly city. We ought not to expect to find ourselves at home in this age, nor ought we to expect the earthly city of which we are a part to embody our love of God. Our hope cannot lie in the earthly city but in Christ alone, who lives and reigns in and over all earthly realities and who will come again to fully usher in his kingdom.

Augustine’s perspective helps us limit the hopes we place in any earthly political system, while reminding us that we have the strongest foundation for hope in Christ our King. Because of this hope, we no longer need to cling to the present age, its institutions, and its blessings as do those who only know citizenship in the earthly city. We can live through complex political turmoil without anxiety, trusting that God’s redemptive work is bigger than a particular political arrangement.

Augustine’s conviction is that Christians can live faithfully as citizens of the heavenly city in a wide range of political arrangements. Christians are to follow the laws, customs, and institutions of the political societies in which they find themselves—provided that those laws, customs, and institutions do not hinder their worship of God. Ensuring the success of one particular political order is not, in Augustine’s view, incumbent upon us as Christians. Political systems may come and go, but our citizenship in the heavenly city remains.

And yet, even as we take this big-picture approach to our citizenship, we are called to be involved in the earthly cities in which we live. The earthly city can achieve certain goods, and we as pilgrims can and should contribute to those goods, while recognizing that they are not the ultimate goods for which we were created and redeemed. Consider peace. The earthly city will never be marked by the peace that is only available in and through Christ, but nevertheless we share with citizens of the earthly city a desire for earthly peace. We can join them in seeking the earthly peace here and now. Here Augustine echoes Jeremiah’s counsel to the exiles to seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which they lived (Jer. 29:7).

Looking back now, I can see even more clearly why I was drawn to the theology of Augustine. It’s not that I believed his thought could be applied wholesale to the questions we are facing today in the church and in society. But the fruit of Augustine wrestling in his day provided biblical and theological concepts that could be instructive to us in our time. Here are some aspects of Augustine’s perspective that I have found especially helpful:

  • As Christians, we are called to contribute to the societies of which we are a part.
  • As we do so, we ought to contribute to the good we share in common with all citizens, not just seek the good of Christians.
  • We need to remember that this earthly city is not and never will be the heavenly city until Christ returns.
  • Remembering the differences between the two cities limits our expectations for what can be accomplished in this earthly city, which will always be marked by lust for domination and power.
  • We need to be discerning about where that lust for domination and power manifests itself, even among Christians.
  • Our hope lies not in what we can accomplish here and now but in Christ the King, who is Lord of all. He reigns here and now, and he will come again to usher in the full peace and justice for which we long.

Living through tumultuous political times is hard. It brings out many questions, accusations, and anxieties. But as those whose hope is in the Lord, we can navigate these changes remembering that political arrangements come and go but Christ our King still reigns.

Learning to Be God’s Family

In addition to these important lessons about my citizenship in the heavenly city, Augustine taught me that I had been very individualistic in my faith. Augustine could not have conceived of Christians who did not automatically view themselves as members of God’s family. And as I looked more closely at the New Testament, I realized the biblical theme of citizenship in the kingdom of God through Christ connects to another equally significant biblical theme: becoming members of God’s household as we are adopted into God’s family (Eph. 2:19; Rom. 8:15–17). I had been a Christian for years without understanding this important theological truth. With a strong focus on personal salvation, my earliest faith communities helped me encounter God’s saving, personal love for me. But as with many Christians of my generation, the faith into which I had initially been invited did not emphasize that when I came to know Christ I became a part of God’s family in the church. I have since come to see that God’s love invites me into a much bigger family than I had ever imagined.

As a result, I began to see that aspects of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship that I had always taken on as a personal responsibility were more faithfully understood as part of a corporate calling. This didn’t mean I lacked individual responsibility, but I no longer needed to think that everything rested on my shoulders. Whether in relation to being a disciple, making disciples of others, or seeking God’s kingdom in the world, I had previously understood Paul’s exhortation to make “the most of the time” (Eph. 5:16) as meaning I personally had to make everything happen. This was too much weight to bear, especially given all the challenges I saw within both the public realm and American Christianity. And it was hard to square with Jesus’ teaching that his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matt. 11:30). My faith was transformed when I learned that the call to follow Christ was the call to follow him in community with others.

Another realization that transformed my faith was the understanding that Christ continues to live and reign in this world. The reality is not only that Jesus Christ died two thousand years ago for our sins, but that in his resurrection and ascension he has an ongoing ministry. Scripture tells us that Jesus “always lives to make intercession” (Heb. 7:25, emphasis mine) and that he “is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (Heb. 8:1, emphasis mine). As Jesus proclaims in Revelation: “I am . . . the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever” (Rev. 1:17–18).

These present tense verses matter. They show us that Jesus has an ongoing role in this world. The classic categories of Jesus Christ as prophet, priest, and king are helpful here. Christ continues to serve as prophet (through the witness of his life and his teachings entrusted to us in the Scriptures), priest (through his sacrifice on the cross and his ongoing intercession between us and God), and king (through his conquering of sin and evil and his unending rule at the right hand of the Father).

The ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ, made known and empowered by the Holy Spirit, means that it’s not up to us to save others or save the world. We attest to the saving love of God in Christ, we seek God’s kingdom vision for the world, and all the while we trust that God is active through his Holy Spirit. God is the one who calls, justifies, and sanctifies. And God is the one who will usher in his kingdom.

To put this differently, we are not called to be heroes who save the day or save the culture.1 This is one of the key insights of Lecrae’s chapter on storytelling. Our story is to live as beloved children of God set apart by the grace of God in Christ and the Spirit to seek the things of God. This changes everything about our posture as disciples. Neither the souls of other people nor the state of our cultural institutions is ultimately in our hands. And neither is our sainthood—our status before God as disciples—dependent on our work and striving. We are already beloved and holy children of God (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 4:4–7). Our motivation for seeking God’s kingdom first comes not from the need to earn our way into God’s family but from the adoption we have already received into God’s family.

What this means is that ours is a family calling. As we respond to the call to live as Jesus’ disciples and seek God’s will in this world, we do so as members of God’s family, sharing the calling together (“saints” is always plural in the New Testament, as Sam Wells reminds us) as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.2 It’s an active calling, but not a cumbersome one: we are neither alone nor the individual agents of transformation. When I want to engage with the realities in my hometown, for example, I now understand that I don’t have to tackle each problem I see by myself. I am part of a larger family of Christians. The members of my family are equipped in different ways to seek the peace of our city, and the head of our family, God himself, is actively making all things new.

And Yet . . .

And yet, these days our family does not always give people the best impression of the One whose name we bear. The painful divisions evident in my early exposure to politics have only deepened and become more entrenched. People with profoundly differing orientations toward how we understand truth, order lives, and structure family struggle to find common ground. In the midst of these culture wars, many Christians have placed unrealistic hopes in what can be accomplished through politics.

As James Davison Hunter has argued more recently, Christians in the latter decades of the twentieth century focused on politics as the best way to enact cultural change, dedicating much time, energy, and money toward that end.3 It’s not clear, however, that cultural change works the way those Christians assumed it did. Too often, they prioritized politics to the neglect of other formative cultural institutions and the callings of everyday Christians to engage in those institutions.

In the process, many of those who focused on political engagement became more shaped by the institution and dynamics of politics than they perhaps realized. The earthly city’s lust for power is hard to escape, even with the best of intentions and motivations. Even the most well-meaning Christians were hard to distinguish from their counterparts when it came to the character of their political engagement.4

If we are indeed God’s beloved children and saints called by God, then we need to ask: What behavior does the New Testament describe as fitting for God’s family? Let’s start with 1 Corinthians 13, which, as political scientist Amy Black has counseled, applies as much to politics as to any other area of life.5 Paul challenged Christians to be known by their love, which he characterized this way:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (vv. 4–7)

Galatians offers us another picture, in which Paul described those who live by the flesh as marked by such things as “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions” in contrast to the children of God, who are to manifest the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:20, 22–23).

Peter wrote similarly of what it means to be holy, noting that as God’s “holy nation,” as “aliens and exiles” in this world, Christians are to “abstain from the desires of the flesh” and by contrast, “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (1 Peter 2:9, 11, 12).

These passages do not preclude us from tackling difficult issues, making our differences of conviction known, or engaging in the hard work of politics. They do imply, however, that as we do so we have to attend to the character of our engagement. These verses make clear that as God’s people we are called to be known not for resentment, anger, enmity, arrogance, or rudeness. Rather, honorable deeds, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, hope, and love: these befit God’s family.

What does it look like for Christians to conduct ourselves honorably? I see John’s call to confident pluralism as a way of living out Peter’s admonition in our divided political culture. By the grace of God, we can be patient because we take the long perspective, knowing that Christ is, always has been, and always will be Lord, through many different political realities. We can be humble because, as members of God’s family, we know we are entirely dependent on the grace and love of God extended to us in Christ, which we use to love others. We can tolerate those with whom we profoundly disagree because the love we have in Christ does not insist on its own way, but rather bears and endures all things as it waits for the day when we will see all things clearly and fully.

Three Biblical Images for the Journey

There are many ways to think theologically about our engagement as Christians in this particular political and cultural moment, marked as it is by pluralism, fracture, and change. But in doing so, I’ve found myself returning again and again to three particular biblical images: children, exiles, and trees.

Living as God’s adopted children grounds us in his grace, reminds us that our identity lies first in who we are in Christ rather than in our political allegiance, helps us share the calling to seek first the kingdom of God with others in God’s family, enables us to remember our dependence on God’s active and ongoing ministry, and shapes the character of our engagement with others.

In addition, we learn from the Hebrew Scriptures that the people of God were often in exile, forcibly removed from their homeland. While in exile, they were permitted to grieve and lament that they were not yet home—that the world in which they found themselves did not acknowledge their God and was not designed to support their way of life. But they were not to give up their way of life or cease to acknowledge their God. Rather, they were called to remain and live distinctively as God’s holy people (as evidenced by such things as their worship, their ways of eating and dressing, and their love of God and neighbor).

But neither were God’s exiled people called by God to turn the nations in which they lived into Israel. They were not, for example, to try to establish Babylon as God’s holy nation or to think that its laws or ways of life would reflect their convictions. Nor were they to abandon the places in which they found themselves. God did not call them to be so secluded as his holy people that they lacked concern for the cities where they were living or the peoples around them.

This was the tension God asked them to navigate: live as my holy people, as strangers exiled in a foreign land at the hands of the people living there, even as you seek the shalom, or welfare, of that place and those people.

Does it not seem that there are lessons here we could learn as we live out our discipleship in today’s deeply divided society, where we Christians do not feel at home? What would it look like to seek the welfare of our earthly cities?

Here is where one final biblical image is instructive: trees. Among many other things, trees are known for their capacity to take in the potentially harmful gases surrounding them and offer life-giving oxygen to the world. Trees do not offer this oxygen only to their own kind; they improve the air quality for everyone. Of course, trees also offer many other benefits: beauty, shade, fruit, and a habitat for wildlife. The world would be diminished in significant ways without the contributions of trees. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that was our reputation as Christians today?

Not too long ago, I tried out the image of trees in a slightly different way in a decidedly pluralistic context. I had been asked by a group of prison inmates to speak at a conference they were organizing on restorative justice. The whole experience was transformative, from my correspondence with the inmate who invited me to the day spent with a packed audience drawn from many different backgrounds. This day-long gathering included former prisoners, spouses of inmates, parents of victims, department of corrections employees, college faculty, justice advocates who had been working to reform the criminal justice system, and Christian evangelists involved in prison ministry.

I had been invited to offer a Christian perspective on justice and hope, based on the book The Justice Calling that I wrote with my friend Bethany Hoang. I spoke about the ways that God’s forgiveness in Christ gives us hope that perpetrators of injustice can experience redemption; then I connected it to some of the contemporary realities surrounding the criminal justice system and took questions. An angry hand shot into the air: How could I give such an exclusive account of justice and neglect all the other reasons people have for pursuing justice?

In my response, I turned to trees. My earliest scholarship on pluralism, I told her, had convinced me that we aren’t more welcoming of differences when we water down each of our traditions, pretend they are all the same, or look only for common ground. Instead, we might imagine trees so deeply rooted that they have had the water and nutrients to grow wide branches—branches so wide that they overlap with other branches. We need those deep roots—the deep roots of our respective traditions, convictions, and practices—to fuel the growth of our branches in this world. It is as our branches grow that we might find places of overlap with others, who have their own deep roots. And as we find these overlaps, we might be able to work together toward common goals, even if animated by different reasons and convictions. To return to Augustine’s language, we might be able to join together to seek the earthly goods we share in common.

~

As Christians today continue to try to make sense of our posture and our callings within this complex political and cultural moment, I hope and pray that we will not forget the timeless words of Scripture related to trees and their fruit and leaves. By God’s grace, may we in the family of Christ reflect the descriptions found in these three passages as we seek to be like trees planted by streams of water in this particular time and place:

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither. (Ps. 1:3)

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22–23)

The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:2)

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