Liberalism brings a complicated mixture of good truths, deeply embedded assumptions, and attractive dangers. And since it does, in fact, offer some good truths, it can be difficult to see its assumptions and dangers. (N.B. As always, I use the term “liberalism” in its original sense, the sense in which Reagan, Bush, Limbaugh and Beck are all liberals along with Clinton, Obama, etc.)
The problem is that here in America, we are all brought up inside liberalism the same way a deep ocean fish lives its whole life in the sea. Such a fish has no concept of anything other than the watery world it knows. The water is its very atmosphere. In fact, as CS Lewis pointed out, fish don’t feel wet. Such a fish does not think, “I love being under water.” It only thinks, “This is the world.” Imagine the fish was intelligent and could understand human speech. If one were to try to explain life out here in the air and on land, the fish would find it very difficult to understand. And if it ever ends up out of the water, it will have no categories for understanding the experience–it’ll just freak out.
That’s what it’s like sometimes, trying to get liberals to imagine a good world beyond liberalism. Of course, they can imagine things outside of liberalism, but only evil, Mordor-like regimes. The only good world they can envision is one where “peace” comes through the protection of superior force, capitalism blesses the industrious with material prosperity, and so on. And since that is the height of their imagination of the good life in a good world, they reason that it must be what God wants. And so the Bible is made to read as a formula for a modern, western, liberal society.
But what if the good world the Bible pictures is not like any of those concocted by the men of this world? What if the kingdom of God really is something wholly different (John 18:36)? Perhaps Isaiah 2:2-5 might give us a better picture:
Now it will come about that
In the last days
The mountain of the house of the Lord
Will be established as the chief of the mountains,
And will be raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it.
And many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That He may teach us concerning His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.”
For the law will go forth from Zion
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they learn war.
Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.
‘Ahhhhh,’ says the liberal Christian, ‘But this is talking about the future (millennial?) reign of God over the earth, and does not address our present world. For now, it just makes for a nice inscription on a wall at the UN.’
Fine. Let us say that this Isaiah passage describes the future kingdom to be realized when the Lord returns and sets the world aright. The question is: What is the church to do and to be NOW? Is she to settle for choosing the “best” option among those currently made available by the powers of this world? (This, it seems to me, is what liberal Christians do.) Or is she to be a foretaste of the kingdom to come?
I would suggest that the difference between this world and the world to come is not that the kingdom of God is only to be found in the latter. The difference is that, for now, the kingdom of God is to be found only with the people of God, but in the world to come it will be the whole world. This means that, in the present world, the church becomes an advance outpost of the kingdom that is coming. We are a “colony of heaven,” to use the phrase of Hauerwas and Willimon.
This may be difficult to understand or to envision in precise detail. But the first step is this: Christians in the West have got to stop breathing the atmosphere of liberalism and start letting the Spirit of God’s kingdom fill our lungs. Who knows what kind of pure oxygen might get to our brains, if we did?