Christians have long struggled to fully understand and embody our position of dual citizenship—being in the world but not of it. Torn between faulty, formulaic approaches to cultural engagement, it can be hard to keep the faith, let alone allow our faith to fuel our earthly actions.
In Wisdom’s Work: Essays on Ethics, Vocation, and Culture, recently published by the Acton Institute, J. Daryl Charles explores these tensions, seeking a path toward a broader and richer cultural faithfulness. Rather than choosing between a lofty, detached spirituality and a flavorless public witness, Charles urges us to instead embrace the full “earthiness” of the Christian life in our modern age.
“There is a pressing need to relate our deepest convictions about all of life—convictions anchored in the doctrines of creation, providence, redemption, incarnation, and consummation—to the public sphere in all its variety,” writes Charles. “But this task incurs particular challenges and obstacles. Several of these are in-house in nature.”
Indeed, the church itself has often been complicit in the confusion, whether observed through the fortification and domination strategies of modern evangelicalism or the more passive accommodations and capitulations across Mainline Protestantism. With these sort of competing approaches at play, how might a different witness emerge—one that doesn’t seek to wage war against every earthly institution, but still remains faithful and distinct in a world desperate for truth, goodness, and beauty?
To find the answers, Charles addresses a number of our biggest challenges, from a range of false dichotomies (mind vs. spirit, private faith vs. public faith) to the modern church’s basic lack of natural-law thinking to the various modern distortions of “vocation” and economic life. Overall, however, “the great challenge in our era may be that Christians have become absorbed into the culture as a result of their lack of critical discernment so that they are scarcely identifiable from the surrounding culture.”
To confront this challenge, Charles argues, we need a new posture in the public square—one that rejects the mere escapism of the strictly heaven-bound believer while also enriching our view of earthly citizenship with the transformative power of the Gospel:
Our dual citizenship, even when our ultimate allegiance is to the city of God, nevertheless requires that we take our responsibilities to the city of man in earnest. A proper eschatological perspective holds the temporal and the eternal in a proper tension, and it does not release that tension. This posture, in turn, allows the Christian community neither to succumb to the entrapments of its cultural surroundings nor to flee the world and eschew responsible participation. Anchored in an awareness of divine providence and common grace and recognizing that the sovereign Lord Almighty places us in particular cultural contexts for a purpose, we take our stewardship of that calling seriously.
Charles organizes his essays accordingly, offering in-depth explorations and challenging reflections across a wide range of subject areas and disciplines. While some essays seek to assess and respond to existing struggles and challenges within the church, in particular (e.g. reviving natural-law thinking in a modern age), others provide broader foundational frameworks for thinking Christianly in specific areas of cultural influence (economics, education, charity, etc.).
In each case, Charles combines theology, ethics, history, economics, education, and politics, weaving a rich and robust framework for understanding our role in public life. Whereas many faith-work primers deal only with broad concepts at the surface, or with “practical advice” for daily living, this is a collection that concerns itself with building a deep moral and theological case for the “space between” domination and escapism—inspiring a cultural imagination that is sure to orient our thought and action.
“To escape the world—or to wish to escape—is a repudiation of the doctrines of creation, redemption, and incarnation,” Charles writes. “At the same time, in our day the pendulum would seem to have swung in the opposite direction…Let us be clear: both isolation and capitulation are marks of unfaithfulness; both are a negation of the biblical witness…That is, as stewards of all of creation and God’s good gifts, we utilize everything within our means and at our disposal—creatively, winsomely, and soberly—with a view to honor the Creator. Such is an ethical mandate. It is also a vocational mandate. And, undeniably, it is our cultural mandate.”
Wisdom’s Work is now available at the Acton BookShop.
Watch J. Daryl Charles’ 2017 Acton lecture, “Natural Law and the Protestant Reformation,” below: