Today we look at “Faith and Faithfulness,” the third of four parts in John Stackhouse’s discussion of “Principles of a New Realism.” (Chapter 8 in Making the Best of It.) We’ve already looked at “A Mixed Field, Mixed Motives, and Mixed Results” and “The Normal and Beyond.” “Liberty and Cooperation" will be the topic of the next post.
Faith and Faithfulness
Stackhouse identifies two important pitfalls. First, individually or as a group, we may arrogate God’s work to ourselves. Our efforts are equated with God’s efforts. Those not with us are defying God. We are unwilling to make common cause with others, Christian and non-Christian alike, who may not match up with our vision in all the particulars. Our zeal to do “the Lord’s work” can actually interfere with God’s work. We frequently we come off as pests and bullies.
Second, we may retreat from engagement with the world, while we seek pure hearts and clean hands, trusting that God will work everything out. As Stackhouse notes, “Political decisions, at least most of them, are made by those who show up.” (290) (By “political decisions” he means decision-making done in all spheres of societal life.) God is working in and through human institutions to bring shalom. We cannot be absent from them.
Stackhouse titles one subsection, “Irony, Paradox, Integrity, and Effectiveness.” Alluding to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as a parable, he points out how interwoven our lives are; how hard it is to anticipate how even small actions might have a future impact. Consequences of our actions frequently don’t match our intentions. We create welfare programs that encourage sloth and workfare programs that damage the innocent. Ironies are all too frequent. Yet we are called to persevere, in spite of what seems a tangled mess of paradoxes and complexities. This perseverance is key to what faithfulness means. Stackhouse writes:
But mindlessly engaging in a pattern of behavior, without regard to actual consequences, is not faithfulness. I really appreciated this passage:
Stackhouse draws on the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. The slave who hides and preserves his talent, and is therefore rebuked and condemned, “… is the very picture of integrity without effectiveness.” Faithfulness requires consideration of both integrity and effectiveness.
Prudence and shrewdness are other virtues we would do well to cultivate. Individually and as groups, we are limited beings with limited resources. We have to discern where we should focus our efforts within our given contexts. Frequently that means tolerating things we find objectionable and working with others whose views we may find objectionable in order to be effective.
Again, God tolerates a certain amount of evil and does not try to fix everything at once. We should therefore be more godly and less fastidious. And we can do so because we hope in God who one day will make all things new. (295)
Stackhouse closes this section with observations about hope. We undertake our work without despair or desperation. He challenges the widely held view of total destruction of this world and an ex nihilo creation of a new world. He comments on II Peter 3:7, 10-13, showing that it is not about annihilation, but rather the imagery is akin to Noah's flood that washed away what was evil and left what was good. In this case, the imagery is a refiner’s fire burning away the impurities, leaving that which is pure. “… there is great discontinuity with the world as it was, but also great continuity." (296)
He closes, writing: