An Accidental Optimist

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Last week, I had the privilege of speaking to a group gathered under the auspices of the conservative think-tank, the Acton Institute.  On the surface, it was an odd moment.  Francis Beckwith had mentioned to me some time earlier in the year that Dinesh D'Souza was going to be in my neck of the woods during that week, addressing a gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society.  He suggested I might find it amusing to go along and hear a Catholic addressing an avowedly evangelical body.  Ironically, I said, I was to be in Grand Rapids at that very time, teaching a ThM course on Thomas Aquinas at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and, though a committed Republocrat, giving a lecture to the political conservatives at Acton.  The world was thus truly being turned upside down.

Despite my fears that I might be heavily outgunned at Acton, the seminar actually turned out to be great fun.  I had, after all, never before lectured in the back room of a pub, with a pint of Pale Ale in one hand and a notebook in the other.  And I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of arguing that Mrs Thatcher, and not the trendy Left, was the real radical of the eighties and had actually done much to shatter the class ossification that had gripped Britain for generations.  That was, I suspect, a move the audience had never expected me to make.  Of course, I also pointed to the fact that, while Americans often refer to Britain as `a once great nation,' we had given the world Shakespeare, who still compares rather favourably with recent US contributions such as Baywatch and David Hasselhof. 

In the course of discussion, I also alluded several times to the impact that international prestige had on national self-image and, for want of a better word, psychological culture; and how, as a product of post-colonial Britain, I am an instinctive and inveterate pessimist.  At the end of the evening, one lady asked whether I had any grounds for optimism for the future.  Of course, I responded, Matt. 16:18.  Christ will build his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail.  That is an absolute, unconditional promise.  And, while I am a short to medium term pessimist, long term that verse demands that I be an optimist.

It strikes me that, amid all the hype and hoo-hah this week surrounding a certain author, we need to remember that promise.  Teachers -- true and false -- come and go; they have done so for centuries, and few have made any lasting mark, let alone those who write paperback potboilers.  But the church has survived; the gates of hell shall still not prevail; and the church will be built.     Yes, we must defend the truth, with learning, passion and fortitude; but we should remember that the battle is not won through our efforts, and we must not be caught up in overestimating the importance of the present moment.  After all, how many `defining moments' do we hear about in a typical year?  And how many of such moments truly define anything at all?

If we really believe Matt. 16:18, I would suggest that we will not panic with every wind of false doctrine which comes our way, nor will we be intimidated by astronomical sales figures for bad books or tickets to hear false preachers.  We will rather focus on what we should be doing: humbly preaching and teaching and believing the word.  Sometimes, I suspect the over-the-top panic and outrage of the orthodox when faced by the latest challenge are really functions of self-importance and an impoverished doctrine of God.  They seem to imply that our age is unique, the future of Christianity really does depend solely on us, and the church is really jeopardised by the latest heterodox blockbuster.   

Such behaviour is the flipside of that which, for example, claimed Mel Gibson's The Passion was the greatest evangelistic opportunity for the church since the resurrection itself, and chided those of us who felt it was, among other things, a breach of the Second Commandment, as fuddy-duddy reactionaries who were hindering the church's outreach and needed to get with the program.  It was not; life went back to normal very quickly; and, whatever else Gibson is now known for, it is not for being a great evangelist.     Sometimes cynical indifference to the latest thing, good or bad, is actually quite healthy and reflects the reality of Matt. 16:18 in perhaps unexpected ways.

Neither we, nor any of those who oppose the Bible's teaching, are actually that important.  The church is not, after all, built on us or our efforts; nor is it in any danger of being annihilated by any human scheme or schemer.  And that is enough to make even me into an optimist.  Almost by accident, I might add.
Posted March 10, 2011 @ 8:42 PM by Carl Trueman
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