Os Guinness, British author of The American Hour and The Call, has pursued two passions: to make sense of the gospel to the world (apologetics) and to make sense of the world to the church (cultural analysis). Born in China to missionary parents, Guinness claims a rich spiritual heritage of writers, scientists, missionaries, reformers—and Irish brewers. In 1991 he Conver founded the Trinity Forum to help senior executives and political leaders grapple with cultural issues in the context of faith. The latest Forum curriculum, on faith and freedom in America, arrives at a time of intense national debate about the role of religion in public life. This summer NavPress began publishing the Trinity Forum Study Series with When No One Sees: The Importance of Character in an Age of Image.
Why did you launch the Trinity Forum?
Our aim is to help bring about the transformation of society through the transformation of leaders. How do you change society? Marxists pretended to work through the proletarian revolution—they never did. They worked through the gatekeepers, the people astride the doors of influence and power. And one of the central weaknesses of evangelicalism is its populism, leaving the thought-leaders out. The great model was William Wilberforce, who labored in Parliament to abolish the British slave trade. He reached people like himself: leaders.
But isn't the gospel's greatest appeal to the humble? And what about the apostle Paul's warning that "the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight"?
We've overinterpreted Paul in . Who is the first convert in Cyprus in Acts? The governor—the very top man in Cyprus. Many have ignored that by saying "not many mighty, not many powerful." But if you look at the history of the early church, it was the conversion of leaders, particularly leaders who through their wives were won [to Christ]. Winning leaders was a very critical part of the conversion of Europe and the wider barbarian empire.
Of course when we're reaching the highest levels, we've alwaysgot to keep humble before the Lord. Because Paul was right: "Not many mighty, not many powerful." But it doesn't take many mighty, it doesn't take many powerful, to have a huge influence because of the leverage of leaders.
In the late 1980s, you organized the Williamsburg Charter Foundation to focus attention on the First Amendment's protections for religion. You've written a book about the importance of faith to American democracy and devoted a forum to the topic. Why is a European so interested in religious freedom in America?
First, America is the world's lead society, just as Britain was 150 years ago. Second, the Lord called me to America. But, third, as I understand the American experiment, faith and freedom are absolutely critical in a way that even conservatives and Christians haven't really put on the map.
Put it on the map.
What we call the eternal triangle of first principles is at the heart of the American experiment. They go back to what Polybius called customs—the beliefs, traditions, and ideals of a culture—what de Tocqueville later called the habits of the heart, what the Framers called virtues. The eternal triangle is simply this: freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom.
How is this crucial for national renewal?
Lincoln said we either live free for all time or die by our own hand. America will die if she relies on law and technology alone, and ignores customs, virtues, character, and faith. No part of the Constitution is more daring than the 16 words of the two religious-liberty clauses, and no part has been more decisive in fostering vital faith while balancing public rights with personal goods. A proper understanding of the First Amendment is the filter through which faith communities enter and engage the public square. But it's only the institutional arrangement, the filter. And the filter at the moment is broken down; all the faiths do not have the freedom to engage the public square.
What else needs repairing?
Americans have lost the sense of the open-endedness of the experiment. The Framers knew that the American republic was the greatest republic since the fall of Rome—every single republic had collapsed. And they thought they knew how to use history to defy history and beat the odds. Secular people say, "The experiment is over, we succeeded." Some Christians say America was destined by God's grace to be all she is. But remember the Puritans: we recognize the blessing of God or we become a byword and a shipwreck. And it was always either/ or, as in Deuteronomy, the blessing or the curse.
In your curricula, you include readings from the ancient Greeks to 19th-century existentialists. How do you select your material?
We choose topics where faith touches private and public life together, but we present them in a way that is easily accessible and highly practical. Each curriculum has two concerns. First, there's time out for personal reflection. We want to offer a real challenge to individual leaders.
Second, we want them to engage with the big ideas that have shaped Western civilization. So in every curriculum we have 3,000 years of the West on the topic. In the leadership material, for example, it's the Bible, Plato, and Atistotle through Machiavelli, from the Constitution's Framers to the 20th century. We want people who see the central place of faith and to understand the full debate of the West. We want leaders who carry the mantle of 3,000 years. As Goethe says, he who doesn't know 3,000 years is living hand-to-mouth.
But why exactly is it important for Christian leaders to remember the past?
One reason is biblical. Take the place of remembering and its link to faith and obedience. You cannot have faith or obedience without remembering, and the principal example is Communion. You have in the Old Testament, "Remember all the roads you've traveled from Egypt." Whenever the Jews forgot, they disobeyed, sinned, or lacked trust. Remembering is absolutely critical. By keeping a line to the past open, you see what God has done—and you're kept humble, you're kept grateful, you're kept trustful, you're kept obedient.
Another reason: there is an enormous wisdom in experience. This is why we learn more from our mistakes and our blunders than we do from our successes. To forget is to be tempted with hubris. And hubris for the Greeks is not just an overweening arrogance, it's the illusion of invulnerabihty. Always, when you so live in the present, particularly present success, you breed this illusion of invulnerability. That's America's problem today. America is at the point of maximum temptation to hubris.
Do you appreciate how much you're swimming upstream with your approach?
Totally. Put down the factors we know are against us: the dumbing down the sound-bite age the "nowism" of CNN'S 24 hours—we're dead against so many fundamental and obvious things. But since those things are so wrong and so ruinous, they're worth opposing. Go back a century in America: you find farmers in Ohio who listened to Verdi, who had read Shakespeare. Now "high knowledge" has become so specialized and popular knowledge has become so vulgarized that you've got a missing middle. One of my concerns is addressing the missing middle and making "high knowledge" intelligible and practicable.
What influence do you believe the Trinity Forum is having on leaders?
We could count a significant number of high-level people who've come to faith. But the hardest thing is to get leaders to move toward becoming Wilberforces in action. The temptation is that they love to use the Trinity Forum, the church, or any fellowship as a hot tub, not a weight room.
Some conservatives and evangelical leaders suggest that the "culture war" is finished and we've lost. Game over.
Against all the alarmists, I'm a person of hope. There is still an open door; there is still everything to play for. And that's because the grounds of hope are three: One, that God is sovereign. Two, that we've got these great precedents of the past, of cultures in more dire crises than ours turned around by people of faith, such as a Wilberforce. The third reason is that the crisis is the opportunity. The worse it gets, the easier it is to speak clearly. Do I know that it willcome out well? No, I don't. We'll take the risk, we'll makethe venture, we'll try. The outcome is in God's hands.
Joe Loconte is William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
The Trinity Forum 's mission is to contribute to the transformation and renewal of society through the transformation and renewal of national leaders.
The University of California at Santa Barbara's Veritas Forum offers a Guinness biography .
Radio program Issues, etc. ran an interview with Guinness about American evangelicalism .
Christianity Today's sister publication Books and Culture ran a Guinness article, " No Calling Without a Caller " in 1998.
Guinness's books , including The Call , No God But God , Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What to Do about It and When No One Sees: the Importance of Character in an Age of Image , are available at the Christianity Online bookstore and other book retailers.
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