Francis Schaeffer and art historian Hans Rookmaaker set a lot of evangelicals to thinking about the arts and culture for the first time. Was their work an example of common-grace thinking?
There are two different strands to common-grace thinking. One is that God cares about the whole creation, including culture. And that was what Schaeffer and Rookmaaker emphasized. For many evangelicals that was a revolutionary thought: God doesn't just care about our individual lives, and we aren't here just to evangelize and hope that when the end of the world comes we'll be with the right group. God cares about the present patterns of human culture. That's basic.
But you can believe that and still believe that God hates everything an unbeliever does. Schaeffer tried to get us to see how bad non-Christian art and non-Christian philosophy were. He seldom had nice things to say about Sartre and Van Gogh and John Cage. But he showed that they were all addressing issues that Christians ought also to address.
The first thought is that God cares about culture. But the second thought is, How do we explain that there are some good things in non-Christian culture? Unfortunately, Schaeffer never gave us much help with that.
How does common-grace thinking consider the good things in other religions? Are they graces of God or are they mere counterfeits?
I think they're a grace of God. One of the problems we evangelicals have had in assessing the truth content of other religions is that we have been primarily focused on questions about salvation—that is, can a Muslim, as a Muslim, be saved? Given only those things that are available to a Muslim about religious matters, is there anything there that can get someone to heaven? Our answer is no. As ways of salvation, these other religions are wrong.
But if we ask, Is there truth in Islam? Is there truth in Buddhism?, the answer is that there is. I was on a panel awhile back with an imam, a rabbi, a Buddhist, and a Hindu. The rabbi, the imam, and I agreed on a lot, and we disagreed with the Buddhist and the Hindu because they wanted to say there's no such thing as original sin. But the rabbi, the imam, and I said that there's something radically wrong with human beings and that enlightenment isn't the answer. Our wills have to be turned toward God.
There are truths in other religions. But that's a different question from whether all religions are equally valid ways to God.
How do we account for the clear truths that Muslims articulate from their Islamic perspective? Their grasp of a truth is due to something that God does in their lives. Calvinists like me don't have a very good explanation unless we posit something like common grace.
Since September 11 commentators have blamed religion as a whole for creating violence. How does common-grace thinking help us combat that interpretation of religion? And how does it help us combat the tendency to believe that people who are different from us in their beliefs can therefore be brutalized?
We have a tendency to dehumanize and supernaturalize the enemy so that we're dealing with absolute radical evil. The tendency then is, if we can see our enemies as satanic, then we no longer have to acknowledge their humanness.
I'm a just war-theory person, and I certainly don't have qualms about the use of military violence in response to terrorism. But in all of that we need to honor and acknowledge the humanity of the people that we are fighting.
A common-grace theology insists that because of the common humanness with people with whom we radically disagree about religious matters and the deep issues of life, they may nonetheless be recipients of that "ornamented" giftedness. Thus we need to see some things that they say and do as gifts from God. A powerful message of common-grace theology is that I need to acknowledge that there may be some divine giftedness in what my Muslim neighbors say and do.
Do I want to say that about bin Laden? I don't see God's giftedness operating in his life. But if I could talk to him, my common-grace theology would say that it's worth having the conversation because there just may be something of God's Spirit at work in his consciousness.
Some evangelicals tend to divide the world into the redeemed and the unredeemed, the church and the synagogue of Satan, such that their only point of contact with people on other side is as targets for evangelism. How does common-grace thinking help people who have grown up in particularly dualistic forms of evangelicalism?
Common-grace thinking says clearly to me that God isn't exclusively focused on saving souls. Obviously, I don't know whether Barry Bonds is going to end up in heaven, but I think God likes it when he sees him hit a really fine home run. And I don't know whether Tom Hanks is going to end up in heaven, but I do believe that when I take delight in a good acting performance that I'm taking delight in something that God wants me to, that God himself delights in.
And so, while I care deeply about whether these people are going to be saved, my interest in them cannot be exhausted purely in soteriological terms. I can enjoy good musical performances, good works of art, good pieces of writing, because I think God takes delight in them, because the God who called his creation good also says let there be good music and let there be good art, and on occasion looks down on the works of some unbeliever and says, That's good; I like that.
Would that apply more broadly, say, to political life as well?
That's exactly right. A good piece of legislation in Iran is something that God takes delight in. God takes delight in justice and, in fact, takes credit for it. And so we ought to take delight in it and give God credit for it.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also appearing on our site today:
Why God Enjoys BaseballA new book by Richard Mouw argues that we can glory in even unredeemed creation.
Previous Christianity Today articles by Mouw include:
'You're Right, Dr. McIntire!'In the world of ecumenical Protestantism, some owe Carl McIntire an apology for dismissing his warnings. (May 17, 2002)
Resisting Church DivorceDenominational conflicts may arise from views of God rather than competing worldviews. (June 18, 2001)
The Chosen People PuzzleWhen it comes to relating to the Jewish people, should we dialogue, cooperate, or evangelize? (March 9, 2001)
Fundamentalism RevisitedEvangelicals would do well to remember fundamentalism as family history. (November 11, 2000)
This World Is Not My HomeWhat some mainline Protestants are rediscovering about living as exiles in a foreign culture. (May 5, 2000)
Mormon MakeoverAn effective evangelical witness hinges on understanding the new face of Latter-day Saints. (March 9, 2000)
Abraham Kuyper: A Man for This SeasonThe surprisingly relevant advice of a Dutch statesman for engaging postmodern culture. (Oct. 5, 1998)
To the Jew FirstWitnessing to the Jews is nonnegotiable. (Aug. 11, 1997)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more