I teach at a Christian university located in a rural community in the midwestern United States. Our student body is more diverse than you might imagine, and yet many of my students testify to the experience of living in what they call a “Christian bubble.” They’re aware that their life experiences have been uniquely “local”—insulated from the larger world.
Sometimes, students lament what they perceive as a narrowness of vision within the bubble. Other times, they express gratitude that they have solid ground on which to stand. But the admission of a bubble includes the recognition that there are other ways of being in the world that are not only possible but often desirable.
For many of us, contact with other webs of meaning can make our own web feel much more fragile, endangered, and exposed.
In his three-part magnum opus, Spheres, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk tells a story of humans in search of “immune system bubbles” that allow them to feel stable and safe in an inhospitable world. He sees the story of modernity as the effort to create new, industrial-grade immune systems to replace the (theologically inspired) spheres of meaning that we’ve lost. Displaced from the insulating safety that theology once provided, we now find ourselves exposed to the elements, without a shell.
In other words, what makes us feel secure? It’s no longer religious stories of our place in a meaning-filled cosmos but rather what Sloterdijk calls “industrial-scale civilization.” This civilization is a globalizing force, but paradoxically, our overextended connectedness makes us feel less safe.
Mimicking Marx, then, Sloterdijk re-narrates the human story not as a series of class struggles but as “the history of immune system bubbles.” Either the bubbles collapse, causing crisis, or the bubbles coalesce into a more poetic “foam.” That’s his image for the possibility of life in a pluralistic society.
We don’t need to agree with Sloterdijk’s grand story to appreciate the explanatory force of his metaphor. The idea of immune system bubbles captures the way we feel compromised, threatened, and fragilized—not so much by the viral bits of culture we instinctively resist but by the rival immune systems that represent wholly different ways of being in the world.
What do we do when it dawns on us that other people are allergic to the very things we hold most dear? The collision of rival worlds of meaning doesn’t need to be violent, but violence is always a possibility. In a pluralistic world, it’s incumbent on all of us to mine our traditions in search of resources that will push us toward healthy pluralism and peace.
Christians believe that peace is possible for one reason: God has not abandoned creation to corruption.
As Paul preached to the Lycaonians who mistook him for a god, the real God has never been “without witness,” providing “rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17, KJV). Applied to our contemporary world, that means our technological bubbles provide temporary shelter, but when it comes to meaning, they’re a poor substitute for the metaphysical thickness of theology.
Indeed, the revelation of God in Jesus compels us to claim that we are also caught up in threads of meaning not made by human hands (Heb. 9:11). There are creational structures that we live in, a creaturely vocation that we cannot help but fulfill, and a Creator who pursues us with redeeming love. Grounding human culture in these divine gifts doesn’t rob culture of its human element. Rather, it roots our cultural life in a better soil, securing us to something more solid than ourselves.
Here we can say that, in addition to the infectious strains of meaning provided by culture and the church, there’s an additional infusion of meaning: divine action. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis uses this immunity metaphor to describe the work of Christ—as a force that operates like a “good infection.”
“He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has,” he writes. “If we get close to Him we shall catch it from Him.”
Every human culture can serve as a “host” for the good infection of the gospel. But the gospel also calls every human culture to repentance and the obedience of faith (Acts 17:30; Rom. 1:5). It confronts every culture with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, arriving from the outside, even as it makes itself intelligible to those on the inside.
For Jesus, this confrontation only rarely meant flipping the table. More often it meant sitting at the table, sharing a meal, and asking questions. That’s yet another way to think of “hosting” and another way to conceive of the relationship between faith and culture: Jesus in table fellowship.
There was almost no one that Jesus failed to welcome or join at the table. No matter who you were, he would eat with you. He embodied a beautiful paradox. On the one hand, he gave the highest call to discipleship: Die to yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. On the other, he attracted the most ordinary and imperfect people imaginable.
Rather than being put off by Jesus’ high standards, sinners and outsiders seemed to be particularly drawn to him. The result was a thick community that wrestled with the cost of discipleship while also remaining hospitable to outsiders. If that was a bubble, it was a bubble that made space for misfits, dealt graciously with failure, and was patient with how slowly the good infection sometimes seemed to spread.
I’m glad that my students are aware of the bubble, even as I hope their education will give them a larger, more capacious vision of God’s world. But most of all, I hope I can help them catch the good infection of the gospel. Whether they remain in Christian bubbles or venture far afield, what Jesus offers is not something fragile to be protected but something powerful to be unleashed.
That good news doesn’t exempt us from the essential work of cultural discernment. Rather, it gives us hope for the task.
Justin Ariel Bailey is associate professor of theology at Dordt University and author of Interpreting Your World(Baker Academic, 2022). He is also an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and has served as a pastor in Filipino American, Korean American, and Caucasian American settings.
This essay was adapted from Interpreting Your World by Justin Bailey, ©2022. Used by permission of Baker Publishing www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.