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How (Not) to Be Worldly: Tracing the Borders of the 'Earthly City'

How (Not) to Be Worldly: Tracing the Borders of the 'Earthly City'

What the ancient phrase can teach today's Christians about our attempts at cultural transformation.

I often hope that my office is haunted. You see, I inhabit a humble corner of cinder-blocked space, with a tiny sliver of window, that was once home to one of my role models: Rich Mouw. Longtime president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Rich made his mark on evangelical social thought while teaching philosophy at Calvin College. It was during that time that he penned a series of small books that not only changed my mind; they redirected the shape of American evangelical cultural engagement. So you can see why I sort of hope that my office is—well, if not haunted, perhaps enchanted. I keep hoping that some of Rich's passion and wisdom could seep into me as I inhabit the same space, an heir to his thought and indebted to his example.

In books like Political Evangelism (1973) and When the Kings Come Marching In (1983), Mouw challenged the apolitical, otherworldliness of evangelicals by persistently pointing to two themes in Scripture: (1) God's affirmation of the "very-goodness" of creation (Gen. 1:31), including the commissioning of human beings to undertake cultural labor in this world; and (2) the biblical vision of shalom as our true eschatological hope—a creation renewed and restored and flourishing in accord with God's desires. From beginning to end, Mouw emphasized, the Bible enjoins us to join God's mission of renewing all things (Col. 1:15-19). So, as he provocatively put it in his 1980 book, rather than looking for a divine escape hatch out of this world, we are Called to Holy Worldliness.

If that phrase gives you pause, you aren't alone. Isn't worldliness a bad thing? Aren't we supposed to resist the world (per James 4:4-5)? Isn't the "whole world" under the sway of the evil one (1 John 5:19)? Here we hit upon the multivalence of biblical language. Scripture can both loudly proclaim that "God so loved the world" and that we should "love not the world" (1 John 2:15). Context means everything here. As Mouw qualified it, what God delights in is a holy worldliness—a rightly ordered investment in God's creation with a view to fostering its flourishing. It's a "worldliness" in the sense that it is not "otherworldly"; it is holy insofar as it encourages mundane, domestic, cultural life lived under the lordship of Christ.

In a similar vein—indeed, as a synonym for Mouw's point—you'll sometimes hear folks suggesting that Christians should be invested in the "earthly city," or that we are simultaneously citizens of both the heavenly city and the earthly city. Like Mouw's call to "holy worldliness," these affirmations of the "earthly city" are rightly meant to displace our lingering otherworldliness—pushing us to see that God is not only interested in saving souls from the city but desires to see the flourishing of the city.

The invocation and affirmation of "the earthly city" is meant to reflect Scripture's robust theology of creation and affirm our embodied, material, social, and cultural life. This is sound, biblical theology—and a much needed corrective to our otherworldly ways. However, because the history of the term means something different, talking about "the earthly city" in this way can be confusing.

The phrase "earthly city" is an ancient one, but you won't find it in Scripture. (That's not a problem in itself; the word Trinity isn't in Scripture either.) The phrase comes down to us from Augustine's magisterial work of cultural criticism, The City of God (civitas Dei, completed around 427 A.D.). In this work, Augustine distinguishes the "City of God" from what he variously describes as "the city of this world," the "earthly city," and the City of Man. These two cities or societies or "peoples" are marked by the standards by which they live: the earthly city lives by the standard of the flesh, whereas the City of God lives by the Spirit (14.1-4). What ultimately distinguishes the two are their loves: "We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self" (14.28).

For Augustine, then, the earthly city begins with the Fall, not with creation. The earthly city is not coincident with creation; it originates with sin. This is why Augustine sets the City of God in opposition to the earthly city: they are defined and animated by fundamentally different loves. So the earthly city should not be confused with the merely "temporal" city or the material world. It is not identical to the territory of creation; rather, for Augustine, the earthly city is a systemic—and disordered—configuration of creaturely life. However, this does not mean that Augustine cedes material, cultural, creaturely life entirely to the evil one. The City of God is not just otherworldly: the City of God is that "society" of people—that civitas—who are called to embody a foretaste of the social and cultural life that God desires for this world.

Augustine doesn't invoke the earthly city in order to motivate Christians to care about this-worldly cultural life. His theology of creation already does that. The analysis of the earthly city is instead cautionary, pressing Christians to recognize that cultural systems are often fundamentally dis-ordered, in need of both resistance and reordering by Christian labor in all streams of culture. And as we can see from his letters, Augustine involved himself in such work. There you'll find the bishop invested in the concrete realities of politics and civic life.

Augustine doesn't use the term "earthly city" to carve up reality into a "heavenly" second story and an "earthly" first floor. No, both the earthly city and the City of God are rival visions of heaven and earth. So the "earthly city" is more like Babylon than the Garden. But even this fundamental antithesis doesn't give us permission to retreat into holy huddles or simply castigate the earthly city.

No, as Jeremiah counsels, citizens of the City of God who find ourselves exiled in the earthly city (in Augustine's technical sense) are called to "seek the welfare of the city" precisely because we are called to cultivate creation. We will seek the welfare of the earthly city by seeking to annex it to the City of God, thereby reordering creaturely life to shalom.

James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Senior Fellow of The Colossian Forum on Faith, Science, and Culture. His next book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, will be published by Baker Academic in January.

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J Thomas

August 27, 2012  1:37pm

We should be pragmatic about "the world". But first we need to define what "the world" is. It is a collection of fallen people, their systems of culture and government, and all of their fragmented senses of good and evil. Their social systems come mainly through non-Christian attempts at keeping societal order. Fortunately for us in America, our founding fathers saw the importance of placing God above the government. So they subjected the law to restriction, confining it and keeping it out of the church. They banned it from breaching the door. That is incredibly rare, and what a gift it was to us. They wanted us to build our culture for ourselves, not to dictate it from a government throne on high. So the responsibility falls on each of us individually to allow ourselves to become vessels for Christ to the world...our immediate world. Otherwise the world will never know Christ, and we won't be doing our part to fulfill the great commission.


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