07 May 2017

Urban Christianity: Chelcicky vs. Keller

Tim Keller is but one among many who argues that Christians ought to live in and focus on the city. It's the centre of culture and the focal point of ideas and activities. If we're to live out the Dominionist ethic (he seems to argue) then the city is the effective place to carry this out.

By implication living in a rural setting becomes a form of retreatism. As Christians are to influence and transform culture, they need to live where the culture-shaping is going on. Urban living will also allow us to form relationships on a level not possible in a rural setting. In other words for Christians to have maximum impact, they should live in the city. Paul focused on cities and clearly the Early Church formed in the urban areas of Hellenistic culture.
I've encountered this argument from not only Tim Keller but personally from some people affiliated with or coming from the Kuyperian tradition within Dutch Reformed Christianity.
As one who has lived in both city and country I must say there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both and I find that parties who have lived only in either the city or country often misunderstand what it's like to live in the other. The city affords opportunities for relationships but in terms of daily testimony living in a rural setting probably reaches a greater number of people. Arguments can be made going in both directions.
As one who rejects the theological paradigm of Keller, I approach the whole question very differently.
As in the ancient world, the cities are the place of cosmopolitanism, places which represent receptive and fertile ground for new ideas. Even under the Christianisation paradigm the last areas to be affected were the rural locales where the pagani lived.
So doesn't it follow that Christians today should also focus on the cities? Isn't that the New Testament pattern?
While the argument has some merit, it's faulty. The context is quite different, a point we'll return to later on.
In the Middle Ages, the paradigm was very different. In the West, the city all but disappeared during the Dark Ages which for argument's sake we'll locate within the years 500-1000. Then with the post-chaotic calm and the re-establishment of trade, the Crusades etc... we enter the High Middle Ages. With this also came the consolidation of Papal power and thus the various dissenting groups suddenly appear on the radar. Whether this was their point of origin or point of discovery is a discussion for another time...
But what is clear is that while the dissidents of the Medieval Underground functioned in cities they flourished in the countryside.
And what cities we must ask? They did not find peace in the cities most devoted to Church. Rather they were able to exist in largely secular cities such as Venice and Milan and later in the cities associated with the Anti-Papal and Anti-Clerical Ghibellines. This does not mean they (the dissidents) were secular or politically anti-clerical though the latter may have been true at times.
Rather these places were locales where the hand of the Bishops and the Inquisition were weakened, places where 'Christendom' as a political force wielded less power. These places tended toward a sort of pluralism as opposed to the Sacralist and even Totalitarian aspirations of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Urban locales in Northern Italy, Southern France and the Rhine were all devoted to trade and commerce and thus were used to 'foreigners' and outsiders dwelling in their midst. This practical reality as well as a desire to put business and profitability over social uniformity allowed for a certain degree of tolerance not found in other parts of Western Christendom. While minorities often had to dwell in ghettoes, they were nevertheless left alone. They may not have had First Citizen status but even as Second Class citizens they could live their lives and worship in peace.
And yet these cities were not the norm and one tended to be exposed and thus at risk, subject to the political winds of change.
The countryside by contrast was filled with wild and out-of -the-way places, where a person could live and be left alone. There was no security in this type of life. You had no police, walls or lord to defend you but despite that you could experience a degree of liberty.
I'm not speaking of village life. This is perhaps the most crushing of all situations. There is no anonymity and in fact you're almost always being watched by your neighbours. That said, many 'heretical' groups flourished in this environment. In some cases they became the dominant force in certain villages. Absentee clergy also unwittingly facilitated this. If the local 'priest' was a mere hireling purchased on the cheap he would not care if there were dubious meetings taking place in the areas under his charge. In other cases the local priest was but a creature owned by the local lord. While the lord may not sympathise with the underground heretics, if they were quiet, didn't make trouble, were productive and timely in their obligations he was more likely than not to look the other way and remain unwilling for ecclesiastical authorities to invade his domains.
Cities allowed for anonymity and it was possible to find secret places to meet. But it was also easy to be discovered. In rural areas Christians could meet quietly in the woods, a cave or a rural barn and there was little fear of disturbance.
Toward the end of the High Middle Ages the newly ascendant city was associated with the new culture and then what we might call the Renaissance. It was the place the peasant could go to break free of the land. It was the setting of the new burgher/bourgeoisie class and a new set of values. This was the beginning of our modern world, a model picked up on and appropriated by Protestantism and its celebration of the secular world and its wealth. Protestantism was in many ways an urban movement.
Petr Chelcicky who lived most of his adult life in the 15th century excoriates this culture based on wealth-accumulation, the protection of the state and the profiting from war and violence. It was a place of decadence and compromise. He also detests the culture of the university and theological schools which issued an endless stream of bloviated affirmations of the existing order. He viewed them as fat self-satisfied academics offering justifications for the status quo.
Chelcicky whose opinions largely echoed that of the Waldensians embraced an ethic of poverty and rural living. The latter resulted in a moral examination and ethical contemplation of city life, luxury and the new means of making money. Chelcicky had different ideas about what was legitimate work and how we as Christians should be concerned with our time. Unlike many a rurally inclined Dominionist of our day, he did not believe working the land and country living would result in success and profitability. He embraced the life knowing that it was hard and would specifically not result in wealth.
Among Christian groups of our day these values are most closely emulated by the Amish and yet in many ways they demonstrate that they have missed the point. All too often they have fallen into the trap of ritualism and tradition without understanding why or even knowing what questions to ask anymore.
What of our modern context? Is Keller right? Or was Chelcicky on the right track? Were they both wrong?
Chelcicky did not live to see the Enclosures, the destruction of the village and the Industrial Revolution. He did not live to see the evolution of the working class and a different type of city, one filled with slums and tenements. He did not live to witness what we might call the Urban Peasantry.
The Urban Peasant does not dwell in bourgeois security but in many cases an even greater insecurity than the peasant of the Middle Ages. The 'safety net' of the village and the commons is gone and the peasant of the Industrial Age is (in many ways) a very lonely isolated figure... a theme Marx picked up on.
I will speculate and expand on Chelcicky's paradigm and will posit that were he to live in the 19th century, he would focus not just on the rural poor but the urban poor and the place of the Christian in the modern city.
Christians are (in some cases out of necessity) called to the modern industrial city and I think Chelcicky would affirm this fact. The city as we have it today didn't exist in his time.
And yet the place of the Christian in the city, the calling as it were, is the same as was found in the Medieval period. The call is to be the faithful underclass, the 2nd class citizen. Biblically faithful Christians do not thrive in the world, they do not meet success as the world defines it. The normal lot for the faithful is to live on the edge, not necessarily destitute but hardly models of affluence or success. They are never part of the established order, never 'invested' in society, a hallmark of the Middle Class.
What Chelcicky would certainly condemn and what clearly is absent from the New Testament/Apostolic mission to the city is an expectation of accession. The idea that Christians would rise to positions of security and respectability, i.e. the Middle Class was not on the horizon and was something beyond the scope of New Testament categories.
The question of Sufficiency must be taken into account at this point by those who would wish to elaborate upon and even develop the teachings of Christ and Apostles. Many will argue the Apostles never envisioned what they would identify as the Constantinian triumph and thus since the New Testament doesn't provide the categories for cultural Christianisation we must deduce them. This is classic case of begging the question, but in terms of doctrine and its implications for Sola Scriptura... it's much worse than just a logical fallacy.
When they venture beyond the New Testament they essentially argue for its insufficiency. They're positing (by implication) that the New Testament is no longer sufficient for the Christian life in this world. The Church must therefore utilise philosophy wed to doctrine, it must construct a theology which allows it to pursue the newly developed goals and ideals. This move by 17th century Protestantism set the stage for war, theological liberalism and ultimately the collapse of our own day. Once again a Reformation is needed and it must come soon. But sadly the leaders of modern Evangelicalism and Confessionalism are going to be the last ones to bring it about.
The world Keller operates in is the world of affluence. His world is one filled with bankers, brokers and lawyers and he celebrates them. This is the world of cultural influence, the movers and shakers. This is not the Urban Christianity of the New Testament, nor is it compatible with the thought of Chelcicky applied (anachronistically) to the Industrial Age.
Christians should be in the city but not in Manhattan per se. To live there, to 'make it' there, is to compromise. It means adopting values with regard to time and money that violate the New Testament norms for Christian life. This is a blanket condemnation and must be qualified. There may be ways to 'make it' living in Manhattan but I believe they are few and far between.
And it must be understood that terms such as the 'city' or even 'Manhattan' are but synecdochical references. What we're really talking about is 'making it' in our culture, for in another sense all of our culture, even the rural areas are now more or less urbanised, i.e. the city. Modern technologies such as the automobile, telephone and computer have made this so. But this is a larger question, one beyond the scope of this short essay.
The bourgeois concerns of expression, creativity, dominion and meaning expressed by Keller mean nothing to those who live hand to mouth, struggling to survive. The Urban Christianity of Keller is not a message for the poor and downtrodden. Dominionist Theology finds no outlet beyond the Middle and Upper Classes. While it tries to find 'meaning' and seeks to affirm the work of the assembly line or other menial forms of labour it instead falls into elitism and has very little to offer the poor.
Keller's heaven filled with active investment bankers represents something of the philosophical world-affirmation of Hellenised-Judaism which did battle with the Apostle Paul and is foreign to the New Testament. Godliness is gain, heaven is forged on earth through worldly triumph. Solomon becomes not a failed type pointing to a spiritual Kingdom-reality fulfilled by the True Solomon in the True Heavenly Zion, but instead becomes a paradigm for Kingdom glory and triumph in This Age. That's Judaizing pure and simple. Throw in a few dashes of Hellenistic philosophy and one quickly discovers the ideological and spiritual origins of the false dreams of Protestant Dominionism.
The Agrarian revival taking place in some circles might 'claim' affinity with various groups of medieval dissenters but in almost every case they miss a crucial point. The modern Agrarian revival is usually built atop a Dominionist foundation.... the very thing medieval dissenters like the Waldensians and Chelcicky rejected.
Otherworldliness and the pilgrim call can be lived out in the city just as well as the country. Today in the waning days of Christendom the city is often the locale of danger for Christians while the country is the land of conservatives, tradition and cultural safety. There are many problems with the latter and thus the answer is not... move to the country if you're a serious Christian.
But if we're called to live in the city, it is not the suburban bourgeois and upper-class world of the Dominionist. We are not called to the world of the leisure class where we can engage in Protestant navel-gazing, endless self-reflection, psychoanalysis and worry about questions of vocation and one's meaning in life.
If we're going to live in the city, then we're called to live among the poor and destitute, where people struggle to survive and the Lord for them is a hope, not a means to self-empowerment. Christian living is not about the building of Pseudo-Zion or the sanctification of respect, security and the pride of life. Voluntary poverty is not what is being suggested but that said once again, if the New Testament is followed the Christian will be almost necessarily driven to poverty... especially in the modern urban setting. Financial realities largely in the realm of housing play no small part in why my family lives in a rural setting, though there are other costs we incur not found in the city. It always goes both ways.
Sadly the urban and Third World poor have also been infected by Dominionism but in its crass and sensationalist form. It has come to them through the channels of Charismatic theology and in the form of the so-called prosperity Gospel.
What if we told the truth about the Church in the world and brought a message of transcendence that taught the poor the hope of salvation, a Kingdom above and with it... to put no hope in money, princes or any of the world's enticements? Such an audience will understand a message of pilgrimage and exile. What if they were told the truth, that security and respectability are fleeting pipe dreams, built on the backs of other's misery and nothing virtuous to aspire to?
Maybe then, a solid Church could be built among the urban poor.
But you'll never find a denomination to finance such a vision. Never.
There's no money in it, there's no hope of institutional glory or expansion. It doesn't sell. It doesn't buy influence.
Tim Keller's urban Christianity is highly marketable because it fits the fleshly aspirations of our lost culture and a theology that has syncretised its values and objectives with the world. It affirms the power base of our culture and empire. Wall Street, the Pentagon and the Capitol complex are all affirmed, celebrated and empowered by his theology. In the end it's just an educated and more sophisticated version of the same crass and base prosperity gospel proffered by the false teachers on TBN.
There's no pilgrim/exile life in his view of the world, no antithesis (despite his claims), no prophetic witness and no spiritual warfare.
The specifics of Chelcicky's vision are not fully compatible with post-Industrial life and yet the principles he outlined are easily transferred. Keller represents the same type of theology and clerical corruption that dominated 15th century pre-Reformation Europe. Chelcicky vigorously and rightly identified such as the enemies of Christ's Kingdom.