We have to go back, but not to square one

I suggested in my review of Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways that, in our search for a new paradigm to replace the now more or less defunct Christendom worldview, the historical moment which we should revisit for inspiration is not the beginning of the narrow path of suffering that the radical Jesus movement took in pursuit of its Lord but the end, when the faithful community, having finally overcome the opposition of Greek-Roman paganism, was in a position to ask far-reaching questions about how it should organize and define itself as God’s ‘new creation’.

In the eschatological outlook of the New Testament that path of suffering was decisive for the restoration of God’s people and does not in any fundamental sense need to be repeated: it is the journey by which the community of the Son of man is vindicated, first against Judaism, then against Rome, and given the kingdom. It is the means, moreover, by which the DNA of the promise to Abraham, which I think needs to be understood in creational terms (therefore cDNA), is preserved and brought to the point when it can regenerate God’s people, not as an oppressed, exilic community but as a people that has inherited the whole earth. The following diagram is an attempt to schematize this narrative.

The creational DNA (cDNA), passed down from Abraham, is carried by post-exilic Israel. But the nation is rapidly approaching terminal judgment: in Jesus’ words, it is travelling a broad and well-trodden path leading to destruction. Through his death Jesus inaugurates an alternative narrow and dangerous path that will lead to life. The task of carrying the cDNA along that path is entrusted to the community of his disciples, who are assured that if they remain faithful, if they are willing to suffer as he suffered, they will overcome their enemies, and eventually arrive at the parousia - the vindication both of the martyrs and of the church. So when pagan Rome eventually falls, the cDNA can be reactivated: the church has the massive responsibility of working out what it means, under the prevailing cultural and political conditions, to be a viable God-centred alternative to pagan Roman imperialism.

What they came up with was Christendom - a flawed paradigm, but it lasted in one form or another for 1600 years. Now that it has collapsed, we are compelled to ask again what God’s new creation, his alternative humanity, his world-within-a-world might look like under the currently prevailing cultural and political conditions. This is, as Hirsch argues, a liminal situation: we are exiles again, homeless, insecure, vulnerable; and we have no idea how long this will last. But we are not being persecuted; so it seems to me that the emphasis should be not on imitating Jesus, who suffered, died and was raised, or on imitating the radical movement that followed him down the same path. It should be on re-imagining what it means to be a people who no longer have to fear being eradicated by a satanically inspired, imperial régime because that victory has been won, who have been called instead to embody in ourselves - actually, prophetically, proleptically - the fulness of the creational promise.

The church in the West is in decline because the Christendom paradigm has collapsed. We could choose to take the way of the flourishing global church, but for many Christendom has left a bad taste in the mouth, and it feels as though we need to find a way forward through the narrow door of postmodernism into a new zone of liminality, engendered not by persecution but by indifference, scepticism, distrust. I believe that as we go down this difficult road, we will find ourselves increasingly giving shape in our imaginations to a new way of embodying in our lives together the cDNA that was originally conceived in the mind of Abraham. This confidence arises from the belief that the one who is Lord over us is also the one through whom all things were made and are remade, and from the powerful, disturbing, creative presence of the Spirit of God within us, who so deeply wants to fashion from us a new creation.