Aliens and strangers
As the West declines, says author Os Guinness, Christians will need to be a faithful counter-culture engaged with a world very different than what we’ve known
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Os Guinness, 71, spent the first decade of his life in China, where his parents were missionaries eventually forced out by Communists who seized power in 1949. Guinness became a journalist and a scholar, settling in the United States in 1984 and gaining fame as a noted speaker and the author or editor of more than 30 books. His latest is A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (IVP, 2012). Here are edited excerpts of our interview before Patrick Henry College students.
Was your father ever able to return to China? He went back the last year of his life, just short of 90. It was a “Lord, let Thy servant depart in peace” experience. He met people he’d led to Christ 50 years earlier, and he came back so filled with joy he was ready to go.
Seeds sown many years before can produce a bountiful crop. Many people today talk about “legacy,” as if we can figure out what it is we’ve done—we don’t know. We’re faithful, we obey, we do whatever the Lord tells us, and the fruit may be beyond the horizon.
Journalists have a tendency to look at the surface rather than what’s down deep. Do you recall a favorite story from your time with the BBC when you were able to get at the essence of things? We covered the role of religion in Ronald Reagan’s election. In 1979 I was next to a New York Times reporter who asked, “What are you covering?” I said, “The rise of the Christian Right and Reagan—” “Oh, come on, there’s no story there.” Just three months later they were doing full-page spreads on that. It’s a typical example of how The New York Times is so tone deaf spiritually: They didn’t pick up what was happening.
Do they pick up now on what is happening? In A Free People’s Suicide you quote John Adams saying, “Is there a possibility that the government of nations may fall into the hands of men who teach the most disconsolate of all creeds: that men are but fireflies and this is all without a father?” Is that where we are now? What Adams gloomily foresaw, we’ve arrived at. Look at our postmodern philosophies—a lack of a foundation for human dignity. We’re starting to reap the harvest of that—abortion, maybe—but we’re yet to reach the full harvest. If we go on with the views of Peter Singer and many of the New Atheists, America will lack a foundation for human dignity.
In A Free People’s Suicide you discuss “the golden triangle.” What is that? Probably the most original part of the book. If you go back to the Framers, there’s nothing more brilliant and more daring that they did than reckoning they could sustain freedom forever. No one had ever done it. They didn’t give the process a name, so my name for it is the golden triangle. (Alexis de Tocqueville called it “the habits of the heart.”) Again and again they say these three things: Freedom requires virtue, leg one. Virtue requires faith of some sort, leg two. Faith of any sort requires freedom—the third leg. Put those together: Freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom—ad infinitum, a recycling triangle, a brilliant, daring suggestion as to how freedom can be sustained.
But many Americans now ignore the need for virtue and faith, and these Patrick Henry students will be living through the triangle’s collapse. What do you suggest they should do? As Christians, our challenge is to go back as close as we can to the gospel and truly to be the church. Increasingly, we’re likely to be a counter-culture. As that happens, we will be the last great defenders of reason, of truth, of human dignity, with the task of defending not just theoretically, in apologetics, but practically—as the early church did—hospitals, orphanages, and so on. Our privilege will be to repeat that story in our time.
How else should we prepare ourselves? We’re in an Augustinian moment. Augustine had the privilege and task of living in a pivotal moment: After 800 years of Roman dominance, he lived through the siege of Carthage and the siege of Rome. After 800 years, a fall beyond belief. The world as they’d known it—gone. He laid down the vision of the church’s response that was the bridge that led through the Dark Ages and eventually to Christendom. We’ve had 500 years of Western dominance, now at its sunset.
You’re saying it’s clearly over? Nothing that can be done to bring back the West? It could be, but we don’t see the signs of leadership. Nothing in America’s current predicament could not be resolved to an incredible degree by returning to a deep understanding of the first principles of the republic—but that’s what we don’t have at the moment.
So you’re not suggesting that these students should move to isolated places and become survivalists? No. Not at all. I’m reading now about people who lived at an age when the world they knew had gone. Daniel—after centuries in the Promised Land, living as the chosen people, Israelites are in a pagan empire with Jerusalem destroyed. Daniel serves God even in that pagan empire. We’ve got to engage with faithfulness at the very heart of power, still.
You quote Thomas Jefferson saying, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no god; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Does it do us no injury for our neighbors to become polytheists or atheists? I think Jefferson is dead wrong on that. He could say that because most people in his day were Christian; whereas today, some of the worldviews have no place for human dignity—and the notion that ideas don’t have consequences is utterly foolish.
How then shall we live in this society where people have ideologies and theologies that, in essence, say it is OK to pick our pockets and break the legs of unborn children? If you read the last essay of Immanuel Kant, he talked of perpetual peace. If you read the last book of Nietzsche, one hundred years later, he talked about a war of spirits. We’re much closer to Nietzsche than Kant. Kant was wrong. In this age of a war of spirits, it’s not just little private religious preferences, but entire ways of life elbow to elbow with other ways of life. That requires of us as Christians that we really know how to wage spiritual warfare, not just have intellectual arguments. So many different positions now, and we need to know them, what the consequences are likely to be, and how to argue with them persuasively.
Sowing seeds, like your father. Today, almost nothing can be taken for granted. The foundations have to be put back into everything.
Watch Marvin Olasky’s complete interview with Os Guinness:
For more of Marvin Olasky's interview with Os Guinness, see “Os Guinness: From the Christian right to a new generation” and “Aphorisms of Os Guinness.
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