The Christian Retreat from the World: Chatting with Hans Rookmaaker on the Back Porch
“I lead an educational nonprofit in Denver.”
If I can get them to bite with this amorphous answer, they’ll often ask, “Oh, really? What kind?”
“I direct an organization called Denver Institute for Faith & Work. We offer educational programming on how Christianity can shape and influence a wide variety of work we do, from business to law to art to education.”
At this point, they pause, tip their head sideways, and say, “Oh, how interesting.”
And…I lost them.
It’s not that they’re uninterested. But there’s really no category in most people’s minds for this kind of work. It’s just strange. Perhaps esoteric. Sheet metal manufacturing and folding clothes at The Gap — these kinds of work make sense. We need metal. We need clothes. But why on earth do we need Denver Institute for Faith & Work?
While sipping coffee this past week, I picked up Hans Rookmaaker’s slim 1970’s book Art Needs No Justification. After reading the second chapter, I thought to myself, “Maybe this is the shortest, easiest way to explain why we do what we do at DIFW.”
So, imagine the three of us, me, you, and Hans, are in my backyard, sipping a glass of wine after dinner as we watch the sun set. He starts right in the middle of a train of thought to explain the Christian retreat from the world in the past 300 years:
Hans: If, as we have said, in the 18th century our world began to change, as its inner direction was set on a humanistic track, where man is the master, and pleasure (through money) and power are the ultimate values, where were the Christians?
Jeff: Good question, Hans. You’re referring to that period in European history called The Enlightenment, when a small group of intellectuals declared a new age of reason and progress, in contrast to the tradition and faith of the Church. Man became the center of the universe and individual autonomy replaced God as the center point for all questions of society and meaning. But Hans, there were certainly many Christians at that time, weren’t there?
You: Of course there were! Wasn’t this the age of America’s Great Awakenings and John Wesley’s preaching and revivals throughout Great Britain? There were lots of Christians in Western society at that time, right?
Hans: They were not few in number, and some people even call that same period one of great revival. The mainstream of Christianity turned to a kind of pietism in which the idea of the covenant, as preached in the books of Moses and through the whole of Scripture, was by-passed. The Old Testament was often neglected, and the meaning of the Christian life was narrowed to that of the devotional life alone.
You: Narrowed? From what?
Hans: Too easily, large areas of human reality, such as philosophy, science, the arts, economics and politics were handed over to the ‘world’, as Christians concentrated mainly on pious activities. If the world’s system was a secularized one, missing true spirituality, the Christian’s attitude also became a reduced one, missing its foundation in reality and uninterested in the created world. It became sometimes a ghost-like spirituality without a body.
Jeff: Interesting way to put it: “a ghost-like spirituality without a body.” You know, you should come and give the introduction at DIFW events. I often struggle to explain that Christianity was once a cultural system, leading to everything from the birth of science to the concept of universal human rights. Today, so many of us Christians, especially Protestants, seem content to go to church, have “quiet time,” and let our public world be ruled by another set of values completely…
You: Not so fast. Christians even today are incredibly active in the world. We have mammoth para-church organizations like Compassion International or World Vision. We have churches who not only preach the gospel, but have cared for so many of the world’s most vulnerable. This is a huge witness – even in a secular age. We’re still active today…
Hans: Christians have indeed been active. But they have often optimistically believed that it was enough to preach the gospel, and to help in a charitable way.
In concentrating on saving souls they have often forgotten that God is the God of life, and that the Bible teaches people how to live, how to deal with our world, God’s creation. The result is that even if many became Christians, nevertheless our present world is a totally secularized one, in which Christianity has almost no influence. Our society’s drive is determined by the world and its values, or lack of values.
Jeff: I see what you’re saying. It’s wonderful to preach a gospel of personal salvation and help charitably. But the set of values that shapes everything from art to science to politics to economics today, is now driven almost completely by another “religion,” namely, secularism. Or more accurately by millions of religions that go by the name individual choice and consumer preference.
You: If Jesus is Lord – really, Lord of all the universe and the earth – then what would it look like to infuse our work and our culture with the divine life of Christ the Savior and Redeemer of all things?
Jeff: Another good question. We should start an organization in Denver to address just that very question…