Living into the Unknown

by Robert E. Johnson

The science of psychology is dedicated to exploring human psycho-social motivation and behavior (among other things).  Thus psychology, together with the other social sciences, is committed to the belief that if we could better comprehend the things that shape and motivate us, then we might find ways to build a better life for ourselves and others.

This pursuit leads researchers into conversations about essential human needs and drives, the list of which can be long but usually revolves around a few basic components.  These include the  need for stability (a certain degree of assurance about life’s necessities), for variety (variation in emotions and states), for significance (a sense of purpose and accomplishment), for connectedness (a sense of community), for growth (increase in one’s sense of capacity), and for contribution (caring beyond ourselves).  To some degree all people share these needs regardless of gender, ethnicity, nationality, economic position, or other human social identifiers.

These primal need categories help identify collective human drives as well as personal ones.  Primal needs are not evenly distributed at all times in the lives of individuals or societies, as certain drives outweigh others during given seasons of life based on existential circumstances.  Collectively these needs find expression in political behaviors, driving some persons to “conserve” the status quo out of an overriding need for stability or certainty and driving others to seek “progress” out of an overriding need for change, improvement, and growth.

Christian communities, during varied periods of history, have embraced divergent political positions  that reflect changes in motivational states.  Christians have never been totally united in their views, but several general traits can be observed from the historical data.  For example, second and third-century Christians within the Roman Empire were not political conservatives.  Their faith convictions put them at odds with the religio-political status quo, leading many Romans to view them as troublemakers and disturbers of the peace.  Efforts to counter this perception gave rise to Christian apologists who sought through reasoned appeals to convince their compatriots that Christians were not politically or socially subversive and, therefore, should be allowed to thrive peacefully within the empire.

Christian apologetic writings clearly were political in nature, written as treatises often addressed to emperors, the Roman senate, or other governing officials hoping to change public policy relative to religious toleration.  While not promoters of violence, the apologists were passionate advocates for political policy changes, an action that made them politically progressive within their context.

When Emperor Constantine came to the throne, political conditions changed for Christian communities within the Roman Empire.  First Christianity achieved toleration, followed by most favored religion status, and later under Emperor Theodosius I became the only tolerated religion of the Roman Empire.  Christian writers of the period reflect a corresponding shift in the political posture of Christians.  Eusebius of Caesarea is a noteworthy spokesperson for the initial change, arguing that in Constantine God had wedded empire and church into a union that would lead to humanity’s greatest achievements.

Almost immediately, however, conflicts arose.  Not all Christians were of the same mind, and every faction appealed to the reigning powerholders for support of their position against Christians of opposing convictions.  In this contest, some Christian communities sought to conserve a status quo that would assure them of a protected status while others longed for non-interference by government in their religious affairs.

Later, when the empire began to experience decline and defeat, Augustine of Hippo found it necessary to conceptually disentangle the Eusebian synthesis into a distinct earthly, human-oriented terrestrial aspect of life and a heavenly, divine-oriented celestial city of God.  Still, Augustine argued for a political status quo that gave the “official” churches of the empire political power over their “heretical” rivals. Augustine even argued for governmental compulsion in religious matters that would force dissenters to conform to the religious status quo.

Over time, however, the shortcomings of this system of church-state relations became evident to many Christians who observed that church offices were becoming agencies in service to the political interests of monarchs rather than the spiritual interests of God’s kingdom.  This tension generated waves of dissenting Christian communities seeking to liberate the human conscience from what they perceived as being oppressive political control that endangered people’s souls.

It was from this tradition of religious dissent that sixteenth and seventeenth-century Anabaptists, Baptists, and numerous other groups conceived their struggle to achieve liberty of conscience and the separation of church and government.  Given the centuries-long system of government-sanctioned ecclesial and theological institutions, dissenters faced a hard challenge.  Fearful of what freedom of religion might mean for established authority, persons who needed certainty strongly opposed the idea, while those who viewed a government-imposed religion as no true religion argued for a separation of powers that would allow for exercise of conscience in matter of faith, even though this would mean religious diversity and non-conformity within society.  The survival of such a society would be possible only through an intentional willingness to accept diversity and pursue an ever-changing basis for harmony that would allow for the changing needs of its constituents.

Baptists were among the early modern political “progressives” who viewed the life of faith as an adventure.  To embrace such a life meant living into the unknown.  They viewed the essence of Christianity as acquainting the believer with values that had been granted by the Creator; they supported the full dignity of all people and allowed them to grow and develop even if they did not share their own convictions or perspectives.

Valuing the soul dignity of each person means caring about the primal needs of other persons as well as one’s own.  Living into the unknown for the sake of the needs of others means taking a chance.  It means, at times, relinquishing control of structures that make one feel secure for the sake of addressing unmet needs of certain others who desperately require stability, variety, significance, or growth in their lives.

History has shown that creatively living into a changing situation under guidance of the right values ultimately produces better outcomes than does stubbornly holding to structures or practices that deprive many persons of full human dignity until they, in desperation, erupt into violence.  Achieving this persists as the hard work today’s Christian citizen must exercise in responsible political engagement.  Embracing values that support dignity for all persons means living into the unknown.  Doing so means living aspirationally, believing that God’s kingdom provides ample supplies of everything needed to meet the primal needs of every person if we will overcome our fears and accept the risks of pursuing it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the thirteenth in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to for possible inclusion in the blog series.

Robert E. Johnson serves as Provost/Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Christian Heritage at Central Seminary. His publications include A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (Cambridge University Press), Portuguese language publications during a decade as professor in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and numerous articles on subjects related to church history.

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