With the publication of Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization, Os Guinness proves once again that he’s incorrigibly wise. Modernity is the greatest challenge Christianity has ever faced, he argues, and he explores the way it challenges God’s people around the world and especially in the West. The diagnosis is grim, but the prognosis is hopeful: If God’s people will be faithful and unmanipulable, and if we will approach our task humbly and faithfully, God may yet save the West from itself.
Guinness covers quite a lot of territory, and does so in a well-organized and lucid manner, making Impossible People something of an introductory text for cultural analysis and cultural engagement. Because the book would serve well as an introductory course, and because Guinness’s evaluation is perceptive, I’m structuring this review as a resource for motivated learners who want to further explore the ground he covers.
Impossible People addresses a number of challenges raised by modernity, and urges the church to be God’s “impossible people” by meeting those challenges faithfully. I will interface with six of the challenges, providing brief distillations of Guinness’s thought and then bringing it into conversation with seminal thinkers whose work addresses those particular challenges. I am sympathetic to Guinness’s conclusions about Christianity and modernity, so the interfaces with his challenges are meant more to illumine his points than to provide a corrective.
Our Greatest Challenge Ever
Guinness—a frequent speaker, prolific author, and prominent social critic—argues that modernity is the church’s greatest challenge ever. Modernity carries with it not only ideas like modernism and postmodernism but realities like social media, nuclear weapons, jet airplanes, and mobile phones. In the modern West, evangelicals are so immersed in its ideas and realities that we hardly recognize the dangers. We’re blinded to the absolutization of individual autonomy, the bifurcation of religion and public life, and the despiritualization of the world. Additionally, many of God’s people have exacerbated the problem by buying into liberal or cessationist theological frameworks that minimize spiritual realities in one way or another. In response, Guinness argues God’s people must respond to modernity with a full-bodied Christian faith that believes not only in the gospel but also in the reality of spiritual warfare.
Modernity provides a certain set of global challenges, crystallized in the form of three questions:
- Will Islam modernize peacefully?
- When Marxism finally disintegrates in China, which faith or ideology will have replaced it?
- Will the West finally sever its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or will it renew itself by recovering those roots?
These three big questions are complicated by a number of developments, including the biotech revolution (in which humanity is on the verge of being able to transform the nature of life itself), the rise of the information age (in which we live by the clock rather than the rhythm of nature), and the proliferation of modernities (in which modernity contextualizes for different civilizations and cultures).
For those readers wishing to more fully investigate our global challenges, one significant resource is Samuel Huntingdon’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 2011). There will be no worldwide embrace of democratic capitalism and Western values, Huntingdon contends. Instead, there will be entrenched conflict, and the West will be at a disadvantage. The conflict will be between the most basic units of world order—civilizations—in which religion is a central force. Especially severe will be the conflict between Islam, China, and the West. Huntingdon’s book deserves criticism for a number of reasons—including especially his desire for a naked public square—but it’s a nice supplement to Guinness and worthwhile reading for anyone wishing to reflect on global challenges.
Other supplementary texts include Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), a thick but accessible book demonstrating the way in which today’s world is hyper-connected and hyper-aware of its hyper-connectedness; Bernard Lewis’s The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Random House, 2004), which, though it’s a bit outdated, is helpful in revealing the sources of Islamic resentment toward the West; Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future (W. W. Norton, 2007, 2016), a helpful resource for understanding the way the Shia-Sunni divide affects not only the Muslim world but also global affairs as a whole; and Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China (Simon & Schuster, 2009), a popular-level work exploring China’s attempt to emerge from its 20th-century Maoist iteration into its embryonic and not-yet-fully-defined 21st-century iteration. Each of these books widens and deepens some aspect of Guinness’s analysis.
Threats to the West
Modernity also reveals a number of challenges for the West specifically. The Judeo-Christian tradition is being weakened by advanced modernity in general and progressive secularism in particular. Within this story of secularization, moreover, there are several significant subnarratives: the struggle within secularism between nihilism and evolutionary humanism, the struggle between secularization and radical Islam, and the Christian struggle to fortify itself enough to contribute decisively to the West’s future. Further, the secularization process has carried with it a desacralization of the world in which even Christians tend to ignore or minimize spiritual realities and spiritual warfare. In light of secularism, Guinness challenges the church to resist the pressure to conform so that it can be “unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable, and unclubbable,” and to respiritualize the world by praying and engaging in spiritual warfare.
Readers who wish to dig deeper into the West’s attempt to cut off its Judeo-Christian roots should look no further than My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority (University of Virginia, 2006). In this book, Jewish sociologist Philip Rieff argues the West is in the midst of a globally and historically unprecedented attempt to build social order independent of sacred order. (See my article “The Jewish Intellectual Who Predicted America’s Social Collapse.”) Globally and historically, societies have understood that sacred order shapes social order through cultural institutions and works. In the contemporary West, however, there’s an attempt to remove sacred order altogether in order for social order to function by itself. In such a situation, cultural institutions and products become deathworks, deforming and degrading society rather than reforming and renewing it. Rieff represents the culminating thoughts of a world-class intellectual who hopes the West can move onward into a new era that recognizes the value of sacred order. Similar evaluations of the West’s desacralization of society include George Steiner’s Nostalgia for the Absolute (House of Anansi, 1997) and John Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010).
Modernity offers a unique set of challenges for the United States. Guinness compares those problems to an uncontainable mudslide. Problems in the global era are interconnected and have multicausal explanations. In other words, the problems can’t be isolated and then solved on their own. Similar to other Western nations, Americans are increasingly rejecting the Judeo-Christian tradition, inviting a radical relativization of all claims and certainties, and experiencing an unprecedented rapidity of change—all of which combine to yield a Babel-like euphoria in which we think we can build a new humanity and a new world without God.
For further reading, one might select Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Eerdmans, 1988) and American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile (Basic, 2009). The former is a minor classic in 20th-century religion and politics, arguing as it does that the public square shouldn’t be denuded of religious influence. Religion is not like clothing that can be discarded as one enters the public square (as John Rawls’s theory suggests) but more like skin that is attached to one’s body and can’t be removed. Religion can be brought into public in good ways or bad ways, but it can’t be removed altogether. The latter book, published just after Neuhaus’s death, argues that secularization and relativism have radically degraded American society and culture.
Modernity, it turns out, is an equal opportunity offender, posing challenges not only to monotheistic religions but also to atheism. In a chapter titled “Life with No Amen,” Guinness exposes the deep rifts within Western atheism, drawing on Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) and other atheists who have acknowledged the positive role religion plays. In spite of the rifts, however, atheism is Christianity’s leading rival in the West and is the dominant worldview of those with cultural power. The new atheists attack Christianity overtly while social and political activists attack it implicitly by presupposing atheism. If atheists win the day in the West, political liberalism will become increasingly illiberal and eventually nihilistic. In response to the pervasive influence of atheism, Guinness challenges the church to love atheists individually to help them see that atheism is bad for them and bad for society, and to work with them corporately to forge a constructive way forward for Western society.
In regard to Guinness’s recognition of our society’s plurality, and our need to work together with those who believe differently, readers will benefit from reading books that argue for a “principled pluralism” in the public square. Principled pluralism recognizes our democratic society’s ideological many-ness and seeks to labor within that many-ness so that various parties can work together to achieve the common good. One might read Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (a theological argument for principled pluralism and religious freedom), Richard Mouw and Sanders Griffioen’s Pluralisms and Horizons: An Essay in Christian Public Philosophy (Eerdmans, 1993) (a contemporary expression of Kuyper’s principled pluralism, written by political scientists), and John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference [review | interview] (an argument for principled pluralism that “allows genuine difference to coexist without suppressing or minimizing our firmly held convictions,” written by a professor of law and political science).
Armed and Ready
Guinness concludes by addressing a number of other significant issues, including generationalism (which is the West’s fundamental inability to transition between generations due to the rise of individualism and relativism and the breakdown of mediating institutions and living tradition) and technocracy (which undermines human agency, the embodied nature of human life, and awareness of the ethical implications of technological advances that purport to be morally “neutral”). In response to these significant issues, Guinness challenges us to utilize the weapons of spiritual warfare, to gain a firm grasp of the history of ideas, and to engage in deep cultural analysis.
Readers wishing to engage with Guinness’s theme of spiritual warfare may wish to read Chuck Lawless’s Putting on the Armor (LifeWay, 2007) and Discipled Warriors (Kregel, 2009) (two of a small category of conservative evangelical texts to put spiritual warfare atop the agenda). Those persons concerned with history of ideas and cultural analysis are well served to read two books by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen: Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Baker Academic, 2008) (a worldview text that evaluates Western intellectual history and contemporary cultural developments), and Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (Baker Academic, 2013) (a philosophy text that evaluates the rise and development of Western philosophical thought).
His Impossible People
In the afterword, Guinness urges Christians to persuade the West that it has made bad choices, that there will be awful consequences, but that it’s not too late. He’s worth quoting at length:
God may stretch out his restraining hand and hold us back from the consequences of our settled choices. In his mercy, he may revive his church, and the Christian faith may flourish once again and provide the working faith of the West, or he may not. That is not for us to know.
But our faith in God must always be our defining trust and the compass for our way of life. Living before the absolute presence of God, we are called to be faithful, and therefore unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable, and unclubbable. We serve an impossible God, and we are to be God’s impossible people.
Let us then determine and resolve to be so faithful in all the challenges and ordeals the onrushing future brings that it may be said of us that we in our turn have served God’s purpose in our generation. So help us God.
Guinness closes by urging the church to examine ourselves, repent, pray for revival, read the signs of the times, test the spirits, and live as a contrast community by acting and speaking out.
Only then can we be a truly free people, free to “kowtow to no one and nothing,” to “have the courage of our own dignity” to be the impossible people God has called us to be.