1979 AACS Niagara Conference
Perspective Report by Nicholas Terpstra
The reformational movement has often adopted the biblical imagery of salt and light when speaking of its role in modern culture. These images reflect the conviction that our place in culture is not on the sidelines but in the center or, God willing, in the vanguard. We may not rest content either with the rejection of culture or with a few well-informed opinions on the causes for its downfall; the task of Christians is to work obediently for the renewal of all creation .
But having prided ourselves on our knowledge of this truth, many questions remain regarding the extent to which we have actually lived it. Have we become active in culture? Are we truly its salt and light? Or does our fine perspective represent more posture than substance?
Such challenges were put to the participants of this year ‘s AACS Niagara Conference by Dr. Maarten Vrieze, professor of philosophy at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, in his lectures on “Biblical Renewal for a Collapsing Society .” Through a brief investigation of the nature of society and an analysis of both the historical roots and present state of western culture, Vrieze emphasized the urgency of these challenges.
He traced the roots of modern culture to the 1500’s, when many social activities (e.g. education, trade, labour) were freed from the unifying and directing influence of the church and assumed a more independent status. This freedom allowed for the greater development of these spheres or activities, but the diverse threads of it also threatened to bring about disintegration; human activity could not be woven into the tapestry of culture without some unifying perspective.
In this crucial moment, Vrieze said, Christianity failed in its cultural task. As Lutherans and Anabaptists turned their backs on such unspiritual work and Calvinists turned inward to theological reflection, it was left to the humanists to pick up the shuttle and begin the weaving of culture. But now, after 400 years, the bright light of humanism has dimmed, and our culture is again at a crucial juncture.
Countless thinkers are questioning humanist assumptions. Since culture cannot exist without a unifying perspective, it can be said that the loss of perspective raises the threat of the total fragmentation of society. Faced with this, what is the response of contemporary Christians?
Vrieze expressed his fear that we will respond the same way that Christians in the 1500′ s did, and he warned that this is the last chance for Christians to take an active role in unifying and directing culture. Reformational Christians are, he claimed, as guilty as others in confining their discussions to issues that interest only a small and relatively closed group. Our failure to work with other thinkers who are also questioning the foundations places us, in Peter Steen’s words, “irretrievably on the sidelines,” barely aware of, much less well-informed about, the deep searching of society and of its intellectual leaders. As a result, we have failed to stand firm in the faith that God’s Word can effect change.
Vrieze’s lectures gave a sobering reminder of the necessity for Christians to go beyond sideline rhetoric to active participation in current debates, speaking to contemporary problems in contemporary language. While this approach to reformation and renewal may present a somewhat frightening task, Vrieze emphasized that we must bear in mind that Christ makes all things new; since the very structures of society are in the grip of Christ, we can break through and work for the liberation of culture.
The conference theme of “The Groaning of Creation for Restoration” was further elaborated in five workshops dealing with the doctrine of creation, the concept of knowledge, social action, stress, and the place of the church in the renewal of society. In addition, workshops were organized for those interested in such concrete actions as food and housing co-ops. The Fellowship Festival on Saturday afternoon gave us a chance to meet old and new friends; fellowship continued in the Sunday services and around countless coffee cups and campfires. The weekend was a fine time for those to whom it has become something of an annual reunion of friends and acquaintances .
In retrospect, the conference served as a reminder of the task to which we have been set. In confining our discussions on “the groaning of creation for restoration” to our own, comfortable circle, we often lose the awareness that it is an acute groaning — one to which we as Christians must respond. In that response — a year round, life long task — we may hope in the Lord’s strength and blessing, becoming more truly the salt and light of modern culture.