Nihilism, Inequality, and Loss of Agency


Editor Ron Reno penetrates the essential core of the problem of inequality in the March 2014 issue of the journal First Things (“Inequality and Agency”).  Inequality is not just about the masses in the growing lower and barely-middle class struggling to survive on the leftovers of the self-indulgent upper class; the real tragedy is the loss of the ability by these masses to make any meaningful difference in society (that’s what we mean by “agency”). 

Reno says that virtually all the culture-shaping, agenda-driving, justice-pursuing activity in the USA is owned and controlled by the mavens of Hollywood, the prestige media, and the universities.  Everyone else who doesn’t agree and submit…well, they’re woe-begotten souls, benighted, ignorant, anachronistically religious, and, most definitely, “out of step with history.” 

My decades of work amongst international students, along with many trips overseas in the past few years, have introduced me to the reality of whole and huge populations without much agency.  They see themselves as powerless pawns in a game rigged for the benefit of the powerful who are masters of corruption and institutionalized violence.  And now, slowly but surely, the sense of powerlessness and the inability to affect the outcome of society has crept to populist masses in the West, including the USA. 

Marx had it wrong when he looked upon the industrialized masses of the mid-19th century and offered a scientific materialist salvation through a proletarian revolution.  He completely failed to see that the Gospel of Christ has long empowered the powerless to gain the agency they so long desire.  Nietzsche the nihilist instead saw that if society rejected the God of Christianity (which he despised for its “slave morality”) and fully embraced utter materialism, or the philosophy of scientific naturalism, then there would be no meaning (as I wrote about in an earlier blog “Christianity, Islam, and Nihilism”), no morality, and no agency.  Only Nietzsche’s “Superman” could transcend history and make himself an agent that affected the course of history.  In essence, our Western elites, having largely embraced the materialist/naturalist worldview, are exercising their agency as Supermen and –women who transcend history.  They make the rules, they call the shots, and the masses must fall in line.

My populist perspective is true enough from an historical perspective and true tour zeitgeist.  But what gives me hope, and ought to be at the center of Western preaching to the lower and barely middle classes, is that Jesus Christ really does live, He does in fact transform our aspirations from sinful selfishness to radical love for our neighbors, and, yes, He gives us agency to make a difference in history (until He returns and ends history as its Vanquished Conqueror).  This means that our Christian teaching needs to explicate a biblical message (from Genesis 1) that God made us in His image as princely agents who must protect His creation and produce culture by promoting human flourishing and thus advancing God’s glory.  We must declare fearlessly that salvation is not found in redistribution, on the one hand, or libertarian individualism, on the other.  

Rather, the clear biblical witness is that humans have tragically imprisoned themselves as powerless slaves to sin (Genesis 3), and so salvation has to focus on that central problem that destroys agency.  The Christian worldview stands head and shoulders above progressive, postmodern, ultimately nihilistic alternatives for ending inequality.  The Gospel gives us agency because, through Christ’s atoning work, we have been liberated from our slavery to sin and thus restored to our original Genesis 1 calling. 

The real solution to inequality lies in the very heart of the Gospel of Christ.  Government policies and private charities have their place, well and good.  But, the real means to gaining agency is through Jesus Christ.

An Eye for What Others Failed to See

In early March 2009, Susan and I found our way through a maze of hallways into the office of Dr. Robert Woodberry, then a sociology professor on the University of Texas at Austin campus.  His mother had grown up in the Minneapolis area, and he was doing some interesting work on missionaries and their effect on societies around the world.  We were launching Wilberforce Academy, and had come to South Texas to introduce our new mission to some friends.

Surrounded by literally piles of research materials that covered virtually every inch of floor space, with soft-spoken intensity he began to tell us about his work.  “I’m looking for and finding all kids of data about religion and missionaries, the sort of thing that other sociologists just never see,” he said.  The results of his research were already becoming clear: What he calls “conversionary Protestant missionaries” have had a profoundly positive impact on nations’ prospects for democracy and economic growth. 

I co-wrote about his stunning research in an article recently published in Kairos, a Croatian theological journal, and David Koyzis has written a fine article on the exact dynamics that connect missionary behavior to democratic behavior. But far more significantly, the preeminent American Christian magazine Christianity Today has picked up the story in the January/ February 2014 issue.  The article title is “The World the Missionaries Made.”  This theme that Vishal Mangalwadi first articulated in the 1990s has now received enormous statistical and historical validation through Woodberry’s painstaking work: The Protestant missionaries who went around the world in the spirit of William Carey---sacrificially committed to Christ, hoping to win people to Him, desperate to help the people they served in any way possible, and almost always at odds with colonial authorities---have literally impacted nations in a much more positive way than almost every scholar imagined.

I have long contended that we evangelicals have not done a good job of telling the world about how we have, often unaware and always in simple obedience to Christ, made the world a better place.  We call ourselves salt and light, but we have little awareness of how profoundly true that is.  There should be no occasion to boast (we have far too much that is wrong with our movement), but we ought to get out this word in public forums and university classrooms.

Speaking of university classrooms, though Woodberry’s research has received top awards, the University of Texas-Austin refused him tenure several years ago.  Their loss was a victory for National University of Singapore where he now teaches.  As one blog writer noted, Woodberry is “an American who apparently found more academic freedom for his research in Singapore than the United States.”  



The Gospel Escalator


Social and economic inequality promise to haunt our globalizing world as it rockets forward through the first quarter of the 21st century.  The rich few get richer, while the middle class and the poor stagnate. This narrative of inequality not only has great appeal amongst the chattering classes of policymakers and journalists, but it will slowly gain more transaction amongst the masses.  Even conservative researchers like Charles Murray are sounding a warning bell, as he does in his 2012 book Coming Apart.  The conservative think tank leader Mitch Pearlstein is writing his second book on the subject (his first, published in 2011, is titled From Family Collapse to America’s Decline), and shows clear evidence that family fragmentation is correlated with poverty, under-achievement, and social stagnation. 

While Pearlstein is very sympathetic to the argument that a religious revival is the only way to turn around our social pathologies, most scholars and virtually all politicians ignore what was, until the mid 20th century, a socially-accepted and  powerful source of social mobility (the ability to move from a lower socioeconomic class to a higher one): Christian conversion.  In fact, my own research suggests that Christian conversion often operates in such a way that it provides a virtual escalator between the social classes. Sociologist David Martin has alluded to the phenomenon in his 1993 book Tongues of Fire, as has Robert Woodberry, the American sociologist who has studied the impact of missionaries on social outcomes.

Although the topic deserves much more research, we can suggest likely factors that drive the gospel escalator: 1) re-direction of finances away from self-indulgent activities to those that educate their and others’ children; 2) increased work productivity due to greater diligence and work focus; 3) increased trustworthiness with work tasks 4) refusal to steal from employers; 5) increased willingness to invest in business activities of fellow Christians, as well as to employ them; and 6) greater sense of efficacy, or the ability to make a difference in family, community, and public affairs. 

Politicians are likely to milk the theme of inequality for all the votes they can get, but the wise citizen will recognize that one of the finest ways that public officials can help reverse the rising tide of inequality is by encouraging citizens to seek out religious commitments that will make them into the kind of people who gain social mobility.  For most, this means welcoming Christian conversion and the community that comes with it.