"Jesus freaks out in the street
Handing tickets out for God
Turning back she just laughs
The boulevard is not that bad..."
-"Tiny Dancer" by Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin
As I seek what being a Christian on this earth means to me, outside of mere "soulwinning", I am drawn to study creation and eschatology. To know where you came from and where you are going is to have a sense of mission and purpose. Everything in between is just an interpretation of that path.
I am currently reading "Critique of Intelligent Design" written by John Bellamy Foster, Brent Clark, and Richard York. Rather than engage in point/counterpoint with specific intelligent design scientific arguments, this book intends to look at the philosophy behind the materialist worldview, as evolved from Epicurus through the Enlightenment and finally through men such as Darwin, Freud, and Marx. I have held before that evolution is not a new thing, and that early Christianity's battles with Epicureanism might provide some insight into how a Christian might address the more refined modern theory of evolution through natural selection.
The letdown is that the early church addressed the Epicurean idea of biological evolution purely by appeal to the argument from design. The church's response to Epicureanism at this point was simplistic and lacking in any serious complexity. Of course, the early church did not need to defend against Darwin's arguments, only against the general idea as expressed through Epicurus. Modern evolutionary theory makes quick work of the argument from design to the point where it is near useless. Whole passages of Scripture such as Romans 1:18-32 and Psalm 19 lose their vital force if the argument from design cannot be trusted.
Paul's argument to the Epicureans and Stoics in Acts 17:22-31 is almost purely a counter-assertion rather than a refutation.
Now having said all of this (and not having yet finished the book), you have to understand the backdrop upon which I am encountering this book. I had just finished reading "Surprised by Hope" by N.T. Wright, wherein he argues that God's redemptive work is ultimately incarnational, and so we as Christians ought to be improving the world around us with a focus of mercy on the here and now, as it points to the final peace under the coming rule of Jesus Christ Himself. While Wright doesn't address specifics in detail, he seems to endorse a secular progressive agenda including combating hunger, environmental issues, injustice, and poverty.
My response to this was to point out that unbelievers already do these things. However, I felt Wright answered that issue by pointing out how that secular evolutionary optimism has no answer for evil, and that it has no lasting hope, in that it places its trust in humanity's continual improvement.
Alas, the "answer" I thought I had found was not to hold for long. I began to reflect on what I had read so far of Bellamy's book, and realized that the types of secular progressive movements being upheld as examples of incarnational ministry by the likes of Wright and McLaren find their historical genesis and impetus in the materialist philosophy of the Enlightenment. Yes, Christ was a model of helping the poor and hungry, but never with an eye towards any semi-permanent temporal resolution. In fact, Christ responded to Judas the traitor that we would always have the poor with us. It could be argued though, that this wasn't Christ's most important ministry priority.
With these thoughts on my mind my wife began to ask for an epidural. Apparently, different anesthesiologists use different drugs for the epidural, and my wife joked about using laughing gas. The anesthesiologist referred to a double-blind study that showed that laughing gas doesn't do anything for pain except possibly as a distraction. He administered the epidural and afterwards, my wife said she was thankful for modern medicine.
We have materialist science to thank for modern medicine. Materialist science discovered the drugs and procedures that work and those that don't via the empirical scientific method.
But most strikingly, a science based in Christian theology would never have come up with the epidural. Alleviating the pain of labor goes against the creation order: after the fall, God determined that the woman should deliver painfully. Paul also appeals to the creation order in 1 Tim 2:11-15 when he tells us that women will be saved through childbearing. Absent the advances of materialist modern science in medicine, Christianity itself would have never allowed itself to develop a way to get around the pain of labor--it would go against what God has ordained. It for similar reasons that many Christians refuse to accept birth control.
The same can be said for global warming. The science behind global warming is sound, all scandal aside. However, action on global warming go completely against the eschatalogical priorities of American pre-millennialist Christianity. The world is getting worse and God is going to come soon and judge it. The case is also made that earth was created for man, and again, it is a violation of creation order to talk about the rights of animals or speak of limits to man's use of earth's resources.
I think there are other cases to be made, however, that will have to be saved for another time. Suffice it to say that the impetus to improve this present world and man's present condition is not, historically, an instinct of the church. The "affinity" for earthly improvement has lain with secular materialists. Traditionally, Christians have been content to chalk up earthly distress to God's judgment or testing, earthly bounty to God's blessing, and everything else to God's providence. Why engage in science or activism to improve your condition when it is a result of God's intentional action?
In conclusion, I find that NT Wright makes his point as to incarnational ministry, but it lacks any historical grounding in what the church has actually been doing throughout history.