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“Faithful Presence”: Dissonances and Distinctives in the Work of the School Head

Faithful Presence

 

“The work I do from day to day, week to week, and month to month . . . and I have to tell you, I fail and fall much of the time . . . is striving to be a servant leader. I am broken and so is my school, but I hope to send out graduates who can live and . . . work in a fallen world. My being there [in the school] signals a . . . precarious balance of love and authority . . . of being strong and weak.”

—Christian school head

 

Hunter’s “Faithful Presence” and the School Head

James Davison Hunter makes no ostensible reference to Christian schools or their heads in his 2010 book To Change the World, and yet its resonances with this cultural institution sound deeply and profoundly. As a microcosm of applied Christian faith in a fallen world, the Christian school finds itself working out of certain contested paradigms of cultural engagement. Hunter, with acknowledgment to Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture, posits three archetypal postures toward cultural engagement taken by the church and by extension the Christian school: defending against, relevance toward, and purity from culture (214–19). Finding these insufficient, he purports another position, that of “faithful presence.” Hunter does not proffer a succinct definition of “faithful presence,” but progressively reveals its design and contours throughout his book:

If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with whom we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate . . . this is the heart of a theology of faithful presence (252).

 

As to our spheres of influence, a theology of faithful presence obligates us to do what we are able, under the sovereignty of God, to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship—that is, the institutions of which our lives are constituted—toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those of the household of God but of all (254).

 

I have argued that faithful presence is a theology of commitment and promise. The commitment is “covenantal.” It is a binding obligation manifested in the relationships we have, in the work we do, and in the social worlds we inhabit, and it is oriented toward the flourishing of the world around us (261).

Hunter situates his argument for faithful presence in light of a “new city commons” (279), whereby Christians envision themselves as living and working in world shared by others, and being committed to “the highest ideals and practices of human flourishing in a pluralistic world” (279), whose ends are “the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness” (263). Hunter’s work evokes Kuyper’s thoughts on Calvinism and religion: “The Calvinist cannot shut himself up in his church and abandon the world to its fate. He feels, rather, his high calling to push the development of this world to an even higher stage” (73).

Neither steeped in withdrawal from the world nor exhibiting a naïve triumphalism, Hunter manages to steer a course that demonstrates a potential guide of cultural engagement. For the life and work of the Christian school head, “faithful presence” is applied in the interactions, tasks, and spheres of influence operating in the school and wider community.
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