Carl Henry’s 40-year verdict on his small early book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism included the summary: “[T]wo things sometimes surprise me: … how little I said and how boldly I said it” (Theology, News and Notes, December, 1987, p. 3). I had a similar experience reading Christopher Wiley’s The Household and the War for the Cosmos: Recovering a Christian Vision for the Family (Canon Press, 2019). It is a brief, bold book. Wiley argues that the Christian household (not identical to the modern deracinated “nuclear family”) is at the center of God’s original cosmological configuration. The fact that this household is hierarchical (the father, for example, is the “middleman of the cosmos . . . stand[ing] between his household and heaven, representing each to the other” [p. 76]) will incite outrage not only from secular egalitarians but also many churchmen (I apologize: churchpersons) for whom individual autonomy is an ultimate human right. Wiley, a Presbyterian pastor, nonetheless sees the family as the center of God’s plan for humanity and argues bluntly that “the Bible is a kind of handbook for households” (p. 5). Which is to say that the household isn’t just at the center of the cosmos. It’s also at the center of Christianity itself.
Of course, none of this means all is well with the household in our fallen postmodern world. All to the contrary. We are living amid cultural collapse. Wiley contends that this collapse is largely the effect of household collapse, offering five evidences: (1) marriage has been reduced to a lifestyle choice; (2) children are increasingly believed to be useless or even bad to have; (3) post-familialism is on the rise; (4) we’re sliding into socialism; and (5) Christians are losing the ability to think like Christians.
The collapse has been abetted by a highly privatized conservative Christianity that gained ascendancy as early as the 18th century. Well-intentioned revivalists like John Wesley and George Whitefield had reduced the cosmological faith of Christianity to a private, heart affair. No Christian at that time, least of all the evangelical revivalists themselves, could have dreamed that this individualization could lead to a modern radical individualism that undermines the household. For the household is not a collection of autonomous individuals. It is a divinely constructed reality at the center of the cosmos. By reducing the Faith to heart religion, the well-meaning revivalists unwittingly decontextualized the individual from the cosmic order within which he was intended to live and move and have his being. Central to that order is the household.
But the household’s most pernicious enemy isn’t human. Satan himself is warring on the cosmic order. The strategy of his contra-godly principalities and powers is to undermine and subvert God’s cosmological order. That means, of course, destabilizing and eventually destroying the household. The task of Christians is to restore that household according to God’s law.
This broad, sweeping vision sets Wiley squarely within the Genesis 1-2 camp and not the Genesis 3 camp of modern evangelicalism. The Genesis 1–2 camp sees God’s created cosmic order and its development by godly humans as their chief calling (the “cultural mandate”). The Genesis 3 Christians perceive God’s work on the earth as personal redemption, rescuing sinners from judgment and calling them into the church and to greater sanctification.
The Genesis 1-2 Christians, by contrast, don’t disagree with the content of this vision, but they see it as subordinate to the larger Genesis 1–2 vision. Because the cosmological household stands squarely within the Genesis 1–2 camp, Genesis 3 Christians are inclined to see Wiley’s emphasis as at best secondary and at worst a distraction from what he should really be doing: keeping sinners out of hell and getting them sanctified and ready to meet the Lord. Wiley would likely reply that if you’re not a Genesis 1–2 Christian, you won’t be able to maintain Genesis 3 Christianity for long. You won’t win the gospel war if you abandon the cosmic war.
Wiley offers two strategies for winning that war, by practicing what he calls, in a whiplashing metaphor, guerrilla piety. First, the church must act as it was designed: the household of God, and quit chasing the world and “relevance.” The church itself is indispensable to the cosmic hierarchy. Its goal is to “put the benefits of Christ’s rule on display for the principalities and power” (p. 120). This advice will not appeal to the pragmatic churchlings among us for whom a Christianized version of the latest cultural kitsch is agenda item #1.
Second, Christians must recognize that “the household is the fulcrum of the cosmos” (p. 121). Wiley offers as evidence a seemingly benign point that actually delivers a powerful punch: “The reason households have leverage is that they are natural” (Ibid.). What makes this argument potent is its radical antithesis to the present privileging of socially constructed reality. Nature (creation, cosmos) doesn’t matter. It gets in the way of human imagination and therefore reality must change: reality isn’t what it used to be. If you want to redefine the household as two lesbians, three toddlers, and a border collie, more power to you. If you want to transform yourself into a dragon, don’t let the cosmos get in your way. Reality is an optional impediment to be pulverized to make way for the creative, autonomous self. This is the gospel of cultural Gnosticism.
Wiley understands that the Satanic assault on the cosmic family will finally fail, because it is a war on reality. If you try to break God’s physical cosmic laws like gravity and thermodynamics, you’ll end up breaking yourself. If you try to break God’s institutional cosmic laws for the household, you’ll get the same result.
In the current war over the cosmos, Wiley urges Christians to stand with the cosmos. That means: stand with the household.
The cosmos, like Father Time, is still undefeated.