Secular Credibility Is a Devilish Temptation
The familiar phrase "worldly wisdom" is in contrast to true wisdom, which is a wholly good quality. The story of the unjust steward is considered the most difficult of all Jesus' parables, in that it seems to recommend calculating worldly wisdom. Thus, recent biblical translations have changed "wise" to "shrewd," a change that clearly seems warranted by the context.
Those who read the parable superficially may think Jesus is offering a bargain similar to the one he himself was offered by Satan in the desert—live in accordance with worldly wisdom and you will prosper. In fact, of course, he was pointing out that the worldly man was more resourceful in his quest for material rewards than were many of Jesus' own disciples, for whom the rewards were much greater.
The subtlety of the parable has direct relevance to the state of the Church today. The terms of Satan's bargain have been clear for a long time: Christianity is losing adherents and, even more seriously, losing influence and credibility. It will not prosper once again until it humbly accepts enlightenment from the children of this world. The benefits of this bargain are so obvious that only dogmatic stubbornness prevents its being ratified.
Alas! Some among Jesus' modern disciples have unwittingly sacrificed themselves for the rest by forging ahead to test the bargain, and they have been left with ashes. There can no longer be any doubt that it was a fraud from the beginning. If embracing worldly wisdom really would attract converts and confer renewed respectability on the churches, it would confront even the most faithful with a glittering temptation. But history has demonstrated that the unjust steward does not keep his bargains. Those churches that have moved farthest and fastest in agreeing to the bargain are now far along the road to extinction.
Falling to the Flatterers
Those Christians who have been cheated seldom appear to realize it. There is very little buyer's remorse, perhaps mainly because of the natural human tendency to deny that one has been played for a fool. Common sense continues to suggest that a quid pro quo with modern culture cannot help but bring good results, just over the next horizon.
The buyers are reassured by what might be called the public relations staff of the secular bargain, principally the media. The story of Christianity today is endlessly told in the same terms, with only some of the names changing: Honest and courageous church people are trying to fulfill the bargain and are succeeding but are continually obstructed by fanatics. Many of these chroniclers, like all good salesmen, fervently believe in their own product. This is flattery in the common understanding of the term—boosting the egos of those church people who have signed up for the bargain.
But some members of this public relations staff employ a more sinister kind of flattery, in the classical meaning of the term—knowingly giving bad advice. They do not expect that the churches will flourish if they fulfill the bargain. Like the "fanatics," they know that it will have the opposite effect. That is precisely their purpose.
James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.