Untangling the Gospel #3: Winds of Change

Why is it that sneaking suspicions about the way we are “doing Christianity” are only now finding their way into words for myself and many others?

The answer to this question is actually pretty simple.

Every few centures, Western culture tends to undergo a radical revolution. I am not sufficiently versed on prior cultural shifts to speak of them extensively, but I understand that the last major cultural shift started in the enlightenment.

As a result of the enlightenment, people stopped assuming that the powers-that-be, whether religious or political, were the final word on important issues, such as the nature of the universe, the nature of God, and the ways that people ought to be governed. As a result, all kinds of great things happened. People began to question the world through scientific inquiry. Eventually, constitutional and democratic forms of government began to emerge. People gained economic and religious liberties.

And I hope you don’t miss my point here. Even though humanity is still far from perfect, lots of good, productive things happened as a result of this cultural shift. Our story, in history, advanced.

Perhaps the most remarkable outcome from the enlightenment was Newtonian physics, a way of thinking about the universe in terms of laws. Scientists quickly discovered that rigid, mathematical analysis could be used to predict all sorts-of things about our world and the way it would behave. This model of physics became so successful that people slowly began to assume that the same form of analysis would work for any area of inquiry. The result was that Newtonian ways of thinking infiltrated just about every arena of human experience: from the other natural sciences to law. Even theologians jumped on the bandwagon, creating systematic theologies that were designed to explain everything that could be known about the nature of God and man in an analytical, scientific way.

The end result of this cultural revolution was a phenomenon that is now widely described as modernism. As Dallas Willard observes, under modernism, physics was King. That is, everyone assumed that all of human experience can be explained in analytical, science-like terms.

Today, a wide range of observers (from philosophers to scientists to artists) are in agreement that modernism is coming to an end. Recent advances, it seems, have confirmed that – even in the area of physics – there is a mysterious, mooshy quality to the universe that defies the Newtonian model. (Probably, Steven Hawking would not use the word “mooshy” to describe that quality, but he would know what I mean).

Where things are going, culturally, we’re not quite sure. There is a widespread feeling that we are at the end of modernism, but the view of the world that will replace modernism has not become clear. Thus, the term post-modernism. It is a term that is designed to express a belief that human society has reached the end of modernism, but that isn’t quite sure where things will end up.

I think of the term post-modernism as being a placeholder for another term, which will be used in the future to describe what came after modernism. For the time being, however, what is happening in the arts, sciences, and cultures is primarily deconstructive in nature. That is, most folks are in the process of tearing down modernism, like a person would tear down a condemned house before building a new one on its foundation.

I know that the thought of a change like this can be frightening to some, but to me it is exciting. I am eager to watch and learn as our culture’s view of the universe changes, from something stagnant and mechanical to something that is more spiritual and filled with openness to subjective experience as truth. It gives us a chance to be a part of the next chapter in the story of humanity, instead of being stuck in the middle of the last chapter.

But the shift away from modernism to something new also presents an important challenge to followers of Jesus. In the same way that cords that are useful in my stereo system get tangled up with other, less useful cords, so the gospel has become entangled with modernism. The result has been a sometimes ugly, sometimes useful, sometimes confusing set of beliefs that sometimes miss the point of God’s saving work in the world. In fact, I cringe a little as I read the words “set of beliefs” in the last sentence. As I hope to show you, it is an undue emphasis on “belief” as intellectual understanding – as opposed to reliance on God borne of trust – that has gotten us where we are today.

These are interesting times. When you live at a mid-point between two cultural shifts, it is difficult to see how your faith has been influenced by the prevailing views of your culture, because cultural beliefs are so powerful and widely accepted. But when you live cusp of a social revolution, everthing can become quite clear – if you just have the courage keep your head out of the sand, and to ask the right/hard questions.

And speaking of stories about sand, I should mention that a life that seeks the Way of Jesus – regardless of the culture or age where it occurs – still has to be built on a proper foundation: His words. My house may be shabby and in despirate need of repairs, but its nice to know – even as I start work on the project – that there is a time-tested foundation on which a new and (hopefully) more sound structure can be placed. If anything, I want to find ways to connect more closely to that foundation, to increase my dependence on it, and to get rid of the shed, out back, that is sitting in the sand.

In the next post, I’ll begin to explore how I suspect that, over the last few centuries, this tangled mess was created.

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