Monday, October 23, 2006

Post-Christianism

Early each morning I spend the best part of half an hour working out on my exercise bike watching television, jumping between the cable networks, BBC World news, and C-SPAN. This morning, as I was winding the session down I caught a few minutes of a conversation on C-SPAN with Mark Steyn, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times who seems to live a transatlantic existence, and about whom I knew very little until today.

I was about to turn the tube off when he was asked a question about politics in Europe and, focusing on Germany, came up with some perceptive thoughts which I have been turning over most of the morning. Before getting to it I have since discovered that Steyn is Jewish by background, Catholic by baptism, Anglican by confirmation, and presently attends a small country Baptist church.

Steyn was commenting on the development of post-Christian Europe, something the chattering classes applaud, and in passing observed that both the present Chancellor of Germany and her immediate predecessor were childless adults, suggesting that this reflected the now-ness and me-ness that prevails in Western European culture. He then went on to state that European culture in general is a great present tense culture that does not have the staying power beyond this generation.

I get the impression from his website that Mark Steyn rejoices in stating his case outrageously, but whatever his motives for speaking as he did, that thought is one that I cannot get out of my head. Having watched culture on both sides of the Atlantic now for more than thirty years he put into words something that I have been sensing for some time now, and that like the great statue in Nebuchadnezzar's dream that Daniel interpreted (Daniel 3:31-36), our whole western culture has feet that are mixed clay and seems destined to crumble in fairly short order.

There are plenty of signs that point in that direction, not least our utter self-absorption. Perhaps chosen childlessness is an example of this, as Steyn was suggesting when talking of the German chancellors: there has to be something unprecedented about a culture where a significant proportion of adults have problems with the notion that reproducing the next generation.

Then there is the ecological burden that we put upon the planet. Jared Diamond makes this case very strongly in his recent best-seller, Collapse, basing his findings upon the study he has made of various societies all around the world and across history. Diamond is not a pessimistic gloom-and-doom merchant trying to frighten us with ecobabble, but to use his words "a cautious optimist... (who has) decided to devote most of my career efforts at this stage of my life to convincing people that our problems have to be taken seriously and won't otherwise go away" (Page 521). Whether you like him or not, this is roughly what Al Gore is trying to tell us too.

Just as it is unwise to live beyond our financial means, so also is it foolish in the extreme to live beyond our ecological means and not being too worried about it. God made us to be stewards of his creation not its ravagers. But this tends to be a culture of immediacy, seeking satisfaction now and damning the consequences tomorrow. Would we have run up so much credit card debt if this did not have some truth in it?

I would further add that while our culture has arrogantly shown the Christian faith the door and effectively ushered it out into the cold, it has nothing substantial with which to replace it. Post-Christianism has appeared to have no real ideological base beyond me and the immediate moment, and its gospel seems to be one of consumption and hedonism -- 'gods' that are failing people left, right, and center because they are incapable of filling the all-too-real vacuum. Even the intellectual champions of post-Christianity seem incapable of cobbling together anything like a substantial case for their approach to life, and seem unwilling to do the hard brain work required to make one.

The other week I browsed Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion in Borders on the Bullring in the middle of Birmingham, England. Dawkins is a leading biologist and geneticist who has sometimes been labelled 'Darwin's Rottweiller' because of his commitment to evolutionary theory and aggressive agnosticism that for all practical purposes is atheistic. Brilliant in his field, he regularly strays into the realm of theology and philosophy where, quite frankly, he has not done his homework, yet he wants everyone to follow him.

His latest book (wonderfully reviewed in October 22nd's New York Times Book Review) is based upon the assumption that the notion of God is a pernicious delusion. As Jim Holt the author of the NY Times Book Review piece says, "The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie. There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and sloppy." On top of this, which I picked up in my own brief browse of the book, was that he did not give any serious consideration to those who painstakingly and thoroughly developed cases that challenged his case and presuppositions, among them Stephen Jay Gould and Alister McGrath. Dawkins approach to debate has something of the flavor of John Shelby Spong about it.

I use Dawkins as an example because his is a loud voice that is part of the broad front attempting to put post-Christianism in place. It appears that most of the critics of the Judeo-Christian consensus which is being swept away have a knack for demolition work, but seem incapable of putting anything satisfactory or substantial in its place. Thus the vacuum remains and expands at the heart of our society.

The tragedy is that within the churches, where red-blooded Christianity does have a substantial response to post-Christianism, there are those who are touting their own post-Christianist flavor.

Leander Keck's The Church Confident was published more than a dozen years ago but much that he wrote still rings true. The former Dean of Yale Divinity School writes that in the mainline churches substantial faith and theology have given way to the bizarre and the banal, with the result that we suffer from "theological anorexia." "The mainline churches have inherited theological wealth sufficient to serve substantial theological fare, but all too often they offer little more than potato skins to those who hunger for a real meal" (Page 46). I certainly see this is so much of our Episcopal futility.

Yet the task of the Christian church is to witness into post-Christianism to something far better and richer, but that seldom seems to be happening. Not only is it the mainline churches that are caught up in their own kind of post-Christian cul-de-sac, but so also are many of the conservative churches, baptizing the American dream rather than challenging it to conform to the great doctrines and values of Scripture.

In this environment then, it seems that the life expectancy of our culture has to be short. Without an ideological base, living beyond it means in every way, and focused almost exclusively on the fulfilment of the self, it is already like a barque that is holed and leaking, it is only a matter of time before it capsizes and goes under. The question then is what will take its place, and where will the churches be? I suspect that before then, however, we could very well see the wholesale (and sophisticated) persecution of the congregations and individual Christians who stand up to post-Christianism, and it could be from this that the solution to the conundrum comes.

2 comments:

samlcarr said...

I agree with your assessment of postchristianity and of Dawkin. It seems that in America, the evangelicals have stuck their heads into the sand while the only christian voices seeking engagement are from the emerging community that is still trying to figure out its own base.

Let us remain sensitive and open to what the Holy Spirit is and will do with us in these troubling times

Anonymous said...

How can one make sense of postchristianity if they can't even get their history straight?

Cambridge Professor Says ABC has it all wrong about relations between pagans and Christians

by Mary Beard
The Times Online
11/12/2006

Williams I couldn't quite believe my ears when I was listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury head to head with John Humphrys on his new radio programme. I had to check it out on the script posted on the web.

For those of you who don't follow the highlights of BBC Radio 4, Humphrys - the rottweiler of the Today programme and a religious sceptic - has a new series in which he interviews faith leaders to see if they can provide some convincing reasons to believe. Part of the appeal of this is to see whether he gives these venerable gentlemen the kind of treatment he usually metes out to some hapless junior minister. "Let me be quite clear. You're claiming that God does not have a beard."

First up was Rowan Williams. He's a very clever man, who held a lectureship in Cambridge and a Chair in Oxford before moving onto higher things. (You can find an excellent introduction to his theology by the religion editor of the TLS, Rupert Shortt.) The interview in fact had more of the feeling of a Cambridge supervision than a Today programme grilling. But Williams got into severe difficulties at various points.

After coming close to denying that serious violence had ever been committed in the name of Christianity, he eventually admitted the Crusades had been "a bad episode" - which is a classic example of being economical with the truth. And he really didn't seem to have the bottle to tell Humphrys, who was pressing him on this issue, that unless he mended his religious ways he was liable –- according to the rule book -- to end up in a rather fiery place after death..

But this wasn't why I checked out the script. It was because of what Williams had to say about the relations between pagans and Christians in the Roman empire - a subject which is close to my own academic patch.

It was in the context of whether Christians have a track record of forcing their views on others, either now or then. Williams seemed to feel on safer ground with the early church than with the modern world. To quote him (punctuation and spelling corrected by me from the, almost incomprehensible, BBC version):

It's what happened at the very beginning of the church's life. The church didn't simply blaze out into the Greco-Roman world saying "Here's the truth. You must believe it". They said, "Look -- this is what you say, and that's very interesting as it echoes with what we say; and, if we talk this through, you might find that what you're saying has a much fuller expression in what we're saying."

If this is Williams's view of relations between Christians and pagans (or, should we less prejudicially say "polytheists"?), then he's been reading a different selection of early Christians texts from me. There may be some parts of high-minded Christian philosophy that see things in these terms. And St Augustine certainly had a soft spot from classical Roman learning (especially Cicero). But most of the surviving tracts purvey a mixture of horrified outrage (at such ideas of animal sacrifice to the Roman emperor) and knockabout ridicule (of, for example, the goings-on of the various immoral gods and goddesses).

He must have read them - so has he simply forgotten the writings of that hard-line Chriistian ideologue Tertullian, who certainly had no truck with any part of traditional paganism? And has he forgotten the rather more appealing Minucius Felix, who tells a whole series of jokes about just how stupid is the idea of a multitude of gods in human form? And what about the pagan reaction to all this. Even if it wasn't as continuous a persecution as we often imagine, some Christians really did end up with the lions.

The touchy-feely view of Greco-Roman ecumenism has, I am afraid, more to do with the generous, academic tolerance of the Archbishop himself, than with anything thought or practised by the motley crew of fundamentalist early Christians and what some Romans saw as an ancient Jihad.