Modernity vs. Christianity
Today I saw the following quote on a news article from a Christian pastor I greatly admire.
“As the country has become more polarized the church has become more polarized, and that’s because the church is not different enough from America or from modernity. There’s now a red and blue evangelicalism.” ~ @timkellernyc at evangelical consultation
The part in this quote that really jumped out at me is where he says the church is not different enough from America or from modernity. As a Bible believing pastor I think I understand and appreciate where he is coming from. Christians who really believe the authority of the Bible and legitimacy of their faith and its subsequent practice, would rightly conclude that much of the Christian world is not interested in following the Bible and two big reasons for this could be argued as being America and modernity.
Unless I am mistaken, America in this context is not geographical, but refers to the United States in a shared cultural and identifying sense. Though we don’t think about it as Americans, the influence that America has on Americans culturally and in terms of tribal identity is so profound, though for the most part it goes unnoticed. Many of us are deeply patriotic and have a strong emotional connection to my country, to my flag and to what I consider are American values. It doesn’t stop there though.
The definition of what America is to the American extends beyond standing for the pledge of allegiance. It includes legal and illegal immigration, pop culture, geographical location as well as demographics and definitions of what it means to be American within carious tribal groups.
For example, if you are from the metropolitan east coast and you travel down to somewhere like west Texas (off the interstate), the cultural differences and influences are so different so as to (I suspect) make someone who grew up in the city think they are in a completely different country. This isn’t even taking into account the Indian reservations, particularly the Navajo reservation east of the Grand Canyon which add another complex layer and perspective to the kaleidoscope of what America is and what it means to be American.
I think Tim Keller in the quote though is speaking in a general sense in terms of tribalism. Tribalism exists in all these different segments of society though they all look profoundly different and share different values.
So what I get from this quote is that he is saying that the church should not be tribal. In other words, the church should be finding its identity and consequentially standing up for something besides its own specific tribe that it finds itself a part of.
Tim Keller I believe would say he is suggesting or implying that Christians should find their identity in Christ alone and defend and live for him supremely instead of our individual groups and tribes and their respective agendas. He didn’t just say America though. He also included modernity.
If you aren’t familiar with modernity, I find the easiest way of identifying it as being in relation to science. The part of modernity that I believe Keller was concerned with in his statement implies a shift in dependence away from the supernatural and superstitious and toward a system of science that explains the world through natural phenomena. For example, in the middle ages, people would say “bless you” when you sneezed because there was a superstition that a sneeze was an evil spirit leaving one’s body. That was their way of explaining phenomena in the world they encountered and when science came along, it began to gradually take the place of superstition and now, some would argue it is attempting to take the place of belief in the supernatural altogether.
Modernity defines us as highly complex, evolved ape creatures which are scientifically ultimately no more significant (that is a loaded word) than any other species except that we happen to have won the evolutionary lottery at least on our own planet. Modernity is, by default due to naturalism, ambivalent to God. Not for or against God, but simply offering no comment, except perhaps in areas where particulars of faith and science arguably contradict each other.
Again, I think Tim Keller as a Christian would have us identify with Christ and thereby see ourselves as far more than simply evolved ape like creatures. He makes a valid point in this regard as well because, if we accept modernity supremely as the defining guide of who we are as human beings, we have no basis for belief in any meaning, purpose or morality that exists outside, objective and apart from ourselves.
Evolutionary psychologists who are pure naturalists claim that God is a human construct invented in the subconscious mind of the man in order to compensate for the negative existential effects of the development of the frontal cortex portion of the human brain that allows us to perceive the future and therefore our own demise.
I agree that this is an untenable position because it calls the dependability of rational thought itself into question which coincidentally is a good argument for the rise of the cancer of postmodernism. I have trouble however simply dismissing modernism as a guiding force in understanding, simply because of the knowledge and insight modernism has given to us of the world around us.
Modernism, unlike America or tribalism, doesn’t offer or claim to offer any real meaningfulness to existence, and the threat of the rise of tribalism within modernism doesn’t sound very threatening due the nature of science itself. Certainly there are those who want to use modernism to advance a philosophical position, but in terms of modernism as it relates to scientific progress, I see no reason people of faith should divorce or distance themselves from that world. On the contrary, Christianity should be a grounding center of meaning within the world of modernity.
Through a Glass Darkly
Paul in 1st Corinthians 13 quoted a poet of the time when he said “now we see through a glass darkly.” In context and summarizing he was saying our understanding is limited in this world and that love is superior to what we can know. I think most of the modern world can agree with this sentiment in the broadest sense. The problem arises though when we struggle with how to best love each other. In other words, our knowledge base directly informs us on what might or might not be the best way to love our neighbor. Paul suggested following one’s own conscious and that is still probably the best advice we can hope to achieve in the matter. This primarily only helps in matters of personal conscience.
Take global warming for an example. Set aside whatever your position is on the matter and you will find that people on both sides of the issue can hold reasonable, honest views on the matter. That doesn’t mean however that both views are equally valid. Those who rely on modernity constructs to answer the global warming question are likely to come up with a different conclusion than those who rely on premodern constructs.
This is the underlying problem we face. Even though as an individual I can rely on my personal conscience to lead me in matters where I am uncertain, there is inevitable tension and division in any group or relationship where values, reasoning and logic are not all shared.
Christians have been divided over many issues in the past 2000 years and the issues that serve to divide us have only multiplied. Of all the issues I struggle with, modernity is the one that looms the most threatening, if not to my faith, certainly my sense of belonging in the faith.
Modernity vs. Christianity
The life I grew in was steeped in a Biblical understanding of the world. For the better part of my life, my essential basis for understanding the world remained with a Biblical world view with hardly a second thought concerning science and modernity. Over the past ten years however I experienced a crisis of faith that led me on a journey of questions that led to more questions and uncertainty that led to more uncertainty.
My struggle can probably be boiled down to the struggle between modernity and Christianity in how to view, both my own life, the life of my family and the world around me. The more I have learned, the more I am convinced that modernity holds the most wealth of understanding human nature, particularly from an evolutionary standpoint.
At the same time though, the central core doctrine of the Christian faith, the redemptive narrative that reveals God’s love and grace to humanity, from my understanding of world religions, philosophy, history and human existence as a whole, stands in a category all its own. Despite my efforts to be as objective as I could perceive myself to be, I will readily admit this could be subconscious confirmation bias or perception bias, but as best I can tell, there is no other person I find anywhere as close to as satisfying as Jesus of Nazareth.
So then, I find myself in the unique position of continually letting go of, what I would call the more religious aspects of Christian living, service and practice though not convictions of conscience, while at the same time letting go and allowing my dependency on Jesus’ life and death on my behalf for my identity and meaning to settle ever deeper into my soul.
Some would say this means I have lost my salvation. For me this is the very essence of what it means to have trusting faith. I am not suggesting that anyone follow me down this path, or even that I am correct it taking it. I am saying that I, like so many, struggle reconciling traditional understandings with modern science and find myself outside the mainstream of religion as a consequence.
So then, as for modernity vs. Christianity, it isn’t an either or for me, it is both and, until a better understanding of the world presents itself to me that I find more compelling and convincing.