One of my favorite stories I have shared with children is about Martin the Cobbler. He is the central character in Leo Tolstoy’s classic called “Where Love Is”. Martin, because of some very difficult situations in his life, has denied God. But through a visit of a missionary and a dream he believes God will visit him. It’s an endearing story about a tenderhearted man who shows kindness to others. He keeps looking for God, but thinks God did not show up. When he sees another vision in which each person he helped was a visit for God, his heart is changed. It comes out that Martin is not an unbeliever after all. God showed up in acts of love expressed while he was looking for God.
There have been many philosophic movements that have attempted to replace God and religion as the primary social imaginary of society. While not claiming to be atheistic, they have attempted to replace religion. Terry Eagleton in his book Culture and the Death of God traces the history of philosophic movements that attempt to replace God and religion with reason, nature, desire, culture etc. It seems when God is eliminated something arises to take his place. He states, “Whenever the Almighty seems safely dispatched, he is always liable stage a reappearance in one disguise of another.” (119) So with Martin the Cobbler, so it is with us. Like Martin, philosophies are mostly a reaction to disquieting circumstances in life. In the few conversations I have had with atheists, they seemed to be arguing in reaction to religion, not making arguments for atheism. They had disappointments with Christians, found religion oppressive or could not reconcile evil with a good God. They found atheism a convenient substitute. But all created substitutes for God fall short. They would not help Martin the Cobbler.
Rationalism falls short. Rationalist reacted to the controlling influences of a priestly order and the idea of the miraculous. But the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment offers nothing in replacement of religion. Rationality reduced to cause and effect did not provide meaning and no basis for forming values. What rationalist cannot explain, Eagleton shows, is why it is good to follow the decrees of reason. When religious faith capitulates to reason it reduces itself to a list of propositions, but no basis for meaning beyond them. Martin would not find a good substitute for God here.
Idealists fall short. They try to bring together the transcendent and immanent in culture. They make culture God. Art and aesthetics take the place of worship. The poet takes the place of the priest and art the place of religions rites. (61) The progressive capitalism of the Enlightenment did not offer the symbolic unifying strength of religion. The Idealists offers to bring together the aesthetic and reason. But the positivism of the Enlightenment falls short of dealing with the tragic. It did not see the limits of a positivistic outlook. It does not deal with hardship well. Martin needed something to deal with the tragedy of life. Idealism would leave him empty.
Romanticism falls short. It sought to break free of systematic reasoning. In reaction to reason, romantic focused on the affections. They sought the organic as alternative to mechanistic reason. (114) Romantics challenged the rationalist view of nature as only something to be used. They found “God” in nature and the aesthetic in art. But Eagleton shows that this view cannot make social change happen. He says, “There is a tension in Romantic thought between an urge to spurn the world and a desire to transform it.” (118) Martin the cobbler might find a home here for Romanticism’s esteem for the affective realm. But it offered no real solutions. Eagleton declares that it did not change political powers but merely supplanted them. (116) Tolstoy was a realist, not a romanticist. Martin would not find help here either.
Postmodernity falls short. This Eagleton shows comes closest to eliminating God. Postmodernists may not be against religion, they just don’t find it important. As Eagleton states, “Societies become secular not when religion is eliminated but when they are no longer agitated by it.” (1) What Postmodernity does do that modernism did not is accept suffering. It is not something to transcend but embraced. Martin knows suffering. Will he find hope here? But Postmodernity has no stable identity. For Eagleton, Postmodernity falls short in that convictions and belief are held lightly. They are like commodities to be used and discarded as needed. He states, “the faithlessness of advanced capitalism is built into its routine practices.” (197) Now the priest is the celebrity and religious symbols are commodities. This is a form of atheism. But it offers no hope for Martin.
No philosophic movement has adequately replaced religion. They have replaced God with humanity and humanity has shone itself inadequate to the task. Eagleton asserts that, “No symbolic form in history has been able to replace religion’s ability to link the most exalted of truths to the daily existence of countless men and women.” (122) Christianity finds its hope in the God who embraced suffering, a God who was willing to show love to common humanity. Eagleton’s solution is a return to orthodoxy Christianity, “The Incarnation is the place where both God and man undergo a kind of kenosis…only through this tragic self-emptying can anew humanity hope to emerge.” (159)
Was modernity in its rationalistic, idealistic and romantic expression a search for the hearts of people when they did not see it in the church? Is Postmodernity a search for the hearts of people because modernity failed to produce a better society? Can we the church return to fresh expressions that will show how people can flourish in a way that is both and immanent and transcendent? The most important question is “Can Martin find God in the church as the church expresses God in the world?”