Well, this is the last blog I will write for my George Fox Seminary Doctor of Ministry program, so I thought it could be a bit of a summation of a couple years of study strained through this week’s reading of Terry Eagleton’s (Culture and the Death of God) witty take down of modern Western society’s blind cultural collapse into atheism. Eagleton’s thesis is that secularization began unwittingly with the Enlightenment experience to elevate reason, but not at the expense of God, over and against the abuses of organized clerical religion. In a sense, it was more following the Reformation, than any real attempt at imposing atheism. In fact, Eagleton argues that humanity needs God and religion to give it meaning, purpose, a wellspring of morality, and to avoid that deep emptiness of the black void. In short, we are designed for these things, and they naturally and effortlessly flow from the Divine. Idealism and Romanticism (within the modern schema) carried this further, attempting to supplant God with idealized values that could carry out our divine urges. Full-fledged modernism occurred with the folding of culture, the state, politics over into itself to become a monolith that would replace God. All of these worked under the elitist principle that the intelligentsia of the world could grasp the terrible reality that God no longer existed, but that the poor and foolish masses still needed something like God to keep them in place, motivated and away from the barricades. True atheism entered the world through Nietzsche and his warm, cuddly embrace of the black void and meaninglessness of his soul. The promises of modernism were hollow.
Eagleton ends up with the current postmodern situation (more influenced by the collapse of meaning), where God has been supplanted by culture, but culture supplanted by advertising, capitalism, vacuous entertainment, and consumerism. These are the new gods which the masses pray to and worship, all the while allowing for the further enrichment of the capitalist classes where the poor are crushed and reform is stifled. Where desire was once located in God, and controlled by morality, it is now located in the unending search for more, and controlled by the spending limits on our credit cards. Bauman and Giddens find that postmodern society is full of the same discontents. Eagleton alludes to the failure of community and flat out political interest in postmodernity, that possibly can only be retrieved when we actually live out radical Christianity… love your neighbor, love your enemy, serve the poor.
Thus, Eagleton’s assessment is bleak for the state of Western society, but seems to hold out hope in a more robust Christianity. It is hard to tell if Eagleton’s Christianity is just mere radical communism wrapped up in Jesus. As always, Eagleton holds his faith commitment cards close to his chest.
For Eagleton, Christianity is the way forward, a theology that tackles the major arcs of existence and has stood up remarkably well against the perpetual sticks and stones thrown at it. Here Eagleton seems to suggest that ideas, theology, philosophy, and ideology are important. Western Christianity seems to be in crisis, bounded by skepticism and bad news around every corner, depending on who you talk to the church in the West is either fracturing or slowly disappearing, or both.
I tend to be optimistic. It appears to me that the church is passing through a liminal phase where it must uncouple itself form the Christendom epoch. What will emerge and is emerging will be a church more committed and more prepared for the coming culture of the West, more focused on mission and evangelism to a culture which will look more like post collapse of Rome paganism and Christian cultural nominalism than 1950’s Leave it to Beaver. But, it means the church will pass through some difficult once again. Here are some key points for the future of the church in the West:
- Orthodox: The church must be centered in the historic creeds and faith of Christianity, and unashamedly so. We must resist the temptation to change not only structure and strategy but also essential theological tenets to make the faith more palpable to postmodern culture. Orthodox Christianity continues to prove historically robust, against the theological accommodation that classic Protestant liberalism bled itself to death with.
- Uncoupled: It is important that the church do some deep digging to think properly about its own cultural captivity to Western culture, consumerism, humanism, idealism, and postmodernism. This applies to both conservative and progressives who are both captivated by their own received modern and postmodern presuppositions that they have fashioned into their own ought faith. We must avoid the false binary straw men of “my way is Jesus and their way is cultural captivity” and instead ever strive to find how Jesus transforms culture.
- Faith: One of the great crisis of the Western Church is often how utterly bland and toothless it is becoming. We have become content to sit front row for the collapse of Christianity, munching on popcorn. Most things in the church have become easy and just part of a simple formulaic program. Rarely do we challenge people to great faith adventures, instead content to ask for the lowest level of commitment or effort, and if things get too difficult, we simply acquiesce.
- Missional: Faith leads to stepping out into the impossible and trusting God to show up. Missional follows through on this to lead us into the true call of the church… to fulfill the Mission of God that all will know him through Christ, and all will be healed and restored. The church is not an inward focused institution of bricks and mortar, it is an outward focused community that exists for mission: namely the Great Commission. The church will only regain its true form when it becomes its true self, and thus becomes missionary, sending and probing communities into new contexts.
- Comunitas: This is the essential ontological Trinitarian nature of the people of God. Unity in perfect diversity, pure love. But, also in a postmodern, liquid society it means that it stands against the fragmentation, isolation, and discontent of Western society.
- Holistic: The great error of American evangelicalism to reduce the gospel to personal salvation and experience was in reaction to the great error of liberal Protestantism to remove personal salvation from sin from the gospel, thus making the gospel all about social and justice issues. Both, gospels are mere shadows of the plan of God, and are less divided in other nations and faith expressions. Modern evangelicalism will need to recover the true holistic gospel, and not divide evangelism from service, nor the Great Commission from the Great Commandment. They must be seen as essential, and part and parcel to each other.