Lausanne Occasional Paper 27
© Lausanne Committee 1996
Three basic contexts of Christian mission have been identified in today’s world. These are secularised peoples, resistant peoples and responsive peoples. (‘Living Word for a Dying World’ Consultation, Forum of Bible Agencies, De Bron, Netherlands, April 1994.)
It is widely acknowledged that the first context – located in western countries and among westernised elites in the two-thirds world – has been to a large extent determined by the thought processes described by the words ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity’.
In The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness argues that by facilitating the development of science and technology in the west, the Christian world view made possible the emergence of the modern world, but that consequently Christianity was subverted by the culture which it helped to create.
Lesslie Newbigin has called western churches to embark on a long-term mission to their culture. This book is designed to be a tool for this missionary task. For this reason it suggests ways forward as well as offering analyses. And we hope the inclusion of questions for study groups will help to earth this mission in the grass roots life of the churches.
The core of the book is Bishop John Reid’s summary of the Uppsala Consultation on Modernity (June 1993). A fuller account is found in Faith and Modernity, edited by Vinay Samuel and published by Regnum Books, Oxford, England. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin – who presented one of the papers at Uppsala – kindly agreed to write a general introduction. David Pullinger, Electronic Publisher for ‘Nature’ Magazine – although he was not at Uppsala – very readily responded to an invitation to give examples of how a Christian apologetic might tackle the modern/postmodern issues raised at the Consultation.
This is the first Lausanne Occasional Paper produced since the Lausanne Committee was re-structured in February 1994. It is published with the earnest prayer that it may inspire and equip Christians to evangelize secularised people in a meaningful and effective way.
Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization Edinburgh, June 1996
In the following chapter, Bishop John Reid has drawn together some of the main insights of the conference on ‘Faith and Modernity’ convened by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation in Uppsala, Sweden in the Summer of 1994. The full report of the papers given at that meeting deserves wide circulation and study, and I hope that the present work will lead readers to study the full report. As one of the participants said, ‘Modernity is perhaps the most serious challenge which Christianity has so far faced in its two thousand year history and it is urgently necessary that we understand it and how to respond to it’.
Perhaps the best way to say what we mean by the word ‘modernity’ and to identify its characteristic features is to look at it from the point of view of those societies for whom ‘modernisation’ is the contemporary programme. All over Africa, Asia and the Islands of the Pacific there are societies seeking to achieve ‘modernisation’, which is the replacement of traditional ways of thinking and of organising economic and political life by the ways developed in Western Europe and North America during the past two or three centuries. And it is also easy to see that Christian missionaries, by introducing western styles of education, medical care, agriculture and industry, have been among the main agents of world-wide modernisation. Modernity, in other words, is not an enemy that has attacked Christendom from without; it is a development within Christendom which we have exported to the rest of the world. If, as we must, we now recognise it as an enemy, we must search our own history to find out where we took a wrong turn. It also means that Christians of the western world have a special responsibility in this regard.
It is common among students of the history of ideas to date the rise of modernity from that century which called itself the ‘Age of Reason’. (1) Here ‘reason’ was invoked as a contrast to ‘tradition’ and ‘revelation’. To understand the power of this appeal to ‘reason’, one must remember two things. One is the memory of the religious wars of the 17th century. For most of that century Europe had been soaked in the blood of Christians fighting each other in the name of divine revelation understood through different traditions. There was a deep revulsion from the fanaticism and intolerance of those who claimed to be representing God. The other new fact was the birth and development of the new science and of what seemed to be a more reliable avenue to truth than those offered by the warring factions of Christianity.
But, of course, Christians had been making use of reason long before the ‘Age of Reason’ had dawned. Nothing could be more rigorously rational than the arguments of the Scholastic theologians of the late Middle Ages. Karl Barth (1886-1968 AD), the theologian of modern times who has most powerfully asserted the priority of divine revelation, was asked by a student: ‘What is your attitude to reason?’. He replied: ‘I use it’. Reason is not an independent source of information about what is the case; it is a faculty by which we seek to ‘make sense’ of all the information with which we are challenged through our sense and through what we learn from others. (2) The point at issue is not whether we use our reason but how we use it. Here two things have to be said in respect of the two things against which these first ‘moderns’ pitted the authority of reason – namely tradition and revelation.
1. There is no possibility of knowing anything without apprenticeship to a tradition. (3) This tradition in its primary form is embodied in the language we learn from our parents, family and neighbours. It is carried on through our schooling into the history and literature of our people. We learn to use and to internalise the concepts, metaphors, stories, which this language conveys to us. All our learning to know comes through apprenticeship to such a tradition. Above all, – science – the jewel in the crown of modernity – has developed through a continuing cherishing and developing of a tradition, carefully guarding it against ideas and innovations which do not qualify as ‘real science’. No one earns accreditation as a scientist without a very long and arduous apprenticeship to the tradition. Thus, as in every branch of human knowing, reason can function only within a tradition.
2. The second matter is the relation of reason to revelation. One way to approach this is as follows. We know in practice that reason operates on different logical levels. (4) At the level of mechanics reason will enable us to understand how a machine works, how its different parts bear on each other. Reason operating at this level will enable us to explain the breakdown of a machine. But it can never enable us to understand the purpose for which the machine has been designed. That question takes us to a different logical level. We shall either have to ask the designer, or to ask someone who, having been instructed by the designer, knows how to use the machine.
Reflection will show that the same differentiation of logical level applies – for example – at the boundaries between physics and chemistry, or between chemistry and biology. A neuro surgeon uses his reason in examining and analysing the way in which the brain works, but no refinements of this art would enable a surgeon by these methods to discover what the person is thinking. That involves moving to a different logical level. When the patient has been removed from the operating table, the surgeon will have to sit down with the patient and the latter will have to – as we say – open his mind and explain his thoughts. The surgeon – now a listener – is still using his reason but in a different way. To suppose that the former way is the only proper one would be absurd.
I pointed out earlier that modernity, which poses such a threat to Christianity, arose out of Christendom itself. In the light of what I have just said, however, it might be replied that modernity arose out of the failure of Christianity, out of the collapse of Christendom in the religious wars of the 17th century.
That is part of the truth, but it must also be said that modern science, which for the time seemed to offer an alternative to Christianity as an avenue to truth, was itself a distinctive product of Christianity. Historians of science have had to ask the question: why did modern science develop in western Christendom and not the cultures of ancient Greece, Egypt, India or Mesopotamia, in spite of the brilliant achievements of these latter civilisations in the fields of mathematics and astronomy?
In seeking to answer this question, attention has been drawn to the debates which took place in Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries between Christian theologians and the scientists of the time. In direct opposition to Aristotelian philosophy, the Christian thinkers took as their starting point the witness of Scripture, and on that basis laid down certain fundamental ideas. Among these ideas were:
(1) Because the cosmos is the creation of a rational God who also made human beings in his own image, it follows that the cosmos is comprehensible by rational human thought.
(2) Since the cosmos is a creation and not an emanation from God, it therefore has a relative autonomy and, so it follows, its nature must be discovered by inductive observation of empirical facts and not simply by deduction form ultimate, a priori principles.
(3) Since both the earth and the heavenly bodies are creations of the one God, both earth and the heavenly bodies share the same nature. That is to say, the sun, moon and stars are not made of a substance different from the elements we know on earth, but are of the same kind. This, of course, was the issue on account of which Galileo was condemned by a Church magisterium which, meanwhile, had reverted to Aristotle (384-322 BC) as ‘the Philosopher’.
In the following centuries during which the Barbarians of western Europe were being slowly shaped into a new society governed by the biblical account of human nature and destiny, the science and mathematics of Greece and India were brilliantly developed in the Arab world ignited as it was by the message of ‘the Prophet’.
Nestorian Christians, who were the tutors of their Arab rulers, had translated the works of Aristotle, Ptolemy (367-285 BC), and Euclid (c.300 BC) into Arabic, as well as the works of Greek medical science, and these became an integral part of Islamic civilisation. Within a short space of time this brilliant civilisation had far outstripped the barbarian kingdoms of western Christendom in science, architecture, medicine and other forms of culture, as well as in military power. When the great Muslim commentaries on Aristotle were translated into Latin and became widely known within western Europe, the conflict between the Aristotelian way of understanding knowledge and the biblical way was re-opened in a way which was to shape all the subsequent centuries of thought in western Christendom.
At the risk of shocking over-simplification, one can say that whereas in the debates of the 5th century Christian theologians had taken the view that all our knowing must be shaped by the biblical revelation, St Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274 AD) in his massive re-statement of Christian theology recognised two modes of knowing. There are, he said, things which reason can know without the aid of divine revelation, things which may be offered to faith for acceptance. There are other things which can only be known by divine revelation accepted in faith. But, as Michael Buckley has shown, the bringing of ‘the Philosopher’ to defend the Christian faith had serious consequences. (6) If we depend upon philosophy for our ultimate beliefs, the arguments of the philosophers must be invulnerable, and they are not.
There followed the growing scepticism which was eventually to lead to Descartes’ (1596-1650 AD) undertaking to develop a method of thought which would lead to absolute certitude. Crucial to his method were:
(a) the mind of the thinker as an indubitable starting point;
(b) mathematics as a way of thinking which embodies absolute clarity and certainty; and
(c) the ‘critical principle’ as the tool by which all claims to truth (and of course particularly truth claims in the name of divine revelation or tradition) were to be tested. This led in turn to the triumphant positivism of the 19th century with its central belief in ‘objective facts’ which exist in a sphere above mere human belief or opinion, ‘facts’ which exist in a realm disinfected by all human subjectivity. While, for example, truth claims in the area of religion will be introduced by some such phrase as ‘we believe’, truth claims in the areas of science have no such preface. They have no sign of personal responsibility affixed to them. They are simply ‘the facts’ – even though we know that in the text books published twenty years after, the ‘facts’ will be other.
And now this confidence has collapsed into what we are learning to call ‘post-modernity’. There are no ‘eternal truths’ of the kind celebrated in the ‘Age of Reason’. There are no ‘meta narratives’. There is no meaning in what we encounter, whether in a written text or in contemporary events. Meaning is what we choose to provide. The prophet of the collapse was Friederich Nietzsche (1884-1900 AD) who recognised that the critical principle must eventually turn on itself and destroy any basis for the critical act. In his own memorable phrase, ‘We have wiped out the horizons’. There is nothing which is simply ‘given’. Each of us is alone in a world without given landmarks. We are as completely ‘free’ and as completely futile as an astronaut floating weightless in space with nothing to connect him to a space-craft.
Before trying to say something about Christian witness in this situation, let me pause to consider again part of the story which I have summarised. Two great civilisations have sprung from a mingling of Greek rationalism and biblical faith – Islam and Christendom. (7) These two occupy a unique place in world history. None of the other world religions make claims which embrace the whole world. Islam is both a missionary religion and a political empire stretching from the Atlantic coasts of Africa to the Pacific coasts and islands of South-east Asia. Christianity is present, though not as a political power, in every nation of the world. Both confront, though in different ways, the claims and challenges of modernity. Their mutual interaction, with many changes in the balance of power between them, has been of crucial importance for both.
What is germane to our present discussion is the difference between the ways in which these two religions have dealt with the duality of their roots – classical and biblical. At the centre of Christianity is a revelation of God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (Heb 1.1-2). From the beginning the crucifixion of the Saviour has been seen as a contradiction of the wisdom of a world which depends for its wisdom on the ‘rational’ interpretation of empirical facts. The relation between the Greek and biblical elements in the Christian tradition has therefore always been problematic. There have been times when it seemed that it could only be expressed in terms of sheer opposition – ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ asked Tertullian (160?-230? AD). At other times it has seemed as if biblical faith was so domesticated within Greek rationalism that the scandal of the cross had been covered up.
Islam, by contrast, denies both the cross and resurrection. The Jesus of the Qur’an goes straight from the Virgin birth to the Ascension. Allah’s perfect will triumphs without such an unthinkable humiliation as the cross. There is no doctrine of original sin and therefore no doctrine of the atonement. God is sheer, transcendent power. Revelation is therefore a matter of communication and does not involve the agony of reconciliation. And this way of understanding revelation fits much more comfortably into the Aristotelian rationalism which Islam embraced than does the Christian understanding which makes salvation a matter of grace and faith, rather than (primarily) a matter of information and submission.
This difference between two ways of understanding divine revelation is at the heart of the difference between Islam and Christianity, and helps to explain the fact that Greek rationalism could be absorbed so completely into Islamic theology while for Christians it has created such tension and conflict.
The matter may be illuminated by returning to my earlier delineation of different logical levels. The neuro -surgeon does not depend on grace and faith for his confidence. He depends on the proved efficacy of his methods of analysis and observation which he is always seeking to improve. His confidence is in the adequacy of his cognitive methods. By contrast, the friend talking with his friend depends on the gracious willingness of the other to open her mind and reveal her thoughts. If he has at the back of his mind the thought that he needs to verify what he is being told by seeking independent ‘third party’ corroboration, the mutual understanding is not likely to develop. This kind of knowing works through grace and faith. It is only in this way that the true inter-personal knowledge and understanding comes about. As has often been noted, the positivism of 19th century modernism was a massive attempt at wholesale reductionism, an attempt to account for everything at the lowest possible logical level. The final result can only be absurdity.
From this point of view the mistake of Descartes becomes clear. It is not only that he pictured the human mind as though it were a disembodied eye looking at the cosmos from a god-like vantage point outside it (sub specie aeternitatis), but posing an ideal of ‘objectivity’ which is illusory. It is also that – from a Christian point of view – the proposal to offer a proof of the existence of God which by-passes God’s own self-revelation in Jesus Christ, seems to be incompatible with epistemological implications of our Christian understanding of our creaturely existence before God (sub specie temporis). (8) If practised in the context of human interpersonal relationships, it would terminate any incipient mutual understanding with immediate effect.
In spite of its erosion by the growing movement of ‘deconstruction’ among intellectuals in the ‘developed’ societies, Modernism is still the major challenge which the world faces, primarily because it is embodied in the global economic-financial-industrial system which is now more powerful than even the most powerful nation-states and which is rapidly engulfing traditional societies and their ‘autonomous economies’ into its mindless operations. Islam is making its own response to this at many levels – political, economic and intellectual. How are we as Christians to respond?
It is helpful, though perhaps too facile, to position oneself in the face of this question by looking at typical responses made so far by different groups of Christians. If I am doing this in such broad terms that those who represent these responses feel they are being caricatured, I can only ask pardon and plead the limitations of a brief essay.
The characteristic Liberal response has been to accept the main thrust of modernity and to seek to interpret the Gospel in such a way that it can be accepted by ‘modern’ people. One must not fail to acknowledge the genuinely evangelical motive in this concern. There has been a genuine and surely worthy desire that ‘modern’ people should come to know Jesus in their personal lives. But in this effort, essential questions of truth have been evaded. The truth- claims of modernity, its apparently obvious axioms and assumptions have been too widespread to be challenged. Liberals have tried to show how the Gospel can ‘make sense’ for modern people, when they should have rather tried to show that without the Gospel the world ultimately makes no sense at all.
To their credit, Liberals have been foremost in challenging the dehumanising consequences of modernity as embodied in the dominant global system of free-market capitalism and have produced works of great intellectual power to demonstrate the incompatibility of this system with biblical faith. (9)
A common response in Roman and some Anglo Catholic circles has been to re-state the Thomistic synthesis of Greek thought with biblical faith and to seek through a re-stated natural theology to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith. This has certainly not been without value in enabling many to embrace the Christian faith who might otherwise have been lost. Its weakness becomes clearly exposed when the ‘post- modernists’ reject the supposedly secure foundations on which ‘natural theology’ rested. And, as it seems to me, this tradition has never been able to face with sufficient seriousness the reality of sin and the necessity of the atonement. I am not suggesting that this was absent, but its full implications were not sufficiently acknowledged.
Among those who would identify themselves as ‘Conservative Evangelicals’ – sometimes including ‘Fundamentalists’ – the response to modernity has been an emphatic affirmation of the truth-claims of the Gospel. Conservatives have been ready, unlike most Liberals, to say bluntly that modernism is wrong at crucial points. There seems to me, however, to be a danger that the Conservative may be colluding with the Liberal in one point: both may be taking over a ‘modern’ way of understanding truth-claims.
The challenge for Conservatives is to think through the way they articulate the inspiration and authority of Scripture in such a manner that it follows the teaching and thought pattern of Scripture itself, and not the rationalism of someone like Descartes. The Bible is not written as a collection of incorrigible certainties, for it contains much internal self-correction. It is from the Bible itself that we must learn the way in which God speaks his word and this is in a way very different from – for example – the statements in a scientific text book.
Some Protestant theologians have developed a kind of natural theology which claims to provide conclusive logical proof for the affirmations which we make when we say the creed in church. It seems then as if our ultimate ground for confidence is not God’s living Word – Jesus Christ – but a series of philosophical statements whose reliability depends upon the capacity of our minds to reason correctly. It is also unfortunate that, in some of its most prominent expressions, such as the ‘religious right’ in the United States of America, ‘fundamentalism’ is linked to an unquestioning acceptance of the free market system with its global dominance, and of the individualism which it embodies.
How do we develop an adequate response to the challenge of modernity? I refer again to the Uppsala volume which anyone who is trying to answer this question should certainly read. And as Os Guinness has powerfully reminded us, we must learn to think, to put away any lingering idea of evangelical faith which does not also require disciplined thinking. (10) In what I have said in this essay about the primacy of grace and faith, I do not want to under-state the necessity of hard, critical thinking. As will already be clear, I do not think the future lies with the concept of ‘apologetics’ which supposes that we can validate the truth claims of the Gospel by relying on the findings of philosophy. That was, surely, the flaw in the work of Aquinas, as Buckley has so powerfully demonstrated.
There are, however, forms of apologetic which are always valuable. One is the critical analysis of the assumptions of modernity. There are assumptions which are so generally held by everyone we meet that it seems almost unthinkable to question them. But many of them can be shown to be quite irrational – such as the assumption that it is impossible to know the reality behind appearances, that all truth claims are ‘just what you think’, and that all the great religions are different paths to the same goal. This negative critique has an important place. There is also the positive task of showing by illustration how the Gospel illuminates the whole human situation, making better sense of that which, on any other view of the world, makes no sense. (11)
These and other forms of apologetic have a real value. But at the end of the day our task is to set forth the Lord Jesus Christ himself, clothed in his Gospel. The only response that matters in the end is the response of adoring and obedient faith to his gift and his calling. There is nothing higher, more universal or more reliable that we could dare to propose as ‘proof’ of his right to our love and obedience. As Bishop Reid says in this booklet, one of the dangerous features of modernity is the separation of truth claims from personal responsibility. We are responsible before God to believe and love the truth when it is offered to us. We cannot side-step that personal responsibility by appealing to the authority of some disinterested, ‘disengaged’ observer, who in the manner of Descartes, claims possession of ‘pure objectivity’. All human beings are called by God to seek the truth and to recognise and obey it. This call comes in the name of Jesus addressed to each of us personally: ‘Follow me’. At this point we are not allowed, like Peter, to look round and ask whether we have to go alone or whether we will be supported (John 21.18-23). The call requires a personal response.
That is the call we have to address to every human being. It must come as a call of grace and love, evoking the response of faith. And the call will be credible when it comes from the heart of a Christian congregation which is confident in the Gospel, believes it, celebrates it, lives it and carries it into the whole life of the community in which it is set.
REFERENCES TO CHAPTER 1
(1) For an excellent treatment of this period, see Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation – The rise of Modern Paganism New York & London: W W Norton & Co, 1966).
(2) This is not a new insight. The theologians of 17th century Protestant orthodoxy saw this clearly, though – as we will see – there was less clarity about the indispensability of a tradition as the cognitive environment in which critical reason actually functions. See, for example the catena of quotations in Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. from German and Latin by Charles Hay and Henry Jacobs (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1899), pp 29-38.
(3) For my thoughts on this subject, I am indebted to Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958 & 1962).
(4) Again, for the idea of different logical levels, see Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).
(5) On revelation as a personal self-disclosure, see Austin Farrer, “Revelation,” in Basil Mitchell, ed. Faith and Logic: Oxford Essays in Philosophical Theology (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1957), pp 85; also William J Abraham, “Revelation” in Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall mc, 1985), pp 165-178.
(6) Michael Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987).
(7) Though it is certainly the case that Islam does not represent an adequate understanding of the biblical tradition. For this reason Islam was at first considered by Christians to be a Christian heresy. Moreover, source critical work being done on the Qur’an is proving to be very illuminating as regarding heretical Jewish and Christian sources incorporated in the Muslim holy book.
(8) The counsel of Ecclesiastes 5.2 seems apposite at this point: “God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few”.
(9) See, for example, William Temple, Christianity and Social Order (London: Penguin Books, 1942; and R.H. Tawney, The Acquisitive Society (London: G Bell & Go, 1927); Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (London: John Murray, 1926). Though by no means a theological Liberal, the more recent work of Jim Wallis continues to address these concerns from an avowedly Evangelical perspective.
(10) For a fine example of the result of such hard, critical thinking cast into a popular format, Os Guinness’ “Mission Modernity: Seven Checkpoints on Mission in the Modern World” in Sampson, Samuel and Sugden, eds., Faith and Modernity, (Oxford: Regnum Books, 1994), pp 322-352; and The Gravedigger File: Secret Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983).
(11) The kind of apologetics I have in mind might be represented by some of Reinhold Neibuhr’s work. While I might want to qualify some of his statements, the overall approach is right. His 1939 Gifford Lectures critiques the presuppositions of the thought of modernity from an avowedly (Augustinian-existentialist) Christian standpoint. See The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation (London: Nisbet & Co, 1941), especially vol. 1.
Today many of the lofty ideals of the countries of Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand are disintegrating. There is left an emptiness which did not previously mark those regions of the world. This disquiet is widespread in the culture and the churches are not immune. While creeds are still said, and people still attend church, God is seen to be increasingly irrelevant. In trying to understand the times in which they live, the churches are becoming aware that they are facing a pervasive and powerful world view which challenges the very truths they believe are fundamental to life and faith.
This world view is modernity. It comes from the Latin word modo which means ‘just now’. There was a conviction in the 17th century at the time of the French Enlightenment that something wonderfully new had been discovered. Because this way of looking at reality was new and fresh, it was assumed that it must be superior to anything which preceded it. The thinking of the French Enlightenment appeared to liberate minds which were enslaved to traditions, to churches and to sacred books.
It is not easy to give a satisfactory description of modernity. It is a widespread movement which began in Europe, extended to North America and then reached many parts of the world. It is a movement whose progress can be monitored. It is a mode of social life which can be described and it is a world view which can be examined. Yet the features of modernity can often be found in societies which have been relatively free from the influence of Western culture. In this case what is new is the intensity which the adherents of modernity display when they are compared to traditional societies.
Modernity is a movement. It is a way of looking at the world. It is not simply a set of propositions. It is an amalgam of intellectual ideas with social forces. The social forces are numerous, foremost among them being capitalism, urbanization, technology and telecommunications. The ideas are also numerous: the key ones are – universal claims for reason and rationality, the differentiation of life into public and private spheres and the privatization of truth.
The ideas had their origin in the writings of men in the 15th and 16th centuries. Such men were Copernicus, Bacon and Galileo. However, a Frenchman, Rene Descartes, in 1637 stated Cognito ergo sum. This pithy statement gave expression to the spirit which has been at the heart of modernity. ‘I think therefore I am’ affirms the primacy of human reason. Previously in countries with a Christian culture, reason was thought of as a divine endowment; as such it was to be exercised in accordance with the purposes of the one who gave it. Now reason was seen to be derived from the order of nature and did not need the instruction which comes from the Bible or tradition.
Reason was supreme, and the whole earth was subject to its mastery. Over time, two other things changed:
(a) Purpose ceased to have its traditional place. The question ‘By whom did this come into being and for what purpose did it come into being?’ was dropped in favour of descriptions of cause and effect. For instance, conception, birth, illness and death were now considered only as biological processes. Mystery evaporated.
(b) A belief in ‘progress’ developed. Evolutionary progress which was fundamental to a study of biology was now applied to the movement of simple societies to a so-called Western style society. Progress was thought to be inevitable as reason triumphed over superstition, tradition and religion.
The supremacy of human reason is at the heart of modernity. It produced a rationality which is limited to the senses. This rationality explains the world and mastery over the world comes through rational controls, so that rain can be produced or wheat can be developed which is drought resistant. This world view has had its many triumphs. It has wonderfully placed a man on the moon. It has transplanted human hearts. It embodies the expectation that, with time, nothing is insuperable. Over a period of time, it became clear that there was an insignificant place given for God or Christ or the Bible. They were seen to be more or less unnecessary and irrelevant.
The second identifiable idea within modernity was the view that life can be successfully divided into private and public sections. Traditional societies had an integration of all aspects of life. People worked, ate, slept and amused themselves within the same locality. There was no significant geographical cleavage between these activities. However, the growth of large cities has changed all that, and we often hear of suburbs being described as dormitory suburbs. Work and home are geographically distinct. Science, economics, engineering, manufacture, commerce and education belong to a world which can be explored, examined and controlled. It is a world produced by the achievements of human reason. It is a public world. Then there is the world of home and friends and church. This is the private world. The public world is said to be the place of highly rational activity while the private world is said to be the place where emotions and intimacy are encouraged. This means that it is possible to operate in these two departments of life with different (and perhaps competing) moral values.
An extreme example would be the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz. After supervising the extermination of hundreds of people, including children, in gas chambers which were said to be a marvel of engineering skill, he would go home and relax by playing with his own children. He moved between two divisions of life where different values operated. Modernity differentiates life into public and private arenas. Religion has not necessarily been abolished. It has been put out of the public realm and given space in the private realm.
The third powerful idea within modernity is the assertion that truth is privatised. What is universal is the mastery and supremacy of reason and rationality. There are no eternal truths by which men and women, individually or collectively, stand or fall. Both modern communication, as well as the large movements of people all over the world, have meant many people are now exposed to different customs, world views and religious faiths. For many people in so-called Christian countries, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have ceased to be distant religions. Their adherents are our neighbours. Their mosques and temples are often side by side with places for Christian worship. Social cohesion requires ‘multiculturalism’, and this is most easily secured if the legitimacy of all religions is affirmed – even if their bases of belief are mutually exclusive. This tolerance is superficially attractive, but at the heart of it is an indifference to the claims of truth. The advocacy of pluralism is very often made by the media and, in so doing, the view put forward is that truth is a preference or a value in the private realm of life. In fact, modernity privatises truth and in doing so denies it. People, it is said, are to be free from absolutes.
Modernity cannot be explained simply in terms of ideas about reason, truth and the division of life. Powerful social forces including capitalism, urbanization, technology and telecommunications, interact with the philosophical ideas.
Capitalism claims to be a triumph of rationality. It claims to be the application of science to the production of goods. It carries modernity. It is not culturally neutral. For instance, communities may be destroyed or undermined in the quest for efficiency and productivity and often, by the nature and scale of the capitalist enterprise, the spirit of community is eroded and the division of life into public and private spheres is exacerbated.
Urbanization is a remarkable process in our modern world. Small cities are rapidly becoming bigger and big cities are becoming mega cities. In some countries over 90% of population now live in cities. While there may be benefits of one kind or another in a big city, it does mean that there is a struggle to create community among people. It sets the scene for the division of life into differing spheres, and it assists a retreat into anonymity and isolation rather than stimulating relationships. Nevertheless, the modern mega city is a testimony to the achievements of bureaucratic social organization. Travel, education and the provision of medical facilities have become great challenges to the skills of the planners. These large cities are not culturally neutral. They actually model a situation where relationships between people are increasingly depersonalised. It appears to be the norm for men and women to have superficial relationships. Consequently, instead of exploring counter truth claims among people with entirely different convictions, it is easier and apparently more acceptable to settle for superficial acceptance of every intellectual position.
Technology has transformed our lives. There are some of us who can recall what a big event it was when a refrigerator was brought into our homes. Now a refrigerator is just one of many objects which make life easier and more efficient. Everything has changed, nothing is permanent. Unlike the work of our ancestors who built tables and chairs to last for generations, present day objects have in-built obsoletism; so that it is usually cheaper to buy new goods than to have them repaired. Nothing is permanent. Technology has made life easier and, in many ways, better, but it powerfully promotes the notion that the good life is to be estimated in terms of the possessions we have.
Technology and telecommunication are both brilliant achievements, but neither is value free. Both are involved in the promotion of a popular culture. Programmes made in one country are soon screened all over the world. The print media and television promote pluralism as if there were no other competing views, and they promote scepticism of any world view which does not hold human reason to be supreme. Popular music has a prophetic role in promoting the new culture. It is not for nothing that Madonna wears her underclothes on the outside of her clothes. It is a symbol that everything is being turned inside out.
This interplay between ideas and social forces is complex but thorough. Whether at the university or TV studio, the values and attitudes of modernity shape the thought forms of all, and especially the young. The interweaving of the economic, political and cultural spheres means that modernity is pervasive and highly integrated as a world view. It exists as a way of life. No part of life is untouched by it.
Modernity, of course, has its critics. Such critics may be concerned with the breakdown of the community or the despoiling of the environment. In the religious communities, there are three discernible responses to modernity. For instance, in Hasidic Judaism, Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, the motive is active disengagement with the world around about. There has been the response of withdrawal. There has been the response of accommodation exemplified by theological liberalism in the Churches. As these Churches have adapted and accommodated their understanding of the Bible to modern culture, Christianity has been stripped of its supernatural character. Others have confronted modernity at its source the supremacy of human reason. While such confrontation has been valiant, it often has been ineffectual, largely due to the fact that modern culture has assigned the debates on authority and God to the private realm. Privatization does not seek to eliminate Christianity, only to deny its uniqueness. For instance, we do not have fewer clergy now than we had one hundred years ago, but today their voices are muted or marginalised in the cultural pluralism. It is easy to conform to this cultural pressure and cease to affirm what the Bible view of reality is; we affirm instead ‘what the Bible means to me’. That is, we are subtly acknowledging that what God has revealed in the Bible is ultimately little more than my opinion or my feeling.
Modernity is not a static world view. It developed since the days of the French Enlightenment. More recently it has given rise to what has become known as postmodernism. It is still not clear whether there is a fundamental difference between modernity and postmodernity. Modernity articulates an overall vision of life, while postmodernism does not appear to seek a cohesive world view. It has surrendered the modernist conviction that science leads to inevitable progress. The Enlightenment thought forms held hope for meaning, happiness, justice and liberty. Since the 1960’s these Enlightenment hopes have died or are dying in many of the disciples of modernity. Time will tell whether this is where modernity is heading or whether this is a temporary despair. If postmodernism continues as the heir of modernism, then modernism will bog down in superficiality. There is a superficiality which is inevitable when the search for meaning has disappeared, and there is no universal basis for explaining life and behaviour. Postmodernism has the capacity to destroy the vision created by the early Enlightenment thinkers.
The major issue for the Church is that modernity sees God as irrelevant to contemporary men and women. This profoundly affects our evangelism to contemporary men and women, but it also affects the lives of church members. For church people in the so called ‘first’ world, there is no greater issue. For church people in the countries which are in a race to achieve a modern affluent lifestyle, the issue will rapidly confront them. Overall this is the major issue which we all face, for it is a movement which shapes the lifestyles and attitudes of us all to various degrees. Most of us cannot escape its constant pressure to shape our lives according to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. We live in societies which have been constructed to be, in practice, independent of God. Many evangelicals have responded to this pressure by a resistance to trivial things which they judge are worldly. But they have failed to recognise the profound, pervasive and antagonistic world view in which they think and act.
Worldliness is not to be estimated by particular actions, rather it is a theological fact. It is a world view which marginalises God and finds no place for grace. Consequently it is a world view in which sinful actions are options in a wide range of behaviour patterns. This is because of the relocation of meaning from the outside world of creation and the public world of human organization to the private world of intuition and of the self.
As modernity confronts the Church, there is a constant danger of a subtle reshaping of the Gospel of Christ. One of the points of conflict is the place of the individual. Individualism is one of the great features of Western culture:
In American society today, the unquestioned assumption is that the individual takes precedence over the group. Freedom means individual independence. Civil rights means the individual’s right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ The concept of organic community has been heavily eroded by technology, urbanization, political ideology and legal definition. – Norman Kraus How the Church is in the World p.31
Modernity is characterized by its commitments to technical rationality and individualism. We highly value the right of individuals to choose for themselves their direction in life unhindered by hierarchy and authority. This is a canon of our culture; the individual rights of every human being are sacred so long as they do not trample on the rights of others. Our liberal democracies are built upon this fundamental presupposition of modernity. – Alan Roxburgh Reaching a New Generation p.14
In turn, the postmodernist has condemned the atomised individualism with a view to discovering a corporateness in the scientific community. But our concern is to see how individualism has influenced the churches and especially evangelical churches. An emphasis on individual response to Christ is nothing new. However, what is new is that the Church they now join is a voluntary association which they believe exists to further the individual’s goals of personal spiritual growth. The Church is not viewed as having a divine origin arising from the call of God. Rather than being thought of as God’s Church, it is seen as our Church. It is there to help us. Consequently we can place churches in large shopping malls so that people can pop into a service in the midst of their shopping. On the surface it may look like a highly entrepreneurial outreach, but on reflection it probably means that the Church makes minimal demands and a range of churches cater for all tastes.
Something has happened to upset the balance between individualism and corporateness in the life of the Christian. So many of the biblical images of the people of God present a clear picture of people in community. Such images as flock, vine, family, holy nation, royal priesthood and temple, underline in New Testament teaching that all believers are baptised into one body and as such belong together. The Holy Spirit has poured upon the body the gifts for diverse ministry. The Holy Spirit imparts a unity amongst the members of the body.
Evangelism is not simply a matter of accepting Christ. The believer is incorporated into a congregation of believers whose membership is expressed by baptism. There are places where the culture is such that conversion is a family or tribal response. That kind of response cannot be grafted onto the modernist or post modernist society. But there is no reason why the spiritual unity of the believers cannot be expressed as a visible reality. Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society stated that the congregation must be a hermeneutic of the gospel, so that the corporate reality of the congregation is more than the sum of the individuals who compose it. The spirit of modernity has disturbed the delicate balance between the corporate and the individual dimensions of the Christian mission.
Another place of tension is rationalism. Modernity fosters an individualistic way of thinking with a particular dependence on deductive logic to determine reality. More recently the post- modernists have criticised this position, stimulated especially by Polanyi’s work on the philosophy of knowledge. But much evangelical theology has followed an Enlightenment style of rationality and principles of logic.
This, over a number of years, has created a gulf between systematic theology and pastoral theology, between reason and experience and between logic and action. While biblical truth contains precise and careful argument as propositions, these can only be properly understood in the context of covenant relationships and a community response to God’s grace.
Van Engen wrote:
Modernity’s dependence on human rationality ignores the fact of sin, and assumes that the Fall did not impair our ability to reason. Scripture teaches differently. If we recognise that we cannot rely on rationality to give us indubitable, unquestionable truths about God, where do we find our certainty? I would like to suggest that the biblical answer is tremendously profound. The biblical answer is that we find our certainty in an encounter with God who created the universe and created us, through God’s son Jesus Christ, who is Truth personified and through the work of the Holy Spirit who comes to us as the presence, love and wisdom of God. This biblical certainty emanating from an intimate faith relationship with Jesus Christ is closely connected with being part of the Body of Christ, where we are called to experience the presence of the Holy. The experience is corporate. The corporate experience creates a broad range of ways by which this kind of knowing occurs. – Uppsala Consultation.
Another area which needs careful reflection is the place of technology in the life and mission of the churches. Newbigin has written:
No one can deny the brilliance of our technology. The problem is rather what our technology is used for. We display astounding brilliance in devising means for any end we desire, but we have no rational way of choosing what ends are worth desiring. We develop the technical wizardry of satellite television to bring a cataract of trash into our living room. – Truth to Tell p.24
One of the myths of modernity was that technology would, over a period of time, solve the world’s problems. This is being recognised for the myth it is – a cure for AIDS eludes us, the brilliance of technology is applied to warfare throughout the world, yet the despoliation of the environment caused by the new technologies is enormous. Like most organisations, the churches have naturally used technology in their mission, but how many have reflected on their assumptions behind the technology and the consequences of its application?
The significant difference between the First Great Awakening of George Whitfield and John Wesley and the Second Great Awakening of Charles Finney has been described as follows. Whitfield believed that the revival of religion was a divine and sovereign visitation from God. Finney saw the revival as the result of humanly engineered techniques. He listed the techniques and wrote:
A revival is not a miracle or dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is purely philosophical results of the right use of constituted means. – G M Thomas Revivalism and Cultural Change p.71
Finney was incorporating the application of technology and technique into evangelical practice. While it would be strange to cut oneself off from labour saving devices, telephones etc, it is still important to probe how we estimate the place of technology in our mission. Modernity is primarily a social reality created by capitalism, technology and information. The uncritical acceptance of technology can have serious consequences. For instance, at a church leadership conference, pastors were advised, ‘If you only have $500 to spend on your church budget, spend $300 on multimedia’. A pastor said, ‘I lose 15-29% of my effectiveness in preaching if I don’t have good lighting and sound system’.
One of the most frequently seen symbols in the great modern cities of the West are the golden arches of McDonald’s food chain. When McDonald’s opened a restaurant in Moscow, one of its employees described it ‘as if it were a cathedral in Chartres – a place to experience celestial joy’. McDonald’s has become one of the visible global icons of modernity. Its distinctive values of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control form the basis on which its great success has been built. McDonald’s sells technological humanism – any problem can be figured out and any goal can be achieved. The great danger is that this mindset can be applied to the Church and its mission. In fact some church leaders openly speak of technology, either in the form of programmes or devices or models as if they are able to do God’s supernatural work.
What is clear is that there has not been a careful enquiry about the assumptions behind the use of technology itself. In our evangelistic fervour we have longed to see churches grow, but too seldom asked what kind of church we are growing or questioned the theological and biblical appropriateness of what we are doing. This is a question which evangelists and church growth scholars should be frequently asking of themselves.
Modernity has not necessarily destroyed the Church. It is true that in some places within Western societies a decline in membership has occurred while in other places it has grown. But what has happened is that the churches have increasingly been relegated to the private realm with a major emphasis on relationships, sexual morality, marriage and the family. Much Christian literature now majors on counselling or the development of the self. Christian magazines in their feature articles are now becoming predictable in their inclusion of articles on conflict resolution, management, counselling, family life, divorce and fulfillment in retirement. However, it is through the ministry of clergy, ministers or pastors that the greatest impact of modernity on the Church is seen.
David Wells in No Place for Truth wrote of the American experience:
By the middle of the nineteenth century, when novelists were beginning to cast ministers in awkward or embarrassing roles, the clergy had already been experiencing social damage for a long time. The most remarkable thing about pastoral life in the eighteenth century was the extent to which pastors and their communities were bonded together. For example, of the 221 students who graduated from Yale College between the years 1745 and 1775 and went into the ministry, 71% remained in the church to which they were first called until their deaths. Only 4% held four or more pastorates. By contrast, today the average pastoral stint is as low as two years in some areas and denominations and seldom more than three years.
Wells draws on a major study of the role of the minster which was undertaken in 1934. the minister’s roles were that of teacher, preacher, worship leader and administrator. This is contrasted with an analysis some 46 years later when the following had been added to the four roles – to have an open and affirming style, able to foster fellowship in the church, to be aware of denominational activities, to be able to lead the church’s participation in political discussion of things of the moment and to provide a witness against injustice.
It is clear what has happened. The first list shows the primary ways in which a minister serves the people of God. The second list shows the impact of sociological demands. However, another survey in 1986 showed that added to this list were counselling, support of the stewardship programme and planning ability. In the ranking of the various roles, it was clear that technical and managerial competence was dominant, and Wells said, ‘The other role of the pastor as broker of truth has been eclipsed by the new managerial functions.’ (pp.222-3) The pastor is now primarily a manager of people and a counsellor. The fundamental question, ‘Does he bring a word from the living God?’ is secondary. The open and affirming style which has become so greatly prized is not always easy to reconcile with a ministry which highlights ‘Righteousness, self control and the judgment to come ’. (Acts 24:25)
Accompanying these changes in priorities of the minister has come the need for an improved professional status for the minister. Specialization became a feature of other occupations which was followed by a recognition of the professional standing of the person involved. Wells observes, ‘The power that inward calling had once exerted on private consciousness, the sense of ‘standing’ before God, of doing his work by making known his truth, apparently was not enough.’ (p.235) In the pursuit of an increased professional status for the minister, the theological colleges introduced in the 1970s a Doctorate of Ministry – with a large response.
However, if we look at the big picture we can see the way modernity has effected the churches, notably in their relegation to the private sphere. Even the evangelical churches which have been the most determined to resist the breakdown of a supernatural theology have been the most active to use the fruits of modernity in their mission. The vision was to reach more people for Christ… but a price has been paid. Serious exposition of Scripture, long regarded as the lifeblood of the people of God, has fallen from its supreme place in the meeting of worshippers, to be replaced by entertainment and homilies designed to meet felt needs.
Christians understand spirituality as the totality of life under God. As such it includes the life lived before God and the life lived before the world. In 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul uses the term ‘spiritual’ to describe the gifts or powers given to believers. Over the years that word came to have different shades of meaning. For instance, it was sometimes used to describe the person who despised his body. Later it was used to describe the clerical state and again later it referred to a person who engages in mystical experiences.
In the societies where modernity or postmodernity is the prevailing way of life, the expectation would be that spirituality would gradually disappear. In fact the opposite is true. It is not however a spirituality concerning our relationship with a transcendent Triune God, but rather a broad view of spirituality which deals with the inner life.
People today are de-personalised. Ideologies and technology reduce life to what can be seen and measured. In reaction to an impersonal environment, many have pursued some form of spirituality which is intensely subjective. The importance of the internal life is exaggerated and feelings and sensations are analysed. Whereas other generations looked out to a God who was beyond and outside human life, the search is now for the god who is within. In Jung’s language, the search is for a subterranean god who is within us all. For many people this search has become their form of spirituality. It is a spirituality which might mean paranormal experience, the exploration of depth psychology, an openness to other religions and their meditative techniques or mystical experiences. Most seriously it is a spirituality which can easily be taken over by occult powers.
At the heart of biblical spirituality is a relationship with God, described sometimes as being son, daughter or friend of God. It is a reciprocal relationship which is established by grace. The relationship is established on the grounds of God’s free gift of salvation. Moreover, it is totally mysterious as it is a relationship with the Holy Trinity. The uniqueness of the person of Jesus is crucial in this spirituality. God’ s grace comes to us through Christ’s death and resurrection. God’s grace continues to be given to us by the Spirit as we walk in obedience with Christ. This spirituality has a characteristic of holiness. The contemporary postmodern spirituality seeks wholeness.
The ‘self’ movement of postmodernity has its effect on the orthodox evangelical Christian. Evangelical Christians are often encouraged to find a Roman Catholic priest as a spiritual director, since that tradition (and perhaps especially Ignatian spirituality) has found it easiest to accommodate Christian with modern spirituality; there are however inherent difficulties in giving godly direction when significant differences exist between the Roman Catholic and Reformed understanding of grace and justification. Further, about 80% of the publications of evangelical publishing houses now deal with the interior life. A very small percentage deal with scripture commentary, doctrine and apologetics.
Biblical spirituality will be best achieved by a thorough obedience to a sovereign God who is Triune. The contemporary theologian T.F. Torrance has written:
I submit that it is only through a divine Trinity who admits us to communion with himself in his own transcendence that we can be consistently and persistently personal, with the kind of freedom, openness and transcendent reference which we need both to develop our own personal and social culture and our scientific exploration of the universe. I believe that there is a radical renewing of our personal and interpersonal structures that comes from communion with God, that we are to look for a healing of the deep splits which have opened up in our modern civilization. But this means that we need the recovery of spiritual being, which is open to personal reality and not impersonal in its own self-centredness. –Towards Ontology of Personhood pp.33-46
Emphasising the God who is within has meant that God’s transcendence (God beyond us) has been either neglected, or divorced from his immanence (God within us). This is exactly what the Enlightenment did to our vision of God. God’s immanence was reduced to moral experience as in Kant, speculative reason as in Hegel, inner feeling as in Schleiermacher and ethical culture as in Ritschl. Later 20th century theologians were to locate God’s immanence in the oppression of the poor. On the other hand, there were great assertions of God’s transcendence, notably in Barth, but some of these assertions, like Tillich’s, made God unknowable. Modernity has not only shattered the connection between God’s transcendence and his immanence, but inclined us to reinterpret the second without the first. – Prof. David Wells, Uppsala Consultation on Modernity
David Wells added:
There are two sides to the transcendence of God, though these often converge on one another in Scripture. From one angle, God is transcendent because he is self sufficient. He owes nothing to creation for his being and is dependent upon nothing outside himself for the power to realise his will. From another angle, God is transcendent because of his utter moral purity, which both sets him off from the creation in which sin reigns, and defines who he is in his essential being. These two aspects of his self disclosure are sometimes brought together in Scripture. If God is ‘high and lifted up’ (Is. 61:1), ‘the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity ’ (Is. 57:15), if he is ‘God and not man, the Holy One among you’ (Hosea 11:9), part of the explanation of this awesome majesty, this greatness, is his transcendent goodness (cf Ps 93:96-99, Luke 1:49, 1 Peter 1:16, 1 John 2:20, Rev. 4:8, 15:4, 16:5).
Returning now to the first of these themes, we need to note that it is because God is self sufficient that he can sustain the creation without being modified by it as the process theologians argue. Not only so, but he can providentially direct all of its life to its ordained end, as well as acting in it. These acts are not only of a general kind, in which he sustains the creation which he has brought forth, but also the specific revelatory acts, in the flesh and bone of our history, by which he has made known his character and will.
It is important, however, for us to see these acts, once again, from within the cultural contexts in which they appeared. What we have in Scripture is a framework provided by his redemptive acts, whose meaning God himself provides. The importance of this framework is not the narrative form in which it is given, as narrative theologians argue. It is true that the narratives have evocative and suggestive power, but even if the Scriptures do evoke a sense of mystery, a sense of an Other, this is not the reason why today we have such a narrative. The reason God’s self disclosure was tied to specific acts, I believe, was that those acts, being public acts in the real world, secured and preserved the objectivity of God’s revelation. Each generation was to be taught what God has done (Deut 5:15, 7:18, 15:3, 25:17-19), for the history would reveal the nature and intentions of the God who called them (Ps 9:11, 66:5, 74:12, 77:11- 12, 86:10, 96:3, 103:6, 105:1, 106:2).
This external history was important because pagans were in the habit, even as moderns are, of listening to themselves for clues about the intentions of their gods and goddesses, of keeping an ear cocked for the whisperings of intuition and the workings of their own nature, even as we do with the help of our many psychologists today. The point about this revelation was that it was not found within the psyche, nor discerned by intuition. It was accessible to understanding and its existence could no more vary from one person’s interpretation to another than could any other historical fact. Events had either happened or they had not, and it was this framework of historical fact which made God’s revelation public and which preserved it from pagan habits of privatising all truth. It is in the resurrection of Christ that this line of redemptive acts comes to completion.
The objectivity of God’s revelation is also matched by the objectivity of his holiness which is the second aspect to his transcendence. This challenges paganism, but even more modernity. In a culture which has come to take psychology seriously, there is a deep affinity for the relational; in religious terms, this carries over into an affinity for divine love and a corresponding uneasiness with God’s holiness. We who are modern find it much easier to believe that God might be like a Rogerian therapist, one who empathically solicits our knowledge of ourselves and passes judgment on none of it, than like Moses. The reason for this is that ours is a therapeutic culture, not a moral one.
The promise of the gospel is not that believers will be spared bad experiences; neither is it that they will be able to settle down to the sanitized comfort of an inner life freed of stresses, pains and ambiguities, but simply that through Christ God walks with us in the dark places of this life, that he has the power and will to invest his promises with reality; such is his grace and wisdom, that even the shadows of life are made to serve our best interests and his glory.
Just as the Enlightenment changed our understanding of God, so did it change our view of the human person. The biblical view is that men and women are made by God and are in relationship with him. Humankind bears God’s image both individually and communally. This gives us our identity which is derived and not autonomous. The way we are to live springs out of our relationship with God and is set out for us in the Bible and especially in the person of Jesus Christ. However, the effect of sin in the human person has marred the image of God within us. Christ came to share our human nature and in that human nature opened the way through his death for our forgiveness and restoration. Wholeness for us depends on our relationship to God.
The Enlightenment viewed the human person differently. At the Uppsala Consultation, Dr Elaine Storkey said that at its centre the Enlightenment view had faith in autonomous human rationality: Human person was not now a creature which needed to come humbly before the revelation of God before it could understand anything aright. Instead it had in its power the ability to unlock the secrets of the universe. Thus, the fundamental doctrine of the person changed pivotally: from dependence on God to independence from any higher authority. It also changed from being relational to being avowedly individual. Because the relationship with God had been severed, there was now no ontological basis for community.
In the post modernist culture, the sciences began to reinterpret the human person. Storkey said:
For the first six decades of the 20th century, modernity was to be punctuated by attempts to develop an anthropology in quasi- scientific terms. With Freud it was to be in terms of fixed stages of development; with Skinner and the behaviourists it was to be in terms of the learning theory and reinforcement histories; with Maslow it was in terms of a hierarchy of needs; with the sociobiologists it was of evolutionary ‘genetic dispositions’.
There were those who developed a view of the human person in terms of freedom and autonomy. Men and women were both part of the natural order and yet were able to transcend it by being able to reflect on their place in the order of things. Yet, as much as human beings reflected on death, nothing could be done to prevent its eventuality. Freedom had to face the implications of death. There was no freedom from its inevitability…
I believe that post modernity is both a rejection of modernity and also the ultimate development of the ‘freedom’ pole of the Enlightenment. For with the end of modernist utopias there are no constraints which we need to accept. The choice, quite simply, is ours. We may adopt, transform and accommodate any surfaces we choose to, and design our own present. Within the design comes the choices over our morality, our sexuality and our anthropology. Within the social sciences there has already been the destructuring of the self. Human personhood, as distinct from human particularity in a specific culture, ethnicity and gender, and time, does not exist. We are constructed from our context and we imbibe the values of our culture. We learn how to be human beings. We learn our gendered behaviour; how to be men and women.
Once this view of human person is accepted, it is not surprising that there is an avalanche of literature which affirms that homosexual behaviour is entirely acceptable, or advocates a radical feminism which creates an anthropology in terms of ‘the goddess’. But the goddess is a process rather than a person, and the self authenticating, self creating woman is the goddess. This kind of feminism becomes all the more sinister when it stays within the Christian Church reinterpreting the Scripture to fit in with a process of ‘godding’ which often means unrestrained sexual activity which has the power to make one truly human.
All this shows the significance of a study of anthropology. At a popular level, many determine who they are by what they have, or by what they do, or by what is reflected back to them by peers (so that they conform to the prevailing trend). Through these and many other false anthropologies, the rights of individuals are sacrificed by the great tyrannies, either personal or ideological, of our time. The biblical view of humanness stands tall compared with all the theories which hold out false promises.
The Kingdom of God was the great theme in the preaching of Jesus. The gospels identify it with his person and ministry. The Kingdom came in the first coming of Jesus and it is yet to come in its fullness when (Christ returns a second time. The Church stands poised between the two comings; it witnesses to the salvation of God which came in Christ; it anticipates the end when the Kingdom will be established and all things will be made new. In the meantime, there are signs of the Kingdom such as the preaching of the gospel, exorcism, the Holy Communion, conversions and the new lifestyle of the people of God which all point to the coming day. The Second Coming of Christ is a doctrine which cannot be experienced. Yet it has the most powerful effect on the ethics and lifestyle of believers when they grasp its significance. As the apostle John wrote, ‘All who have this hope in him purify themselves’. (1 John 3:3)
Hope is a fundamental element of Christian discipleship. It is not a hope of progress (although that may happen from time to time), but it is a hope of final victory for God’s truth and grace. Modernity on the other hand has a basic belief in progress. This optimism in progress has been shaken in the 20th century, and it is in the secular world that people have become familiar again with the apocalyptic imagery in pictures and films of doom and destruction. However, this is an apocalyptic view of the future without the framework of heaven and hell, or grace and judgement.
Dr Tormod Engelsviken said at the Uppsala Consultation:
Biblical eschatology provides hope through faith in the transcendent intervention of an almighty God, recreating the cosmos and making it an eternal home for a saved mankind. Biblical eschatology does not guarantee a blissful outcome for all, either in this world or in the world to come. The notion of salvation and judgement, of communion with God and separation from him, based on each individual’s personal relationship to the God who is going to establish the new heaven and earth, is basic to the biblical revelation.
It is profoundly difficult to reach the secular mind which is wedded to a view of inevitable, progress or which has given up in despair as the environment becomes polluted and wars become more sophisticated and more terrible. It is here that the signs of the Kingdom are so important. In conjunction with an articulated Christian world view, the signs have a part to play. The fruit of the Spirit in the lives of Christian people, the miracles of new birth, healings and exorcisms have played their part in opening minds to the presence of a transcendent or immanent God of grace and truth. The eschatological texts of the New Testament envisage consistently a spiritual battle being waged throughout history and coming to a climax before the return of Christ.
The Church under pressure of rationalism has been embarrassed to speak of personal evil intelligences hurting and destroying human lives and opposing the work of God. At most one has dared to speak of ‘demonic structures’ and ‘forces’ in a depersonalised way. Today we observe stark and naked evil both in individual and collective life, and occultism and satanism are ‘in’ among young people in many Western countries. The Church should no longer shirk its responsibility to confront the satanic powers in the name of Jesus and call them by their right name. The Biblical eschatological perspective also includes false doctrine and apostasy within the Church. Modern demands for a visibly united Church may lead us to avoid the struggle for evangelical truth and righteousness, and the unmasking of false doctrine and sin within the organised Church.
Since the Enlightenment began to emphasise the sovereignty of human reason, religion has a number of times been declared to be no longer necessary. In some places it has been banned. Yet, one of the recent phenomena of Western secular societies has been the growth of new religious movements. In societies where churchgoing is minimal, a surprisingly high proportion of people have a belief in a deity and at times pray to him. The Christian world view has been replaced by a general belief in the transcendent. The move has been away from a commitment to Christian doctrine, and towards a pursuit for personal meaning, with a readiness to believe in all kinds of alternative world views. At the Uppsala Consultation, the Reverend Lars Johannson said of Sweden:
A vague and rather open spirituality with an individualistic profile is today becoming more and more popular. Basic ideas from Eastern thought and Western esoteric tradition are gaining increased acceptance. These combine with elements of folk religion and beliefs of a neo pagan character.
The New Age movement emerged out of this search for an alternative spirituality in the late 60s and 70s. The New Age vision is both a protest against modernity and an expression of the ideals of modernity. It is an amalgam of the pre-modern, modern and postmodern themes. For instance, the New Age is a protest against the world view of Newtonian science and functional rationality. Yet at the same time it is highly dependent on the very things which it protests against. Drawing on Einstein, some New Age writers emphasize that matter is a form of energy. They then develop this so that matter, energy and consciousness are one continuum. Or again drawing on Darwin’s evolutionary theory they speak of the evolution of human consciousness as the primary purpose of the cosmic process. Scientific references to New Age literature abound and it is clear that they are seeking a synthesis of religion in the broadest terms with science as the next step in the evolutionary process. Johannson quoted a prominent New Age thinker as follows: ‘Twenty-first century man will learn how to talk and listen to plants… to commune with devas of the wind.., to cure with etheric innovation.., he will humanize technology with animism.’
In popular New Age literature, such as Shirley Maclame’s books, there are absolute scientific claims made for New Age faith and it would appear that in a society dominated by science, commodities are best sold with an appeal to science. The question arises, ‘How do you reconcile science with animistic practices?’ The answer given is simply that they do not need to be reconciled; the real criterion of truth is pragmatic – beliefs are judged by the criterion, ‘Does it work for me?’
But not only has the New Age adopted language and some concepts from science, it has also taken over the language of technology. Shirley Maclame summarises the techniques she explores as ‘spiritual technologies’. Human consciousness is likened to a computer which needs reprogramming. There is a tension in the New Age literature àt this point between romanticism and Enlightenment philosophy. Enlightenment philosophy stresses science, universal principles and rationality. Romanticism, having doubts about science and reason, stresses feeling and intuition.
The New Age gives its own answer to what it means to be human, in sum: to be human is first of all to find oneself by getting in touch with ‘the child’ or ‘the wisdom’ within. The true self is to be rescued from the conditioning which has come from the society around, by a journey within. In doing so, the human person discovers a fundamental oneness with the universe. There, true identity is to be found. This cosmic self becomes an empowered self for it has a divine power to create reality. Through spiritual techniques one can be liberated from slavery and empowered to be a master.
Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the way reincarnation has been adopted in New Age beliefs. Reincarnation is the way to self mastery on the cosmic journey. The New Age is self religion through and through. At the heart of it is the ideal of the individual as an autonomous, self determining entity. This too is the ideal of modernity.
The Christian faith from its inception has been a missionary faith. The period of the Enlightenment coincided with the great geographical explorations of Africa, South America, the Pacific and Asia. As new places were discovered or settled, the imaginations of enterprising and devoted Christians in the West were fired with the possibilities of establishing a church in these places. This geographical aspect of Christian mission soon brought missionaries in touch with Muslim and Hindu societies. Very often the Christian mission was quite explicit in bringing the benefits of western civilization as well as the gospel. The need for medicine, hospitals, schools, better agriculture and an improvement in the lot of women and children would be met by Christian missionary work. Certainly the Christian mission was perceived in Islamic and Hindu societies as an attempt to bring Western civilization with its social vision and technology. Dr Vinay Samuel at Uppsala said, ‘In the benefits of modern education, science and health care are regarded as laudable gifts of Christian mission. It is also acknowledged that social reform uplifting the status of women and children was initiated by Christian missionaries.’
Both Western colonialism and the missionary movement of the Western churches opened the door for modernity to impact on countries with ancient faiths. Islam has responded generally by resistance. While Islam has and does hanker after the achievements of the West, it has resisted the philosophical theory which has produced so many of the benefits of Western society. In many places unless a Muslim is fluent in a European language he will not be able to have access to books which deal with secularism, modernity and postmodernity. The technical contributions of modernity are desired but not the metaphysics on which it is based. This means that Islamic cultures however varied and sophisticated are still medieval in structure. Many Muslims accordingly find themselves in a place of tension. The ideas they pursue are today’s; the attitudes with which they pursue them are yesterday’s. For some it is easier to retreat into the pre-critical days of the past and take refuge in extreme fundamentalism. But such a fundamentalism is a retreat from reality.
The Hindu situation is different. Vinay Samuel said:
Modern education with its critical method does become a pan of the educated Hindu’s consciousness. However, it is also confined to the areas of science, economic and political spheres. Family life and private customs remain traditional and this compartmentalised consciousness does not paralyse their normal activities. The world of religion and family are not allowed to be disenchanted but modernity is allowed to disenchant the rest of life.
Myth and reason co-exist as two orders of reality. Reason is rarely used to question unjust and corrupt customs. They always find legitimation in myth. Myth, while providing a measure of transcendence of life, also prevents reason from completing its critical task. So truth resides in myth and reason. It becomes extremely malleable in the hands of the human subject who draws from both orders of reality and makes a truth that fits his or her need. The subject is never addressed by truth.
The response to modernity has been varied in Islamic and Hindu societies. Some have resorted to the ideologies of the West which are grafted on to the pervasive religious culture of the particular society concerned. Others turn to repressive fundamentalism which makes religion dominant in the political sphere. It is not easy for people in these societies to see Christianity as a viable alternative because they wrongly interpret it to be the vehicle of modernity which they reject. Uncompromising, authentic Christian communities are the most effective means for evangelism. These communities need to engage in theology, research, communication and mission which is addressed to the major questions of life raised in these societies.
In a paper written for the Uppsala Consultation, Dr Knud Jorgenson wrote:
The dominating technology today is the information technology which creates our images of the world. These images are secular and commercial and are a universal language spreading to the entire world. In this way also, the media become the arena for the myths and values of our modern culture.
In the countries which have an Enlightenment world view, the media has replaced the Church as the maker of opinions. This is in stark contrast to societies where the minister of religion was the ‘person’ or ‘parson’ whose influence was highly significant. Newspapers gave accounts of sermons, and obituaries were open in their assessment of the Christian faith as the creative power in character formation. The churches have become marginalised in a society where TV has become the altar around which family and community gather. The media is market driven and is continually communicating a non Christian world view.
The media communicates four great myths:
Myth No 1: The survival of the fittest. The theories of Darwin dominate in education, work, politics and leisure. The fittest in the media world are not the lowest classes, the coloured or the foreign labour forces. They are the bad guys!
Myth No 2: Big is beautiful. Power and decision making start in the centre and move out. Washington is the centre for political power and Hollywood for entertainment. Most of us are at the periphery.
Myth No 3: Happiness is being rich. Consumption is an absolute good. Property, riches and power are more important than people.
Myth No 4: Progress is what matters. Moving on is vital. Progress itself becomes the goal.
These four myths turn the biblical revelation upside down. To see how serious the situation is, recognise that today the media determine not only what people think, but actually how they think. Propagating a world view that happiness and self-interest is what matters, the media tell us what the world looks like, how it functions and what it means. The media determine our grasp of reality.
In the midst of this the media slowly changes one. Over time they reflect and verbalise and visualise our myths – myths that tell us who we are and what is of value. They interpret both past and present and thereby become our common memory. That is why communication and media basically have to do with culture – our culture. Our culture has allowed the media to become our collective nervous system and in this way take over the dominating communication role in our lives – a role which makes the media a pseudo religion, giving expression to the values and beliefs of human beings and providing us with a world view in stark contrast to the Christian world view.
Few questions are more important for Christians than how we use the media. If the Church is to have a positive involvement in the media, is it to be used for evangelism or pre-evangelism? It should be noted that TV is not a medium well suited for evangelism. It is a medium which is impersonal. The media, especially TV, excels at entertaining and in the process often trivialises the subject it deals with. Jorgensen wrote:
When I watch the programmes of the electronic church, I must admit that all that makes faith an historical, profound and most holy activity has been torn away. There are no rituals, no dogmas, no traditions and no tense of spiritual transcendence.
The camera cannot capture transcendence and it is not easy to grasp the difference between fantasy and reality in the television medium. This is because TV is not a rational medium but is a dramatic medium. It is not so much a logical medium but a juxtaposition of images which convey a message. So much so that a TV medium has become the means by which a society becomes aware of its own self-consciousness.
How then do we respond to modernity?
At Uppsala, Dr Os Guinness raised a number of strategic issues which need exploration. They are as follows:
i) How do we sustain an ongoing discussion on modernity?
ii) How do we trigger the Church into critiquing itself in the light of modernity?
iii) How do we critique training for ministry in theology and mission in the light of modernity?
iv) How can the so called less modernised countries have a warning about the effects of modernity?
v) How can the churches recover a missionary apologetic for today’s issues?
Modernity constitutes the great threat to the Christian faith, but it is not a bleak picture. The modern and post modern society actually has extraordinary opportunities for evangelism. In fact Guinness maintains that the time is ripe for evangelism (but also extraordinarily difficult for discipleship). The reason for this day of opportunity is first of all the new cultural openness. Modernity has opened up the traditional closed societies as well as centralised totalitarian societies. Guinness said:
What Greek and Roman roads were to the explosion of the gospel in the first century, and the printing presses were to the Reformation in the 16th century, everything from steamships in the 19th century to radio, television and satellites are to missionary enterprise in the openness of the modern world. What this openness means overall then is that the Church faces the greatest opportunity for missionary expansion since the days of the Apostles.
The other opportunity for evangelism comes from the dislocations which modernity has created:
The general possibility of these rebounds is grounded in the dynamics of human sin. No one should have a better appreciation of irony, comedy and unintended consequences than the Christian. Theologically speaking, sin means ‘holding the truth in unrighteousness’, which means in turn that neither sin nor its philosophies and institutions is ever stable. For modernity reinforces the instability so that every rebound contains some speeded up disillusionment with some false faith or idol and therefore presents a moment of spiritual openness – that moment which forms the ‘today’ in which the gospel addresses every human being.
The urgent need is for Christians to debate and become aware of the nature of modernity. Too easily they have accepted the good things which are available without being aware of the erosions of Christian faith and truth which are taking place. Jesus rebuked those who could not understand this present time. What is needed is a cultural awareness similar to what we expect of those who go abroad to minister Christ’s word. As we understand the present time, our engagement in prayer and our use of the Scriptures will become more focused. We will see how congregations can become lights of the Kingdom. A re-born worship and a re-born proclamation bring the believer into the marvellous world view of the Scripture, and place the same world view of Scripture in the midst of everyday life in a secular world.
On the Sunday during the Consultation on Modernity, members visited the site of the ancient city of Uppsala which is only a few miles from the present city. The site is marked by a very curious landscape. It consists of a series of small conical hills close to each other. They are relics of the Ice Age when sediment was deposited by the receding ice. Old Uppsala was a centre of Viking worship and ancient accounts describe the drowning of young men in a nearby spring and then hanging their bodies on trees. Each year this savage ceremony was carried out to appease the gods. Old Uppsala was the site where missionaries came from the south to preach the gospel of forgiveness and grace. In time the old sinister world view of gods, goddesses and human sacrifice as a fertility ritual was to collapse before a new world view which spoke of God as Father to all who came to him through Christ. The old Viking temple has disappeared and the small Christian church still stands.
The members of the Consultation stood between two small conical hills not far from the spring. Here we read the passage of Scripture which told of Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal. On the site in Uppsala a similar confrontation had taken place. We saw clearly that two world views again stand starkly opposed to each other. The gods of progress, materialism, prosperity and rationality stand with their false hopes before Christ whose good news still tells of repentance, faith, forgiveness and eternal life.
Can Christians respond to the forces of modernism and postmodernism? (1) Since our very thoughts and behaviours are shaped by the events, practices, communications and values of our society, how can we think and behave differently?
Changing all the received patterns and habits of life is not a new problem. It was faced by the Hebrews after crossing the Red Sea, after living for decades as an oppressed people. It was faced during the Exile, when they could not understand how God’s chosen people could carry on without a centre in Jerusalem. Jesus faced the same problem in the midst of a people occupied with models of a Messiah victorious in battle, even one Immanuel (Isaiah 8). These key stories tell of a return to God and of a moving on, with new insight, new understanding, new action and new practices (as well as much controversy).
In this section I explore what we can go back to with confidence, and some areas where we might need to move on with fresh insight and theology. After an overview of some directions to take in responding to the challenge of postmodernism, I shall concentrate on two areas which connect to most people: individual change, and work.
The Bible tells us that Jesus consciously tried to change the way his disciples lived by example and teaching. All the Gospels record a transition from action to teaching around the point when Jesus ‘sets his face’ to going to Jerusalem. He uses events that happen, and events told him by others, as well as stories and statements and prophecies about himself.
Another strand of Jesus’ teaching is to direct attention to the story of God’s dealing with his people, to their place in the story. There is nothing more important in the transient, homeless, eclectic state that is postmodernism than to remind ourselves of what story we are a part. All three major events of the Old Testament – Exodus, Exile, Return – command the re-telling of the story; not literally to re-enact it, but to remind ourselves where we have come from, and where we are going to. Each adds a new dimension of understanding and practice, and yet is a continuation of the story. Jesus himself modelled this in the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
If it were only a story, then it would be no different to other stories, but the historical facts of what God has done prevent us denying the reality of his redemptive acts, or trying to argue that there are multiple realities. God’s self-disclosure in history is tied to specific acts, with a centre and determining focus in Jesus.
A sense of history also helps us to look at lives in a personal and individual way – from the point of view of the opportunities we can bring to this particular place and time. We should view our lives as a gift in order to be able to engage in acts of service and mission in God’s story. This helps us transcend the helplessness and impotence engendered in the postmodern person, both in the face of so many problems and in front of the bewildering choice from seemingly infinite possibilities. In my own case, this means choosing to work in a critical area of society at the point of convergence of telecommunications, computers and the media; one of the ‘change technologies’ that is credited with extending postmodernity.
Being part of God’s story means that we depend on the action of others in the past, and contribute to the world which others will inherit from us; there is an inheritance to faith. Knowing we are part of God’s story therefore addresses at least three areas of postmodernism:
- It challenges the view that there is no over-arching purpose to our living;
- It challenges self-creation, because we humbly receive from the past;
- It challenges any sense of helplessness in which action is futile, because we give to the future.
At the same time, God’s story is neither determined at the individual level, because of free will, nor is it totalizing in the sense of overbearing authority, because of its sensitivity to those who suffer.(2) Jesus was a model for this positioning of self in God’s history, seeing life as a gift to be returned in free will as service and mission.
Practice of the Truth: Service
What a person is on their knees before God is what that person is.(3) Yet this is still only half the truth. The legal expert who answered Jesus on how he read the Law in order to inherit eternal life sought to vindicate himself: after all, he sought to serve those who his group had decided were ‘holy’ or ‘clean’ (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus refuted this in his story of the Good Samaritan and pointed to the neighbour as being anyone we meet, and that we shall be judged on our response to such meetings (Matt 25:31-46).(4)
Not only is a person who they are on their knees before God, but also on their knees in front of the person in need (even if an enemy, Matt.5:43-44). In affirming and extending the two great commandments, Jesus was reiterating an imperative found throughout the Old Testament.
One of the root understandings that Israel learnt through the Exile was that humanity was in bondage, not just Israelites, and so their existence was not for themselves, but for others. That is, they were to be a vehicle for the reconciliation of the world.(5) They were also reminded of the demand on them, going back to the Exodus, to care for and empower the marginalised in their midst, a care sadly lacking during the Kings’ exercise of justice. This care was to be the result of a ‘sensitivity to suffering’, for once they had been aliens in a foreign land.
Jesus embraced both these themes. He overturned tables in the Gentiles’ court of the Temple, which should have been a ‘house of prayer for all nations’. He attacked the exclusion of tax collectors, Gentiles, prostitutes and any deemed ‘sinners’. By going to his death on the Cross, the Christian claim is that Jesus not only embodied the central trajectory of God’s story, but bore the suffering and sin of both Jew and Gentile in order to hand it back to us as redemption.
The practice of the truth, therefore, is to lay hold of the two great commandments with the understanding of God’s desire to see service for the sake of others, and with the encouragement that we are part of a story in which many others have followed. Our task is to be faithful, leaving the outcome to God. The resurrection of Jesus is our encouragement.
Service is not easy
That is hard for modern and postmodern people to follow. There are two reasons: first those of us in the Western world live in a highly individualized society; and second, we are dominated by a culture that seeks returns on its investment of time, energy and other resources.
Postmodernism tempts us to avoid service. It argues the futility of individual action, and presents the fear that it might be interpreted as yet another manifestation of ‘image’, this time the image of the servant. The modernist ethic of equating what is efficient with what is morally right works against costly service where the outcome is totally uncertain. This ethic has been partly responsible for the sense of impotence when we do not see the outcomes we had anticipated. Rediscovering a concept of service means accepting that, however we express what it is we are doing, it may not be successful; the task is to be, and to leave success up to God.
Indeed, without a strong and rediscovered serving ethic, service is problematic at a number of levels inherited from modernism:
- Opportunities for service may be interpreted as problems to be fixed, or as maladies from which the other should be healed;(6)
- The spontaneous and empathetic response demanded may be used as an excuse to avoid thinking through what might be of most help, and to avoid commitment through any subsequent action;
- Finally, service may become a route to pride, instead of simply a part of living as a Christian.
Precisely because spontaneous or committed service is so counter-cultural, it is a way of breaking though the shaping of a postmodern culture. But it has to be worked out in a Christian way, otherwise it can be used to put a burden onto others, much as the Pharisees did in their healing laws, or it can become a way to fulfil an image of oneself.
There is one kind of service breaking into society in a dynamic and contentious way, which is not to human beings but to creation itself, our environment. Although concern for the environment has opened routes to pantheism, or proposals that we are part of a meaningless self-generating system, yet it has also pointed beyond the individual human being – and this has offered a dynamic intrusion into the fabric of our individualistic technosphere.
Awareness of our actions, and a belief that things could be different, are prophetic threads found throughout the Old Testament; this includes the stewardship of the environment. Some Christians are seeing concern for the environment as the next development in God’s story; moving from God’s promise to one man, Abram, through God’s promise to the people Israel, then through the Exilic realization that God created and loves all people (a promise fulfilled in Jesus), to the role of human beings in the created order.
In particular we need a ‘history’ and direction in order to do environmental ethics, otherwise what reason is there to do one thing rather than another? For example there are some who say that world resources will end at some point, so why not use them now rather than in an uncertain future? Others look at Adam’s first task in the Bible – to name living creatures – and argue that this is a call to understand the very nature of the world of which we are a part (because ‘naming’ meant to understand the essence of someone). To come to know the natural cycles of non-human life and regeneration is a spiritual discipline for our age, a service to all of creation.
Persuasion of the Truth: Mission
The sort of mission we need, Lesslie Newbigin asserts,(7) starts with the Bible story indwelling or inhabiting our individual and gathered lives, to such an extent that the Gospel becomes plausible through others seeing how we practise the truth. From that base we speak of and persuade others about Jesus Christ. In sociological terms, Christians have to have a plausibility structure that is based on the Lordship of Christ from which to proselytize.
The Reformed Churches have always been churches of persuasion – people are td come to accept the Lordship of Christ through their own free will and by their own choice; people, in other words, are persuaded of the. need to become disciples of Jesus. The task of mission therefore entails making the gospel relevant to people in a postmodern society and what we say is demonstrated by how we live.
Like modernism, postmodernism has features which are attractive to Christians as well as to others. At the least they are points of contact for the gospel; at the best they are signs of the gospel breaking in to our society.
Many Church leaders have, however, been distracted by adopting managerial professionalism or the romanticism of experience (as evidenced by the large quantity of sales in this area by Christian Publishers) (8) rather than the articulation of God’s redeeming power to postmodernism. The obedience required at an individual level is not small, as we will see below in the example of rooting out false maxims that prevent us hearing and doing God’s words, and we need to be supported and encouraged.
Persuasion requires two essential ingredients among others:
(a) to be relevant in that it has an answer to the problems of the age;
(b) to be attractive in its images and expressions.
In other words, our mission has to answer the postmodern condition, the modernism that remains and the pre- modern lingering deep within, and to express the Gospel in ways with which people can connect.
We are a mixture, but there is no return to the past
Christians, like others, rarely contain just one framework for living – in us are postmodernism, modernism and traditional or pre-modern elements. (9) In this way we share the lack of integration, and fragmentation, that mark this period. Postmodernism and modernism come to us through culture and so manifest themselves through the organizations of society: shops and shopping malls and where and at what time they are open; working and employment patterns; entertainment; where and how one has a home and travels; etc. These change at different rates, for example: entertainment is of the moment, employment patterns change relatively quickly and shopping patterns change much more slowly; coherence is not a mark of current lives. (10)
The traditional elements are transmitted to us by others throughout our lives:
- by our parents and what they thought and modelled for us;
- by our teachers, both in the education system and those in church, each of whom were themselves were taught many years previously;
- by our practice.
Sometimes these seem to be the very answer which we seek, a return of some kind to what was valuable to those who went before us and who, we feel, did not suffer the same kind of dysfunction as we now experience. We ‘remember’ faith then as uncluttered, unmuddled and unconfused, the clarity of which we seek today; surely, we are tempted to think, if we adopt their practice then things can only improve? That, however, is in the past. In recalling it we bring to mind something we believe desirable, a coherence and integration of our Christian life both as individuals and in resolving some of the world’s social problems.
But a return to the Church of the past will accomplish neither, because society has changed; in particular, the whole notion of a shared common basis (the ‘middle axioms’) for how we live in society and conduct ourselves has broken down and there is no appeal to something common from which we can all work. (11)
Will it be Christianity that guides the future?
With the bankruptcy of the satisfaction paradigm showing itself in postmodernism individual choice and futility, it will become rapidly evident that what is new does not solve the problems facing the world. Either at the individual level or at the level of large organizations or nations, individual choice with multiple realities will prove as bankrupt as modernism did. Already we are discovering that privatization of many national organizations in the UK requires regulation to ensure that the weaker are provided for and that people are not exploited; the nationally based laws used in legal cases associated with the hitherto laissez-faire Internet are proving insufficient ‘as pornography moves around from one country to another; environmental issues cross national borders and require a long-term and international perspective.
In the practice of individuals, sectors in society and nations, there is need for some agreement for the way ahead. This is an opportunity for those who have long-term visions to share in shaping the future. Will it be Christianity?
I am constantly surprised by the positive attitude by non- Christian friends to my faith and to my small efforts at looking at theology and ethics associated with the new electronic technologies. ‘Be true to who you are, for us,’ they say, when I get distracted into other things, ‘write and talk about it’. In recognizing their state, even though not yet willing to make a choice, they seem to see that those who do have a way forward, dim though it may be, and that they are in some way important to them. They appreciate a longer term perspective, awareness of how change impacts on individuals, especially the more vulnerable.
This is a radical change from the days when modernism was dominant and for me, more than any other change, signals the death of the Enlightenment. It is good to feel wanted again, but while displaying an acceptance of my faith, it illustrates one of the great dangers for them and for me; that is of allowing others their choice without seeing in it the truth that challenges. The demand on me is to make a relevant expression and articulation of Jesus as the centre of God’s redemptive story, one which seeks to persuade others of that truth and the unacceptability of multiple truths.
Our expressions need relevance to individual citizens, not just to opinion-formers. Jesus used illustrations:
- From the environment – seed growing, weeds in the midst of crops;
- From events in social life – stewards and their masters, people owing money;
- From technology – using a plough, dragnets gathering in both good and bad fish.
We have new technologies, for example the Internet. Just as Jesus ironically uses the ‘bad’ yeast that cannot be got out of dough against the Pharisees (Luke 14:20-21), similarly wrong information that gets onto databases attached to Internet cannot easily be removed and most commentators think never. The reason is that data is transferred and copied from computer to computer, so if you need to correct it, it is everywhere. For this reason, I offer stories and contemporary examples to see if they connect between the world of today and what we read in the Bible.
The continuing shape of this chapter
Having laid out the reasons why being part of God’s story is a response to the condition of postmodernism, and having discussed how service and mission relate to it, I will address two main and different aspects of our lives:
- Knowing we must change but not how and in what way;
- The world of work.
In taking the postmodernism ‘issue’ to the Bible, I have particularly chosen Luke’s account of what Jesus teaches on his way: ‘As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, he resolutely set out for Jerusalem’. (Luke 9:51)
Living as many of us do in a society in transition from modernism to postmodernism, we are bound to be affected in our minds by the pervading culture, much as we might wish it were otherwise. Most of us are not immune from rehearsing in our minds the inner liturgies that are presented to us by other people, through the media, or through events.
When we try and make sense of the world, there are three main ways that we do so:
- With some framework or philosophy we either explicitly apply or have absorbed implicitly;
- By having preferred patterns of response in our personality; or
- By use of deep maxims that we have stood by through most of life.
In an integrated and whole life these would be the same: maxims cut out in the light of the gospel; personalities changed to display the fruits of the Spirit; and Jesus as a way of life both indwelling and explicitly applied. In postmodernism, with its denial of any overarching purpose, people find themselves falling back on personality and maxims with no reason to change them in one direction or another except to the current fashion or whim.
Cut out wrong maxims
What does Jesus say when we take these maxims to the Bible? One striking example is given as he is on his way to Jerusalem and he is told of some Galileans that Pilate has killed during religious observance (Luke 13:1-5). It is clear from Jesus’ answer that he is addressing a fundamental belief, a maxim or inner liturgy rehearsed by those present – that bad things happen to the bad. Why is he so focused on this point? Because that particular inner liturgy says we don’t have to change; if bad things have not happened to us, we can’t be bad and so we must be OK. Jesus says that we are not OK and have to repent – the parable that immediately follows in order to illustrate the point indicates that he is talking about whether or not he will find faith on earth on his return – he is asking whether there will be fruit.
If Jesus throws this maxim out, then the converse is also thrown out, viz, that because bad things have happened to us, we must be bad. It was the argument put forward by Job’s friends and refuted by God. And we need to affirm that it is not true because so many abused children also assume it. The fact that bad things happen to us may be a direct consequence of our actions, but when they are applied by others in a situation of power over us, or as part of the events of life, as the Tower of Siloam falling down and killing Galileans, then we are not to deduce that they were in any sense more guilty than us. The world has power struggles, violence, war and natural processes such as floods, volcanoes, viruses and cancers and technological failures. (12)
Although I use this one particular maxim as an example, there is amazing power in it; people often distance themselves from those who suffer misfortune as if they have some badness. There are even Christianized versions of this: ‘A bad thing happened and if you are properly Christian you can now learn from this and come to a good place’. It is true that we are called to learn about God and his ways through the whole of our lives, but the attention some pay to that version implies a maxim to which Jesus says, ‘No – you too repent’.
The story leads to an even stronger point. The people say, ‘That wicked Roman was responsible for this act on our people – just when they were in the middle of serving God, isn’t that terrible?’ Repent, Jesus says. Even if we struggle for a righteous cause, we have to change our thinking, we have to turn to God. Even if the purpose of our work is to offer an alternative to postmodernism, we are to repent in the way we intellectually think about it. (13) ‘But unless you repent, you too will perish.’ (verse 5b)
How, I ask, will I perish if I don’t repent and change? The answer is that I perpetrate the thinking that traps people, that diminishes them, that is false. In particular, if self-righteous attitudes are maintained, then love cannot be shown. Even if we are right, we are called to be in a spirit of repentance.
Beware the beguiling atrocity story
Finally, this story has been described as a typical ‘atrocity story’.(14) Atrocity stories are typically of the form, ‘Have you heard what has happened Isn’t it terrible…?’ The sub-text is ‘Whose side are you on?’, testing loyalty and forming alliance. I hear them every day in my place of work; I hear them at Church (and I wish I didn’t have to write that). ‘Have you heard what so-and-so has done now?’ ‘Have you heard what the Board has decided!?’ Many a hapless person in being kind and defending the other has found themselves caught in internecine warfare, or building controversy where none need have existed.
John (I have changed his name) is a minister and two couples in his eldership team disagreed with each other. Each came to him and he listened and defended the other. Each believed he supported the other and came to the decision at about the same time to leave the Church and left. ‘What have I done?’ he asked, in tears. I too used to listen, but in silence. Others assumed that I agreed and so went into meetings expecting me to back up their point of view and were very angry when I did not do so – ‘But we discussed it all’, they said afterwards, having taken my silence as total support.
No-one is righteous before God
The reason why Jesus seems to react so strongly to the story is that no-one is righteous before the Lord and so it is wrong to build in our minds a model that separates people into sides, into the righteous and the bad. You cannot even say, ‘Here is the Kingdom’, ‘No, there it is’ (Luke 17, 20-21); nor say who is in the kingdom and is out of it, for the Kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet gathering into it both good and bad. (Matt 13:47 -50) Will there be, Jesus asks, people who have repented, heard, obeyed and DONE the words that he speaks?
And, as we know from Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, this is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit, not by ourselves.
I came across a related example when I was in Germany attending an international conference on telecommuting – those who spend part or all of their week working from home and enabled to do so by telecommunications and computers. The speaker was describing some early experiments with employees: ‘We have noted one interesting thing,’ he declared, ‘good marriages survive, and bad marriages break up, but the sooner they break up the better anyway.’ I pointed out two falsehoods, first it was backwards logic, as he was defining ‘bad’ marriages as the ones that broke up, and, second, that he felt no sense of responsibility that events initiated by the employer may have contributed to a change in the relationship. In effect he was (among other things) asserting one of the main aspects of that one maxim, it was intrinsically the fault of the marriage, and had nothing to do with what his company had done.
As a formal representative of the Church of Scotland, my contribution aroused considerable discussion and, after the surprise that I was there at all, another employer told the conference how their company always counselled both partners and took them through as many implications as possible before any telecommuting took place. This action admitted that all marriages may have weak points and that the decisions the company was taking may influence the outcome. As the party in a position of power, they believed that they had to take some caring action. Not only do we as individuals not stand righteous in sight of God, neither do our relationships; admitting to such means taking a different path in response both to what others say and to the changing events of life.
I have explored just the one story as an example, but I hear other maxims that reflect the fatalism around today, ‘If it’s for you, it won’t go by you’, and the self-creation of today, ‘Life is what you make it’, along with its Christian versions, ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Like all maxims, there are times when they will be true, but this does not mean that they are usually true, nor that they form a good basis for making sense of the world and building a Christian life.
Why am I stressing the danger of maxims? Because some psychologists are beginning to say that people operate by such deep maxims at the point of choice in every area of life and that they often number between as few as three to five. No wonder then that Jesus attacked them so strongly. If we are to build Christian lives and communities, we have to take these and make them subject to Christ, captured as slaves enchained in his triumph parade (as Paul expressively put it), for him to give or withhold life.
While our maxims and habits are deep, our human surfaces are extremely malleable, hence it is false to say that we would never do things that we find unimaginable. This also explains why postmodernism people can simultaneously be subject to a few deep maxims and yet be totally dominated by style. The psychological studies that showed how ordinary well-educated people can do what the Nazis did, horrified and offended many, and yet that is exactly what happened in Bosnia and Rwanda. In the same way, Peter could not have believed he would deny the man with whom he had spent the previous three years in close friendship and contact and for whom he declared his life, calling him ‘my Lord and my God’.
Chapter 13 of Luke goes onto to talk about the weight of the Jewish system (verses 10-17) and how it oppressed people to a state where they remained ill. Systems of thought do enter deep. In the Eighties, a professor of forestry at a university rang me up. After a while she broke down describing how she was marking her students examination papers, but every one had an explicit or implicit framework that only money was an arbiter in the decisions to be made over national and local policies to do with afforestation. It was then that we realized that these students had spent all their adult lives under one British Government, Margaret Thatcher ’s, in which this had indeed been the main arbiter for policy decision-making. The students had not been able to break out of the dominant values and consider alternatives.
Once a pattern of thought is broken, there is an amazing effect. It still needs to be worked through, as yeast works through the dough (verse 20-2 1), but the results are far beyond that which one can imagine (verse 18-19).
‘Consider carefully how you listen’
Guinness (15) points to the need for prayer and fasting, first because it works against the ‘humans can live on bread alone’ image portrayed by compulsive materialism and second to stop being distracted in order to hear God more clearly.
In taking our society’s ailment of distraction to the Bible, we find in Luke (10:38-42) the story of Martha and Mary, immediately following on from the passage on the two great commandments serving the neighbour. The contrast is not between work and listening, but between distraction and hearing God. Jesus says to Martha, ‘You are worried and upset about many things’; maybe there is a time for setting aside the preparation of bread, however that is manifest, for hearing; ‘Mary has chosen what is better’.
Listening is one of the characteristics of Luke’s gospel:
- He who hears my words and puts them into practice (6:49);
- He who hears the word of the Lord and retains them (8:15);
- Therefore consider carefully how you listen (8:18);
- My family are those who hear God’s words and puts them into practice (8:21);
- Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you (9:44).
Giving listening the right priority seems difficult, and we each need the right structures in life to enable us to do so. I make no apology for raising these apparently small domestic arrangements when discussing potentially the most dangerous global worldview to Christianity there has yet been. It is exactly the willingness for Christians to put themselves into the place of grace and hear what God is saying through the Scriptures that will determine whether Jesus will find faith when he returns.
While we are young as teenagers and students we are discovering ourselves in front of God, as adults our condition of fragmented disorientation calls for recollection. A re-collection, that is, which allows the individual characteristics to regroup and re-integrate into coherent selves, which when done in the sight of God demands constant re-evaluation and repentance. It is easy, even then, to get stuck in aiming for wholeness for self as an end in itself, a postmodernism trait, as opposed to continuing to listen to God for clarity and enlightenment for action in the world.
Choosing a place that does not make demands on us
Most things we look at impose their own routine. The diary, the kitchen, the office, the phone, the computer, the tools, all of these switch our minds on to the next task, or stir our conscience with tasks undone.
Jesus told his friends to pray ‘in a room by themselves’ (Matthew 6:6). The older translation, ‘an inner room’, may disclose another aspect of his meaning: there were no ‘inner rooms’ in Jewish houses, and he may well have meant the inner sanctuary of the heart. Some can train themselves to ‘switch off’ easily; for most people, a choice of place or position which is out of the ordinary is helpful.
God’s Otherness at work in us.
I have the uttermost sympathy with Nicodemus; as a leader of the ‘Jewish Church’, he would have seen how little people change, how hard it was to create change, especially in oneself. I want to able to rehearse the right maxims, and develop a Christian personality and to operate completely and consistently within a Christian framework of life in order to serve and bring others to Jesus Christ. Equally I recognize that this is an impossibility from where I now start as an adult with all the genetic predisposition and cultural accretions of my life; how can I be born again and change so much? Jesus answer is instructive – you can’t without the Spirit of God at work in you. In Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem, he asks his followers to stop their habitual responses and choose another way; he asks them not to react with their emotions in the way that they did before (Luke 9:55), he asks them to differentiate their decision-making from the cultural patterns (Luke 9:57-62), he asks them to transform their thinking (Luke 13:2-5).
Even in our fragmented and often argumentative internal selves, the transformation of deep habitual patterns is impossible on our own, as the failed modernist attempts of self-transformation and self-creation have demonstrated; and they have led to the disillusionment and he1plesness of postmodernism. It requires some Other to be inside allowing a delay or gap in response so that an alternative can be proffered, whether an emotion, decision (or act of will), or thought.
I was speaking to a psychotherapist about such matters and asking him his view on a number of related issues: why it is so hard for people to change; individuals’ desire for re-creating themselves, often under the modernist myth of there being a perfect whole being into which one can be transformed; and the impotence that many express to him. (This impotence, incidentally, is both figurative and real – one of the increasing trends in large Western cities is in the impotence of young men, attributed by some to the denial of the embodiment of life; and in the practised impotence of those who avoid sexual contact yet seek artificial help in conceiving a child.)
The therapist told me that people have to be totally supported in their voluntary change, and that many came to him not for change but for support, because it is not found in society. This support is, however, found throughout the Bible and called for in the people of God; God is a god of love, caring for each and supporting each, not in the material terms in which we so often think and so expect God’s love, but precisely in creating plausibility structures and equipping people to serve and to go out to tell others of who God is and what he has done.
The corporate dimension of faith
The importance of the corporate aspect of our faith cannot be stressed strongly enough and works against both the self -creating side of modernism and the ‘individual choice in all things’ of postmodernism. God is at work in us and among us; the Holy Spirit (who is also ‘God’ in our Trinitarian faith) is especially present when two or three are gathered together. How this works out in sociological terms has been analyzed by Berger (16), and we read in the Bible how strongly Jesus insisted on those who are our ‘brothers and mother’ being those with whom we are actively and self-consciously informed and engaged by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (Luke 8:19-21).
The Christian communities of which we are a part must therefore express God’s love in such a way that all sufficiently feel the support necessary to have the confidence to change and then to fail and to keep on changing. The Otherness of God in us is both in love and in demand for change; it is to be visible as such in our congregations both in word, because we especially want to be able to express faith and its relevance in words as a message to a culture keen on intuition, and in practical ways to demonstrate service in a culture.
In our mission, people are vulnerable and feel they lack support, so we have to express this support while yet presenting the challenge to accept Jesus as way, light and truth to be integrated with every area of life. While we unmask the world for what it is and what it does to people, yet we need to affirm and celebrate every individual with the truth that God died for them. In other words, with those yet to accept Jesus as the central informing axis of life we come together to face both the support of God and the judgment of God and not to put ourselves onto one side against others.
Dependence on God
I have focused on the ‘inside’ because that is where Jesus so often sought to begin. He makes a ruthless demand to cut out anything that prevents putting his words into practice; for example to cut out any feeling that we are OK and that we stand righteous with God in respect to others, whether because of what has happened to them, because of what we have done or not done, or because of the self-knowledge we have acquired. Certain axioms facilitate postmodernism; the individualized and fatalistic one we considered is one of those, but so are others. To cut them out is not easily or lightly done; yet it is demanded by faith. As Isaac of Nineveh put it:
When God comes to see that in the purity of your heart you put more trust in him than in yourself, then an unknown strength will dwell in you. Then you will experience with all your senses the power of the One who is with you.
We now turn to the world of work.
Implicit in postmodernism is a changing attitude to work. Work, many felt, defined who they were and was a major means of controlling their own destiny. With work changing, any sense of control is largely doomed to failure. There is a massive dissonance in self-worth and in self-meaning that contributes to the homelessness of the soul. Work is one of the primary means by which postmodernism comes to us; its values are taught explicitly in management and practices and affect us directly. It is therefore right to consider it as one of the most important issues in the context of a Christian response.
There are four major contributing causes to a changing attitude to work: employment is changing, people no longer have life-time jobs and in consequence the idea of profession and vocation is changed; women working has contributed both to challenging the way that male-dominated employment has operated and to the demand for fair treatment over time to have children; there is a growing understanding of what work does to us; and we live longer and there are many years of active life beyond ‘retirement’ age. I will consider each in turn.
Changed employment: Societies experiencing postmodernism have rapidly changing organizations that are moving from large-scale manufacture towards service industries, based on information technology. Jobs are therefore changing. Although the average length of time by an employee in one company has surprisingly not changed very much, the possibility of staying for a long time has diminished. This means that the idea of vocation has been challenged as people move type of job. More significantly, there are people educated for jobs which they then find unavailable, having believed them to be their vocations.
Vocation is a hallowed term in the Church, because we equate it so strongly with the calling that we each receive to follow Jesus Christ. Recent study has shown this to be largely due to the influence of Luther and his introduction of the two callings – one to discipleship and one to a line of work (17). The problem with this is the change of society described above – is this a failure of ourselves as individuals to find the right vocation, of the society which should provide enough jobs of a vocational nature, or of the concept? In particular, what does this say about garbage collectors and other essential tasks that need to be performed to enable society to run, about those who work in order to go out to be missionaries, about those who work in the home and look after children, about those who voluntarily give up a job to go with a spouse or family to another place, about those who are long-term unemployed, about those who re-train for different work, and about Christian ministers who find their Church cutting back on staff? The suggestion made is that the concept is wrong – and that there is but one calling to follow Jesus Christ.
Critiques of work: Critiques of work have come from feminist, New Age and environmental thinkers, who have each, from a different perspective, sought a different relationship between that which is expected of workers, the way work is done, the results of working practices and the products of the work. The feminists have argued that the every area of work reflects a male bias; New Age has reacted against the fragmentation of lives into work and home and sought more holism in what work means; and the environmentalists have sought to show the effect that current large- scale and centrally organized work has on lives and their surroundings, both animate and inanimate.
What work does to us: I hear so many stories of work in which men are reduced to such low self-esteem that they spend a considerable time crying. In Ecclesiasticus, the last of the ten blessings is not to have to work for someone more stupid than yourself, (18) presumably because of the growth in frustration over the number of opportunities not taken and the better ways of doing things.
Those who have jobs are spending longer doing them either directly in increase of working hours or indirectly because they have to spend time in training; if you are not at night school, one US advert runs, you are getting left behind.
The Third Age: Middle age was defined at the mid-point of an active adult working life. From 18 to 65 meant a middle point of 40. Now, however, those in the rich world and not in the bottom 10% of those societies (who being poorer die younger), can expect to live actively up to 85-90. Middle age is now well over 50 and many ‘retire’ just afterwards. There are therefore large numbers of citizens still active but often finding themselves with nothing to do in the traditional ways of contributing to society, for two to three decades – the so-called ‘third age’ (the ‘fourth’ being infirmity before death) (19)
Middle age has been significant beyond a numerical average. It has been attached to different aspects of life: in the younger active age of Jesus’ time, it was when people were determined to have enough experience of life that they could contribute something more valuable to society, the age when a man could become a teacher – Jesus adhered to this particular social code. In modern society, ‘second journeys’ often began at this time. Typically women had finished child rearing and were exploring their lives beyond the family in new opportunities; men had lived long enough to see where they would end up in life, despite their dreams of career, and psychologically it was often a low-point in life -the so-called ‘mid-life crisis’. This pattern is beginning to break as illustrated by the fact in the US and UK the age range in which there is the fastest growth in women bearing children is 30-45.
From Modernism to a Postmodernism society
In rejecting Luther’s two vocations and arguing that there is only one – to be a disciple of Jesus – Wolff argues that we should instead look at the spiritual gifts given to each. These can be used whether at work or unemployed, whether employed in a job which would not be our choice or forced into exile away from home, whether temporarily abled between childhood and death or disabled, whether work is done for interest or only for means of support, whether work is voluntary or enforced, as in compulsory enlisting, whether there is long -term commitment or not; through all these one can ask for and express the gifts of the Spirit. The gifts include both those for the building of the Church and those for everyday life. (20) The effect is to find service in all states of life.
There is another effect, and that is the ending of the idea that only a cobbler who does no other thing except make shoes can be a good cobbler. Such an idea would be absurd to Jews, who at the time of Jesus each learned a trade so as to support their family, including Paul as a leatherworker, yet it has been a significant part of the concept of professionalism in modern societies. A professional, the view goes, is one who dedicates him or herself to the profession and who is distrusted if they do other things, particularly if they do them well! Jung noted this as a prevalent feature of modern society:(21)
Society expects, and indeed must expect, every individual to play the part assigned to him as perfectly as possible, so that a man who is a parson…must at all times…play the role of a parson in a flawless manner. Society demands this as a kind of surety: each must stand at this post, here a cobbler, there a poet. No man is expected to be both…that would be ‘odd’. Such a man would be ‘different’ from other people, not quite reliable. In the academic world he would be a dilettante, in politics an ‘unpredictable’ quantity, in religion a free-thinker – in short, he would always be suspected of unreliability and incompetence, because society is persuaded that only the cobbler who is not a poet can supply workmanlike shoes.
Precisely because one particular job or profession did not express the whole of our lives (it may do so, but more likely it does not), there was need to re-evaluate why ‘society expects’, and to seek to change the expectation.
Applied to participation in the life of the Christian Church, typical of the modernist culture was the full -time clergyman; whereas in pre-modern culture, church members would leave things to the priest because he was a holy man, in modern culture they would simply ‘leave it to the professional’. If a lay person became attracted to religion, the way forward was for him to become just such a professional, as it was ‘odd’ to be seen to be keenly religious unless it was your job.
One can thereby understand the temptation for some to have moved either away from the Church or towards full-time work in the Church, which instantly condoned the part that was previously rejected in society. In particular, this has contributed to the lack of theologically educated laypersons engaged in the world. This particular manifestation of modernism is beginning to change and the change is attractive because it makes our Christian faith more acceptable. It makes it acceptable, however, only because everything becomes acceptable and that denies Christ’s explicit claim to truth; so one of the gifts of the Spirit is evangelism.
One of the results of this ‘professionalism’ is a code of silence; one is allowed to speak only on subjects which society regards as our professional expertise. The result is that perfectly intelligent people stand silent and watch the results of decisions with which they do not agree because they adhere to the practice of silence – ‘I have no special knowledge of pornographic shops, therefore I cannot say that I do not want one in my street; I can safely leave such decisions to those in authority (who presumably have such expertise).’‘What will my professional colleagues think if they see me involved in lobbying against things that are not part of my profession?’
Work can so dominate that we forget we have roles as citizens, as parents, as children, as travelers, as home-makers, as spouses, and these roles have as valid a call for participation as other areas. Justice, care of the more vulnerable and those not so articulate or literate are demands in the Bible that professionalism has enabled some of us to take more lightly than perhaps we ought.
The commonest excuse for those in work is that they have not had the time.
The gardener of one of the pre-democracy leaders of Rhodesia made his employers angry. ‘We tried to help him ’, they said, ‘but every time we paid him more, he worked fewer hours and spent the extra time on his own vegetables. It’s just useless, it’s no good paying people better wages.’
The idea of earning enough and then serving in other ways is growing in postmodern societies, a real move away from the so- called Protestant work ethic found in modernism. Increasingly people are discovering that a significant proportion of earnings have to be used to sustain the process of going to work; wages are spent on transport to and from work, perhaps a second car in order to travel, income is spent on clothes, on training, and on sports and other stress-reducing activities.
Models akin to the gardener’s are emerging: increased self- employment giving flexibility over months and years; home- working for some types of job, to give flexibility of hours and weeks; and for both to spend time with family. It is termed in USA as a Nineties ‘significant trend’ and called downshifting, voluntary simplicity and exit strategies. Employers are discovering that it actually aids them: first it reduces their long-term commitment to paying salaries and second, they can reduce their infrastructure costs, in heating, number of desks, etc. and, third, they find that happier workers are more productive and less prone to stress- related illness and absences. These moves are just beginning and many political commentators now think that in the new millennium, the major focus on money associated with work in government legislation will move to how we spend our time. (22)
Unfortunately without any overarching purpose, voluntary moves by individuals tend to be escapes and, moreover, escapes into Romanticism. As Christians we need to address work and time explicitly as expressions of the gift of life and of the Spirit in terms of service and mission.
The world of postmodernism is dominated by style. Image is dominant in a world where there is disorientation, decentred living, victimization without knowing the perpetrator, and fragmentation. Taking as a preliminary definition that style is a way of choosing to be and act in light of everyday operating values and that spirituality is a way of being, acting, relating and choosing in light of ultimate values, one can see that the lack of a longer term view reduces life to style. Many veer from a sense of helplessness to one of frantically seeking self-fulfillment by image change (sometimes including job, spouse and family). In particular, one result is that spirituality is being re-defined in terms of style by choice and by eclecticism. Christians have not escaped this and Christian spirituality – the practice of doing the words of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit in the context of God’s redemptive story – is often reduced to a similar pick-and-mix consumerism. We need to rediscover what it is we are doing here as Christians, and the difference our spirituality makes when it is compared to others.
Although this is the first time that God’s people have met with postmodernism, it is not the first time they have had to respond to a situation when their thoughts, decision-making and emotions were all shaped by the society they were in. The Bible tells of how they changed, as did their understanding of God, and Jesus explicitly taught in this way. In those changes, there was an importance to God’s story, rooted in specific acts that sustained them through generations. Our specific act is Jesus and the sufficiency of that act and the story bears repetition after repetition as we bring our situation to it and him. Moreover the story around which Jesus is the focal point can be explicitly be shown to counter the condition of people resulting from postmodernism. As well as this ‘return’, there are also hints that we need to move on in our understanding of God, perhaps in area of God’s non-human creation.
Seeing life as a gift from God to be expressed in service and mission is itself counter-cultural, particularly when shared in faith communities and when every part of life is put under the Lordship of Christ. However, we cannot stand outside our society and similarly we cannot stand outside our common humanness; therefore we share with others many of the same conditions in the sight of God. Those of us who make the Christian God the interpreting and guiding direction of our lives can come with others in the knowledge of both the affirming love of God, that God is for us, and humbly and in repentance that God is against much of what we have created and still sustain. Because we share so much, the persuasion we use in mission is one which has to be based on plausibility, both in practice and in expression.
The impact of work in societies where postmodernism flourishes is enormous, particularly in understanding of who we are and what we are here for. For this reason, I considered why and how it may be changing, and the opportunities that exist for Christian witness as indicative of change elements in society. One approach is to see work as an expression of spiritual gifts to be expressed through what we do, whether in old-style life jobs for a salary, or in new style part-time, occasional or multi-part work, not all or any of which may be earning money directly.
Jesus’ constant question in Luke remains, ‘Will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he returns?’ Postmodernism presents a new challenge. Will he find those who have heard and are doing the words of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit in the context of God’s redemptive story?
REFERENCES TO CHAPTER 3
(1) I shall use the single word postmodernism both as noun and at times as an adjective to avoid the discussions among sociologists about the differences between post-modernism, postmodernism, postmodernity and post-modern. For further clarification see Lyon D 1994 Postmodernity Open University Press, Buckingham, UK.
(2) Middleton J R & Walsh B J 1995 Truth is stranger than it used to be SPCK, London (and previously also IVP, Illinois, USA)
(3) Robert McShane
(4) Many commentaries restrict this judgment to individual Gentiles (e.g. Scofield), but there is no place where the demand is greater than is also placed on the Jews as God’s chosen people, so we must assume that this applies to every person.
(5) In this and the following paragraph, I am following Middleton and Walsh op. cit. in their analysis here, p.104- 107.
(6) A recent book on the dyslexic child started out to look at all the problems, but concluded that such were the benefits overall of what dyslexic people had given to others (despite their own pains of rejection) that it should rather be called a gift, and so the book was re-titled.
(7) Newbigin L The Open Secret, cf his Introduction to this book.
(8) Os Guinness Mission and Modernity: seven checkpoints on mission in the modern world. Summarized in this book and printed in Faith and Modernity 1994 Sampson et al
(9) See also Lyon D op. cit.
(10) Of necessity, I talk generally. There are places which seek to foster coherence and integration, such as convents and monasteries, but it should also be throughout society.
(11) Forrester D in Davies H Ethics and Defence Blackwells Oxford
(12) By saying this I do not mean to imply any passive acceptance in the sense of a Hindu karma, but address the judgment we make of the individual(s) involved.
(13) Seerveld C 1988 On Being Human Welch Publishing Co., Ontario, Canada.
(14) Bailey K E 1976 Poet and Peasant Wm B Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
(15) Guinness O op. cit.
(16) Berger P L & Luckmann T 1966 The Social Construction of Reality Anchor
(17) Wolff Work in the Spirit
(18) Ecclesiasticus 25.8c
(19) Cambridge ‘third age’ work
(20) Paul’s two lists in Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12.4-11.
(21) Jung C G Two Essays in Analytical Psychology par. 305; quoted in Fordham F An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology
(22) The Time Squeeze Demos Quarterly 6 June 1995
A On Bishop Reid’s Chapter Sections
1 The Ideas
What three ideas are typical of modernity, according to Bishop Reid, and how do you see them at work in your society?
What kinds of reactions to modernity are found within religious communities? Can you identify any of these operating within your own fellowship?
Read 1 Corinthians 1:18. 2:16
(a) Why did Paul preach the message of the cross in the way he did, and how does this encourage us in our Christian communication today?
(b) Share any stories which illustrate how God’s wisdom and revelation have challenged and even overturned the modern world- view.
2 Modernity and the Church
How much has ‘the spirit of the age’, with its stress on personal fulfilment, pervaded the life of the Church?
Newbigin is quoted as saying that the corporate reality of congregational life must be more than the sum of the individuals within it. How far has this been true in your experience?
Read I Corinthians 12:1-31
(a) What does Paul say about the common confession, the common good and the common baptism in the life of a local church? How can they be demonstrated effectively in our world?
(b) What patterns of corporate church life described here challenge and excite you?
Talk about people’s search for spirituality today. How far is this simply a search for ‘the god within’? Can this be in any way a preparation for the gospel?
What do you consider ix; be the difference between ‘holiness’ and ‘wholeness’?
Read Romans 8.1-30
(a) Paul contrasts ‘life in the flesh’ [sinful nature] and ‘life in the Spirit’. How does this illustrate true spirituality?
(b) In the midst of suffering we have hope. What is the basis for this in Christian spirituality?
4 Doctrine of God
How do you talk about God’s transcendence, and his holiness, in a post-modern world?
Discuss the value, and the limitation, of personal stories in teaching the nature of God.
Read Isaiah 57:1-21
(a) Beginning with 56.9, Isaiah paints a picture of a community whose leaders were failing, and whose members were into idolatry. What warnings are here for us?
(b) What do we learn about God?
5 The Human Person
Who am I? How do you answer this? How does a person today without faith answer this, and why?
The desire to be like God is as old as Genesis 3. In what ways do you see this reflected today?
Read Mark 10:17-31
(a) How does Jesus seek to reach this self-made man, and how should we seek to reach similar folk today?
(b) What may those who leave all for Christ’s sake expect? And how do you interpret verse 31?
6 The Kingdom of God
What is the difference between ‘the hope of the gospel’ and ‘the hope of modernity’?
How can the Church demonstrate that the kingdom is already here – as well as being still to come?
Read Matthew 25:1-30
(a) What is the basis of the distinction between ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’, and which group will you be in?
(b) What is the real message of the parable of the talents, and what are the implications for Christians now, before Christ’s return?
7 False Dreams
What evidence can you see of a new concern with religious questions, outside the Church? How do you account for this?
How do you understand the ‘New Age Movement’? Discuss how the Bible challenges its beliefs and practices. How does New Age challenge the Church?
Read Colossians 2:6 – 3:4
(a) What is the significance of living in union with Christ?
(b) False teachers were stressing the observance of holy days, angel worship and ascetic practices. How does Paul react, and how does this apply today?
8 The Christian Mission
Our society is not only marked by modernity, it is pluralist. What is the Christian mission in such a context, not least where Islamic and Hindu communities are concerned?
If the need is for ‘uncompromising, authentic Christian communities’ in a world geared to individualism, how can we create these effectively? What good models are you aware of?
Read I Corinthians 8:1 – 9:27
(a) What two principles guided Paul as he considered food sacrificed to idols? Share some examples of how these apply in our mission to those of different cultures today.
(b) What rights do we need to give up, in the different contexts of mission today?
9 Modernity, Post-Modernity and the Media
Discuss how the enormous advances in media technology can be used to glorify God in sharing the gospel. How can we avoid using technology simply ‘to make a name for ourselves’? (Genesis 11:1-9)
How can we take advantage of the ‘dislocations’ created by modernity, and what are the priorities in responding to the challenges of modernity?
Read Acts 17:16-34
(a) How did Paul tap into the spiritual hunger of people from many backgrounds in Athens? When and where did he meet people? What can we learn from his example?
(b) Paul debated, finding things to agree and disagree with in the experience of his hearers. What are the equivalents lurking in the backyards of modernity and post-modernity today?
B On Dr Pullinger’s Chapter Sections
1 Where to Begin?
What were the big problems Jesus faced in discipling his followers? What are the big problems we face in this area today?
‘Awareness of our actions and a belief that things could be different are prophetic threads found throughout the Old Testament….’ Talk about some examples.
2 Inner Liturgies
What ‘maxims’ guide churches in their mission, and are they true?
‘People have to be totally supported in their voluntary change’. What does this mean for the local church, and for missionary strategy today?
3 The World of Work
How should the breakdown of barriers between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ affect church and missionary practice today?
How can we encourage the emergence of theologically educated Christians working in the world?