In light of the massive shifts in culture, understanding and expectation that the last 300 years has seen, there seem to be three great temptations for the devout.
Last week we talked about the problems that Modernity brought to Christianity’s doorstep in the West. Science had moved into the driver’s seat and was none too kind to those who would not get on board.
The problem, of course, is that we are simply not left the option to go back to primitive Christianity. For Lent this year I read books about post-Nuclear theology and listened to lectures on the first twelve centuries of Church history. It has never been more apparent that the world has changed in drastic ways.
- The Scientific Age
Are just 3 catalysts and results of this epic (and epoch) shift.
Tomorrow I will present what I see as the amazing opportunity. Today I want to comment on what seem to be the 3 biggest temptations for modern Christianity:
- to concede
- to attack
- to retreat.
Faith as a public matter has never been more challenging. The easiest response is to both personalize ones faith and then make it private. This is a two-step dance but either is dangerous on its own.
Personalizing faith is a natural response for an Enlightenment Individual. We major in ‘self’. We have cultivated the ability to think in ‘me’. This is a novel development in religion and some argue that it is against the very nature of religion! The purpose of religion is to bind us together in practice (re-ligio) or reconnect us as a belief-community.
The second step is to internalize ones personal faith. In liberal democracy, no one cares if you believe something – just keep it to yourself. Don’t put it on someone else. Your personal practice in there or over there is one thing … just don’t make too big of a deal about out here. Out here we have a civil expectation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If your religion helps as a means to those ends, fine. If not, it might become an issue of you infringe on someone else right. Go ahead and practice your ‘tradition’ on your own time but just keep it down when you’re out here in public.
The modern expression of Christianity has responded to this two-step dance in many little ways – my favorite of which is consumeristic-accessorization. The bumper sticker on my interal-combustion automobile and the fashionable yet ironic message T that imitates a popular ad campaign are just two examples. It allows me to allude to a Bible verse (I am not of the world after all) while participating in a capitalist system that goes unquestioned.
To counter the personal-and-internal compromise noted above, an aggressive and external coup has been attempted. The memory of Christendom has fueled a political response to take back power and ‘return to our roots’. The rise of the Religious Right (and Moral Majority) of the past four decades is perhaps the most high-profile example. It is, however, just the latest incarnation of this impulse.
The fond (and white-washed) memories of days gone by and yesteryear fuel an anger at what is seen as a disintegrating culture and a slouching toward Gomorrah. The resulting Culture Wars and political animosity have a fundamental problem however:
Ever since the Constantinian compromise in the 4th century is has been difficult (if not impossible) to get the Bible to say what one needs it to say in order to justify a claim to power.
A religion founded on the teaching of a marginalized prophet and incubated in persecuted minority communities does not lend itself to being in charge. An incredible amount of selective editing, creative hermeneutics and mental gymnastics are required to make it fit. At some point a voice like Yoder comes along and points out that ‘this is untenable’.
The above two responses are both simpler and more obvious (and thus more popular) than our last response. The retreat is more subtle and sophisticated. I will return to Theology at the End of Modernity from the first post.
Those who seek to answer the questions raised by the work of Gordon Kaufman (primarily Sheila Greeve Davaney and Linell E. Cady) have deep concern about a school of thought that seeks to move the Christian tradition toward an “autonomous and protected location”.
A seductive temptation is found in an attempt to preserve former (historic) expressions of the faith behind linguistic fences (insulated language games) and communities that become isolated silos. These “are really retreats into forms of fideism or ‘protective strategies’ that seek ways of interpreting theological discourse so as to preserve its unique status.”
The Post-Liberal work of Lindbeck and the Radical Orthodoxy camp of Milbank and MacIntyre are in danger of this.
Those who follow this line of reasoning:
“contend that theology is not properly about ascertaining indubitable truth claims about God or reality, nor about fathoming the depths of human subjectivity; rather, the task is to analyze and explicate the fundamental claims about reality and human life that have emerged within a specific tradition, so that believers might more fully appropriate and live out of their tradition’s vision of reality.”
It becomes a:
“self-enclosed historical community; its method is interpretive, not critical; and its goal is to aid in the internalization of central claim, not the critique or reconstruction of that which we have inherited.” p. 6
You can see the attraction of the retreat! By privileging “revelation” or the “given-ness” of the tradition, one is afforded the space to preserve and defend an inherited system which immune for outside critique and thus preserved in its ‘as is’ status.
This romantic preservation and reclamation mistakenly – and perhaps intentionally – defends and protects manifestations and consequences that we not only need to move on from but we to which we can not possible return to.
In part 3 we will conclude this series with a challenge to make the Christian faith “pluralistic, public, and critical”.
 “by emphasizing an ahistorical human subjectivity, (they seem) to find an autonomous sphere protected from the challenge of other forms of inquiry, then the cost of such independence was the removal of both theology and religion from the public sphere.” p.5