Thursday, March 02, 2006

Composite Society - Part IV: The Enlightenment and Modernism

Pre-modern times were God-centered. That is to say, our ancestors were oriented around the idea of God (or god, or the gods, depending on the culture). Of course, unbelief and disobedience abounded – heightened by the hypocrisy of official state religions. There were, of course, secularists and naturalists, in ancient civilizations, but in the ‘Christian West,’ theism reigned supreme. From the time of Constantine (4th century) to modern times, Christianity was the religion of the Western world.

If you take a quick glance at our culture, you might say that not much has changed. Most people believe in God. Spirituality – in its incredibly diverse forms – is popular again. Evangelicalism seems to have a voice at the table with the power brokers in our culture. Even Intelligent Design seems to be making some headway in scientific quarters. What’s the problem?

If we take a step back and look at the development of our Western democratic society, we find some significant turning points. A seismic shift is now marked by historians via the famous dictum of René Descartes (1596-1650) “I think, therefore I am.” No matter how misused, clichéd and oversimplified this quote has become (guilty of all charges in this post), this is still a handy starting point for this next phase of my attempt to ground our composite society in its historical context.

Following Descartes’ starting point – man’s consciousness of himself – philosophers began to reevaluate the center of Western philosophy. If you want to think in terms of Copernican revolutions, the sun shifted from being God to man. This ushered in the period of history known as the Enlightenment, the modern era. In a nutshell, investigation and reason replaced revelation from God as the source of truth concerning ‘the way things are.’ The philosopher and the scientist replaced the priest and the theologian as the ‘go-to’ guys for ‘real’ truth.
The trajectory of the Enlightenment eventually led to the rejection of any notion of the supernatural or intervention of God in history. If God existed, he was only watching ‘from a distance.’ He may have been the watchmaker, but he was long since irrelevant to history. Secular humanism grew on the foundation of man’s reason and naturalism (i.e. the observable, physical world is all that exists). Today, in spite of the enormous popularity of spirituality in its various forms, secular humanism still appears to reign in all the ‘serious’ centers of our culture – universities, government research departments, scientific laboratories, documentary television, science and nature magazines, and public schools.

This gap between naturalism and spirituality is a part of the air we breathe in our Western world. Religion and spirituality has been relegated to the private and subjective part of life. To call someone else’s beliefs ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is bad form. It is seen as a major faux pas to consider spiritual belief to be something that can be categorized or evaluated critically (some other time I may post on Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher – signifcant early players in this false dichotomy between faith and science).

As I have presented in other posts, I believe that our Composite Society is a good thing. The alternative is a church/state marriage that enforces a system of belief upon all citizens and destroys the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of man. We as Christians need to remember that we are strangers and pilgrims here. Our power is not that of the sword or even the ballot box – our power is the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. However, our adversary, Satan, is no fool. He knew that if he could not ruin the church by eliminating it, he could make it impotent by marginalizing it. Convincing people that Christianity is private and personal could remove it from its role of influencing and reforming societies. This is a big issue. Francis Schaeffer was brilliant at seeing and explaining this reality and pointing to a Gospel-centered way out. Today, David Wells is doing excellent work in evaluating the weightlessness of evangelicalism.

The fact that modern philosophy and science is built upon the foundation of borrowed capital from the Christian worldview is not lost on some modern / postmodern philosophers. Modernity makes claims based on the universal truths, order, and predictability of a designed universe. Logically, God, as revealed in His Word, is necessary to keep this world view of Enlightenment rationalism alive.  If space, time, matter and chance are all that exists, then chaos theory is all that we are left with for a worldview (see Phillip E. Johnson’s Reason in the Balance for some of the chilling logical conclusions of this worldview).

Even though we are pilgrims and strangers, thankfully endorsing a Composite Society, Christians have a God-given responsibility to think, to challenge the foolish thinking of our times and promote a Christian vision of how things ought to be. Christians must be actively involved in politics, journalism, the arts and education. Retreating from the culture – either through physical separation (think Amish) or via building a parallel ‘Christian’ culture and hiding in the resulting ghetto is not the right response to our Composite society (ghetto = take something secular, put a fish on it and pronounce it fit for evangelical consumption).

The freedom and prosperity of our times are an opportunity for Christians. Yes, there are threatening aspects, but let us understand the times make hay while the sun shines! Let us claim the apparent threats to our ‘way of life’ as gifts from God to work for His Kingdom. The popularity of spirituality gives us a foothold to speak. We must present the exclusive, universal, powerful Gospel of Christ to those who will listen, believing in the power of God’s Word to accomplish His purposes (Isaiah 55). We must make the most of the missionary opportunities presented to us in the multicultural composition of our neighborhoods – the nations are coming to us! We must teach our children to understand history, worldviews and different forms of government as well as the Word of God. Most of all, we must remember and believe that this is our Father’s World. He is sovereign, and His plan for the church cannot be thwarted.

No comments: