The Secular Context and the Christian Worldview
LEADERS IN SOCIETY NETWORK SOPRON HUNGARY MAY 2003
1. The Irony 2. The Deception 3. The Disaster 4. The Commission
1 The IRONY:
The irony of the modern West is simply this : though framed within and founded upon the truth-claims of the Bible and the creedal statements of the Judaeo-Christian faith, it now discards these ‘metanarratives’ and increasingly dislikes them. They constitute an affront to the sceptical, tolerant, liberal, modernist/post-modern culture of both Europe and the Anglo-Saxon societies world-wide. In short, the secular west has triumphed over the spiritual west and Christians now find themselves marginalised, their worldview excluded from the ‘naked public square’ because the consensus deems it to be no longer relevant.
That Greece and Rome were also influential for the West is undeniable and David Gress is right to add to these influences that of the Germanic cultures of northern Europe during the Middle Ages (‘From Plato to Nato’). Yet both he and John Roberts of Oxford are adamant that the real genius of the West is Christian. As Roberts puts it, “At the deepest level, it is in its Christian nature that the explanation of the success of medieval society in shaping the future must lie” ('Triumph of the West’ p 108). In fact, after singling out three specific characteristics of the Christian West, Roberts adds the decidedly impolitic comment “At the heart of Christianity…lay always the concept of the supreme, infinite (sic) value of the individual soul….(and) its importance can easily be sensed by considering the absence in other great cultures – Islam, Hindu India, China – of such an emphasis”. (ibid – italics added)
Such an observation merely heightens the sense of irony, however, for if other cultures lack an adequate foundation and mooring for what has become axiomatically ‘western’ – the ‘value of the individual’, the centrality of ‘human rights’ etc – so too has the contemporary West ! Where human rights are concerned, for example, it raises its voice strenuously. At the same time it finds it hard to discover their sufficient rationale. Why? Because a materialistic worldview comprises, ipso facto, only ‘matter without meaning’. Hence Appleyard’s conclusion : ‘There is a further important sign of the terminal decadence of scientific liberalism. Liberal thought had long sought a specifically liberal definition of values and virtue. All have failed because the idea is clearly impossible – how could plurality and tolerance alone provide a basis for concepts like ‘justice’ or ‘the good’.” 'Understanding The
Present', p 249) Siedentop goes further arguing that if liberalism is to recover its true identity it must acknowledge its roots in Christian faith. ('Democracy in Europe').
The additional irony here is, sadly, our own. The humanist West lacks an adequate rationale for all that makes human life precious. Via existentialism & post-modernism at least it admits its intellectual and moral bankruptcy. Yet evangelicalism seems unable to capitalise on this growing realisation of need. A point of entry for the gospel, unparalleled since the Enlightenment, merely serves to highlight the church’s incapacity to fill the vacuum.
To summarise : a double irony confronts us (a) the irony of the West’s rejection of its Christian foundations ; and (b) the irony of the evangelical churches, especially in Europe, which, though possessing the ‘key’, seem unable to apply it to the lock.
Both demand an explanation
2 The DECEPTION:
During the 18th century the West, though largely Christian, became the victim of an unprecedented intellectual sleight of hand whose genius was that it appeared to make the rejection of the Christian worldview not only justifiable but plausible, indeed necessary in the interests of ‘truth’. Light was at last dispelling darkness. Science and its attendant discoveries were coming to the rescue of those inhibited and confused by the power of (religious) superstition. “The appeal of the Christian was to authority and tradition. The answer…was that authority was a usurpation and tradition a delusion. Thus began a conflict the like of which had never before been witnessed….Now it was a case of striking at the roots of the tree itself…..it was nothing short of an attempt to achieve the total defeat, the complete annihilation of religion that was now the object of the campaign…The vital question at issue was – shall Europe be Christian or shall it not ?” (Hazard p 45)
Greater in terms of potency than any earlier deception, the Grand Deception had finally arrived. What was it ? The hi-jacking of the modern West’s most powerful discovery : the experimental method of the new science.
The central fallacy within this deception must be exposed and destroyed if the church is to mount a successful counter attack. Its surprisingly obvious, though insidiously plausible, misrepresentation of modern science purports to make knowledge of the physical valid and knowledge of the ‘spiritual’ invalid. The opposite is in fact the case. Science by itself indicates the necessity of a personal metaphysical reality.
Upon this epistemological misrepresentation rests the now ubiquitous, almost universal, distinction between facts and values. Facts belong to the real world : values and virtues to a‘virtual’ reality. The latter may be respected as personal and uplifting but their proper sphere of importance, it is claimed, lies outside the area of public debate and administration. Hence the importance of Locke’s political suggestions at the end of the 17th century - and the creation of ‘neutral politics’.
The answer to this must be, first, a robust repudiation of the epistemological lie which suffuses the whole of modern western thought. Secondly, an equally robust affirmation has to be made that ‘all truth is God’s truth’- which is after all the foundation upon which Christianity rests. In order to highlight the significance of this principle for those engaged in the political arena especially, this can also be expressed negatively :‘No Neutral Knowledge’ !
How to apply these dicta – which is the special focus of this Network - is both complex and difficult. At the very least Scripture must remain the focus of our enquiries and recommendations, as Michael Schluter will make clear. But behind these, I suggest, lies the need for an organising principle along the lines of what I call ‘The Three N’s’, that is No Neutral (K)nowledge. For the neutral knowledge of the Enlightenment is not merely deceptive and untrue, it is destructive.
3 The DISASTER:
At just the time when an informed and robust intellectual response to the Grand Deception was becoming urgent the evangelical churches of Europe and North America succumbed, in large measure, to pietistic ideas about life and mission.The private concerns of individual piety were highlighted at the expense of public concerns. Philanthropy was widespread and effective, thankfully. But engagement within the public domain, and especially within the political, was less effective. Simultaneously an emphasis upon ‘experiential religion’, that is upon the heart and feelings, tended to displace the responsibilities of the head. Not that the two should ever be divided within a Christian view of sanctification, as we shall see. But the development of a Christian mind and engagement in political life by bible-believing Christians were, with few exceptions, stopped almost dead in their tracks. In view of the seriousness of the attack, this can rightly be described as one of the most serious internal failures throughout the church’s history. Sadly, however, the pietist mood prevails despite attempts in the second half of the 20th century to dislodge it. In general terms it can be said that the United States churches have done better recently than those in Europe. But the picture is at best discouraging. The legislative agenda in the UK, for example, starting with the Abortion Act of 1967, has been characterised, with only occasional delays, by secular victories.
So what happened historically ? And what can we learn from our mistakes ?
4 The COMMISSION:
A more biblical understanding of the Great Commission is needed. First the issue of Truth has to be recovered. The gospel should be received because it is true. Our object is not to introduce unbelievers to yet another virtual reality, what a contemporary describes as ‘Bible-world’ (to liken it to ‘Disney-world’). The demands of the gospel are what they are because they are objectively true.
Secondly, the framework of Christian experience has to be dramatically altered to relate, along biblical lines, the doctrine of salvation to the doctrine of creation.
(Author: Ranald Macaulay
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