I’ve tried writing this post for two months and each time I have hit a brick wall. Who am I to try to predict the future? Perhaps instead of looking at the future of the West it would be more helpful to take stock of where we find ourselves now. The story I traced out in part 1 concerned the rise of the modern world that began with the calamities of the 14th century. The 20th century had its own disasters and it feels like a bookend to the modernist experiment. The world we live in seems so uncertain that the only term people can come up with for it is “post-modern”. So what does it mean for us to be living in a post-modern world and how does postmodernism affect the Church and her witness? Let’s explore.
The world in the summer of 1914 felt stable, predictable, and rational, at least for the white male elites who ran things. The West increasingly ruled the world and that rule was predicated on reason and “enlightenment”. Science had done away with religious superstition and powerful central governments were now in the business of solving the world’s problems. Progress was slow but inevitable, and new inventions and discoveries (e.g. airplanes and special relativity) made the world feel both more understood and more under human control. In short, the values of the Enlightenment from capitalist economics to individual rights to the cult of reason and progress had triumphed. There was One True Culture in the West and you either celebrated it or submitted to it. Then a young anarchist named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th setting off a chain of events that would lead not only to the most destructive war anyone had ever seen, but also the destruction of modernism itself.
Faith in reason and progress, the primary faith of the West, was lost in the 20th century. The two world wars, which killed at least 90 million people and unleashed horrors from the Holocaust to the atomic bomb, shook the West to its core. “Reason” killed more people, more quickly, then religion ever dreamed of. In place of the old order came the battle of ideologies between Soviet Communism and Western capitalism. Both failed, as the former led to Stalinism and the gulag, while the latter led to corruption, war, inequality, the breakdown of the family, and, ultimately, spiritual desolation. But far from disappearing (or submitting to the Enlightenment), religion became even more powerful. Christianity experienced charismatic renewal and evangelical revival (sometimes called the Fourth Great Awakening), while Islam became both more powerful and more radical. Western elites looked on the wreckage of modernism with horror. Increasingly, the “One True Culture” of modernism began to look like tyranny. Decolonization had released entire continents from the grasp of Western ideology, and suddenly the idea that there was one answer, one Truth, for everybody looked arrogant and foolish. Christian witness was thrown out with the bath water here for the simple reason that it had gotten tied up with the cult of reason and the White Man’s Burden. When the latter two ideas proved unable to save the world, Christianity (and indeed all Truth claims) looked weak and ineffectual as well.
In the post-war period of the 1950s-70s, philosophers became very concerned with “freedom”, particularly in light of the dual horrors of fascism and communism. Freedom, which an ancient Christian would have defined as “submission to God”, was defined as unlimited choice. Any attempt to resolve cultural or political differences was actually oppression in disguise, the attempt of white men to reassert their previous cultural dominance. In some cases this can lead to nihilism, the belief that truth does not exist, but in practice it led to relativism. Relativism says that truth may exist, but it is not absolute or universal. My truth can be different from your truth because my experience and culture are different from yours. In some sense, we each construct our own “truth” from the raw material of our culture and upbringing, our race and gender, our class and sexual orientation, etc. For the existentialists and their spiritual cousins the postmodernists, pragmatism rules the day. Truth is whatever works for you, whatever makes your life freer, happier, and more prosperous. Modernists believed that Truth could be found, that it would be found. Postmodernists believe that all such claims are power plays, because whoever decides what is true makes the rules. And the Holocaust and Vietnam and Watergate and Iran-Contra (and…and…and..) all show how power can be abused. Therefore, any claims of universal truth and moral authority will lead to oppression, particularly for traditional underclasses like racial minorities, women, and homosexuals. The solution, postmodernists assert, is to not give anyone moral authority, to celebrate diversity and tolerance and to destroy the patriarchal power structures represented in both Church and state. That destroying or “no-platforming” an entire group of people is neither tolerant nor diverse does not bother the postmodernist; logical consistency is not their strong suit.
Postmodernism has seeped into every aspect of how we think and operate in the 21st century. Think of the human self, for example. To a medieval Christian, the self was created by God to worship Him and constrained by moral law. To the modern, the self was rational, autonomous, and independent, able to shape the world to its will. To the post-modern, the self is a construction, made up of societal norms and personal choices. There is no essence to the self, no ontological reality, and therefore it is arrogant of anyone to tell you how to live your life or how to find meaning. Increasingly, this conception of the self leads to tribalism on the basis of gender or race or sexual orientation or class or some combination of all these. This can result in a sort of “oppression olympics” in which each group tries to prove that they are the most victimized by the patriarchy. This can become almost comical, as in the case of “intersectional” politics in which you can’t just take into account, say, African-American voices. If you don’t take into account the feelings of homosexual lower class African-American women, then you are still a bigot. Oh wait, but saying that only homosexual lower class African-American women can speak is horribly transphobic and cis-normative and…. In trying to make sure everyone has a voice, postmodernists have fragmented people into ever-smaller groups and pitted those groups against each other. The only way to define oneself, to have any kind of psychological center, is to figure out where you fit into this evermore complex array of identities. White men have proven to be no less guilty here, by the way. Rather than rejecting identity politics, we have seen the rise of white nationalism in which those who are blamed for advancing “the patriarchy” essentially become the very racist, sexist, homophobic bigots that the “tolerant” postmodernist accuse them of being. That white evangelical Christians flirt with this movement (*coughcough* Donald Trump *coughcough*) is an utter disgrace.
The technological revolution of the past few decades has only exacerbated these divisions, ironically by bringing more people together. The Internet has made the world smaller than it has ever been and connected people more closely. That closeness has created greater understanding, but also, conversely, greater fear, which has caused many to retreat to their tribes. The rapid rate of technological change over the last century (we went from inventing the airplane to walking on the moon in the span of 66 years) has created a sort of cultural vertigo, leaving people feeling isolated and unmoored even in the midst of economic prosperity unrivaled in world history. There is a sort of negative feedback loop here: more technology has caused doubts about spiritual truth which has led to a greater reliance on technology which has further alienated us from the spiritual and so on and so forth. People seek solace, then, in groups that look or act like them. We have returned to tribalism, which is all that identity politics (of both the liberal and conservative varieties) is. Many commentators, including conservative Christian ones, call for a return to Enlightenment values of individual rights and human reason as the antidote. But the fragmentation of the culture that technology has wrought will not be undone by more individualism. The cult of reason is what got us into this mess in the first place. Other commentators, including liberal Christian ones, call for the complete destruction of the modern consensus, including the nation-state (see, e.g., liberal skepticism of the Constitution and desire for open borders). But destruction without a positive plan for a rebuilt society is madness. “Smashing the patriarchy” will lead to tyranny, just as the French Revolution brought the Reign of Terror (40,000 dead) and Napoleonic dictatorship and war (3 million dead), and the Russian Revolution gave us Lenin and Stalin and famine and the gulags and 20 million dead, and the Chinese revolution resulted in Mao and the “Great Leap Forward” and 40 million dead. Those who cheer the loudest for a revolution may well be the first lined up against the wall and shot. Or perhaps they will be the ones doing the shooting.
All of this could be the cause for great despair. But we are the Church and the very gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16:18). As I said in the previous post, our job is not to try to rebuild Christendom. Neither, however, is our job to retreat into the hills and await the Second Coming. The witness of the Church provides the antidote to both excessive individualism and tribalism/collectivism. For the Church, the Body of Christ, is made of many individual members, each with their own functions and roles and gifts. But together we form one body, one community, made up of diverse members from every tribe and tongue and nation. Postmodern people recognize the failure of modern individualism, but have tried to cure it by creating toxic and antagonistic communities. They recognize that truth can be oppressive, but have not seen how the Truth can set you free. They reject submission because submission to the capitalist order has brought only inequality, war, and spiritual despair. They do not know a God “in whose service is perfect freedom”. In this environment, the Church does not need to be in the business of the “culture war” or in seeking a theocratic power structure. No, the Church just needs to be the Church. We must be about the business of creating our own culture, a culture of radical grace and generosity, in which each individual is loved and true community is nurtured. We cannot discriminate on the basis of race or gender or nationality or politics, but neither will we play the oppression olympics. All are equal before God and all are subject to the same moral law. True freedom will be found in service to God and in service to “the least of these”. A victim mentality either of the conservative variety (“there’s a war on Christmas”) or the liberal (“I have PTSD because someone used the wrong pronoun”) has no place here. Instead, we must learn to embrace the cross, to understand that we will be victimized, but that our job is to love and serve anyway. Only then will we overcome the fragmentation, tribalism, and spiritual emptiness that define our world.
I don’t have any specific ideas for what a 21st-century Church will look like. Perhaps you can leave some ideas in the comments. I do know that it will have to stand in radical opposition to the capitalist order in its economic ideals (see Acts 2:42-47 for an idea of what that looks like). It will also stand against the moral relativism of postmodernism, not with Enlightenment ideals of reason, but with the revelation of Scripture as a guide. This will ruffle feathers on both sides of the political spectrum, as I foresee Christians being (for example) environmentalists who stand up for heterosexual marriage and both pro-immigrant and anti-abortion. There is capital-T Truth, but that Truth is just as likely to make us uncomfortable as it is to confirm what we already believe. Humility, at the very least, is called for. If nothing else, Christians ought to be about the business of creating accountable power structures within the Church that allow us to share the gospel with integrity. Until we get our house in order, driving out the scourges as diverse as heresy and sexual harassment, we will never be able to start remaking this broken world.
What do you think? Are we already in the midst of another revolution? Or will the Church be faced with another crisis in the coming years that we can’t even see coming yet? We ought to be in constant prayer for discernment, for the eyes of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For without that, we have nothing. But in this I am sure: God will accomplish his purposes in the world. Maybe it will have to come from Africa, Asia, and South America. Maybe the West is already too far gone. I pray not. But either way, we have read the end of the book, and we can have confidence that Jesus is on the throne. So let us hold fast to the faith that we profess and love one another as Christ loves us.