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Preaching to late modernity

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 30 January 2013


It is common knowledge that the Church has lost and is losing influence in our time, a time we may name as late modernity. By late modernity I mean the end point of a movement that began in the sixteen hundreds with Descartes and later, Locke and Hobbes in England, Hume in Scotland and the continental philosophes Voltaire, Diderot and D'Holbach. This movement established the individual thinking person as the critical master of all belief and understanding. Each person was held to be their own orthodoxy and all belief had to be examined for its truth before being accepted. The old axiom that one must believe in order to know was reversed, now one had to know before one could believe.

This, movement described as the European Enlightenment, has produced a new kind of person, rational, self reliant, individualist. Such a one could not stand in a tradition of thought without examining each precept and delivering anything that could not be reasonably explained to the rubbish bin. My question is; how does one preach to persons of late modernity characterized by the above?

One cannot assume a belief in God. For many, such a belief has become impossible under the presupposition of classical theism. For example, classical theism comes with the idea divine providence, that God looks over and cares for the world. This notion must have come under severe pressure during the plague years in Europe, not to mention the Lisbon earthquake, the first World War and the Nazis death camps of the second. One cannot assume any kind of moral stance because moral stances are multiplied by the people holding them.

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All is relativised. One cannot appeal to evidence that, for example Jesus did six miracles in one day, or that he was raised bodily from the dead. One cannot even argue that there must be a first cause of all things because we have become quite content with the idea that the universe caused itself. All arguments for the belief in God from design are dismissed because the theory of evolution, that dominates modern biology, does not need a causal agent. Warning of the wrath to come in the afterlife holds no fear because late moderns believe that death is really death, the end of the person. One cannot appeal to the authority of the Church because such authority has been found to be wanting and rests, not on empirical evidence but on tradition.

There are thriving congregations that break all of the above prohibitions. Moral certainty and the literal interpretation of the bible are attractive, as is the feeling of belonging. However, as attractive and burgeoning are such congregations I regard them as a stop-gap, a fragile remnant of old fashioned religion that is holding out for the time being. I assume that the acids of modernity will eventually do their work and we will come to a time when this echo from the past will fade.

So how do you preach to the increasing numbers of us that could be described as late moderns when all of the old arguments for faith have disappeared? Firstly we must understand that all of these arguments represent a false foundation for faith that were a mistake from the beginning. The God Christians worship cannot be co-opted into being the first cause, or any cause at all. Neither can He be understood as the foundation of a concrete morality and thus the foundation of a civil society. Arguments based on supernatural acts in the world cannot now be made and should never have been.

The disarming of the church in this way has the potential to throw it back on its real foundations, not intellectual arguments or evidence but only on the beauty of Christ that we find in the New Testament. We must go back to the first letter of John and rely only on "that which we have heard, that which we have seen with out eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life." This amounts to theological empiricism, the experience of the first witnesses to Christ. Christianity spread through the ancient world not because of philosophical superiority and argument but by a vision of Christ that was successfully transmitted to unbelievers.

This is why systematic theology must begin with Christology and not, as in Aquinas, with philosophical proofs for the existence of God. There are no modernist intellectual barriers that stand in the way of the reception of this vision. This is because the vision does not conflict with our understanding of the mechanisms of nature; there is no nature/science conflict. Miracles may be understood as metaphors instead of mistaken disturbances in the order of nature. The rationality involved is not the rationality of natural science but that of the Humanities. One of the fallouts of late modernity is the strange notion that all knowledge must be sifted through the fine mesh of scientific verification. One wonders what our politics would look like under such a regime, or our film industry!

If the church is to talk of God, the classical notion of God as first cause or designer must be replaced by the central dogma of Christianity, that God has revealed Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This should take us a long way from classical theism. However, classical theism creeps into Trinitarian theology when the Father is identified as the first cause. This immediately destroys Trinitarian theology because it reduces the Son and the Spirit to being agents of the Father and we find ourselves back with the Christological controversies of the fourth century.

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If we take our Trinitarianism seriously then the word "God" takes on a quite different meaning to that of classical theism. God can no longer be framed as a supernatural, intelligent being who may project force into the physical world. Rather, God must be framed as having to do with the man Jesus whose truth and influence in time is eternal by the power of the spirit. Such an understanding of God escapes the atheist's net; He is an entirely different species. Rather than being an abstraction derived from the need for a first cause, this God is a living reality present in the Church via Word and Sacrament.

The situation of the Church in late modernity cannot be compared with situations in the past. The writers of the New Testament were certainly surrounded by pagan religions but they were not surrounded by a population that believed in nothing at all beyond their own desire, individuals who have no understanding of what it means to live in community and whose horizons are entirely limited by their own perspective. Such ones live in the moment, they are mostly a-historical, influenced by no tradition, self invented.

This makes for a very fragile self that is subject to the latest lifestyle fashion and is incompetent in the face of personal tragedy. If I have a criticism of the Church it is that it has not realised how widespread and tenacious is the grip of the late modern spirit. The church growth movement has been a failure. We are in a situation that is unprecedented. What to do? I have some suggestions, but they will have to wait for another time.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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