Monday, December 01, 2008

by Wolfhart Pannenberg

"A public climate of secularism undermines the confidence of Christians in the truth of what they believe. In "A Rumor of Angels" (1969), Peter L. Berger describes believers as a "cognitive minority" whose standards of knowledge deviate from what is publicly taken for granted. Berger wrote about "plausibility structures." People need social support in holding that a given account of reality is plausible. When such support is weakened, people need to muster a strong personal determination in order to maintain beliefs that are out of line with the beliefs of others around them. Berger's is a social and psychological analysis of the situation in which people find themselves, quite apart from the truth of what they may believe. "It is, of course, possible to go against the social consensus that surrounds us," Berger notes, "but there are powerful pressures (which manifest themselves as psychological pressures within our own consciousness) to conform to the views and beliefs of our fellow men." This is precisely the experience of Christians living in a dominantly secular culture.

In a secular milieu, even an elementary knowledge of Christianity—its history, teachings, sacred texts, and formative figures—dwindles. It is no longer a matter of rejecting Christian teachings; large numbers of people have not the vaguest knowledge of what those teachings are. This is a remarkable development when one considers how foundational Christianity is to the entire story of Western culture. The more widespread the ignorance of Christianity, the greater the prejudice against Christianity. Thus people who do not know the difference between Saul of Tarsus and John Calvin are quite certain that Christianity has been tried and convicted as a religion of oppression. When such people do get interested in religion or "spirituality"—their interest being a natural reaction to the shallowness of a secularist culture—they frequently turn not to Christianity but to "alternative religions."

"The absolutely worst way to respond to the challenge of secularism is to adapt to secular standards in language, thought, and way of life. If members of a secularist society turn to religion at all, they do so because they are looking for something other than what that culture already provides. It is counterproductive to offer them religion in a secular mode that is carefully trimmed in order not to offend their secular sensibilities. In this connection, it seems that mainline churches in America have yet to internalize the message of Dean Kelley in his book of a quarter century ago, What people look for in religion is a plausible alternative, or at least a complement, to life in a secularist society. Religion that is "more of the same" is not likely to be very interesting.

I hasten to add that this is not an argument for dead traditionalism. The old-fashioned ways of doing things in the churches may include elements that are insufferably boring and empty of meaning. Christianity proposed as an alternative or complement to life in a secularist society must be both vibrant and plausible. Above all, it must be substantively different and propose a difference in how people live. When message and ritual are accommodated, when the offending edges are removed, people are invited to suspect that the clergy do not really believe anything so very distinctive. The plausible and persuasive presentation of Christian distinctives is not a matter of marketing. It is a matter of what the churches owe to people in our secularist societies: the proclamation of the risen Christ, the joyful evidence of new life in Christ, of life that overcomes death."

Whatever you may think about the thesis set forth by Pannenberg in the complete essay, the above excerpts give a pretty accurate picture of the place Christianity has in an increasingly secular culture and society.

These excerpts also puts the finger on some of the pressures behind some of the recent trends in the Evangelical world. I am thinking specifically of the more extreme manifestations of the emergent movement (ala Brian McLaren). I am not sure our friends in that movement always realize how much of their thinking comes from a cultural cistern that is just as broken as the one they are being critical of.

The point is one I've made before in another place. As Evangelical Christians, we are always to some degree or another going to have to be counter-cultural if we are to remain faithful to the message God has called us to be faithful to. To quote from a previous post:

On the one hand we have to resist the modern mindset that wants to rationalize everything and in so doing, erase the tension and mystery we find in Biblical theology. We resist that view of reason that says all questions can be answered. We also assert that rational apprehension of God’s truth is not enough to save, but there has to be with that apprehension the experiential (existential) encounter and communion with the God which that rational apprehension points us to.

On the other hand we resist that post-modern epistemology that makes meaning meaningless and definition undefined. Words have some objective meaning and definition. If that were not so, we could not communicate at all with one another and God communicating to man through His revelation of event and Word would be just as impossible. We resist the Neo-Orthodox view that the only “truth” is our existential encounter with a “God Word”. In reading the Bible we are not listening for the Word of God, we are listening to the Word of God; an objective Word given by God in time and space.

.... Biblical Christian Evangelical epistemology calls me to embrace both objective (rational) reality outside of myself, and the existential experience of being able through that objective reality to know and commune with the Sovereign God of all creation as my Lord and Savior.

If that sounds a little like "both/and" it's because it is. This affirmation also brings up the question of the Christian's relation to Modernity and Post-modernity. Can a Christian say they are a modernist or a post-modernist? Am I a post-modernest because I view Scripture as meta-narrative? Or is the truth of the matter that once again we are neither/nor?


~ The Billy Goat ~

1 comment:

timothyfarley said...

Good thoughts Bill. One of the things that I have noticed is that we tend to bash postmodernism and defend modernism (or vice vesa) as if one is correct and the other is wrong. This is just not the case. Both have strengths and weaknesses and we need to be aware of what those strengths and weaknesses are.