What happens to a culture shaped by the Bible, if the culture ceases to believe that the Bible tells truth?” This was the question asked by my initiation paper for a liberal arts discussion group that met more than fifty years ago. In the meantime, we have been finding out the answer.
It is not my purpose, grimly enjoyable though it might be, to set forth a lament over our developing chaos—our nihilistic ideologies, the collapsing sexual order and related social and political dysfunction, the idiot’s greed of masters of the financial universe, and so forth. In order to understand more deeply, we need to attend to specific features of the Bible and to correlated aspects and developments of Western culture. The following is offered as a limited contribution to that effort.
Now, we may think of Scripture as both an encompassing narrative of the Creator’s history with his creatures, and as torah, his gracious communication of what is good for participants in that history. These of course are inseparable, but it will be convenient to take them up in sequence. Christians and Jews tend to order them differently: Christians make the narrative primary; Jews, the Torah. I presume the Christian ordering but think both Christians and Jews can agree about much of what I will say.
The Bible interprets the truth of events, institutions, and beliefs by locating them in a narrative account of reality, with a plot reaching from the beginning of all things to their final resolution. Because this story is universally encompassing, if it is true it is necessarily true, and so can provide the final warrants and guarantees for particular truth claims. This same principle also extends to subplots, to individual stories that stand for particular phenomena; thus, the many tales of origin in Scripture. There is a great altar at Bethel, for example. Our father Jacob was granted a dream in which he saw that the place is a gate of heaven, where angels carry on heaven’s traffic with earth. In the culture the Church built, partly from the relicts of ruined pagan antiquity, the history told in the Bible served as the frame within which all truth claims were understood and evaluated.
Why Western culture ceased to credit the Bible’s narrative is perhaps a question only God and his saints can now answer. But it is suggestive that the first step was a replacement metanarrative: the Enlightenment’s tale of self-sustaining (and so covertly divine) Western scientific, political, and economic progress. This preserved the teleological thrust of biblical narrative and promised similar hope and security, but it did not include that offensive item, the election of the Jews.
“Remember not the former things,” said the Lord through Isaiah, “for, behold, I am doing a new thing.” For a time, Western modernity could believe that faith in progress seemed to obey the mandate—and there are some especially sheltered popularizing scientists who still think that way. But for most of us, history itself has undone faith in autonomous historical progress.
We can roughly specify the period of the modern narrative’s collapse. Its epicenter was 1900, the year Nietzsche, the great prophet of modernity’s decadence, died in appropriate fashion, and Picasso came to Paris, where it was revealed to him that one could repudiate the modern bourgeois world and its illusions by new ways of putting paint on canvas. Perhaps we may locate the period’s dawn in 1863, when Édouard Manet exhibited Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, “The Luncheon on the Grass.” In this apparent genre painting, two men are having a picnic. There is a third figure with them, a woman, who happens to be naked. She pays no attention to them, and they—entirely improbably in view of her charms—reciprocate. She is in fact dropped in from another painting altogether, perhaps a Venus Observed, to disrupt any attempt by viewers to construe a coherent story about the picnic. The subsequent history of art is in decisive part the story of various strategies to achieve a similar disruption of modernity’s faith. And in 1918, Walter Gropius, future founder of the Bauhaus, formally proclaimed the end of modernity: “A world has been destroyed; we must seek a radical solution.”
So what happens when both the biblical narrative and its Enlightenment replacement are no longer trusted? Of course, another new narrative might be invented. But now the inventors would know, at least subliminally, that it was a fiction.
Thus in crisis-modernity (also known as postmodernity or high modernity in different areas of culture), the very notion of a comprehensive story that warrants the truth of our partial claims is suspect—or, indeed, forbidden. Among the illuminati, “metanarrative” is a bad word. Yet the West’s history with the Bible has left it with no other way of understanding itself.
A decisive aspect of modernity’s disillusion is sometimes called “the crisis of historicism.” It has become apparent that the method of interpreting events by placing them in history cannot interpret its own appearance in history and so cannot itself guarantee the meanings it claims to establish. Some external source of meaning is being relied on in a hidden way, or indeed openly recruited. We know that we are inventing our stories and the meanings they conjure, yet we cannot stop relying on them.
The ironies of this situation could not remain benign. Those who hope to be sophisticated in their cynicism rejoice—or pretend to—that it is fictions all the way down, fiction resting on fiction, resting on . . . And since fiction cannot be challenged by mere facts, those who in less sophisticated or consistent fashion interpret events and situations by made-up histories acquire immunity to empirical reason. In current Western political discourse, the most preposterous warranting narratives are immune to all refutation, and their devotees cling to them with the certainty of unacknowledged desperation. Two examples: the economic narrative of the Republican base and the bioethical narrative, which is the Democratic equivalent.
Clinging in the one way or the other to our fictions is, to be sure, only too understandable. The modern invention of “religion” as a single phenomenon has at least this much justification: Whether or not there is something called religion that is constitutive of human nature, humans do generally long to be at one with a unifying sense beyond anything that we can obtain in our fractured world. Different cultures rely on everything from the sheer Oneness of later Platonism to the encompassing experience of departed ancestors. Without something transcendent, we do not flourish.
Jews and Christians find their wholeness in living with God in the history he makes with us. “I will be your God, and you will be my people” states the theme. This living-with takes place by address and response.
The Bible is a record of the conversation between God and his creatures, from “Let there be . . .” through the coming of a community whose members together prophesy “Christ is risen and coming,” pray “Our Father,” and cry “Come, Lord Jesus.” Nor is the Bible merely a record, for read liturgically or devotionally it becomes itself a living word of the Resurrection and the carrier of our responses.
Since the God who lives history with us is the Creator, he is responsible for the weal or woe of that history. His side of the conversation is therefore in great part torah, “statutes and ordinances” for the created community. The fundamental form of moral discourse is thus not deontological or consequentialist or the commendation of virtues. It is advice from the One who knows what we are, and our responding, “We hear you.”
It is not, of course, that Western culture followed God’s word more faithfully than is usual with the human race. But when we asked just what human creatures are for, we looked in the Bible. And when we felt a need to repent, the Bible was our occasion and recourse.
Why did the West become deaf to the voice that had led it? There is a short answer: When we ceased to credit God’s history with his creatures, we ceased to attend to the conversation that constitutes it. The problematic point had always been the Jewishness of biblical Torah. How were Gentile believers to hear statutes and ordinances, some of which clearly applied equally to Jews and Gentiles, but others of which were designed to distinguish Jews from Gentiles? The very first missions to the Gentiles broke apart here; Paul’s opponents may have been as wrong as Paul thought they were, but they were not simply apostates.
Western Christendom developed not merely as Gentile but as vehemently not Jewish, and the irrelevance of particular Jewish law soon came to seem obvious. But how to draw the line? The generally accepted device was: That part of biblical law is for all humans to which general human nature—whatever that is—can resonate. The resources of our nature let us grasp that murder is a bad thing, but not why shrimp is to be avoided.
This posture was, to be sure, unstable, but crisis was avoided as long as human nature itself was understood to be a creation of the biblical God. But when a self-sustaining progress became our hope, the individual human had eventually to become a torah to himself. There had been a voice that addressed us from beyond us, and since it was one voice for all, it bound us together in shared obedience or disobedience. And indeed its echoes and whispers haunted us for a long time; even Kant listened for them. But with someone like Emerson, the identification of the individual as the sole source of his own torah was complete. It remained for the American Supreme Court to produce what must surely go down as the classic example of obliviousness to any word from an Other, in the majority opinion for Casey: The essence of liberty, it reads, is the freedom of the individual to decree for herself what her liberty is to be.
So what, if anything, should the Church do about the state of Western culture? To deal cogently with that question, we must avoid an error that has confused much of the discussion. The question about “Christ and Culture,” as if Christ were one sort of reality and culture simply another, has generated much admirable thought but is nevertheless a category mistake. For the Church is herself manifestly a culture, and according to the New Testament the Church is the embodiment of Christ. The question then should be about “Christ and Other Cultures.”
Christ embodied as his Church does not swim in a homogeneous sea of “culture.” Rather, the Church makes a way through history between Pentecost and the End, encountering other cultures as she goes. Each newly encountered culture already has its own morale and worship, and given that the world is at once the good creature of the one God and fallen into evil, the encounter between the Church and any culture will be both appreciative and polemical. The Church will find practices and ideas she can adopt and transform for her own, and others which she must combat. Neither the Church nor the other culture will ever be the same.
The Church’s encounter with moribund Mediterranean paganism was perhaps unique in its results. For the Church did not merely affect this culture; she shaped a new culture from its ruins. The last strictly Roman emperor, Constantine, called to the bishops, “Come over and help us”; give us a new law and a new hope. Deplore it though some may, the bishops responded and Christendom appeared.
Now the Church encounters her own creation precisely as ex-Christendom. How are we to deal with that? Should we try to rescue Western culture from itself? To recall it to what once shaped it? It seems unlikely that persuasion or argument, however cogent, will have much effect; our apologetics are all discounted in advance. Various nostrums, such as entertainment evangelism or seeker churches, have been tried and seem only to dumb down the Church’s own culture. Perhaps the cause is lost, and the Church must simply move on from her old base as a mammoth “burnt-over district.”
Or we may find ourselves willy-nilly emulating the roles of Celtic Christianity or of the Benedictines during the “dark ages.” If the Church survives in the West as a tiny and despised community, let her attend to the authenticity of her own life: Let her cultivate Eucharist and its associated practices of mutual care, with the world viewing this strange body. God may bless such witness, as he did that of the Irish and the Benedictines. And we should remember: Pagan antiquity did not exclaim, “See how they love us,” but “See how they love one another.”
Robert Jenson is the former senior scholar for research at the Center of Theological Inquiry and professor emeritus of religion at St. Olaf College.