The second challenge I see facing American churches today (I discuss the first one here) is how the Church engages postmodernism in American culture. By “postmodern” I do not simply mean the period succeeding modernity, however one wants to date that. Rather, I mean the subjectivist thrust of the late 20th Century, particularly implicating language and, consequently, the objectivity of ethics and truth claims more generally.
Three oft-noted currents come together in elite (and, often, not-so-elite) American culture. First, admission into respectable society requires affirming the conundrum that, in truth, there is no truth. Secondly, an implication of the first current, one must be intolerant of those who are intolerant, with those who affirm objective truths included among those not to be tolerated.
The third current is that the broad swath of elite and middle America who hold the two affirmations above has no real inclination to live consistently with the affirmations they ostensibly hold: Middle- and upper-class class Americans get married, raise children, and teach their children, if not Christian virtues, then at least a set of bourgeois virtues calculated to promote their and their children’s success in today’s globalized labor markets.
These three currents are what I took Allan Bloom to describe years ago when he lamented what he described as Americans’ “easy-going nihilism,” that is, “nihilism without the abyss”: Affirming hard subjectivity as an objective truth, dismissing as intolerant those who insist that truth exists (excepting those who affirm the truth that there is no truth), all the while ignoring in the implications of one’s (inconsistent) intellectual commitments in day-to-day life.
But why? What’s the point of affirming inconsistent intellectual commitments, and then living inconsistently with those commitments?
I think much of the impetus for this intellectual and social Gordian knot stems from a desire to deflect the moral and soteriological claims of Christianity. (There are other reasons as well, but for another discussion.)
The desire is for a socially-acceptable rationale to reject inconvenient moral claims, meaning moral claims not instrumentally valuable for economic success. Sexual ethics are only the most obvious example, but one could tick off most of the Ten Commandments.
So there is the patina of an intellectual claim allowing a priori dismissal of religious truth claims—“all truth is relative”—there is the moral claim that seeks to silence and exclude—“if you affirm objective truth then you are perforce intolerant and therefore immoral”—combined with the easy-going neglect in daily life of the implications of the first two currents.
Speaking to this intellectual and social muddle is the challenge of the Church today.
One response is to succumb, and embrace the regnant relativism of much of elite American culture. Churches doing so largely just dissolve into that culture. After all, why get up on Sunday morning to learn there’s really no point to getting up on Sunday morning?
A second response is also a form of capitulation, although subtler. Seeker-friendly churches aspire to be instrumentally valuable to Americans imbued with the commitments described above. They tone down the Christ talk, tone down moral imperatives of a new life in Christ, amp up the music and ramp up the talk of “how to be a better you.” These churches may continue to attract congregants, but their message often reflects and resonates with this mindset more than challenging it.
A third response is to double down on established practices. The premise, a descriptively accurate one to my mind, is Evangelical churches experience the presence of Christ – epiphany – mainly through the sermon. According to this line of thought, the remedy to the subjectivist muddle is for the churches to preach better sermons – which is mainly suggested to mean the preaching of more doctrinally-substantive sermons.
I don’t disagree with the aspiration to improve sermons – I’m one of those Bible nerds who actually enjoys long, dense sermons. And I agree preaching and teaching the Word is a uniquely significant means by which the Word is made present.
What this view neglects, however, is the subjectivism in American society developed in large part as armor against the Word. The Bible calls this process “hardening one’s heart.”
To be sure, the Church must keep speaking. But I’d suggest that she needs to speak in a way that responds to the challenge that arose in large part to mute the bite of religious claims. The question, then, is how the Church can communicate credibly in light of this challenge; how can she reveal Jesus, provide a glimpse of the Kingdom, in a word, epiphany, in this muddled social and intellectual environment?
The answer isn’t new; it’s a matter of displaying the gospel, and so more-credibly speaking it. At its narrowest, I’d suggest it calls for broad commitment to Matthew 25 ministries, and the epiphany Jesus promises in work that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and visits the sick and imprisoned. Part and parcel with Jesus’ epiphany in these ministries, their very costliness to Christians in time and treasure is a means that credibly signals the Church’s profession of Christ’s Kingdom in a day in which mere Church talk is dismissed by the culture.
It is also important that churches reflect the unique communities they are called to be, communities reflecting Christ and the Kingdom, bearing with one another and stimulating one another, as Paul puts it, to “good deeds.” Yet reflecting the attitude that these activities, to put it ungrammatically, are what Christians “get” to do rather than what Christians “got” to do. An example for the Church in this time perhaps is the wife Peter writes of, who converts her husband “without a word” by her behavior.Most broadly, all of this would be tied together by a reinvigorated sacramental life and imagination – reflecting Christ’s instruction to “do this” rather than just to say this. This is a doing in which community and moral action are seamlessly woven together in Christians’ lives in union with Christ and one another.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.