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Re--evangelizing a "Post--Christian" World

Richard John Neuhaus

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Inveighing and evangelizing go hand--in--hand as Robert W. Jenson, a noted Lutheran theologian, responds to the question, "What Is a Post--Christian?" He begins with the counsel of Chesterton's Father Brown to a young secularist friend about his secularism: "It's drowning all your rationalism and skepticism, it's coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition. . . . It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can't see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there's a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like an endless vista in a nightmare."

Jenson started out many years ago being convinced by the "secularization theology" of Friedrich Gogarten (1887--1967), and Jenson is still convinced today, despite the ways in which that theological initiative has been distorted. Biblical truth does demythologize the world, says Jenson, but replaces the myth of beginnings, gods, and goddesses with the message of the promised Kingdom. "Thus the faith of Israel, and so of the Church, is eschatological, independently of particular passages of her Scripture or particular developments in her religious history. Scripture does not find the truth of things in what they have been and therefore are, but in what they will be beyond themselves, that is, in what they will be in God, for God is all there is beyond creatures."

Absent that eschatological hope, people embrace an "almost--nihilism," which is manifestly pseudo--nihilism in its eagerness to construct new gods. "The mark of almost--nihilism's religiosity is that it is made up, and known by its devotees to be made up. It is nihilistic religiosity in that its objects are known to be--nothing. To observe such arbitrary religious invention happening, you need only attend that remarkable caricature of the American religious scene, the annual national convention of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), most sessions of which will be devoted to considering what parts of what 'traditions' can be crafted together to make a religion satisfactory to some group and/or set of interests. All of what Fr. Brown calls the 'bestial gods of the beginning' are indeed inspected for what use we might make of them, i.e., what role they might play in our superstition, while the more conservative handle Christian 'symbols' and 'metaphors' and 'concerns' in just the same way. It is important to realize that these self--appointed religious founders--out--of--nothing are quite aware and deliberate about what they are doing. Or merely consider how the teachings and rites of our churches are often treated by their supposed members as a smorgasbord from which to assemble a religion to their taste, often enough making it quite explicit that this is what they are doing."

The general public rhapsodizes about "spirituality" while evangelical Protestant writers wax enthusiastic about "theism," as though Christianity is one of many species of a genus, all with interchangeable parts. So who is a post--Christian? Jenson answers: "Well--there are whole immense congregations, of all denominations or none, that are post--Christian at least in their public self--presentation. Their theology is a collection of clichéd abstractions--'love' and 'acceptance' and 'empowerment' and 'peace--and--justice' (one word), and so on--and they could easily make any hero or mythic figure at all be the loving or accepting or empowering one, or the guru of peace--and--justice, instead of Jesus, and sometimes do."

Christianity, on the other hand, is persistently particular: "Sherlock Holmes famously said that when you eliminate possibilities until finally only one is left, that is the solution no matter how improbable. That a first--century Palestinian Jew, precisely as the individual person he is, should be the structuring point of the universe, would not be the first guess of minds schooled by the great Greek thinkers. But the long experiment of Western Civilization has eliminated all the mediating possibilities, reducing them to superstition. We have left just the two: waiting for nothingness and waiting for Jesus. And since nihilism is demonstrably not an intelligible thought, waiting for Jesus is the rational choice."

I expect a good many readers will recognize what Jenson is getting at when he writes, "A great deal of our preaching and teaching is exactly backwards. So, for example, the preacher will say that what a text from one of the Gospels, about a miracle or parable, 'is really about is acceptance of people in all their diversity.' A true sermon would go just the other way: 'What our talk of acceptance and diversity etc. is really trying to get at is Jesus.'" The alternative to Christianity is superstition, which, as Fr. Brown knew, is an "endless vista." It is everything in general and nothing real or true in particular. Jenson's inveighing may be, as inveighing tends to be, exaggerated, but it is a salutary exaggeration. If the gospel were authentically preached and lived, he writes, "our churches will of course get much smaller than they are. It is all very well to denounce such theologians as Stanley Hauerwas for 'sectarianism,' but they have much the right of it against their critics."

A New Christendom

I'm not sure at all. Presiding at the altar of Immaculate Conception on Fourteenth St. and First Ave., with hundreds and hundreds of ordinary Americans, I am consistently impressed by the intensity of the response to the particularity of Bible story, of bread and wine, of body and blood, of confession and absolution, of lively interaction with Mary and all the saints, and, yes, of miracles--and all this concentrated as concentrated can be on Jesus Christ incarnate, present, helping, judging, forgiving, and coming again. What Jenson says about the generalized and instrumental religiosity of AAR, of psychobabbled spiritualities, and of religion in the employ of sundry empowerments is all true enough. Today's task of re--evangelizing may be, in some sectors of our society, more difficult than was evangelizing in, say, the fourth century, mainly because in the West so many people think, mistakenly, that they know "the Christian thing."

Jenson writes:

"When Constantine, speaking for a dying antiquity, called the Church to be the moral and intellectual restorer of late Mediterranean civilization, I do not see how the Church could have refused this service of love. But equally, as the West now defines itself against the faith, the Church only perverts herself when she tries to hang on to her Constantinian position, by bowing and scraping to the culture." I would suggest that the service of love, then and now, is to effectively proclaim the gospel, as in, "God so loved the world. . . ." The restoration of civilization may or may not be a consequence of such effective proclamation. The hoped--for public influence of the Christian message should not be derided as trying to hang on to a mythical "Constantinian position." Bowing and scraping is of course to be condemned, but alertness to the sensibilities of the culture is not bowing and scraping. It can be and should be understood as a necessary part of effective communication.

 So I am ambivalent about Jenson's analysis. To be sure, the Church must be prepared to be countercultural, and when the crunch comes--as in the conflict between the culture of life and the culture of death--even contra mundum. But the driving force of evangelizing and re--evangelizing is love for the world, as God loves the world. When the Church is against the world, it is always against the world for the world. Admittedly, these are large and complicated questions, and I am keenly aware that also the faithful gathered at Immaculate Conception are often inwardly torn between Christian particularity and the superstitions and idolatries of the pseudo--nihilism in much of the surrounding culture. Yet the churches, however debilitated their proclamation and enervated their discipleship, are flourishing in America. Some may think it a sadness, but they are not likely to grow smaller in the foreseeable future. Whether it is a curse or blessing, we do not live in a post--Christian society but in an incorrigibly and confusedly Christian America.

Reflecting on related questions in the 1930s, T. S. Eliot contended that a society is not post--Christian until Christianity is formally rejected and replaced by another understanding of reality, something definite and with a name. That happened in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It may be happening in Western Europe, although the replacement has not yet a name, except for "secularization," which denotes simply the decline of Christian faith and public influence. Those who are excessively impressed by the academy, the editorial page of the New York Times, and powers claiming to control what are called the commanding heights of culture may think America is post--Christian. It is not. It is, as it has always been, a maddeningly muddled Christian society. And perhaps becoming more so. Compared with accepting the responsibilities and addressing the problems that attend Christian America, coping with post--Christianity is a breeze. One can simply join up with a small and ever so much more satisfactory society of other true believers. As is the way with sectarianism. I do not think Jenson is proposing that, but I know no other way to read much of the writing of Stanley Hauerwas.

Our circumstance is not all that new. To our individual and communal circumstance St. Paul said what always needs saying, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12). Whether in the first, fourth, or twenty--first centuries, Christians have never quite gotten the knack of distinguishing between transforming and conforming. Then too, America is not the world. The assumption of a post--Christian world offered by Jenson and others is very much attuned to our American situation and, to a lesser degree, to Western Europe. We Euro--Americans are a small, and becoming ever smaller, minority of the Christian movement. In Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the gospel--although alloyed, as always, with cultural counter--gospels--is exploding with the force of fresh discovery. Viewed on this larger screen, perhaps the Christian motto of the twenty--first century should be "Forward to Constantinianism!" It would be a very different Constantine and a very different Christendom than anything known in the past, but, like earlier times, it will be recognizable as yet another episode along the embattled, splendored, and stumbling way of the Church toward the historical vindication of the Jesus for whom we wait.

Copyright © 2003-2004 First Things 139 (January 2004)

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Posted: 4/20/04

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