On the ζωή αληθινή and the Luring of the Zeitgeist

Seminary is, naturally, a thought-provoking place. Every day brings new material that broadens and enriches both our understanding of the Scriptures, and of the Church’s place in history and culture. It’s all very interesting and stimulating. In the process of amassing this information, you tend to automatically categorize it according to its importance to life, the universe, and everything. The fact that King Reccared of the Visigoths was among the first people to commit the double procession of the Holy Spirit to writing is neat, sure. It’s cute, but chances are it’s never going to come up in conversation.

And then you have days where you are confronted with things that stand out immediately for their significance. For instance, this morning my fellow freshman, Jon Chase, had his turn at chapel. He read from Job 39 and then gave a book review of Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, by N.D. Wilson. I’ve never read the book before, but I’d heard a bunch about it, and it sounds like it’s an important book to read. Essentially, it’s the author’s observations of the world around us and just how rich and bizarre that world really is. The rationalistic, scientific culture in which we live tends to reduce things to their component parts and leave it at that, as if all that reality is is a bunch of shimmering strings of energy. We tend to forget that we live in a world that is filled with much more wonder and much more fantasy than you’ll ever find in the Lord of the Rings, as great a book as it is. We live in a world that has been spoken into existence by the Majestic King, and it’s His Word that we see all around us, that is us, in material form. It’s not too different from that moment at the end of The Matrix, where Neo sees for the first time that the entire world around him is built of computer code. Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl isn’t a scholarly book, either. It’s written for all ages, maybe even targeting a younger crowd, so even if you don’t read much, this book is very readable and engaging.

So there was that, first thing in the morning. Later in the day, the last class actually, we had Philosophy. We’ve gone all the way from Plato and Aristotle to the present day, and now we’re studying postmodernism. This philosophy was a backlash against the modernist philosophy that basically saw the whole universe as a machine, and tried to explain it like one. Modernism assumed that everything had a natural explanation, that there was no such thing as miracles, and that maybe God existed or maybe not, but either way he wasn’t involved in the physical world. The cornerstone of this philosophy was the Theory of Evolution, and in many ways we live in the world that modernism built.

However, that is changing. Yes, people still value science and reason very highly, but you hear a lot more these days about things like diversity, community, wholistic thinking, organic living, sustainability, and relationships. Scientific certainty is no longer the authority it once was, as it’s being replaced by things like self-affirmation and personal development. You have to “know who you are” and feel good about it, too. Doubt and skepticism have returned, and “asking questions” is much more respected than finding answers. As Dr. Van Vliet outlined the basics of postmodern philosophy, it dawned on me just how postmodern I really am, and how truly saturated the world around us is, too. Even if you know nothing of philosophy, it’s amazing how it can soak into your heart and mind.

What really struck me, though, was how well poised the Church was to critique modernism, yet failed to do so. Why was it the postmodernists that started criticizing environmental degradation, that popularized community living, relationships, and humanitarianism, that essentially tried to restore the humanity to the cold, metal, and machinistic world of modernism? Why is it the effeminate, agnostic, humourless, jelly-spined university kids that seem to be the only ones asking questions about the validity of our wars? Well, in many ways it’s because the Church herself is modernist, or at least the people who go to church are. This post is already too long to go into the reasons how or why, but I want to address something I see as problematic. The problem is that what’s going on in the Church these days is mirroring what’s happening in the surrounding culture. You’re seeing a backlash against modern Christianity and you’re seeing the rise of explicitly postmodern forms of Christianity – the Emerging Church, for instance – or you’re seeing young people heading for churches that have been less affected by modernism, churches like the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. In many ways, the Church today embodies a way of life that was dictated to her by the world of yesterday, and now she’s running to catch up.

My concern is that the Church is going to become thoroughly postmodern, and just in time for postmodernism to go out of fashion in the world. We’ll be stuck in an outdated rut, again, and all the cool kids will be saying so. What happens then is that we are always chasing the spirit of the age in a lame attempt to be “relevant,” whatever that means. The answer, of course, is for the Church to stop begging for the world’s affection and to be herself; that is, the Bride of Christ. It means living like the Beatitudes, having spiritually renewed minds, and creating a culture that looks very different from the world’s. These are very big ideas crammed into woefully short sentences, but it’s something that the pastors of today and tomorrow have to contemplate and address. It’s something that is very much on my mind today, and has been for a few years, and is still somewhat jumbled. I plan on unpacking these thoughts over the next little while, and focusing my extracurricular reading to try and answer this question: What sort of culture will redeemed human beings, who have been given hearts of flesh, who have had their minds transformed and renewed, and who bear the fruits of the Spirit, create, and how will it always differ, and be a critique of, the surrounding sinful culture? (How’s that for a Catechism-esque sort of question?)

2 thoughts on “On the ζωή αληθινή and the Luring of the Zeitgeist

    • Hi Jocelin,
      Thanks for the link. I’d be interested to read the book he’s coming out with on the United Church. That church is an example to the rest of us of how chasing ‘cultural relevance’ and losing your saltiness often go hand in hand.

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