The Greatest Challenge

Posted by Os Guinness, on September 2, 2016
Topic: Just Thinking Magazine

JT24.4_Os_Guinness

Taken from Impossible People by Os Guinness. Copyright (c) 2016 by Os Guinness. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.

If anyone were to tell most congregations in the West that the modern church is facing the greatest challenge the church has ever encountered, chances are that he or she would be met with puzzled looks. Like an undiagnosed cancer, the nature and source of the danger we face is not on the minds of most Western Christians.

How on earth, it is often asked, could German Christians have caved in so weakly to the allure and coercions of National Socialism in the 1930s? The answer is plain: All too easily, if you understand the temper of the times in which they lived. Just so, many Western Christians are caving in weakly before the challenges of our own times, whether through the general seductions and distortions of advanced modernity, the tempting thinking behind the sexual revolution or a failure to understand the significance of the hour and appreciate the implacable hostility of some of the forces against us—and so blunting our witness and betraying the lordship and authority of Jesus. And all this at a time when momentous events across the world are running at a floodtide.

The present stage of history and the character of the advanced modern world have combined to throw down a gauntlet before the church in the West that is as decisive as Rome’s demand that Christians offer incense to Caesar as lord. As we shall see, the challenge to the Western church is subtle but unprecedented in its scale, and it must be answered with a courageous no to everything that contradicts the call of our Lord—whatever the cost and whatever the outcome. Is Jesus Lord, or are the forces of advanced modernity lord? The church that cannot say no to all that contradicts its Lord is a church that is well down the road to cultural defeat and captivity. But the courage to say no has to be followed by an equally clear, courageous and constructive yes—to the Lord himself, to his gospel and his vision of life, humanity and the future, so that Christians can be seen to live differently and to live better in the world of today.

Christians in the West are living in a grand clarifying moment. The gap between Christians and the wider culture is widening, and many formerly nominal Christians are becoming “religious nones.” In many ways we are in the Thursday evening of Holy Week. The cock has not yet crowed, but the angry crowd who would like to see the end of our Lord in the Western world has already seen and heard enough of our early betrayals to believe that it can count on more, and harry us toward ignominious surrender. So this is no time for cowards, for fence sitters or for those who wish to hedge their bets until they hear the judge’s verdict on the contest.

We face a solemn hour for humanity at large and a momentous showdown for the Western church. At stake is the attempted completion of the centuries-long assault on the Jewish and Christian faiths and their replacement by progressive secularism as the defining faith of the West and the ideology said to be the best suited to the conditions of advanced modernity. The gathering crisis is therefore about nothing less than a struggle for the soul of the West and the place of faith—any faith—in the life of advanced modern societies. The crisis can be expressed in terms of the interplay of four sets of challenges.

First, the primacy of the Jewish and Christian faiths as the defining faiths of the West has been weakened and almost overcome by two forces: the assault of progressive secularism and the weakening caused by the shaping power of the world of advanced modernity.

Second, within the West itself the near victory of progressive secularism has opened up a further struggle between two post-Christian forces: on one side, nihilism, degeneration and barbarism, which would spell the decline and fall of the West as it falls apart from within; and on the other, the hubris and soaring self-confidence of progressive secularism or evolutionary humanism, which would overreach in trying to lead the West in an entirely new direction and attempting to open up a stunning new world for humanity at large.

Third, the overthrow of the Jewish and Christian faiths as the soul of the West has opened the door at the global level to two powerful post-Christian alternatives vying for dominance in the world at large: aggressive secularism and radical Islam.

Fourth, the overall situation raises a double challenge for all the Christian churches across the Western world: Can Christians so witness to their Lord and live out their faith that Christian faith can prevail over the shaping power of the advanced modern world and its institutions? And can Christians, who in some Western countries are still a substantial majority, overcome the militant assaults and ways of life of progressive secularism so as to remain in a position themselves to contribute decisively to the human future?

Put all these challenges together and take a general’s eye view, and the stakes become very clear. For if the anti-Christian forces prevail, they represent nothing less than a return to the philosophy, the ethics and the lifestyles of the pagan world that Christians overcame originally. In other words, today’s challenge rivals that of the fateful clash of the early church with the Caesars in the first three centuries and the menace of the sultans of Ottoman Islam in the sixteenth.

The challenge described here amounts to a grand showdown for the Western church as a whole. But it is also urgent that Christians and others outside the West appreciate the strategic global importance of the crisis of the West and the Western church and their vital part in responding to it. For one thing, the same challenge is coming to the rest of the world, for everyone will soon face similar problems as their own countries and regions modernize. And Western Christians need the help of their sisters and brothers from around the world, and their contributions to the West may well prove critical. Sometimes far less numerous in their own countries and usually far less wealthy than Western Christians, Christians in other parts of the world are often better off because they are further behind in terms of modernity. They have not yet become as deeply contaminated by modernity as many Western Christians have been. Like the apostle Peter, they may have less in terms of “silver and gold,” but what they have is the faithfulness, the courage, the boldness and the supernatural power that the Western church so often lacks and so badly needs.

THE AUDIENCE OF ONE

As followers of Jesus we are called to live before one audience, the audience of One. From Abraham on, the life of faith has always been “all at the sound of a voice.” There is only one voice that matters for us—the voice of God, and not the voice of the people or the voice of the times. And certainly not the warm embrace of popularity, the soft whisper of our own desires for comfort, the careful eye to our own reputations, the siren lure of being on the “right side of history,” or the mean faces of the bullying activists and the social media mob. Equally, there is only one judgment that matters, and one word of approval that counts in the end: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

My parents tried to teach me that lesson in loyalty when I was a small boy, though there was a long gap between their teaching and my learning it for myself, and there will always be a gap between our knowing what is right and following it faithfully. I grew up in a China that had been ravaged by two centuries of European and American adventuring, and then by World War II and a brutal civil war. We lived in Nanjing, which was then the nation’s capital, but there were few good schools to go to, so at the age of five I found myself setting off by plane to a boarding school in Shanghai.

Obviously, the conditions behind the decision to send me out at that age were extreme, and I was not the only one launched on that path so young. But it was the first time in my life that I had been away from my parents and on my own.

So, to give me a constant reminder of the North Star of the faith at the center of our family life, my father had searched for two small, smooth, flat stones and painted on them his life motto and that of my mother. For many years those two little stones were tangible memos in the pockets of my gray flannel shorts that were the uniform of most English schoolboys in those days. In my right-hand pocket was my father’s motto, “Found Faithful,” and in my left-hand pocket was my mother’s, “Please Him.”

Many years have passed since then, and both of those little painted stones were lost in the chaos of escaping from China when Mao Zedong and the People’s Army eventually overran Nanjing, returned the capital to Beijing and began their iron and bloody rule of the entire country. But I have never forgotten the lesson of the little stones. Followers of Jesus are called to be “found faithful” and to “please him,” always, everywhere and in spite of everyone and everything.

That same faithfulness braced our Christian brothers and sisters in China as they took the full brunt of one of the most vicious, cruel and systematic persecutions in all history. And as I write now, we are witnessing almost daily the same astonishing courage of Christians in many countries of the world, but especially in the Islamic Middle East that was once the cradle of the church. Day after day Christians are standing as martyrs, facing false charges, assaults, mutilation, rape, religious cleansing, murder, bomb blasts, beheadings and even crucifixions, all because they will not renounce the name of Jesus.

And what of us in the West? Are we showing that we too are prepared to follow Jesus and his authority at any cost? When an imperceptible bow would have saved Daniel’s three friends, they defied King Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatry at the threat of being burned alive. When simply closing a window and drawing his curtains could have saved Daniel himself, he chose to risk the lions rather than mute his allegiance to God. When a mere whiff of incense would have saved their lives, early Christians refused to acknowledge Caesar as lord rather than Jesus and were made human torches or the evening meal for wild animals. When it seemed quixotic to take on the emperor, the empress and all the empire, Athanasius took his stand for truth contra mundum (against the world) and was exiled five times for his faithfulness. When he was told he was arrogant or out of his mind to follow his conscience and defy the consensus of tradition, Martin Luther stood firm in the face of the fiery stake that had cremated Jan Hus before him. When his closest friends urged him to save himself for the important work of his future scholarship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to reenter Hitler’s lair and ignore the looming specter of the gallows.

What then of us? Are we living in the light of the great cloud of witnesses and martyrs who have gone before us? Or in the comfortable conditions of the advanced modern world, where the seductions of modernity are more of a threat to our faithfulness than persecution? In the golden era of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Younger advised Emperor Trajan that Christians should be executed solely for their tenacity and intransigence. “Whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.”[1] The similar charge in the death of many martyrs was routine: “Since they remained unbending, obstinate, I have condemned them.”[2]

Would we be convicted today for being stubborn, tenacious, unbending and obstinate? It is surely undeniable that only rarely in Christian history has the lordship of Jesus in the West been treated as more pliable or has Christian revisionism been more brazen, Christian interpretations of the Bible more self-serving, Christian preaching more soft, Christian behavior more lax, Christian compromise more common, Christian defections from the faith more casual, and Christian rationales for such slippage more spurious and shameless.

Let me say it again: How on earth could German Christians have caved in so weakly to the allure and coercions of National Socialism in the 1930s? The answer is plain: All too easily, if you understand the temper of the times in which they lived. Just so, many Western Christians are caving in weakly before the challenges of our own times, such as the general seductions and distortions of modernity, the particular temptations of the sexual revolution or a failure to appreciate the implacable hostility of the forces against us—and so blunting our witness and denying the lordship of Jesus and the authority of the Scriptures. It is time, and past time, to turn this situation around and take a stand worthy of our Lord—before the cock crows and we are left with the bitter regret that our brothers and sisters around the world stood firm and paid with their lives, but our generation in the West betrayed our Lord in such a pitiful way.

Whether we are Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox or Pentecostals, we must have a rock solid allegiance to Jesus alone, above all and despite everyone and everything. “Jesus is Lord” is our allegiance, our confession, our authority and our standard and rule of life. Whoever and whatever contradicts him summons us again to count the cost and to take our stand. Christians today need to be broad-shouldered—made so by carrying the weight of the cross as we were commanded.

We need to respond to the gospel with courage and conviction, in order to live faithfully according to the call of Jesus and the good news of his kingdom in today’s world. The gospel of Jesus may be trusted to be the transforming power that it is. It is, after all, the very power of God for the saving of humanity, and the record of its impact in history is glorious and undeniable. Our allegiance to it is the concern today. We have to rise to the challenge that the gospel raises to all who say that they believe it—we must demonstrate our confidence in the gospel by a courage that is prepared to break with all that contradicts with what God says. In short, by faith we must be prepared to wager our comfort, our livelihood, our honor and our very lives on God and his Word against all other claims and authorities. We must therefore live as we have been called to live: to take up our crosses and to count the cost of living lives that are true to the gospel and to the lordship of Jesus, regardless of the cost and the consequences in our day—and so be worthy of the great cloud of witnesses behind us in history and around us in the world today.

One of the greatest Christian leaders of the last century was John R.W. Stott, rector of All Souls Langham Place in London and a peerless preacher, Bible teacher, evangelist, author, global leader and friend to many. I knew him over many decades, but I will never forget my last visit to his bedside three weeks before he died. After an unforgettable hour and more of sharing many memories over many years, I asked him how he would like me to pray for him. Lying weakly on his back and barely able to speak, he answered in a hoarse whisper, “Pray that I will be faithful to Jesus until my last breath.”

DISTINCTIONS MATTER

In 1989 I was privileged to be invited to address a plenary session of the second Lausanne Congress in Manila on the subject of “Mission and Modernity.” It was challenging because I was allotted only seventeen minutes to explore a topic that was not only vast but unfamiliar to most people engaged in mission. I did my best within the limits, and after the session was over I went out into the foyer where a missionary approached me.

“I didn’t hear all that you said,” she told me, “and I didn’t understand all that I heard. But allow me to ask you one question. Why on earth did they ask a man to speak on maternity?”

Modernity mistaken for maternity? The one term is novel to many people and the other is familiar, but the way we use the familiar term can throw light on the less familiar. If maternity is a single word that covers all the broad constellation of things that make up motherhood, modernity is equally simple and comprehensive. It covers all the dazzling range of ideas and institutions that make up our modern world—not just ideas but cities, airplanes, nuclear power stations, businesses and offices, cars, televisions, computers and smartphones. In short, modernity is far more than a matter of ideas.

To be sure, the terms modernism and postmodernism (each ending in -ism) are sets of ideas, but modernity (ending in -ity) refers to far more than ideas. It certainly includes distinctive modern ideas—for example, relativism, skepticism, efficiency and calculability—but it includes far more, so that it is a mistake to confuse postmodernism with postmodernity. Several implications stem from this distinction, not least that someone who is modernist or postmodernist in their thinking can change their minds and abandon their outworn ideas in a second. Modernity, however, being far more than a set of ideas, is not so easily dispensed with, even if someone comes to actively dislike or oppose it. Indeed, it is inconceivable to think of a true postmodernity, in the sense of a world after modernity, short of an unimaginable global disaster.

Why on earth do such distinctions matter? Far more than a matter of semantics, they are crucial to the way Christians in the West size up the challenges we are facing today. If anyone were to tell most congregations in the West that the modern church is facing the greatest challenge the church has ever encountered, chances are that he or she would be met with puzzled looks. Like an undiagnosed cancer, the nature and source of the danger we face is not on the minds of most Western Christians, so they would respond blankly. Certainly, they would appreciate what it is to face scathing attacks from prominent atheists, they would see the ravages of radical Islam in other countries, and they would certainly know of the steadily mounting, uncalled-for animosity from certain sectors of the press and the cultural elites, but the greatest challenge ever? Greater even than, say, persecution or heresy? That would surely be considered exaggerated and alarmist, even in an age when it is routine for modern communications to grab people by the scruff of the neck to commandeer attention to their cause.

It is modernity in this fuller, wider sense, not just modernism, that represents the greatest challenge the church has ever faced. But why?

Because modernity has done more damage to the church than all the persecutors of the church and all the heretics combined. From Nero and Diocletian to Stalin, Mao Zedong and the ayatollahs and imams, the attacks of the persecutors have been frontal and the assaults of the heretics have been central and insidious, but to this point they have not done half the damage caused by modernity.

Indeed, the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the church, and the assaults of the heretics have served to sharpen the faith and trigger the creation of such classic statements of historic orthodoxy as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Yet so far there has been no similar heroic response from the modern church rising to overcome the challenges of the advanced modern world.

Let me be clear. If modernity is a deadly challenge to the church, it is not a frontal challenge in the way that hostile ideologies are. The new atheists, for example, are like the communists earlier. They are implacably opposed to the Christian faith and make no bones about their opposition to the Christian faith and their exclusion of Christians. (In the much-quoted words of the Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, “We cannot allow a Divine foot in the door.”)[3] “No faith wanted here,” they say in effect, separating out people of faith as Nazi guards did certain Jews on their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

That crude, open kind of opposition is certainly the sort of challenge posed by certain modernists such as the new atheists, but it is not the challenge of modernity. After all, there is a vital difference between secularism (as a personal philosophy), separationism (as a legal and political policy advocating the strict separation of religion and public life) and secularization (as a process that is part and parcel of modernization). The three terms are commonly confused, and while they overlap in having the same end result, they are entirely different ways to getting there, and the differences are crucial. The first is a philosophy, the second is a political policy and the third is a process. Modernism as a philosophy may oppose faith outright, but modernity does not. Its damage is not through opposition but through seduction and distortion. It doesn’t say, for example, “No faith allowed here” but “No faith is needed here.” Contrary to Jesus and the Torah, modernity claims that man can now live “by bread alone,” or rather by science, technology, management and marketing alone. Secularists do not want God, whereas the secularized have no need of God, and that is only one of the many seductions and distortions of modernity.

The long-dominant secularization theory was a false and biased account of the impact of modernity on religion. The world has steadily become more modern and religion has not disappeared as proponents of the theory predicted. Indeed, in many ways the world is as furiously religious as ever. But it would be equally wrong to stop there and argue that because religion appears to be flourishing in the modern world, it is unchanged. Religion has not disappeared, as its critics once thought and hoped, but neither has it remained unchanged. Modernity has shaped religions in distinctive ways that for some are inconsequential and for others highly critical. In short, if we are to be faithful to our Lord and be “in the world” but “not of the world,” we have to understand the world.

This is not the place for a full account of the impact of modernity on the Christian faith and the Christian church. That ground has been well covered. Instead, let me merely open up three examples of the sort of damage modernity is inflicting on the Christian faith and the church. In each case, the trends behind the damage would not matter to many other faiths, but they are critical and damaging to Christian faith because of the nature of the gospel and the character of Christian truth. My concern is not historical or analytical, but the significance for discipleship. Christians are called to be in the world but not of it, so modernity is simply the world in a modern form that is surely the most powerful, pervasive and pressurizing ever. And therein lies the challenge posed to the church. Either the Christian church must prevail over these modern seductions and distortions of the world of modernity, or the church must succumb to an abject worldliness and be exposed for both its cultural weakness and its failure to be faithful to its Lord.

PICKING AND CHOOSING

A first and crucially important distortion comes from the way the modern world shifts us from a stance under authority to one of preference—or expressed more carefully, tends to undermine all forms of authority other than its own and replaces them with the sense that all responses are merely a matter of preference. It goes without saying that authority is central and crucial to both the Jewish and Christian faiths. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that Leviticus is perhaps “the key text of Judaism,” and tradition came to call it by its first word Vayikra, which means “He called.”[4] The three terms “He said,” “He spoke” and “He commanded” preface many of the instructions in the book, and together they speak of God’s undisputed authority, though they also carry a note of endearment and love. Unique among the gods believed in throughout history, the Lord is transcendent, so what he says is truth, binding truth, because it addresses us as authority. To dilute this authority is to dismiss the Lord himself.

For Christians, “Jesus is Lord” is the central conviction and confession of the Christian faith. In the words of the previously skeptical but then believing Thomas, we are followers of Jesus because we have reached the warranted conviction: “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28). Christians believe that Jesus Christ is fully God become fully human, the unique, sure and sufficient revelation of the very being, character and purposes of the transcendent God, beside whom there is no other god, and beside whom there is no other name by which we must be saved.

The follower of Jesus is therefore a person under authority, living before the transcendent majesty of God and unashamed to be so. What God tells us, we trust. And what God tells us to do, we obey. We therefore gladly acknowledge that we are not self-created, we are not self-sufficient, and we are not autonomous. No one in the world has a higher view and more solid notion of freedom than Jews and Christians. The Book of Common Prayer addresses God “whose service is perfect freedom.” But this freedom has a threefold framework, so it is never viewed as autonomous. First, it is understood as a gift from God and not an achievement of our own. Second, it is always relational, and therefore it is experienced and it matures only in relationship with our Master, our brothers and sisters, and our fellow citizens. And third, it is always lived out within the framework of the teaching of Jesus and the Scriptures. Jewish and Christian freedom is freedom within the form of the truth of God’s way of life.

This means that Christian faith is a faith constituted by the authority of Jesus. Whatever Jesus himself commands, or whatever other authority is given, Jesus’ stamp of authority is the final word for Christians who would follow Jesus faithfully. Jesus’ own teaching and his attitude toward the total truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible, God’s inspired Word, make the Scriptures our final rule and authority. What the Scriptures say, God says, and what God says, we obey.

Critics dismiss this view of authority as quaint and rigid in the world of modernity. And modernity tends to render it unthinkable in a thousand ways, subtly but systematically. For a start, there is the inescapable presence and power of pluralization—the process by which the proliferation of endless choice and incessant change increases at all levels of modern life. If “everyone is now everywhere,” then everyone is aware of “all those others” all the time, and with all the awareness of others comes the reminder of all the choices and changes that are open to us too at any moment. And if there is a wide array of choice today, tomorrow will bring even more.

To be sure, the dizzying array of choices is most obvious in a supermarket or a shopping mall, but the allure of choice has spread far beyond the walls of official consumerland. From breakfast cereals to restaurants and cuisines to sexual identities and temptations to possible sexual arrangements of all types to self-help techniques and philosophies of life, we are offered an infinite array of choices, and the focus is always on choice as choosing rather than choice as the content of what is chosen. Just choose. Simply choose. Experiment. Try it out for yourself. How else will you know unless you have tried it? After all, there are always others, there is always someone or something more, so unless you try them how are you to know whether you have missed the possible holiday, relationship or philosophy that might really hit the jackpot?

“Love to one is only a barbarity,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “for it is exercised at the expense of all others. Love to God also.”[5]

There you have it. Even God is reduced to consumer choice, and when truth is taken out of the equation, sticking to one choice is no longer a matter of intellectual conviction but a sign of timidity as well as folly. Surely, the unspoken adspeak tells us, you should always be open-minded, for the genuine freethinker will always wish to choose and keep choosing, to experiment and keep on experimenting. Our freedom is the freedom to choose, regardless of whether our choice is right or wrong, wise or stupid. So long as we can choose, we are free. Choosing is all that matters. Truth, goodness and authority are irrelevant to the central act and the main event: you are the sovereign chooser, and you are free to exercise your sovereign right to choose and choose and choose again in whatever way you like—until all choices seem the same and each one shrivels into insignificance.

Anyone thinking along can immediately see why freedom of conscience and conscientious objection are routinely dismissed today. Freedom of choice and freedom of conscience are entirely different. Freedom of choice has become autonomous and a matter of entitlement, whereas freedom of conscience was never free. It was a duty and therefore duty bound and not free. Conscience was once respected precisely because a person was duty bound, or bound by the dictates of conscience—“Here I stand. I can do no other.” But in today’s world, freedom of conscience is confused with freedom of choice and therefore rendered dutiless and shorn of its rights.

The net effect of this concentration on choosing lies at the heart of our modern consumer society. Choice at the expense of the content of the choice elevates the sovereign chooser and devalues the content of the choice and reduces it to a preference. When such autonomous, free-choice consumerism washes over society from the shopping mall to the bedroom, the office and the ballot box, the result is predictable. What will be the price of obedience to authority, and what will be the respect accorded to principled dissent? Choice—unbounded autonomous, subjective sovereign individual choice—is the playboy king of consumerland, and with comfort and convenience as his closest courtiers and cronies, he now rules much of life. Authority and obedience are therefore banished together. They are the unwelcome spoilsports whose entry might ruin the fantasy game of infinite choices. The result is no surprise—a grave crisis of authority within the church, and a rash of positions and interpretations that in any clearer thinking generation would be frankly seen as the rejection of the authority of Jesus and the Scriptures that they are.

Evangelicals are especially vulnerable to this distortion of choice because of the exaggerated place they give to choice in the call to conversion. It may even be their Achilles’ heel. Whereas the Jews are the chosen people, so that their faith is their destiny, Evangelicals are a choosing people, and their faith is often merely their decision. The step of faith is of course a choice, the most important and fully responsible choice a person ever makes. But when the overwhelming emphasis is put on choice as an act of decision, choosing becomes everything, but it can then suffer the fate of many modern choices and shrink to being lightweight, changeable and non- binding. Choice and change are close companions, and those who decide for a faith because they choose to believe it can as easily defect from the faith when they choose not to.

Contrast this modern casualness with the early church’s deep theology surrounding conversion and especially the costly stress on the public witness of the sacrament of baptism. This was a direct and deliberate counterpoint to the Roman practice of sacrament. For the Romans, the sacramentum was far more serious than a normal oath in a law court. It was the solemn vow by which a person gave his or her word before an authority and put his or her life in forfeit as a guarantee of what had been sworn. Those who had given their sacramentum were then sacer. They were “given to the gods” if they violated the vow. They had given their sacred bond and they were no longer their own. For example, the sacramentum was the oath of allegiance sworn by Roman soldiers to the emperor as they joined the legions and by gladiators as they went out to fight and die.

For Christians, then, baptism was no casual choice. It was a public vow, a decisive break with the past and a solemn binding oath of allegiance to Jesus, sworn to God and before God—and before their fellow believers and the watching world. This was probably one reason why there were so many deathbed baptisms, such as the Emperor Constantine’s (“I am now numbered among the people of God. . . . I shall now set out for myself rules of life which befit God”).[6] People did not wish to die unforgiven, but neither did they wish to commit themselves any earlier than they needed to live under a vow (sacramentum) that was so costly and so binding. Choice today can always be casual, whereas the covenantal vow of faith is costly because we commit ourselves to Jesus and mortgage our very selves as we do so. We have chosen, and we are committed. We have picked up our crosses, and there is no turning back. We are no longer our own.

The modern temptation to trivialize choice is not new. It ultimately stems from our human fallenness as truth seekers who are always inevitably truth twisters too. Instead of seeking to shape our desires according to the reality of God’s truth, we seek to shape reality according to our desires—and modern consumerism aids and abets us as never before.

Protestant liberalism has long sauntered down this road, brazenly repudiating the authority of Jesus for the successive authorities of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment worldviews. To paraphrase George Canning’s description of those who were fellow travelers of the revolutionary Jacobins, liberal revisionists are “friends of every faith except their own.” In the process whole churches and entire denominations have effectively chased a mirage and committed spiritual and institutional suicide and rendered themselves as irrelevant as they are unfaithful.

Yet Evangelicals should search their hearts too. For a generation now the air has been thick with talk of “changing the world,” but who is changing whom? There is no question that the world would like to change the church. In area after area only the church stands between the world and its success over issues such as sexuality. Unquestionably the world would like to change the church, but does the church still want to change the world, or is its only concern to change the church in the light of the world? Something is rotten in the state of Evangelicalism, and all too often it is impossible to tell who is changing whom.

There are always essential questions to ask of anyone we hear or anything we read. What is being said? Is it true? And what of it? All three questions are discounted in our modern age of information, but as Christians we must never allow the truth question to be removed from its central place.

To be sure, faithfulness is costly in the short term. It is upstream and against the flow, and the flow that was once politically correct can suddenly become a raging and life-threatening intolerance. But costly though that stand may be, it is never as costly as the long-term price of rejecting the authority of Jesus and abandoning the way of life in the gospel.

Our Lord warned of that very danger: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28).

Today’s Evangelical revisionists should take sober note. Time and again I tremble when I hear or read their flimsy arguments. They may be lionized by the wider advocates of the sexual revolution for fifteen minutes, because they are siding with that wider culture in undermining the clear teaching of Jesus and the Bible that stands in their way. For there is no question that Jesus, the Scriptures and Christian tradition all stand resolutely in their way. But in truth, the sexual revolution has no real interest in such Evangelicals, and they will be left as roadkill as the revolution blitzkrieg gathers speed. But that is nothing compared with the real tragedy of the revisionists. It is no light thing for anyone to set themselves above and against the authority of Jesus and his Scriptures. The apostle Peter betrayed Jesus and was restored, but Judas stands as the warning for all who betray Jesus for their personal, sexual or political interests and condemn themselves for their disloyalty.

Both Jesus and the apostle Peter tell us to “remember Lot’s wife” (Lk 17:33), but our Christian revisionists should remember Lot himself. Having chosen the benefits and privileges of living in the well-watered garden country of Sodom, having married into their social circles and having worked his way up into the inner leadership of the city, Lot was suddenly confronted by his moment of truth. He had been utterly naive and deluded in trusting the Sodomites. When the chips were down, they had no respect for his hospitality, no time for his different moral standards, and they threatened to deal with him as brutally as with his guests: “This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them” (Gen 19:9).

Poor Lot had become a joke even to his in-laws. In spite of all his efforts and contrary to all that he imagined, he had still not arrived, and he was never accepted as he imagined. He was always the alien—as Abraham never forgot that he was and was respected for being. We of course should always be resident aliens as faithful Christians who are in the world but not of it—regardless of the world’s pressure on us to change with the times and line up with them on the so-called right side of history.

PRIVATELY ENGAGING, PUBLICLY IRRELEVANT

The second example of the distortions of modernity is the tendency of the modern world to shift religion from a position of integration to one of fragmentation. A central and unmistakable characteristic of all three Abrahamic faiths is their uncompromising demand for integrity and integration. For Jews this integration of faith and life is to be under the Torah. For Christians it is to be under the lordship of Jesus. And for Muslims it is to be under the Qur’an or sharia. Many other religions would never make such a demand—for devotees of the New Age movement, for instance, what they do when they meditate has little or nothing to say about how they read a spreadsheet or run a board meeting. But for followers of Jesus, integration is a nonnegotiable demand. If God is Lord of heaven and earth and all there is, his lordship must cover everything or mean nothing. His writ and his rule of life must run everywhere.

So Christian lives must be true all the way through, and every Christian must be true everywhere and in everything. “Not a hoof shall be left behind,” Moses tells the Pharaoh bluntly when the Egyptians wish to compromise over letting some of God’s people go and only go some way (Ex 10:26). “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’” Jesus said to his disciples, “and do not do what I say?” (Lk 6:46). Or in the simple but radical words of John R. Mott, “If Jesus Christ is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.”

It is easy to speak, write or sing about the lordship of Jesus with heartfelt sincerity, but that very passion can mask the fact that it is harder than ever to live it out in the advanced modern world. In the traditional world an integrated life hardly needed thought at all, as our ancestors mostly lived in small villages and mid-sized towns, where community was organic and face to face; it was relatively easy for most people to walk or ride around the whole community in a short time, and faith went everywhere naturally—especially when it was the only faith in town. But that world has gone. At the heart of modernity are the two processes of pluralization and differentiation, the former being the throwing up of endless others, choices and alternatives, and the latter being the throwing up of all sorts of complex and different spheres in life as cities explode, travel reaches further and further, and communications are faster and more inclusive all the time.

Take a sprawling, modern, freeway metropolitan area such as Los Angeles (or Shanghai or Mexico City). Many people think nothing of driving seventy-five to one hundred miles to go to church on Sunday and an equal distance to go to work on Monday morning. Then add in the places where they shop or go to the cinema, and all the places they may take their children to, from schools to sports to amusement parks and beaches. The result is a vast network of places, linked together only by cars and endless driving, with each place having its own different purpose, priorities and ways of life—in a word, a world of fragmentation.

Needless to say, the LA way of life is merely one of physical or geographical fragmentation, but the same differentiation (a fancy word for “splitting apart” and sometimes “smashing to smithereens”) is happening in many other areas of life too. Thanks to the pill and the libertine freedom of the wider sexual revolution, the modern world has differentiated between sex and love and split apart love and commitment, marriage and having children, and having children and taking care of them ourselves. All these once-integrated areas and ideas are now different matters of individual freedom and choice.

This means that lives integrated throughout by faith are harder to live and rarer to find than ever, so if there is to be integration, it will now be difficult and will have to be self-conscious and deliberate. For, the obvious tendency, or temptation, in a fragmented world is to go with the flow and to accept all the different places and the separate issues in life as natural, and then to live slightly differently in each place or treat the separate issues separately without realizing it. That fragmentation can of course be aggravated in turn by deficient theologies, such as a warm-hearted but empty-headed pietism. It was precisely such an unconsciously fragmented faith that prompted the damning comment on the Californian churches by a local historian. The Christian faith in California, he said, was “privately engaging, publicly irrelevant.” It was fragmented, not integrated. The lordship of Christ over life had been scattered into countless bits—death by a thousand fragmentations. Worse still, as a Jewish witticism has long recognized, for believers to keep a low profile can be a mark of cowardice: Incognito ergo sum—“I am invisible. Therefore I am.”

A WORLD WITHOUT WINDOWS

A third critical distortion effected by modernity is the general shift in consciousness from the supernatural to the secular. It would be absurd to think that premodern people were always piously praying or were really fundamentally different from us in living with their heads in the supernatural clouds. They too had to cook their dinner and dispose of their trash. But among many profound differences between their world and ours, one was that for them the unseen was not unreal. They lived in the same seven to eleven waking world as we do, but their everyday seen world, and their daily mundane activities such as business, farming and sex, were understood in light of the unseen world. The seen was only part of the world, and the unseen was in fact the more real. Whereas for us the unseen is generally unreal and largely irrelevant.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the rationalist and the mystic stand at the two poles. “For the mystic, the invisible is real, the visible unreal, a mere mask hiding the Divine. The rationalist sees the universe and wonders whether God really exists. The mystic sees God and wonders whether the universe really exists.”[7] Plainly, the advanced modern world is closer to the rationalist pole. We may not understand such mysteries as quarks, black holes and anti-matter, but our real world mostly includes things we can see, hear, touch, smell, weigh, measure and calculate. For the modern realist the real world is the world we engage from Monday to Friday, especially the world of work, and not Saturday and Sunday. We live, as Peter Berger puts it, in a “world without windows.”[8]

There is considerable irony to this cave-bound captivity, for there are many unseen things that we have no problem believing—the past and the future, for example. Science itself delves far beyond the reach of our five senses when it explores the world of subatomic quarks and pentaquarks. And even secular anthropologists tell us that the ability to experience and talk about things beyond our everyday world of the five senses is the key to the rise of Homo sapiens and the cognitive revolution. It sets us apart, they say, from other species of animals and gives rise to both religion and art. As Yuval Harari notes, “As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.”[9]

Yet regardless of such considerations, the thought police of our day permit only a view of reality like that of the cave dwellers in Plato’s famous parable of the cave. The world bathed in the sunshine outside is off-limits and strictly dismissed as fiction. In G. K. Chesterton’s less pejorative picture, our modern view of reality is like that of a slightly drowsy middle-aged man right after a good lunch.

David Ben-Gurion, the primary founder and first prime minister of Israel, once quipped that “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

We have almost precisely reversed that statement, for advanced modernity tends to make people lose an entire dimension of reality in the name of realism. It reinforces the naturalistic worldview of scientism and the secularist and renders meaningless the supernatural worldview of the Christian. But in this case the problem of our spiritual myopia long predates the rise of the modern world. The advanced modern world only puts the capstone on the problem. Both the Old and New Testaments are alive with a vibrant awareness of the supernatural as a vital part of God’s created order, and the opening words of the Nicene Creed express the biblical worldview well: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen” (emphasis added).

After all, the apostle Paul reminds the Colossians in the Lycus River Valley, Jesus himself is the very image of “the invisible God,” and he created all things “visible and invisible” (Col 1:15-16).

In this biblical view of the world and reality, the seen and the unseen are both real, and the believer can count on both in living the life of faith in the full reality of God’s created order. Much of the Old Testament would be meaningless and unintelligible if this account of reality is removed. “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see,” Elisha asked God when his servant was panicking at the sight of the enemy armies surrounding his city. “And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:16-17).

The same is even more evident in the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth burst on the scene in Galilee filled and armed with the power of the Spirit of God. Apart from the Spirit, Jesus was only the carpenter’s son, and everyone knew his father and his family. But the Spirit and all he did in the power of the Spirit were his credentials that made him more than “the son of Joseph.” “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,” he declares in his liberating Jubilee manifesto of the kingdom of God, as he announces his grand work to rescue, restore and renew humanity (Lk 4:18-21). And Jesus not only said; he did it. He displayed that power on our behalf and demonstrated that he was indeed the Christ, the long-promised Messiah, the anointed One, by preaching and teaching in the power of the Spirit, by healing people like us from all kinds of sickness, by delivering people like us who were bound by demons and evil spirits, and by directly discerning the hearts and motives of all the humans he encounters. And again and again, Jesus did these things before he explained them, or in doing them he challenged people to figure out what these actions were saying about who he was. The kingdom of God was demonstrated as much as it was declared, or rather the reality of the kingdom was declared in the demonstration.

But that is the moment when we, his followers, came in, for it was apt that the followers of Jesus were called Christians by their neighbors in Antioch. Jesus the Christ was God’s anointed One, but he did not hold his anointing and his power to himself. His followers were to be the “little Christs,” the little anointed and empowered ones. All four Gospels recount the same prophecy of John the Baptist that a central work of the Messiah would be to baptize or to immerse his followers with the Holy Spirit as he had been, and Luke adds, “and [with] fire” (Lk 3:16). For as his work expanded, Jesus gave the same Spirit and the same anointing to empower the chosen Twelve and then the Seventy, telling them to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and as they go, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Mt 10:7-8).

Then, on the Day of Pentecost Jesus gave that same titanic gift to the whole church, commissioning them for their task on behalf of the whole of humanity and promising his now intrepid band of followers that through the gift of his Spirit they would do even greater deeds than he had done when he was with them. No wonder the story that exploded from this commission was called the Acts of the Apostles rather than the Message of the Apostles. The first Christians spoke in stunning power and acted in equally stunning power. The gospel, Paul reminded the church in Corinth, had arrived not with mere words, “but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4). But it was not just their message that was to be marked with power, it was their very lives, for how, apart from the Spirit, were they to be able to overcome and live the revolutionary new way of Jesus?

Put all the self-help philosophies, techniques and seminars together, bring in all the counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists ever trained, and never in a million years would humanity as it was, and is, ever be capable of achieving a new humanity. Nietzsche saw this centuries later and said it all in a book title. We humans are Human, All Too Human. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he described the human being as “a rope stretched between animal and the Superman.”[10] Just as we look down on the antics of monkeys and laugh at their inferiority to us, so he claimed that the superhuman would one day look down and laugh at our human antics. For if we are all too human as we are, man has to overcome man, he argued, and the great overcomer that he proclaimed at the heart of his counter-gospel was to be the self-made “Superman” (the übermensch or overman).

For Christians, such a view is no less utopian than the self-help guru and far more dangerous, for there has never been such a superman, and the very attempt to become one has produced only dangerous egomaniacs and dictators. Human beings can never overcome themselves by themselves. The only possible “overcomers” are fallen and fallible human beings who have been rescued (“saved”), who then turn their lives over to Jesus and are immersed and filled with the power of his Spirit, and thus they can do by the Spirit what they could never do by themselves. Thus the “saint” is not a superhuman who has overcome, won a halo and is now qualified to be prayed to at a shrine, but the same old sinner as the rest of us—penitent, forgiven and filled with the Spirit of God.

The point is inescapable. For the early Christians the supernatural as directly divine power was entirely natural, and the unseen was gloriously real as a crucial dimension of Christians living as the vanguard of restored humanity. The many signs and wonders performed were not a little bonus thrown in for the credulous masses of the prescientific age but a glimpse into the divine energy of the kingdom of God that Jesus had unleashed into the broken world in power. Through the power of the Spirit of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven was now present and active, working to rescue and restore humanity. As in heaven, so on earth, Jesus taught us to pray, and it was the presence and power of the Spirit that made that union of heaven and earth possible.

In the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of sin and the power of the evil one had met their match. Without it the story of the church would have been as brief and insignificant as that of thousands of other tiny religious sects in the rainbow diversity of the Roman world. But with the power of the Spirit the church could live the life of the kingdom of God and then, like the mountainous stone in the vision of Daniel, it could fill the earth and outlast the passing parade of world empires and superpowers—but always, only, and so long as it was by the power of the Spirit of God. Jesus, the Son of God, is the Father’s greatest gift to humanity, and the Spirit of Jesus is the greatest gift of Jesus to his followers and the essential requirement for living his way of life and fulfilling his Great Commission.

This supernatural ministry continued at least as far as the fifth century and the time of St. Augustine; in his hometown of Hippo alone he knew witnesses of more than seventy attested miracles. From then onward, however, the church achieved its own power and glory, and as faith grew fashionable, the increase in secular power meant a corresponding decrease in spiritual power. Slowly the next centuries showed discernible trends that steadily reduced the earlier reliance on the power of the Spirit, so that as we move closer to our own day it becomes clear that in much of the church the unseen is no more real for Christians than it is for atheists, and many otherwise orthodox Christians are in effect operational atheists or atheists unawares. To be sure, Christians still affirm the historic creeds, and we say we believe in the Holy Spirit and in prayer and the supernatural, but for many they are now only words. Prayer for many Christians is mostly a matter of what is prayed in public worship, healings and deliverances are comparatively rare, direct spiritual discernment is infrequent—at least in comparison with the Gospels and the book of Acts—and for many the Holy Spirit is the forgotten member of the divine Trinity.

THE TASK WE MUST TACKLE

Modernism, as a philosophy with its open rationalism, was, is and always will be opposed to faith in God and the supernatural, directly and frontally. But modernity is suaver and more urbane. It has no need of God at all. For who needs God today? As modern people we know how to put a person on the moon. We know how to market a car and sell a perfume or a politician. We know how to grow a church, and the recipe is there for any would-be pastor and church planter to download, from soup to nuts. With our latest science, technology, management and marketing, we have falsified Jesus and the Torah—we now know how to live by bread alone. We have no need of God in any area of life. The entire hypothesis of faith is quite unnecessary. Fear made the gods, says modernism, and shakes its fist. God is no longer necessary, says modernity, and shrugs its shoulders. Modernism had no desire for God, or rather has a strong desire to have no God. Modernity does not even bother with the issue.

In sum, secularization has not meant that religion has disappeared in the modern world. Far from it. But it has meant that for many believers the supernatural has disappeared for all practical purposes from their day-to-day awareness. The unseen has become unreal. Many churches have been lobotomized but carry on as if nothing has changed.

These three crucial shifts are not an exhaustive account of the impact of advanced modernity. They are only broad samples of the damaging trends, and it is up to us to respond with robust and full-bodied Christian faith. For a start, our response should demonstrate a fearless confidence in the gospel. Contrary to the impression I may have created, the impact of modernity is never inevitable. It can and must be resisted so that the church’s faith in Jesus demonstrates an integrity and effectiveness that prevails over modernity. But to resist modernity successfully we have to recognize modernity clearly, and that is the task we must tackle with determination today.

In addition, our response must not only trace the broad trends but weigh the specific consequences for different areas of the life of faith. A moment’s thought would show, for example, that through pressures such as these, modernity makes evangelism easier, but discipleship harder. Evangelism is easier because modern people are more open to changing faiths than people have ever been (in Peter Berger’s words, all the choice and change of today’s world mean that modern people are “conversion prone”).[11] But discipleship as a “long obedience in the same direction” is against the grain of modern life and infinitely harder. Discipleship for the advanced modern world is an inescapable priority for our time.

Finally, we must hammer home the conclusion that our response requires a Christian account of the world of our day that goes deeper and wider than simply the challenge of ideas. Both modernism and postmodernism raise their own challenges to Christian faith in terms of ideas, but those challenges have largely been covered and are relatively easy to answer. But the challenge of modernity in this wider, fuller sense is one of the defining issues of this century, so it stands as a task for our times that cannot and must not be avoided.

A Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, great Son of God and Lord of all, the entire universe sprang into being at your word, and even death could not hold you down. Forgive our sorry state of worldliness and captivity. Grant that wherever we are shaped by the world rather than by your Word, we may be helped to recognize it and we may be given your power to be freed from it. Grant too that in rising to live as you have called us to live, we may show the world a new and different way of life that once again will free the captives and demonstrate a human way of life that is worthy of you, the author of life and of humanity. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

 

Os Guinness is Senior Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and a member of the RZIM speaking team.

 

[1] Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard Lewontin, review of The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan, New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, www.nybooks.com/articles/1997/01/09/billions-and-billions-of-demons.

[4] Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible—Leviticus (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2015), 5.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (South Kingston, RI: Millennium, 2014), 38.

[6] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 4.62.1-3.

[7] Sacks, 16.

[8] Peter L. Berger, “For a World with Windows,” in Against the World for the World, ed. Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), 10.

[9] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Penguin Random House, 2011), 27.

[10] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. Thomas Common (Blacksburg, VA, Thrifty, 2009), 22.

[11] Peter L. Berger, Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (New York: Random House, 1973), 77.