Pastor’s Perspective – August 2017
Few of us understand or question the assumptions of our time, what the German’s referred to as the zeitgeist or spirit of the age. Most of us live in our worldview in the same way that a fish lives in the water. The only time we notice it is when we are confronted with a change. Let’s consider a local example. Three years ago the Toledo area suffered a near disaster when our water supply was endangered by algae blooms in Lake Erie. Alerts went out and suddenly the algae levels became a daily part of the weather report. For days we drank and even bathed in bottled water. People went to water distribution areas to get fresh water. Suddenly we were back to the days of the village well. Some doubted the reports and thought that the authorities were being too cautious, but for the sake of my children I bought bottled water and heeded the advice of the watchers of our life-giving liquid.
The crisis would soon pass, but it taught me an important lesson. I began to develop a greater appreciation for water treatment facilities and those who take the time to monitor our water for us. It is too easy to become dulled to the danger of polluted water. We become preoccupied with our daily lives and ignore the changes that are occurring around us. It is too easy to just hope for the best and drink the water without concern. We are easily annoyed by the warnings and the changes, but those warnings saved lives.
Changes in our world view hit us like this. Someone has to test the spirit of the age and the people of God would be wise to pay heed to the warnings. It is too easy to ignore the changes in our lives and cultures and foolishly assume that these changes are eternally benign.
So what changes have occurred in the last fifty years? The last one hundred? Many Christians are upset at the changes that we are experiencing and wrongly assume that the changes are due to recent development. We think if we can only go back to the good old days it will be better. For decades the Church has blamed post-modernism for the conflict. We have done so without actually understanding what modernism was. Ironically modernism was not actually a time of Christian dominance, but a time of significant decline. The modern period began in the 19th Century and was philosophically built upon the works of the biological theories of Charles Darwin, the economic theories of Karl Marx and psychological theories of Sigmund Freud.
The three principle philosophies of modernism were all departures from the traditional Christian world views of the West. While each of them were rooted in 19th Century debates they emerged in the twentieth century as the dominant ideas of the age. The 19th Century Church understood the danger of these three philosophers and considered their ideas to be a significant threat to our worldview, but over time the Church adapted to the changes presented in these new philosophies. Dealing with the new spirit of the age tore the Church apart into two distinct camps. The conservative wing of the Church attempted to combat the challenges of the 20th Century world through apologetics and resistance. The progressive wing sought to smooth over the distinctions by accepting the new worldview even if it meant minimizing the authority of scripture. The majority of the Church simply resented the conflict, blamed both sides, and left the Church for a culturally neutral spirituality. In order to better explain the modern culture, please allow me to briefly cover these three pillars of modernism.
For over one hundred years the trinity of Darwin, Marx and Freud framed the questions of the modern era. They provided an alternative to the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western civilization. Each of their theories “conquered” the previously held assumptions of the Christian west. The defeat was so complete that it became common wisdom to assume that those who rejected their theories were at best ignorant, and at worst, evil. We must remember that worldviews are never neutral. Worldviews are naturally competitive and they fight to the death. To stand against a worldview is not just to be non-conformist, but it can get you labelled as a heretic against the faith of the age.
It is quite amazing when one considers that the Christian worldview of the West was transformed in such a short time frame. When Charles Darwin wrote “The Origin of Species” and provided the first plausible theory of a creation without a Creator the United States of America had yet to enter the Civil War. It must considered that less than “four score years” before Darwin the Declaration of Independence casually recognized that human rights were “endowed by their Creator.” In 1776 Creation was embedded in the zeitgeist of the West. It took nearly seventy five years for Darwin’s ideas to eclipse the Judeo-Christian concepts of Creation as in 1925 Darwinian evolution was nationally debated during the Scopes trial and the tide turned.
A decade before Darwin published his most noteworthy book, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto.” Like Darwin’s work, Marx’s ideas took a long time to gain traction. While revolutionaries and radicals embraced the ideology of Marxism it took generations for his economic theories to bear political fruit in the Russian Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin. Marx and his apostles provided an atheistic alternative vision of community. Marxism sought the emergence of a benevolent form of human governance to relieve society of want and need. If Darwin posited a Creation without a Creator, then Marx offered an earthly paradise without a heavenly Savior.
Last but not least, Sigmund Freud revolutionized the care and treatment of the disturbed and mentally ill. The mentally ill had been viewed for hundreds of years as irredeemable and were outcasts in their communities. Mental illness was too frequently spiritualized with the exorcism and prayer being the most common solutions for what was presumed to be demon possession or the affliction of evil spirits. Freud provided a neo-scientific (or psychological) explanation for what had previously been understood as the enduring effects of sin by proclaiming that these problems had their origins in previous human trauma or (as the field expanded) biological root causes.
Over time these three ideologies supplanted the Trinitarian Christian traditions of the West and provided the Modern Era with a new Trinity, composed of Evolution (The New Creator), Marxism (The Utopian Kingdom without God), and Psychology (The Cure for Spiritual Malady).
These were the assumptions of the world that I grew up in. Contrary to many Christian apologists, these are not new threats to the Church. They usurped the cultural mainstream before most of us were born. If modernism was never Christian, and was in fact opposed to the religious foundations of the post Reformation world, then why are so many Christians afraid of post-modernism?
The easy answer is that most of us are just swimming in the waters that we were born into and these waters have been tainted for a long time. Our cultural arguments have too frequently been a Christianized defense of the status quo. The Church’s divine mission has never been to defend human culture, but to present the alternative vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. This is not an easy task, but transforming the world never has been. If the Church is to stand for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then it must recognize that this “pearl of great value” is worth any sacrifice necessary.
Many Christians are afraid of the future so we mistakenly find comfort in the glory days of our past. The impulse to go with the flow and grant approval to the status quo is the greatest danger that the 21st Century Church faces, because it undermines the very purpose for which we exist. We are in this world to test the waters and prophetically communicate the results to the world. For the sake of the world we must tell the Truth and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost generation with courage and love.
Join me as we seek to walk with Jesus Christ into the future.