If any thinking person today were asked to name “the Queen of the sciences”, odds are they would name biology, since it offers the promise of long and healthy life. Or perhaps they would name physics, as the science likely to find the answer to the problem of global warming. Or the more romantically visionary might name astro-physics, as holding out the hope of eventually taking the human race to other planets “where no man has gone before”. It is supremely unlikely that anyone today would give the answer which their forebears in the Middle Ages would have immediately given: theology.
This illustrates the tremendous gap separating us from our ancestors regarding the importance of theological truth and the reliability of the Scriptures that express that truth. We already live in a brave new world, one utterly divorced from the worldviews of our forefathers. The question for Christians is: since historic Christianity commits its adherents to a belief in the importance of theological truth, how can we reach people in this brave new world with the Gospel?
The Radical Transition
In the old world order, Christian churches generally commanded a certain amount of cultural respect, even among those in society who did not consider themselves devout or confessing Christians. The pronouncements of its clergy were greeted with outward respect and regarded as possessing at least a modicum of credibility. Whether the Church of England in the United Kingdom, the Roman Catholics in Spain, or the Presbyterians in America, the mainline churches were recognized as part of the cultural establishment, and they partook of the credibility of the established order.
We see this illustrated in the (now quite dated) experience of Sir Alec Guinness. In narrating the story of his conversion to Roman Catholicism, Guinness shared the story of his time in Burgundy while filming the Father Brown movie released in 1954. Guinness said that “Night shooting had been arranged to take place in a little hill-top village a few miles from Macon…By the time dusk fell I was bored and dressed in priestly black, I climbed the gritty winding road to the village…I hadn’t gone far when I heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, ‘Mon père!’ My hand was seized by a boy of seven or eight, who clutched it tightly, swung it up and kept up a non-stop prattle…He obviously took me for a priest and so to be trusted…Continuing my walk I reflected that a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out.”
Given the comparatively late publication date of this book (1999) the reference to the trust of children in Roman Catholic clergy without further comment is surprising, to say the least. But it adequately illustrates the popular trust in clergy of all churches in the mid-1950s.
Things have changed dramatically since that time, and not just in the Roman Catholic Church. Clergy who once fulfilled the role of standard-bearers of public morality have now been relegated to the minor role of functionaries of more or less embattled religious communities. The days when men such as Bishop Fulton Sheen or Harry Emerson Fosdick could command widespread and respectful attention from multitudes are long gone. Even the comparatively recent attempt of men like Jerry Falwell to suggest that they spoke for the silent “moral majority” looks dated. In Canada and in the United States the Christian churches have forfeited their privileged status as the moral voice of the people.
The so-called “culture wars” raging in the United States bear testimony to this. Untroubled and uncontested Christian hegemony has given place to warfare between the churches and the forces of secularism. The progress of the war is irrelevant to the issue at hand; what matters is the fact of the warfare itself. Christians in the West increasingly feel themselves to be challenged, if not under siege. The citadel of a triumphant Christendom has fallen; now a campaign of skirmishes and of rear-guard action has begun.
In western secular society, the Bible commands also little or no cultural respect. Oaths may still be taken upon it in court, but this is an essentially meaningless vestige of a former time, rather like the classic wedding oath which states that the partners being married will stay together “until death do us part”. Increasingly the Bible is regarded as the textbook of a segment of the general population, rather like the Qur’an is for the Muslims, except that the Bible is more likely to be found in hotel rooms. The fact that a teaching can be found in the Bible has no cultural weight—as citations from the Bible about the sinfulness of homosexual behaviour abundantly demonstrate. Bluntly put, society as a whole does not care what the Bible says. If it reinforces secular social norms (such as its condemnation of racism) its quotation will be allowed. If it contradicts secular social norms (such as its condemnation of homosexual practice) it will be shouted down and denounced as a relic of an old out-dated world. Its former role as an arbiter of social behaviour has long been swept away.
The Dogmas of the Post-Christian World: Obstacles to Evangelism
Every culture lives by dogmas—that is, by moral presuppositions and habits of mind so ingrained that they are rarely openly asserted, much less examined or defended. Few people examine their fundamental presuppositions; rather these presuppositions form the prism through which they examine everything else. To people these presuppositions as so self-evident that they scarcely need examination or defense. In the modern West there are a number of these presuppositions that impede the Church’s work of evangelism and make it difficult for the average westerner to accept the Church’s view of Scripture. These reigning dogmas of the modern West include the following.
1) Truth is relative. The modern West allows for a multitude of competing and mutually incompatible worldviews and for the open practice of many religions. This is a good thing, for tolerance of contrary opinion allows for personal growth and charity. But our political pluralism which found room for many different religions has morphed into a tacit agreement that there is no one true religion—or at least that if there is, society as a whole is incapable of discovering it. One now therefore hears expressions like “That is your truth” or “What is true for you is not necessarily true for me”. These assertions are not just admissions that opinions differ, but the more radical view that an absolute truth, discoverable and available to all, does not exist. In this understanding, religious pluralism in society is not merely political inevitable; it is also philosophically necessary. There can be no national commitment to a particular faith because it is impossible for the nation to discover which religion is true.
This presupposition that society should not opt for a dominant religion is ingrained, and is never examined or questioned. That is why we look back in history upon societies which did make a religious choice with studied incomprehension, if not with a fair bit of revulsion. For example, just as pagan Rome insisted on a public honouring of their gods as the state cult, so also the Christians ejected the old gods and substituted the worship of Christ when they came to power. Their logic was clear: the old gods were demons and worshipping them would mean forfeiting divine favour. Therefore, the old gods had to go and a different choice be made for state allegiance. It took some time: the altar to the goddess Victory was not cleared out of Rome until 382 by the Emperor Gratian. Two years later when Symmachus, the senator and prefect of Rome, wrote to the next emperor asking to have it restored, his request was strenuously opposed by St. Ambrose, who succeeded in having the request denied.
Those now looking back at men such as Ambrose regard him and those like him as petty and tyrannical. What was wrong with those people? Why couldn’t they just live and let live? Who cares if there was an altar to a pagan goddess in the senate house for those like Symmachus who wanted it there?
Such incomprehension reveals how different is the new world in which we now live. Ambrose (and Symmachus) both believed that a state must choose a religion, and that it mattered supremely which religion it chose. Our modern secular society just as firmly believes that a state must not make a choice of religion. We have retreated from the ancient and all but universal view that truth matters both nationally and individually. Truth has become culturally relative. In this philosophical climate, the notion of conducting a “crusade” to convert large multitudes to the Christian faith (as Billy Graham did) or to enshrine Christian principles in law (such as outlawing abortion) strike the average citizen as intolerant ideological imperialism.
2) Truth is determined by the individual alone. This dogma is of course closely allied with the previous one. Since the state must not make a national or societal choice of ideology, those choices are therefore left to others. Those others, of course, need not be individuals. In Islamic societies as elsewhere, choice of religion is dictated by family and tribe, and it is all but inconceivable there that an individual would rebel against family traditions and choices by choosing another path.
But in the modern West the individual has been exalted above family and tribe, and we now regard religious affiliation as less than completely authentic unless it has been freely and individually chosen. Saying “I am a Christian/ Muslim/ vegetarian/ pacifist/ Democrat/ Republican because my father is” is regarded as evidence of immaturity. A mature person, we feel, will decide for themselves and not base their decision on solidarity with family tradition. Individual choice becomes the sine qua non of ideological authenticity. And, consistent with this dogma, we feel that to the degree that one’s choice is influenced by family, to that degree it is not valid or genuine.
Previous generations in the West attached great importance to family solidarity, and usually subordinated individual choice to family tradition.
This willingness to subordinate one’s own choices to a larger body forms the essence of what the Church means by “Holy Tradition”. In the early Church it was understood that the Church as a whole was the bearer and steward of divine truth (compare Ephesians 3:10, 1 Timothy 3:15). One received the truth as a gift from Christ through His Church, not through a process of individual reasoning and discovery. Truth was not the result of an individual quest, but a gift received from others by an individual. The assent of the individual was still required (hence the questions posed and answered in baptism), but truth came as a result of one’s voluntary subordination to others—in this case, the Church.
All of this is utterly foreign to our modern western understanding of the role of the individual. Modern secular dogmas regard authorities exterior to the individual as threats to his sole sovereign autonomy. Today we may choose to agree with an external authority, but this agreement, to be genuine ideologically, must leave him free to dissent and leave his inner autonomy untouched. In this system the Church (and its Bible) can be a resource for the individual to use, but never a true authority. The modern world regards as absurd and demeaning the notion that one must believe the Bible because a Christian submits his conscience to the Word of God.
3) Each generation discovers the truth for itself. In previous ages, each generation received the truth as an inheritance from the previous generations and continued to build upon that foundation, discarding things newly discovered to be erroneous, and building upon things still regarded as true.
The Church’s Tradition fits into this pattern. The exegesis of Scripture was an inter-generational project, with interpreters inheriting the work of those who had interpreted the texts before them and building upon their work. Their interpretations were received by the Church at large throughout the successive years through a complicated process of popular debate, and were either accepted and confirmed or rejected and discarded.
It was the same with the findings of the church councils. The conclusions of the bishops assembled in council also were received by the church at large in the years following those councils, and were either accepted (in the case of the Council of Nicea) or rejected (in the case of the Arian Council of Sirmium in 357; known in Orthodox history as “the blasphemy of Sirmium”). In the cases of both patristic Biblical exegesis and conciliar definition, the work of interpretation and elaboration was spread over decades. It was the eventual acceptance by the Church at large that legitimated the work of the patristic interpreters and the councils.
This inter-generational approach is impossible in our modern setting, which regards each generation as superior to its predecessors and as the sole judge of truth, assuming that those in every generation know better than their fathers and forebears. Ever-advancing technological knowledge is the paradigm for viewing all knowledge: just as our technology is superior to that of previous generations, so we assume that our philosophy and ideology must be superior as well.
This dogma finds expression in political correctness, which declares that our current views are the only valid ones, and which holds up to contempt all previous views. It therefore simply disallows the notion that apprehension of truth is subject to growth throughout the generations. All previous ages are judged according to their conformity or non-conformity to our present views, and the notion that previous ages, despite their blind spots, may have something to teach us is regarded as preposterous—as is the notion that our age might have blind spots of its own. We now believe that we have nothing to learn from our forebears; true wisdom begins and ends with us, and those who came before were unenlightened by definition by virtue of their early date.
We note in passing that scientists do not use this model, for all scientists build upon the work of their predecessors. Subsequent experimentation may cause the work of those predecessors to be discarded, amended, or confirmed, but their work always forms the starting point for the future work of others. It is only in ideology that secular society rejects the findings of earlier ages as intrinsically invalid and insists that its views alone possess validity.
This chronological snobbery is especially harmful when it comes to accepting the authority of Scripture, for all Scripture is ancient. It is therefore disallowed as a credible authority not necessarily because it has been proven wrong, but simply because it is old.
4) The assertions of Christianity have been discredited and are no longer allowed a hearing. When the Church’s missionaries went to evangelize pagan tribes in the past, they were bringing to them not only good news, but new news. That is, the Church’s target audience had not yet heard the details of the Gospel. Whether it was St. Cuthbert preaching in Northumbria in the seventh century or St. Herman preaching in Alaska in the nineteenth century, the people to whom the Gospel came regarded it as something new. They might reject it as too new and in conflict with their ancestral traditions, but they recognized it as the novelty it was.
This is no longer the case in the post-Christian West, which is why we call the West “post-Christian”. The term does not only mean that a united and reigning Christendom no longer exists. It also means that the secular West believes that it has tried Christianity and found it wanting. This makes the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel all the more difficult, for we appear to be offering people a product they have already tried and determined to be not worth having.
Part of the secular West’s reluctance to grant the Church’s message a fresh hearing is rooted in secular society’s conflicting values. In a word, the secular West believes the Christian ideal is ideologically deficient because it deems it to be patriarchal and sexist, because it believes it to be historically allied with racist policies, and because it believes it to be opposed to science and educated enlightenment.
There is no sense denying that some of these accusations possess a modicum of truth. Certain sexist attitudes have been found among Christians, just as Christian nations have sometimes pursued racist policies, and in both cases those promoting sexism and racism have attempted to justify themselves by quoting Scripture. But this does not in itself mean that the teachings of Scripture are inherently sexist or racist, but only that men are capable, then as now, of twisting Biblical words to justify their actions. The Church has always known that confessing Christians were able to twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). The question is whether Christian sexism and Christian racism constitute accurate expositions of Scripture or damnable perversions of it.
In responding to these accusations we must clearly and unequivocally condemn these sins, as well as showing what the Scriptures actually say. We should point out that any institution that has existed for two millennia and has numbered among its adherents multitudes of men and women from every continent is bound to contain both examples of heroic sanctity and examples of grievous sinfulness. For example, the United States has existed for considerably less than two millennia and has far less total population than the Christian Church, yet it also has contributed to the world a share of both good and evil. Yet the evil things Americans do not necessarily invalidate its founding document, the United States Constitution. Founding documents must be judged on their own merits, and not by the subsequent actions of those claiming to live by their ideals.
The task of bringing the Gospel to the post-Christian West is a complicated one, and must begin with both penitence on the part of the Church for its past sins and also an appeal to humility on the part of its target audience. That is, the Church must begin by asking, “Are you sure you know what the Bible and the Church actually teach? Isn’t it possible that you are looking not at the Christian faith, but at a stereotypical caricature of it?” Only by so doing can the Church hope to secure a fresh hearing for its Gospel message.
Engagement with the Post-Christian World
As we engage the post-Christian world with the Gospel, I suggest we should make example and not proclamation our first move of engagement. Because Christians have already forfeited much of their credibility as far as the secular world is concerned, the credibility needed to proclaim the Gospel and win a fresh hearing for it can only be won through their demonstration that the Gospel can transfigure and beautify people’s lives and create a new kind of community. The strategy is as old as the conversion of the pagan Rus’: the ambassadors of Vladimir coming to Constantinople to investigate Christianity stood in church at worship and reported upon returning home (according to the story), “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. We only know that God dwells there among men, for we cannot forget that beauty.” It is this beauty alone which will win a fresh hearing for our proclamation—the beauty both of the church’s worship and of the transfigured lives of its members living in love and peace with one another, and thus providing an alternative to the chaos reigning in the world.
Indeed, this strategy is older than St. Vladimir—the Lord Himself said that by this all men would know that they were His disciples if they had love for one another (John 13:35). In world where monuments of the past are literally being pulled down by angry mobs intent upon sweeping away every visual vestige of the past civilization (a civilization identifiably Christian), the demonstration of a better way of living is essential. Only then can the Christian sharing of the Gospel hope to gain a fresh hearing.
What role then do the Scriptures play in the Church’s evangelistic outreach? Obviously the evangelistic message to outsiders must conform to the teaching of the Scriptures, if only for the sake of consistency—what they heard while outsiders must also be what they discover after they join the church and become insiders. There can be no hidden gnosis, no Masonic-like secrets that can be shared only after initiation, the Church’s disciplina arcani notwithstanding.
But the Church must not assume the authority of its Bible in its evangelistic proclamation, for the acceptance of Scriptural authority is a fruit of faith and a consequence of accepting the Gospel; it cannot be the cause of it. One sees this immediately upon stepping outside Christianity: it makes no sense to say, for example, “You must accept Islam because the Qur’an says that Islam is true”. That is circular reasoning. One accepts Islam (or Christianity) for other reasons, not because its foundational document affirms it is true.
An evangelist therefore will quote the Scripture to illustrate what the Christian Faith says, but he will not assume the truth of Scripture in his argument and appeal to conversion. One believes that Jesus is the Son of God and the Lord of the Church for other reasons (e.g. the historical evidence for the empty tomb, or the presence of miracles, etc.), not because the Bible says so. It is only after someone has accepted the Gospel that the catechetical process of Christian formation can begin. And the acceptance of Scripture’s authority forms part of this formation. One believes in the Bible because one believes that Jesus is the Son of God; one does not believe He is the Son of God because one believes the Bible. Faith in Christ precedes faith in the Scripture.
As the new convert begins the long catechetical process of letting the truths of Scripture transform the heart (one sees why the catechumenate lasted at least three years in the early church), the erroneous presuppositions and dogmas of the post-Christian world are slowly dealt with and replaced with Christian ones. The catechumen will learn that truth is absolute, and that the Gospel is therefore meant for all. He will learn that truth is a gift given by Christ through His Church, and not the result of an individual’s power of reasoning, so that one must prefer the teaching of the Church to one’s own privately-formed opinions. The catechumen will learn that the Church’s truth has been built up and elaborated over many generations, and is expressed through the Church Fathers and the decisions of ecumenical councils.
In a word, the catechumen will undergo a long and thorough process of “de-programming”, unlearning some things and relearning others. Catechumenal instruction is not simply the accumulation of historical facts and Bible verses; it involves an entirely new way of thinking and experiencing the world. The locus of transformation is the heart, not the head.
It is not true, the long poem by James Russell Lowell notwithstanding, that “Time makes ancient good uncouth” and that the portal of the future must not be attempted “with the Past’s blood-rusted key”. Time does not make the Church’s ancient good of the Gospel uncouth, just currently unpopular.
The world is growing ever darker, and the darkness reveals what those who love the light share in common. As an angry and hostile West continues to pull down statues and war against its past, Christians of all kinds will increasingly find themselves under common threat. In this world, we Orthodox may well find ourselves sharing a cave (or perhaps a jail-cell) with a Baptist or a Catholic. This will be a different kind of ecumenism than that which we knew in the past—an ecumenism of the gallows, and not of wine and cheese parties. We must not disdain such ecumenical company, but must support one another in our common cause for, as Elrond commented to Gandalf (in the Peter Jackson’s film The Lord of the Rings), “Our list of allies grows thin.” All the more reason in this dark world for us all to rejoice in our allies wherever we find them. For however dark the world has become, we retain our divine mandate to reach it and illumine it with the Gospel.