30 April 2009

The Sordid Boon, part 2

** This is part two of three-part review of Craig Gay's Way of the (Modern) World; or, Why It's Tempting to Live as if God Doesn't Exist.

In the first four chapters, Gay outlines and analyzes a few modern American institutions that are, in the worst sense, worldly (i.e., that push us toward a practical atheism), and offers glimpses of a “theology of personhood” (mentioned in the first part of this review) at the end of each section before focusing on it directly in the last chapter of the book (he considers this theology, based as it is on social trinitarianism, to be a major antidote to the ills he describes throughout the book). Regarding these four American institutions, we must:
  • place human aspirations (protecting and preserving lives) over and against those of immanent political-social change. Over the course of the last one hundred years, countless human lives have been sacrificed on the alter of abstract ideals (like “progress,” “social justice,” and “freedom”). In light of this, Christian hope ought to be a political virtue (pp. 73ff). Why? Such hope gives us a healthy skepticism toward an earthly kingdom when it grasps at lordship; it relativizes large-scale political-social aspirations and exposes their hollowness and precariousness. Christian hope frees Christians up to act hopefully in the world. “It enables us to act humbly and patiently, tackling visible injustices in the world around us” Gay writes, “without needing to be assured that our skill and our effort will somehow rid the world of injustice altogether” (p. 77).

  • with respect to technology and science, “give an account of nature that does not deny the validity of scientific inquiry, and yet does not so stress the autonomy of the created order that it tempts us to believe that science can reveal the meaning of nature and of our own lives” (p. 126). We Christians must neither wholly disdain rational and empirical inquiry, nor must we assume that science can be used in an unbiased way. The paradox of “contingency” must be affirmed and proudly maintained in the face of rational-technical determinism. Creation is both independent of (contra pantheism) and utterly dependent on God (pp. 124–129; see also pp. 272–281). God is sure; all else is subject to change.
  • reject the logic of the modern economy, which reduces all things to objects of monetary value, and rediscover the Protestant work ethic of vocation as “calling.” That is, whatsoever we do, do heartily, as to the Lord and not to man (Col. 3:23). It means acting “ethically and substantively within the system no matter how impractical we may occasionally appear in doing so” (p. 175). This is, in a sense, an invitation to take seriously the vocation to suffer—theologia crucis in action.
  • in combating narcissism, or the “worldly self” (p. 181), leave-off the notion of ever being fully satisfied with both consumption and therapy (or any earthly kingdom/institution for that matter), and be filled with a Christian self-consciousness in which “love for God and neighbor is progressively realized and deepened” (p. 232). The need to rediscover the self before God (coram Deo) as opposed to the self simply submerged in mass society and culture has never been greater. Therapeutic consumption, like any other drug, requires more of us every time we use it, until our ravenous gluttony results in self-satisfaction at any cost. Instead of finding our identity in the glory of the lordship of Christ (ironically, through the shame of the cross), we settle for defining the self in terms of individual rights and needs.

The hope in summarizing Gay’s book up to this point has been to help inform us where practical atheism threatens the church and what must be done to resist it. This is not a book of prescriptive solutions; it is a book that provides (I believe) explicitly Christian tools with which we can resist the inherent atheism of (post)modernity. In the next and final part of this review, I'll briefly attempt to apply these tools.


steve said...

I can't help but think this project is yet closer to Christian philosophy than theology. Isn't reconciling sinners to God the real enterprise of the Christian religion instead of how to be better earth-dwellers?

Don't get me wrong, earth-dwelling has its dignity and can be done well or poorly (and I love earth-dwelling). But I fail to see why I need Christianity to know the difference.


Chris Donato said...

Hi, Zrim. Thanks for stopping by.

I certainly do follow you on that point. Yet I could only agree if Gay's project were indeed merely about "creating worldviews" and all that stuff.

But this is a book written by a churchman to the church—a church that has far too often co-opted the agenda and tactics of the world. So what he intends to challenge is the functional atheism within the church by taking a closer look at those particular American institutions that have themselves been given platforms, or simply taken for granted (if you will), by the community of Christ.

This of course will have ramifications with respect to earth dwelling. And, while Christianity certainly isn't needed to "know the difference" between poor or well earth dwelling, having Christian theology provide further support, if not impetus (not least to those who straddle both kingdoms), is I think quite appropriate. For example, taking Gay's cue:

We ought not treat other human beings like objects, the way the Market, used improperly, is wont to do. As humans, we can come up with many reasons, inductively, that support this code (nonetheless our natural, and selfish, evolutionary inclinations pull us in the opposite direction). But as humans and as Christians, we contemplate, for example, the theology—not philosophy—of the Trinity and how the Three interact socially as the One and are further informed, nay, enjoined to treat others, despite their Market value, with dignity—no matter what the personal cost, financially or otherwise. So, then, this reconciliatory way of life is itself a direct outflow of the (in your words) "real enterprise of the Christian religion," that is, "reconciling sinners to God."

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