22 April 2009

The Sordid Boon

Today begins a three-part review on Craig Gay's Way of the (Modern) World; or, Why It's Tempting to Live as if God Doesn't Exist. I first read this book about eight years ago.

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.⎯Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
⎯William Wordsworth, 
The world is too much with us, ll. 4, 8–12.

Every four years, the American nation turns its deficient attention to presidential politics. The major news outlets, those purveyors of bite-sized and largely irrelevant bits of information, do of course turn their attention to such things at least one year earlier, while many, if not most, do everything possible to ignore it. Eventually,
notice is taken sometime around the summer before election day, with hopes of getting it over quickly (we might as well sing along with Simon and Garfunkel, “Laugh about it; shout about it; when you’ve got to choose, any way you look at it you lose”).

But we the people, not least the church, must resist this temptation—not by succumbing to the droning slogans of political pundits and cable news networks but by becoming thoughtfully deliberate about our everyday, taken-for-granted actions (like paying attention—or not—to presidential politics). This principle holds true, of course, for all of life (worship, while quite distinct from life, maintains this principle too). The church ought to be a deliberate people—deliberate about what they read, what they watch, what they buy; in short, what they think, say and do.

The church’s history from the first century onward teems with stories of churchmen and women who have resisted the slithering wiles of the world to some degree. From Saint John’s opposition to the seceders, Justin Martyr’s defense against paganism’s pseudo-morality, Tertullian’s repudiation of Gnosticism, the seven great ecumenical councils’ affirmations of orthodox Christian doctrine, to Pope Gregory’s defense of a future, bodily resurrection, Aquinas’ opposition to Avveroist "relativists," the Reformation’s recovery of the graciously free gospel, and the modern-day struggle over the authority of both the Hebrew and apostolic canonical scriptures—all of these serve to remind us that the catholic church has never been afraid of a fight. Where, then, is the battle today? And once the battle lines are drawn, how ought the church resist the attack?

In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a haunting sentence: “How often Fundamentalist attack on so-called liberalism—by which cultural Protestantism is meant—is itself an expression of a cultural loyalty, a number of Fundamentalist interests indicate” (p. 102). In other words, (social) liberals and (social) conservatives, religiously speaking, are two sides of the same coin (that coin being the “Christ of Culture,” in his terms). It has always been the task of thinking Christians in America, not least since Niebuhr's project, to respond deliberately to this dilemma. It’s simply not enough to think we are avoiding both extremes, for the very actions we take for granted everyday are what is in question. What do our actions say about us? When we resist worldliness, what do our resisting actions say about the presuppositions that inform them? 

Craig M. Gay, in The Way of the (Modern) World, or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist, offers a thought-provoking analysis of this situation by focusing on what lay beneath the surface of modern American society. He uncovers something dreadful. Gay shows time and again how the unmitigated embracing of modern institutions by the church has rendered the gospel implausible to its hearers, as faith and prayer are constantly eclipsed by practical efficacy of expertise and technique (p. 3). By exposing the atheistic elements inherent within American institutions such as politics, science and technology, modern economy, and our own collective personality—rampant narcissism—Gay shows how each of these are worldly by definition, anti-teleological by nature. Our disdain of purpose then leads us to incessantly strive to create meaning for ourselves through political aspirations, through uncritical obeisance to science and the unthinking consumption of technology, through the dehumanization of others for financial gain, and so forth. Creation is thereby seen as an object for us to control, an object that we use solely to create our own purpose and meaning. The world is reduced to a human construction alone that attempts to blot-out the sovereignty and lordship of the risen Christ. In short, this “practical atheism” inherent within modern culture asserts that humans do not need God, that he is “largely irrelevant to the real business of life” (p. 2). However, this “practical atheism” does not preclude religious understanding: rather, “it simply requires that the object of religious understanding be subject to more or less ‘natural’ regularities” (p. 7). That is, we want a religion we can control. By maintaining this merely human construction over reality, we not only render the existence of a Creator irrelevant, we neutralize “the possibility of having any real encounter with the living God” (p. 7), and it is this deliberate constriction that prevents us from seeing the plausibility of the gospel (understood most simply as Rom. 10:9: “If you acknowledge with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be rescued.”).

Simply put, Craig Gay’s book is for those willing to take a critical look at their own actions, how they relate to the church, and whether they reinforce or combat practical atheism. While Gay’s frightening exposure of the church’s thoughtless consumption of modern remedies could send the reader into a seemingly irreparable quandary, he honestly wrestles with the problem in order to offer a valid solution: a theology of personhood. That is, to approach all of our relationships (with the world, people, and most importantly, God) in terms of “I–Thou” (as opposed to “I–it”). The only way there, Gay argues, is through the recapturing and reapplying of historic Trinitarian orthodoxy (see pp. 284–296).

* Update: See Part 2 and Part 3 of this book review.


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