BEYOND BELIEF TO CONVICTION

IN OUR SENSATE CULTURE

 

As long ago as 1931, the American Consumer Project received brilliant analysis and by 2002 our consumer culture has reached apogee in Western technology and science in our global village. Now we are dwelling in the postmodern temple of consumerism, which started as modernity’s highest ideals. This phenomenon was an effort to produce comfort and convenience, but now this movement has reached its zenith in cultural decadence. It sought to create and sustain the good life else it would have been considered narrow, wasteful, irresponsible, and immoral. Any constructive Christian response to this development will require enormous educational preparation; in fact, it will necessitate a revolution in the content and function of Christian education.

 

We have entered on a new phase of culture--we may call it the Age of the Cinema--in which the most amazing perfection of scientific technique is being devoted to purely ephemeral objects, without any consideration of their ultimate justification. It seems as though a new society was arising which will acknowledge no hierarchy of values, no intellectual authority, and no social or religious tradition, but which will live for the moment in chaos of pure sensation. (Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion: An Historical Inquiry (1931; reprint, Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden, 1991), p. 228)

 

The seeker-sensitivity of contemporary evangelicalism has produced a consumerized version of Christianity that can be understood as of a piece with this postmodern revolt of popular, mass culture against high modernism (cf. The kitsch and schlock of much Christian television). (See Andreas Huyssen on the postmodern revolt, After the Great Divide: Modernity, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Theories of Representation and Difference) (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986).

 

Some cultural indicators in the sensate culture of 2002 are: (1) Inclusivism, (2) Exclusivism, (3) Syncretism, (4) Universalism (e.g. “Openness of God” Theology), and (5) Annihilationism (e.g. Our Time/Space world is all there is to life, then annihilationism, a human being is just a handful of dust).

 

We are searching for a unifying consciousness in our diverse pluralism, yet there is plethora of efforts that attack Christian conviction in education, all forms of media and seeks to silence Christian conviction in the market place. There is a sustained effort to impeach “moral absolutes” and inaugurate moral openness/diversity.

 

The comfort and prosperity results of the modern era produced the “cult of expectation”. The previous progressive era was grounded in work and loyalty but in the last decade of the 20th century democracy has been dissolved into socialism and has produced the cultural and epistemological relativism of our present condition in 2002. The dynamic of competition espoused the ethic of cooperation, tolerance and diversity and the democratization of leisure, consumption, and universal abundance, fused together with ambitious programs of education (multiculturalism). The goal was for the “masses“ and they would be educated to become consumers. These cultural and scientific advancements came through the influences of Thorstein, Veblen, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Dewey, and Lewis Mumford (in this maze, we experience Marxist critique of capitalistic democracy in the 1920s and 30s, the depression years of the United States). Here the culture of contempt for honest work is an attack on the aristocratic past. Dewey’s new philosophy of education expressed an effort to fuse school and the work force and sought to overcome the split between thought and practice. Dewey also attacked the conventional notion of culture as unchanging. Issuing in the new immigration debate produced exclusivism and assimilation and now in 2002 pluralistic divergence reigns supreme in our culture. As long ago as Israel Zanzwill’s play, The Melting Pot, which was first performed in 1908, provided the classic statement of the assimilationists’ position, and now we enter the cultural relativism of Franz Boaz’s work in anthropology. Boaz, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, and others, declared that tribalism, particularism and nationalism as class-consciousness all rested on the primitive fear of the stranger. Cultural anthropologists continued to articulate the thesis-- “Unconscious control of traditional ideas” which was an attack on ethnic intolerance; thus their ideas greatly modified the nature of democracy. (See Louis Menand, the Metaphysical Club: The Story of Ideas in America (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001), Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven and Its Critics (NY: Norton, 1991, pub); and Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century Battle Over School Reform (Simon and Schuster, 2000, esp. Pp. 420-467, “Search For Standards”)

 

In our postmodern culture, truth is “out” and “relativism” is in. How is constructive communication with any category of our pop culture possible as long as it is ordered by “not that there is anything wrong with that” philosophy--But! America’s “melting pot” no longer melts--we are now the most diverse religious country in the world. Perhaps social interaction is reducible to four factors: (cf. T. Parsons, 1969 and esp. Bruce J. Maline, Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1986)--(1) Commitment (belonging): generally specific to the belonging systems; (2) Influence (meaning): generally specific to the meaning system; (3) Power (goal attainment): specific to the collective effectiveness system; and (4) Inducement (adaptation): generally specific to the economic system which measures usefulness in terms of money, employers, customers and workers, producers, distributors, etc. These factors are like specialized languages within a particular social substructure. Each supplies a type of relationship between persons with a view to obtaining results in social interaction.

 

Surely Christians are living in a postmodern battle zone. Cultural wars are raging all around us, threatening our escalation of violence. According to James D. Hunter, the social observer who popularized the phrase “culture wars,” these conflicts are more than interesting differences of opinion arising from our much-celebrated social diversity. Cultural wars are battles that arise from “fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on.” (J.D. Hunter, Cultural Wars: The Struggle to Define America (Basic Books, 1991), p. 49). This situation precipitates a struggle for power, (a’ la’ Nietzsche) vying for ability to impose our vision of goodness before someone else has a chance to impose one (cf. Impossibility of Neutrality). It is a high-stakes battle with truth and righteousness on the endangered list. What kinds of problems does this situation impose on Christians? Our heightened awareness of cultural wars conflict prompt two types of reminders: (1) Christians must realize that our commitments contribute to the tension and conflict raging around us, especially our relevance to public life and the ordering of human society. We must wonder who is to blame for the cultural wars? (2) The very existence of conflicting values and visions and their manifestations in culture wars remind Christians to ask how their convictions can seek social recognition when society is characterized by a variety of disparate/contradictory fundamental convictions. Must God always be a stranger in the secular city? Can Christians act for the public good without compromising their commitment to the transcendent good? (See Harvey Cox, “Citizens and Believers: Always Strangers?” In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America (2nd edition, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1990), esp. pp. 449-450; he asks, “What is the appropriate role of these persons who are at once both believers and citizens?”) Also Oliver O’Donovan, Principles in The Public Realm: The Dilemma of Christian Moral Witness (Oxford, 1984), p. 4).

 

Is it possible to engage in dialogue about public morality that respects a diversity of moral convictions in the public arena while also maintaining adherence to the particularities of Christian faith? Is it possible for Christians to enter such dialogue without compromising moral convictions or apologizing for their central convictions? Christian witness often ends in barriers to the integrity of Christian faith. There are at least three barriers to Christian witness:

 

A private/public distinction and the resulting spirit of moral relativism, and since neutrality is impossible we terminate the idea in a power struggle. In this arena, values cannot be verified; therefore, each value system is context bound. There is no universal norm from which to adjudicate between an altruistic perspective; therefore, one value system is as good as another. We have arrived at the temple of moral relativism. There can be no rational fusion of “private morals and public citizenship.” Permission to be Christian in private does not count for much when our beliefs are very clearly about a unified whole creation, human kind, God’s intention for God’s world. This cultural split is an unhappy one; only a Christian worldview can order diverse perimeters of reality.

 

The separation of Church and State as a functional marginization of religious moral discourse in the public arena: (see my paper, “The Trivialization/Marginalization of God in Our Post Christian Modern Culture.”) First the developments in the hard sciences removed God from the universe/nature; then this historiographical revolution removed Him from history (providence, miracles); then the developments in psychology and psychoanalysis removed Him from the human psyche. Then the social sciences removed Him from the socio-politico, economic dimensions of reality; then came the irrational forms of existentialism, phenomenology (e.g. Heidegger, Bultman, et.al.). The only place left for God was in the private, inward world of the self, but the self was repudiated by the developments in psychology (see my paper, “The Demise of The Self in the Social Sciences). The complete reinterpretation of the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments via naturalistic pluralistic philosophies of law in the Law Schools (no wonder freedom is under fire; man has been reduced to an animal, to a machine, to a computer analogue contra Genesis 1-3 and Psalm 8). Rather than protecting religion from government, the courts and the law have seen the requirement of a separation between Church and State as a guarantee of public secularism (e.g. This is scientific neutrality?). The separation between Christianity and government is frightening (see S.L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief; How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (Basic Books, 1993), pp. 83-85; see D. Carson’s work, The Gagging of God). People who take religion too seriously are frightening; moreover, some so-called Christian nations have been guilty of some regrettable moral atrocities, e.g., the Crusades, the Thirty Years War, the Reformation in Germany, the Inquisition in Spain, the war in Bosnia, the Near Eastern conflict between Arabs and Jews, slavery in the United States, etc. The new version of the separation of Church and State goes hand in hand with tolerance, perhaps the central and most universal virtue of this decade. When there is no “True Truth,” tolerance of alternative perspectives is “imperative” (Why?) In order to avoid universal conflict. (Why is this bad? Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest). If the separation of Church and State is political doctrine, tolerance is the corresponding virtue of political life in our post Christian modern culture.

 

Proposals for public debate based in moral common ground! Is there a solution to the protective fences that divide private from public or that separate Church and State? Is there any basis for unity in our pluralistic, relativistic postmodern culture? Is there any basis for shared consensus? A consensus approach lets Christians have their convictions as long as we bracket our distinctive beliefs when others in the public square do not share them.

 

Search for Common Ground in Our Foundationalist Culture

 

Richard Mouw and Sander Griffisen provide a salient summary of one version of what is might mean to meet on common ground (see their Pluralism and Horizons: An Essay on Christian Public Policy (Eerdmans, 1993). In their critique of John Rawl’s attempt to describe an overlapping consensus “between persons and communities with distinctive perspectives and irreconcilable differences,” (see Paul Lewis’ unpublished paper, “Toward A Non Foundationalist Christian Social Ethic,” p. 15), Mouw and Griffisen seek common ground in order to avoid social anarchy--how to talk to one another. If our accounts of the good are really incompatible, what will help us mediate between competing versions? How do we hope to avoid a linguistic nightmare? If all communication is linguistically context bound, only the speaker can understand. But his understanding is a solipsistic chaos. This procedure can never constructively create a community of consensus.

 

Critics of common ground solutions to pluralism have identified at least two key problems with this paradigm. (1) It contains a subtle self-deception. The contention that social order ought to be grounded in procedural rules that do not embody anyone’s account of the good is far from neutral. The idea that justice looks like decisions made behind a veil of ignorance is based on the liberal dogma that things like personal identity, God’s preferential option for the poor, or responsibility to particular communities and commitments are not legitimate reasons for the choices we make. Such common ground solutions do not really ask us to meet on common ground; they ask us to meet on someone else’s ground. (2) Rawls, et.al., advocates that public civility can only be guaranteed if we leave our foundational commitments behind. Since this is not possible, it is hardly a solution to the relativistic challenge of pluralism. If our worldview commitments are threats to peace, then only people who do not really care much about anything can treat each other with kindness and respect. In radical contrast to this suggestion, Glen Tinder has suggested that civility can be based on more than rational self-interest. For Christians, it can arise from their allegiance to the things they believe (Glen Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity (Harper, 1989), p. 17). Yet Tinder’s suggestion cannot hope to mediate between alternative/contradictory commitments.

 

Other communities of faith have their own consensus based in or on their own belief/behavior system. This is, of course, the problem with pluralism. Our Christian response to this postmodern chaos must be sensitive to both the integrity of Christian faith and to the cultural fact of pluralism. How do we mediate between alternative perspectives regarding pluralism and the public square? (See D. Carson’s work, The Gagging of God on Theories of Pluralism, and my paper, “Syncretism, Divergence and Pluralism.”).

 

Truth, Tolerance and Relativism in Our Postmodern Temple

 

Pluralism is more than mere diversity that goes beyond interesting differences of opinion. Our nation is composed by directional pluralism (see Mouw/Griffisen, Pluralism and Horizons (Eerdmans, 1993). Our multicultural social structure expresses context and pluralism alliances. This may easily cross religious affiliation when race or gender highlights common interests. Such privatizing interests may divide religious groups even to the point of evidence, as the American Civil War gives evidence. The surprising coalition of people who support or oppose abortion is a striking example. Pluralism in the public square describes an irreducible and complex set of directional and contextual differences that yield not only unique but also potentially competing convictions and ways of living in the world. The kinds of diversity represented in pluralism are much celebrated, especially by the media and by our postmodern emphasis on multicultural education. The positive dimension of pluralism is the opportunity it affords us to learn to appreciate, understand, and respect fully the variety of persons who inhabit our social space. Increasing awareness of pluralism is exposed in societal fragmentation. The foundations for unity are not only problematic but their existence is categorically repudiated. Nothing remains to adjudicate our difference. The loss of the certainty of moral authority is also denied in the market place. Pragmatism reigns as lord over our Global Village. The anxiety pluralism engenders makes an enormous impact on the responses we choose as appropriate. The postmodern effort to recover Christendom is a symptom of our uneasiness (see esp. Hauerwas’s work, After Christendom (Abingdon, 1991).

 

Search for Unifying Consensus in Our Diverse Culture in The Public Square

 

If there is no True Truth, then there can be no false teaching of “false behavior.” The attack is not on the truth of these judgments (e.g. Postmodern non-judgmentalism) not the legitimacy of these claims, but the attacks on Christian conviction in schools, and media seeks to silence Christian witness and our cultural impeachment of moral absolutism and inauguration of moral openness.

Christian existence does not depend on Christendom as social cohesion and unquestioned certainty. It rather depends on the True Truth of the Christian gospel story. We live in a post Christian modern culture that precludes the possibility of a Christian consensus. Does the demise of Christendom demand something like its re-establishment? (Cf. That our Restoration Heritage requires True Truth and Unity by consensus of commitment is nonsense in our postmodern insane asylum).

 

What kind of space is the Public Square? (1) The public square is a social space in which we purposely make room for a divergence of ideas, projects (private interests) and ways of ordering life together. In this sense it is contested territory. In this playing field, a basketball court, boxing match, a football stadium, a racetrack, a baseball diamond--each of these metaphors of pluralism play only within a set of rules. Losers are not ostracized but are invited back to play again until the final period when only one team or person wins. Everyone cannot win! Conversation and argument is present in all traditions of playing games. (2) The public square is also space in which we cooperate for the sake of the common good. Oliver O’Donovan sharply presents our dilemma: “Is the realm in which we pursue other than our individual projects and thoughts, and have things in common.” (Principles in The Public Realm (Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 3). The game metaphor is very limited. In any game theory only one person/team wins. The rules set the boundaries on how the games can be played. You can make your own game, but if you are going to play game X you will play according to the rules. In your multicultural pluralism every player makes up his own rules. But this creates insanity! This is certainly not the grounds for community consensus! The public square is often the place where a wide variety of interests bring forth specific forms of accommodation, of community and social organization.

 

The public square must combine competition and cooperation and neither must cancel out the other. Christians must make an effort to fuse the hermeneutical horizons between incommensurable differences. We cooperate despite differences. Why? Because this is a common ground in that we are all creations of God.

 

Modes of Christian Engagement in The Public Square

 

Christian convictions leave no room for a culture in which private and public have been polarized. Christians must express our convictions in the public square. We must contribute our convictions to public discussion. There must be democratic deliberation. The public square is the meeting place of our private space. Simply freedom to form one’s religious identity and community is not always easy or even possible. People with convictions are not always satisfied with dialogue. Talk and action must be fused! Patience is imperative if valuable public discussion is to continue. Patience demonstrates that we value three things: (1) Existence of a space for traditions to come into dialogue fully clothed; (2) The maintenance of our convictions; (3) Respect of other people’s commitments even when they are not in harmony with our own. Patience does not entail violation of Christian convictions.

Toleration As Convicted Humility

 

It is easy to tolerate just about anything if you do not care much about anything. Tolerance is supposed to solve the dilemma of Christian moral witness and be the key to cool peace. Rousseau advocated polite dialogue among mutually respectful citizens and assumed religious differences must be left out of public debate. Christian tolerance cannot be grounded in relativism or indifference. Christian tolerance rests in this belief that all of God’s truth is not available to any one person or group of persons. Christians, however, should reject the idea that their only alternatives are “impose your views” or “keep them to yourself.” Richard Mouw responds to Tevya in the stage play, “Fiddler On The Roof” and his question concerning humility--”on the one hand. . .on the other hand. . .” “What do we do when there is no ‘on the other hand?’” (Uncommon Decency, p. 123). Are we compelled to violate tolerance in the name of a higher truth?

 

Is common ground a form of bilingualism? Can civil conversation reach compromise without denying convictions? Compromise, in order to have integrity, must be grounded compromise. In the words of Oliver O’Donovan, it “must be compromise in relation to truth” (Principles in The Public Realm (Oxford, 1984), p. 13). Stanley Hauermas says that the Church must always go into public life as the Church of Jesus Christ. Hospitality is a virtue Christians embody in the public square. When the message bearer is patient, humble and hospitable, there is always hope that others will make room for the proclamation of that message, and perhaps be open to hearing it.

 

The very important works of Schaeffer, McDowell, Sires, Colson, Noebel, McGraph, and Polkinghorne too often merely describe the results of postmodern thoughts, but often do not provide explanation of their foundational causes. Only those who insist on refusing or rejecting this vital distinction between description and explanation will pursue a dead end of futile fruitlessness.

 

The enormous popular successes of content less spirituality works of the nature of the Prayer of Jabbed, The Wild Heart At Heart and Sacred Romance expose the extreme shallowness that employs superficial references to scripture in our post cultural maze. These and many others merely reveal the enormous influence of much postmodern spirituality.

 

Concerned Christians must understand the times in order to positively engage our sensate culture and empower the church to move beyond mere belief into active conviction

 

Dr. James D. Strauss, Emeritus, Lincoln Christian Seminary, Lincoln, IL