Text: II Chronicles 12.32 - Knowing the Signs of the Times Romans 1.10f; Acts 17; I Corinthians 1.l8ff.

Theme: Secularism— A Challenge to our Postmodern Culture and The Church in Our Multicultural Maze

What on earth is going on in our Postmodern culture? (see J. Stott’s book, Secular Themes; Challenge o£ Double Listening; The Word of God and Our...)

There are at least three quests of Generation X—Postmodern men and women:

I.    The Quest for Transcendence: Generation X is searching for “Ultimate Reality” beyond the material experience. The quest recognizes that materialism does not satisfy the human spirit. It is recognition of our Cord’s quotation from Deuteronomy, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” This spiritual search is grounded in the current disenchantment’ with Secularism.


A.   The first disenchantment is with the failure of Euro Marxism, which has faltered not simply as an economic-political system, but also because of its gross materialism. Classical Marxism was offered as an ideological substitute for what was regarded as outworn religious belief. The doctrines of Marxism and Leninism have neither satisfied the mind nor satisfied the heart and emotions of either the proletariat or the intelligentsia. Marx’s prediction (the hermeneutic of suspicion) that Christianity would fade away has been falsified by resurgent Christianity back in Russia.


B.   The second example of disenchantment regards Western materialism. Materialism is no more satisfying to the human spirit in its capitalistic guise than it is in its communistic guise. The three gurus of America’s counter culture are Theodore Roszak, Eric Toffler and Herbert Marcuse. Each of these men proliferate attacks on America’s postmodern materialism. Each in his or her own way is searching for Transcendence (see my two papers, “Counter Culture” and “Youth Culture”).


C.   A third example is the proliferation of postmodern Cults and Occult Phenomena. Generation X and their children participate in some dimension of the New Age Movement. Shirley MacLain is regarded as its high priestess yet it is a bizarre assortment of highly diverse (contradictory) beliefs.  It is a blend of Eastern mysticism and Western materialism, of religion and science, of physics and metaphysics, of evolutionary optimism and pantheism, of astrology, spiritism and reincarnation, of ecological concern and alternative medicine and the whole human potential movement. New Age Pantheism is also a quest to transcend materialism.


D.   A fourth indicator is that of the epidemic of drug abuse (resurgent in the 1990s). Drug abuse is more than an escape from the harsh realities of life. This was clear from the writings of Carlos Costaneda in the late sixties and early seventies. He claimed that Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian, had explained to him that there are two worlds of equal reality, the “ordinary” world of living humans and the “non ordinary” world of “diableros” or sorcerers. The goal is to locate the crack between these two worlds. Access to ultimate reality is through our allies—drugs. Each of these searches for transcendence are perhaps examples of what Paul addresses in Acts 17.27, “They are feeling after God.”


             These searches for transcendence are challenges to all postmodern Churches to revitalize public worship. Worship must expose this element of mystery, i.e., the fear of God. Here we should encounter a mixture of awe, wonder and joy!!  (See my paper, “From Awe to Awful: Worship in our Postmodern Church,” Isaiah 6 (Mark 14, “Love the Lord our God with our whole minds, hearts and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves.” No sloven, mechanical perfunctory, dull worship affirms awareness of the Creator-Redeemer of the universe (Genesis 28.16-17; I Corinthians 14.15, “God is certainly among you.”) It is tragic that people all around us who are seeking transcendence turn to drugs, sex, yoga, mysticism, science fiction and on line pornography instead of the Church.


II.   The Quest for Significance: Technology, Scientific Reductionism and Existentialism. In our secularistic postmodern culture the lost of Transcendence has precipitated a search for Significance (Ecclesiastes, “All is meaningless”). Does life have any meaning?


A.   Technology is not to be dismissed for it is one of God’s instruments to fulfill His dominion mandate over the earth and over its resources. Technology has been liberating and can continue to be.  It can free people from domestic and industrial drudgery. But it can also be dreadfully dehumanizing, as men and women feel themselves no longer human persons with a name that expresses their unique dignity, but, instead, in Toynbee’s words, “Serial numbers punched on a card designed to travel through the entrails of a computer.”  (Toynbee, Experience (Oxford University Press, 1969). Technology can be dehumanizing and rob people of their sense of significance.


B.   Scientific Reductionism:  (Scientism and Positivism—nothing But-ery) Before postmodern physics (a’- la Einstein, Plank, Heisent>erg, et al) some scientists argued that map was nothing more than an “animal” (e.g. Roman Catholic Papal edict 1996) that Evolution was a scientific fact), or Desmond Morris’ work, A Naked Ape (London: Jonathon Cape, 1967) or nothing but a machine programed to make automatic response to external stimuli. This “nothing but-ery” reduction led Donald Mackey to assert these two conceptions are nothing but alternative names for Reductionism. Donald Mackey protested against every tendency to reduce human beings to a level lower than their full humanity (see my paper, “The Demise of The Person in Postmodern Behavioral Sciences”).


             To be sure, the human brain is a machine, a highly complex mechanism, and we do not deny that; moreover, our anatomy and physiology/chemistry are those of an animal. We have either identical or extremely similar digestive and reproductive systems and we do not deny that about our bodies, our physiology, our anatomy, our chemistry and so on. So the brain is a machine and the body is similar to that of an animal. It is when you go beyond that and say that we are “nothing but a brain” and “a machine” and “a body” that postmodern scientists make a serious categorical mistake. All that is lost in postmodern scientific reductionism is the Person who decodes the structure of the universe!!


C.   Existentialism: The proponents of this position differ from ordinary humanists by taking their atheism seriously and seeking to face its terrible consequences (see my paper “Death of God, Death of Man, Death of Truth, Death of Culture”) Because in their opinion God is dead, everything else has died with him. Because there is no God there are no values or ideals, no moral laws or standards, no purpose or meaning. Although I exist and have courage to be, there is nothing (says the Existentialist) that gives me any significance. Existential despair becomes visible in the radical increase of suicide.

Perhaps Victor Frankel has expressed our nightmare of despair best in his work, Man’s Search for Meaning (originally published in 1959 under the title, From Death Camp to Existentialism). Frankel later became professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna. In his magisterial work he describes his three years in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

        In the concentration camp he noticed, “the inmates most likely to survive their ordeal were those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill.” (Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning (NY 1963, p. 15U).  He quoted Nietzsche’s dictum, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Frankel therefore postulated that in addition to Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Adler’s “will to power” human beings have a “will to meaning.” He wrote, “The striving to find a meaning to one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” (ibid, pp. 164-5). He began to develop what he called Logos Therapy using “logos” not in the sense of word or reason, but in the sense of meaning. He would ask his patients “why do you not commit suicide?” They would say “because I love my wife,” or “I want to see the kids grow up,” or “I am writing a book and I want to finish it” or something indicating what gave their life meaning. His Logos Therapy declared, “the mass neurosis of the present time is the existential vacuum. The loss of sense that life is meaningful leads to boredom, alcoholism, juvenile delinquency and suicide.” How is this search for meaning a challenge to the postmodern Church?

       If the quest for Transcendence was a challenge to the quality of Christian worship the quest for Significance is a challenge to the quality of Christian teaching. Only the clear presentation of the biblical doctrine that man was created in the Image of God and thus has a unique dignity as a result and yet marred by Sin, which demands the redemptive presence of God via the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection.

       God has endowed humans with unique rational, moral, social and creative faculties, which make us like God and unlike the animals (via Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest). Man has intrinsic value or dignity or worth. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to redeem us from sin and death.

       William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, once said, “My worth, intrinsic worth, is what I am worth to God” and that is a marvelous great deal because Christ died for me, “Christ died for the ungodly.” Only the Christian worldview can justify the claim of dignity, mobility and worth of human beings. The search for dignity and human worth in the accumulation of things encouraged in our consumer culture—is a dead end. We are still Waiting for God!! Only when human beings are valued and their intrinsic worth is recognized even in our post modern secular culture, then everything changes: Women and children are honored; the sick are cared for and the elderly allowed to live and die with dignity (e.g. Death and Dying Movement, Dying with Dignity, Euthanasia epidemic, etc.). Dissidents are listened to, prisoners rehabilitated and minorities protected; workers are given a fair wage, decent working conditions and a measure of participation in the enterprise; and the Gospel is taken to the ends of the earth. Why? Because people matter! Self-identity and dignity through Christ is the promise of the Gospel!

III.  The Quest for Community: The postmodern technocratic society has destroyed transcendence and significance is destructive of human community as well. Our postmodern culture was fragmented in an era of social disintegration. It is increasingly more difficult to relate to one another in authentic relationships of love (e.g. media’s expression of fragmented marriage, homes, working environment, etc.).


          Mother Teresa is a witness to this fact. She was born in Albania and lived in Yugoslavia. She went to India at the age of 17. She said, “People are hungry for love, for understanding love which is the only answer to loneliness and great poverty.  Even in England, American and Australia, where there is no extensive hunger for bread, there are people suffering from terrible loneliness, despair, hatred, feeling of being unwanted, of being helpless, of feeling hopeless. They have forgotten how to smile, a»d how to love. Woody Allen is always joking about love.  “Love making is only two psychopaths under one quilt.” In the film Manhattan he says, “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons and Catholics.” Yet he is seriously searching for love that he cannot find. So he confesses that all his films “deal with that greatest of all difficulties: love relationships.” Everyone is falling in love, or out of love, or looking for a way to* avoid it. One of Allen’s tragicomic figures in Hannah and Her Sisters, states, “Maybe the poets are right. Maybe love is the only answer.” Love is more than bouncing from one sexual liaison to the next—playing immoral musical beds. Allen’s inability to find lasting love stems from his inability to commit himself beyond the existential moment of sexual pleasure. Earlier, Bergmann’s films in the 60’s and 70’s tried to affirm that the greatest thing, in the world is love.

        So the third challenge to the Church concerns the quality of Christian fellowship. Christ’s purpose is not to save isolated individuals, which merely perpetrates loneliness, but to build His Church a new society. Often there is very little acceptance, fellowship, caring and sacrifice supporting love in the new community. Generation X claim they do not often find a vital loving relationship in the Church. In Mel White’s Deceived (Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1979, pp. 8, 184), he declares “I will do my best to help make my Church a more loving community to our members and the strangers in our midst.”

        The three human aspirations discussed in our brief exposition presents a crucial challenge to the people of God in our postmodern culture. Each of these three areas are human aspirations. In looking for Transcendence, they are looking for God; in looking for Significance they are trying to find themselves; in looking for Community, they are trying to find their neighbors. These three areas of search are mankind’s universal search: for “id, for one’s neighbor, and for oneself. The Christian Gospel claims that all three concerns are to be found by believing and living in Christ. These postmodern searches are three of the greatest challenges to the Church in the 1990’s. If the Church is to positively respond to these possibilities there must be a radical revival in the Church of Jesus Christ.

        Recovered “awe” in the worship of Almighty God offers Transcendence, Significance through biblical preaching and teaching and community through its fellowship. When these functions become visible in the market place, work place, home, school and every dimension of our daily lives, people will eagerly turn to it in their quest. Then, and only then, will proclamation of the good news have a credibility that otherwise is lacking.

See my paper, “Counter Culture” - works of E. Toffler, T. Reich, T. Marcuse, M. Fergson; F. Dostoevski, The Possessed; A. Toynbee, Experiences (Oxford University Press, 1969); Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (London, 1967); Victor Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning (NY, 1963); Mel White, Deceived (Old Tappan, NJ, 1979); D. Carson, God of The Gaps (Zondervan, 1996); Brown, Sensate Society; E. Toffler, Powershift; my paper “Marxian Structuralism”, “Resurgent Neo Pagan Gnosticism” and “The Greatest Debate in the 1996’s, Political Correctness.”


Dr. James D. Strauss Lincoln Christian Seminary Lincoln, IL 62656-2111