by ProfDave, ©2020
(Nov. 1, 2020) — There is a lively debate going on among Jesus-followers about their place in a “Post-Christian” world. Are they an embattled remnant hunkered down in the Alamo waiting for Jesus to come on his white horse and rescue them? Or are they the beachhead of a great invasion? Or a fifth column, like Delta force, rescuing captives?
To begin, perhaps we need to ask whether the world – or our part of it was ever “Christian.” I would contend that it is still “Pre-Christian.” At least a billion do not know who Jesus is. Billions more know the name, but not the character of Christ. Others are in conscious rebellion against Him. While the third world is just discovering Him, the first world is trying to forget Him. “Post-Christian” applies only to the West. But in what sense was the West ever “Christian?”
Was the West ever Christian? Certainly not in any spiritual sense: active followers of Jesus Christ, reconciled with the Father and filled with the Holy Spirit. Millions of individuals in the West (and elsewhere) have been, and whole communities in a generational window. I think of Plymouth Plantation in the 17th century or Herrnhut, Germany, in the 18th (look it up), but the succeeding generations slipped into a half-way covenant. God has no grandchildren. Each generation must choose its own allegiance. The kingdoms of Europe (“of this world”) have never yet been “the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ.” The Kingdom may come in my life, my family, my sphere of influence, but His will is yet to be “done on earth as it is in heaven.” Believers are taught to pray to that end. Should we also work toward it? Or simply wait for the final intervention when divine judgment falls on the nation and/or the entire globe? Hmmh.
In the spiritual sense the West is still Pre-Christian. How about the political sense? The distinction between political and spiritual (church and state?) goes back to the Old Testament – Moses and Aaron, Saul and Samuel, David and Nathan. Note: this was in a world of god-pharaohs. In ancient Israel, the royal tribe was Judah; the priestly was Levi. It was urgent that both priest and king be men of God, but both must heed the Word of God through the prophets.
History lesson: the crumbling of political authority in the West in the 5th century led to religious authority stepping into the vacuum. Meanwhile, in the East Roman Empire, the Emperor usurped authority over the church – later continued in Russia. But the dominant pattern was an uneasy partnership between church and state, Pope and monarch. Monarchy was regarded as a spiritual as well as temporal office, while churchmen often participated in temporal as well as spiritual offices. It remained the task of the church to speak truth to power and of the state to restrain evil, as defined by the church.
In the United States, the First Amendment ended the establishment of a particular state church, guaranteeing the independence of all denominations from state interference – until now. However, it did not restrict the political activity of religious people or the religious activity of political people. Thus the United States is politically Christian precisely in making a distinction between government and religious establishments. A distinction that does not exist in Islam, for example.
Is America Post-Christian culturally? America, with the West, was overwhelmingly culturally Christian until World War I. It remained basically Christian through the first half of the 20th century while Europe sank into Fascism and Communism. The Bible set the standard of virtue and values for American society – as it had for Europe since Roman times. The Biblical voice of the Church was respected in law, education and entertainment but particularly in all matters of ethics and morality. Christians were the salt of Western Civilization. But something was wrong mid-century. Had they lost their saltiness –their potency?
There was an undeniable loss of Christian moral influence in American society in the 20th century. Was it just Darwin, Marx and Freud? Or Hugh Heffner? Or did the church lose its saltiness? Prohibition could be seen as the high-water mark of the Post-Millennial drive – to prepare the earth for Christ’s return. Did the equal and opposite reaction set a precedent for future push-back (drugs, sex and rock n’ roll)? Or was it the schism between fundamentalism and social gospel that led to right-wing disengagement from the culture and left-wing disengagement from the Bible? Or was it the failure to engage social justice issues biblically? Or all of the above?
Appeals to the Bible in public discourse began to lose their effectiveness. The shell began to crack after World War II as a generation arose who felt themselves empowered to question the values of their parents. They had been sent to Sunday School, not taken. A religion that the parents had not practiced did not command the respect of the children.
The removal of the Bible from the school systems in 1958 was a tipping point. Society no longer supported Biblical knowledge. The sexual revolution followed and sexual knowledge took its place. But this did not happen overnight. Apologists see relativism, pluralism and secularism undermining the American default settings of Christian truth. One truth, one morality, one cultural source did not seem binding or even fair anymore.
Marx, Darwin and Freud may have provided a cloak of intellectual rationalization, but don’t forget Hugh Hefner. Right and wrong became blurred, and young people did what felt good, in defiance of their elders. Now those young people are having great grandchildren who have very little guidance in deciding for themselves what is right and wrong and what is the purpose of their lives. Having erased the horizon (Nietzche), they are hard put to find which way is up.
North America, and most communities with in it, have not yet been Christian in any spiritual sense. Politically, the Christian separation of church and state – religious and political spheres – remains, although challenged by state interference with conscience in the realm of sexuality, and the Johnson Amendment’s curb on the prophetic voice of the church. Culturally, however, we are divided. The majority is in the process of losing its moral bearings.
We are lost. Relativism, pluralism and secularism have not come up with realistic and coherent alternatives to culturally Christian society. It remains to be seen whether science and entertainment can produce workable alternatives to Christian marriage, family, and community. How long can our economy endure without honesty? Can our government and its agencies remain uncorrupted without the fear of God? Can our streets, schools and hospitals be safe without respect for life? Can we raise civilized children – or even pay the mortgage – without faithful marriage? Can we keep our freedom without loyalty, patriotism and respect for law and order?
To this lost society, the Jesus-following minority has a lot to offer today – as in Roman times. Considering the position of Jesus-followers in the 3rd century, before Constantine and legalization, it may be too early to count Christianity out in the 21st century – even as a cultural force.
Jesus-followers are not lost. They still have a horizon and a true north. They have a realistic view of the world and of human nature – and their own weaknesses. They have a coherent – and proven – system of what is right and wrong. They are far from perfect people, and do not pretend to be, but they know which way is up – should they choose to share it.
Should they share their vision of truth and justice, their example, and their leadership with their lost world like the ancient Roman Christians? Should they engage in their culture and society? Or withdraw into sub-cultural ghettos like the Roman Jews? Hmmh. What do you think?
Postscript to the Choir
It is suggested that our culture is lost between two poles: the Christian heritage of right and wrong on the one hand and those who wish to expunge it on the other. The majority in the middle have lost their certainty in compromise, mixing Jesus with Marx and Hefner in relativism, pluralism, and secularism.
It is a symptom of our times that the participation of Christians in public life – politics, education and media – has become controversial. Political correctness demands the removal of all things Christian from the public square. Believers should act as agnostics in public, keeping their values and objections to evil to themselves. No, that is not enough. They must celebrate and actively participate in the new version of reality which they know to be wrong.
Many Christians seem quite willing to abandon the larger society for a subcultural ghetto, hiding their light under a basket until the rapture. repeating the mistake of the Fundamentalists in the 20’s. Or else “evolve” to meet the cultural trends, repeating the mistakes of European Liberalism in the 30’s. Can the church just win souls without exerting influence? Can they be spiritually Christians without being culturally Christians? Does the appearance that the world is no longer listening – or rather, that some are trying to shout them down – excuse Jesus-followers from speaking the truth?
No! Everyone in positions of influence has a moral obligation to do right and to speak truth as God gives them to see it. From the county clerk to the President, kindergarten teachers to college professors, actresses to authors. In a democracy we have no right to abdicate. We must speak and act – even together – according to the truth we know.
We Jesus-followers have what the world needs. We have truth. We have hope. There is meaning and purpose in our universe. We know where we come from and where we are going. If these things are true, then the future belongs to us. If you think we are wrong, do you have anything better?
Is what we hold what is real and true? Has God spoken in His Word and by His Son? Are we in touch with reality? Then as bearers of truth, we have a duty to speak the truth, stand for the truth, and live out the truth. We must refuse to be silenced and excluded from influence. We have a duty to live the truth outside our homes and churches, in the marketplace, in the workplace, in the media, and in office. Our duty is to use our influence and to do what is right in the right way (love) for the good of mankind in whatever calling God has placed us. The only thing necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.