A CHRISTIAN HUMANISM
Christianity in the Emerging Post-Modern, Post-Secular, Post-Christian Age
Exploring a Christian theology capable of constructive engagement with the post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular culture of today and beyond.
For a star to form, there is one thing that must happen; a gaseous nebula must collapse. So collapse. Crumble. This is not your destruction, it’s your rebirth.
– Jonni Parsons
1. – UNDERSTANDING OUR POST WORLD
(A) – UNDERSTANDING THE POSTS
(B) – THE CHRISTIAN RESPONSE
(C) – THE SECULAR RESPONSE
Christianity is in the midst of an upheaval, having lost much of its significant influence in Western culture. The related turmoil includes institutional-denominational decline, theological confusion, and the tossing off of once-held orthodoxies. And like any period of uncertainty, this one presents both risks and opportunities.
It’s now evident that Christianity has been declining in most of Western culture for decades, even longer. Christianity no longer provides the core, unifying mythic-symbolic narrative for Western culture. Fading are the Christian mythos and ritual practices, yet the culture remains colored by Christian moral notions of kindness, compassion, concern for the poor and weak, and so on. (How long that lasts is anyone’s guess.) Fewer people are going to church, much of Christian cosmology have been rendered untenable, and therefore, many of the mainstream forms of Christianity are decaying.
The West has been deeply shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition and its potential loss comes with risks. Yes, much of the current forms, institutions, and expressions of Christianity should fade away – they’re flawed, outdated, corrupt, and even abusive. Yet there’s core wisdom in the Christian tradition that merits being kept and reengaged. Much of what’s best, most humane, and most dignified about the West has its origins in aspects of the Christian tradition.
What exactly is the nature of the current cultural situation? Is the religious turmoil and decline currently being experienced the death throes of a once-great tradition or the shedding of no longer useful modes of theology and practice? Certainly, significant aspects of Christianity are falling apart – institutional arrangements, the structure of Christian communal life, as well as the dissolution of outdated, stale theologies. So, what is happening?
The Christian decline unfolding for at least the last 200 years, if not longer is largely due to secularizing forces unleashed during the Enlightenment. But it’s more complex than just that. Supplanting Christian influences is a hybrid of secular, humanist, naturalist, consumerist narratives, symbols, values, and motifs.
Secularism can be defined in various ways. In its most general sense, secularism is rooted in the idea that religion should not exert political power and is primarily a matter of personal conviction and therefore its direct influence should be limited in the public-cultural sphere. This notion is necessary when arguing for the validity of social pluralism and freedom from religion understood as the formal separation of church and state and a lack of partisan religious content in public education.
However, there exist more aggressive forms of secularism that believe all or most religion to be the result of superstition and fantasy and therefore invalid and even destructive. Charles Taylor in his magisterial work A Secular Age, describes this ‘subtraction theory’ of secularization, motivated by forms of reductionist naturalism, which seeks that religion be disavowed, to be replaced by science and rationality.
Ironically, the roots of humanist, secular, and even naturalist thought were nourished in Christian soil. The work of a variety of thinkers, both religious and secular, acknowledges the debt owed to Christianity for fostering the emergence of liberalism, naturalism, science, and most of post-Enlightenment secularism.
Secularism is a distinctly Western phenomena, birthed from a Christian culture. The Christian vision of an ordered universe, the emphasis, even if at times only slight, on a reasoned theology that sought to systematically understand the world and humanity, the assertion of human dignity and the core concept of love of neighbor – these and related concepts eventually gave rise to notions of science, pluralism, diversity, tolerance, free inquiry, and so forth – foundational concepts of the secular worldview.
Therefore, it is possible to partly understand the current decline of Christianity as the result of the ongoing, natural pull toward secularism and humanism unleashed by the better aspects of the Christian tradition itself. Elements of the Christian moral worldview and meta-ethics remain (for now.) What’s declining are institutional, denominational, dogmatic, and supernatural expressions of the now unsustainable arrangements and assertions of the tradition.
Granted, the decline isn’t solely an intellectual matter. Many Christian institutions have failed in multiple ways – as moral witness, as credible practitioners of their own values, as positive social and cultural forces. Advocacy of iron age values, banal church experiences, shallow communities, systemic sexual abuse, political overreach, and attempts at cultural control rather than influence has left Christianity increasingly seen as a negative social force.
A recent, comprehensive survey of religion in America shows the decline may be stabilizing, but Christianity is not in a good place anyway one looks at the situation. It’s allowed itself to develop in ways that are detrimental, tragic, and even comical. Yes, there are certainly pockets of sanity here and there, but much of mainstream Christianity, as currently practiced and conceived, is largely unsustainable.
2. – THE NEED FOR A POST-SECULAR, POST-CHRISTIAN RAPPROCHEMENT
So, has secularism prevailed? Is Christianity mortally wounded? Will the trends of naturalism, liberalism, and postmodernity lead to a complete, and permanently secular West?
Certainly, there are those who think and hope so, the New Atheists (Dennet, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, et al) being some of the more vocal proponents of this outcome. And it’s difficult not to argue that Christianity has been significantly diminished and may be on a glidepath to disappearance.
But perhaps, it is best to not pass too swift a judgment. There has been growing awareness on the part of both secular and Christian thinkers that a stalemate of sorts has been reached. This awareness includes the recognition of many naturalists and secular thinkers that naturalism has its limits and that religion can play an important, normative social and cultural role.
There is also the recognition that Christianity, while indeed diminished, isn’t likely to completely vanish as a significant cultural influence. In fact, Christianity is alive and well and growing in influence in much of the Southern world. It also remains deeply entrenched, albeit, below the surface, in the West of the North.
European philosopher, Jurgen Habermas (a self-professed atheist) has written extensively about the post-secular status of Western culture and has spearheaded the growing call for rapprochement between Christianity and secularism
Others have joined in, adding their perspectives, including Charles Taylor, Don Cuppit, John Milbank and his movement of Radical Orthodoxy, as well as much of Catholic social thought, including the work of the Second Vatican Council, both now highly influenced by Nouvelle Theologie.
On the secular side, there is increasingly vibrancy of forms of liberal naturalism, forms of deconstructionist thought, and secular phenomenological thinkers that admit to the unjustified reductionism of some forms of naturalism.
Rapprochement is not about reversing the processes of secularisation, nor is secularism as an ideology disappearing from the scene. But it is about a positive reevaluation of and the re-emergence (or new visibility) of religion. And Christianity is the West’s formative religious tradition. Therefore, Christianity too, has a role in rapprochement and has a responsibility to respond.
Habermas, recognizing the limits of naturalism, argues for need to see adopt ‘a postsecular self understanding of society as whole in which the vigorous continuation of religion in a continually secularizing environment must be reckoned with’. To quote Habermas in a 1999 interview:
For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.
Jurgen Habermas, 1999
Though, in the first period of his career, he began as a skeptic of any social usefulness of religion, he now believes there is a social role and utilitarian moral strength in religion, and notably, that there is a necessity of Judeo-Christian ethics in culture. Habermas is not alone in his conclusions, being joined by various Christians and secularists.
What we must carefully and specifically understand here is the nature of the rapprochement according to Habermas. It’s a recognition of the valuable, normative role on religion in the public square and acknowledgment that the complete disappearance of Christianity from Western culture would be tragic and a definite loss. It’s also a recognition of the positive and valid contributions of liberalism, science, and many trends in secularism. But according to Habermas, it is not a call for the blending of the two traditions as in some form of a Christian modern state nor the rolling back of secularity. It is, rather, a call for peaceful, mutually beneficial coexistence.
3. – FINDING WHAT WORKS – THE LAYOUT OF THIS PROJECT
God waits in other places; he waits beneath everything. Where the roots are.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
How do you revitalize Christianity in the postmodern age? My answer, which is but one of many, is a blend of the following.
1) Christian intellectuals must cultivate a broad, generous, deep orthodoxy. This will require healing the damage done by all forms of fundamentalism, literalism, and moralism. Christianity is a sophisticated and elegant and we must express that again.
2) Christians must fully recognize that Christianity is above all a culture rooted in a tradition – we must become deeply learned of the tradition and embody the corresponding culture.
3) The script or blueprint for Christian culture is the Christian narrative rooted in the Gospels. And Christians must once again learn how to properly, accurately read them.
4) Christians must understand that they live in two cultures/narratives and must be able to navigate and speak rationally, clearly, and with nuance about their theology and convictions within each – the secular, naturalist liberal culture, and the Christian culture of deep and broad orthodoxy.
5) For any narrative to be transformative, it must be embodied, lived, and acted out — and done so beautifully because beauty, above all, attracts and converts the soul. This embodiment must be sacramental, liturgical, and ritualistic in the fullest sense of these terms and requires a two part renewal:
A) Liturgically-Ritually – theurgy matters — the church must be radically centered in the Eucharist (the narrative of the open table of love) and it must be performed with integrity, beauty, and in a full array of diversity.
B) Individual Christians must embody the Gospel Narratives by living beautiful, sacramental, full, lives of integrity empowered by kenotic love (the way of the Cross).
Can anything meaningful come from this crisis? Perhaps, but it will require a significant revisioning of Christian theology and practice, understanding anew the claims of the tradition with the best of demonstrated human learning and knowledge. And it will require the revisioning of how Christians do community and what is meant by church.
Further, in response to rapprochement, Christianity must understand how to dialog with secular interlocutors. Its core theology is deeply rooted in mythopoetic language and reasoning, crafted by people from a different intellectual milieu. Nuance is called for in our exchanges with secular participants. For example, a strict biological-factual presentation of the Christian claim of Jesus’ virgin birth is misplaced and off the mark. Conversely, for our secular dialog partners to insist we analyze and defend the claim in such a manner is a category error.
But the task goes beyond the discussion and explanation of theological claims. The claims of Christianity were not offered as random, isolated facts. They are part of an intricately woven narrative and make little sense removed from the storyline and left to stand alone, viewed by forms of reason foreign to them. Religious narratives are scripts for action and plotlines for meaning, not outlines for syllogistic reasoning or examination via scientific methods.
Intellectual dialog is vital, but not sufficient. The Christian narrative is not so much a set of propositional assertions of fact and history as much it is a call to action. The Christian narrative should primarily be lived, performed, acted out, and embodied.
And the Christian enactment of its narrative, for it to have transformative power, must be beautiful, but also odd, and strange, and evocative of mystery. Christian practice must be cultic, sacramental, symbol-laden, and elaborately ritualistic.
Mass, Eucharist, liturgy, baptism, sacraments, the public reading of scripture, the celebration of feasts and seasons and holy days, pageantry, art, music, poetry, service to others, love of neighbor, care of the poor, advocating for justice – these are ritual embodiments that constitute Christian culture and which are performative attempts at living the Christian narrative.
Authentic Christianity flows from ritual practice. It is rooted primarily in the Open Table where the Eucharistic meal is shared and the drama of the Mass performed. This performed myth cannot be fully rationally justified in the sense of smoothly squaring Christian doctrinal claims according to the assumptions of contemporary, secular reason.
This is an irreducible particularity of Christianity that must be preserved because its neglect leads to the gutting of Christianity.
To quote Bishop John Shelby Spong, “Christianity must change, or die.” And to add the insights of Hans urs von Balthasar, much of that change must be about theurgy, and not just theology, it must be a return to captivating rituals, gorgeous expressions, dazzling art and creativity, and the beauty of goodness and love. In many respects, properly understood, Christianity is a highly erotic undertaking.
Our present crisis is an opportunity. How do we construct a new public theology and mission that engages with the challenges and opportunities of the post-Christendom/post-secular public square? This is an exciting, positive opportunity.
The rapprochement requires a Christian response. And this response cannot be a more vigorous presentation of the same unsophisticated, polemical theologies offered in unreflective, triumphalist manner. More of the same that has led to the crisis for Christianity is not the solution or way forward.
Our response need be one of nostalgia either, harkening back to Latin liturgies, and lavish outdated rituals. Yes, these speak to some and should be encouraged. But the primary response must be thoroughly a work of post-modern beauty and performative ritual that speaks to today’s sensibilities and tastes.
However, this does not our response be performed in box store buildings, auditoriums stripped of all Christian symbols, and banal liturgies half-heartedly performed.
Intellectually, what is needed is a reformulation in postmodern terms, taking into consideration the latest science and gleanings of contemporary learning, of the orthodox Christian vision and metanarrative through the lens of what I call evidential theology.
Holistically, what is needed is a cultic, performative, sacramental, ritualistic presentation and living out of Christianity. Symbols, rituals, metaphors, poetry, strange rites, analogy, drama, and mythic narrative are the natural language of religion and the source of religion’s power.
For Christianity is a religion, a cultic, sacramental, embodies practice that enacts and performs according to the narrative script of the gospels. The context for Christianity is therefore its narrative of bringing forth the Kingdom of God. In this sense, the church is a culture within other cultures. And many of its more arcane theological claims only make sense within this culture.
Our culture is hungry for spectacle, for ritual, for ecstatic and mystical experience, for fantasy, and story, and lacks any sense of the meaning of embodiment.
My conviction is that new forms of Christian humanism must emerge, centered in a renewed understanding of Jesus’ teachings, that affirm human dignity, freedom, individual conscience, while allowing rational inquiry and science to provide more tenable intellectual foundations for the teachings of Christianity.
But my conviction is also that the Christian response to post-secularity must be stunning in its beauty, captivating in its drama, and alluring in its symbols and ritual meanings. Books, apologetics, and teaching videos only go so far. Liturgy, ritual, and narrative must be fully lived and fully inviting.
What is needed is a combination of humanist and Christian ideas.
4. METHODS & INFLUENCES
The following collection of essays explores the cultural context, methodological and epistemological foundations, and the basic tone and flavor of a version of Christian humanism.
My influences are many and according to subject area.
My Christian context is a broad Anglo-Catholicism.
My Theological Method is a blend of postliberalism and postmodernism which I call Deep Theology.
My Theological Sources and Influences are the following:
Nouvelle Theologie & Resourcement
Anglican & Catholic Social Thought
Historical Jesus Scholarship
A key word to describe the above project is broad. I paint with a broad brush for the sake of brevity. I am not seeking to construct a full systematic theology, as much as to nudge theology in a different direction, to rethink how it presents itself to the secular culture, and to offer interwoven insights and glimpses of a revisioned Christianity, showing a possible path for the tradition into the 21st Century and beyond.
None of my work is original nor is it sui generis. My insights and suggestions are informed by larger, more in depth conversations on the same topics. It is appropriate therefore to locate our place within the broader conversations for the sake of clarity. and context.
While appreciative of the diversity of the Christian tradition, my approach is informed and shaped by my Anglo-Catholicism. This roughly means embracing forms of philosophical theology, operating from within a deep commitment to sacramental Christianity, and the abiding conviction that while the world and humanity aren’t perfect, neither are they corrupt. These leanings leave me amenable to the diversity, pluralism and beauty of the finer aspects of human culture, an openness to the world, and in general alignment with liberalism.
Much of my Anglo-Catholicism is shaped in particular by the mostly 20th century Catholic intellectual movement of Nouveau Theologie. This renewed appreciation of the Patristics coupled with an openness to phenomenological methodology that moved beyond neo scholasticism, yielded much positive fruit.
My own thinking reflects my formation in the thought of such thinkers as Maurice Blondel, Franz Brentano, Jacques Maritain, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), John Courtney Murray, Avery Dulles, and the social documents of the Second Vatican Council. From the Anglican tradition comes the work of William Temple, Rowan Williams, and the serious and positive contributions of Radical Orthodoxy in the work of John Milbank, Graham Ward, and Catherine Pickstock, as well as others.
My theological work is therefore distinctly non-Evangelical, finding much of Evangelical dogmatics and theology as having exacerbated the crisis we’re in, rather than contribute to developments that will lead to Christian renewal. And while I find much of value and interest in Reformed theology, I’m not adequately exposed to it nor that motivated to explore further.
I also owe a debt to the work of religious naturalist thinkers who, while defending naturalism as a philosophy, and even a worldview, find positive value in religion’s personal and public moral, anthropological, and normative functions. These thinkers include Donald Crosby, Loyal Rue, Jerome Stone, Bill Plotkin, Ursula Goodenough, and Thomas Berry, among others. The work of these thinkers is an important part of the ongoing conversation.
My theological essays are grouped in three parts.
The first part constitutes thoughts on the broad cultural context of the situation as well as analysis of its evolution in Western culture. How did we get here?
In these initial essays I argue that Western culture has entered a post-secular, post-Christian period. Various intellectual trends formed during the Enlightenment, particularly naturalism, have secularized the culture. Most of Christian theology has not risen to the occasion, choosing to cling to outdated methods and thinking, rather than properly respond to the challenge by updating its intellectual foundations to align with postmodern reality.
The second part probes the matter of what sort of theological and methodological response to the genuine contributions of secularism and naturalist is appropriate?
As a possible way forward, I sketch out the contours of what I call an evidential theology – an evidence-based theological approach that balances mythopoetic, metaphorical thinking, understanding of allegory, symbol, and ritual with solid scholarship of all kinds. This is a broad call for the Christian religious imagination to be transformed by a courageous encounter with the best of reason, science, and learning.
The third set of essays are broad applications of this manner and style of theology. They discuss a renewed understanding of the nature of divinity which aligns with human experience and science, as well as human religious imagination inspired by mythopoesis. It also applies insights from Historical Jesus scholarship, hermeneutics, and cutting edge textual scholarship.
The result is something of a Christian Humanism, one that deemphasizes abstract metaphysics, ungrounded supernatural claims, and magical thinking, while offering a vigorous proclamation and defense of human dignity that opposes the dehumanizing forces of empire, secularism, and nihilism. This Christian Humanism retains what’s central and vital to the Christian tradition, operating in what Brian Mclaren has described as a broad and generous orthodoxy.
5. – WHY CARE? WHAT’S AT STAKE?
The complete collapse of the Christian tradition, although unlikely, would be a serious loss for the West and beyond. Despite its flaws and errors, Christianity transformed the West for much the better and in deeper, lasting ways that many fail to realize. Even the most secular atheist would be surprised to fully understand the positive role Christianity has played and its formative function in much of the secular worldview. Christianity isn’t what many Christians think it is, either.
Critics tend to focus on the superstitious, magical thinking, and out of step hyper-moralizing of many Christians. Outdated attitudes towards women, a rejection and/or deep suspicion of science and evolution, poorly thought-out theology, coupled with unsubstantiated claims of miracles soaked in juvenile forms of spirituality are easy targets for the New Atheists and their fellow travelers.
What fails to be appreciated is Christianity’s contributions to overall humane culture, it’s moral vision of love, mercy, justice, and care for the weak and needy, it’s role in birthing humanism, the Enlightenment, liberalism and human rights, and a personalist anthropology all of which still implicitly, yet tenuously, inform Western culture.
I’m a committed Liberal (in the classical sense) and strongly advocate open, free, democratic societies where religion serves as cultural and personal leven without the abusive and corrupting temptations of political power. Everyone benefits when church and state are formally separated. And there needs to be respect for both religious freedom and freedom from religion. Yet I am also open to some of the ideas of various post-liberalisms.
Christianity, while it plays a special and formative role in having cultivated liberalism, is, properly, only one religious tradition within the broader culture. I am not arguing for or advocating Christian privilege or any forms of integralism. Christianity, if it wishes to be influential, must be a coherent and appealing voice within the broader marketplace of ideas, symbols, and narratives.
Christian insights and influence must therefore be offered, never imposed, as one source of wisdom, and that wisdom prudentially applied to cultural, economic, and political circumstances. The expression, pride cometh before the fall, needs serve as a strong reminder that hubris is not an appropriate or useful theological, intellectual, or personal virtue.
To be a source of cultural influence (and not control) Christians must humbly learn to speak convincingly to the modern, secular, pluralist realities in which they find themselves immersed. Despite its previous contributions and value, the manner in which Christianity is understood and practiced today is too often a pale, anemic expression of such. The degree and scope of change required tends to go beyond the imagination and thinking of many. Partial solutions or change around the margins won’t do.
The stark reality is that the necessary solutions require more than tinkering with programs, establishing yet another useless commission, study, or committee, writing more books on church planting or evangelizing, or using this or that language or music at services. The problems are far deeper, the issues far broader, the crisis is way beyond what many think.
The way forward will be uncomfortable for most who identify as a Christian. The way forward will require a reformulation and revisioning of theology, keeping the core claims of the tradition, but reanimnating them through the intellectual developments of the past 200 or so years. The way forward will require new ways of being church and community – almost certainly ways that will lean decidedly post-institutional and post-denominational.
In the following essays I seek to present my ideas clearly, simply, but above all, briefly. Conciseness is often at the cost of thoroughness. Obviously, many of the topics discussed in these essays merit book length works, if not more. In addition to brevity, I hope to offer my insights in ways that are humble and inviting, while remaining open to dialog, challenge, and disagreement, welcoming a valid diversity of approaches.
New, reasoned forms of Christian theology and spirituality must be dreamed. Others hopefully will develop valid, valuable similar projects of renewal as well. The future dialog and cooperation will benefit us all.
I welcome comments, questions, and criticism, my email is below.
All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2022. (C)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. The Cultural Context – The Post-Christian, Post-Secular, Post-Modern Age
2. The Contours of Rapprochement
3. Why Christianity?
4. The Need for Deep Theology – Toward a Theological Method
5. Oran Mor
6. Jesus – The Subversive Nazarene
7. The Human Condition – A Christian Anthropology
8. The Kingdom of God – The Imperium of Love
9. Christian Practice – A Post-Secular Proposal