Sunday, June 04, 2006

Staring Contest

We ought understand our times. There are those who say this is impossible, as if our age is so bafflingly complex that no human intellect could fathom its limitless contours. But our age is not God, and only God is so interesting that He cannot be understood. And while total comprehension of our age is of course impossible, we can nevertheless (to a certain extent) understand the times we live in; and if we don't want to get busted, we should.

But understanding is not enough. A response is required. And in the face to face engagement with the spirit of our age that comprehension entails, Christians, it seems to me, have three responsive options:
1. Get stared down and look away in anger or fear.
2. Swoon in admiration and look back with "have your way with me" eyes.
3. Don't blink, keep a wry smile, and stare (not without love) until the spirit of the age resorts to either 1. or 2.
Examples of the first and second approaches abound. The two have been squabbling for a while, and such petty infighting shows no sign of relenting.

The third approach, needless to say (but I still will), is much more interesting. Wright, Hart and Lundin are exemplary in this regard, but the best article length examples I've read of the third approach can be found in Robert Jenson's How the World Lost Its Story (1993) and R.R. Reno's American Satyricon (2001).

Do read the articles, but in the meantime, here are some excerpts. Read to the end and you'll even get to hear about sex.

Jenson's How the World Lost Its Story
"Throughout modernity, the church has presumed that its mission was directed to persons who already understood themselves as inhabitants of a narratable world. Moreover, since the God of a narratable world is the God of Scripture, the church was also able to presume that the narrative sense people had antecedently tried to make of their lives had somehow to cohere with the particular story, 'the gospel,' that the church had to communicate... But this is precisely what the postmodern church cannot presume. What then? The obvious answer is that if the church does not find her hearers antecedently inhabiting a narratable world, then the church must herself be that world."

"In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be 'relevant,' here is the first step: it must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decorations and more likely distraction..."

"Protestantism has been modernity's specific form of Christianity. Protestantism supposed that addressees of the gospel already inhabited the narratable world in which stories like the gospel could be believed, and that we therefore could dismantle the gospel's own liturgical world, which earlier times of the church had created. Protestantism has from the beginning supposed that the real action is in the world, and that what happens "in church" can only be preparation to get back out into reality. This was always a wrong judgment - indeed a remarkable piece of naivete - but the blunder is understandable and in the modern world Protestantism could, just barely, get away with it. In a postmodern world, those days are gone forever."
This does not, by the way, mean that Jenson (still a Lutheran) is giving up on Protestantism, just that Protestantism needs to stop giving up on liturgy, and learn (quickly) from its two elder siblings in faith.

Reno's American Satyricon
"[R]elativism is not a philosophical theory. It is a spiritual truth, a protective dogma designed to fend off any power that might claim our loyalty. It is a habit of mind that insulates postmodern life from the sober potency of arguments and the force of evidence, from the rightful claims of reason and the wisdom of the past. My students can look me in the eye and insist that one should never impose one’s beliefs on others and that all truth claims, including, I presume, the moral rigorism of never imposing one's beliefs on others, are relative. Here, our contemporary horror of obedience joins hands with solipsism in order to protect the soul from all demands, rational or otherwise. Here, we come face-to-face with the spirit of our age."
Negative as that assessment may be, it's not that Reno is unaware of the attractions many Christians feel toward postmodernity:
"[I]rony can appear to be an ally, for the postmodern reluctance to adopt the old humanistic projects, whether Emersonian or Lockean, with wholehearted vigor suggests a newfound humility. Finally, the willing conformity that characterizes so much of postmodern life can give the evangelist hope that the prideful self-sufficiency of modernity has finally exhausted itself. These are, however, deceptions made possible by a fixation on pride as the primary barrier to faith. But sloth and cowardice are just as deadly. Both slink away from the urgency of conviction. Both fear the sharp edge of demand and expectation. Both have a vested interest in cynicism, irony, and outward conformity. These vices, not pride, now dominate our culture."
Then comes the challenge:
"[T]he slothfulness and defensiveness of Petronian humanism can be confronted most effectively by daring it to question the most cherished, most morally sanctified, and most Petronian moral commitment of the postmodern age: sexual freedom. The issue of sexual freedom is crucial precisely because it is so automatically and unreflectively affirmed. God forbid that my needs might be stymied, my impulses denied. God forbid that I should have to submit the raw material of my life to God so that I might be melted down and reformed into something very different. God forbid that I should have to change. We defend ourselves against chastity, not because we are prideful and self-confident hedonists, not because we take great joy from the confusing labyrinths of sexual desire and satisfaction, but because we are fearful that, once the invasion of grace begins, it will not relent until the capitol falls. We embrace sexual freedom because it is a crucial line of defense against a whole range of transformative demands."

"This is why sexual freedom is the functional center of postmodern politics, morality, and culture. At this center point, the increasingly alien and ambitious teachings of Christianity must cut like a sharp and two-edged sword, or they cut not at all."