21 October 2002

What Is a Post-Christian?

I had promised to say more about The Strange New Word of the Gospel, edited by Braaten and Jenson (Eerdmans, 2002). The second essay, by Robert Jenson, explores the nature of post-Christian belief and culture in the contemporary west, with a particular focus on America.

Jenson begins by commenting upon the prefix "post-" noting that it implies being defined in terms of what one no longer is as part of a community that is so defined. Thus, to be "post-Christian" is to be part of a community that was once Christian and whose present "habits of thought and policies of action are determined by that very fact." Jenson cites Chesterton's Father Brown who characterized the post-Christian society as one what has exhausted the project of modernity and is lost in the proliferation of superstition. In particular, Father Brown notes, "It's the first effect of not beliveing in God that you lose your common sense and can't see things as they are...and all because you are frightened of four words, 'He was made man'."

Proceeding from Father Brown's observation, Jenson notes that it is not possible to "disbelieve generically" and post-Christian unbelief is a superstition arising particularly from the rejection of the triune, incarnate God of Christian faith. He goes on to modify Father Brown's account by suggesting that the supersitions of post-Christian unbelief really go back to the Enlightenment itself, an age of quackery, ideological credulity, religious invention, and arbitrary preference. The "cultural residue" of Christianity has granted whatever moral compass modernity has enjoyed and as that residue is finally expurgated we are delivered over once against to unchallenged supersition.

Jenson also modifies Father Brown's account of the return of the old gods, noting that the Scriptures have demythologized nature, giving us a narrative of creation, fall, and eschatology that undoes the logic of myth, its original logos. The old gods cannot return as they once were since the Gospel has already "debunked" them. Thus they can only re-emerge with a different logos in one of two possibility varieties: either an "almost-nihilism" or an abstracted Christianity turned ideology.

Nihilism emerges with its own religiosity, Jenson suggests--one that is entirely made up and known to be such by its devotees. This is apparent not only in actual invented religions (scientology comes to mind), but also within the bounds of a Christianity where the faith is explicitly treated "as a smorgasbord from which to assemble each their religion to taste."

Abstracted Christianity, on the other hand, supposes that "all religions lead to the same place" and that this place is something vaguely Christian, though absent of Christ, and labelled "salvation." This kind of abstracted Christianity, indeed, has been the whole project of a modernity that coopted the Christian story, making it into a grand meta-narrative, holdomg forth the universal possibility of finding one's place in it through human rationality. Of course, absent a universal Storyteller, such a narrative project flounders, collapsing in upon itself in a fit of post-modernism.

So, in all of this, Jenson queries, who are the post-Christians? He suggests that there are "whole immense congregations" of these post-Christians, many within putatively Christian denominations, touting a theology of "love" and "acceptance" and "empowerment", which could as easily embrace any mythic hero as it might Jesus. And this post-Christianity can wear many faces--that of Dr. Laura or drive-in church services or what have you.

Jenson suggests several ways in which churches can respond, re-evangelizing our own post-Christian environment. First, churches must pray for God to purge them of almost-nihilism and abstracted Christianity. And that may well mean, for the time being, being much smaller than we once were. We now exist on a mission field here at home and cannot count on the cultural residuum of Christian faith to do much work for us.

Second, says Jenson, we must recognize the prevailing superstitions for what they are and rescue our fellows from them in order that they may worship the true God. The errors of the skeptics, cafeteria Christians, practioners of magic, and others who may inhabit our pews are not mere foibles; they are "bondages to powers and principalities."

Third, the alternative to superstition is, as Father Brown said, the confession that "He was made man." And thus the church must re-capture Christology since in Jesus, God is found. Thus, Jenson asserts, the only liberation from contemporary superstition is "preaching and liturgy and counseling inspired and normed by the strictest Cyrillean christological orthodoxy."

Fourth, with regard to almost-nihilism in particular, Jenson notes that the trajectory of western thought has eliminated all the possibilities that lie between nothingness and the particularity of a certain first-century Palestinian Jew who Christian faith claims as the "structuring point of the universe." Since nihilism is not even intelligible, Jesus is the alternative.

Finally, with regard to abstracted Christianity, we much reclaim such things as "love" and "peace" and "empowerment", filling them with all the specificity of their true meaning in the risen Christ. Much of preaching has this backward, seeing Jesus' actions or teachings as a mere instance of, for example, "acceptance." In fact, Jenson says, the reality is that our desire for acceptance is really something that only makes sense in connection with Jesus.

The goal then is to bring the post-Christian west face to face with the particularity of God made man who challenges the indefinity of superstition with the possibility of concrete faith.