Another brilliant analysis of the challenges facing American Christianity by James R. Rogers, Texas A&M Political Science professor and an LCMS layman. This time he focuses on how and why Americans “armor” themselves from Christianity. He analyzes how relativism works and quotes Allan Bloom on Americans’ “easy-going nihilism” and “nihilism without the abyss.” He surveys how churches are already responding to these factors without much success and opens a discussion about what might be more effective.
From James R. Rogers, The Need for Epiphanic Evangelicalism | James R. Rogers | First Things:
Three oft-noted currents come together in elite (and, often, not-so-elite) American culture. First, admission into respectable society requires affirming the conundrum that, in truth, there is no truth. Secondly, an implication of the first current, one must be intolerant of those who are intolerant, with those who affirm objective truths included among those not to be tolerated.
The third current is that the broad swath of elite and middle America who hold the two affirmations above has no real inclination to live consistently with the affirmations they ostensibly hold: Middle- and upper-class class Americans get married, raise children, and teach their children, if not Christian virtues, then at least a set of bourgeois virtues calculated to promote their and their children’s success in today’s globalized labor markets.
These three currents are what I took Allan Bloom to describe years ago when he lamented what he described as Americans’ “easy-going nihilism,” that is, “nihilism without the abyss”: Affirming hard subjectivity as an objective truth, dismissing as intolerant those who insist that truth exists (excepting those who affirm the truth that there is no truth), all the while ignoring in the implications of one’s (inconsistent) intellectual commitments in day-to-day life.
But why? What’s the point of affirming inconsistent intellectual commitments, and then living inconsistently with those commitments?
I think much of the impetus for this intellectual and social Gordian knot stems from a desire to deflect the moral and soteriological claims of Christianity. (There are other reasons as well, but for another discussion.)
The desire is for a socially-acceptable rationale to reject inconvenient moral claims, meaning moral claims not instrumentally valuable for economic success. Sexual ethics are only the most obvious example, but one could tick off most of the Ten Commandments.So there is the patina of an intellectual claim allowing a priori dismissal of religious truth claims—“all truth is relative”—there is the moral claim that seeks to silence and exclude—“if you affirm objective truth then you are perforce intolerant and therefore immoral”—combined with the easy-going neglect in daily life of the implications of the first two currents.
Speaking to this intellectual and social muddle is the challenge of the Church today.
One response is to succumb, and embrace the regnant relativism of much of elite American culture. Churches doing so largely just dissolve into that culture. After all, why get up on Sunday morning to learn there’s really no point to getting up on Sunday morning?
A second response is also a form of capitulation, although subtler. Seeker-friendly churches aspire to be instrumentally valuable to Americans imbued with the commitments described above. They tone down the Christ talk, tone down moral imperatives of a new life in Christ, amp up the music and ramp up the talk of “how to be a better you.” These churches may continue to attract congregants, but their message often reflects and resonates with this mindset more than challenging it.
A third response is to double down on established practices. The premise, a descriptively accurate one to my mind, is Evangelical churches experience the presence of Christ – epiphany – mainly through the sermon. According to this line of thought, the remedy to the subjectivist muddle is for the churches to preach better sermons – which is mainly suggested to mean the preaching of more doctrinally-substantive sermons.
I don’t disagree with the aspiration to improve sermons – I’m one of those Bible nerds who actually enjoys long, dense sermons. And I agree preaching and teaching the Word is a uniquely significant means by which the Word is made present.
What this view neglects, however, is the subjectivism in American society developed in large part as armor against the Word. The Bible calls this process “hardening one’s heart.”
To be sure, the Church must keep speaking. But I’d suggest that she needs to speak in a way that responds to the challenge that arose in large part to mute the bite of religious claims. The question, then, is how the Church can communicate credibly in light of this challenge; how can she reveal Jesus, provide a glimpse of the Kingdom, in a word, epiphany, in this muddled social and intellectual environment?