The Church and Modernity

Peter Berger makes an interesting point over at The National Interest:

The term “Islamophobia”, as used in current Muslim usage, refers to the negative attitudes of non-Muslims toward Muslims. This is generally a problem for Muslims living in the diaspora, who are afraid of what the non-Muslims do or might do to them. In Muslim-majority countries the fear is generally the reverse—the others are afraid of the Muslims. One can understand why Muslims are worried about anti-Muslim feelings and actions. But going on and on about Islamophobia may also be a convenient way of avoiding the central problem for Islam in the contemporary world: What has been and what should be the relation between Islam and modernity? [Emphasis in original.]

Islam is not the only creed that is dealing with this. But it is the creed where this debate over the kind of modernity (and note, it is not a dispute for or against modernity, but what role religion will play in organizing and shaping modernity) has become the most violent.

I no longer have a dog in that fight, so to speak, though I have some opinions. But this question isn’t just for Muslims — all religious believers, and all confessions and creeds, somehow struggle with this.

One of the ways Christianity, particularly Protestantism (which basically led world Christianity intellectually for much of the 19th and 20th centuries), dealt with modernity was to surrender to modernity, to accept its truth claims and its form of social organization as compatible with the Gospel or an expression of the Gospel desire for the Kingdom of God. Liberal Christianity accepts all of modernity’s means and ends — the nation-state, science, technology, liberalism, democracy, mass-society, industry. The church became a subsidiary of the state, and in turn, the state needed the church to both justify state means and state ends and also to foster a faith in them. Protestantism across the world created the civic faith needed to sustain the nation-state and mass-society as moral enterprises.

(Rome, for all its lists of banned books and forbidden ideas, followed a similar path, though Rome officially struggled long and hard and pointlessly against modernity.)

However, long ago, the church became superfluous. The liberal nation-state became it’s own moral justification, and stopped actually needing the church. (Don’t blame the 1960s for this; it happened long before that.) The church never noticed, but that’s because the civic faith — and not historic credal faith — had been inculcated so very deeply in societies across the West that scriptural notions of redemption and creation were irrelevant to civic functioning. Redemption was political, social and economic, while creed and confession had little to say about this.

In America, the church could delude itself that the civil rights movement was a religious endeavor more than it was a political one, and the Christian right was able to articulate a version of the older civic faith that kept it relevant for a good 30 years longer than it should have been. But the polity didn’t need the civic faith, or rather, it didn’t need to have the church articulate that civic faith.

Modernity no longer needs the church. It long ago became morally legitimate on its own, and can function all by itself. Modernity has its own stories, creates it own meaning, sustains its own authority, and it is enough for most people. The Christian churches that embraced modernity tight beginning in the late 18th century as a way of being useful and (honestly and faithfully, I think) trying to seek the kingdom suddenly found themselves useless, unwanted, unneeded.

Really, as we sit amidst the slowly collapsing wreck that is the church in the west, amidst the end of Christendom, we should really be asking ourselves a question very similar to Berger’s:

What has been and what should be the relation between the church and modernity?

I do not try to idealize the early church. I’ve been with too many believers, Muslim and Christian, who have idealized the founding generation or two as somehow “more authentic” than we are. That all the history that passed between the first century of faith and our own was somehow illegitimate. If God is present in the history of our church, if God is still speaking to us, then all that came is somehow a reflection of what God wants for God’s people. We must honor all of that history, query all of it, question all of it, seek meaning in all of it, and especially see the good in it. At least the good there is to have. (Because not all of it is good, and not all meaning is obvious.)

But I do think the early church has something to teach us about the state we are in. About what it means to be a minority, to have no control over the construction of the society around us, to live in the face of that with a faith that witnesses to the only reality we know that matters:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

If I were to think of one thing being Muslim in America taught me, it is that very confidence, to proclaim and live as a member of a minority faith. This prospect, of being a relatively powerless minority, seems to terrify American Christians no end. But we can no longer expect that modernity will sympathize with us, much less take our side. The church birthed a modernity that no longer needs it, and that modernity may be preparing to eat the church alive. Any attempt to secure modernity, to control modernity, to conquer modernity — whatever value that might have — will most certainly fail, just as the Islamists will eventually fail in their attempt to create a highly idealized and rigidly ideological Islamic modernity.

As I’ve said before, the world no longer needs the church’s stories to make sense of itself. Why then should it listen?

Do not despair! There is good news! Throughout scripture, God allows Israel to fall captive to its enemies, the consequence of Israel’s idolatry. I believe the church’s embrace of modernity, while inescapable, is also the kind of idolatry that has blinded us to the reality that it is God — and not our politics, or our economies, or our technology — who redeems us. Modernity may be God’s judgment on our faithlessness, the Assyrians and Babylonians besieging our cities and taking us into captivity. (I have a whole book I want to write on this!)

This means we will be redeemed from our subjugation and exile. But not now. Not tomorrow. Not next year. We will not be saved by fundamentalism, literalism, liberalism, or inclusiveness. We will not be saved by the part we play, or wish to play, in the liberal political order. And most of us may never live to see that salvation. I don’t know how or when we will be saved. Only that we will be.

Only that we will be.

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