We live in a turbulent cultural moment. The world around us is rapidly changing, and we face many challenges unprecedented in the history of the church. Augustine fought the Pelagians; Aquinas synthesized Aristotle; Luther strove with his conscience; Zwingli wielded an axe; but probably none of them ever dreamed of a world in which people could choose their gender. Secularizing late-modernity is a strange, new animal.
Identifying the historical and global isolation of our culture does not discredit it. “Weird” does not always equal “wrong.” Nonetheless, seeing ourselves in a broader perspective can go a long way toward humbling and opening us up to where Scripture wants to transform our thinking. I say “our” thinking because our first impulse in cultural critique shouldn’t be bashing others, but searching our own hearts. Since culture isn’t what we see but what we see through—the glasses, not the landscape—we’re often more “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2) than we realize.
Three Modern Eccentricities
Here are three ways our culture is eccentric in its basic instincts about God, morality, and life—ways we tend to see things differently not only than Solomon, Jesus, and Paul, but also Aristotle, the Aztecs, and Attila the Hun.
1. God is in the dock.
I’m currently writing my doctoral dissertation on Anselm (1033–1109). I’m always amazed by how exercised he was by the problem of divine mercy. Throughout his writings he labored over the question: how can a just and righteous God pass over sins and spare the undeserving?
Today we have the opposite problem. Divine mercy is assumed, and divine justice must be explained. How could a good and loving God ever judge people? (This is one of the top seven objections to Christianity Tim Keller tackles in The Reason for God.)
What’s so striking to me isn’t that Anselm and American culture have different answers, but that they’re asking different questions. For an 11th-century monk, it simply never occurred to him that God, rather than man, would be the one needing to be justified. C. S. Lewis captured this distinction well: “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock.”
Perhaps the greatest example of this role reversal is the rise of atheism, a relatively rare phenomenon before the modern West. There are some scattered examples in pre-modern times of various kinds of materialism or agnosticism, but they’re strikingly sparse. For every one Lucretius or Democritus, you can find entire centuries and nations that know nothing but priests, monks, imams, lamas, shamans, sages, and sorcerers.
2. Morality is about self-expression.
In most cultures throughout history it was assumed that external reality is fixed—and that the basic point of life is to conform ourselves to it in some way. Buddha and Plato agree on this point; they only differ on what the conforming process looks like.
Our culture, by contrast, tends to exalt human desire and aspiration such that the point of life is for external reality to be conformed to it. To paraphrase Lewis: For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality; today it’s how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.
In the late-modern West we’ve reduced truth to a personal construct and lost confidence in reason’s ability to access external reality. Thus the only foul in ethics is “harm,” and the only requirement for sexual behavior is “consent.” Basically, for many in our culture, you should be able to do anything you want so long as you don’t inhibit someone else’s self-expression.
Plato could have at least understood Buddha’s four noble truths. Buddha would have comprehended Plato’s advocacy for reason and justice. Both would be only perplexed and exasperated with the modern mantra “be true to yourself.”
3. Life is starved of transcendence.
In most ancient cultures, life and meaning were relatively stable. You didn’t have people like Albert Camus contemplating whether the absurdity of human existence necessitated suicide among the ancient Mongols, Mayans, or Vikings. As Brother Lippo Lippi put it in Robert Browning’s poem, “This world's no blot for us, nor blank; it means intensely, and means good: to find its meaning is my meat and drink.”
Many today lack this sense of objective meaning; we are starved of transcendence, community, stability; we’re aching to find something big to live for; we feel listless, adrift, barren. Think of Nietzsche’s anguish in proclaiming the death of God in the late 19th century—in a milder, semiconscious way, this is how many feel today.
Our standard of living has risen, but so have our suicide rates; we are smarter, but more uncertain; surrounded with pleasure, but less fulfilled; able to do almost anything but uncertain whether to do anything.
I believe much of the sexual confusion and brokenness in our culture is the result of this deeper, existential void. We use things like sex and money to address basic questions of identity and fulfillment. As Keller recently observed, “In ancient cultures people had sex and made money to build a community; today, they do so to build an identity.” Or as Trevin Wax puts it, “One reason our culture is so sex-saturated is that we are so transcendence-starved.”
How Should We Respond?
Gospel faithfulness demands we engage our culture with both truth and love, yielding neither to compromise on the one side nor escapism on the other. This means we cannot simply bemoan the encroaching cultural darkness, swatting at the errors around us with our theological club. As TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry puts it, “It is not enough that the church should counter the values of the dominant culture. We must be a counterculture for the common good.”
In responding to these metaphysical, ethical, and existential Copernican revolutions in our culture, I believe we must work hard to establish the corresponding subversive biblical doctrine in each of three areas: (1) a high view of God, (2) a thoroughgoing notion of repentance, and (3) a transcendent vision of worship.
1. God is transcendent.
We can learn a lot about sharing Christ in a pre/post-Christian setting from Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He starts with the doctrines of God and creation, painting a comprehensive picture of the world that can explain the Athenians’ experience, and then he goes to the gospel. In our setting also, we need to help people feel a sense of God as the transcendent One on whom we depend for every breath and before whom we’re accountable for every thought. No one needs a gospel so long as God remains in the dock.
2. Life comes through death.
To challenge our culture’s inverted moral compass, we must also help people see that dying to self is the path to life—that what happens to Ebenezer Scrooge is a better picture of the human ideal than what’s preached in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble. Opposing biblical-behavior deviations is important but more surface-level; we must go deeper to show that the whole substratum of the Christian life is “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Until we establish that the key to life is repentance, our hermeneutical arguments will have limited persuasiveness.
3. Beholding God is our goal.
In sharing Christ with the sexually broken we must do more than denounce sexual immorality. We must proclaim a vision in which the ultimate human experience is the beatific sight of God in heaven, not a new sexual encounter. Postmodern people must be able to sense, as they listen to our preaching and observe our worship, “This is big enough to give my life to—this is what I’ve been looking for my entire life.”
In these areas we will be pushing directly against the grain of the thoughts and values swirling around us. But only to the extent we do so will our gospel witness be clear and effective to our culture—and to ourselves.