The world has shifted under our feet. New notions about selfhood challenge Christians’ views, and we’ve found ourselves in a hostile place where it’s dangerous to challenge the new status quo.
To object to same-sex marriage, for example, is in the moral register of the day not substantially different from being a racist. The era when Christians could disagree with the broader convictions of the secular world and yet still find themselves respected as decent members of society is coming to an end, if indeed it hasn’t ended already. The truth is that the last vestiges of a social imaginary shaped by Christianity are rapidly vanishing, and many of us are even now living as strangers in a strange new world.
The revolution in selfhood, particularly as it manifests itself in the various facets of the sexual revolution, is set to exert pressure on the lives of all of us, from kindergarten education to workplace policies on pronouns. Christians might still be able to run, so to speak, and avoid some of these things for a period of time, but they cannot hide forever. Sooner or later every single one of us is likely to be faced with a challenging situation generated by the modern notion of selfhood. And this means that for all of us the questions of how we should live and what we should do when facing pressure to conform are gaining in urgency. Here are six ways Christians should respond to this new world.
1. Recognize Our Complicity
The first thing we need to do is understand our complicity in the expressive individualism of our day. This statement needs a little nuance, however, because expressive individualism is not all bad. We do have feelings; we do have an inner psychological space that deeply shapes who we are.
Historically, while Rousseau is developing his notion of the self as rooted in inner sentiments, Jonathan Edwards is writing The Religious Affections and exploring that inner space from an explicitly Christian perspective. Expressive individualism is correct in affirming the importance of psychology for who we are and in stressing the universal dignity of all human beings. We might also add that this accenting of the individual is consonant with the existential urgency of the New Testament in the way it stresses the importance of personal faith as a response to the gospel. Only I can believe for me. And that places the “I” in a most important place.
But there are also problems here. Think, for example, of freedom of religion. This is a social virtue. What Christian wants to live in a country where the church is persecuted and where worshiping God is considered a crime? Yet countries where there’s freedom are also typically countries where there are many churches, even religions, to which one can choose to belong.
Within 10 miles of where I’m writing this book in my study at home in Pennsylvania, there are dozens of churches—Presbyterian, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, Roman Catholic. And even the terms “Presbyterian,” “Lutheran,” and “Baptist” cover a variety of different denominations. This is the result of religious freedom—a good thing—but it also has the effect of making religion a marketplace where the congregant is the customer and the church the vendor. This means the authority in religion tilts toward the congregant, the customer, in a way that panders to the felt needs of the psychological self.
To make the point more sharply, it’s worth noting a comment once made by Philip Rieff: “Formerly, if men were miserable, they went to church, so as to find the rationale of their misery; they did not expect to be happy, this idea is Greek, not Christian or Jewish.”
Such a notion is incomprehensible today: we as Christians intuitively go to church to feel good—perhaps to meet friends or to sing uplifting songs (whether traditional or contemporary) or to have our minds stimulated by a good sermon or our ears edified by beautiful music. Prayers, personal and corporate, tend to focus on the alleviation of misery, not on being enabled to understand it. We tend to go to—to choose!—the church that fits with what makes us personally feel good. This is true whether we are, say, emotional types to whom a Pentecostal service might appeal; lovers of artistic beauty, who might be naturally drawn to high Anglicanism, Catholicism, or Orthodoxy; or (like me) a bookish type, for whom the cerebral sermons of Reformed churches are appealing.
Perhaps I’ve overstated things here. But most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, would have to admit that our choice of church is not entirely driven by theological conviction. Personal taste plays a role, and that is shaped by the expectations of the psychologized, therapeutic society in which we live, move, and have our being.
This also connects to another way in which the church has become more akin to the world than she often realizes: the cult of personal happiness. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being happy, of course. But the nature of happiness has changed over the years to being akin to an inner sense of psychological well-being. Once we start thinking of happiness in those terms, the vision of the Christian life laid out in Paul’s letters, particularly 2 Corinthians, becomes incomprehensible. We may not all be explicitly committed to the prosperity gospel, but many of us think of divine blessing in terms of our individual happiness. That is a result of the psychological, therapeutic culture seeping into our Christianity.
There are other areas of Christian complicity as well. How many churches have taken a firm stand on no-fault divorce, a concept predicated on a view of marriage that sees it as being of no significance once the personal happiness of one or both parties is not being met? How many Christians allow their emotions to govern their ethics when a beloved relative or friend comes out as gay or transgender? We’re all complicit at some level in this strange new world.
We’re all complicit at some level in this strange new world.
It’s not easy to see how we can address this, but a few thoughts suggest themselves.
First, we need to examine ourselves, individually and corporately, to see in what ways we’ve compromised the gospel with the spirit of this age. Then we need to repent, call out to the Lord for grace, and seek to reform our beliefs, attitudes, intuitions, and practices accordingly. Nothing less is required for a true reformation at this point.
Second, an awareness of our complicity should cultivate a level of humility in how we engage with those with whom we disagree on these matters. There can be no place for the pharisaic prayer whereby we thank the Lord that we’re not like other men.
Third, being aware of our complicity at least allows us to engage in the future in appropriate self-criticism and self-policing. We cannot help but choose the church in which we worship. Even the cradle Catholic today chooses to continue to attend church because there are many other available options, including not attending church at all. But having chosen the church, we can discipline ourselves to be committed to that church, stick with it, and refuse to allow ourselves to move on simply because of some trivial issue or matter of personal taste. This will be far from perfect and far from easy, but I see no other option than self-awareness and self-discipline in this matter.
2. Learn from the Ancient Church
Traditional Christians are typically those who take history seriously. We have a faith rooted in historical claims (supremely the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the events and actions of his life) and see our religious communities as standing in a line extending back through time to Pentecost and beyond. Thus, when faced with peculiar challenges, Christians often look to the past to find hope for their experience in the present. Typically, Protestants look to the Reformation and Catholics look to the High Middle Ages. If only we might be able to return to that world, we tell ourselves, all might be well.
Anyone with a realistic sense of history knows that such returns are at best virtually impossible. First, neither the Reformation nor the High Middle Ages were the golden eras that later religious nostalgia would have us believe. The societies in which the church operated in those periods are gone forever, thanks in large part to the ways technology has reshaped the world in which we now live.
If we’re to find a precedent for our times, I believe we must go further back, to the second century and the immediately post-apostolic church. There, Christianity was a little-understood, despised, marginal sect. It was suspected of being immoral and seditious. Eating the body and blood of their god and calling each other “brother” and “sister” even when married made Christians and Christianity sound highly dubious to outsiders. And the claim that “Jesus is Lord!” was on the surface a pledge of loyalty that derogated from that owed to Caesar. That’s much like the situation of the church today.
For example, we’re considered irrational bigots for our stance on gay marriage. In the aftermath of the Trump presidency, it has become routine to hear religious conservatives in general, and evangelical Christians in particular, decried as representing a threat to civil society. Like our spiritual ancestors in the second century, we too are deemed immoral and seditious.
Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect. The church in the second century faced a pagan world that had never known Christianity. We live in a world that is de-Christianizing, often self-consciously and intentionally. That means the opposition is likely better informed and more proactive than in the ancient church. Yet a glance at the church’s strategy in the second century is still instructive.
First, it’s clear from the New Testament and from early non-canonical texts like the Didache that community was central to church life. The Acts of the Apostles presents a picture of a church where Christians cared for and served each other. The Didache sets forth a set of moral prescriptions, including a ban on abortion and infanticide, that served to distinguish the church from the surrounding world. Christian identity was clearly a very practical, down-to-earth, and day-to-day thing.
This makes perfect sense. Underlying the notion of the social imaginary is that identity is shaped by the communities to which we belong. And we all have various identities—I’m a husband, a father, a teacher, an Englishman, an immigrant, a writer, and a rugby fan, in addition to being a Christian. The strongest identities I have, forming my strongest intuitions, derive from the strongest communities to which I belong. And that means the church needs to be the strongest community to which we each belong.
Ironically, the LGBT+ community is proof of this point: the reason they’ve moved from the margins to center stage is intimately connected to the strong communities they formed while on the margins. This is why lamentation for Christianity’s cultural marginalization, while legitimate, cannot be the sole response of the church to the current social convulsions she is experiencing. Lament, for sure—we should lament that the world isn’t as it should be, as many of the psalms teach us—but also organize. Become a community. By this, the Lord says, shall all men know that you are my disciples, by the love you have for each other (John 13:35). And that means community.
This brings me to the second lesson we can learn from the early church. Community in terms of its day-to-day details might look different in a city than in a rural village, or in the United States compared to the United Kingdom. But there are certain elements the church in every place will share: worship and fellowship. Gathering together on the Lord’s Day, praying, singing God’s praise, hearing the Word read and preached, celebrating baptism and the Lord’s Supper, giving materially to the church’s work—these are things all Christians should do when gathered together.
It might sound trite, but a large part of the church’s witness to the world is simply being the church in worship. Paul himself comments that when an unbeliever accidentally turns up at a church service, he should be struck by the otherworldly holiness of what is going on. The most powerful witness to the gospel is the church herself, simply going about the business of worship.
Many Christians talk of engaging the culture. In fact, the culture is most dramatically engaged when the church presents it with another culture, another form of community, rooted in her liturgical worship practices and manifested in the loving community that exists both in and beyond the worship service. Many talk of the culture war between Christians and secularism, and certainly the Bible itself uses martial language to describe the spiritual conflict of this present age. But perhaps “cultural protest” is a way of better translating that idea into modern idiom, given the reality and history of physical warfare in our world. The church protests the wider culture by offering a true vision of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God.
The church protests the wider culture by offering a true vision of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God.
This approach is certainly hinted at in second-century Christian literature. The so-called Greek Apologists, such as Justin Martyr, addressed the Roman Empire from a Christian perspective. What’s so interesting when compared to some of the ways many Christians, right and left, do so today is how respectful these ancient apologists were. They didn’t spend their time denouncing the evils of the emperor and his court. Rather, they argued positively that Christians made the best citizens, the best parents, the best servants, the best neighbors, the best employees, and that they should thus be left alone and allowed to carry on with their day-to-day lives without being harassed by the authorities. Of course, there were limits to what they could do to participate in civic life: if asked to sacrifice to the emperor as to a god, they would have to refuse. But beyond such demands, they could be good members of the Roman community.
In the fifth century, Augustine in Book XIX of his masterpiece The City of God offered a similar argument. Christians, he said, were citizens of both the earthly city and the city of God. Their pagan neighbors might only be citizens of the earthly city, but this still meant that the two groups shared common interests or loves, above all the peace and prosperity of the earthly city. Both pagans and Christians wanted these things and could work together to achieve them. And that meant Christians could and should be good citizens to the extent that their higher commitment to God allowed them to do so.
The Apologists and Augustine both offer a vision of the church in a hostile culture that calls on the church to be the church and on Christians to be constructive members of the wider society in which they’re placed. Some might respond that failing to engage in aggressive and direct confrontation looks rather like defeatism or withdrawal. But is it?
On key issues such as abortion, Christians in the West are still at liberty to use their rights as members of the earthly city to campaign for the good. I’m not calling for passive quietism whereby Christians abdicate their civic responsibilities or make no connection between how to pursue those civic responsibilities and their religious beliefs. I’m suggesting rather that engaging in cultural warfare using the world’s tools, rhetoric, and weapons is not the way for God’s people.
If the Apologists and Augustine were passive quietists, it’s hard to explain how Christianity came to be so dominant in the West for so many centuries. The historical evidence suggests rather that their approach proved remarkably effective over time. And so it may again—perhaps not in my lifetime or even in that of my children. But God is sovereign, God plays the long game, and God’s will shall be done, on earth as it is heaven.
3. Teach the Whole Counsel of God
One of the temptations at a time of tremendous flux and change is to fixate upon the immediate challenges to the Christian faith. Now, it’s surely not a bad thing to prioritize the most pressing problems the church faces and to address them with a degree of urgency. The sale of indulgences, for example, was a major problem in 1517, and it was right for Luther to focus on that rather than spend his time writing on the issue of same-sex marriage, a matter of no import whatsoever in the early 16th century. Yet there’s a danger here: we can become so preoccupied with specific threats that we neglect the important fact that Christian truth is not a set of isolated and unconnected claims but rather stands as a coherent whole.
The church’s teaching on gender, marriage, and sex is a function of her teaching on what it means to be human. The doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation are important foundations for addressing the specific challenges of our time. If, as I contend, modern sexual and identity politics are functions of deeper notions of selfhood, then we need first to know what the Christian view of the self is in order to address them. And as the Bible teaches that the human self is made in the image of God, we need a good grasp of the doctrine of God. In short, we can stand strong at this cultural moment and address the specific challenges we face only if our foundations in God’s truth are broad and deep.
This means the chaotic nature of our times is no excuse for abandoning the church’s task of teaching her people the whole counsel of God. If anything, she should see such a moment as a time to examine whether that’s what she’s doing and make any necessary changes in her pedagogical strategy. She needs to make sure Christians are being intentionally grounded in the truth.
As with community, the strategy for doing this might look different in different places and congregations, but I’d suggest the use of a good historical confession or catechism is a helpful place to start. Time is a great solvent of irrelevance. If a creed or confession or catechism has been in existence and proved useful for centuries, then one can be reasonably confident it doesn’t contain a lot of irrelevant or peripheral fluff but rather things that are of perennial importance to Christians.
We can stand strong at this cultural moment and address the specific challenges we face only if our foundations in God’s truth are broad and deep.
In my own tradition (Presbyterianism), the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms were composed in the 1640s as sweeping statements of the essentials of the Christian faith. They have in the years since been subject to some revisions. For example, the American version has been revised to eliminate the positive link between state and church, known as the Establishment Principle, in order to bring the documents into line with the American view of the matter. But the vast majority of the text of the Westminster Standards remains unchanged. Any church using them as a guide to the whole counsel of God will find a very helpful resource for seeing what is of key importance.
Some might respond and say that such historic documents are of limited usefulness today, when wider society presses matters such as gay marriage or transgenderism upon us. There’s truth in this: the Westminster Confession doesn’t address such issues directly in the way that pastors might have to, but it does contain positive teaching about what it means to be human and what are the nature and purposes of marriage. These provide solid, general conceptual foundations by which the church can approach contemporary challenges, and they do so in a way that sets the immediate problems of our day in the context of the broader framework of perennial Christian truth.
In short, such confessions help us not only to see that certain things are wrong but also to see why they are so in terms of God’s truth as a whole. A pedagogical strategy based on these as guides would seem to be a highly desirable part of any church’s life in our present circumstances.
4. Shape Intuitions Through Biblical Worship
Expressive individualism in the form in which we find it in contemporary society is problematic for how it places individuals and their own desires—we might even say their own egos—at the center of the moral universe. Yet we must be careful not to miss the important truths it contains, such as its underlying commitment to the notion of universal human dignity regardless of where we’re placed in the earthly hierarchy.
Furthermore, its emphasis upon our inner psychological space and upon our emotions and desires is not in itself wrong. It’s wrong only when it makes such things effectively ends in themselves. God has created us as beings with emotions and desires. We are intentional creatures, not simply animals of instinct, and our inner thought processes are vital to who we are. And that means we need to acknowledge that inner psychological space and shape its intuitions in the right way.
Augustine’s autobiography, Confessions, is one of the classics of Christian literature. The book is preoccupied with Augustine’s inner life, and he recalls key incidents from his earlier life. What’s interesting, however, is that Augustine’s inward move of reflection doesn’t terminate there but always ends up moving outward toward God. Ultimately, his feelings are set in the context of, and corrected by, the larger truth that is God and his revelation in Christ.
We might say a similar dynamic applies in the Psalms. The various psalmists speak with honesty, often brutal and painful, about their feelings toward friends, enemies, and even God himself. But this is never for the purpose of self-validation or, worse still, wallowing in self-indulgent self-pity. Rather, it’s for the purpose of setting the recounted experiences and feelings within the context of God’s great truths.
For the church to grasp this truth and shape our psychological intuitions in the biblical way, she needs to think long and hard about one of the central and formative acts of worship: singing. It’s no coincidence that the Psalter is a book of corporate praise. Singing such poetry as a community shaped the social imaginary of the Jews. And the church needs to do the same today.
Yes, we’ve been complicit in expressive individualism; no, we don’t want to go down the road that leads from Rousseau to Oprah Winfrey and make sentiments the foundation for how we live our lives. But that doesn’t mean we should eliminate sentiment and emotion from our church lives. Far from it. We need to reform our corporate church lives in a way that forms our inner lives appropriately. And that means choosing worship songs that don’t indulge in emotion for the sake of emotion or press upon me that my needs and my desires are the reason God exists. We need songs that allow us to understand and express our feelings honestly but in a way that always leads outward to God and to his truth. And while I don’t think, as some do, that the church should sing only psalms, I’m inclined to say that singing more psalms—or any psalms if you don’t sing them already—would be an excellent place to start.
Think about it: the psalms present a view of the Christian life that’s marked by joy but that also knows sorrow and loss. They set the struggles of the present in the context of God’s great actions in times past and his promises for the future. They help us to understand our status as strangers in a strange land. By setting forth a grand picture of God and the promise of future rest, they help us to keep perspective—theological and emotional—on the events of the present, whether personal, such as illness, or social, such as the disturbing transformations of society. We are creatures of emotions and sentiments, and we are fallen. Therefore, we need songs of redemption to help restore our emotions to their proper context.
5. Retrieve Natural Law and the Theology of the Body
The church also needs to recover natural law and a theology of the body. Roman Catholics have a long tradition with regard to the former and, in the person of Pope John Paul II, a brilliant teacher of the latter. While Protestantism at the time of the Reformation had a rich appreciation for natural law, it has died away in the last two centuries.
So what is natural law? Put simply, it’s the idea that the world in which we live is not simply morally indifferent “stuff” but possesses in itself a moral structure. Our bodies in particular have a profound significance. We connect to others through our bodies. We are dependent on others because of our bodies. Our bodies are not containers that we happen to inhabit and animate. They are in a deep and significant way integral to our identity, to ourselves. Bodies have strengths and weaknesses, some specific to the individual, for sure, but many shared by us all. This means that human beings—human bodies—are made to flourish in some ways and not in others.
All of us understand this in what we might call a technical, morally neutral way. I cannot climb up the Empire State Building and jump off the top expecting to flourish. I am not made to fly by my own strength. My bodily constitution places restrictions on what I can and cannot do.
Natural law is the extension of this idea into the realm of morals. Thus, for example, the dependency of a newborn child upon her mother is natural, as is the obligation of the mother to protect and nurture the child to the best of her ability. It would, therefore, be immoral for the mother to abandon the child in the woods to be eaten by wild animals. Or if we assume that life is a natural good, then the termination of that life by another is wrong, a move against nature, and therefore murder is wrong.
When it comes to sex and identity, the idea of natural law is of obvious help. Without wishing to be too explicit, male and female bodies are made to fit together sexually in certain ways and not in others. Men’s bodies are simply not made to fit sexually with other men’s bodies. Almost everyone is born with a body that types them at birth as male or female, and for good reason: those bodies have different capacities and perform different functions. In each case, we can say that nature—or the natural law—points to the boundaries of what behavior will and will not lead to flourishing.
One response to this might be that human sin means such arguments will have no force with the wider world. Does gay sex raise the risk of AIDS or cancer? Well, the world will respond by putting money into relevant medical research and seeking to develop drugs and treatments that eliminate or mitigate the problem. Do some people think they were born in the wrong bodies? Surgery and hormones can be applied to make the psychological conviction a physical reality. In each case, the assumption is that nature is just “stuff,” something to be overcome as and when it obstructs us from doing or being whatever we want.
This objection has weight. Yes, the world is in rebellion against God and in thrall to the idea that we can be anything we wish; thus, every appeal to any kind of external authority is likely to be met with derision or denial. But that isn’t why I’m recommending reflection on natural law and the theology of the body. These are not so much apologetic tools for addressing the world (though they may have more usefulness there than many will admit). They are important parts of a persuasive pedagogical strategy within the church herself.
Take, for example, a young Christian wrestling with whether homosexuality is right or wrong. A pastor might point him to certain biblical texts that indicate it’s wrong because it contradicts God’s will for the purpose of sex. That may well be enough to convince the young Christian, but I suspect he might still wrestle with further questions: Does God forbid homosexuality simply because he’s a mean tyrant? Is it just that he doesn’t want my gay friends to be happy? Why has he prohibited such behavior?
Older Christians can no longer assume that biblical ethics make sense to younger Christians because the social imaginary in which they operate is so different to the one many of us grew up in.
Older Christians can no longer assume that biblical ethics make sense to younger Christians because the social imaginary in which they operate is so different to the one many of us grew up in. And that means we need to work harder at explaining not simply the content but also the rationale of Christian morality.
Now, in this scenario above, it’s therefore helpful not simply to point to what the Bible teaches in a few texts but also to show that those texts make sense within the larger picture. And this larger picture has both a broad biblical side, where sex is a function of what the Bible teaches about human personhood, and also a “natural law” side, where, for example, the sexual complementarity of male and female bodies is relevant, as is the evidence of damage done to the physical body by certain sexual practices. It’s not that nature here offers the decisive argument, yet it does help to show that biblical teaching is not an arbitrary imposition on nature but instead correlates with it. In other words, it assists us in showing that God’s commands make sense given the way the world actually is.
6. Live in Realistic Hope
Finally, the church needs to respond to this present age by avoiding the temptations of despair and optimism. To fall into the former would be to fail to take seriously the promise that the church will win in the end because the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. To engage in the latter is simply to prepare the stage for deeper despair later. And both will feed inaction, one out of a sense of impotence, the other out of naivete.
There is an alternative. Last year, in a conversation with my friend Rod Dreher, a journalist and Orthodox Christian, I commented on the bleak outlook of much of his writing and alluded to him as pessimistic. He laughingly rejected the adjective. “I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic,” he said, “but I am hopeful.” And hope, of course, is not optimism. Pollyanna was an optimist, as was Mr. Micawber. Optimism is the belief that everything will be fine if everyone just sits tight and waits.
Christian hope, however, is realistic. It understands that this world is a vale of tears, that things here are not as they should be, and that, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, all life death does end. This world is not the Christian’s home, and so we shouldn’t expect it to provide us with home comforts. That is not to say we shouldn’t be grateful for the good things we do have here and now. I thank God that I still live in a country with greater freedoms than, say, China. I thank God that I live in a time and a place where I have access to good healthcare, that I have a job I enjoy, and that I have a loving family. I pray that such things will continue for me and also be the same for others.
But I’m also aware that the world is fallen, that the gospel doesn’t promise me the life of ease and comfort I currently have, and that my calling (and the calling of all Christians) is to live faithfully in the time and place I’ve been set. When things in this world go awry, or when I’m faced with changes that bring suffering to me or to my loved ones or to society at large, I must not despair, I must work to the best of my ability to right such wrongs, and I must also remember that the real meaning of my life (and others’ lives) is not found in the here and now but in the hereafter. Suffering here and now may at times be terrible, even unbearable, but it’s never meaningless. No, it finds its meaning in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The world in which we live seems set to be entering a new, chaotic, uncharted, and dark era. But we should not despair. We need to prepare ourselves; be informed; know what we believe and why we believe it; worship God in a manner that forms us as true disciples and pilgrims, intellectually and intuitively; and keep before our eyes the unbreakable promises that the Lord has made and confirmed in Jesus Christ.
This is not a time for hopeless despair or naive optimism. Yes, let us lament the ravages of the fall as they play out in the distinctive ways that our generation has chosen. But let that lamentation be the context for sharpening our identity as the people of God and our hunger for the great consummation that awaits at the marriage feast of the Lamb.