Religion

The Future of Western Christianity

Whenever someone steers me towards Trump, I avoid derangement by saying the world is changing. We live in interesting times. This is the truly deranging subject, interpreting the present moment, the signs of the times. Jesus captures the dilemma perfectly in Matthew 16:1–4.

Since the Enlightenment, we have been living through a civilisational drama. Over the last two hundred years, this Counter-Enlightenment drama has been described in many ways: through trends in philosophy after Kant, and trends in the arts after Romanticism. Like Tragedy, it is a distinctly Western form of acting out.

The drama performs a truism: Those who lose their religion keep their religious prejudices. The truism begs questions: Are prejudices untrue? Are they bad? The modern West constructs its identity around the idea that prejudices are both untrue and bad, which is why overcoming prejudice is such a sinister cultural obsession. The habit of denying prejudice in yourself, while noticing it in others, is a deeply entrenched Western pastime. It is also absurd—and fallacious—because everyone has prejudices.

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In Truth and Method (1960), Hans-Georg Gadamer questions the Enlightenment’s attempt to discredit prejudice, by developing a theory of interpretation—a hermeneutic—where prejudice is an essential precondition of understanding. According to Gadamer, the Enlightenment desired to understand tradition “correctly”; that is, without prejudice. It did this by subjecting tradition to the “judgment seat of reason” because it could not imagine an authority higher than reason. Yet some traditions have an authority reason cannot judge. Not all prejudices are false simply because they are prejudices. Some are true.

Gadamer believed it was the task of reason to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate prejudices. If that sounds reasonable, there is no consensus about reason; how it is defined and measured. How can a consensus be reached in an age atomised by contested rationalities, radical subjectivities and cultural warfare? Gadamer proposed a paradox here: the Counter-Enlightenment challenged the Enlightenment—with ideas such as anti-rationalism, relativism, vitalism and organicism—but this merely perpetuated “the abstract contrast between myth and reason”. This was particularly true of movements such as Romanticism, which describe “the conquest of mythos by logos” and desire the “restoration” of what logos has supposedly obliterated. In other words, the prejudice that imagines a pre-Enlightenment wholeness, Pre-Socratic or Magian, which the Enlightenments of ancient Greece and modern Europe supposedly subjugated—a prejudice central to Counter-Enlightenment thought—is as dogmatic and abstract as the prejudice that imagines reason to be the highest authority.

For Gadamer “the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being”. So the interrogation of prejudice is not a bad thing, Gadamer believes, since the critique of the Enlightenment will inevitably end in enlightenment:

The overcoming of all prejudices, this global demand of enlightenment, will prove itself to be a prejudice, the removal of which opens the way to an appropriate understanding of our finitude, which dominates not only our humanity, but also our historical consciousness.

Western obsessions with individual freedom allow each person to invent personal ideas of what is and is not enlightened. Under this rubric, those who lapsed from the Christianity of their forebears were assumed to be enlightened. Ditto those who disdain any form of Christian dogma: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox. By the same rubric, all dogma is unenlightened—the prejudice of the other—so disdaining it allows the disdainer to claim enlightenment. In this sense, all critics of Christianity sing from the same song-sheet: Christianity suppresses freedom, is irrational, is anti-science, tells stories about imaginary friends at the bottom of the garden, is misogynistic, elitist, corrupt. That such sentiments are so culturally entrenched—and worse, are accepted as evidence of enlightenment—is why public discussions about Christianity are so inherently dangerous and why Christians are routinely sacrificed to the gods of enlightenment.

Cardinal Pell is the perfect example of this. Those who wished him ill only fell silent, publicly, when the High Court unanimously and unambiguously found in his favour. They would keep vilifying him if they thought they could get away with it without having to accept responsibility for their evil. Like anti-Semitism, scapegoating and gaslighting are universal human behaviours.

Paradoxically, we are often told Western civilisation rests upon Judeo-Christian foundations, which raises the question: Was the Enlightenment a reaction against Christianity or a movement within it? Those who offer this view tend not to be churchgoers; their motives are unknown, perhaps even to themselves. Alongside them, many locate Western origins in ancient Greece and Rome, a somewhat naive view—in isolation—unless the Judeo-Christian foundations are included for balance. Naivety about origins is understandable. Few understand the complexities of the Renaissance, or the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, or the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. Behind all this naivety, there is a profound misunderstanding about the meaning of large terms: Humanism, Modernity, Reason.

The dilemma for Western Christianity is the myriad challenges of the modern world, particularly the challenges of the sexual revolution, the abandonment of sexual morality in the name of freedom and enlightenment, and the idea that all sexual expression is positive and good. Douglas Murray is not a Christian—he lapsed from Anglicanism as a young adult—but his seminal book The Madness of Crowds (2019) is crucial to understanding our present cultural derangement in relation to gender, sexuality, race and identity politics. According to Murray, there is a clear Cultural Marxist foundation to the current derangement, and technical innovation is carrying us forward faster than our minds can process the impacts.

Western Christians find themselves in a difficult place, like the Early Church in the Roman Empire. Paradigmatic tensions between Protestants and Catholics have become irrelevant, as modern Christians struggle to identify the core elements of their faith and how to live them out faithfully. Working through what can be discarded, and what must be retained, is crucial if Christians are to survive in a Western society where Satan is deranging minds, vice is disguised as virtue, and evil is disguised as good.

 

Does the Bible matter?

Before the modern period, Western Christianity was grounded in canonical scripture and natural law; the latter being the idea that the natural order is governed by rational principles analogous with the social order and, by analogy, the divine order. Natural Law insists on God’s rationality (logos = word or reason), through which man can discern moral law without scriptural revelation—apart from the Bible—because man is made in God’s image (imago dei), and because God has endowed man with reason. What is the imago dei? How does God confer reason? Canonical scripture and natural law answer these questions, collectively.

In theory, this kind of idealism is opposed by modern understandings of realism. In fact, it reflects a deep understanding of reality and a close engagement with it. Natural Law is usually associated with Thomas Aquinas, who internalised the rediscovery of Aristotelianism, synthesised it with Christian theology, and showed how this synthesis, Thomism, influences human life.

Thomism is a methodological tool, a mode of learning emphasising Aristotle’s dialectical reasoning. It was synonymous with Medieval Scholasticism and became the essence of Classical metaphysics until metaphysics was challenged by Counter-Enlightenment materialism, launched by Romanticism, or what Habermas calls post-metaphysical thinking. Post-metaphysical thinking was inspired by a post-Kantian historical consciousness, through which universals were relativised in ways that threatened all forms of idealism.

Counter-Enlightenment materialism also threatened canonical scripture. How can the Bible be a record of God’s dealings with humanity—his revelation, his will—if it was written by humans in ancient Israel? This question of authorship arrives with higher criticism—the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation—which directly fuelled the nineteenth-century crisis of belief. Sceptics argue that, if the Bible is of human origins, it cannot be evidence of God’s authorship. Believers argue that the Bible is divinely inspired; true because God gave us reason to work out its truth. The fact that God did not dictate it—as a form of automatic writing—is therefore irrelevant to its truth claims.

The Bible is true because checks and balances have guarded its truth from the beginning. In the Old Testament, there is the canonical story about how the Torah came into being within the history of monotheism, via Abraham’s experience of the Burning Bush in Exodus 3. In the New Testament, there is the canonical story about how the Incarnation came into being within the history of Judaism. Zechariah 8:23 gestures towards what this organic growth means: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’.”

While Christians have always known this—on an abstract level—they have tended to deny it, or to misunderstand it, and have only recently started to internalise it. The Torah is to Jews what Christ is to Christians. In Matthew 5:17–18 Jesus says he came to fulfil the Torah and the Prophets, not to replace them: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” So to say Western civilisation rests on Christian foundations is to say Christ cannot be separated from Judaism. As Jesus tells the Samaritan woman: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Later Jesus tells the Messianic Jews who believe in him: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31–32).

There is a difficulty here, because the truth about Jesus cannot be a lie about someone or something else, and because Western history has to its great shame been a history of false witness against the Jews. Internalising Jesus’s relationship with Judaism, and understanding what that means for Christian faith, is extraordinarily important. It is also challenging and often counterintuitive given the common teaching, accepted as true until yesterday, that Jesus created a new religion rather than fulfilled an old one.

The initial impetus for understanding the Jewishness of Jesus came from the inaugural Jewish–Christian dialogues—after the Second World War—conducted in the shadow of the Holocaust. The ongoing mechanism, however, has been widening the circle of New Testament hermeneutics to include Jewish biblical scholars. This is not a missionary activity to convert Jews. It is an admission that the New Testament was written by Jews and is precious source material for understanding Late Second Temple Judaism. It has provided a greater awareness of Jesus as a Galilean who challenged the Judean religious establishment. His response to the Pharisees was much more nuanced than Christians have traditionally been led to believe.

For some, learning more about Jesus’s Jewish context is a recognition in the ongoing salvific drama of the Burning Bush which strengthens their Christian faith. For others, the more they hear about it, the less Jesus can be the Saviour they were taught as children. For believers, it makes the idea of the West having Judeo-Christian foundations more coherent. For non-believers, the idea of Judeo-Christian foundations offends their lebenswelt. Either way, the idea is losing its cultural currency.

Currently, the West is experiencing a civilisational hiatus, the latest episode of a paradigmatic drama: the Counter-Enlightenment struggling with the Enlightenment for control of the Western soul, its assets and its future. In the hiatus, any Judeo-Christian foundations are up for grabs, because few Jews and Christians understand them and are willing to defend them.

According to Gadamer, Judaism and Christianity are prejudices, but prejudices are true if their legitimacy can be rationally determined. The West is unique in defining itself in rational terms—as the civilisation of reason—but what do Westerners mean by rationality? If the Bible is a record of God’s reason, and humanity’s reason too, exploring what reason means is an urgent task.

 

Does the Messiah matter?

For Western Christians, the great struggle of the twenty-first century is establishing who Jesus is, and whether they are following him, or he is following them. Traditionally, Jesus’s identity was established by Christology: the branch of theology relating to the person, nature and role of Christ. The earliest Christology was the Kerygma the Apostles proclaimed orally in the first century. They believed the end was imminent. Their different communities wrote scripture down once they saw the Parousia receding and realised the Kerygma was immanent as well as imminent.

The canonisation of Christian scripture was primarily about liturgical faithfulness, not Christology, although these eventually became interchangeable, according to the Christian axiom lex orendi, lex credendi: what we pray is what we believe. When the canon was finally closed, it was a standard against which Christology—who Jesus is, what he does, what he requires—could be tested. What is astonishing about the canonical Gospels is the genius of their expository character, their dialogical faithfulness to the Kerygma. If other texts emerged, in different local communities, here was a definitive way of testing their Apocryphal or Gnostic claims.

For example, Arius of Antioch argued against the doctrine of the Incarnation, believing it threatened the Church’s monotheism. He believed Jesus, being created by God, could not be the same substance as God, and was therefore fallen and sinful like the rest of humanity. The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) resolved the problem of Arianism by devising the Nicene Creed, using the word homoousios, meaning consubstantial or “one in essence”, while anathematising Arianism.

The modern relevance of the Nicene Creed depends on whether it represents the Kerygma authoritatively. If it does not, what does? This is a question about language and what language conveys. At Nicaea the bishops invoked the reference conventions attached to Koine Greek, which distinguished between categories: substance and accidents, essence and existence. These distinctions were central to Classical civilisation—its classifications, its taxonomies—which served the West well until the Counter-Enlightenment began subverting their rationale. As a result, Christology became an inevitable casualty of post-metaphysical thinking and its immanent critique of Classical metaphysics.

While this subject is complex, and can be approached from many angles, Benedict XVI summarises it brilliantly in his widely misrepres­ented Regensburg Lecture of September 2006. The problem, according to Benedict, is modernity’s call for the de-hellenisation of Christianity, which has effectively cut Christianity adrift from the language that gave its Christology coherence. The de-hellenisation begins in a voluntarism that arose with Duns Scotus, which allows for an image of a capricious God whose freedom allows him to change his mind and undo what he has done. It continues in a series of misunderstandings: about the role of Scholasticism in modern philosophy; about limiting reason by locating it solely in the empirical sphere; about misinterpreting the character of Western pluralism; about the intrinsically Platonic element of modern scientific reason, which “bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology”.

According to Benedict, there was an inner rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry during the Hellenistic period. This was a decisive event in world history. It explains the origins of the West: “this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe”. In other words, through its Diaspora, Second Temple Judaism was already enculturated across the Graeco-Roman world. When Christians try to de-hellenise the Kerygma they run up against a conundrum: Judaism knew about Hellenism before Jesus.

The kneejerk Christian response is to claim Jesus’s messiahship is different from what was hoped for in the Late Second Temple Period. This is understandable, since all Christian truth claims depend on situating Jesus against some form of Judaism, real or imagined, but not all first-century Jews were expecting a messiah. Christian truth claims are what Gadamer calls a prejudice, which can be legitimated by reason. For legitimisation to occur, the prejudice must be aware of itself as a prejudice, and its anachronisms and presentisms must be acknowledged at face value and addressed. Jesus demands this himself. Christians must stop constructing imaginary Judaisms and bearing false witness against Jesus.

The first step is to stop interpreting the Kerygma as a manifesto for progressive politics. This means not interpreting God’s love to be whatever we want it to be, instead of what it is, and not constructing a liberationist Jesus as a solution to whatever we think ails the body politic in an intersectional age. Jesus told the adulterous woman he did not judge her. He also told her to sin no more. He did not tell her adultery was no longer sinful and she was free to keep committing it. The same applies to the other outcasts Jesus hung out with. By fulfilling rather than nullifying the law, he loved them unconditionally.

Western Christians are under extraordinary pressure from the progressive zeitgeist to accept the normalisation of homosexuality, including whatever homosexuals do sexually in private. This normalisation is not happening because God is love, or because Jesus took our sins upon himself once and for all upon the cross. It is happening because there was a sexual revolution in the 1960s and because the West has discovered cures for sexually transmissible infections. Without that revolution, or those cures, there would be no demand to normalise homosexuality.

The problem can be summarised neatly. Progressive Christians no longer believe in God’s judgment. They believe all God asks is embodied in Christ’s Summary of the Law: to love their God above all else, and to love their neighbour as themselves. Of course, this is true—as far as it goes—but they now believe the Summary of the Law is culturally determined, poll driven, and assume it can be adapted to suit what Benedict calls the dictatorship of relativism. Having convinced themselves the Messiah loves sinners, it is simple to make the hypothetical leap and assume his atoning sacrifice blesses homosexual behaviour.

 

Does the Church matter?

There has been no shortage of Christians eager to make such hypothetical leaps, ever since Nietzsche prodded them beyond good and evil, and Jung made Satan the fourth person of the Trinity for the sake of psychological wholeness. Now that evil is just part of their mental architecture, an ingredient in whatever progressives are constructing, Satan whispers in their ears, like the Serpent tempting Eve: Go on, no harm in a bit of what you fancy, why not? Since the temptation is presented as social justice, Satan can claim to be turning vice into virtue. This is what Jung was gesturing towards.

Progressives believe scriptural prohibitions are culturally contextual: binding on the ancients because they did not know better; not binding on us because we do. Wherever it is employed, this line of argument is asserted as self-evidently true, but is never demonstrated rationally. It presumes we know more about Jesus than he knows about himself, which is logically impossible. By progressive reasoning, what Jesus says no longer matters, really, because the world is different now. Progressives no longer follow him. He follows them. How long can this kind of discipleship last?

In his farewell discourse, Jesus told his disciples: “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Church makes the mighty claim to be inspired by this same Spirit. In denominations that identify as “one holy catholic and apostolic”—as described in the Nicene Creed—this authority is passed on through the laying on of hands at ordination. This is why bishops kneel beforehand and sing Veni Sancte Spiritus.

Unfortunately, Satan also performs an advocacy role, as prosecutor and tempter; hence the traditional role of Devil’s Advocate. When confronted with two competing voices—one good, the other evil—how can Christians know whether they are guided by the Holy Spirit or Satan? This dilemma has a unique character at the present time, as Cultural Marxism continues its long march through the Church. Progressives insist same-sex relationships are holy and can be placed before the divine throne with a clear conscience. They find it harder insisting Christ is okay with what homosexuals do in bed. To advance that argument convincingly, or even rationally, requires more knowledge of scripture and natural law than most possess.

At the vanguard of the long march, feminists fight for social justice. Having achieved power, they abuse their power to advance feminist goals. Katharine Jefferts Schori was Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church from 2006 to 2015. An aggressive champion of LGBT+ rights, same-sex marriage and abortion, her tenure was highly controversial and marked by unprecedented schism. At her direction, the US Episcopal Church initiated lawsuits against dioceses and parishes that objected to her progressive program. She spent vast sums of money funding punitive measures against conservatives. She established a policy whereby the properties of departing congregations could not be sold back to them. Under this policy, some of these properties were sold to Muslims, below market price, and turned into mosques, while the former Christian owners were forced to relinquish their equity and buy new property elsewhere. Jefferts Schori epitomises feminism’s abuse of power.

Her successor, Michael Curry—who preached about love at Meghan and Harry’s wedding—has continued this tradition of persecuting conservatives. Bishop William Love of the Diocese of Albany has been found guilty of violating his ordination oath, for upholding traditional marriage and forbidding same-sex unions in his diocese. There is now an irreparable schism in the Anglican Communion, between those who have legislated for same-sex unions—which amounts to blessing, on behalf of Christ, what homosexuals do in bed—and those who will not. While the overwhelming majority of global Anglicans have demanded a return to biblical values, the likelihood of that seems remote. Progressivism, a form of totalitarianism, seems unstoppable.

How should we interpret the messages emanating from Pope Francis? Is he going down the path of Jefferts Schori and Curry? Are Catholics following Anglicans down the path of schism? This is difficult to predict; however, I suspect Pope Francis should be given the benefit of the doubt.

A few years ago, some objected when I said Francis was media savvy, like Trump. He has its measure and knows what he is dealing with. When he told journalists on a plane a few years ago, during an impromptu interview, that he did not judge homosexuals, he was simply pointing out that God is the judge, not him. More recently, when he called for a mechanism to recognise same-sex civil unions, because all homosexuals have the right to a family, he was not equating their relationships with the sacrament of heterosexual marriage.

The Pope’s remarks are similar to those Jesus made to the woman caught in adultery: I do not judge you, go and sin no more. The future of Western Christianity depends on understanding what this truly means. It is perfectly reasonable to expect Christians to condemn homophobia in all its forms, since Christ’s Summary of the Law requires it. It does not follow that Christ sanctified homosexual behaviour.

The Pope made an interesting point, early in Laudato Si (2015), when referring to the environmental statements made by “the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion”. Benedict mentioned this same “hope of full ecclesial communion” in several addresses during his pontificate. What this means is that, at the highest official levels, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hierarchies have resolved their differences. There is no official reason—Christological or Ecclesiological—preventing the full communion between Christian East and Christian West. The way forward, now, is convincing the laity of both churches, since entrenched prejudices are difficult to shift.

Unfortunately, Anglicanism has effectively removed itself from any movement towards Christian unity. It did not heed Dean Inge’s axiom: If the Church marries the spirit of the age, she will be widowed in the next age.

Michael Giffin is a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. His latest book, Religion in the English Novel: From Jane Austen to Margaret Atwood, is available from Amazon

4 comments
  • Stephen Due

    An interesting though at times difficult article. There’s a typo at the point where the burning bush appears, as the person involved was Moses not Abraham.

  • Gordon Cheyne

    Funny he never married . . . . .

  • Stephen Due

    I think I am gradually beginning to understand this article, but reading time is the problem. The idea that everyone is operating from prejudices is extremely attractive as a key to understanding modern cultural discourse. Certainly the human being cannot, as a matter of observation, fit the hubristic model of Pure Reason operating on Data. This model is quite untenable in reality, but as an imaginary construct it describes how many people see themselves, and defines the terms in which discourse about topics such as the current pandemic are conducted. It is a modern myth, unquestionably.
    There are some useful concepts that could be added to this discussion. One is the modern myth of social and cultural evolution – that history follows a progressive pattern in which people become more knowledgeable and more moral. The myth of progress is actually incompatible with the facts of history, the known facts of human nature, and certainly with the biblical worldview.
    It would certainly be nice to think that the Christian world might abandon its notorious divisions between Catholic and Protestant in order to survive. One can imagine churches of all denominations gathering around the Bible, the Creeds, and the ancient liturgical forms. A happy thought for the future.

  • Harry Lee

    We have learned:
    Evil/Satan cannot be fully and finally expunged from Human Being.
    The big job is to get the destructive forces under control so the destruction is not too bad.
    The Churches do an excellent job with charity -feeding, clothing, housing, medicating those who cannot do it for themselves.
    In my view, the Churches should now focus more resources on developing and deploying simple methods by which ordinary people can learn to Walk with God.
    And the Churches should halt their support for and encouragement of the Big State.

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