After Christianity, What?

  • Posted: November 21, 2013
  • Category: Politics
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The State of Colorado is struggling to figure out how to regulate the sale of marijuana in our State. The voters of our State have spoken and we have legalized the “weed”. We want to get stoned legally, just like we get drunk. At the same time we are flaunting our progressive morality and have joined the growing number of states legalizing gay unions. Both developments come out of a strong cultural foundation of individual empowerment that is the heart of who we are in Colorado. The citizens of Colorado are Libertarians and the old Libertarian philosophy of “do whatever you want if it doesn’t hurt someone else” is our philosophy. Let it all hang out, just don’t hurt anybody, especially animals.

Those of us who grew up in conservative parts of the nation in an earlier time are just a little uncomfortable with what is going on. We are uncomfortable because we agree with the idea and the philosophy behind it. We were around during the great upheavals of the Sixties. We may not have been at Woodstock or marched in Selma, but the idea that there should be constraints on people’s liberties or rights is alien to us. But it is equally true that the things we see people, including our children, do make us very uncomfortable.

We would be the first to agree that shame is bad. Really bad!! We still remember the girl who mysteriously left on an extended visit to her grandmother in our senior year in high school. We don’t want to make anybody feel bad about themselves or suffer from low self esteem, no matter how self inflicted. Our eyes get misty when we watch a movie showing someone hurt and “picked on” because they are “different”. But watching TV or reading the newspaper, gee whiz. Do people really do things like that?

Don’t there have to be some standards? What is out of bounds anymore? We seem to have difficulty agreeing among ourselves about basic human behavior. When we argue with each other about those things, we retreat to slogans, slogans that make us feel good but are empty of meaning. We talk past each other rather than to each other on these things. And it is a fact that those speaking the loudest seem to have the least understanding of what they say. There seems to be no common foundation for behavior on which we all can agree. We seem to be adrift. We have lost our grounding as a society.

People use the word “grounding” when talking about controversial things. “Grounding” is a word we use when we want to cast doubt on another’s ideas. My opinion is grounded, because it is a fact. Your opinion is ungrounded, because it is an opinion. Outside of talk radio, grounding is an important word with a precise meaning to engineers, those Morlocks of the modern world. Grounding to an engineer means that there is a solid and unbroken connection between the device and the earth. Engineers know that if something is grounded, it is safe to use. Whether an electrical system that spans thousands of miles or a simple home, it must be grounded to use safely. In one of those twists common in our perverse universe, it can be difficult to tell if something is grounded. But if it is not properly grounded, the house, or electrical system, will eventually fail.

The problem with grounding is that, whether grounded or not, everything is working. The people living in the house, driving over the bridge or plugging in their morning coffee pots will not be able to tell the difference. But danger is there. It may take the form of an electrical shock with careless use, or it may just be that corrosion will begin. It may take a long time for serious situations to happen, years or decades even. The result of not being grounded varies, but it is invariably bad. One day the bridge falls down, or the person with wet hands gets a fatal electrical shock when they plug in that coffee pot.

A lack of grounding always shows up as a slow corrosion, a slow corrosion that erodes the foundations of structures. It is hidden, out of sight. Until something happens that stresses the system. Then the foundations fail, often spectacularly, at the worst possible time and with the greatest possible damage. The result will be the lead story on Good Morning America.

Everything in the physical universe must be grounded, or the physical universe will see to it that it does become grounded sooner or later, with unfortunate results. Any engineer or physical scientist knows of the need for grounding, understands it and does their best to ensure that it happens. That’s why we don’t need to think about it in our daily lives. We live in houses, drive over bridges, ride in elevators and plug our coffee pots into grounded systems. They’re safe. Most times. The only time that most of us experience an ungrounded system is when we talk over a carpet and inadvertently touch a grounded something. Ouch!! That simple walk across the carpet can result in several thousands of volts of electricity going through our finger.

Grounding is a universal need, for physical systems, but also for cultural systems. Corrosion is the term we use to describe degradation of non-living things. Rot is the term we use to describe degradation in living things, or once living things. Just as bridges corrode, cultures rot. A culture is an invisible system, just as is the electricity that powers our civilization. But culture, just like electricity, shapes everything in our world. Everything we do, everything we believe, everything in our lives is shaped and given form by the culture we live in. Our culture, any culture, is grounded in our foundational beliefs. Questions of right and wrong, fair and unfair, normal and abnormal are all decided by our cultural grounding. How we treat our spouse, how we honor our parents or treat our children, whether we leave a note when we accidently hit another car in a parking lot. Why do we believe what we believe?

What do we believe is an open question in the world of Today. I think our own culture shows every sign of being ungrounded. Everything seems ok, just as the bridge seems fine as we drive across it on our way to work. But when corrosion continues long enough, the bridge falls down and the corrosion in the support beams is obvious. The same is true of cultures, of countries.

What grounds a culture? A culture is grounded in a belief system. One way of thinking about grounding is to see it as the process of conforming to something greater than ones self. Houses and bridges are grounded to the earth, something enormously larger than themselves. Grounding is necessary to keep everything, and everyone, from being harmfully different from that which is greater than them. We call that which is greater than ourselves, reality. When we cross that rug and touch the grounded earth, we call that an electrical shock. When our culture touches another with different values, we often call that a war. When our culture becomes so diverse that it is not grounded to a common point, we call that a culture war.

Our culture, often called Western Civilization, has been grounded in Christianity for many centuries. Christian thinkers pondered the Bible and developed understandings of proper human conduct based on their interpretation of that God’s Word contained there. Over the many centuries and across the diverse strands of Christianity, those beliefs about the Bible’s teaching and proper human conduct varied substantially, but the Bible remained the foundational grounding point for all of them. This is an important point that must not be overlooked. Today Christianity devotes enormous time and effort to the defense of the sanctity of marriage, yet marriage was not recognized as a concern of the Church until around the year 1000 AD. Were Christians living in the centuries before that date pagans?

There has been enormous variation in what our culture considered a moral life, but it has all been grounded in an informed understanding of the Bible and Christian teaching. This has been true of Western Civilization for at least fifteen centuries. Before that fundamental shift to Christianity, the grounding point for us, for Western Civilization, was the philosophy of the Greek Academy. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates still remain familiar names today. The change from the world of Greek thought to Christianity did not occur overnight or without great and serious social and intellectual upheaval, often played out on the edge of a sword and drenched in blood. Evidence that Christianity was becoming the central element in the grounding of our culture began with the Roman Emperor Constantine’s adoption of it at the beginning of the Fourth Century, with Charlemagne’s coronation by the Roman Pope Leo III in 800 AD signaling the complete domination by Christian thinking of Western culture.  

But I do not think that to be true any longer. But like the earlier contest for cultural dominance between the pagan philosophies of Greece and the, at that time, new Christian moralities, there is a new challenger, Science. This challenger, just like Christianity before, offers insights into the world that present a compelling alternative to the older ways of looking at things. Our culture continues to “believe” in the ethics and moralities put in place over the previous centuries, or at least our evolved interpretation of them. As a culture, we have a Christian morality, but we no longer believe in Christ. The engineering analogy would be the house whose ground wire has corroded away. We continue in the house as before, but the copper water pipes in the basement are pitting and covered with a white crust.

Our culture continues to generate great heat and light over abortion, gay marriage and other social issues. But despite great individual passion, the arguments thrown around resemble nothing so much as the political divide between conservative and liberal politics. Neither side is able to marshal compelling arguments persuasive to the other, or even intelligible to each other.

Perhaps issues such as these generate such passion with so little substance because both sides of the debate are so alike and similar in their beliefs. Serious topics should generate serious debate, yet this is not the case in our present circumstances. We continue as a Christian culture, but we are no longer grounded in a Christian belief that is in turn solidly grounded in the Bible. We are ungrounded. We believe what we believe, but have no solid basis for that belief. Parents soon learn in raising their family that children hold a mirror to the reality of who we are. Children know who we are, not whom we think we are. Perhaps the rapid growth of the category among our children, Spiritual but not Religious, is the latest way in which we learn of the Emperor’s lack of clothes.

As the fish when asked about the water, we are blind to our own prejudices. Our culture has an unconscious assumption that each person is equal before the law, should have equal opportunity and their rights respected by the government. Our Declaration of Liberty captures it eloquently:

“they (i.e. human beings) are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That phrasing and those concepts in the Declaration of Independence flow from the Enlightenment’s understanding of Scripture. To my knowledge, no other culture in the history of the world would have thought these ideas anything but foolishness. No other culture would have thought these words to express a noble idea, or a state of being to be pursued. It is not that other cultures were ignorant. The genius of men like Plato and of Julius Caesar was at least the equal of anything our own culture has put forth. It is not that they were or are evil people, at least any more so than ourselves. It is just the fact that the idea of every human being having value, equal in the eyes of the State and at law, is very much a unique outgrowth of Christian thinking that developed over centuries of experience.

It is worth noting that the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence, particularly those quoted above, were the product of Christian interpretation of Scripture in a particular time and place. Christian thinkers in other and different times and places would not have agreed with those words, Third Century Rome, Eleventh Century Europe, Sixteenth Century England to name but a few. Godly men from those times and places, solidly grounded in faith and Scripture would have vehemently disagreed with those words. The words of the Declaration of Independence are not quotations from the Bible, perhaps to the surprise of many who shout them most loudly, but are instead interpretations of the words and concepts in the Bible. Good and honest men and women will have honest disagreement over the interpretation of the Bible, as well as how it says we are to live together in harmony and obedience to God.

But those who disagree will be able to argue with each other, at least the cooler heads among them, and make arguments intelligible and persuasive to each other. If honestly engaged, they will keep each other from going off the deep end because of their common grounding in the Bible. They are solidly connected to something much greater than themselves, that greater thing bounding and limiting their ideas and possible conclusions.

There is much in our present world that is very contentious and troubling to us. Our world is a very different place than the world of those men who formulated the understandings of the Bible that are now held. The words of the Bible remain the same but the world is different. Biblical interpretation has always been shaped by the culture within which it lives. As an example, consider our Christian attitudes toward slavery over the past centuries. The Bible itself commonly speaks of slavery with no negative feeling. Yet Christians in England led the fight to rid it from the world, based on their interpretation of the Bible.

It is very probable that the rights and duties of citizens, as well as their ethics and moralities, in the multi-polar world of the future might change from those expected today. This is not the first time that the world has undergone profound change. Abraham, King David, Daniel, St. Peter, St. Francis, Pope Urban II, Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee were all godly men, but their understanding of God’s Word was different. One has only to compare Abraham Lincoln to Robert E. Lee to understand the differences. Where would King David stand in the debate on gay marriage or drug legalization?

Perhaps that is the problem. Christianity today in the Western World has ceased to think, to question, to wrestle with the problems faced by people living in the world we have created. Instead we have erected walls and battlements to face the changing world. Rather than reason and debate, we rely on faith and the surety of long accepted interpretation. We proudly and sacrificially send our missionaries to jungle villages where we introduce our faith. But the largest unreached population in the world is the secular educated class in our own Western Civilization. Yet we do not try very hard to reach them for Christ. We have retreated into Festung Christianity. Like its namesake of 75 years ago, we await the D-Day invasion with its opportunity to martyr ourselves defending it when it is finally overrun.

For five hundred years, the evangelical arm of the Church has represented the cutting edge of Christianity. The Protestant arm of Christianity has grown from the 95 Theses of Martin Luther to the Crusades of Billy Graham. Protestants have focused on interpretation of Scripture and reaching the world for Christ. But in doing so, they turned their back on engagement and interaction with Philosophy and the sciences, with thinking about the world and our place in it.

And this has had very serious consequences for our culture, for our Civilization. It is those parts of the world dominated and driven by the Protestant arm of Christianity that have developed the science and technology that have transformed life on this planet. But science and technology are by their very nature, ungrounded. Just like the ungrounded coffee pot, they work. But as the ungrounded coffee pot, science and technology have a dangerous potential for disaster.

There is no grounding within the sciences, within Philosophy, because the Church has withdrawn from the arena. Whereas men of science once had a deep grounding with the Christian faith that gave form and focus to their thoughts, they now put off what faith they might have when they enter the laboratory. An individual who is both a thoughtful public Christian and a respected scientist is coming to resemble the unicorn, a creature of fantasy that does not exist.

Why is it that the people who seek to understand God’s Creation do not believe in God, at least publicly? Just as one cannot explore the sciences without coming to a realization of the truth of Creation, of the God who created it; so too, one cannot explore the Bible without coming to a realization of its truth. Science and the Bible are complimentary, reinforcing each other’s Truth. A truth that the Bible recognizes in Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

But this simple and obvious truth is no longer part of our public discourse. As we learn more and more about our Universe, about God’s Creation, it is seen as proof that there is no God rather than the reverse, an unfolding of his Glory. Scientists search further and deeper for meaning, mistaking the Creation for the Creator. In their hubris, for man is nothing if not proud, scientists create Science, the false god that contends with Christianity for the foundation of our culture. Theologians retreat further into their cloisters and debate the exact translation of the Greek word, uioi, into modern English, mistaking Creation for the work of Satan. As a result, our culture, our civilization becomes ungrounded.

As engineering translates science into reality, our culture gains enormous power. With power comes the responsibility to exercise that power. But what is responsible use? Our culture relies on centuries of Christian thinking and practice for that answer and it has served us well, in the main. But thinking on the part of Christianity about the responsible use of power and knowledge by our culture ended in the Nineteenth Century, if not before.

Perhaps the metaphor of the ungrounded bridge is most appropriate here. The bridge is still very serviceable; traffic crosses it every day. But the steel supports within the concrete are badly corroded and a heavy load or bad storm will cause it to fail. Our world changes and with those changes, so does the realities with which we must deal. The exercise of power is guided by morality, but our morality is badly out of date.

The world created by our science and technology has serious issues that we must solve for which we have no ready answers. If we do not begin to deal with them, our children must, but we have left them ill prepared.

Vexing problems revolve around the questions of life and the consequences of that life. As science and technology provide more and more tools, we have the ability to keep ourselves alive to older ages than ever thought possible, even though during those years we may be no more than a vegetable. We can do things with human reproduction that offer doors into human fulfillment or a house of horrors. It is likely that we will soon be able to regrow missing or damaged body parts. Who knows what else we will be able to grow? What monsters dwell in our future?

There is a very real possibility that we will discover extraterrestrial life, life on another planet, in my lifetime. Science is showing us that the Universe virtually abounds with environments suitable for life. At the same time, science finds life in unimaginably hostile environments here on Earth. A ubiquitous and permanent human presence in the outer solar system is an engineering and economics problem, not a scientific one. This has profound consequences for us and will change our world dramatically.

On a more prosaic level, the rewards for talent, skill, and competence in our culture continue to increase. But the penalties for their lack continue to increase as well. Our culture is increasingly becoming two different places; one for those with wealth, skill or ambition, but another for those without. Our experience and knowledge tell us that handicapping the rich does not help the poor, but what are we to do? What would Jesus do?

Our culture needs Christianity to help us use our power with wisdom. But our Church is missing in action. Perhaps the metaphor of grounding works in both directions. Perhaps the Church must be grounded to science, in dialog with the quest for knowledge, to prevent its own corrosion. The Bible is a living document, interpreted and given life within the context of the culture within which it is lived. As those who interpret the Bible withdraw from a culture their usefulness as guides to that culture disappear.

There is a very large segment of the population of the western world that needs to be engaged by the Church, by Christianity. This population is the secular educated professional class of Western Civilization. As a group, they run our world. They determine right and wrong, what is normal and abnormal, our very culture within which we live. They are the managers in our corporations, bureaucrats in government, the doctors in our hospitals, the engineers and scientists in our industry, the creators of our media. They are not the enemy. They are simply an unreached population.

But imagine, if you, will that you are a 30-something professional that grew up in a secular family. What do you know about Christianity? You know that Christians hate gays and can’t provide any coherent reason for that hate other than its just wrong. They hate abortion. You have qualms about it as well, but can’t see what’s wrong with a “morning after pill”. Christians say evolution is a lie and that dinosaurs lived among men. That just boggles your mind. How can anyone take those ideas seriously? Christians tell you that you need Jesus to forgive your sins, but what sins and why? Its not like you’re a pedophile or anything.

These, the people we ignore, are the people that will make the decisions about what to do with the senile, handicapped and helpless when the costs of caring for them overwhelm the ability of society to pay. These are the people that will decide whether it is moral to modify human embryos for special tasks, such as space colonization or unique combat skills or designer babies. These are the people that will decide how to accommodate growing populations of those without the skills or aptitude for productive life in a civilization that requires them. They rely on Science for answers, for morality. What will they decide?

As Christians, we have mistaken our culture for the Word of God. The Word of God is contained in the Bible, not the Republican Party Platform. A very large part of what we believe to be Christian teaching and morality is simply our interpretation of God’s Word on the subject, based on a time long past and a world that no longer exists. The very richness and infinite variety of God’s Creation is ushering us into a world that calls much of what we believe into question. The Plan of God will be fulfilled; there is no questioning that. But will our beloved country, our culture, be part of that Plan, or is the torch being passed to another, more willing to reexamine their Faith?

 

 

 

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