Modernity is an era of exposure. How so? In a context where the ancient paths must be chosen—where the world around us will not reinforce them—any relation to those paths will share in the pathologies that attend human willing. This is not to deny, of course, that civilization itself cannot mediate pathology. Indeed it has and does (though it mediates virtue as well). And yet we get a “closer look” at human vice when we identify those areas where we are active cultivators rather than passive receivers. And so precisely as religious and cultural identity has migrated increasingly toward the individual, we gain a “front row” opportunity to witness both how our religious identity actually functions for us (and how it might potentially!).
Many, for instance, greeted the so-called “rebirth of orthodoxy” (as Tom Oden called it early in the millennium) as an unequivocal good. Reformed confessionalism, conservative Islam, Judaism, classical political theory, intellectual orthodoxy, are all in an exciting era of significant growth. Some of this has to do with the fact that the life of the mind is increasingly distributed across all classes and contexts —especially with the advent of the internet. And yet we also live in an era where most persons (even those who fancy themselves “above it all”) live in a perpetual identity crisis. Identity politics is only possible in a world where modern “identity” is already a well-distributed “sense-making” apparatus in the human imagination.
Existentially homeless, then, we are especially hungry for home (often in the low-hanging fruit of spectral “identities”). And for this reason, we must be cautious to note how constitutional attraction to “old paths” can ultimately be rooted in sentiment or nostalgia, which inevitably requires Machiavelian machinations to protect its interests. We rightly suspect the instrumentalization of orthodoxy—a conversion of it into self-protective fig leaves—when it’s most prominent cash value looks simply like the “negative photocopy” of (and therefore deeply and ironically shaped by) the contemporary zeitgeist.
In short, having a religious identity crisis (among many other identity crises) is a simple reality of human experience in late modernity. It cannot be laughed away, or papered over with aggressively self-pinned labels cultivated in inevitably (whatever else is claimed) voluntary networks. It is a lived fact. To imagine or try to parody otherwise is often both self-protective and dishonest.
It is worth recalling that Jesus came to Israel in a period that many of us would evaluate as “alright” in the scheme of Israel’s history. Historically, they had sacrificed children to idols, fallen after all sorts of neglect of God’s law, etc. While there were some obvious problems remaining in the first century, the Israelites were mostly monotheists, fairly active in going to temple, and frequently taught their children basic morality. And yet this move toward “apparent righteousness” was, to Christ, actually a worse solution than the problem. Why? Because the veneer of the good can shield people from seeing the truth about themselves. The sinners at least knew they were sick. The leaders couldn’t imagine that they could be so. They, after all, had the right system.
The point is not to accuse conservatism as being Pharisaical. It is rather to say that, in our own contexts we are liable to be extremely tempted to use orthodoxy much in the same ways that the Pharisees use monotheism (with, let it be noted, somewhat analogous cultural pressures). And yet, claims Christ, they wound up being too selective with the keys of the kingdom (a light under a bushel), and completely failing in the mission to which God had called them. The good news is, of course, that Christ fulfilled Israel’s commission in Himself, and that He (through his Spirit) echoes His pattern in us—as we live out of His accomplishments.
And the pattern Christ has left is one that finds resurrection after death—a long life of dying. The life of Christ is manifest in our vaporous passing away, and Christians (who die daily) are those who are honest about the vapor itself. They are joyous, but they mourn. They are hopeful, even though they live in pain. They do not avoid exposure. Indeed, the very project of repentance is precisely to live in the deepest exposure of the sinner before God. The Christian heart grows to see exposure as a site of grace. The opportunity of modernity, then, is that it may be a moment of incredible growth in grace for the church of Jesus Christ precisely because it is an era of disorientation.
This is the danger of looking at all spiritual risks for the contemporary church through the lens of the liberalism crisis. If this is the only story, then the problem will always be cowardliness and compromise, and the solution will always be courage and conservatism as such. What we easily miss is that we have been unhomed from many sites of meaning, kingship—of fighting a good battle. We are hungry for an organizing cause and for a sense of cultural coherence. And the devils can exploit all things conservative precisely to scratch this itch for us. It is absolutely the case that modernity requires a courageous relationship to the truth. But this includes a courageous relationship not only to the truths named in the conservative/liberal dialectic, but a courageous relationship to the truth about ourselves.
Bringing this series full-circle, what is the truth about the woke and the red-pill? The same thing that is true of most of us, that we tend toward gross tribalism, and that we are constitutionally jaded and cynical. The truth is that most of us do not ordinarily believe or hope all things when we encounter other human faces. The truth is that most of us are impatient and prosecutorial with one another in our heads. Even among leaders, persons on the “other side” are frequently portrayed as possessed in such a way that the only “final solution” (if one were to actually press the logic) must be the progressive evaporation of a full half of the country. Many are actively disinterested in even doing the project of civilization with those who simply are their fellows (now coded as irreducible cancer). The truth, then, is that we are mostly all “triggered snowflakes” by nature (even if we self-protect by numbing). And crucially, this bespeaks a common human longing.
Perhaps, then, we have more in common with our brothers after the flesh than we suspect. Paul could still speak of the “hope of Israel” to apostatizing countrymen, and we can perhaps speak analogously. Hoping all things, one might argue, is to move into the world in this light. What if we always approached our fellows under the thought that they were confused, perhaps willful, but also agitating for the Father (because perhaps the Spirit is at work in them)? We are His temples, little lamps in whom the Spirit dwells and through whom He passes His light onto others (because God moves with us). This is not to say all of life is evangelism, but rather to say that the Spirit dwells in the believer (in their whole person) and that this manifests in both the giving of the good news to and living the good life in one’s neighbor. We should live as though the Spirit might stir a groaning in our fellows through our living in reality with them.
Is there any practical orientation to be gained from this? I am not confident in myself here, but if the below merely gestures in the right direction, that is enough. If we think of modernity as a moment of civilization-wide exposure and re-negotiation, then it seems to me that we might ask the following: What might the story of the church in modernity be? Might it be that the tradition-consuming scaffolding of globalized capitalism is itself instrumentalized by the angels to create a “global” circumstance into which the way of Christ uniquely speaks? Christ has instrumentalized empires before, after all. Nevertheless, I am not speaking about the way of “the West” here, but the way of Christ. Is the removal of the safety of enforced orthodoxy the divine discipline of requiring that the church (if it is to be healthy) unites the mind and the will in a beautiful way? Perhaps we are in the situation of the unhomed juvenile, who can very well destroy himself, but need not, even if the only possible path toward health involves choosing to become an adult. The cost of being an adult, however, involves relating to one’s fellows as adults. We often wish that our brother have no co-rulership of the world with us. But the reign of one’s neighbor cannot rightfully be simply removed, for God has given it to him.
Moreover, if the church is the race of those who mourn, it would seem that they have much to offer our homeless co-sovereigns. Has God created a deep exposure and global mourning that uniquely opens up a door to His message of restoration to divine friendship through the work of Christ? Is it possible that Christ really does and will continue to reign in the hearts of men (and therefore mediately in the world) through the gospel of His kingdom?
We do not know the future, but it seems to me that Christians should be those that seek to make this future a reality. Hasten the day, says Peter. The church has always connected the coming of Christ to the task of the church. We do not produce the new creation like engineers. Rather, we are midwives, administrators of an inevitable end, one that we can delay, or one that we can hasten by helping the world press into the labor pains of its coming transformation.
Nevertheless, my insistence is that any legitimate strategy involves honesty with itself about our ordinary confusion and existential exposure. Because our world just is deeply destabilizing. The genders, the races, the classes, the religions, the civilizations, the tribes, are all agitating and re-negotiating. Our task is not to insist upon a former settlement, but rather to preserve all traditional goods while also repenting of our sins through new acts of faithfulness. It is not surprising that judgments concerning what must be preserved, how it must be preserved, and what must be changed differ in our moment, especially when one is analyzing the prudential margins. Patience is necessary not to endlessly defer truth, but precisely as the means to arrive at it honestly. The role of the church now is precisely to walk with God through the city of alienation, to see uprootedness as pilgrimage, to practice the craft of midwifery through “transition,” not abandoning the world in its agitations or succumbing to our own, but rather enduring and leading others in the path away from ideology and into reality, through He who endured all for our sake. This involves not just speaking true things, but being truthful persons. And only those who love are ultimately the latter. Love isn’t an optional add-on to truth. It is rather the condition of its very possibility, the antidote to its instrumentalization, and also that which ensures that our truth-speaking is given with the light of God’s own heart rather than the smoky darkness of our own. God, of course, makes up for our failures here, but He also works precisely through the living act of persuasion that is His body. If we look at modernity as a historically unprecedented moment of exposure, we may also come to see that modernity contributes its own gifts to the story of man. This is, after all, the world of the novel, the film, and the folk song. We should not be surprised to learn that while we have inherited much, the church is still in school, learning. God has counted us worthy of the grand task of being faithful in precisely this world with these neighbors. And a sinner saved by grace cannot count anyone or anything as unworthy of their own life.
Read part I.
Read part II.
Read part III.