Every now and then I find myself in one of those important discussions that ends like this:
“That’s really just someone’s opinion.”
“That works for you, and that’s great, but I just don’t believe it.”
“That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.”
Existential Modernism told us that since there is no truth we must find our own truth. Postmodernism rightly divined that if there is no truth then even the truths we individually discover are meaningless fictions. They saw through the guise that truth is intrinsic; because when compared to each other, my truth will eventually contradict your truth—in which case they are not truths at all. Where postmodernism has failed is to erect a logistical, palpable, and true alternative to the no-truth hypothesis.
One cannot rationally hold the premise that there is no truth and life has no meaning. This is the difference between a negative belief and a positive action. I may intellectually assent to the notion that there is no truth, but I still look both ways before crossing the street. I may say that life is meaningless, but I still violently protect my right to existence. If I truly believe I am no more than the sum of my atoms, then why do I seek meaning in the first place? If I am nothing but matter, then I have suddenly achieved the ultimate meaning in the physicality of my existence. I have already found meaning. But for none of us is this answer sufficient. We still attempt to find meaning in our jobs, our families, our politics, our beliefs. Nature abhors a vacuum—especially an intellectual one. Because we cannot live in cognitive dissonance indefinitely, we must choose meaning or meaninglessness. Those of us who do not select madness or suicide will elect to find meaning.
The good news is that Western culture at large still hopes for meaning and still believes in hope. For the Greeks hope was an emotional disease that would ruin you (see the story of Pandora’s box), yet the world of postmodernity has an expectation of something (or someone) greater than themselves: a hero, love, God, etc. Everyone is still searching for something. I want to believe in a spiritual extrinsic reality. I want to have something to anchor my thoughts and to direct my desires. But, as Bono popularized some years ago, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
The bad news is that most people will resist older modes of thought. While much financial success has been made with the Percy Jackson series, I have a hard time envisioning any fanboy actually bowing before idols of Olympus. And while Christianity still has a prominent foothold in the worldview of Western culture, many have rejected it as an insufficient narrative for guiding one’s life. Instead, people will turn to new ways of thinking—which are really just modifications of the old ways. New Age theology, as one popular example, blends pop psychology and ancient mysticism, and even if it doesn’t directly embrace the Greco-Roman pantheon at least accepts the notion that the deities we worship are a matter of individual preference.
As we examine both cultural and generational shifts, we may conclude that what exists beyond postmodernism, then, is really just neo-paganism. If I hold that nothing matters metaphysically but my own individual beliefs, I can select my own gods. If every culture develops its own religion, then presumably each individual needs its own creed as well. As a system, Christianity claims one god among a multitude of gods, and while I don’t have to worship Allah or Apollo it is altogether reasonable if you want to do so.
Note the assumption present that no god/truth is exclusively real or true. The statements above are not originally postmodern; they’ve been around since antiquity. People today who argue those positions are not postmodern; they’re just bad thinkers.
What is unique about neo-paganism, in contradistinction to its origins in antiquity, is that it is a spirituality without sacrament. What gave the Oracle at Delphi power in addition to the collective faith in its truthful predictions was the sacrifice of its adherents. But wearing a cross without devoting one’s self to a church—its doctrines, rules, and practices—is a faithless faith. The spiritually uncommitted instinctively know there is no real meaning (or comprehensibility, for that matter) in literal self-worship, but there is at least something psychologically satisfying in acknowledging something external.
Because there is no sacrament, therefore, many of the spiritually unreligious will abdicate their personal faith in service to the state. In this way, many neo-pagans resemble their Greco-Roman forbearers for whom faith was not as important as national loyalty. And this is true for both sides of the aisle today: the smaller one’s religion and religious expression, the greater the role one gives to politics. The recent cultural rush to abandon one’s independence and self-reliance in order to receive goodies from government is a frightening but natural byproduct of neo-paganism. My personal faith in the unseen cannot viably compete with the objective reality of a seen president, law, or activist cause. My personal faith rooted in subjectivity cannot overpower the collective, equally subjective experience of groupthink, and thus I will quickly retreat from my faith in the presence of peer pressure. Neo-paganism is a weakly mixed wine and thus is a breeding ground for tyranny.
Tyranny also thrives in such an environment because a man who will tailor his spirituality to his own specifications is interested primarily in comfortability and entertainment. Fiction is, as under postmodernism, more palpable than reality. Disneyland, Las Vegas, and Middle Earth are not just more palpable but potentially more real in people’s minds than Newark. People experience genuine depression because they would rather live on Pandora instead of earth. Neo-paganism is perfect for the video game generation because it is an experienced-based, pleasure-seeking worldview of affluence and personal peace. Marx was wrong: the opiate of the masses was not religion but television. The sensationalist drama of House of Cards will trump the ritual in a house of worship every time.
Christians who are understandably depressed at the spiritual state of affairs in our nation have no one to blame, unfortunately, but themselves. We too are developing a religion of comfort—not simply in our watering down of the Word but in our laid-back approach to the urgency and relevance of the Gospel. We are spiritually-religious neo-pagans ourselves, which a snippet history of American culture may reveal.
In the eighteenth century Enlightenment thinking beat back Christianity in the intellectual world by advocating a paradigm of science over faith. To some degree this was necessary, as a faith misunderstood is sometimes more deleterious than no faith at all. Thus, atheists like Thomas Paine gave rational arguments for the necessity of American liberty, leading the cause of freedom. Secularists like Thomas Jefferson with his miracle-free Bible and philosophers like Immanuel Kant and David Hume argued against supernaturalism. Yet even while these secular advances were taking place (some of them very essential), Christianity numerically retained the social structures of culture. Homes and families were “Christian” with a Christian worldview and ethic because the church still held an influential hold on cultural thinking. The state supported the idea of a Christian nation not because it was morally right but because its people were Christian.
Because we found comfort in numbers, we felt we did not need to engage the scientific discussions of the nineteenth century and so marginalized ourselves. Countless examples of our technological fears include pamphlets with supporting proof texts in Scripture for the steam engine, or reactions against the steam engine, made stereotypically famous in the statement, “If God had meant man to travel at 60mph, he would have given him wheels.” Because Christianity did not emphasize the intellectual component of its existence, the academy became more secularized. We succumbed in this battle—yet this battle may be the most important.
Today, the secular academy has filtered down through pop culture in ways we have not been equipped to understand and combat. This increased exponentially with the advent of radio, television, and the internet. These technologies are not the cause of our marginalization; throughout most of the twentieth century, Christians chose not to employ these technologies as a direct expression of our faith because of our institutional reluctance toward change. Consequently, the worldviews that are disseminated through these technologies have gained a prominent foothold in our culture. The church has virtually no place in the cultural discussion, even if it does hold a claim on individual households. The state is no longer a support of Christianity because of the shift in demographic electoral politics. As an institution Christianity is pushed further and further to the periphery. We possess hope because postmodern idealists desire spirituality, but this is not enough. Simply because anti-intellectuals in popular culture agree with one of our claims does not mean we are having, or are going to have, success. All it means is that we agree with anti-intellectuals. What we need is to engage the intellectuals and cause them to recognize the reality of philosophical supernaturalism.
Yet because we now have come to acknowledge our obsolescence in the world, we have simultaneously developed a culture of despair. Too often Christians sit around and complain that we are losing. We should remember that faithful Christians are not guaranteed even in a Christian culture (see medieval Europe). We are always losing the culture wars. Yesterday, we were losing to intellectual modernists; today, we’re losing to anti-intellectual postmodernists. But it is we who have reduced ourselves from the equation; it is we who have removed ourselves from the intellectual discussion. Christianity, like neo-paganism, without effective action is demoralizing and meaningless. Despair will only be overcome when we take action. We will need to rearticulate the Christian worldview and live it on a daily basis. But the goal must be Christ for the world—not Christ merely for the culture. The culture will reform in time and more organically as long as the church keeps its focus on the message and intent of the cross.
How we do that is the subject of our next post. Until then, dear reader, keep the faith.