It is a commonplace among many people, including theologians, that we are in the “post-Christian age.” But this maxim, quite apart from the strange fact that many of the theologians who mouth it seem to like it, is not true. As one of the Asian delegates remarked at the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin (1966), for most of the world’s population this is still the pre-Christian era. This is obviously the situation of the hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa who have had no contact with the Christian faith, as well as of many in Communist nations where, despite official freedom of religion, “proselytizing” is so rigorously restrained that a large percentage of the population has never been confronted with a Christian witness in a recognizable form. As a result, while one must admit that a large portion of the world is and has always been non-Christian, it is incorrect to use the expression “post-Christian era” of our world as a whole.
But is it any more correct to call even the nominally Protestant and Roman Catholic countries of the free world “post-Christian”? On a recent train trip from Bern to Goschenen I had an encounter with a young Swiss, Roman Catholic, confirmed, the product of compulsory religious instruction in the schools; his answers to the questions I asked him are unfortunately probably typical of most of the nominal Christians in the big, often state-supported churches of the Western world. He claimed to be a Christian but could not tell me what made a person a Christian, other than “believing in God.” When I asked him the essential difference between Judaism and Christianity, he was at a loss. When asked what he would say to an Indian who expressed a desire to become a Christian, he replied, “I wouldn’t think that a proper Indian would want to become a Christian.”
“But suppose such an improper Indian were to ask you that very question?”
“I would take him to the village priest.”
Under further prodding (“But suppose you were isolated with this man, say at sea in a lifeboat …”), he said that he would encourage him to read the Bible, “especially the parts which tell about Christ.” What those parts are, however, he could not say.
My interlocutor was a frank, alert, apparently intelligent fellow in his early twenties. Perhaps the most striking thing about the conversation was that he did not seem to feel any embarrassment about knowing so little about those things to which he formally professed allegiance. Unfortunately, such a situation is all too typical of so-called Christians in the West. It is a major reason for the tremendous disillusionment which often befalls Christians from non-Christian nations when they come to “Christian Europe” or America to study or work. Is it proper to call such people, and the mass-culture they constitute, “post-Christian”? Surely not, if by that expression we mean to suggest that they once were Christians and have abandoned or forgotten what the Christian faith is all about.
Are there then any post-Christians at all? There are of course some people who have deliberately given up the Christian faith they once professed, and such are indeed “post-Christians.” One might speak of certain theologians as “post-Christians,” perhaps, not because there is much reason to think that many of them ever were believing biblical Christians, but because by their labors they have succeeded in obscuring the figure of Jesus Christ and in removing him far from the gaze of those who seek him, and as a result they would make of biblical Christianity an option available only in the past. In this sense, then, they would be “post-Christian,” in that they relegate biblical faith to a past to which we can never return, but not that they ever really had it themselves.
The “Post-Christian” Syndrome
The phenomenon of “post-Christianity,” if we may use this expression, is a widespread one and is related to the slogans concerning “the world come of age” (Bonhoeffer) and “the secular city” (Cox). It is not quite clear to what we owe this sort of thing. In the case of Bonhoeffer, it is not surprising that he, a prisoner of Hitler in a nation and a world gone mad, should suffer from the feeling that God was powerless, but it is hard to see how he was able to convince himself that man had come of age. Commenting on this, Jacques Ellul writes,
It is evident that the men of Germany, who in general were following their genial leader, writhing, shrieking at the Munich rally, were conducting themselves as conscious and rational adults. And it is precisely they who were thoroughly liberated from the tutelage of God, perfectly cured of obsolete beliefs … [Exégèse des nouveaux lieux communs (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1966), p. 82].
This is not of course to carp at Bonhoeffer, writing from the place of his incarceration, but at the gullibility of so much of the modern theological world in accepting at face value a pronouncement which, in the circumstances under which it was made, is the contrary of true.
It is not necessary to turn back to the Nazi Germany of 1944 to find a singular disparity between the claims that are made for man’s intellectual and moral maturity and his behavior in fact. In the Soviet Union, such claims are put forward with regularity, at least for “socialist man.” But it was Soviet socialist man who ruthlessly crushed the attempt of Czechoslovakian Communists (not reactionaries) to create a “socialism with a human face,” and it is Soviet socialist man who continues to repress every motion of intellectual freedom in the U. S. S. R. In the American plutotechnocracy, Democratic and Republican leaders alike boast of the almost-if-not-quite-realized triumph of reason, technology, and good will; but it is American society where racial hatred not merely festers but is cultivated, where a significant minority of the young and not-so-young have given themselves over to a “counter-culture,” and where the whole population has enriched itself, consciously or not, at the cost of years of wanton suffering and slaughter among a small people of Southeast Asia. (The present writer, like most evangelical Christians, is not a pacifist as such, nor opposed to the principle of U. S. intervention in Viet Nam. When such an intervention is carried out in such a way that it only destroys the people it is intended to protect, and that physically, morally, and economically, when it appears nevertheless to be about to end with the subjugation of that “protected” people, and when at the same time the U.S. economy has gone from triumph to triumph, it certainly seems that the suffering and slaughter have been wanton.)
Against this background, then, we must say that the world is not “post-Christian,” if by that expression we understand that it was ever Christian. Equally, we can say that man has in no wise “come of age,” unless by that we simply mean, to cite Ellul, “purely and simply, that modern man just no longer believes in God” (Exégèse, p. 79). The fact that a number of theologians, from World Council of Churches counselors through Harvard professors, seem to feel that this is a positive part of God’s plan for the realization of his kingdom, is simply an additional piece of evidence against the intellectual maturity of modern man.
Where does this fascination with “post-Christianity,” with “the world come of age,” come from? Ellul speaks of “the conforming of the church to the modern world” and Jacques Maritain of “the adoration of the world by the church.”
Anglican theologian Eric Mascall speaks of a “failure of nerve” on the part of Christians, Roman Catholic author Arnold Lunn more simply of “cowardice,” and Harry Blamires of the complete absence of a Christian mind. In any case, all are agreed that in large measure the Church and its institutions, and not least its faculties of theological instruction, are failing, and in many cases even surrendering, in their central task, which Ellul puts in this way,
It is necessary to mix with the world, but rigorously to refuse to lose oneself in it, and to preserve the specificity and the uniqueness of the truth revealed in Christ and of the new life which we receive from Him. It is our task to bring the savor of the salvation, of the truth, of the liberty, of the love which is in Christ, and never to allow oneself to be won over by the lostness of the world with its power, its splendor, its efficiency! [Fausse présence au monde moderne (Paris: Les Bergers et les mages, 1963), p. 42].
The Anti-Christian Mind
As Harry Blamires has argued in The Christian Mind, there is virtually no trace of a Christian mind in theological education, or of any effort to present specifically Christian answers to either contemporary or eternal questions. The situation is such that one can speak of an anti-Christian mentality which has infected most of the institutions of the Church, so that—again to cite Ellul—“everything which drags the Christian faith through the mud and which tends to suppress the church is received with joy” [Fausse presence, p. 35].
Innumerable examples come to mind of how “church spokesmen” come forward to defend blasphemy, pornography, miscellaneous crimes, and even anti-church activities on the part of government. How seldom will a theological professor take the part of a simple preacher, evangelist, or layman who through an excess of zeal gets into trouble with the press—it is much more common to use the press to heap abuse on such a person. When prominent British critic and TV personality Malcolm Muggeridge became a Christian and wrote a book describing his spiritual pilgrimage, theology professor Harvey Cox wrote a review calling it “ill-tempered and cranky … lacking in love, short on hope, and almost completely devoid of charity” (Saturday Review, Aug. 30, 1969). We read that there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7), but apparently none among fashionable theologians. This would surely not surprise Mr. Muggeridge, whose book shows that he knows the score on most of the luminaries of the contemporary theological world. Unfortunately, the spectacle Cox presents, that of a theologian who is annoyed when a prominent unbeliever comes to confess Christ, is all too typical of theology as it is taught at prominent universities and seminaries.
Post-Christian Or Apostate?
The Church of Christ, in the outgoing third of the twentieth century, has arrived at a situation in which the majority of candidates for the ministry are being trained at institutions and by individuals who represent at least the “post-Christian” mentality, in the sense that they have definitely closed the door on any kind of straightforward biblical faith as far as they themselves are concerned, and would like to do it for others. In many places a certain aura—perhaps one should say pretense—of objective scholarship surrounds this post-Christian position, but often enough modern theologians see no need to preserve even a semblance of courtesy towards those whose theology is more conservative.
It will undoubtedly seem extreme to suggest such a sweeping indictment of the system and institutions for teaching theology as they currently exist today. It would be wrong to give the impression that there are not a number of forthright and godly believers scattered through the university theological faculties. Many of those who today are evangelical believers, the present writer among them, might not be so had it not been for the presence of one or two unashamed witnesses for Christ at the theological faculties where they studied. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly evident that most theological faculties and a very substantial number of so-called theologians are a public mockery of the faith which they ostensibly teach. There may have been a time when it was necessary to protect professors of theology against inquisitorial tendencies on the part of the churches, but the situation has now become so ridiculous that Jews and even atheists have taken to warning the Church about it. No doubt what annoyed Harvey Cox most about Muggeridge’s book is that Muggeridge is well known as a sharp and clear thinker, and certainly started out with no parti pris in favor of orthodox Christianity (in fact, Jesus Rediscovered is a long way from theological orthodoxy, as Muggeridge himself says). If the editor of Themelios (the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students’ magazine for theological students) writes criticizing the credibility of a good number of theological pundits of our day, it can be passed off as prejudice, but when an editor of Punch does so, the situation is becoming serious.
The situation is serious, as Maritain and Ellul, among many others, make abundantly clear. It is becoming progressively harder to use relatively innocuous terms like liberal, radical, or even post-Christian to describe theology and theologians today. When Ellul speaks of “conforming to the world” and Maritain of “kneeling down to the world,” it is clear that this represents more than mere academic freedom or radicalism: its proper name is apostasy. Perhaps nothing is gained by the introduction of such a sharp, albeit accurate, term: perhaps it would be better to carry on the whole discussion in an atmosphere of academic courtesy, never removing one’s white gloves. But the courtesies are being discarded by another party, by the frustrated students of theology in several countries who, tiring of the endless games of “atheistic theology” (as Klaus Bockmühl calls it), are demanding the substitution of Marx for Luther.
The conclusion of the whole matter, then, is that something is radically wrong with the structure and the practice of theological teaching throughout much of the Christian world. It may be that in a world where so few know Christ, it is precisely the theological institutions that are most deeply and hopelessly post-Christian.
Christ! the sun has exploded—imploded,
Green has recovered its heraldric sway,
The chaos of dreams and dragons and death slips away.
God’s alive in the mystery and order of light.
“Come Holy Spirit.” But He’s already come.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Before I struggled awake to this Monday,
He’s been up and at work in this world.
“Let there be light”; let there be trees;
Let there be coffee; Christ live in me.
I slipper shuffle from wish-fulfillment dreams
to wish-fulfillment prayers: “Almighty God give grace.”
The barely asleep of my dreams and the barely awake of my prayers
are the truth-telling moments: “Creator come.”
Out of darkness, light; out of blackness, birds;
Out of chaos, Christ. Speak God again
A Genesis word to my chaos and darkness.
Bring Adam to life from this rumpled bed.
EUGENE H. PETERSON
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