Evangelical Christians have labored for decades under the assumption that they can reclaim, piece by piece, the secular culture of the West through active engagement with it.
Like Sisyphus and his stone, millions of Christians, despite setback after setback, remain undaunted and determined in this onerous task. Apologetics classes and other related evangelical efforts to engage with secular culture are exploding. As one recent Patheos column observed, a Google Search of the phrase “engage with culture” yields almost a half million results.
Yet, as a growing number of evangelical thought leaders are realizing, this longstanding effort has proven futile. With each passing year, the secular culture drifts further left, away from the Christian moorings that once defined and secured Western culture.
As the Patheos column argues, every attempt to reverse this drift has yielded pitifully small results, if any at all.
The column concludes that evangelical Christianity stands little chance of making headway in the Culture Wars not only because the vast majority of ordinary Americans now identity with the predominant culture but also because the elite, culturally hegemonic segments of American society regard evangelical Christianity as low status.
This reminds me of something I heard recently that was shared a few years ago by the now deceased Christian scholar and theologian Marcus Borg. He related that in the religious classes he taught at Oregon State University, his students’ body language underwent a discernible change from engagement to one of disengagement and even hostility whenever the topic switched from, say, Hinduism or Buddhism to Christianity.
This this speaks volumes about the intractable challenges Christianity faces today.
Throughout secular culture, Christianity not only invokes an ambivalent response among Americans but even an antagonistic one in some quarters.
All of this arguably can be traced back to the opening of two Pandora’s boxes roughly two centuries ago when German scholars first began laying the foundations of textual criticism of New Testament scripture and when Charles Darwin began articulating what ultimately became known as evolutionary science.
These discoveries have wrought major changes in Western society, many of which, to be sure, have conferred numerous benefits on our species. This especially applies to evolutionary science, which has provided the basis for advances in medicine and other scientific disciplines. Many of these strides would have been scarcely imaginable only a few decades ago.
But they, along with many of the insights garnered from textual criticism, have also sparked a profound existential crisis in the West. These have dethroned humanity from what was perceived for centuries as its central place in Creation, one ordained by God, who established humanity as the crowning achievement of this divine undertaking.
In existential terms, these intellectual advances have been regarded by many thinkers as catastrophic for the future of the West. And, incidentally, in the full interests of disclosure, I should stress that I’m neither an evangelical Christian nor a theist.
I count myself a nontheist, but I won’t go to the trouble here of explaining all the rather subtle differences between nontheism and atheism. Suffice it to say that I believe that everything that we have achieved has been the result of a network that has developed over eons and that has grown primarily out of language and written script. Religion has historically been bound up in this network and has afforded humanity all manner of advantage in terms of providing a sense of purpose and keeping all of the psychological furies and common human fears at bay.
In a very real sense, religion is both cognitive software and technology, much as language is.
This networking can also be viewed as scaffolding – in fact, within this context scaffolding can be used interchangeably with networking. Like networking, it underscores how everything that human have developed across time essentially is interrelated, contingent on everything else. It’s all connected, bound up in a vast network that extends across eons and that undergoes constant change and refinement.
The Christian faith amounted to the most valuable of scaffolding. And with the erosion of this scaffolding – at least, a significant part of it – it remains doubtful whether humans will manage to construct anything of equal and enduring value in its place.
So much scaffolding of the West two centuries ago was bound up in orthodox Christianity. The promise of an afterlife, coupled with the fear of eternal damnation for egregious offenders, provided an integral, if not essential facet of this scaffolding. These facets of Christianity breathed life into the faith and provided the West with some of its strongest and most enduring scaffolding, at least, until the mid-19th century.
But textual criticism and evolutionary science have compromised this scaffolding. In the minds of the most culturally influential members of our society, these advances put a lie to Christianity.
Friedrich Nietzsche, as memory served, believed that the destruction of all this old order ultimately would clear space for the emergence of a new breed of enlightened, well-integrated humans who would put aside the old slave morality of Christianity and construct a new ethos better aligned with the true nature of our species and better equipped to maximize human potential.
Perhaps advances in Artificial Intelligence will finally enable us to construct a viable alternative to this old scaffolding over the course of time, but, frankly, I harbor serious doubts.
Someone once said that evolution is parsimonious, working only with the stuff that is available. Perhaps evolution will never settle on new scaffolding that supports humanity and civilization in the way the previous scaffolding did – that fills the deep existential void that characterizes, to one degree or another, the lives of most us.
Perhaps in this respect humanity has reached an evolutionary dead end. Perhaps we are destined never to recover.