Columnists > Soul Food

Lowering the flag

Postmodernism and the great spiritual crisis

Issue: "End of the innocence," Jan. 30, 1999

At this millennial turning-time, Christianity is not simply immersed in widespread cultural hostility but is itself also confronted internally by doleful historical conflicts. Some of the Christian movement's professed spokesmen openly ridicule the priority of a supernatural reality, repudiate confidence in transcendent revelation, and even propose to restate the Christian essentials. The very foundations of biblical faith-not merely its ancillary aspects-are challenged by some vocal academicians in popular modern universities. A whole generation of young scholars-whom Protestant liberals had expected to "win the world for Christ" in the 20th century-has been indoctrinated instead in raw naturalism. Increasingly it is exposed to postmodernism, which applies more thoroughly the thesis that all reality is in the grip of transiency. More and more segments of society live in a cognitive climate and cultural context of moral disarray and of conceptual confusion in which all activities of thought and life are segregated from any universe transcendent to scientific inquiry and are readily abandoned to personal preference. God is demystified and humanity is democratized. Seldom has the attack on Christian standards of spirituality been more brazen. Yet the crisis of modernity runs deeper than disconcerting divisions within Christianity. Despite the depth of contemporary intellectual hostility to biblical theism, remnants of the Christian heritage remain in place and are immovable and in fact indestructible. No cognitive rebel can communicate even his or her most radical negations and unbeliefs to other persons without shared ideas and truths. Conscience and the forms of reason may be devalued and demeaned in our time, yet they are not wholly demolished. Even were scientific genius and nuclear triumphs to pulverize the universe into cosmic dust, God and His Commandments would remain imperishable. What is overtaking the world is not the collapse of the church as much as the demolition of modernity, however. That breakdown is intellectual, ethical, volitional, and emotional-in short, it is comprehensibly spiritual. The human species seems no longer able to get its act together. It is in advanced stages of disaster. Contemporaries may speak-not without some justification-of the disunity of the church, but that is something different from its disintegration. Despite lament over ecclesiastical disunity and misguided projections of global ecumenicity, the church in its mind, will, and heart stands fast while most other contenders have forsaken both the battle for enduring truth and good, and doom of evil. It is modernity itself that is morally callous if not comatose, that is, in the deepest grip of crisis. Its dismantling of the sacral can go only so far; its reconceptualizations are not without limits. The church may transform theology into politics and twist religious doctrine into a mere shadow of itself by sponsoring a new morality and novel rituals. But Christian truth refuses to be diminished to psychological reconstructions of itself. There always remains a final judgment with which to contend. The early Christians scorned adultery and homosexuality as, no less than injustice, beneath the dignity of ethical humans, and considered them sins upon which divine judgment rests. Today a nation that regards itself as morally exemplary to the planet routinely aborts fetal life, hesitates to condemn homosexuality even among leading political figures, approves private suicide including its assistance by the medical profession, and restates the purpose and goal of life to accommodate individual desire as life's supreme justification. Whether or not the United States Senate convicts William Jefferson Clinton-either way-shameful judgment now falls upon the president and on the nation. It would be well to lower the American flag below half-staff to acknowledge openly that ours is properly a time for grief, one that calls to prayer a people who have lost their way and desperately need light from above.
-Carl Henry turned 86 on January 22.

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