Andrew Walker begins a series of articles from different hands on the Gospel and Mission in contemporary culture
THERE HAS NEVER been a time when the gospel did not need to speak to our culture, for human societies, however enlightened, will always fall short of the glory of God. Modern western culture is therefore no exception to that rule and as modernity is now waning it is imperative that Christians are prepared to challenge the presuppositions of postmodernity.
It is unlikely that postmodernity will be a radical break with the modern world. It will continue to be pluralistic, dominated by commodity capitalism, under sway to relativistic ethics. What will be absent will be the optimism of the immediate past – the belief in scientific certainty, the slavish acceptance that progress is the stuff of the universe, the obsession with the interior life as the path to self-fulfilment. Postmodernity in its celebration of difference will also find it difficult to make common cause so the prospects of a new idealism look bleak. What hope is there for social ethics, civic pride, the fight for justice?
It might seem that Christians are well placed to offer radical alternatives to the negative influence of moral nihilism, environmental decay, indifference to poverty and despair. Perhaps more than most we can see the emerging horizon of a brave new world as genetic engineering advances unfettered by moral concerns. We know also that the “virtual reality” of cyberspace is really a euphemism for fantasy, and this is of no small consequence as the Holy Spirit only blows through the real world.
And it is precisely at the moment that we “gather our loins” for the many battles ahead that we face our greatest danger. If we have learned nothing else from modernity, for God’s sake let us remember that time and time again Christian activism fell short of God’s standards because it ran ahead (and so often away) from the gospel. So that our politics were left-wing or right-wing and only incidentally Christian. We espoused fashionable or reactionary causes being swallowed-up in existentialist philosophy (Tillich and Bultmann), Marxist dialectic (Guiterrez) or Republican populism (Falwell). And if we avoided all these extremes so often we sank into the soft cushion of myopic pietism, loving God so self-indulgently that we failed to see that his love was directed to the whole world.
Loving the world was interpreted by some of us (Harvey Cox comes to mind) as embracing secularity. But to love the world is not to turn outwards in order to make peace with godlessness; it is to become with Christ the suffering servant for the sake of all humankind. To identify with our Lord, to show our at-one-ment with him, is to stand foursquare on the gospel. And that is to say that with all its epistemological uncertainties, and humbly admitting that we often do not have easy answers to hard questions or slick programmes for complex social and moral problems, we do nevertheless have a sure foundation on which to build the future. This foundation, this rock of certainty, is not a philosophy, it is a person, and his name is Jesus. Jesus is God’s Son. Together with the Father, and the Holy Spirit he is “worshipped and glorified” as the one true and personal God.
Of course we live in a world that gives scant attention to the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the story of salvation – the Creation, Fall, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. But this is the story of the Church and we must tell it as it has been told to us for it is not only a message of hope to the world, it is the foundation, the infrastructure if you will, of all our attempts to mission, to be leaven in our society, to make a Christian contribution to political and social life. Without the historic gospel of bible and creed there can be no radical orthodoxy, no cutting edge to Christian witness, no ontological reality to our hopes and dreams.
In the twilight of modernity many in our churches have lost heart because they have lost faith in the gospel: it has seemed such a tall story in the face of modern rational certainties. But these very certainties are themselves being shown to be chimeras as the sure foundations of the “Enlightenment Project” turn out, after all, to be shifting sand. Whatever happened to the nineteenth century quest for moral universals or the twentieth century confidence in the empirical and mathematical foundations of reality? Where is the grand design of foundationalist philosophy or the grand theory of natural science? And as confidence in reason wanes so too does belief in reason’s religion – the myth of progress. On reflection perpetual progress begins to look like a modern confidence trick, a cock-eyed optimism born out of our delusion that we too can be as the gods.
In the light of fading certainties it is a missionary imperative to recover faith in the gospel. The gospel, the story of Cod’s love for the world as revealed through the life and passion of Jesus, is not all that Christians have to offer the world, but it is our most important contribution to it. It is the good news that heralds the extraordinary fact that by living and telling the story of Jesus we can bring people to know the author of the story personally. Not in some solipsistic individualistic manner but by being adopted into the family of God. To be in the family is to come into community and to come into community is to realise that this is itself a reflection of God’s own “being as communion” as John Zizioulas so marvellously puts it. God’s desire for us is to be like him.
No wonder there is such a nostalgia for community these days: we are lost and disconnected from each other and long for safety and home. But if we truly wish community to be a reality of unbroken personal relationships then any other means of achieving it without God’s participation in it is a mere wish fulfilment. It may be that ultimately universal community is only possible in the eschaton, when Christ will be in all in all, but the eschaton, so the gospel says, has already appeared in history through the Incarnation. God was incarnate in the world through his Son, and the Church, constituted by the Spirit, is to be the visible presence of that incarnation until the fulfilment of all things.
To recover the gospel, therefore, is not only to provide the infrastructure for Christian action in the world: it is a challenge that we live in eschatological community. The local church, Lesslie Newbiggin has reminded us, is the hermeneutic of the gospel; it is both a sign of Otherness and a place of presence. If we care about the future of the world and our mission in it, our mission must begin at home: the gospel may be good news for a fallen culture but it is also the deposit of faith once delivered to the saints and entrusted to us. If we lose that deposit we shall be a Church without foundation, without direction, without God.
Andrew Walker is Director of Gospel and Culture at King’s College, London.