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Missiology in late modernity

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014


Catching up with an old friend for lunch he informed me that he had a new three-year contract for the Uniting Church in Australia to work on missiology. My response to this news was that my denomination (Anglican) did not have a clue about what being at mission in late modernity would entail and that I would be interested in his experience.

Later that day I read a short piece by David Bentley Hart in First Things in which he defended his mostly negative attitude to natural law ethics. While this was interesting, the following quote about the achievement of modernity caught my eye:

I simply cannot shed the suspicion that many of us today fail fully to grasp the sole true intellectual achievement of modernity: the creation of a fully developed, imaginatively compelling, and philosophically sophisticated tradition of metaphysical nihilism…. There is now a story that makes nihilism-in the technical sense of disbelief in any ultimate meaning or purpose beyond the physical-plausible and powerful.

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In other words late modern man, unlike his predecessors cannot see order in nature, cannot see it as the work of an intentional creator. Nature is now pure mechanism. This makes any quest for meaning in nature impossible. It also means that we can no longer talk about nature as the good creation of a benign God; talk about God's plan in this respect is now no longer possible.

I think this is an indisputable conclusion. Weber described the universe as disenchanted. It is true, the universe has always been devoid of mind or spirit. It is the conflict between this understanding and that reputed to be the Christian understanding that has resulted in the disaffection with Christianity.

If it is true that the universe has always been disenchanted does that mean that the Christian witness is empty? Does it mean that we must regard it as the product of ancient ignorance about the world and move on? The advantages may be that we at last come of age and become "the masters of my fate/ the captain of my soul." No longer do we have to acknowledge an authority above ourselves, we have forsaken the childhood of mankind and at last have achieve independence and adulthood. Now there is only the "overman" and his will for power.

You can see how this might inspire. It feeds into all of the ideas of individual freedom that have been promoted through the ages. But what other alternative do we have when we realize that the world is a totally natural place? The stories and poetry of scripture are obviously a human creation and are enabled by the scientific ignorance of the writers. How could they possibly claim authority over our newly found freedom? There is now no room for acts of God in our conception of the universe. This is the realty that the church, by and large, refuses to recognize, and until it does it will be impotent in our world.

We must understand the two-fold process of modernity. Firstly it projected god as a supernatural being that existed as an extension of the world. Secondly, when this fell apart under the pressure of the scientific revolution, widespread intellectual atheism emerged and with it the sophisticated "comfortable nihilism" that Hart talks about. This has been integrated into liberal democracy to achieve the guiding philosophy of our time.

Is this the end of all talk about God? If it is, then it is best that we all get used to the nihilism that descends upon us, involve ourselves in meaningful work and enjoy our family and friends until the day of our death. This is the conclusion of a large part of our society. That is why the churches are empty. Those in the church who think that we can grow the church through old fashioned evangelism miss this point. They assume that it is business as usual.

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The church would be advised to recognize the truth of some of the conclusions of the modern project. God does not exist as a being among beings. God is not the first cause or indeed any cause at all. God does not act in the world in terms of a Spirit acting on matter nor is there a divine plan for the universe. These assumptions about God are based on the view from nature and as such are foreign to the original Hebrew and Christian traditions that existed before "nature" became a description of the world. Rejecting them is no loss and will allow a new theology to arise that is more faithful to the ancient traditions of the Church. We must admit that the Church is playing catch up here, it is recognizing the truth that the non-church world has known for quite a time.

How does the church preach the gospel into this world? A return to an unexamined theology that used to work will not now work. We can stir up some enthusiasm using a mix of pop psychology, biblical literalism and appeals to morality together with an eye to the bottom line but this will not last. It is basically a lie.

When Christianity spread across the ancient world the old idols and gods were easily toppled because they were exposed as projections of human fear and desire. How does Christianity deal with a society that has given over all fealty to a vacuum? I am convinced that the church does not understand the perilous position it is in. It is common for church leaders to think that the old methods will again bring surging congregations back into existence. Indeed, there is always a new fashion and a new language that holds out this hope. We have had the church growth movement, the emerging church, the missionary church. Nothing happens.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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