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Christianity as modernity

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2016 at 4:45 pm

What would the builder from Nazareth think about Christianity? Would he be a Christian? Nazareth was not even a one horse town by the way. So whatever you think of the present state of Christianity its rise from Hicksville to global is intriguing. Somebody said the other day Jesus was a Sophist, with the gift of the gab. Take a wild off-piste set of ideas and pump them with assertive seriousness, the sort that front bench politicians adopt, and you have a movement. If your ideas are moderate and plausible, they will be piled up in the leftovers bin. Put a fantastical notion into the arena, with an irresistible spokesperson at the head, and the world appears to take note.

But the clear blue water between the vulnerability of an individual leader with radical conviction, and an institution, the Church, is getting wider. As Christianity reels from its institutional incarnation where is it truly at today? It started as a set of ideas about people around the margins, those who were without power, the vulnerable, and persecuted. Those with no voice at all, dirty, the people you recoiled from by their stench, to a mission tied closely to respectability. A rather tidy faith, buttoned, pinched, austere, conservative socially, and oft politically. What happened?

The answer is it went from intimacy, fluidity, to solidness. From engagement to muscularity. 19th century writers wrote of chapels and assembly halls taking on the air of frightening hardness. In short a faith became fundamental. And fundamentalism worships its own self-righteousness, its immovability, not the source of its meaning. A vision was traduced to legal practice. The builder from Nazareth was thrown out of the church and taken to a cliff to be thrown off after his first sermon. Not the promising start mothers wish for.

Where is the source then of these solid objects that have become acceptable to modern people, to an extent that they are part of our institutional backdrop? To find the source of power do not look at the structures and policies. Power resides in the aesthetic images we carry before us and act as the guiding filter for action. The image Christianity painted ultimately drifted from engagement at the liminal level, in and amongst, to being at the top of the power hierarchy. The top of the hierarchy today is economics. But it was once both government and the church together: Christendom. As the church lost its influence, it is government, shaded slightly by economics, that sit at the top of the tree. The church frequently sits benignly alongside. It likes to offend morally but not politically. It is the moral voice of the existing structures, not the voice challenging the structures. To do otherwise is to lose institutional status.

The long journey from mystical truth contained in ancient texts, to virtue largely linked to the acquisition of knowledge probably found its ultimate expression in capitalism. The self-responsible Christian, working hard, proved God’s blessing. From this position of ownership and acquisition they can bestow blessings on the less fortunate. Respectability was an added bonus. But, hold on. This is the message of Modernity, not liminality and intimacy. By a long transmogrification ‘to be modern’ appears identical to Christianity, as if the two fused.

The evidence would be that the church is now an organisation (modern), rational (modern), authoritative through knowledge (modern), hierarchical (modern), institutional (modern), institutionalising (unwittingly modern), bureaucratic (modern), legal (modern), individualising (modern), technological (modern), and so on. The church has shape-shifted into the archetypal modern structure. To be a modern then is to be a Christian, and to be a Christian is to be modern. The two are synonymous. Modernity has absorbed the tenets of the heart and formally legalised them into the daily fabric of Western modernity, or really the Hellenic Mind. To be modern is to be Greek. The Christian God is the Greek Whole, the perfect One, of which we are subsumed as a sub-set. The ordered society, with knowledge of God through thought, and through a social contract that structures our world and practice.  The Ideal Society, law-bound, compliant and civilised.

But Christians privately struggle with the solidity of this expression, and find dissatisfaction at the deeper level with their church experience they tell me. And they say there are few places to turn. Their discontents are the inner sense they are not building intimacy and new life, but are reinforcing another modern power structure, that serves existing power not the release from it. The seeming single purpose of the builder from Nazareth, to destroy religious power, is frustrated by the complexity of Westernisation. If religionised Christianity has found a new host, modernity, it can survive there for some time. The deeper concerns do not go away. That rationalism of life is the antithesis of freedom. And Christianity now cannot save people from rationalised and functionalised lives. Not if the church is a function of modernity.

Rationalism was meant to be the pathway to an advanced consciousness. Knowledge Of being the high point of modernity. To Know is to be virtuous. But Knowledge is now not what it seems. Knowledge is unknowable. It is not what we thought it to be. To Know is to have an object that blocks the view beyond. What passes for modern knowledge is a rationalisation of experience into a form that we can handle and hold, governed by the dominant modern anxiety: to have the world explained to us. Protestantism fell into this trap. It wanted the mystery of faith as a possession. Something it could wield, beat and chastise with. But the Protestant Reformation misunderstood its own roots. It thought the enemy was power in Rome, and to defeat an institution, you had to become one yourself. A modern one. Modernity was the temptation to the breakaway church. The coat fitted and power became the goal. Structured hierarchical power appears the antithesis of the builder from Nazareth’s arguments.

The Church made a fatal error of interpretation. It pointed to the individual, already vulnerable, already clinging on with their eyelids, as Betjeman suggested, and laid additional burdens on them, in place of taking them off. As Bunyan warned Christian, don’t get stuck in a town call Morality. The place where good Moderns find their power source. But if iniquity sits in the death inducing structures, throttling vitality and freedom, how do you wheedle it out. Do you leave the structures in 2016 and wander alone. What have institutionalised modernised Christianity got to offer other than carrying the values of Modernity?

Institutions have critical roles to play. They are the first agents of government. Thereby today the Church occupies a Space as a first agent, but an agent of modernity I argue. Albeit reduced in influence, it nevertheless speaks. Less strident and superior certainly. Slightly more aware of its loss of credibility at times. Sometimes trying hard to promote its self unselfconsciously, using modern advertising to ‘reach the masses’. But fundamentally unaware it is a Modern Institution that embodies only some aspects of the original New Testament texts. And many leaders in the church are comfortable with that. It is a living. It is not without fun and challenge. But do not enter modern Christianity without realising it is modernity, could be the suggestion. Paradoxically to be modern is to be virtuous, and a participant in secular power.

This might be a difficult charge. But when the Church finds post-modernity wicked and sinful in its notions, it is of course not speaking in defence of the Nazarene, but for modernity, scientific interpretation, a machine-like universe. One that makes sense immediately to the modern mind. The fiercest defences from the Church are for the texture of modern life, not its alternatives. Power sits unmoved at the top of poles, remote. As one good friend said recently, leaders of the church sit atop poles, rarely venturing down. But this is what modern leadership does. It constructs pathways and contracts that leave power out of reach.  Few modern leaders find meaning in new understanding, in imagination, but do find great sense in maintaining the institutional values unquestioned.

Modernity, as Dostoyevsky would agree, is not hospitable to critique. That is because it is a Project. A project some sociologists would say is incomplete. Others will argue Modern Civilisation is far from being civilised. It is brutal. We have arrived in it and the thrusting Church, the one that feels hard done by and somewhat rejected by secularising landscapes, will not easily admit its role in modernity. When people then reject Modern Civilisation and Christianity they are rejecting primarily two synonymous forms of rationalisation of life. The reduction of meaning to objectified pathways that brook no dissent, and forms of salvation via modern Christianity that embrace capitalism unquestioned (it’s the unquestioning bit that is more the problem than capitalism per se).

Note though that the West finds it difficult to critique capitalism, because the Greek mind assumes the alternative to reforming its ideas is serfdom through socialism. Christianity has accepted this binary. The 2008 global crisis perversely strengthened capitalism’s hold on the imagination. The answer to economic collapse is the distribution of more risk, not its mitigation. This is the effect of modernity. Modernity, as one writer says, is a camera obscura. The light comes in through the hole in the roof and turns the image over. Arguments from binary modern minds invert reality. If there is a disaster it cannot be modernity, as this Project has not yet completed. We must press on. With Christianity by its side. As Lesslie Newbigin argued Christianity stood silent when German churches tacitly endorsed the rise of Hitler, and it has said virtually nothing about the exposure to risk for people in the UK. It looks and sounds helpless and hopeless at times. Because it has found its most ready expression in modern capitalist bureaucracies. Tidy unities and patterns that get people through the day but sleepwalks society into a reduction of life itself.

When communities cannot find their voice, or be allowed into the public space, or that space is dominated by commercial voices to their exclusion, you look around for leaders to challenge these structural sins. But when those leaders are officers of modernity primarily, referring to themselves as Christian, the institutional value of their domain comes into question. Being allowed a domain amongst other domains is only sustainable if you hold a unique and confident argument. But when your voice sounds identical to the voices of the other domains, speaking for the same sets of values, the individual suffers increasingly. Community is reduced further as its members are invited to take part in the rituals of modernity not shape it or question it.

To get noticed in such a convergence of argumentation maybe takes the Sophist’s voice. Wild in its ideas, preposterously powerless. Freakishly alternative to the status quo. Were these the intentions of Oscar Wilde’s dandiness, the Bloomsbury Set’s foppish disregard, Modernism’s contemptuousness for authorised reality. But these seeming radical figures floundered on their participation within existing power structures. They found a level in the existing hierarchy, became adopted by the literarti and glitterati. Middle-class ease became one of the worst forms of power to emerge from industrial capitalism. It less pulled people up than co-opted them into modernity. Middle-land feeds off reinforcing power, seeking to gain access to the upper-echelons through conformism. As one writer said Protestantism is now the most conformist religion.  Enter its modes and they are more ritualised than Roman Catholicism. Is the Catholic mind far more open than the Protestant now, which rarely had intellectual weight but cast the New Testament into a form of legal text. Biblicism, a modern reading of narratives, has dominated this tradition. They cannot read nor understand the New Testament as modern people regard literal reading as moral. Mysteries to the modern mind invite no serious intelligent thought. Its meanings rationalised into legal frames.

When though modernity comes into question, then considerable change should ensue: Modernity is the religion, the new Puritanism, the one that “sanctified, without eradicating, their convenient vices, and gave them an expugnable assurance that, behind virtues and vices alike, stood the majestic and inexorable laws of an omnipotent Providence, without whose foreknowledge not a hammer could beat upon the forge, not a figure could be added to the ledger” to borrow from Tawney. Here is the collapse of Christianity into Modernity. Knowledge was the sanctification of all error. Modernity is the new Puritanism. This reveals why the texture of church life became identical to going to work. Men prowl the aisles of church on a hair trigger to offer discipline, but not engagement, as: “the wicked may be corrected with ecclesiastical censures, according to the quality of the fault”. The punitive and correctives modes of Christianity and modernity look again identical. Both isolate the individual at times from the context of community, and administer their reasoning ignoring social travails.

What post-modernity offers is understanding the individual as plausibly a construction of their context and acting somewhat in flow with it. Although this at times goes too far, its value to reframing who the individual is is immense. The language and practice of the self is radically changed when the person is outside of community. Modernity and Christianity have for economic reasons preferred the isolated individual as their target. A society that is engaged in dialogue together becomes the ‘monster of many heads and more eyes’ (Hardy) and is the terrifying prospect for modern and Christian individualism. A community that heals itself via communion across the table rips up power but then is faced with its own management of power and trust. Frequently benign bureaucracy, administered from afar, is preferable to the masses than active engagement. The English tend to enjoy quasi-feudal democracy over and above grassroots engagement.

So would the builder take part in modernity, is the real question. And be modern. Modernity offers a form of consciousness, one sensitised to light and sensuality. It is a legalising of life, a social contract with rational knowledge, that offers utility towards the now, not imagination beyond what can be seen clearly. What level of sophistry is needed today to shake inexorable modern pathways? Death is everywhere, martyrs fall left and right, and much non-conformism on the surface is in reality a taking part in modernity. Contemporary radicals ultimately appear to desire modern power. To refuse it is a form of sophistry.