Surely we stand in a unique point in history with which to answer this question…
Following industrial and technological revolutions, two devastating world wars, the Holocaust, the Internet, a lurid profusion of information and education of all kinds, the progression of political causes and philosophies, the environmental movement… because of all of these, and so much more, we can say that man’s age of innocence is well and truly over.
We now understand — or at least, recognise — something of the dreadful extent of the evil of which mankind is capable, as well as it’s capacity for triumph over adversity and for unimaginable and extraordinary genius. We understand the tragedy of human suffering, but also the compassion or righting of injustice that may be ushered in its wake — think of the responses of people like Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, for example.
In particular, we have over 250 years of post-Enlightenment modernism to look upon, with its amazing achievements of technology and scientific method applied to so many spheres of human existence and experience, but also it’s shameful legacy of secular, evolutionary thinking, leading us, shocked and in denial at its complicity within Marxism, Soviet and Maoist Communism and the Nazi’s Final Solution: the “Shoah.”
As if all of that were not enough for us to contemplate, we also look back upon the agony of the most dreadful and threatening of world wars ironically brought to a close by the brutal devastation of two cities by the explosion of an atom bomb.
More recently, we have “9-11” deeply etched into our psyches, with its now-myriad symbolic messages competing within our minds: terrorism, Al Qaida, Wahabi-ism, Bin Laden, fundamentalism, Islamism, global terrorism…
Since the start of the third millennium, “9-11” has combined with Enron to mark the end of a perceived era of the right of “pure Capitalism” to exist, unquestioned and unnacountable, with its underlying presumption that ethics was fine in the Classroom but not in the Boardroom.
We have also witnessed the excesses of US politics, bequeathing to us Vietnam, Watergate and Monica Lewinsky…but also the unexpected, almost bloodless end of the Cold War, Soviet Communism and the murderous USSR itself, withnessed by millions through the potent symbolism of tearing down the Berlin Wall, re-opening the mythical “Iron Curtain” that divided Europe into East and West.
We have access to a world of history and the history of the world in a way and to an extent unparalleled at any other time…We are members of a ‘world community’ which, with the exception of the most despotic regimes such as North Korea, is forced to humanly acknowledge the culture, priorities and worldviews of ‘the Others’, as never before.
And we have poverty and disease on an unimaginable scale in the developing nations, a curse and a blight upon the face of the earth…ironically offering the grandest of opportunities for the powers, institutions and peoples of the world to demonstrate practically that our invention and creativity and capacity for exploitation may yet be used to benefit, not only the greatest, but also the least.
￼Yet we stand in this moment in time, as members of a world community which apparently looks upon all these multitude of human interactions and interprets them only rarely with a mind of wisdom and even more rarely with a heart of compassion.
In spite of our greater knowledge of religion and our attempts to court tolerance as a partner in breaking down barriers between it’s various manifestations, the record of war and terrorism and injustice is what looms large in most of our debates and discussions about religion. (This in spite of the twentieth century ushering in an impossible to comprehend death-toll of over eighty or ninety million people at the hands of bloodthirsty atheistic dictators, including Mao; Stalin; Hitler and Pol Pot.)
Nevertheless, we must admit (to the dismay of equally-stubbornly dogmatic secular-humanists) that even when religious faithfulness has abjectly and undeniably failed to produce any evidence of benefit to it’s adherence — in spite of war, violence, famine, poverty, corruption, earthquake, tsunami and flood — human beings, people groups and meta-cultures insist on doggedly clinging to religiously inspired worldviews.
Yes, simultaneously, the philosophies of Secular-Modernism have thrust their way into the hallowed temples of Western politics, academia, commerce and entertainment, yet worldwide it has, thus far, failed to take over the hearts and minds of ordinary people, of the masses who both blithely and stubbornly refuse to forsake their “opiate” — all the more when denied to them by those who rule with either an iron fist or a forked tongue.
Thus, we array this extraordinary panorama of achievement and failure, of oppression and liberation, war and peace, faith and political dogma; of religion and humanism, rhyme, reason, life, death… and eventually we are silenced by its shear complexity.
Hope: transcendent, imminent or eternal?
What can possibly be said, even considered, by way of summarising it all, let alone speaking to its wounds and diseases, its doubt and fears? What force can possibly be called upon, invoked, exercised — or exorcised — to bring real, genuine hope of a future that might simply make some sense of it all, which would make all the sacrifices that have been made worthwhile, the injustice worth forgiving, the confusion worth overcoming?
I believe and suggest that there is such a hope. A hope that goes beyond ethnic, cultural, geographical and religious boundaries, with the capacity to reach into the heart of every single human being. It is the hope of “Eternity” and of a renewal of Creation…
Eternity becoming real in the “here and now.” Eternity breaking into Time and eventually ushering Time into history! (Yes: scientists are now telling us that the theory of quantum mechanics has surpassed the Newtonian universal model and that time is not the fixed, unmovable reality we once believed it to be. Like everything else we can see and measure, it has a beginning and an end.)
Within an Abrahamic-faith worldview, Eternity represents a reality that transcends what we see and hear with our natural eyes and ears, the presence of a world without end, another reality ￼ready to break into this time-bound, death-bound creation we call our home, a reality discerned with the ears and eyes of the heart.
This hope of Eternity is the real hope of a Good Creation and its Benign Creator. It is the hope of a New Creation breaking into this decaying, wounded Old Creation; a hope planted deeply, I believe, in the heart of every human being.
This is the Story in which we find ourselves and the beginning of another Story, the fullness of which we can only imagine. This is the Story of an Eternal Purpose and a People called to serve that Eternal Purpose.
Can we, dare we, locate ourselves within this story and discover our identity as a people blessed to be a blessing to all the multiplex peoples of the world, through living out, demonstrating and communicating a reconciliation with the Creator and, indeed, with all of his Creation?
While the Pentecostal Christian movement continues to sweep rapidly through vast, increasing swathes of the developing nations — appealing to peoples of cultures and worldviews that are open to a spirituality that recognises unseens realities — by contrast, within the West, an increasingly confident and strident form of secular humanistic materialism — a relative dwarf sitting arrogantly astride the shoulders of the presently-mute giant of democracies, cultures and peoples deeply rooted in Abrahamic faith and religion — continues breathing its threats, seeking to abrogate, through deceptive, coercive but ultimately empty philosophies, the true freedom of humanity: to search out, encounter and respond to the Divine.
Thus, we effectively find two emergent churches: the largely pentecostal, non-Western / Southern church — including renewed Catholic and Protestant congregations — emerging from centuries of poverty, disease and abjection, decades of colonialism and years of rapid, eruptive spiritual development — and, on the other hand, an older Western / Northern church – emerging out of centuries of modernity, decades of decadent, spiritual neglect and and years of theological confusion, now slumbering amidst a society engulfed by secular materialism.
The one vibrant, confident, sometimes militant, under-resourced, prone to over-confidence, hurtling headlong into the twenty-first century, full of vitality, often willfully naive to various wiles and destructive philosophies that might yet undermine it’s force; that one, needing to share the experiences and, where it is to be found, the wisdom and maturity of the other in authentic, mutual co-operation and spiritual relationship.
The other worldly-wise, yet rather world-weary, needing to adapt itself to a fresh, different role of serving the Other, needing to be willing to follow, as well as to lead, as each unique task, occasion and environment demands.
The both urgently needing the intercultural, spiritual exchange that comes through genuine mutual appreciation of one another’s unique experiences and worldviews.
A post-modern call to continuing reformation
￼Consequently, within the West, a truly Messianic people are genuinely needed: a people who have been up close and personal with all that modernism and capitalism and materialism have to offer and said, “Yes” – to its best; “No” – to its worst and “There is more than this” to Secularism’s claim to universality and dogmatic denial of mystery and Divinity.
Hence, a continuing reformation — of faith, hope and love, more than theology — is most certainly needed. Steadily, but urgently, we must (re)discover a distinctive Christian, Messianic faith and ortho-praxy that is
- not less than Pentecostal in spiritual power;
- not so overwhelmed by modernist claims of science that it seeks remedy through denial;
- not so pressured by postmodernist, Nihilistic denials that it hides behind its own modern constructs;
- nor so confused by the complexity of pluralism, humanism and multiculturalism that it cannot engage people of different cultures and belief, except in destructive confrontation.
A Christian faith and community that can engage authentically, humanly with an unfamiliar world and a world larger than it’s own hitherto horizons. One that can learn, learn and learn again, in order to discover, uncover and reveal a form of heavenly success which is able to practically blend sacrifice and faith, poverty and prosperity, weakness and strength, truth and experience, Scripture and community, humility and confidence, orthodoxy and culture, humanity and divinity.
A new contextuality
Historically, Christianity and its communities have always adapted to the host cultures within which it it and they are embedded. It is this phenomena that explains its ongoing success and expansion at the outset of the third millennium. However, within the West we are at a turning point.
As it increasingly finds itself pushed to the margins within a progressively secular humanistic society and political order, the Christian community has the choice to turn inward and become protective of its human rights, one more minority whose voice deserves—demands—to be heard. But this would represent a capitulation to the Powers: the Powers of Secularism, Materialism, un-Christian Humanism and Cynicism.
The alternative is for us to rediscover our true reason for existence: to serve God’s eternal purpose. To participate with Him in his unceasing renewal of creation, individual by individual, community by community, people by people. Learning to live as a microcosmic sample and example of a True Humanity redeemed by God, not merely for a future, heavenly repose, nor for mystical retreat or self-indulgent edification. But to become his co-workers, reaching out full of Christ- like compassion to a world in ever-greater need.
If the Western Christian Community can survive, adapt, re-emerge and manifest in such an authentically Christian spiritual expression, then the seductive, but humanly-oppressive powers of secularism, humanism, capitalism and materialism that presently threaten to eventually force themselves unchallenged upon the face of the entire globe, as they have done￼ upon the West, will instead be revealed as impotent against the greater claims of the One who was and is and is to come.
A time of opportunity
This is why the survival of a remnant of faithful, prophetic Christian community is absolutely vital in the face of any totalitarianism: it provides unstinting evidence that the totalitarian claims are false—the “whale” may swallow “Jonah,” but it does not consume him and one day must vomit him out again, so that Jonah may continue to prophesy, in the name of YWHW. Time and again, most recently in the case of Soviet and Sino-Communism, Christianity has proven to be a hidden tributary, forced underground, ready to spring up again when conditions permit.
Secular-humanism, of course, is in fact a kind of faith itself. It is a worldview, dependent upon its own non-demonstrable assumptions, as much as any other worldview. Yet it is also ultimately a denial of faith, of mystery and of meaningful Deity: as equally dogmatic as any religion, yet essentially a defensive posture against the reality of man’s search to understand the flame of Eternity fluttering within his naked heart.
That is why a genuinely Messianic people must now act wisely and decisively in this time of great opportunity, to expose the soft underbelly of secular-humanism: its inability to speak to the inner hearts of human beings.
At the same time, it must energetically and enthusiastically deepen its engagement with both religious and non-religious peoples of the world, as partners, co-workers or fellow pilgrim travelers, in conversation, dialogue and creation-renewing mission.
And it must do so without losing its unique worldview and capacity to issue a definitive, vital call to share in the wonder and reality of Eternal Life, through the Messiah, in the power of his Spirit. If we can begin to do this and not less than this, then we may believe that future is indeed filled with hope.