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Understanding Western Culture and the Church’s Mission, in 1,000 Words

For many centuries, Western culture was largely defined by the Church’s institutional and religious prominence.  The symbol of authority was the cleric, whether the village priest or the enthroned bishop.  Results were mixed, not because Christian faith was at fault but because it was often misrepresented, ignored, or even opposed by persons with power.  Even if some obviously errant convictions were held about science, failure was not because Scripture advocated the error but because erroneous interpretations were held.  The case of Galileo Galilei is a prime example: his scientific observation that the earth rotated around the sun was suppressed by ignorant men who believed that Scripture taught that sun revolved around the earth.  From a scientific perspective, this is a case of the Church dictating what is true of nature; from a Christian perspective, this is a case of the Church wrongly interpreting Scripture.  Yet scientists and Christians agreed: both affirmed the natural order.

Western societal assumptions are now anti-naturalist.  After all, what does ‘post-modern’ mean but a reaction to Modernity, with its scientific lens for understanding all reality?  Modernity is a bespectacled scientist in a white coat, impassionately dissecting the cadaver of his deceased mother.  We are evolved matter, purposeful only insofar as we fulfill some role in nature.  We neither need to come into being nor need to remain alive outside of that framework, the Evolutionary Framework.  Meaning for living beings is essentially the same as meaning for inanimate objects.  It is not transcendent, a reductive physicalism that it is inherently anti-religious.  Still, it affirms nature.  Modernity replaced transcendence—God, miracles, faith, beauty—with the study of cause and effect, natural selection.  It reduced purpose to function and confused the study of material and efficient causes with beliefs about first and final causes.  In the case of Galileo, what was needed was a better understanding of the interpretation of Scripture by the Church, not a rejection of Scripture as at odds with science.  The priest and the scientist had no cause to disagree as both were committed to the reality and importance of nature.  Yet the scientist did not befriend the priest, and they were often seen arguing on the quad.

Postmodernity, on the other hand, is anti-natural.  The study of material and efficient causes is replaced by the playful construction of local meanings.  Now, the literature professor was elevated in the culture above the scientist.  In her colourful, loose-fitting tunic, she facilitated discussions about the meanings that her students found in the characters and plots in the novels they read.  Playing off one student’s construction of meaning against another student’s construction, she advocated that meaning is not located in the author’s intention and could be construed differently by each reader.  Reality is poetry, an open text.  Every reader is a first cause, a nothing injecting itself with some hallucinogen of ultimate meaning.  Life is purposeful because we give it purpose, and that is as close to transcendence as we will get.  We can have beauty, but without design.  The Existentialists were right after all: we are thrown into existence and have to create our own essences.  On such a stage, we act without a script, dance without choreography, and care more for our intonations than our arguments.  Now, the Church’s error in silencing Galileo is not so much about its erroneous view about the nature of the earth’s orbit but about its commitment to a singular conviction, as though ‘truth’ must be spelled with a capital ‘T’.  Its error is intolerance.

Postmodernity has now morphed into Tribalism, Western style.  Its Thought Police comb the streets daily to arrest citizens committing thought crimes established by the Inner Party (as George Orwell prophesied in his 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four).  We call this ‘political correctness.’  Its leader is a social activist who graduated in sociology and gender studies with a ‘C’ average.  It raises its head on college campuses, shutting down free speech.  It forces businessmen to produce goods or provide services against their consciences.  The cultural leader despises the scientist, who wants the conversation to be about what is according to nature.  It will not permit objective research into homosexual lifestyles, the raising of children by same-sex partners, and the physical and psychological destructiveness of gender therapy: science must not be permitted to undermine social constructivism.  It despises the literature professor, who is far too tolerant and inclusive of diversity, even with her Marxist leanings.  It especially deplores the priest, who advocates a Truth above social constructivism.  It elects the socialist to an autocratic reign of power, a social constructivist who will guide society along a particular pathway of unreasoned activism and squash all dissenters.  While it repents of its colonial abuses of power during Modernity, Western leaders in a Tribal Age advocate a neo-colonial ideology in the form of its own politically correct views on various moral issues, such as birth control, abortion, homosexuality, marriage, and transgenderism, and on various social issues, such as multi-culturalism, Islam, borders, and migration.  Now, the problem with the Church’s response to Galileo is not so much its faulty reading of Scripture or erroneous science, and it is not so much that it was intolerant of diverse interpretations.  The problem is that it was the Church itself, the wrong social group to control culture.  Western Tribalism, emerging from Modernity and Postmodernity, is fundamentally opposed to Christianity.

The Church’s mission in the days of pre-Modern Christendom was to advance Christian discipleship in new lands of pagan culture, and to do so sometimes with the help of and sometimes despite the established Church.  Within the Church, mission entailed continuous reform of abuses and faults.  In the Modern era, the Church’s mission was to affirm transcendence, morality, and meaning not over against but within nature, history, and culture.  In the postmodern era, the Church’s mission was to advocate that God gives meaning in His creation and revealed Truth.  In today’s Tribal era, Christian mission is to be an alternative community of Christ within a hostile world.