Wednesday, April 15, 2009

post-modern Britain

Rob Gifford of NPR is retracing the Canterbury pilgrimage route and looking at modern day Britain on All Things Considered all week. Of particular interest is today's story on Christianity in contemporary Britain. This is "must hear" for anyone interested evangelization in a post-modern context, world Christianity, and the decline of Christianity in Europe. Listen here. 

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

More on our situation: postmodernism

We have thought, written, and talked quite a bit on these pages about postmodernism, but since it is the biggest challenge to evangelization and formation that we face we must continue to clarify our thoughts on the matter. Here is a bit from the British theologian Graham Ward's introduction to The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader:

Surfing the net is the ultimate postmodern experience ... Cyberspace is a cultural metaphor for postmodernism."


The postmodern culture is "a culture of seduction and flagrant, self-consuming sexuality; a culture of increasing sophisticated drugs and drug use; a culture of virtual, videotaped realities." 

I am most intrigued by his assertion that postmodernity is "a culture of virtual, videotaped realities" in which "surfing the net" is the ultimate experience. I believe this is certainly true and we can see it in a variety of ways, most especially in a culture for which moral considerations are absent, because they seem not to pertain to a virtual world. There are no moral considerations to take into account when something is not really real. That's not so dangerous if virtual reality is mainly peripheral and truly only "virtual", but what happens when the virtual world becomes the real world for so many people? When a whole culture becomes one of "virtual, videotaped realities?" Are not Facebook, MySpace, and the multitude of other social networking sites an example of how a whole culture (seemingly parallel to the "real" world's culture, but with highly permeable boundaries) can arise from virtual reality? 

How then is the Gospel presented and received in such a situation? What space can be created in these virtual realities, cultures, and habitats for Christian witness, particularly as mediated through Christian community? Is it even possible for Christian communities to make an authentic witness to the Gospel in virtual space? 

I am eager not only to hear reflections on this subject, but also for you to draw our attention to Christian witness in virtual space.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Mere Christianity Forum Vista House

When I was an undergraduate at Furman University I had the opportunity to help establish an intentional and ecumenical Christian community and house of hospitality as part of the Mere Christianity Forum. We called the house and community "Vista House." This mission statement is on the Vista House website:  

Vista House attempts to accomplish the overall mission of Mere Christianity Forum by creating a location where authentic, intentional Christian community is fostered, the good, true and beautiful is pursued, and the growth of the entire person is encouraged.

Our off-campus facility, Vista House, is a living, relational community of Christians who model and share the vision and love of Christ. By serving both the Furman University and greater Greenville community with the preparing and serving of meals, the creation of a warm and inviting atmosphere suitable for discussion and retreat, and the forging of genuine relationships with others through community, Vista House fellows and regular attendees of the Mere Christianity Forum attempt to model the holistic Christian life. The goal of Vista House is to paint a vista, a landscape, of the beauty and truth of the Christian life in a comfortable environment by persons living in an intentional Christian community.

Sherry and I were speaking earlier today about how to evangelize post-moderns and one thing we considered essential was the witness of intentional communities willing to witness faithfully to Christ and the Gospel through their community life, hospitality, right Christian practice (as a necessary complement to right Christian belief or orthodoxy), and the encounter with beauty. Monastic life did much of what we seek to do at Vista House (indeed monastic authors played a huge role forming us in preparation for establishing Vista House) in the evangelization of Europe and a renewal along those lines was called for by Alasdair MacIntyre at the end of After Virtue. We must remember that in a post-modern and post-Christian age propositional apologetics will not be effectively used in the same ways they used to be. However, as the emergent church is teaching us, the witness of truth, goodness, and beauty lived, particularly in communities and transcendent worship rooted in Christian tradition, will be a more effective means of evangelization than the apologetics of the past. We recognized this five years ago in the establishment of Vista House and I offer it as a witness to the possibilities for effectively evangelizing post-moderns. 

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Are Catholics Christian?

Christianity Today ran an interview with Sinead O'Connor, now an aging rocker known for a hit album and for tearing up a picture of JPII on SNL (Saturday Night Live). It will make many Protestants who read the article to wonder whether Catholics are Christian (even though many Catholics would argue Sinead O'Connor's not Catholic).

The interview is about her new album based on passages from the Old Testament and titled, "Theology." I found it another distressing glimpse of a perhaps large segment of contemporary Catholicism that is thoroughly influenced by postmodern attitudes.

Now the term "postmodern" might put you off, but you've experienced some of the basic presuppositions of this worldview. They are, in a nutshell:

- All truth, including morality, is relative; nothing I do is a sin.

- Truth claims are ideological at best and lead to violence at worst.

- We don’t “know” anything, we only “interpret,” so pick a worldview and interpret accordingly, but be “open” to others’ worldviews.

- My personal experience and feelings are most trustworthy; yours are not necessarily “real”.

In our new workshop, Making Disciples, we point out how postmodern attitudes effect Catholics, and Ms. O'Connor's comments are illuminating in this respect. For one thing, postmodern attitudes lead many Catholics to be practical Universalists, meaning they believe that almost everyone - or everyone - is saved by a loving God. They also lead to the relativism that Pope John Paul II pointed out as so dangerous. For the Catholic who embraces postmodern relativism, there are many equal paths to God. There is nothing uniquely salvific about Jesus.

Ms. O'Connor is a case in point - here's part of the interview

Christianity Today: Where do you stand in your faith in Jesus?

O'Connor: I think everybody has an individual relationship with Jesus. I kinda really do believe in this Trinity thing, that God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are all one thing. I understand Jesus as being an interceder, someone you ask when you really need a big favor from God. I also feel that Jesus is inside everybody. It's almost like an energy or a thing that lives inside of us.

CT: How about his role as a Savior?

O'Connor: I grew up in violent circumstances [in Ireland, where religious violence was common], and Jesus was a Savior to me insofar that he would make me forget what was going on. But to say that Jesus is a Savior can sometimes translate as, "Unless people know doctrine, they're not going to be saved." I don't believe that. I believe God loves everybody. And at the end of the day every creation of God goes on to God and his love equally. So I have difficulties with the implication that because somebody on the other side of the world doesn't know Jesus, they don't get saved.

CT: So there's no such thing as Jesus being the one way, truth, and life?

O'Connor: I believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit and that whole kind of thing is one particular energy. If you want a put a picture of a body on it, then fine. But I call it an energy. Some people paint a picture of Jesus. But to me, he's an energy. That energy is the same no matter where you are in the world or whose side you're on. If you call it Allah or you call it God or you call it Buddha, it's all the same. I thing God saves everybody whether they want to be saved or not. So when we die, we're all going home.

CT: So it doesn't matter your lifestyle, we're all going to heaven.

O'Connor: Yeah, I don't think God judges anybody. He loves everybody equally. I think there's a slight difference when it comes to very evil people, but there are not too many of those in the world.

Fones: At Intentional Disciples we are encouraging Catholics to consider the invitation from God to enter into a personal relationship with Him. If God is simply an "energy," it's hard to see how a relationship is possible. It's also true that an "energy" can't really make claims on me or my behavior.

Postmodern individualism also warps the Christian perspective on how we should relate with others. Whereas the Christian is willing to love another enough to confront them if they are doing something wrong or sinful (cf Mt 18:15-18 and, oh, any Pauline letter for examples), the postmodern credo is "I should not interfere in your life; that would be presumptuous and judgmental." Of course, the converse is true as well - don't you dare tell me what to do! Again, the interview gives a stunning example of this:

CT: Listeners of Christian music have a high moral standard for artists in the genre. Are you ready for that part of this industry?

O'Connor: I think everybody knows who I am. I'm not trying to act like I'm a perfect person. I'm not going to be personally insulted if anyone doesn't want to have anything to do with me. If someone turns their back on me because I'm not a perfect person, then it's not my problem. It's their problem. If we're all going to turn their backs because they're not perfect, then we're going to be very lonely.

CT: You have no qualms about swearing or smoking. How do you feel about the prospect of losing the respect of the faith community because of those things?

O'Connor: If I did, actually I wouldn't mind, because I'm trying to be myself. God loves everybody the way they are, that's the way I see it. God made me the way I am. If somebody else doesn't like it, it doesn't matter. I could always get a job doing something else. I don't fear poverty.

Finally, if you read the post from the Barna Group survey, you know that Catholics are more likely to believe that Jesus sinned and God is fallible than the general population. Again, Sinead O'Connor gives an example of this:

O'Connor: God's character is very human; he goes through the whole gamut of emotions that a person might go through.

CT: By human, do you mean fallible?

O'Connor: People often say, "If there's a God, why does he let bad things happen?" We expect God to be perfect, but if we're made in God's image, then perhaps God isn't perfect. And that's OK. But I also believe that partly we are God. We are part of God and God is something that's in us and all around us.

Fones: I feel real sorrow for Sinead. She may not fear material poverty, but there seems to be a certain poverty in regard to her relationship to Jesus. Yes, God loves us - she's right there. We were created in love. But we are also fallen, and left to our own devices and without grace we are only poor approximations of whom God calls us to be.