The Living Church Institute’s Faith Talks series resumed in Dallas on September 27. With the mission of building up the whole Church through discussion of timely theological topics, this year’s series features a guest speaker at each event, in conversation with three regular panelists. These panelists are a layperson, Seth Oldham of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd; a church leader, Amber Noel of the Living Church Foundation; and a scholar, the Rev. Jordan Hylden of Duke University and St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church.
The first speaker was the Rev. Dr. Matthew Burdette. As a priest and scholar, Burdette described the particular character of the post-Christian society in which many Western Christians serve and share the gospel. He shared stories of his own evangelistic work, demonstrating the importance of understanding the philosophical underpinnings of “post-Christianity.”
The following are an abridged version of Burdette’s talk and a response by Noel.
By Matthew Burdette
I hope to persuade you of two things. We are living in a post-Christian culture, and the Church can fulfill its mission — evangelism and discipleship — in this culture.
Talk of post-Christian culture tends to provoke discussion of churches’ relentless decline and the outworking of the sexual revolution. But what makes a culture post-Christian is the collapse of the credibility of the Christian faith. Such a culture says, in true millennial fashion, “I can’t even.” Alas, we, the Church, are the culture’s ex-girlfriend, and the culture is embarrassed about having dated us (even as it continues to go shopping with our credit card).
This uncomfortable relationship has a history. We can understand our culture as the product of two distinct streams of thought: philosophy descended from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; and the theological inheritance of the Christian faith. But our society has embraced its philosophical roots only. The Enlightenment marked the beginnings of post-Christianity. At least since the time Immanuel Kant reimagined human ethics, knowledge, and standards of beauty, it has been possible for Westerners to think about and approach the good, the true, and the beautiful without reference to the Christian faith. What began with Kant ended with Nietzsche. Nihilism now poses as humanism.
We may think of cartoon physics, often invoked by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner. He runs off the cliff, but falls only when he looks down. Post-Christian culture is the coyote. We are only now beginning to look down. Those things we are inclined to point to as evidence of our post-Christian culture: these are not the running off the cliff, but the looking down and falling. We were already suspended in mid-air.
I’m not wholly critical of the Enlightenment. The Church’s mission is always a dialogue with the culture’s existing religious assumptions, and that dialogue is always critical and appreciative. To this day, we rely on concepts won by the Church’s careful, grateful, and selective appropriation of Greek philosophy. But what do we do when our culture is ever defining itself precisely by its disdain for Christianity?
Two pitfalls must be avoided. The first is a habitual unwillingness to appreciate the Enlightenment apart from some handwaving about the benefits of humanism or democracy or science. The second is an uncritical embrace of Enlightenment assumptions and values.
Instead of deaf defensiveness or cowardly capitulation, evangelism depends on the Church’s ability to appreciate in the culture the very gifts taken from Christianity. Much of what the culture likes about itself it got from us. The Church’s criticism of the culture must be none other than its appreciation of the vestiges of its own faith. The Church’s appreciation of the culture must involve demonstrating that it fails to live up to its own ideals.
It’s not lost on me that most people we will interact with will not have spent much time reading Kant, Hegel, or Nietzsche. But that doesn’t mean our culture isn’t populated with Kantians, Hegelians, and Nietzscheans. The Church’s mission in this culture depends on our adeptness with such figures and their relationship to the faith. The success of our evangelism will not depend solely on powerful preaching — though it helps — nor on attractive children’s programs or social activism or pastoral care. Rather, the evangelists of our time must be good theologians, good liturgists, ecumenists, people who are prepared to force their cultural interlocutors to admit to their own anti-humanism or the arbitrariness of their paper-thin humanism.
Christian mission must reclaim its credibility by going on the theological and philosophical offensive. All that the Church must achieve is credibility in its own eyes and in the eyes of those who earnestly seek the truth. This credibility requires that the Church’s own members come to see that the Christian faith is not just an option among options, nor a little intellectual world that is in retreat from the big dangerous world out there, but is in fact the real world, the truth, the biggest and most intellectually open world, one whose way of life is good and beautiful. This work of evangelism will begin with the Church’s own members.
Faithful Improvisation is Key
By Amber Noel
I asked a friend of mine who has been a minister for over 30 years to tell me what he thought of when he heard post-Christian. His first responses involved Europe and Russia. When I asked about the US, he answered “Definitely!” He can no longer take for granted any parishioner’s Christian formation: “I have to start assuming they know nothing.” There is no longer a shared cultural databank where people grow up familiar with the Ten Commandments or knowing that the Golden Rule came from Jesus.
In order for his argument about evangelism to work, Fr. Burdette defines post-Christian in a distinctly American way. We aren’t Europe, and we never will be. That’s an illusion. Post-Christianity leaves an emptiness, a shallowness, an attempt to sustain good without an understanding of the good. And in America, this affects the churches themselves, as our culture reacts violently to one form of Christianity and as Christianity becomes one option among many.
Burdette’s definition of post-Christianity necessarily points to a form of evangelism that fits it. But I wonder how often it is truly the time and place to point out moral or philosophical vacuity as a form of evangelism. When a co-worker asks for your prayers, it is improvisation by the power of the Holy Spirit that gives personal witness to the gospel’s power.
The ability to improvise faithfully is based on preparation. Prayer, education, Scripture, community, refusing to treat Jesus’ way as merely one option: there’s a beginning. But perhaps the first step for evangelism in a distinctly American post-Christian culture is humility. We must recognize Christians’ contribution to the vacuity that cuts our neighbors off from knowing or seeking God in the first place. We must acknowledge Christians’ role in our culture’s diminished ability to see and seek the true, the beautiful, and the good.