The True Culture War

everywherepresentThe cultural landscape of the modern world is continuing to shift and change. Opinions that were but shortly ago in the minority have moved into the majority and the political world is quickly realigning itself. Positions that were once traditionally Christian with wide public support or acquiescence are being marginalized. In various places Christians find themselves to be objects of scorn – even disgust. I think that we are headed into some fairly dark days. But I do not think that such things are the true “culture wars” of our times. The ebb and flow of culture, like the rising and fall of nations and empires, are in the hands of God. Christians are called to be salt and light in the world – but we are called to be such, precisely because the world needs salt and light (sometimes more, sometimes less). But the great culture war is raging within the Christian heart.

I have written, and published, about the false structures of a “two-storey” universe. It is an image I use to think about the effects of living within a secularized culture and the temptations of a secularized Christianity. But all of the structures of a two-storey world exist in the imaginations of modern believers. God is everywhere present or He is nowhere at all.

Secularism is an intellectual construct. It has its own history – dating largely to the centuries of the early Reformation. Its assumptions are that the universe exists in a “neutral” zone. Things are just things with no particular religious significance in themselves. Religion is a matter of personal belief, but not a description of the material order.

Along with this comes a secularization of the sacraments. The significance of the Bread and Wine in the Eucharist is “spiritual,” affecting no material change in the Bread and Wine (note that the word “spiritual” is coming to mean “not having to do with everyday things”). “Freedom of religion” means “freedom of belief” since religion is simply a matter of belief (i.e. it’s intellectual).

Life lived in the “neutral zone” comes to be seen and understood as “normal life.” Today it even becomes synonymous with the “real world.” Religious practices that are publicly displayed tend to jar the neutrality of the real world. The sensibilities of the mainstream are often offended by such uninvited and unwelcome intrusions. The public square is not a religious square.

These two-storey assumptions are increasingly becoming the objects of legislation or public policy. Thus, a creche has no place in the public square or the Ten Commandments in a courthouse. But this is not the location of the culture war.

It is the fact that we ourselves increasingly feel that these things have no place in the public square. The sensibilities of believers have long been the objects of secularizing efforst. Secularism was invented in order to pacify believers (literally). The Thirty Years War in the first half of the 17th century, pitted Protestant against Catholic across the heart of Western Europe as the Holy Roman Empire came to an end and religious factions and various princes vied for power. It was hugely devastating.

The sensibilities of the 18th century and the Enlightenment were shaped to a large extent by this turmoil. The sense that religious thought was the source of interminable conflict was difficult to gainsay. Kant and other significant thinkers of the 18th century offered alternatives to a religiously shaped world. Kant wrote Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, a book whose title says it all. John Lennon echoed the sentiment when he Imagined “no religion, too.”

Nearly four hundred years have heard the preaching of a secular gospel. Stanley Hauerwas at Duke notes that one of the great achievements of the modern secular nation states was their ability to get Protestants to kill Protestants and Catholics to kill Catholics. Wars did not cease – the only change was their justification. Modern secularists are shocked at the religious nature of the Islamist challenge, as though an outright grab for territory or control of the oil market would be more acceptable. The Thirty Years War has never been repeated. Kant, and associates, were successful. Rationalism and secularism, however, have not solved the origins of war itself.

The culture war that rages within the believer is born of a double loyalty. How can Jesus be Lord of all and yet be Lord of nothing in the world around us? Some solve the contradiction by postponing Christ’s Lordship to the future. He will be Lord when He gets back. There are a variety of arrangements on this theme, but it is perhaps the dominant solution to the two-storey problem.

In the last few decades, as the gentleman’s agreement that kept nominal religious allegiance unchallenged in popular culture has broken down, religious figures have urged a frontal assault. In the ballot box and in legislatures (and frequently in some pulpits) efforts to regain a political majority have pushed the stakes in the culture wars to new highs. The result has probably been a backlash that has only hastened the marginalization of religion.

But those strategies and assaults have yet to address the heart of the problem – the heart – for it is within what the Fathers call the heart that the true war is being waged. To a large extent, Christianity has lost the war, for it has largely lost the heart and any memory of what it ever meant.

The heart is not the seat of emotions and feelings in the writings of the Fathers. Instead, it is the organ of spiritual perception, that inmost place where we encounter God and know the truth (not think the truth). The heart dwells in the present and does not judge or compare (these are faculties of the mind). But creation as a one-storey universe is entered into and known primarily as a perception. If we have lost the ability to perceive, we have spiritually lost our way.

Statements such as “all of creation is a sacrament,” makes little sense to the rational mind. “Do you mean that we should think differently about things?” And the answer is, “I mean you can’t think about sacraments at all (except as abstractions). A sacrament is a means of knowing rather than something to be known.

The Incarnation of Christ is viewed by many Christians as a visit – God became man – died on the Cross to save us – and now He’s gone. For them, the Incarnation establishes nothing of a relationship between God and matter. The womb of the Virgin was but a temporary shelter, later to receive other children conceived in the manner of any woman. The fact that Christ is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh means nothing – for it is not the flesh of Christ that saves. The saving action of Christ is a transaction accomplished off-stage on an altar in heaven.

This is not a caricature. For the ever-virginity of Mary is rejected by modernist Christianity as a pious fiction (and as idolatry by others). Atonement theories popularized since the Reformation concentrate on the abstractions of the Father’s wrath and the debt paid by Christ. The blood of Christ is poured out on a heavenly altar, the Cross being but an instrument of death. It is perhaps fitting that the “tomb” that General Gordan declared to be Christ’s tomb (in the 19th century) – today known as the Garden Tomb – is over a thousand years too old to be true. But the fiction is better than the fact, because the fiction looks like the Tomb that Gordon (and his coreligionists imagined). Besides, the other one had an Orthodox-Catholic Church built over it and had been turned into a shrine with oil lamps and candles!

The path to a one-storey universe lies directly through the heart. It is not a path to a mental fiction, but a discipline and gift whereby we see the truth of things. God is everywhere present and filling all things. The Incarnation has revealed all of creation to be a sacrament, a means of communion and participation in Christ, for He has Himself entered into communion and participation with creation. The efforts to exile the Incarnate God from our world, whether the public square, or a loaf of bread, are futile in the long run. For it is indeed a culture war, but it was won long ago. The heart perceives the truth of this and wonders at the goodness of God in the land of the living.