If I’ve learned anything over nearly 35 years of ordained ministry, it’s that modern people come and go. I have seen conversions of many sorts over the years (including converts to Anglicanism when I served in that Church). I have seen de-conversions or other forms of “leaving.” I have watched divorces take place and allegiances shift and change.
In our modern culture, there is nothing new in any of this – except the pace at which it occurs. Stability is not a modern virtue.
I have noted previously that modern relationships are largely conceived in terms of “contract.” They are based on mutual agreement with shared expectations and assumptions. We also seem to feel that all contracts are negotiable and that no contract is forever. Contracts are essentially psychological – they are maintained so long as we “like” them and are abandoned when that ceases to be the case.
As such, stability is generally rare, and is shaky even then. I spent some time a couple of years ago with a woman who had worked in the American Post Office for her career life. The stories of abuse that she related were eye-opening. Anyone who has worked in retail or public service (ask anyone who has worked in a Call Center) and they will tell you just how thin the contractual relationship is in our world. It is a very thin tissue that tears easily.
Older societies tended to create bonds of blood and geography. Kinship brings a certain natural bond, and if reinforced by culture, can be extremely strong. Geography has something of the same character, with ethnic (near-blood) and cultural ties reinforcing the bond.
The modern world has worked hard to overcome these bonds of nature. Multiculturalism is a synonym for the absence of kinship and geography. The makers of public opinion have worked hard to turn this feature of modernity into a virtue. Blood and ethnic bonds are sometimes labeled as racist or nationalist.
In lands where immigration has long been a national feature (America, Canada, Australia, etc.) the minimizing of natural bonds seems, well, natural. The same process in Europe, where family and nationality are more deeply rooted (reinforced by language and ethnicity), occasionally meets with resistance.
Christianity is perhaps the first voice to have spoken about the transcendence of blood and ethnicity (even gender).
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:27-29 NKJ)
And Christ Himself:
“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luk 14:26 NKJ)
Such verses are easily given a false understanding and are easily elevated in modern culture (the Galatians passage has almost become a slogan of contemporary Christianity). But the meaning of such statements in the context of relatively stable blood and ethnic geography is quite different than in the contractual multiculturalism of modernity.
There may be neither slave nor free, but in our culture economic status and condition are perhaps the strongest cultural markers. Very few Churches transcend economic barriers. Nor is there any transcendence required for something that doesn’t exist (the extended family).
Christ did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Neither is it proper to say that He came to abolish kinship, family, blood ties, nationality, ethnicity, geography, nor gender. Rather He came to fulfill them.
Christ did not come to abolish these things because human beings do not exist in their proper fulness apart from them. Their fulfillment, however, is another matter. Contractual existence is not the fulfillment of our humanity and its true life – but its abolition.
Thus the Christian struggle is how to rightly appropriate (fulfill) our gender, our ethos, our nationality, our family and blood ties, etc. Our family was not given to us as a curse or genetic predestination to be overcome. Simon bar Jonah does not overthrow his father, Jonah. But as Peter he becomes the fulfillment of his father Jonah in a manner that he himself could not have foreseen.
Because we only live a short time, some seven or eight decades, we are able to maintain many fictions. For the emptiness of the modern man is fortunately cut short by his death. And this is a mercy of God. And the emptiness is not cumulative. One generation does not begin its own pursuit of emptiness (the modern Dream) at the same point of emptiness where its predecessor left off. Again, this is a mercy of God.
But there is a trajectory that can be discerned, a reading of a collective ethos that reveals the true nature of our emptiness. Suicide rates, birth rates, addictions and the like are all manifestations of a modern despair. We are empowered to reinvent ourselves according to the modern imagination, but the further this imagination strays from the fulfillment of gender, ethos, nationality, family, blood, etc. the greater the emptiness that accompanies it.
The way of transcendence is not above our lives, but within their depths. The way of ascension is the way of humility. Christ not only became flesh, but became man. He not only became man, He became a man. As a man, He became a Jew. He not only became a Jew, but a Galilean from Nazareth.
And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name… (Phi 2:8-9)
And in His self-emptying, Christ fulfilled what it is to be a Nazarene and a Galilean. The meaning and purpose of the Jews became wondrously apparent. And He revealed that a man was meant to sit at the right hand of the Father, the fulfillment of Adam.
This is the path of being truly human.