In their book Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missional Challenge of the West (2018), Alan Roxburgh and Martin Robinson first offer a rather pessimistic analysis of the consequences of modernity’s “wager” (the metaphor is Adam Seligman’s) in letting go of its Christian past, and then propose a model for re-establishing a viable Christian presence in “liminal spaces.”
The first part of the book ends with a brief summary of the American sociologist Philip Rieff’s account of three types—or perhaps better, three phases—of historical culture (90-92).
What Rieff calls First World Cultures are pagan cultures that “understood themselves as living in an enchanted world populated by mythical creatures.” Historically, it is a dead culture but it is having something of a belated afterlife in the imagination of the modern West in the guise of comic book superheroes and various shades of pantheism.
Second World Cultures are the great monotheistic cultures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, at whose centre is “a self-revealed Creator from whom every living creature derives its being and identity. Truth about the world and how to act in the world are grounded in revelation.”
Third World or Late Modern Cultures are “the active negation of the sacred. … There is no truth that is not socially constructed, no sacred order shaping meaning, no transcendent authority. The reality is that human beings make their own rules and habits of social life.”
All three worlds co-exist today in the Western context, but the disenchanted Third World Culture, which I have been labelling “secular humanism,” is fully in control of the narrative. “Its habits and beliefs are now institutionalized in the structures and habitus of everyday life: the political liberalism of the social contract, the economic myth of the invisible hand, and the inviolable autonomy of the individual.” The notion of God survives only as a “useful assistant for the Self.” God has no transcendent agency. “Little is left of second world cultures except their aesthetics and persistent but enfeebled and often compromised institutions” (92).
This is a straightforward and familiar analysis, but I think it may be helpful to overlay it on the story of the people of God as I have sometimes presented it here. Click the chart to enlarge it.
Israel had a formative period from Abraham to the consolidation of its presence in the land as a kingdom. This was followed by a time of relative stasis, but it was against the backdrop of Assyrian and Babylonian regional domination—pagan cultures which threatened the security and stability of Israel as a small independent kingdom. Eventually, the kingdom succumbed to Babylonian aggression: Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and its population was taken into exile.
We then have, in effect, a 900 year period of crisis, marked by a succession of conflicts with the great First World Cultures—principally, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans. In the end, an offshoot of ancient Israel won out over the last and greatest pagan empire, Babylon the great, and a Second World Culture was inaugurated, evolving over time into what we know as European Christendom. The churches which confessed Jesus as Lord, and in the end as the Second Person of the Trinity, functioned as a new priesthood for the peoples of the Greek-Roman world, in place of the old morally and spiritually bankrupt pagan priesthoods.
It is interesting, then, to think of biblical Israel as a practical and prophetic precursor, in the First World period, to the monotheistic Second World Culture that would supersede it. The conquest of the pagan territory of the Canaanites prefigured the conquest of the Greek-Roman world. Fiercely monotheistic Israel was ahead of its time, perhaps too far ahead for its own good.
From the exile onwards, however, it became increasingly evident—to some, at least—that the victory over paganism and the epochal cultural transition would not be achieved through the normal political-military means. Israel was too small and too dysfunctional for that to happen. Rather, it would come about through oppression, weakness, suffering, and martyrdom. The righteousness of Jesus consisted precisely in the fact that he sharply understood this and embraced this vocation. Historically speaking, it was the faithfulness of his followers, who were prepared to be conformed to this painful image (cf. Rom. 8:29), which drove through the change. The death of Jesus on a Roman cross pre-empted the punishment of rebellious Israel that would bring the era of second temple Judaism to an end and vindicate the faith of the early churches in a radically expanded future for the people of God.
The Western Christendom stasis has been disintegrating over the last two or three hundred years—and along with it the larger part of Rieff’s Second World Culture. What remains of the church is picking its way from the ruins—like the survivors of Kharkiv or Mariupol—dazed and disoriented, wondering what to do next. We are again in a period of crisis, desperate to hear a prophetic voice telling us confidently, “This is what you should do, this is the way you should go.” We may look to the global church for hope, but the global church is probably only a delayed image or reflection or echo of Western Christendom, lagging by fifty years or so.
The Third World Culture is now well into its stride and shows little sign of faltering. The culture wars that we are witnessing are not signs of failure or of the intrinsic instability of modernity’s wager. They are wars of conquest, they are the birth pains of the new age. Old attitudes are being uprooted, new attitudes are being devised and tested in a chaotic process of worldview construction, much as happened in the early centuries of the Second World Culture. If climate change brings about the collapse of late modernity, the crisis will be addressed and resolved—or survived—on Third World Culture terms. Of course, these are anxious times, as Roxburgh and Robinson insist, but that is hardly surprising when we are moving not just from one historical era to the next but from one geological era to the next.
If ancient Israel existed in the First World context as an anticipation of a Second World Culture to come, the church in the Third World Culture lingers on as a recollection of a world now past. So can the church buck the trend and imagine a viable second future for itself?
The great inexorable arcs of history tell us that the world has moved on, but it seems to me that the possibility of a creator God cannot be so easily erased from human consciousness. Wonder at the world and our presence in it will persist, and in that case it is not so remarkable or irrational that a people should commit itself over long periods of time to the effective priestly service of that good creator God. We then confess the death of Jesus for the sins of Israel and his resurrection for the transformation of the ancient world as a critical moment in the history of that people. And we wait patiently for the Spirit of prophecy to reveal to us how we should live and work in the age to come.
All still solidly Trinitarian, you see….