by Justin Lonas
"See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).
Tradition Number 5-Modernism
While each of the articles in this series deals implicitly with the subject of worldview, the next two will address it more directly. What is a worldview? Put simply, it is the set of assumptions we carry that define and determine our understanding of and reaction to the world around us-it is the lens through which we see reality.
In most of Paul's epistles, the teachings he sets forth sum up how we should live if our worldview is shaped by Christ's sacrifice and the Holy Spirit alive in us. Verses like Colossians 2:8 represent the other side of that coin in that we cannot and will not live according to Christ if the "traditions of men" provide our worldview. Scripture in general (and Paul in particular) spends significant time directing us to focus on our heart attitudes, beliefs, and doctrines, and its commands to orthopraxis (living rightly) are always in the context of orthodoxy (believing rightly). From this, it is clear that the heart (which forms and informs our worldview) is the crucial point at which we address issues of sin-behavior always flows from belief.
At present, the Western world is in transition between two primary worldviews: modernism and postmodernism. Modernism, loosely defined, is the sum of the values, goals, and assumptions of the time between the Renaissance (ca. 1450) and the recent past (ca. 1960-1970). Postmodernism is a reaction against modernism that has been expanding its scope and influence since about 1960. This column will address modernism and its entangling with Christian teaching; next month's column will do the same for postmodernism.
On the surface, modernism seems to present an accurate picture of the world not all that incompatible with Scripture. Its governing principles are reason, logic, observation, the value of individuals, hard work, and progress. Central to this philosophy is the belief that man is a unique, reasonable creature with the capacity to understand and modify his world. The Protestant Reformation even helped foster the development of modernism. The reformers' rediscovery of the biblical concept of priesthood of the believer shifted the cultural center of gravity from institutions to individuals, laying the groundwork for modernism's driving forces of individualism and self-determination. Meanwhile, the re-emergence of ancient, pre-Christian writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others cultivated a thirst for knowledge gained through observation of the world.
The Christian grasp of God's creation of an orderly universe combined with modernism's commitment to logic of the ancients to give birth to modern science. The staggering pace of discovery and invention between 1600 and 1900 fueled the Industrial Revolution and quite literally changed the world through sanitation, healthcare, and technology.
Modernism, however, like any human system of thought was not and is not wholly compatible with the Gospel. Its advances gave scientists the impression that humanity was progressing toward an ultimate utopia. Darwin's theory of evolution erased God from the scientific equation and furthered modernism's false belief that man could solve all of the world's problems.
While the discord between scientism and Christianity is well documented, other downfalls of modernism have little to do with science and often go unnoticed by the Church. The philosophy's overemphasis of individualism created a culture of billions of little kingdoms each working against all the others for personal gain and undermining Christ's call to live first for God's glory and to care for those around us.
Modernism's fixation on economic power, industrialization, and self-determination have done as much as anything else to destroy the community atmosphere in which people live and work for and with one another. Rationalism, the belief that reason is the sole source of knowledge and that everything which exists can be explained and understood, has removed the mystery of God's love and the necessity of faith from the equations of society. It has pushed true Christianity to the fringe and spread the lie that there is nothing beyond the material world. Progress has pushed men to throw off the anchors of Scripture and tradition and convinced them that only that which is new is worthy of their time and effort.
In the Church, modernism has forced us to think of holiness as a private, personal battle, evangelism only as an individual decision (separate from community transformation), and Church only as an institution of learning and emotional enrichment (instead of a holistic representation of Christ's mission). Whether we realize it or not, it has distracted us from Christ's teaching and refocused our goals toward growing our political and economic influence (i.e. "successful" ministry) rather than His kingdom. Too often, we have let the prevailing cultural attitude define us instead of finding our identity only in Christ, His body, and His mission.
Perhaps the most devastating effect of modernism, however, was to draw the Church into itself and make us vulnerable to the shifting sands of popular ideas. As modernism has crumbled and postmodernism has risen to take its place, the modernistic Church is being left behind.
Christ is above, beyond, and before modernism, and His truth will penetrate hearts through any philosophical obstacle. The body who remains true only to Him will flourish regardless of the wisdom of the time. I fear that today's Church has become so taken in by modernism that we do not know how to speak the truth to a culture that is no longer defined by its inhabitants as a reasonable and logical place. If our concept of truth becomes a set of ideas rather than the very person of Christ (John 14:6), we will never reach today's world.
This failure cannot simply be answered by assimilating the Church into postmodernism as we have into modernism. If the Church is to continue to be the beacon for the world that Christ set it up to be, we have to re-establish ourselves on the Rock of Ages who meets and overcomes the challenges of any age. Next month, we will look deeper at how that plays out.
Justin Lonas is editor-in-chief of Pulpit Helps magazine.