Practical Atheism: an Interactive Response to
The Way of the (Modern) World, by Craig Gay
by Jules Grisham
They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world… As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. (John 17:16, 18)
The irrefutable fact and condition of the Christian Church as it enters its third millennium is that it is beset by powerful forces which are eroding both the gospel witness for which it exists and the vitality by which it is to abide in the world as a community set apart. Specifically, our Lord’s directive, that we are to live “in” the world but not be “of” it, is being challenged by pervasive tendencies in modern society and culture toward what Craig Gay refers to as “practical atheism.” This he defines as the phenomenon by which we “so emphasize human potential and human agency and the immediate practical exigencies of the here and now, that we are for the most part tempted to go about our daily business in this world without giving God much thought.” (1) In short, practical atheism is that by which we are tempted to live as though God did not exist, at least as a practical matter. And it is Gay’s contention that this temptation is “rendered uniquely plausible by the ideas and assumptions embedded within modern institutional life.” (2) Restating this in more biblical language, the temptation of practical atheism is to live in a manner conforming to “worldliness,” according to an “in the world” orientation, which violates Jesus’ own commandment to us and which consists of assumptions which ignore God’s practical agency in our lives. (3)
Practical atheism, then, is a powerful outgrowth and consequence of “modernity.” But what is the nature of this “modernity” which so thoroughly permeates the structures of our society and so threatens the vitality of our Church? Peter Berger defines it as “the institutional and cultural concomitants of economic growth under the conditions of sophisticated technology.” (4) It is characterized in particular by (1) a striving for control over reality by rational-technical means; (2) an inflated notion of human potential, in the form of secularity; (3) a great weight of anxiety, emerging as a consequence of the enormous expansion of human responsibility in and for the world; and (4) an impatience with the very processes set in motion by these first three characteristics. With regard to the second one – secularization – Peter Berger defines it as “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols”; (5) while Gay describes it a two-fold process of (a) disenchantment (according to which “the world” is reformulated as an interlocking system of natural causes and effects, closed to any spiritual or supernatural influences and specifically de-emphasizing “mystery, miracle, and magic”) and (b) rationalization (by which “social actions come more and more to depend upon purely calculable and controllable – i.e., rational – criteria”). (6) In sum, Gay argues that these characteristics of modernity combine in such manner as to provide immense structural and institutional support for practical atheism. In other words, while the temptation to worldliness is by no means a new challenge for the Christian, yet the sheer degree of modernity’s drive towards a controlling human autonomy is such as to pose a unique challenge to the Church – one which must be understood and confronted if we who profess the Lordship of Christ and obedience to his commandments are to avoid becoming more permeated by the prevailing this-worldly orientation than we already are.
At this point, however, we might argue that Gay’s approach is no longer relevant. We might take up the voguish notion that we are no longer living in a modernist matrix, that it has been superceded by a postmodern one which, on the one hand, rejects the rationally-grounded program of modernism and, on the other hand, has become more open to what we might refer to as “re-enchantment” – i.e.,, to the once-more acceptability of mystery, miracle, and magic. Indeed, there is an element of truth to this assertion that the mood of the times has undergone a drastic shift in recent years. The consensus embrace in years past of what C.S. Lewis termed “the myth of progress” has in fact been replaced by widespread and profound “disillusionment with scientific positivism and with the modernist project of trying to construct a completely rational social order by means of technology; and disaffection with the modern assumption that all human cultures are explicable in terms of the single and presumably normative metanarrative of ‘progress.’” (7) However, Gay makes a powerful case that this change, while major, has yet not affected the underlying ideals of the modernist project. The emphases in modernism stressing control and secularity, and leading inexorably to high levels of cultural anxiety and impatience, are still “very firmly embedded in the central institutional realities of contemporary society.” (8) Accordingly, his discussion throughout the book, as it focuses on the successive spheres of politics, technology, economics, and the individual, addresses the challenges posed to these by the continuing embedded assumptions of modernism, which are mediated through their very structures, and which permeate the culture to such an extent that the Church itself is threatened with engulfment.
As we turn our focus now to the question of specific threats to the Church posed by practical atheism, we would recall the tripartite dimension (pertaining to theology, polity, and morality, respectively) of the conflicts which led to Presbyterian schism in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So too now in the twenty-first century we can see evidence of creeping-to-rampant “worldliness” in the theological, political, and moral aspects of American Presbyterianism – a “this-worldly” orientation which has the effect of practically ignoring God’s agency in this-or-that dimension of Church expression or behavior. And it might even be argued that if these trends are not confronted by the various affected denominations, we may see in them the seeds of future schism.
First, with regard to morality, we might point to the decades-old infatuation of theologically conservative Christians with conservative (read: Republican) politics. This represents an unwarranted trust in the power of secular power and political muscle to achieve a certain moral consensus (or at least to attain to a coercive moral majority – no pun intended) by which to legislate a political order more attuned to Christian values and sensibilities. While this is appropriate for Christians as individuals and as citizens involved in free associations, it is evidence of worldliness when such a turn to the political solution begins to absorb the energies of the Church as an institution itself. Rather than being faithful in its obligation to rightly worship the Sovereign God in Word and Sacrament and to proclaim the gospel boldly to a world desperately in need of it, a Church which has become enmeshed in politics has placed an unwarranted degree of its energy and trust in the processes of the secular government to achieve the moral ends which should more properly be an outgrowth of that right worship and right proclamation. Political activism by the Church as an institution – by which it becomes associated with some given political faction – is the very essence of practical atheism in action; such a Church may speak the language God’s Sovereignty, but it demonstrates by its actions how it ignores God as a practical matter. Again, this is the essence of the modernist striving for control – in this case by using the resources of the world to do ourselves what we on some level do not trust God will do himself. (And an interesting note on this issue is that it is the conservatives who really ought to have known better, since unwarranted political activism has traditionally been the preserve of the liberals.) One encouraging sign which points to the receding of this trend is a definite movement away from activism by several Christian conservatives who had been active in the politicization of the Church in the 1980’s (e.g., see Cal Thomas’ Blinded By Might).
Second, with regard to polity, we might examine the ascendant note of careerism which has become so pervasive in the language of Church service, and compare it to the older notions of vocation. Thinking and speaking of ministerial positions as resume-building posts is an example of the ever quickening transformation of the Church itself into a business, organized along lines imported from the world of economic transactions, whose goal becomes more that of operational efficiency, toward the end of marketing to and serving niche consumer needs, than that of a theologically-grounded worshipping institution of called servants of Christ. Rather than being a stable community of believers holding forth the word of life through the faithful administration of Word and Sacrament, trusting in the very means established by our Lord and standing apart thus from the norms of the world – rather than modeling such an orientation, we come to resemble the world around us, mimicking its forms to magnify and excel at the functions it values – e.g., market share, revenue, numbers. This has greatly accelerated the Church’s commodification of its message and its approach, grounded as it is in its affording primacy to the transitory wishes of the “spiritual” consumer. Perhaps a greater emphasis on relational mentoring and apprenticeship-modes of vocational service would help to slow this disturbing trend. Yet we must also confess that the very division of the Church into innumerable factions and sects, competing with one another for congregants with their own particularized variant of the message and approach, has done incalculable damage in its slide into commodification. The OPC can claim to be a “faithfully worshipping subculture,” but unfortunately, seen from the outside, it is just another Christian faction competing for potential members with the PCA church down the block. In short, commodification is a necessary consequence of division, though this need only apply to outside perception, and non-commodified, vocationally-oriented worship may continue on from within. (9)
Third, and last, with regard to theology, we might pick up on the notion of consumer-orientation from our discussion of vocations and examine the disastrous trend toward “seeker-sensitivity” which seeks to downplay the very gospel the Church exists to witness to. This is what I consider to be the worst example of practical atheism which is flourishing in evangelical and reformed churches today. Rather than trusting in the express promises of God-breathed Scripture that the gospel is the very power of God unto salvation for all who would believe, we presume to control the situation ourselves, using the therapeutic and psychological techniques of the world, and letting the perceived needs of congregants control the agenda. This undermines the entire point of the gospel, which is that the fallen heart does not in fact know what it needs, and so should not be fed affirming pap, but ought to receive what it had no inkling that it needed – God’s word in Scripture, and the true communion of a congregation whose anchor and whose ground of unity is Christ. Churches which presume to substitute “relevant” messages for God’s own Word are manifesting the grossest form of modernity and a de facto secularity, as they seek to assume methodological control of that which God himself established as the ordinary means by which hungry souls should be fed. But the result, sadly but inevitably, is an increase in the very anxiety and impatience which drove the “seekers” to the Church in the first place.
What then are we to do, beyond the obvious correctives either implied or explicitly stated above? My brief answer is that, above all, we must as leaders of our congregations strive to inculcate a sense and understanding of being part of a worshipping, witnessing community, whose primary responsibility is faithfulness in precisely those two areas. The notion that we should try as hard as we can to look like the world and to act like the world is frankly opposed to God’s clear instruction to us. Though it thinks it needs to have its ears tickled with affirming talk of various sorts, the world really needs to hear of Christ the Lord. It needs God’s Word preached to them. It needs the sacraments. It needs, in short, something radically different than what the world offers. But to faithfully offer this truly Christian witness, we must free ourselves, to the extent possible, from bondage to a consumer-oriented focus. We must not allow our churches to be overtaken by corporate models whose efficiency principles see only market share through the satisfaction of niche consumer demand. Such a stance is not right for the Church to take. Rather, we hold up God’s offer to humanity, by which we attain to a higher and greater relationality than we had thought possible. Here is Gay’s thought on these issues:
The key to living in but not of the modern world lies in the recovery of genuine personal relationality, and thus the recovery of our capacity for relating to the world, to others, and to God not merely as objects. “The Church exists to bear witness to the fact that we have been graciously invited into a personal relationship with the living God. Indeed, the Church witnesses to the possibility of sharing eternally in the personal communion of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the life of the world to come over and against which this-worldly existence pales into insignificance and worthlessness. (10)
What, finally, is it that we offer? We offer the Kingdom of God which transcends the bounds of this world, which is now and will be in fullness. We offer the only meaningful ground of hope, which comes from the God-ordained longing for a new world, whose glory we can appropriate in glorious glimmers here and now in our worship, and can carry forth in our hearts and in world-transforming acts of obedience. We offer human beings the possibility of fulfillment in personal relationship with the personal, living God, and in him, with other men and women. We offer a community whose hope is grounded in the future fullness, but whose joy is grounded in Christ’s work in the past and his mediated presence even now. We offer the message that God is sovereign, and that we who are weary can find rest in him and him only. We offer rest from the anxiety of modernity, and from the illusions of “the world,” cultivating patience grounded in a sure hope, and discovering the joy of knowing the God who was in control all along.
(1)Craig M. Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 2.
(3)Gay notes the various meanings of “the world” as it appears in Scripture, referring as it does sometimes to heaven and earth in their entirety (see Acts 17:24), sometimes to the specific sphere of human life and endeavor (see Matthew 4:8), and sometimes to the sphere of fallen humanity in its rebellion against God (see John 15:18ff.). It is to this latter sense that Gay directs his analysis. “The world” in this sense he defines as “an interpretation of reality that essentially excludes the reality of God from the business of life… [It] is a falsely structured reality exhibiting unreal continuity and coherence.” It is, in short, a human construction, a “convenient fiction” which requires us to “lower our sights, metaphysically speaking, and to pretend that the causal continuities of space and time interpret reality without remainder – that is, that the sorts of things we are able to observe in the ordinary course of events circumscribe the boundaries of the possible.” Such a construction must be protected against the shining light of Scripture, which would expose “the narrowness and unreality of our humanly constructed darkness.” See Ibid., 4-6.
(5)Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1969), 107, cited in Gay, The Way of the Modern, 21.
(6)Gay, The Way of the Modern, 21.
(9)There is another issue of worldliness which pertains to polity, but it is controversial and speculative, so I have left it here in the footnotes! Specifically, we might also examine the entire methodology by which we raise up ministers for the Church. As one examines the rules of the PCA, for example, one sees the care that has been taken in balancing teaching elders with the lay ruling elders, one of whose functions is clearly to keep the teaching elders in line, theologically and otherwise. And while we can agree that this is a very practical system for safeguarding the Church from slipping into doctrinal error and other assorted disasters, we might desire to take the extra step back and wonder what system it is by which we raise up pastors from whom we then feel the need to protect ourselves. Or, put another way, what are we doing that produces teaching elders from whom we feel we must be protected by institutional rules? The answer, I would suggest, is the university model of seminary education itself. It is interesting to note that before the advent of the universities in Europe, Church leadership was raised up in very relational, practical, apprenticeship-oriented ways. And yet such a system did not fail to produce its brilliant minds and scholars (e.g., Anselm). But the university model (the same one which corrupted the Church with its Aristotelian-based heresy of transubstantiation) was retained in the Protestant Reformation. We might consider whether trusting in the worldly organizational efficiency afforded by a school for transmitting cognitive data (at no small expense to relational upbringing) is itself part of the problem. One could at least argue that in copying the forms of secular organization and methodology and in trusting in them to convey the content needed for pastoring, is at least part of the problem and reason why the Church needs to be protected from its own leaders.