Functional Atheism

To start, a question: Is it harder to live as a Christian in today’s modern Western world than in any other time since Christ?

The question is a tricky one to answer. In many respects we must say ‘no.’ The human heart in every age and every culture has always relentlessly rebelled against God and it has never been easy (or even possible) to know God without excessive grace given to us from above. This is true of the Western world today just as much as any other culture. However, in a certain sense I think we can also say that it is, indeed, harder to live as a Christian in today’s world than in any other time in history.

Craig M. Gay has written a fantastic treatise of our current cultural milieu – The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As if God Doesn’t Exist.

The title says a lot. Gay sets out to explain the very structures of thought that have become the default mode in our modern world.

This is his thesis in his own words:

Contemporary society and culture 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. Indeed, we are tempted to live as though God did not exist, or at least as if his existence did not practically matter. In short, one of the most insidious temptations fostered within contemporary secular society and culture, a temptation rendered uniquely plausible by the ideas and assumptions embedded within modern institutional life, is the temptation to practical atheism. (emphasis his)

Comprising the bulk of the study is Gay’s careful analysis of 4 of the most foundational institutions of our modern world: politics, technology, economics, and culture. In each of these spheres he guides us through the intellectual history that has brought us to the present condition – the condition in which these institutions function just as well, just as efficiently, and with the same ‘end game’ whether God exists or not, in other words, a thoroughly secular condition. Moreover, he highlights instances of the practical atheism that pervades our culture’s worldview.

A smattering of his insights:

– “Something very much like religious faith has often been placed in the [political] state and in the possibilities of political-social change.”

– “Science assures us that life’s real purposes do not transcend nature, but are embedded within nature in such a way as to be scientifically discoverable.”

– “Modern economic life is dominated by the calculation of self-interest; its horizons are wholly temporal; and it is increasingly impervious, or at least resistant to, substantive religious reasoning.”

– “The individual has thus become something of a god in contemporary culture. Not only has the self become the object of essentially religious devotion, but the attributes once reserved for divinity, particularly aseity (self-existence) and absolute creativity, are now assigned to self-constructing individuals.”

His summary of the situation:

We have tried to show that secularity is quite literally built into the central institutions of modern society and culture both theoretically and practically, and that this is why modernity has proven to be so corrosive of Christian faith and why it is so resistant to substantive theological criticism…. And so, although the temptation to godlessness is not new, it has been rendered uniquely plausible, attractive, and even imperative under modern, and now presumably “postmodern,” conditions…. This is the way of the modern world.

All this leads to an obvious question: How do we live (and even thrive) as Christians in a world that is so thoroughly secular? What is our role as Christians in a world in which the very default structures of thought that pervade our everyday existence are functionally atheistic? Or, as Gay puts it, “how, as Christians, do we go about living in but not of this modern world?”

His answer is balanced and insightful: we must be prophets to our culture. That is, we must care deeply about the issues of our world – the same issues the realms of politics, technology, economics, and culture address. We must challenge the secularity, the functional atheism that lies at the heart of our modern culture. We must fight against the narcissism that defines so many modern lives. But at the end of the day we must never make these issues – worldly issues – our ultimate purpose.

In short, the “prophetic stance” requires us to take political, economic, and cultural realities seriously for the sake of our neighbor, but it forbids us from taking them with ultimate seriousness for precisely this same reason.

Then later:

For our cultural prognosis to be truly Christian, then, top priority must always be given to the conversion of souls.

Overall, the book is a fascinating study of the way our world works. You have probably gathered even from the small selection of passages quoted here that at times Gay takes us through pretty deep waters. It can be slow and careful treading at times, but at the end I found the insight was well worth the effort

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