Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, where the Court ruled that the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples, was that it didn’t surprise anyone. Everyone saw it coming even if they didn’t agree with it.
How did we get here? It seems, just a generation ago, the idea that same-sex marriages could be the law of the land was a rather obscure, liberal idea constrained to particular urban coastal communities and not indicative of the majority of Americans. But within the last 30 years the gay rights movement was able to change hearts and minds. In short, they captured the zeitgeist.
The Church strains to respond to such changes with some denominations embracing gay marriage and clergy, and others finding it difficult to convincingly promote a view that often amounts to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” We call this new age of changing values “Post-Christendom” or after-Christianity. The idea is that Christianity’s cultural influence is dying out, and quickly.
For centuries Western culture was grounded in the Christian narrative. Christian language and ideas shaped not only the way people lived, but the way they thought. The words we use—language—are not just inherited sounds with corresponding definitions, they are a way of thinking and seeing the world. We think in language. When we inherit a language, we inherit a culture. Since we think in language, our thinking is already situated in a history of ideas, beliefs, practices, rituals and ethics. This is not a new idea. Proponents of the “PC” or politically correct movement understand this. PC is really about changing language in order to change hearts and minds.
As Christian influence wanes, the language is changing. Not only does “marriage” now mean something different, so does what it means to be gay or a gay person. Words like “tolerance,” “power,” “discrimination,” “racism,” and “terror” are all charged with new and anxious meanings. The importance of language should not surprise us. The Bible tells us we are listening creatures. Christ is the Logos or Word, and it is by listening to him that we are saved.1
In Genesis we see a speaking God and a respondent universe. God speaks, the creation obeys. But in Genesis 3 Satan speaks: “You surely will not die.” Satan offers a new and independent existence. “For God knows that when you eat of [the fruit], your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”2 What is really going on here?
Satan tempts Eve by offering an alternate universe. Instead of a universe where God is in charge and has all the power, Satan envisions a universe of human independence and self-sufficiency. In this new universe good and evil are judgments in the hands of humans who will have the same knowledge and authority as God. God won’t say what is good and evil anymore; humans, equipped with the power of language, will name what is good and bad. This culminates in the Tower of Babel narrative where God must frustrate human ingenuity and mutual depravity by diversifying human language.
What does all this mean for Post-Christendom? It helps us see how we got here, but also a way forward. The idea of an independent humanity is as old as Genesis 3. But when Western culture was under Christian influence it had the advantage of Christian vocabulary, gifted by the Church, in which to think about life, ethics, the human person, politics and purpose. As Christian influence dies out, new language replaces the old, changing and shaping the landscape of Western culture.
It was, ironically, the Reformation (along with 17th century Roman Catholic Augustinianism) that precipitated the death of Christendom. For one unfortunate and unforeseen effect of the Reformation was that it gave opportunity for political leaders to separate from the Church’s authority. Henry VIII declared himself the functional “pope” of the English Church using Reformation ideas. The German Emperor and minor lords of Europe, long frustrated with Rome’s overbearing influence, used Reformation ideas to thwart Catholic political power. It has long been documented that the Reformation helped lead to the Western idea of the person as an “individual” with “rights.” 17th century Augustinianism added to the problem by saying that things branded “sacred” belonged to a “private” realm. Using these two emerging ideas, philosophers and thinkers of the Enlightenment began to envision a world of two spheres, the “secular” and the “sacred.”
Under this new way of thinking the world had two parts—a sacred part that was private and personal, and a secular or political part that was public and accessible to everyone by way of a common human commodity, reason. What resulted were things like the social sciences (psychology, psychiatry and sociology),3 the promotion of the sciences as the only truths of certainty, and the State as divorced from religious influence.
Unfortunately, the Church accepted this new language of secular vs. sacred, and sought to participate in society by means that often only amounted to doing ethics. So the Church would become known not for her narrative of damnation from sin and gracious salvation in Christ, but for what she thought of ethical issues. She took up the role of moral policeman and ethical counselor and by doing so gave credence to the new emerging language of secular and religious spheres: that the place for religious things is private and the place for politics is public. Religion’s importance became demoted as it was no longer on the same level as “reason,” which was best seen in science and mathematics. It became unreasonable to say miracles or the supernatural were “real”—after all the definition of “real” had changed. Now what was real had to be empirical.
The result from such a change was the Church’s eventual loss of cultural importance. No longer content to preach Christ crucified, it became a moral watcher-on-the-wall. The secular society saw no good “reason” to behave in any religiously informed moral way. Since the narrative of the Church was constrained to private belief there was no reason to impose such a view publicly. In the end the language changed, and it changed everything.
So what is the way forward? Certainly any attempt to recreate Christendom is fraught with danger. Rather, the Church in exile does best to return to the basics—or better put—be more authentically herself. Since the Church knows the end-game, since it knows the Kingdom of God is here and advancing, since it knows Christ is setting all things right and will come again to judge the living and dead, she sits secure amidst a world drifting in change and uncertainty, searching for a new language by which to make sense of itself.
While the Church can and should police its own morality, it should strive hard to not be seen as fundamentally about shaping and changing cultural moral issues. Rather, it must return to the narrative of sin and redemption in Christ. This “foolish” message as Paul calls it, has the power to save souls. Since we believe in salvation by grace alone, then that means we believe that every conversion is a miracle. And if a miracle, then God’s work. And if God’s work, then grounded in his might and power. Still, the Church is responsible to go, tell, teach and baptize. If we return to that message of sin and redemption and avoid the very real temptation to make the culture cosmetically “Christian,” then we shall, perhaps, find that the Church in exile is the Church blessed, and the Church blessed, blesses the world.
Pastor Bruce Hillman serves Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church in Succasunna, New Jersey.
- Romans 10:17, Mark 9:7
- Genesis 3:5, adapted.
- I do not mean to say or imply the social sciences are wrong or unhelpful. Rather, I want to bring attention to the fact that their assumptions about the human person and mental/relational health rest independently of religion or spirituality. In other words they work on the assumption that the human person’s problem is nature vs. nurture and that the problem can be ultimately fixed without the need for the spiritual. The spiritual may be a helpful addition, but is not necessary.