In a previous post, we introduced TurleyTalks as a place of conversation within a global network society, a virtual community of Christians deeply concerned about the state of society and who are looking for answers that can effectively awaken a secular world to the social and cultural richness of the Christian faith. To that end, members of our initial email list sent in what they considered to be the most important issues facing the church and/or society today.
Now, I think it is vitally important that we understand that all the constituents of a society – family, education, professions, economics, politics, etc – are pursued and practiced within the context of a grand meta-narrative that shapes and defines the rules, understandings, and goals that organize and govern society. The meta-narrative that has dominated the West over the last two centuries is that which sociologists have termed ‘secularization,’ which asserts that religious beliefs and practices have ceded authority to forms of truth and reasoning that no longer require religious grounding. The secularization story is perpetuated through various institutions, regulations, and authorities and provides the one narrative of progress and competence in relation to which all spheres of Western life have been shaped and defined.
However, as C.S. Lewis observed so profoundly in his work Abolition of Man, this meta-narrative is grounded in the detrimental split between nature and culture, the physical and the semiotic. While the classical Christian world viewed culture as the embodiment of objective values divinely embedded in the cosmos, modern science views the world as reducible to mere physical, biological, and chemical causal laws devoid of any meaning or purpose apart from that which cultures choose to impose upon it. Modern science has therefore rent asunder what the classical imagination brought together: the world of nature and the world of culture have been split apart from one another, such that what was once considered knowledge, indeed the highest form of knowledge, the contemplation of the True, Good, and Beautiful in Christ, is now appropriated as no more than private belief or personal preference.
Welcome to the world of moral relativism!
I believe the first thing that Christians have to come to terms with is how much our thinking and living has been shaped by this secularized split between nature and culture. I explained recently to my class that the modern age is characterized by an assumed division between nature (which operates according to biological, chemical, and physical causal laws) and culture (which is a human meaning construct imposed upon otherwise meaningless natural processes). I noted that no age before modernity had done this; before our secular age, culture was viewed as that which made the divine meaning inherent in the created order palpable and concrete. The example I used for this pre-modern nature-culture unity was in how historic churches used candles to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was at that point that one of my students asked whether they had used candles more because they simply needed light to see. Ironically, in raising the question, my student demonstrated this very nature-culture split so peculiar to the modern age!
And so, I believe it is incumbent upon Christians to mend the modern split between nature and culture. And this, of course, is precisely what the Incarnation has done: the Word has become flesh. Meaning and matter belong forever together as the whole cosmos has been incorporated into the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Therefore, our community of conversation must be understood as involving nothing less than re-imagining our world as itself imbued with divine integrity, as well as re-conceptualizing our cultural pursuits as social and practical embodiments of that divine integrity. The answers that address the current state of our society involve nothing less than a totalizing recalibration of our world, one in which the secular meta-narrative so dominant in our age is relativized effectually to an alternative Christ-centered meta-narrative, embodied in the shared life-world of the church, that awakens wonder and awe and thereby enables human flourishing.
And so, over the next few weeks, I will introduce a new blog series that will explore a profoundly divine gift rich in resources to heal this secular rift between nature and culture. It once represented a mysterious form of knowledge, and was used by the ancients as well as the church to awaken humanity to the unity of the cosmos and the harmony of society. Our new blog series will be on rediscovering the revolutionary nature of music.
Until then, what do you see as the most pressing issues facing the church and society?
Make sure to order your copy of Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.