The Way of the (Modern) World: Introduction

Golly!  Apologies!  It’s been a busy last few days in the life of Elliot.  What with grading hermeneutics papers, and reading for class, and drinking lots of egg nog (’tis the season. . .), the days have been plumb full.

But speaking of reading for class, I’ve just started to read a book by Craig Gay called The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist.  Snappy, eh?  Here is a quote from the Introduction: “We are concerned to discover how and why it is that the practically atheistic outlook has become so uniquely plausible even for Christians in the modern context.  Along this line, our focus will not be on traditions of explicit philosophical secularity as such, but rather on the secularity that is carried out implicitly – one is tempted to say innocently – in institutional arrangements that we probably take largely for granted” (14).

Basically, Gay is arguing that all people in modern society – Christians, atheists, followers of any religion or none – live in an environment of practical atheism.  Even for those who believe that God exists, he is irrelevant to the business of real life.  The purpose of the book is to examine the roots of that phenomenon.

Gay is writing from an explicitly Christian standpoint, and he is well aware that Christians are called to be “in but not of the world” (John 17:13ff).  I’ve been a Christian for several years, and just about all the times I’ve heard other Christians use this phrase, they have been referring to resisting temptation of some kind.  Gay, to his credit, defines “worldliness” in a different way: “What if the essence of ‘the world’ – and hence of ‘worldliness’ – is not personal immorality and/or social injustice as such, but is instead an interpretation of reality that essentially excludes the reality of God from the business of life?” (4)  Especially given the New Testament usage of the word “kosmos,” Gay’s proposal makes a lot of sense.

So why is this practical atheism such a bad thing?  Well, among other things, it leaves us vulnerable to the “terror of history” – the necessity of “having to create our own meanings and purposes in the world,” and having to “make sense of who we are only on the basis of our own accomplishments” (11).  We can never really understand who we are, or why we are here.  There is another problem as well – one that is less existential but more frightening on a societal level: “[W]hen we lose sight of God, we also lose sight of ourselves.  It is the thought of God, after all, that gives substance to words like ‘truth,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘persons’: words which lend substance and meaning to human life.  Without the thought of God such notions are empty or, at best, only convenient fictions.  A completely secular society is, therefore, not simply ‘godless,’ but impersonal and inhumane as well” (2-3).

I am personally glad that there is such an interest in human rights at this moment in world history, as evidenced by such organizations as Amnesty International.  But I’ve always wondered what sort of basis thoroughly secular people have for an idea like “human rights.”  It’s easy to insist on a right; anybody can do that.  But one person’s rights imply that another person has a duty to them.  I don’t hear a lot of talk about that side of the coin.  One of the tactics of organizations like Amnesty International is to shame people and governments committing human rights abuses into shaping up.  This only works as long as the rest of the world is outraged by what is going on.  I wonder what will happen if that is no longer the case?

I’ll be reading the rest of this book over the next few weeks, and I’ll post the rest of my reflections on it periodically.

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