Modernity, From Original Sin to the Day of the Lord

The news lately has put me thinking a lot about the origins and destination of the modern world. By “modern world,” I mean the social, political, cultural, institutional, and industrial structures of the post-Enlightenment West and other regions and peoples who have been influenced by it. It is a very peculiar world, with certain developments and features which are simply unprecedented in any other time and place. It is at present a frightening world, undergoing severe turmoil of many kinds. And like all worlds before it, it will someday be destroyed. All things fade. Only the kingdom of God will remain.

In this post, I will attempt to put together a hypothesis about the theological narrative of modernity. For God is always behind history, working in, with, through, and even against the people, institutions, and forces which drive it on the surface. The modern world, like Christendom, the Roman Empire, Babel, and the ante-diluvian world, started and will end with theological significance. The Bible largely consists of theological narratives about people and nations, and it would be strange to assume that such accounts were only truly relevant until Jesus came.

For the purpose of this post, I will stylize my proposed theological narrative of modernity with certain allusions and symbols (and no doubt some admitted hyperbole). This is in order to draw links to biblical themes and accounts as well as to simplify what might otherwise be a rather technical and complex analysis of history and philosophy. I will also note upfront that my narrative is largely informed by C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Andrew Perriman’s work, and the writings of people like Peter Leithart, Rod Dreher, N. T. Wright, and Alastair Roberts, to name a few of the many sources. So without further ado, I present an account of the modern world.

In the beginning of modernity, God had taken the world order of the Roman Empire and subjected it to the authority of His Son Jesus Christ. This took the form of Christendom, an imperfect but authentic Christian world order. The nations confessed Jesus as Lord and honored God’s will in their law. Christendom was the world for a thousand years, but man was restless and would not so easily submit to God forever.

Internal troubles and tremors began to plague the old order, with guilt on all sides of all conflicts. At the same time, knowledge of the human and nature worlds began to increase, and with this tool Western man began to see his opportunity. By the time the Reformation had done its work, he found excuse and opportunity to rebel. The Church could apparently no longer be trusted, being deeply fragmented from corruption, violence, and strife. So perhaps the Church had been seriously wrong in several ways. No matter! With the Western man’s newest tools of science and philosophy, he could find truth for himself. Maybe he could find it by reinterpreting the Bible, or disposing of the Bible, reinterpreting God, or even disposing of God.

With these new ideas in place, he went to work on reconceptualizing the world in new terms, terms influence by the old world of Christendom but innovative in many ways. Under these new terms, God was either too transcendent or too immanent to give man the rules under which the West had been governed for so long. So he made new rules. These rules put man in charge of himself, enabling him to use his own reason and techniques to reshape the world as he thought it ought to be. To this task he took. Modern man would construct a new world to replace the decaying world of Christendom: a world with a new physical order, a new socio-political order, and a new economic order. This world, he supposed, would be infinitely superior to the old one. Revolutions of science, philosophy, and religion had given him everything he needed to create a new heavens and earth in man’s own preferred image.

The rebuilding project affected three major areas. Man would reconstruct the economic order, the socio-political order, and the natural order. Each of these took polarized forms, two opposite but twin trajectories. The economic rebuilding slowly became the alternative techniques of capitalism and socialism. The socio-political rebuilding led to the parallel projects of liberalism and totalitarianism. The rebuilding of the natural world eventually split into industrial polution with uninhibited scientific manipulation of the elements and radical environmentalism which prizes animals, minerals, and raw “nature” above human flourishing.

While the project had many successes, particularly where it worked by explicitly or implicitly retaining classical assumptions from the old world, and sometimes on its own, it also bore wicked fruit. Wars and rumors of wars, destroying of the earth, neighbor rising against neighbor, rich who sell the poor for a pair of sandals, men who shame themselves with other men, women who think they are men and receive in themselves a due penalty for their anti-transcendant error—all of these began to bleed forth from the new order. These were not so much new phenomena as phenomena with a new historical character and shape. In essence, modern man drove the world a new kind of mad. The new insanity was a profoundly humanistic one. Man artificially constructed a brand new world order in his own depraved and limited image. Yet this image is not only wrong but mortal, produced by radically finite wisdom, ignorant, and subject to corruption. The foundations of modernity were as unstable as man himself, who is but a vapor.

For this reason the wrath of God is coming upon the modern world. As He did to all of the old world orders, He will judge righteously. The societies which have set aside divine givenness for the artifices of men who deem themselves wise and experts will crumble. The Lord will demonlish the artificial world of modern man in all of its parts, and men will seek relief and mercy, but will not find it.

Economics will fail. God will topple the pretensions of the economists, and the rich and the poor will oppose each other. The self-made man will be unmade, and the man with nothing will have even less. Society and politics will fail. People will be divided brother against brother, race against race, class against class, party against party until the house cannot stand. All self-constructed identities and artificial sexualities will fall apart and leave homes broken in every place. The environment will fail. The radicals who wish to use environmentalism to gather power or restructure society will be resisted and fail. Politically-motivated climate change-deniers will be washed away by hurricanes, incinerated by fires, and poisoned by pollutions. Economic, social, and environmental catastrophe will bring the West to its knees.

The modern world invented by rebellious man will pass away. The kingdom of our God will remain forever.

All of this should be taken with a grain of salt. It is oversimplified, stylized, and the eschatological conclusion is obviously guesswork. But it’s what has been whirling around in my head as a late, so take it and do with it what you will.

Modernity, From Original Sin to the Day of the Lord

Homosexuality Then and Now, in Theological Narrative Perspective

A lot of progressive Christians argue that the historical context of the New Testament restricts the scope of the so-called “clobber texts” about homosexuality. Jesus and the Apostles, they say, had no concept of the modern development of a loving, consensual, monogamous homosexual relationship. Therefore in places like Romans 1 where they seemed to condemn gay or lesbian practices, the condemnations were really only limited to the exploitative and/or idolatrous practices of the day, not all homosexuality. We can all agree that prostitution, pedophilia, and cultic sex are wrong, and those are basically the only kinds of homosexual practices the New Testament actually forbids.

My experiment here is to grant their argument and run with it. Let’s say that the progressives are right, that Paul and Jesus knew nothing of the kind of homosexual relationships which occur today. Let’s grant that their condemnation of homosexual practices was contingent on their historical context. In that case, our question for today can be framed as follows: in our present historical context, are the kinds of homosexuality practiced associated with something idolatrous or destructive? I think the answer to this question is still, “Yes,” so that even if the biblical condemnations of homosexuality were context-specific, applying biblical reasoning to our own historical context indicts today’s forms of homosexuality as well.

How do I arrive at this point? I place homosexuality then (Bible times) and now in narrative perspective. Where does homosexuality fit into the wider theological narrative of God, man, Israel, Christ, the Church, and the world? For all my disagreements with him, I think Andrew Perriman gets the logic of Romans 1 more or less right, so I will build from a foundation roughly corresponding to his his narrative account.

Why did Paul speak so strongly against homosexuality in Romans 1? In context, the kinds of homosexuality practiced in Greek and Roman civilization was part of the deterioration of Gentile civilization produced by idolatry. Since as early as Babel, the Gentiles had exchanged the glory of the immortal God for other gods, images of wood and stone. They served the creation rather than the Creator. By taking the Creator out of the picture in exchange for created gods, they paved the way for disorienting the use of all created things, human bodies included. They used their bodies in shameful ways to satisfy their shameful gods in open rebellion against the true Creator God. All of this became particularly acute in the Romans world as the height of pre-Christian, Gentile civilization. The Roman committment to false gods led to decadence and gross abuse of human bodies, which had been made to serve the true God. Thus they received in themselves the due penalty for their error, and God’s wrath was a-comin’.

The situation since then has changed. The pre-Christian Gentile world, the world of the pagan Roman Empire, has been destroyed. It was replaced by Christendom, a world order in which the nations confessed Christ as Lord (however imperfect and problematic this order turned out to be). The Church did its best to construct fitting new culture, new worldview, and new intellectual concepts for this order from reflection on Scripture and Christian tradition, and these came to dominate Christendom. So for a thousand years Christendom remained and the nations remained mostly submissive (at least nominally) to Christian thought and ethics.

But all this began to change around the time of the Enlightenment. The causes of the change are mostly unimportant here. What matters is that there was a new wave of rebellion. The old world rebellion began with worshipping false gods and idols, but the new rebellion was based on worship of man. It produced humanism, materialism, atheism, naturalism, and rationalism. Man no longer felt the need to serve a god, whether a true or false one. Rather, man decided he was able to accomplish all things by himself and be all things to himself. This has had to take a decidedly neo-Gnostic slant. The old pagans saw creation and nature as run by gods, Christendom saw them as the work of the one God, and modern humanism sees them either as shackles of givnenness to be broken or as raw material to be reshaped in man’s preferred image.

The transition from old Christendom worldview to the new humanistic one has been slow, but it has come, like the old pagan system, to express itself in sexual deviance. The Sexual Revolution neatly and naturally followed the rebellious, humanistic spirit of the age to assert human capacity and freedom over and against divine authority. The idea is that humanity is grown-up now: we don’t need old rules supposedly from God to tell us how to handle sexual ethics. We’re now all set to do whatever we please. This led to acceptance of contraception, divorce, sexual activity before marriage, and at this present stage the entire LGBT movement. The modern world’s neo-Gnosticism can be seen here, as well: the natural reproductive order was created before our wills, but for humanity to be all in all we must assert our wills over and against this basic physical component to human existence. Biological sex is unchosen, gifted from God, and if we are to escape God’s dominion we must be able to reconstruct and redefine gender and sex without reference to the realities of the body, or to reshape the body around our conceptions of gender and sex.

I think this narrative makes sense of what has been happening in modern history. The first rebellion put Gentiles under the dominion of false gods, and it led to the degredation of the body in idolatrous rites and decadent sexual arrangements. This new, post-Christendom rebellion puts mankind in the West under no one but himself, and thus leads to the attempt to self-transcend and redefine the body for our own ends and impulses. The old order acknowledged the givenness of reality but refused to honor God for it, and so honored false gods. The new order, in its own attempt to escape God, denies the givenness of reality and seeks to give humanity unlimited power over all things, our own bodies included. It is easy to see how the LGBT movement fits into this narrative.

If the narrative offered above is at all, the progressive argument that biblical prohibitions against homosexuality were only about the context-specific forms of homosexuality which plagued the ancient world does nothing to exonerate homosexuality today. On the contrary, a look at our context reveals how modern homosexuality can also be condemned in a context-specific way, as part of the modern rebellion of humanism, which contrasts with the rebellion condemned in Romans 1 of literal idolatry. Then and now, homosexuality is part of a larger human rebellion against the true God. And this (I think) suggests a deeper link between homosexuality and sin, so that homosexual practices would be likely only to emerge on notable scales in contexts of rebellion. But that would be another post.

Homosexuality Then and Now, in Theological Narrative Perspective