There is no mistaking the presence of unique challenges to belief in our modern day world. Our secular, privatized, consumerist affections have wielded a religion (indeed many religions) that has little or nothing to do with life itself. Coupled with secularism’s privatizing of religion from the public realm, consumerism’s pull creates a context whereby the choice of belief is not only a personal matter, but a matter entirely divorced from the history and communities that inform these beliefs. As professor David Wells notes, “God has been evacuated from the center of our collective life, pushed to the edges of our public square to become an irrelevance to how our world does its business. Marxism rested on a theoretical atheism; our secularized world rests on a practical atheism in the public domain, though one that coexists with private religiosity.”(1) This chasm between public and private, sacred and secular, forces a theology whereby God is largely absent, unknown in the public arena, and silent unless spoken to.
Meanwhile, in conjunction with our evacuation of God and subsequent practical atheism, we live within an understanding of unbounded freedom to pursue and consume whatsoever we will. While we may recognize secularism for what it is, Wells warns: “[W]e do not recognize the corrupting power of our affluence for what it is…. We consider our abundance as essentially harmless and, what is just as important, we have come to need it. The extraordinary and dazzling benefits of our modernized world, benefits that are now indispensable to our way of life, hide the values which accompany them, values which have the power to wrench around our lives in very damaging ways.”(2) Far more than a matter of wealth, our sheer appetites, which we readily appease as if angry gods, bring us to the conclusion that we ourselves are the center of collective life, echoing the call of secularism that God is exactly where God belongs—in quiet, private corners. Even within the church, this outlook is often practically lived if not publicly admitted.
Yet, this dichotomy that is now readily accepted between matters of private faith and public life belies a betrayal of the very identity Jesus sets forth for his followers. The hope within the Christian is not something we are able to keep private—for if the very public act of Christ’s resurrection from the dead was not real, then the very faith our culture would have us keep in private is futile. The events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and the faith that upholds them, do not allow for the dichotomies of public and private, spiritual and physical, sacred and secular. The call of Christ is one that encompasses every possible realm, thus making “private faith” an unintelligible distinction.
Nonetheless, while the challenges of “practical atheism” may indeed be the outworking of a unique cultural moment, it is hardly a new way of life. Though the causes and contexts are certainly different, our current cultural mood is in some ways comparable to the scene Paul discovered in Athens. Standing before these men and women, Paul gently bid them to see that their philosophy amounted to little more than practical atheism. Where there was belief that amounted to very little, where gods were acknowledged but unknown, and worship was offered in ritual, fear, and apathy, Paul set before them the God who is there, the God who is known. While the cultural challenges before us are intricate and unyielding, Christ brings the countercultural hope of a life touched by the God who is there. Practical atheism is unlivable when it is placed beside the one who is known.
Thus we might be encouraged in any attempt to believe, for regardless of the risks and opportunities that fill the world around us, so it is filled of the unfailing love of a present God. And it is this reality that despite ourselves or our obstacles compels the blind to see. On such matters of the Spirit, 18th-century preacher Jonathan Edwards once noted, “Though great use may be made of external arguments…for they may be greatly serviceable to awaken unbelievers, and bring them to serious consideration, and to confirm the faith of true saints… [T]here is no spiritual conviction…but what arises from an apprehension of the spiritual beauty and glory of divine things. And such a direct apprehension is a gift mediated only by the Holy Spirit of God.”(3) In our pluralistic, privatized, and practically atheistic culture this Spirit indeed continues to move.
(1) David Wells, “This Unique Moment: The Changing of the Guard and What It Means For Christians Today,” Modern Reformation, Sept./Oct. Vol. 4, No. 5, 1995, 10.
(2) Ibid., 11.
(3) Jonathon Edwards, Treatise on the Religious Affections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 307.