Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at https://xastanford.org/summer-reading
This week’s reading was an interesting start to Hunter’s final essay. I’m curious to see where he goes with it.
His overall point is pretty simple: modern culture undermines faith. He frames the challenge in two terms: difference and dissolution, which seem to roughly correspond to pluralism and pervasive uncertainty (the sense that no source of information is thoroughly trustworthy).
The challenge of pluralism is that it causes any given belief to seem arbitrary.
In [pluralistic] circumstances, one is no longer enveloped by a unified and integrated normative universe but confronted by multiple and fragmented perspectives, any or all of which may seem, on their own terms, eminently credible. This social situation obligates one to choose, but once the choice is made—given the ubiquitous presence of alternatives in a market culture oriented toward consumer choice—one must reaffirm that choice again and again. These are social conditions that make faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural. (page 203)
It is true that there are religious virtuosi who maintain strong beliefs on their own with little or no social support but these individuals are rare. Most of us, however, need the reinforcement that social institutions provide to believe coherently and live with integrity. There is a sociological truth, then, to the statement extra ecclesiam nulla salus; that “there is no salvation outside of the church.” Strong and coherent beliefs require strong institutions enveloping those who aspire to believe. These are the conditions that turn belief into settled convictions. (page 202)
The challenge of pervasive uncertainty is that it undermines all meaning, including religious meaning. Hunter spends some time talking about modern technology and media and how disconnected and superficial they cause our perception of the world to be.
An environment that is constituted by surface images and simulations and that is fragmented and flattened out cannot help but undermine the reality to which Christian belief and faith point. The words we use simply fail to have the same kind of traction they once did. In such a context, it is difficult to imagine that there is a spiritual reality more real than the material world we live in. Neither is such an environment conducive to depth in reflection, relationships, or commitments. It is difficult to discover the quality of intimacy in a friendship or in love that is nurtured through time and attentiveness to the subtleties of need, memory, joy, and hurt. So too, it is difficult to forge moral commitments capable of enduring the vagaries of hardship, boredom, failure, and even triumph. A world created by these technologies may not occlude depth in these ways but it will war against it. (page 210)
It is critical to note that [the effect of pluralism, pervasive uncertainty, and related trends] is primarily manifested not as problems that can be seen, objectified, analyzed, and responded to but as a complex array of assumptions so deeply taken for granted that they cannot be fully grasped much less questioned. Culture is most powerful, as I have argued, when it is perceived as self-evident. (211)
If you resonate with these observations, I recommend you take a look at one of our recent summer reading projects, How (Not) To Be Secular by James K. A. Smith. It’s a helpful (and short) book that deals with the nature of faith in modern secular contexts. A good summary of it is at The Gospel Coalition.
Finally, something worth remembering at Stanford:
But radical skepticism leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare. Apart from a few celebrity nihilists and a few disaffected graduate students, there are actually few consistent relativists or committed postmodernists for the simple reason that it is not livable. (page 207)