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A Fractured Society: The Necessity of Re-Evangelism
So how have we come to this point in the history of western civilization? What has caused this fractured society where re-evangelism has become a necessity? To understand the current situation we must understand the precipitating events that have laid the foundation for it. Many exhaustive studies have been composed covering this; I will offer only a brief overview.
Jimmy Long, in his book Generating Hope puts forward the analogy of a hurricane as being similar to what a cultural climate is like in the midst of change. In his analogy he deals with the fact that a hurricane has two distinct and yet intertwined parts. The first part is what’s called a feeder band; these winds are responsible for most of the devastation wrought by the storm. The second part is the steering winds which are close to the eye of the storm and are often of little concern to those dealing with the destruction of the feeder bands. Never the less both winds must be analyzed in order to have a clear understanding of the magnitude of the storm.
So from whence have we come? Generally the history of the west is divided up into three major periods: the Dark and Middle Ages, the Renaissance or pre-Modern, the Modern or what Dietrich Bonhoefer called “the world come of age”.
As the Roman Empire began to collapse around 476 AD, many Romans began to follow the teachings of the newly legalized Roman Catholic Church. The destruction of the Western Roman Empire by the Germanic barbarians and the conflict that followed continued on through out several centuries in what is commonly called the Dark and Middle Ages. During this period of time the Church became the one source of stability as they exerted political and social influence forming what came to be known as Christendom.
Following the Middle Ages came the time of the Renaissance. Hailed as the age of rebirth, the renaissance men made huge advances in both medicine and science. They saw themselves as returning mankind to the glory of ancient Greece and Rome. They questioned everything and pushed aside what they saw as the narrow philosophy of academic, bible-based knowledge and education in exchange for the liberal arts and the Humanities. This Renaissance grew into what is often referred to as the Age of Enlightenment.
During the Age of Enlightenment Men were convinced that they were emerging from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a new age enlightened by reason, science, and a respect for humanity. Of the basic assumptions and beliefs common to philosophers and intellectuals of this period, perhaps the most important was an abiding faith in the power of human reason. People came to assume that through the use of reason, an unending progress would be possible; progress in knowledge, in technical achievement, and even in moral values. The Church began to be seen as the principal force that had enslaved the human mind in the past and as such it was attacked with intensity and ferocity for what was considered to be an abuse of its wealth, political power, and it’s suppression of reason.
Slowly but effectively the under girding of absolutes was eroded, laying the groundwork for the deconstruction which was to come in the form of modernism. Although scholars disagree as to precisely when the modern period began, they mostly use the term modern to refer to the early 20th century in Europe and the Americas, as well as in other regions under Western influence. It is generally held that the change occurred when the dream of utopia on Earth was crushed by worldwide conflict. Even good men of strong Postmillennial theology, were taken back by these events.
As is always the case however, the philosophical groundwork was laid long before the Great Wars. Culture is to society what grammar is to language, we are governed by it even when we are unfamiliar or unaware of it intricacies. As such we must look to the work of the existentialists who prepared society for the deconstruction that followed the disillusionment of those Wars and brought us to where we are.
Soren Kierkegaard is considered the father of Existentialism. He was a Danish theologian and philosopher who lived from 1813 – 1855. Although he did study to enter the ministry, he became disillusioned with both reason and systematic theology. Essentially, Kierkegaard declared war on the idealism of the George Hegel who believed that all of life could be summed up as logically known propositions. Kierkegaard dealt with three stages of life: the aesthetic, ethical, and religious. The aesthetic is concerned with self and immediate needs the ethical with the will and the law, and the religious with God and the subjective experience of Him. Faith to Kierkegaard is not simply assent to a proposition, but rather it is submission to a person.
In the theistic realm, men such as the Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth worked off of Kierkegaard’s concept of infinite qualitative distinction, which is to say that God is totally different then His creation and it is therefore impossible for reason to provide actual knowledge of Him. It is true that the knowledge of God is only the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life and this sense we are all, broadly speaking, Existentialists. Yet when this barrier between reason and non-reason is erected, it leaves us with a highly privatized faith that can not be spoken of as propositional truth, only personal truth.
In the secular realm, Kierkegaard’s ideas were picked up and expanded by men such as Karl Jaspers and Martian Heidegger who expanded his destructive analysis of traditional philosophy. Others followed them such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. For these men the beginning of Existentialism was not a belief in God but rather a lack of belief in anything. As Camus put it:
“The World has become absurd and with out meaning, humans are with out meaning and purpose. Reduced to despair and depression, humans have only one ground of hope, themselves.”
Existentialism is defined by Webster’s dictionary as, “the philosophical doctrine derived from Kierkegaard that man is not apart of an ordered meta-physical scheme, but that individuals must create their own being, each in his own specific situation and environment.” In other words, the metaphysical nature of the universe is chaotic, and ontologically speaking only what we experience is real. Epistemologically speaking, truth is dependent upon the individual’s personal choice because there is no logical ordered system to refer back to. Aesthetics, ethics, and axiology all become subjectively pragmatic because the only standard of measurement in Existentialism is one‘s own experiences and preferences.
From the time of Kierkegaard on there have been two strains of Existentialism one atheistic and the other theistic. It is vital that we understand the effects of both. For theism, this subjective stance on the nature of the knowledge of God has fostered an anti-intellectualism that has contributed to the marginalizing of Christianity in our culture. For the atheistic it has given birth to an all-embracing pluralism where personal freedom is the only truth. Where this pluralism empties life of a higher standard then the self, there ceases to be any motive to cultivate character over personal success.
Looking back on the 20th century, author Marvin Rosenthal writes:
“There is a feeling that the planet is coming unglued- that foundations are disintegrating- men in government, philosophy, business, science, education, and the arts not only do not have the answers to the most pressing and crucial issues of the present hour, but they are not even asking the right questions. Never mind the light at the end of the tunnel. Informed, honest voices are asking, ‘Where is the tunnel?’… Men no longer have a foundation upon which to build, and no absolutes as a standard of measure.
Thus we find ourselves now in a postmodern and post-Christian world. The inability of the Church to truly interact with and answers the questions of the culture has left the impression that people are condemned by chance to live listless lives, powerless to control anything, and forever unstable. A generation of people who fear they are alone, cosmic orphans lost in a perpetual state of existential dread and filled with shame. As Martin Rosenthal said, this is a generation which has been left without answers to the most pressing questions, and without the hope that they can even discover the answers.
 Jimmy Long, Generating Hope (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 11-12.
 Stanley Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 151.
 Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000, “Roman Empire” [CD-ROM] (Microsoft, 1993-1999).
 Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000, “Renaissance” [CD-ROM] (Microsoft, 1993-1999).
 Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000, “Age of Enlightenment” [CD-ROM] (Microsoft, 1993-1999).
 Marvin Rosenthal, The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (Nashville: Nelson, 1990), 50.
 David Wells. Losing Our Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1998), 61.
 Volume Library, “Existentialism” (Nashville: Southwestern, 2004), 14:108.
 Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 50.
 Ibid., 52.
 Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1992), 91.
 Norman Geisler, Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 32.
 Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: A brief History (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999), 647.
 Chuck Colson & Nancy Percy, How Now Shall We Then Live (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1999), 23.
 J.P. Mooreland, Love the Lord with all Your Mind (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1997), 21.
 Francis Shaffer, How Shall We Then Live (Wheaton: Crossway, 1976), 202.
 William K. Kilpatrick, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 27.
 Marvin Rosenthal, The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (Nashville: Nelson, 1990), 39.