J Crew, Tennis, and Pilates in an Age of Post Secularism

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Caspar David Friedrich, one of the great German painters, depicted modernity as a figure of a man standing confident upon a raised cliff, his back is towards us, his hair on end, staring out into a misty, gray chasm of mountainous terrain.  The painting is accurately named “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” and I believe it remains an adequate depiction of life in the current, postmodern age, except for one vital correction.  The fog clears.  

This may come as a surprise.  The western world, or for the purpose of this article, America, is in a state of disarray.  Reagan’s dream of strengthening the ladder of opportunity in the eighties has effectively led to the disintegration of the American middle class today.  The very wealthy live together in gated suburbs while the very poor are pushed to the slums.  The front cover of last Saturday’s Los Angeles Times lamented the 58,000 now homeless in LA County, framed next to an article praising the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage.  Jobs for college graduates are scarce; taxes on college loans are steadily increasing.  There is a loss of meaning.

This loss of meaning is understood through three strands: disengaged reason, expressive fulfillment, and a flattened theism.  First, today’s time is categorized through the need for control or disengaged reason.  We must be able to explain away people, places, and things by numbers and method.  If we cannot measure it, it does not exist.  Science has always provided us with answers.  At the time of the Enlightenment these answers were to direct us to God, today we have asked the findings of science to replace God.  Sick or unhappy people take a pill or go to the doctor; autonomous man no longer thinks first to pray. 

This mechanical belief of people, places, and things leaves us with dry bones.  The world and everything in it is no longer understood through relationships, instead everything is useful, and every man an island.  Which leads us to the second strand of expressive fulfillment.  Just as the Enlightenment ended with the Counter-Enlightenment, or a Renaissance in art, music, literature, and overall culture, disengaged reason is followed by expressive fulfillment.  Contemporary man is always seeking to find and discover himself above and against the mass of other people.  The American public, specifically the upper middle class will be sure to shop at particular clothing lines: designer, J Crew, Ann Taylor, they will participate in particular sports: tennis, golf, equestrian, rowing, and they will be in touch with all of the current trends in natural supplements and work out plans (pilates, anyone?)  The problem with all of this, of course, is that we have become so specialized that we have lost our depth.  The fabric that once drew us to function together in civil society has fallen apart.  In all of our desire to belong, we have forgotten our neighbor.

  Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer Above the Sea Fog"

Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer Above the Sea Fog"

A public order of meanings is now an impossibility.  Nietzsche famously said that life must be lived in search of something that provides meaning, that there should be “a long obedience in the same direction,” but today’s postmodern world doesn’t look that way, at least not on the surface.  I think the word postmodern needs revision, or a development that separates itself from Nietzsche’s fear of nihilism.  Instead, I propose that the current age is defined by flattened theism.  This third strand is everywhere.  Think about it, every person, present and past, has or has had an idea of right and wrong.  There is a fascinating and universal moral code of what is good, and what is bad.  All of us in some way or another will agree that people are valuable and worth caring for, we agree to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we agree that torture and stealing is wrong, even and despite the fact that we lack a language to tell others why.  We live in what Max Weber calls a disenchanted world, where the language of facts and science is cut off from the deeper more personal language of values, religion, and goals.  Thus today’s age is categorized by a moral code that lacks empowerment. 

But I agree with Charles Taylor.  I believe that high standards need strong sources.  And I agree that there is a fundamental lack of love in our society.  American poet T.S. Eliot lamented this iron cage of disenchantment.  He wrote in the early 1900s, in response to the difficult times ahead.  One of my favorite verses comes from a collection of poems within Prufrock and Other Observations, titled Preludes.  After describing the darkness and emptiness of his surroundings, Eliot says this, “I am moved by fancies that are curled / around these images, and cling: / the notion of some infinitely gentle / infinitely suffering thing.”  Yes, the infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing is Jesus.  And yes, I believe that our culture is returning and will return to Christ.

Faith that was once passed down vertically from parents to children is now being passed horizontally.  God is love, and because we have been created in the Image of God, love however twisted and distorted in our pasts, can never die.  A quote from Govert Buijs, “There is also present in every human being, in everyone’s biography-although harrowing sometimes in cases of systematic neglect, in the matter of absence present, so if longing for that which was never there then too, deeply suspect, should have been.”  Love always wins.  Reread the last chapter of Revelation.  Jesus returns.

So what does this mean for faith-based education?  Everything.  American Christians must fight against anti-intellectualism.  In 2000 Alan Wolfe published an article in The Atlantic titled “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” he concludes with the following, “So long as they continue to marginalize themselves, evangelicals will be unable to equal the accomplishments of the generation that brought us Marsden, Noll, Plantinga, and Wolterstorff.  That would be the true scandal of the Evangelical Mind.”  We live in a culture stripped of grace, and we are called to be a people of hope.  In order to do this, to bring hope to every field, every sphere of life, evangelicals must invest in faith-based education.  We must stop marginalizing ourselves with the influence of liberalism and instead we must busy ourselves with the pursuit of justice and the common good.

-Courtney Kane is completing her Masters in Philosophy (Christian Studies) at the Free University of Amsterdam, working towards a PhD. She believes principled pluralism models a third way beyond liberalism, and that it can speak to the growing class divide in the United States and United Kingdom.  Courtney has discovered her passion for post-secularism through the work of Charles Taylor, Max Weber, the novels of Walker Percy, and the poetry of Rainer Rilke and T.S. Eliot.  She writes for the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. and graduated from Gordon College with a degree in Political Science.