Many observers of Western culture see a pattern of quest taking shape. Young people, and now increasingly middle-age people, are turning to drugs in an effort to find meaning where there seemingly is no meaning. The basic units of society, such as the family, are continually being questioned. Instant intimacy is attempted in group marriages, encounter groups, and other forms of association. Our literature, particularly the theater of the absurd and the writings of the existentialists, holds forth the sense of the futility of existence. Western man is striving for something that is lacking in his life. What is the relation of the Church to this pattern? And what role does the Church have in future developments in Western culture?

What is occurring now in the developed countries has been predicted by sociologists for over a hundred years. Marx, de Tocqueville, Weber, and others have all cautioned that increasing individualization and materialism, coupled with the flourishing of the structures needed to control a mass society, would lead to the inevitable depersonalization of man. We see this today. What we are experiencing, then, is the culmination of ideas planted during the Renaissance, coming into full flower in the Enlightenment, and now bearing fruit as contemporary man becomes detached from the experience of community and from any system of clear moral purpose. Once man enjoyed a secure relation with others in a community, finding there some degree of emotional fulfillment and personal intimacy. Now he experiences shattering individualism. He exists as a transient, self-seeking individual, having shallow and ephemeral relations with other self-seeking individuals. He has little or no moral commitment.

The institutional church must take a part of the blame for this state of affairs. It has been one of the major guardians of the Western value system. But it allowed itself to be largely seduced by the system of nineteenth-century thought that was based upon a materialistic science, objectification of belief, and rationalization of life. Moreover, the institutional church adopted worship forms that suited the then prevalent cultural demands for individual autonomy, and these worked against the functioning of Christian community.

This system of thought seeks a natural order in everything, and looks with disdain upon the idea of a spiritual world. Much of the Church adopted this particular science model in order to be “relevant.” But now this model, one that was taken to rule out spiritual belief as irrational, is held by most scientists to be hopelessly outmoded.

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The tragedy is that some theologians and most lay thinkers don’t realize this. They are still trying to suit their beliefs to a model of science that has long since then been abandoned by theoretical science. Their framework of thought is still mechanistic and materialistic while contemporary science is becoming much less so. They are still thinking in terms of “objects” and “forces” and laws of cause and effect within a three-dimensional world. In the world of theoretical science today, things have changed. Substance and “thingness” have taken on a quite different, rather immaterial, almost metaphysical dimension. And some scientists, especially the astrophysicists, are talking about a universe that can be explained only in terms of more than three dimensions. They are suggesting that the universe is much more complicated than the mechanistic model held it to be.

But the damage has been done. With the acceptance of the nineteenth-century science model came an acceptance of a perverse form of early humanism. The model of man most congruous with this scientific model was born in Enlightenment thought and eventually led to Marx’s synthesis of Feuerbach’s and Hegel’s work. Using this approach, modern man was able to redefine his conception of both God and himself. Man could be viewed entirely as a product of his environment, and therefore as a being who could largely determine his own destiny. Man had within himself the power to be perfect. He could become godlike. (Incidentally, we should remember that Marx only articulated what was, with the exception of a very few thinkers such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, the dominant theme in Western thought at that time.) Finally, this knowledge system was solidified by the Darwinistic explanation of human origins (as set in deliberately polemical form by Huxley), which freed man from acknowledging any sort of creator. Creation was only an accident.

These events set the stage for significant developments in society. The new model of science and of man brought into question the biblical norms upon which Western culture was based. These biblical norms and their supporting value systems, which give meaning to the societal rules of conduct, have undergone, and are still undergoing, severe questioning. They have been systematically undermined by many so-called scientists and their fellow-traveler theologians. An example is the recent attacks on the institutional structure of the family, especially by psychiatrists who are posing as scientists, with help along the way by many “progressive” clergymen.

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As Max Weber ably pointed out at the beginning of this century, this questioning, or what he termed “rationalization,” of the value system leads to a “mechanizing and regimenting of society,” and this rationalized, regimented society has no place for any form of the unexplainable. Hence, in breaking with traditional values man gets transient freedom but gives up important rights. As the system of values becomes weakened, the societal rules of conduct begin to give way, since rules not supported by values that give them meaning will simply not be obeyed. In time the façade of civilization begins to crumble. As the usual means of regulating behavior disappear, we are faced with the prospect of either anarchy or an entirely unknown form of civilization.

Now, the Church’s response to this has been noteworthy. The liberal wing of the Church discovered it had a value problem, since it had set aside many of the old biblical norms, even the authority of Scripture itself. Consequently, in a search for purpose the liberal church turned to social action based on ethics devoid of theology. However, a system of ethics without the authority of the Bible and the charisma of the risen Christ tends to become rather irrelevant; in this situation everyone can be—and is—his own ethicist. Without the traditional belief in a divine Saviour, without the acceptance of scripturally based supernaturalism, the institutional church becomes merely another of many voluntary social organizations, its voice lost in a plethora of demands from other competing social groupings.

I do not mean to imply that the Church has no business articulating ethical issues. If the Church as the body of Christ is to be salt or light in this world, it had better be proclaiming biblical ethical viewpoints. What I am urging is the need to reexamine the traditional underpinnings and to show others that the Christian Church must have Christ as its norm before it can make meaningful value statements. Furthermore, the ethical teachings put forth by the Church must be clearly free of cultural and ideological bias. Too often even evangelical churchmen speaking in the name of Jesus Christ make moral pronouncements that are more cultural than Christian. Christians must realize that the Church is by nature and intent supracultural, and that Christian ethical judgments apply when the situation warrants, regardless of what the prevailing political and cultural ethos may be.

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The conservative wing of the Church is also a part of this problem. Since the early-twentieth-century schism with the “modernists,” conservatives have tended to abandon social action, concentrating their attention on the areas of salvation and individual piety. While this wing has held to biblical absolutes and maintained traditional values and beliefs, albeit with some cultural baggage thrown in, it has sadly neglected both social action and the development of Christian community. The results have hurt both the Church and the surrounding culture.

That the biblical view of man is not man the individual but rather man in community with others has not really gotten through to most of us evangelicals. We have neglected the sense of biblical community evident in both Old and New Testaments. In fact, we often rail against communal forms of any kind, since to us they smack of “socialism.” In so doing we slight the implications of the radical identification Christ makes between himself and the Church. We also ignore, at great cost, the strong interdependencies that the mystical corporate Church must foster for individual Christians.

The evangelical church allowed itself to be seduced into accepting the prevailing cultural ideas, much as the liberal church did. In its case, however, the acceptance was of individualism as the dominant life-style, and of a worship format in which a non-participatory audience is directed by a strong, authoritarian leader. The result has been that members of the church relate to one another in a very superficial way.

Besides undermining the biblical view of the Church as a body, the Church by its neglect of community has (1) allowed its members to become estranged just as the unchurched members of society are estranged, and (2) failed to operate as a crucial primary group, or basic unit, in our society. The second of these results means that a portion of what should be the socio-emotional function of this primary group has been passed on to the only remaining primary group in our culture, the nuclear family. Small wonder that the family becomes emotionally overloaded and often cannot supply the emotional gratification and support its members need for life in a complex and alienated culture. The result is increasing deterioration of the family unit.

What hope is there for the future? First, the Church alone has the potential of developing true community in a society in which community has almost totally disappeared. We can take our light out from under the basket and refuse to be part of the individualistic forms of association that prevail in the surrounding culture. We can begin to relate to one another as independent members of the body of Christ. At the present time such communal concern may have connotations that some will say are “socialistic” and run counter to the entrenched tradition of American individualism. If so, too bad. It is high time we Christians decide for ourselves what our associational forms will be, rather than conforming to the cultural imperatives of the surrounding pagan society. The Holy Spirit appears to be doing this at the present; we are beginning to see the development of Christian communities.

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Second, Christians must not be ashamed of supernaturalism just because some pseudo-scientists claim it is passé. We must strongly re-identify ourselves with the supernatural and deal with the transcendent nature of man. Oddly enough, while a significant portion of the institutional church turns its back on spiritual phenomena, the society around us is becoming increasingly wrapped up in metaphysical pursuits. The occult explosion is clear evidence of this. The time is ideal for the Church to move to fill the spiritual emptiness of our culture.

Finally, we must not be afraid to provide normative, moral guidelines for ourselves and for our culture. For a long time we have been afraid to counter the spurious morality offered by the opinion-setters of the mass society. We had better be quite sure, however, that our guidelines are firmly grounded in biblical principles rather than in cultural notions or, worse yet, in the transient theories of the social and behavioral sciences. Contemporary culture is fast approaching a state of “anomie,” a collapse of the social structures governing a society, a condition of normlessness. The Church can do much to help restore the true ends of culture by acting to supply normative direction.

The end of the age may be close at hand. It is time to put our thoughts and goals into proper perspective and earnestly seek God’s will for his body. The heathen will always rail at the Church. It is time to stand where necessary against the demands of the culture and to do God’s will as a people.

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