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T11e only preaching winch is up to date for r:very
time is preaching this eternity, which is opened to
us in the Bible alone-the eternal of holy love,
grace and redemption, the eternal and immutable
morality of saving grace for our indelible sin . •..
Let [the preacher J state the problem … powerfally
. .. but let him answer it with the final
answer Christ left . •.. For He is the answer that
they but crave.
-P. T. Forsyth1
How can we communicate the gospel ofJesus Christ
to our modern culture? One of the first writers to
ask that question was P. T. Forsyth, whose classic Positive
Preaching and the Modern Mind was written in l 907 and
yet is remarkably up to date. Forsyth identified a key
theme of modernity: that modern people believe “we are
our own authority.” This is “the popular version [of the
modern mind] with which the preacher has to contend.”‘
By identifying one of the main narratives of modernity
and laying out a way to deconstruct it from within, Forsyth
was a pioneer and pathfinder.
As prescient as Forsyth was, things have changed in the
century that has passed since he wrote. 3 Many have labeled
these changes “the postmodern turn.” The modern era ,
we are told, placed its confidence in reason and science
while the postmodern age is marked by a loss of the belief
that we can achieve a rational, controllable order or arrive
at certainty of any kind at all. There has been a turn toward
experience and openness. This is all true, but it overlooks
the fact that underneath the discontinuities with the
modern past there are even stronger continuities.
Perhaps the root idea of modernity, as Forsyth saw, is
the overturning of all authority outside the self. In early
modernity-the seventeenth through the nineteenth
centuries-we were told to lay aside all tradition and religious
belief and arrive at truth using our reason alone.
This was an unprecedented move toward individualism,
the idea that each person had within him- or herself the
capability of discovering truth withoutthe aid of ancient
wisdom or divine revelation. In earlier times it had still
been thought that there were moral absolutes and natural
laws that had to be followed but now it was sat’d we could discover them on our own’ through’ our individ’ ual
powers of exhaustive surveillance.
Since World War II, however, we have moved into a time
in which the whole culture attributes fur more importance
and power to the individual self than ever before. No longer
do we think we have the power merely to discover moral
Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind 123
reality and truth-we think we have the power to actnally
create it. A famous line in an opinion of the Supreme Court,
Planned Parenthood v. Casey, captures this principle well:
“At the heart ofliberty is the right to define one’s own concept
of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and o~ the
mystery of human life.”‘ We now believe that there 1s no
“external cosmic order … to which we must conform” but
that truth can be “constructed according to the individual’s
will.”‘ We have moved from the ancient understanding that
we should “conform the soul to reality” all the way into an
age where we “subdue reality to our [soul’s] wishes.”” What
we have now is less a reversal of modernity than an intensification
of its deepest pattems.7 So it would be better to talk
of our late-modem rather than our postmodern times.
In earlier modern times, religion was still seen as a good
thing-or at least a benign one. There was still a general
understanding that society should be built upon shared
moral norms that people should submit to, and religion
was one of the things that helped people live by those
moral norms. That has changed. Columbia humanities
profi:ssor Mark Lilla writes that when Jesus told Nicodemus
in John 3 that he had to be “born again,” what he “seems
to be telling Nicodemus is that he must recognize his own
insufficiency-that he will have to turn his back on his autonomous,
seemingly happy lifi: and be reborn as a human
being who understands his dependency on something
greater. … That seems a radical challenge to our freedom,
and it is.”8 Lilla is assuming the autonomy on which late
modernity pins its hopes. In the face of this, religion is now
almost the ultimate enemy. That is why for many today
religious faith seems so unimaginable as to be crazy.
How then do we preach to the late-modem mind! The
key to p.reaching to a culture, as we have said, is to identify
its baseline cultural narratives. To those we now tum.
The Hidden BeliefWeb of Secularity
T~e late-modern mind presents itself as something like
this. We have come to realize that we don’t need God to
explain the world we see-science does that job for us.
We don’t need God or religion to be moral, to love and
work for a better world, or to have meaning and fulfillment
in life. What we need is to be free to live life as we
see fit and to work together to make the world a better
and more just place to live. Religion gets in the way of all
this-it constrains our freedom to live as we wish and
divides us so we can’t work together.
Philosopher Charles Taylor calls this the “subtraction
story” of secularity. Science and objective reason, it is said,
have simply subtracted God from the imagination of mod·
e~ people and left behind secularity. It operates objectively,
without the need for faith and belief: frees us from value
judgments, narrow-mindedness, and p~ejudice; offers moral
support for equality, human rights, and the betterment of
humankind; and promises a life of personal meaning, freedom,
and peace of mind-all based on human resources
alone. Taylor doesn’t buy this at all. In A Secular Age he
argues that secular people are not more objective but in·
stead have embraced a new, constructed web of alternate beliefS
about the nature of things that are not self.evident to
all, are no more empirically provable than any other reli·
Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind 125
gious beliefs, require enormous leaps of faith, and are subject
to their own array of serious problems and objections!
It is not natural to disbelieve in God. Mark Lilla writes
that to most human beings, deep interest in the supernatural,
the afrerlife, transcendence, and God “comes naturallyit’s
indifference to them that must be learned.”10 Consider
the late-modern view of our humanity itsel£ Many secular
people hold that people are a complex of chemicals without
souls, that love itself is just a chemical reaction that helps
people pass on their genes, that when loved ones die they
~mply cease to exist, and that there is no right ot wrong
outside of what we in our minds choose to feel. The universe
is just a cold, immense mechanism and science merely a way
to figure out how the giant dock works. “Reason [then]
cannot offer us ecstatic fulfillment, a sertSC of community, ot
wipe away the tears of those who mourn.”” This view of the
cosmos contradicts many of our deepest intuitions about
love, purpose, and the nature of human beings. We are to
hold that we are products of an impersonal universe yet be
committed to human rights. Taylor and others e.xplain that
it took many generations to construct a ·way for human beings
to acclimate to such a counterintuitive way to live.”
What is unique about late modernity in history’s marketplace
of worldviews is this. Nonsecular cultures are
overt about their faith, and their members acknowledge
the fuith nature of their convictions. Many late-modern
secular people, however, don’t see or grant the leaps of
faith they are taking. Their commitments are, in Michel
Foucault’s terminology, “unthoughts”-belids that seem
to be not beliefa but unchallengeable, self-evident common
sense.” These unthoughts achieve currency in the
form of sayings or slogans, which are stated as unassail·
able, debate·ending truisms but contain no particular
justification.” For example, Taylor quotes Alan Ehren·
halt’s study of 1950s Chicago, in which he says:
Most of us in America believe a few simple
propositions that seem so clear and self-evident
they scarcely need to be said. Choice is a good
thing in life. Authority is inherently suspect;
nobody should have the right to tell others
what to think or how to behave. Sin isn’t per·
sonal. … Human beings are creatures of the
society they live in …. They are powerful ideas.
They all have the ring of truth.”
These ideas do indeed have deep resonance in our cul·
ture, but Taylor shows why, if any of them are given sus·
rained reflection, we must conclude that “it is absurd to
adopt any of these … propositions as universal truths ….
To have any kind oflivable society some choices have to be
restricted, some authorities have to be respected, and
some individual responsibility has to be assumed.”16
. In order to preach to the secular person, we must resist
secularity’s own self-understanding. Secularity is not
simply an absence of belief. Christians often accept this
claim and respond by getting out their proofs and other
rational bona !ides. Not so fast, say Taylor and many oth·
ers. Secularism is its own web of beliefs that should be
open to examination. That’s what we will do now.
As we do so we should bear in mind something touched
on at the end of the last chapter. I am speaking as if the
Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind 127
Christian mind differs from the late-modern mi~d. It does
indeed, and yet we should acknowledge the reahty that all
Christians living in late-modem times are somewhat
shaped by the fullowing narratives. That. is not necessarily
all bad because, as we will see, the narratIVes are grounded
to a degree in Christian ideas and therefore are partly
right. Yet Christian believers in Westei:n societies are generally
too influenced by these narratives, and we ~now
why-they are so pervasive, and felt to be so self-evident,
that they are not visible as belieft to those who hold them. So
here we “make them visible,” not only to engage and chalknge
them in nonbelievers but also to help us as believers
avoid being too shaped by them.
The Narratives of Late Modernity
What then are the basic cultural narratives or “un-
‘ ‘ thoughts” of the late-modem mind? I will describe five
distinct narratives-particular beliefs or story lines about
human rationality, history, society, morality, and identity.
First, however, I’ll sketch where they came from.
In his chapter “The Impersonal Order” Taylor srum’S
that these five late-modern cultural narratives originally
grew out of Christianity and its interaction with the classical
paganism of antiquity.” In response to the Greek.
philosophers’ views of the material world, of history, and
of human nature, Christian teachers gave new answers
on the basis of the Bible and Christian doctrine. The differences
between Christianity and paganism ran along
what Taylor called these five “axes.”
Before Christianity emerged
The body and material world are
less important and real than the
realm ol ideas.
Hisrory is cyclical, wtth no direction.
Individuals are unimportant. Only
the clan and tribe matter.
Human choices don’t matter; we are
Emotions and feelings should not be
explored, only overcome.
Alter Christianity came to tf1e West
The body and material worid
are good. Improving them is
important. Science is possible.
History is making progress.
All individuals are important,
have dignity, and deserve
our help and respect.
Human choices matter and
we are responsible for our actions.
Emotions and feelings are good and
important. They should be
understood and directed.
~e basic reason for the shift, according to many scholars,
15 that before Christianity virtually all cultures had a
fundamentally impersonal view of the universe. The Greeks
b. elieved that the logos behind the universe was a rational ,
Impersonal principle. Eastern cultures believed that all individual
personality was a temporary illusion. Christianity,
by stark contrast, saw the universe as the loving and creative
act of a tripersonal God, who made people for personal
relationship with him, as selves that last forever. All
the Christian ideas above flowed naturally from the idea
that the purpose of all things was “communion” with the
personal God.”
Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind 129
No ne of these ideas-the goodness of the materia. l, t.hfie
progress of history, the dignity of individuals, the sigm –
cance of choices, and the value of emotions-made any
sense in an impersonal universe and therefore they had
never arisen. Nietzsche’s great critique of modern secular
humanism strikes at the irony of this point: Though none
of these (basically Christian) moral ideals rationally ~ollows
from an impersonal universe, late modermty has inherited
them, intensified and absolutized them, and ‘.”‘t
them completely loose from any transcendent grounding
whatsoever. It has created a moral value matrix out of the
fruit of Christian ideas and severed the root. Now all these
ideals must be held in the face of what is thought to be a
completely impersonal universe, even more imperson~l
than the ones believed in by ancient societies because It
has no supernatural or spiritual aspect to it at all.19
The late-modern positions on these five issues comprise
the late-modern baseline cultural narratives, or “unthoughts.”
1. The rationality narrative. The Greek philosophers saw
the material world (including the body) as subordinate, unimportant,
and unreal, but Christianity saw them as the
good creations of God, with a dependable, objective reality
of their own. Many have recognized that this Christian view
of a world crafted by a rational, personal being was an important
!Oundation for the development of modem science.’°
Late modernity, however, picked up the Christian
view and amplified it to say that the natural world is the only
reality. It believes that everything has a physical cause and
explanation-even love and moral !l:elings are functions of

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