Having speculated a little about how the prevailing winds of modernist culture affect our perceptions of the present, I now want to think about how we face the future. Which in some ways can have an even more dehumanising impact. And yet again, I need to say at the outset that there is a valid counter-argument to each point. But why should simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with oneself get in the way of a blog-post?
The Presumption of Inevitable Progress
Last week I noted the simple but inescapable fact of post-Enlightenment Modernism’s astonishing success. One reason was its insidious ability to appropriate the key elements of a Christian theistic worldview, in the rather mistaken presumption that they will still work without theism. A theistic understanding of history and the cosmos in atheist clothing. Which doesn’t really work – as many postmoderns have gleefully exposed. Central is the notion that history is linear, with a beginning, a process and a conclusion. In other words, we’re all heading somewhere. Even the most cursory reading of the New Testament will show that this is shared with the Christian worldview.
But secularised, it is precisely the sort of thinking that lies behind the barracking cry that ‘history is on our side‘. Marx, for one, saw full communism as the logical outcome of this relentless progress. As my crude little graphic shows, the assumption was that it was absolutely inevitable after ‘history’ charted her stately course from feudalism to socialism (via various other stages en route).
That looks absurd post-1989. But capitalism was hardly the unsullied victor either, and 89 was far from the end of history as Fukuyama hubristically suggested. Progress… really? In some things perhaps. But are we honestly saying that everything is better? Or is it just a question of the passage of time, with the brand new dawn just around the corner… Try telling that to voters in Greece or Spain.
But I’m getting off the point. And that is that we have unconsciously breathed in the assumption that everything always improves and makes progress. Now don’t panic. I’m not going to launch into the Luddite’s complaint that the opposite is the case. Things aren’t necessarily worse either. They just are. Some things are better; some things are worse. But little is inevitable.
So what, you might well ask? Well perhaps because it shares the Christian worldview’s linear nature, we can mistakenly assume that modernism’s vision of progress is essentially the same. But that’s not the case.
The Problems of a Planned Future
One of the many inconsistencies of Modernism is that while progress to utopia is deemed inevitable, action, sometimes violent and even revolutionary, is a prerequisite to achieving utopia. Pragmatism becomes the order of the day. And the ends justify the means, especially if both the goal and the actors are assumed to be essentially good. It’s then all a matter of calculating the correct strategy. Simple really. Like cranking the handle on a new-fangled machine during the industrial revolution. Because life is just like clockwork, isn’t it? Or just like a military campaign. And they always go well.
(i) The hubris of strategy?
Strategy… hmmm. I think I’ve developed a bit of an allergy to the word. Mainly because of working in East Africa for 4 years. We make our plans and have our strategies. And within 12.37 minutes of putting them into action, we’re flat on your face. We’re at place A. We’ve decided we need to get to place B. And so we employ methods P,Q, and R – and usually find that the only thing we’ve (in)gloriously achieved is a flat tyre at place W.
The problems with applying a modernist mindset to kingdom ministry are many:
- We are oftennot sufficiently steeped in kingdom values to discern what our ministry goals should be – if we’re not careful, we’re more concerned with the increase in our crowd, our prestige, our methodology than with seeing the kingdom grow. This is empire building not harvest growth. How often do you come across a new ministry vision that does NOT involve the expansion of the particular ministry the visionary is involved in. But I’m getting silly now. You can’t exactly have a vision for someone else’s ministry… can you?
- Such flawed goals inevitably lead to flawed means. And because of our pragmatic age, we’ll do whatever ‘works’. For ministry is just about cranking the right handles to achieve the right results. Isn’t it?
- But the real problem is how do we actually know any of this? How do we know if this or that particular strategy will achieve anything like what we hope it will achieve. We have the Scriptures of course – and they change everything. That’s not the problem. The flaw derives from my own handling and appropriation of them.
Now, as I said, so I repeat. I’m well aware of the counter-arguments – and mildly convinced by them. But the emphasis is on the ‘mildly’. After all, the apostle Paul was a driven pioneer who had extraordinary energy and strategic thinking. He had his plans (e.g. to preach in Bithynia to reach Spain, to prioritise (initially at least) the Jewish community in each city he visited). Not even he could do everything – you have to play to your strengths, make the most of the time, do what you can, etc, etc, etc.
But this is the point. Paul was flexible. He wasn’t wedded to his strategies. For you can’t apply engineering or technological models indiscriminately to human life or society. There are always too many factors involved to know what ‘will work.’ Humans are not androids.
And Paul detected divine providence when his strategies didn’t work. He never made it to Bithynia – but came to Macedonia instead; he never reached Spain but ended up dying in Rome. But if we’re too modernist, we’ll find such a loose grip on strategies hard to copy – we’ll start making judgments about the apparent strategic value this opportunity, that meeting, this person. Which is where we come unstuck. I have preached on The Good Samaritan a number of times and have often made this point. If the reason the Priest and Levite failed to help the dying man was their commitment to legalistic holiness, our contemporary excuse for not ‘going to do likewise’ is more likely to be our commitment to our strategy. And a dying man / homeless beggar / uneducated refugee / disabled child (delete as appropriate) just isn’t strategic.
If it’s come to this, then perhaps it really is time to reassess what Jesus would do… For not only does this attitude crush those we minister to and for (they forever live with the fear of losing their strategic value, if they ever had it), it doesn’t exactly do wonders for our own souls.
(ii) The slavery of novelty
Our culture isobsession with novelty. Products are made with inbuilt obsolescence – so that we buy the next model. The classification of software updates has seeped into every day life, so that we’re constantly looking for that key lifestyle upgrade from 2.3 to 3.0. And of course the numerical ladder is infinitely tall…
The modernist is abhors the status quo, is hardly ever patient, and is usually dissatisfied. And there is a sense in which this is a good thing. We never want to be static. And in fact, there is a spiritual benefit to this mindset, when it is constantly striving towards what God has called us to in life and lifestyle. But battling in holiness is one thing. Constantly looking for the new ministry buzz is quite another.
But there are ministry models that feel they are failing in their calling if they are not perpetually coming up with new ideas, new formulae (there are those ‘means’ again), new programmes, new brands. This is the sort of ministry that simply has to be creating new initiatives. When it comes to taking initiative that’s obviously a good thing – its a key ingredient in good leadership (as is envisioning, strategising, planning – you see? I said I’d disagree with everything I wrote).
And it crushes the spirit. It’s like walking in the mountains without ever stopping en route to admire the view and reflect on how far one’s come. To create a new strategic initiative every five minutes is as soul-destroying as reaching a false-summit every 5 minutes. And it is a slavery to novelty. Which is a problem when the very nature of our kingdom ‘product’ – the gospel, that is – is not so much its antiquity, but its eternity. We don’t need to sing with the psalmist “a new song” every week – unless we realise that God’s newest song is only 2000 years young for it is the song of the Lamb. Of course the song needs rearticulation and reharmonising in every new generation or culture. But it isn’t essentially a new song anymore. Not really.
What this means is we mustn’t feel pressured by novelty. We don’t need to go to the latest conference, listen to the newest guru and employ the most sparkly programme. They might help; they might spur and stimulate us; they might challenge a necessary reassessment. But never forget. Sometimes it’s actually the old, the repetitious and the mundane that God uses to align us more closely to his kingdom.
Well, these are very rambly thoughts. And I do have my plans and strategies and I like things to be as shiny and new as much as the next person. And that’s not always a bad thing…
In the final ramble, I’m going to think about what is perhaps the most damaging aspect of modernity of all: our haughtiness about the past.