It’s been a long time since I first saw the world we live in described as “Post-Christian.” It is perhaps a sign of the times, though, that many Christian leaders are now embracing this description. The notion that 21st-century Christianity will be largely defined by how Christians live out our role in a Post-Christian world is becoming broadly popular. Unfortunately, like most such cultural memes, it is also being used uncritically.
The argument goes something like this: “In a Post-Christian world, it is the role of the church to act much as it did in the first century: as an outside voice, a counter-cultural movement, a small group of people whose job it is to show the rest of the world how to live life according to a higher standard.”
I have no problem with being seen as counter-cultural. When any religious movement stops being opposed to the dominant culture, it risks sacrificing a part of its soul. There are many who believe Christianity did exactly that when it became the religion of the Roman Empire, and that it is necessary to rethink from the ground up the Roman meta-narratives that have become part and parcel of the church ever since. Often this also means discarding a lot of Greek baggage along the way, and attempting to recover views of God and human nature that come from Jewish culture and that Jesus and St. Paul would have recognized.
But there is also a sense in which our world is fundamentally different from that of the first century, requiring us to understand the term “Post-Christian” in a very different light. We are Post-Christian by virtue of the fact that over two millennia, human society has been profoundly transformed by the moral tenets of the Christian religion, which in turn reflect the Jewish culture from which Christianity grew, with its prophets and ethical teachings.
Without those Christian and Jewish roots, our world would be very different. Most of what we are accustomed to seeing as virtuous in modern life—our respect for the rights of others, our sense of justice, our aversion to violence, our need to set a positive example—stems directly from that Judeo-Christian ethical tradition. In that sense, Christianity no longer needs to be a counter-cultural movement. It needs to be, instead, a guardian of what is most precious and true in the culture at large.
The fact that it often fails to do so was documented in Bill McKibben’s 2005 article in Harper’s titled “The Christian Paradox.” America, McKibben wrote, “is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.” I would like to make the modest—and by no means original—suggestion that the reason for this is that elements of American Christianity have long been fiercely and unreflectively at war with what is seen as the dominant culture, however that culture may manifest itself. Note that I said “elements of American Christianity.” There have always been Christians to stand up for progress as well. Civil rights, the abolition of the death penalty, the promotion of peaceful solutions to international conflict, the rejection of violence as a means of self-defense, the responsibility of society to take care of and support the less fortunate—these are all positions that are derived from Biblical ethics, and to the extent that our society promotes and values them, it is Post-Christian in the most positive sense. The fact that large numbers of Christians oppose the extension of these moral milestones, and in many cases seem to want to turn back the clock, demonstrates that a reflexive, uncritical reaction against modern society has come to define what it means to be Christian for too many of my fellow citizens.
I am writing this simply to point out the absurdity of such a position. We can’t go back to the first century, and we wouldn’t want to. Anyone who chooses to define religious faith in opposition to the modern world will inevitably collide with and end up opposing much of the moral progress that Christianity has wrought in the two thousand years since then. That moral progress is now part of the dominant culture, Post-Christian though it may be. There is no good to be achieved, and much harm to be done, by standing in its way in the name of a supposedly higher virtue.