This Unique Moment

David F. Wells
Monday, August 13th 2007
Sep/Oct 1995

We are living, I believe, in a unique cultural moment. Every generation, I know, imagines that it is unique. And most generations, unfortunately, believe that their uniqueness lies in their superiority over all that lies in the past. Mark Twain once observed that when he was a boy he was embarrassed because of his father, who appeared to know so little, but when the younger Twain was a few years older, he was amazed at how much his father had learned in so short a period of time! Every generation tries to get airborne on the plastic wings of this kind of conceit, and in this atmosphere it is almost inevitable that we become breathless about the present and begin to say and do foolish things, as did the pastor whose morning prayer in church began: “O Lord, have you seen the New York Times today?”

I nevertheless believe this is a unique cultural moment. First, I want to lay out my reasons for saying this. Second, I want to elaborate on some of the consequences of this for the Church. Third, I want to underline what, in a Christian context, needs to be done next.

This Unique Moment-The Emerging World Culture

I believe this moment is unique culturally for two reasons. First, this is the first time that we have seen emerging a world culture. There have always been those who have nurtured dreams of world domination like Napoleon and Hitler, but that is not what I have in mind here. I am speaking instead of the emergence of a culture, voluntarily brought about, that looks about the same whether it is encountered in Boston or Paris, London or Bombay, Sydney or Cairo.

What is unique about this is that up until now cultures have always been local and never global. That is, what any society comes to think of as being normal in matters of belief or behavior has always been determined by that people’s history, its traditions, certainly its religion, its ethnicity, and perhaps its geography. Thus, it is that we differentiate Russian culture from Indian, African culture from European, Hispanic from Chinese. Cultures have always been local, but today we are seeing the birth of a culture which is global, which owes little or nothing to anyone in particular, and therefore can belong to everyone in general. However, to stretch so far, to incorporate so many otherwise diverse people in its embrace, modern culture must necessarily be very thin, no more than skin deep. It must be stripped of the values which actually give depth and meaning to life.

I do not wish to exaggerate the importance of this new development by leaving the impression that this is all that is happening in our world. While it is the case that this new civilization is emerging, it is also the case that our political and cultural life is spawning factions, special interests, regional antagonisms, ethnic conflicts, generational frictions, and gender wars. Tribalism, in all of these ways, continues to be a persistent reality in the world today, albeit sometimes taking novel forms. This is not, however, inconsistent with the emergence of the new world culture of which I have spoken. They are both part of the same dance, the one emerging from modernization and the other from its breakdown in postmodernity, to which we will return shortly. For the moment, though, we need to focus on what is indeed unique, which is the emergence of this new civilization, one which is being built by four main realities whose presence are increasingly global, and whose effects are generic. They are urbanization, capitalism, technology, and telecommunications. Let me explore these four makers of our modern world briefly before considering the consequences of their dominance and interaction with one another.


There have always been cities, but what is different about our time is both the percentage of people who live in a city and the size of our cities. A century ago in America, only 25 percent lived in a city; today 94 percent do. We have moved from being a rural culture to one that is urban. Throughout the world we are seeing large cities emerge because in the last fifty years the world has doubled in size, and much of this growth has spilled into cities. Today, there are more than 400 cities of more than one million.

This change in our social organization has had profound effects on how we experience life. Cities bring into close proximity those of differing worldviews, religions, and social practices, and that means that they enforce a civility, a kind of secular ecumenism, which easily spills over into relativism. Not only so, but the public environment in the city is impersonal and works by rules that often are not ethically derived but are commercially driven. Urban culture tends to sever our two worlds, that which is private from that which is public, and allows us to live by different values in our different worlds. This bifurcation between private and public, as well as the relativism which is so much a part of urban society, has profoundly changed what Christian faith means for many people. Given the pressures of modernity, it has increasingly become a private matter, its truth claims dislocated from the public square, and its uniqueness rubbed away. The inroads modernity has made, the power it exercises over what is now considered appropriate belief, is evident in the fact that among those who claim to be evangelical, 40 percent think that other religions are also paths to God, and 53 percent think that there are no moral absolutes. This represents a stunning reversal in what Christians have historically thought.


Capitalism, the second of the makers of the modern world, is simply the most effective way to produce the goods and services we have come to desire. During the last century in America, industrial output has increased about 5,000 percent in the process, generating complex financial, legal, and commercial systems, which together have changed the way in which we experience the world.

Capitalism, however, is more than just a system of production; it is also the world to which we have affixed ourselves spiritually, because the sheer success and extravagance of our productivity, have rewritten our lives around the habits of consuming. Now it is not only products that we consume, but also images, sex, religion, and people, each of which we use as if it were a product in order to satisfy an internal need which we, the consumers, have identified.


Technology, the third of the ligaments in modernization, is not only transforming our world, and transforming what we can do in the world, but it, too, transforms the way we experience our world. It was Jacques Ellul who first made the case that technology tends to create a naturalistic world, one in which we are its sovereigns, over which we preside, where what is efficient becomes what is ethical, and where all problems are resolved by management, not only in the business world, but in the human spirit as well. Today, the two most admired cultural types in our society, Robert Bellah has found, are the manager and the psychologist, and it is not difficult to see, even in the Christian ministry, how intrusive this mentality has become. In his study, the pastor often becomes the C.E.O., and in the pulpit, a psychologist.


Television, finally, is not only our window on the world but also our eyes in the world, making us witnesses of all the world’s great shaking and shaping events. Television and jet travel together have annihilated space, bringing us ever closer to being omnipresent and omniscient, attributes that rest very uneasily on our frail, broken psyches. Space and geography were once the barriers around the human spirit, perhaps producing a narrow ignorance about the world, perhaps unhealthy parochialism, but also a sense of community, securing the many ligaments of human relating that are now gone. Cognitively, we are world citizens, and we scarcely belong in local communities at all. Today, our “communities” are mostly voluntary, made up of those who want to associate together on a regular basis around some interest, but what is shared in these associations is typically only a fragment of our lives–a common interest in bird watching, or Bible study, or going to the theater–and because our communities depend on the will of those who come, they are extremely fragile and often fall apart.

These are no small developments. Long ago, Reinhold Niehbuhr suggested that the self builds its substance from a threefold connection: to family, community, and craft. What has happened to these? Since 1970, there has been a 200 percent increase in single parent homes, and fewer than 60 percent of children now live with their biological parents. The upshot, for many, has been a loss of connection to family. Modernization has mown down most geographical communities in America, replacing them with cities and the larger world which we inhabit by television, thus severing another connection. And work is not satisfying for many, either because of its boring, repetitive nature, or because it is encased in a bureaucratic straight jacket. Indeed, 50 percent say that the effort required in the modern workplace is not rewarded by satisfaction commensurate with that effort, and thus the third connection is endangered.

It is, I believe, this loss of connectedness to family, community and craft that is driving the anxious search for the self, for self-fulfillment, in our society. Given the loss of outward connections–and perhaps most important that to God himself–all of reality must now be relocated from the exterior world to the internal. Ours, in consequence, is a therapeutic society where all of life’s problems are submitted to psychological understanding on the assumption that what were once sins needing forgiveness are now problems needing management, where victimhood is ubiquitous, and moral culture is vanishing.

This, then, is the world culture which is enveloping us, driven by urbanization, capitalism, technology, and telecommunications, and the environment that results is producing a situation unlike any which the Church has faced before. There is, however, a second reason for saying that this is a unique cultural moment.

This Unique Moment-Our Practical Atheism

This is the first time that any major civilization has deliberately attempted to build itself without religious foundations. Beneath other civilizations, there have always been such foundations, whether they came from Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity itself. Beneath ours there is none. We are building a civilization of the most marvelous intricacy and complexity, but we are building it on a vacuum, one in which the processes of life have no framework of ultimacy, one in which all must find within themselves the reasons for their legitimacy in society. This is not to say that religion has disappeared. On the contrary! America is a very religious country, as religious as is India. That, however, is speaking of what is internal and private; what is external and public is a very different story. Here, God has been evacuated from the center of our collective life, pushed to the edges of our public square to become an irrelevance to how our world does its business. Marxism rested on a theoretical atheism; our secularized world rests on a practical atheism in the public domain, though one that coexists with private religiosity. And this, many say, is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind!

The challenge of a public square stripped of the divine is not entirely novel. Those who lived under Marxist regimes recognize some of the elements. What is different, however, is the fact that this practicing atheism in America, unlike the Marxist countries, goes hand in hand with freedom and, further, it is the cultural context in which capitalism is flourishing, filling our world with manifold abundance. This is where the novelty of the challenge lies.

We recognize our secularism for what it is; we do not recognize the corrupting power of our affluence for what it is. Why is that? The answer, I believe, is painfully simple. We consider our abundance as essentially harmless and, what is just as important, we have come to need it. The extraordinary and dazzling benefits of our modernized world, benefits that are now indispensable to our way of life, hide the values which accompany them, values which have the power to wrench around our lives in very damaging ways. It is this matter which we must now take up.

Dining with Modernity

If this is our world, the modernized world in which we now live, is it surprising to learn that most Americans dismiss the idea that there is such a thing as absolute truth defined as beliefs that are true for all people in all places? Having done so, 50 percent think that everything in life is up for negotiation, from values to behavior, belief to practice, and 60 percent rest this negotiation on the premise that they can know nothing beyond what they can experience. A majority, 66 percent, do not believe in moral absolutes. It is, however, what lies beneath these figures that we need to explore.

If modernization has often severed connections to family, community, and craft, it has also created a cultural environment in which God has disappeared. This does not mean, however, that everyone in America is blatantly irreligious, as we have seen. As a matter of fact, more people attend church today than they did in Puritan times, and non-Christian religions, such as New Age, are growing rapidly. No, what has been lost is not the belief in God in general but the belief in the biblical God in particular, the God who is outside of ourselves, who addresses us by his Word, whose nature is centrally defined by his holiness, and who, in consequence, treats us as moral beings first and foremost, calling us to repentance, faith in Christ, and obedience. This is the God no longer at home in the modern world, and the Church is rapidly accommodating itself to his absence. The telltale signs are everywhere.

The habits and appetites modernity encourages are, today, simply at odds with those that biblical faith requires, and where that has not been recognized, a fateful series of substitutions takes place. Faith that has been infused by the spirit of modernity becomes focused on self rather than on God. It imagines that the world can be understood aright by gazing through the peephole of the self, so this kind of faith leans much on intuition and little on God’s revealed truth. It is guided more by circumstance than by conviction, and it is more pragmatic than principled. Christian faith, in consequence, is cast in therapeutic terms. Self-fascination replaces the older self-denial, the latter becoming a new obscenity and the former a new gospel. The search for wholeness then replaces that of holiness, feeling good that of being good. This, in turn, begins to obscure the difference between good and evil, or to make that difference one of small consequence, and perhaps out of this there develops an entirely new understanding of what good and evil really are. Good, in a secularized and affluent age, is to have, and to have is to be; evil, by the same token, is to be deprived, and to be without is to be lost. Salvation, therefore, is not salvation from the judgment of God but simply salvation from the judgment of modernity. To be saved is simply to have a personal sense of well-being, however that comes about. In short, those who wish to sup with modernity had better have a long spoon, because it has the power to wreck faith and to rob us of our ability to think of God’s world on God’s terms.


However, one of the strange new twists in our culture is that modernity has brought forth, from its own loins, its most vociferous critics. I refer to the postmodern artists, authors, rock stars, and movie makers. Inasmuch as they are still a part of what is the modern world, they might better be called antimodernists than postmodernists, for they have set themselves to attack the soul of modernity.

The world brought about by urbanization, capitalism, technology, and telecommunications, it just so happened, also provided an environment that gave great plausibility to Enlightenment ideas. That is why modernity has been so powerful and intrusive. The social context reinforced the ideology; the ideology gave life to the context as soul does to body. Thus it was, for example, that the Enlightenment dismissed all previous sources of religious authority, such as the Church or the Bible, and substituted for them the human being as the source of morality, mystery, and meaning. By an entirely different route, however, modernization has brought us to the same point by severing the connections of the self in family, community, and craft, thus forcing us to relocate all reality from the exterior world to that which is interior. So it was that the self movement arose, and thus it is that we imagine that the art in life is to find the self and fulfill it. By two entirely different routes we have arrived at the same place: the human being is the source of morality, meaning, mystery, and satisfaction.

What has now happened, however, is that the postmodernists have turned on the Enlightenment, rightly seeing it as a failed project. The attack has been savage. The intellectual soul of modernity has been eviscerated and replaced by emptiness. Where the Enlightenment spoke of purpose, the postmodernists now have havoc; where the Enlightenment believed that what was true could be rationally discovered, the postmodernists mock the notion of truth as simply nostalgia for the past and believe that reason points to nothing but itself; where the Enlightenment gave itself hope in the thought that life was progressing, the postmodernists have abandoned that hope and plunged into nihilism; and where the Enlightenment had order, the postmodernists have only anarchy. They have, in other words, stripped modernity of the hope and sense of order that, however wishful and even fraudulent they were, had made life a little more bearable.

It is the argument of the postmodernists that since there is no truth, all such claims actually mask the lust to power and, therefore, their task is often conceived as exposing this lust, deconstructing the world around them. When this mood is translated into movies and TV, it may lose some of its nastiness, but it still inclines us to accept a series of fateful substitutions. It asks us to substitute what is ephemeral for what is durable, fashion for substance, style for reality, role for character, and impressions for truth. Those who are drawn into this world are being drawn into a vortex where meaning of every kind perishes.

Enlightenment skeptics attacked Christian faith because, they said, it was not true; postmodern skeptics attack Christian faith because it claims to be true. Thus, it is that the battle lines have shifted. Along the way, however, the postmodernists have taught Christians a lesson. They undertook to deconstruct the Enlightenment worldview simply because it rested on straws, but we need to deconstruct the modern worldview because it is also sinful. It is, in fact, the contemporary realization of what the Bible speaks of under the language of “the world.” Worldliness has very little to do with the trivial taboos with which it is often associated. In the Bible, worldliness is that system of values that takes root in any society, that has the fallen human being as its source and center, that relegates God to the margins, and that makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange. Modernity and postmodernity are in large measure for us what the Bible calls the world. It is not only from our fallenness, not only from the powers of evil that we are redeemed, but also from the world (Eph 2:2). Thus it is that God and the world are in competition for our lives. We cannot love the one unless we hate the other (Jas 4:4).

The chief reason that modernity has been able to toy with the life of the Church as it has is that the Church has not recognized modernized culture for what it is. Most Christians, as a matter of fact, see this culture as essentially neutral and harmless. In a study that was carried out in 1993, for example, the views and attitudes of students from seven evangelical seminaries were studied. While 79 percent affirmed that human nature is essentially “perverse and corrupt,” only 38.4 percent also considered culture to be perverse and corrupt–and the same was true of the self, though culture is an extension of human nature, and the self is a part. Most, however, saw culture as neutral and the self as innocent. In other words, the transition from theological belief to principled practice in the modern world simply is not being made very well. And these are the Church’s leaders of tomorrow.

It is, therefore, our cultural naiveté that is betraying us. From a biblical perspective, culture is not neutral, and the self is not innocent. This naiveté, however, is also the expression of spiritual weakness and confusion. Unless this confusion is resolved, and this weakness overcome, Christian identity will be destroyed.

What we need most is what we have most lost. It is to understand ourselves afresh as moral beings made for transcendence, for whom a sense of truth is as indispensable as breath itself. More than that, what we need to find afresh is that truth, the truth of God’s Word, that, even in our cynical and harsh world, can shine its light on our path. We need this because we must understand how God views our world and live in accordance with his view; for God’s view is the measure of what is real. That being so, we must become so centered on this truth and on the God of this truth, that our understanding of life becomes consistent with what God has revealed that life to be like. It is God alone who can sustain us in truth, encourage us in hope, and build in us that kind of moral character, without which we are unrecognizable as his children and are unable to resist the powerful currents that flow through our society as it now begins to unravel in very serious ways.

Monday, August 13th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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