Much to do to meet the 21st century challenge

Western culture needs to rediscover what it means to be human, writes Stu Crosson. 

Last month I wrote about the demise of the American dream; a nation so blessed with natural and human resources, yet at so many levels is crumbling before our eyes. A form of the American dream is being played out in many Western cultures today (including non-Western nations like Kenya and other emerging economies), but the  United States  is doomed to fail because her foundations are sand.

The modern Western  worldview was conceived in the 15th century Renaissance but  born in the 18th century Enlightenment.  It is built on four basic faith commitments: human reason (the human mind can work it out), progress (things will always get better), technology (technology; spinning wheels or computers, will save us), universal laws (the apple will fall).

For 250 years there has been a supreme confidence in the autonomous human individual to discover and create a better world apart from God.  This whole commitment has been bank-rolled by a capitalism based on private ownership, transferable equity and natural resources — especially oil.

For 150 years, things seemed to be going well for the modern worldview. First England and then America extended their economic and military might to control, either directly or indirectly, vast amounts of the world’s economy and geography.  Spain and Belgium were also a part of the modern Western expansionary dream. 

The 20th century, however, was a serious slap in the face for the myths of progress, prosperity and peace.  More blood was shed in 20th century wars and violence than in any other preceding century.  Competing  worldviews sought to challenge the hegemony of the modern man.  Communism was tried and rejected but within the intellectual institutions of the West in the 1960s questions of modernity were being asked that have yet to be answered.

San Francisco

Having  recently returned from North America (and specifically San Francisco), where so much of the modern dream has played out  during the past 60 years, it is revealing what that city celebrates.  In the month of June (2017), two parades took place while I was there — both involving  about one million people.  The first was the victory march of their beloved Golden State Warriors  as Kevin Durrant and Steph Curry (the $200 million dollar man) brought home the NBA basketball trophy.  The second was the  gay pride march celebrating the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The celebration of games and sexual expression, with state backing, is a throw-back to Graeco/Roman times when gay marriage was legal and the Coliseum was a distraction from the tough lives of the masses.  Make no mistake, paganism is the re-emerging philosophy that underpins much of late-modern life in the West today.

What did the west forget?

We in the West have forgotten our story.  In the age of tweets and sound bites, we are forgetting the Judeo-Christian narrative, which provides the philosophical, economic and, significantly, the moral framework that allows the modern world of education, science, health and welfare to flourish.  Today, politicians pat themselves on the back for investing in these vital institutions, forgetting  it was the church and, more specifically, a Christian worldview that saw them emerge.  This worldview placed supreme value in the worth of every human being and stopped seeing certain people in society as disposable. The introduction of abortion and euthanasia alongside court rulings bestowing human personhood upon chimpanzees and tracts of land is a sure sign of a return to our pagan past.

So what is the challenge for the 21st century?

With the emergence of artificial intelligence, sex robots and growing economic inequality, our Western culture needs to rediscover what it means to be human. Tragically, we vacillate between seeing ourselves as gods, to considering ourselves evolutionary accidents.  Neither view will protect us from the whims of a despot or regime that sees us as disposable.  Central to a 16th century view of humanity that paved the way for our modern world was the classic Judeo-Christian understanding that all human beings are created in the image of God.  We are, therefore, of infinite worth: women, men, children, elderly, disabled, gay, straight, rich and poor — all carrying around a reflection of our Creator.

This truth, like all understanding, is apprehended by faith, hope and love.

- Stu Crosson is Vicar of St Matthew’s, Dunedin.  

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