For me, such focused and collective penance is especially needful because, frankly, it is not easy to go through life’s business with the Apocalypse on the mind. Nevertheless, the language of St. Paul’s first letter to Thessalonica levels an insistent charge to continually expect Christ’s return at any moment:
But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.
(I Thessalonians 5:1-4, KJV)
I once taught this epistle to a classroom of college sophomores at an evangelical university, and when I asked them how we should respond to this particular passage they shifted in their seats, let out a short sigh, and answered that you just have to persevere in Bible reading and prayer, that a consistent devotional life is the way to maintain a Paul-like feeling of urgency. Despite the good answer, their body language said that the success rate of keeping this spiritual discipline was not very high.
More than anything, what registers when reading this passage is the difficulty of keeping the reality of Christ’s second coming in mind. There seems to be some kind of basic dissonance between our natural tendencies of life and those habits of prayer, soberness, and watchfulness prescribed by St. Paul. It seems as if anything, even religious activities, can easily distract from our judgment and glory to come. Even as a teenager, it was all too clear—and discouraging—to me that this was a problem of disbelief, and I was right: if I really believed that Christ could return at any moment, then wouldn’t I act differently?
Yet two points are critical to remember when thinking about the struggle to fight disbelief given the urgency of the Second Coming. First, the problem is not new. In fact, it is at least as old as St. Paul’s epistle which itself is an anticipation of complacency. We are now living 2,000 years after St. Paul’s first recorded reminder of the immediacy of Christ’s return. Second, although this problem is not new, it is for us more problematic than it was for the majority of church history. For we face new cultural challenges that affect our ability to believe in the miraculous. I am speaking of the predominant intellectual biases of materialism and secularism that affect that way that we think, whether we like it or not. As opposed to the intellectual cultures of 1609, 1709, or 1809, in 2009 the direct perceivable activity of God on Earth is not a plausible belief to the modern mind.
The Modern Mind
Distinctly modern ideas, embedded within all of us, about what is true and what is factual may be universally accepted now but have only been so for the last one-hundred and fifty years. The “miraculous” has only been out of intellectual fashion since the emergence of the ideas of the founding fathers of modernism, people like William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. Now that these thinkers’ ideas dominate intellectual culture, Biblical events such as the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment are no longer considered options for belief to those who respect the findings of science.
What we have inherited from this modernist tradition is the ingrained predisposition to relegate “religious” things to a “religious” category. We are all very familiar with the effects of this proclivity to marginalize the religious; for example, it’s a common criticism of American Christians that they let religion infiltrate the realm of politics or primary education, as in the controversy over teaching creationism. The common assumption in these criticisms asserts that the social spheres of politics and education should be considered independent from any of the biases that come with religion. What’s more, such criticisms imply that religious ideas are not scientific, and that they treat truth differently than it is treated in the social sciences of politics and education.
Yet, this marginalization of the validity and applicability of religious truth is not merely systemic. Modernist ideas about what constitutes a valid truth claim have even permeated the way that we experience our own faiths. An obvious example of this is the breakdown of orthodox theological boundaries in parts of the Anglican tradition. This alleged attitude of “toleration” is not merely motivated by friendliness; it is foremost influenced by a reluctance to treat theological truth claims as rigorously as social truth claims.
Modernism’s less obvious, but more potent, impact on Christian culture is at the level of personal belief. Ideas about what constitutes legitimate evidence and how to interpret that evidence—the building blocks of what counts as truth—have made it more difficult for the twenty-first century Christian to believe in Christian teaching than it had been in previous centuries. In particular, modernist thought has come to discount the longevity, consistency, and morality of Christianity as potential evidence of its truth. Even more conspicuously, modernist thought has begun to treat these “catholic” attributes of the Christian tradition as evidence against rather than for the truth of orthodox faith. Thus, that Christianity has reached millions of people for centuries past is, to modernism, evidence of its probable fallacy rather than its plausibility.
What it comes down to are divergent views on tradition. For modernism, tradition and convention are signs that a belief is untrue and artificial. This is a tricky accusation to counter because in many cases conventionality hides the fact that a belief or practice is ungrounded in reason. Modernist theorists like James and Freud treat the commonalities amongst different people’s religious experiences as evidence of common pathologies or common secular causes behind the veil of the spiritual, rather than as evidence of a real spiritual cause that works in similar ways with different people. They study the commonality of spiritual belief as a common symptom, assuming that tracing a belief to the material world invalidates it. This disparity is most perceivable in modernism’s handling of comparative religions: if different religions share common beliefs, though different in details (e.g., monotheism, creation, apocalypse), then we can conclude that the real material causes of these similarities are the social and psychological contexts that different religions share, and thus we can conclude that there are no spiritual causes behind such religions—i.e. there are no religions.
The same logic can explain a modernist critique of belief in the Apocalypse: the consistency with which religions look to an apocalypse suggests a predictability, a lack of careful scrutiny and honest independent thought, and a conformity to a pattern traceable through different cultures to a material symptom. Behind this logic is the troubling assumption that all beliefs must be either scientifically grounded or artifacts of tradition. This is why Karl Marx calls religion “the opiate of the masses” and why Freud calls religion “the neurosis of the many.” True spiritual experience, according to Marx and Freud’s line of thought, would have to be untraceable. It cannot be materially analyzable or empirically testable. Ultimately, it cannot be discernable by the human senses. Therefore, modernists like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud would call “catholicity” itself a sign that whatever has been dogmatized is probably not true.
How then does the traditional Christian respond to modernism’s representation of belief in the spiritual and the miraculous? In some ways, he or she does not need to. By modernism’s own maxim, every representation is a misrepresentation, which means that no evidence imports meaning without being interpreted. The misrepresentation of catholicity (that which has been believed everywhere, at all times, by all Christians) as mere conformity conveniently ignores the spiritual claims to which believers conform and stops its analysis short at the observation that such belief is traditional. That is, if the Creed centralizes the content of belief for Christian faith, then modernism’s interpretation of creedal faith as one huge neurosis erases the Creed itself from the equation. It is the Creed’s conventionality, not its content, that invalidates it.
An Ante-Modern Creed
Despite the unsteadiness of modernism’s argument, we should attend to the fact that it is still virtually inseparable from our culture and from our own habits of thought. That the Second Coming of Christ is real and approaching is difficult to keep in mind in part because we believe in a Creed that predates modernism yet we attempt to practice that Creed in modernist fashion. What I mean is that mainstream American Christian culture, even in orthodox traditions, often rejects whatever is conventional and glances sidelong at conformity. We attempt to strip down the old and conventional in order to be more relevant to today’s society when what we are really doing is unknowingly conforming to a new convention that is essentially anti-creedal.
Perhaps one needed response is the very thing that modernism abhors, indoctrination. Indoctrination typically means brainwashing with the false pretense of being rational. But the sense in which I mean “to indoctrinate” is more intellectually honest to what Christianity really is. As I see it, liturgy—literally, “the work of the people”—is a form of willful and rational indoctrination.
Consider that in many American churches the removal of the Holy Liturgy historically coincided with the removal of the Creed from worship services. This stems from a distrust of whatever is conventional. They excise the Creed from worship because it is repetitive and therefore not heartfelt. Ingrained in this kind of thinking is a radical modernist prejudice against the material. Most American Christians would not go as far as to agree with Freud that the traditional nature of religion renders it testable and therefore false, but that is only because many Christians themselves reject the traditional nature of religion. In an effort to save the Church from the materialist accusations of modernism, many Christians have become anti-material in their faith. After all, you can’t call an untraceable, untestable spiritual experience a neurosis.
But instead of distrusting the material, we should embrace the essentially physical history of the gospel, which is bookended by Christ’s Incarnation and Second Coming. Instead of distrusting the old and the conventional, we should distrust the newer conventions of our minds that fail to hold onto the urgency of Christ’s Second Coming. We should attend to the dissonance between our faith’s habits and our mind’s habits, between our desire to wait expectantly for Christ and our inability to do so. Alternately, when we say the Nicene Creed—“I believe in . . . the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”—we are confessing with confidence the conventional and material nature of Christianity. We are not conforming to an ideology that rejects the miraculous. The very act of re-citation is unoriginal, conforming, and, above all, traceable. It is indoctrinating. When we participate in the Liturgy and when we say this Creed, we are materializing our faith. When we fast during Advent, when we tithe, and when we pray and anticipate Christmas in penitence, we are self-indoctrinating.
To this end, it is worth asking why we assume that our faith should conform to the times. How culturally relevant should Christianity be? Why do we assume that religion should transform itself into the shape of the modern? It should not. For the forward-looking message of Advent is that Christ will steal the times, and our disbelief with them, “as a thief in the night.”
Matthew J. Smith is a Candidate for the Ph.D. in literature at the University of Southern California. He holds an M.A. from the University of Connecticut and a B.A. from Biola University. Matthew will be co-leading the elective adult class in the forthcoming Education Hour at St. Matthew’s Church.