Hunter’s next chapter, “The Challenge of Faithfulness,” was quite good, and was a helpful way to see the ways in which modernity is falling apart. (Modernity falling apart is called postmodernity.) The place where I would take issue with Hunter is over how permanent this pluralistic and confused situation is. The house of cards has indeed collapsed, but that doesn’t mean that the cards flutter downward forever.
Hunter is concerned in this chapter with two basic realities of the modern world — difference and dissolution.
“The problem of difference bears on how Christians engage the world outside their own community, while the problem of dissolution bears on the nature of Christian witness” (p. 200).
The problem of difference is acute in a pluralistic world because what Berger called our “plausibilty structures” are thin, not thick. If you were a peasant in 13th century England, and you had occasionally heard tell of “Saracens,” living out there somewhere, you would be living in a thick plausibility structure — a culture that made believing in the Christian faith easy. But if you are bringing your kids up in a cosmopolitian neighborhood today, and there are three Buddhists between here and the corner, a Muslim and a Hindu in the other directions, with agnostics across the street, and none of the people from your church living within five miles, your plausibility structure is thin. Questions from the kids that ask how we know our religion is the right one are not unlikely questions.
The problem of dissolution is in effect the problem of skepticism, a universal acid that need not have done its full work to have radically weakened a public sense of morality and right reason. Nobody really lives as a full-on relativist (which is impossible to do), but a lot of people live relativistically enough to ennervate the society as a whole. After all, someone will die of cancer long before every last cell in his body is cancerous.
Hunter does a really fine job here in outlining how these two things work, and why this particular time in history is a real uphill climb for us. But Hunter appears to see it as more than an uphill climb.
“An irresolvable and unstable pluralism — the collision and conflict of competing cultures — is and will remain a fundamental and perhaps permanent feature of the contemporary social order, both here in America and in the world” (p. 202).
Given the challenges before us (which Hunter sees pretty clearly), it is not surprising that he also sees “changing the world” in terms of irony and tragedy.
“Though important efforts have been made, Christian theology has yet to systematically articulate a thorough critique of the modern world. That task is enormous — it would take many talented scholars many years to achieve it” (p. 199).
Agreed, it is a massive task. But suppose that the thing were not to critique the modern world, but to demolish it. And suppose further that it was a task assigned, not to scholars, but to preachers, the kind of men who deliver gospel truth to a lost and befuddled world that can’t do anything but be relativistic. What is it that overcomes the [relativistic, nihilistic, besotted, bewildered, arrogant] world? Is it not our faith? Giants in the land are not a new thing in redemptive history. Overwhelming odds are the stuff that make church history such a gripping read. Boniface didn’t find some academics to critique the tree of Thor, but simply cut it down.
To borrow a metaphor from Nassim Taleb, a massive revival would be a black swan. Correction: the coming massive revival will be a black swan. And after it has happened, academics of the future will hammer out a scholarly consensus on exactly why it was inevitable. Right now it takes very little faith to believe that a massive reformation happened in 1517. After all, that’s when it did happen. But in 1500, it took a lot of faith.