Making Gospel Connections in a Postmodern Athens

Excerpted From
Cultural Apologetics
By Paul M. Gould

How does our culture perceive the world? In a word, we are disenchanted. The view of the world presented to us in the Bible is sacred and beautiful, yet our culture treats it as mundane, ordinary and familiar. As a culture, we are “under a spell” of materialism. We assume concepts like beauty, goodness and holiness, but they are disassociated from the wonder of receiving them as a gift from our Creator. Belief in God, faith and religion are an embarrassment. Yet there is universal longing for transcendence, a nostalgia for an enchanted cosmos, something beyond the ordinary and mundane, that will not leave us. Modern culture is obsessed with “contraband transcendence”—a kind of spirituality and occultism that is antitheistic and anti-humanistic. Moderns insist that everything is matter. At the same time, through their actions, they reveal a deep longing to connect to something beyond the material world. Some might call this spiritual pornography—a cheap substitute for the real and beautiful. Human beings are created to worship that which is ultimate, but given the idolatry of the human heart in a disenchanted cosmos, the result is a shallow and ultimately unsatisfying attempt to find meaning, purpose and identity in lifeless idols instead of in the transcendent God who created, sustains, judges and redeems the world.

In addition to considering our culture’s dominant way of perceiving, we also need to ask: How does our culture think? In a word, we are sensate. We are fixated on the physical, the sensory and the material. As C.S. Lewis says through the words of the senior devil Screwtape, dispensing devilish advice to the junior devil Wormwood in the book The Screwtape Letters, our lives are focused on the “stream of experience” with little attention to universal matters. Our whole education system trains us to fix our minds upon the material world. We become fixated on the here and now, with little thought of the there and then. The collective mind of our culture is largely anti-intellectual and shallow, lacking the intellectual categories or ability to think deeply about things that matter most. Many are guided more by feeling and desire than by reason.

Finally, how does our culture live? In a word, we are hedonistic. We move from one desire to the next, filling ourselves with bite-size pleasures that give an immediate sensual payoff, but end up enslaving us. We are captivated, to borrow from Lewis’ imagery in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by Turkish delight. We have a strong (and good) desire to advance justice, protect the poor and oppressed, and meet the needs of all people, but this desire ultimately falls short because we have a disenchanted view of reality and have embraced the corresponding “doctrines” of materialism, hedonism and utilitarianism. The Christian virtues of faith, hope and love have been replaced by the modern virtues of tolerance, personal autonomy and progressivism (that is, a discarding of the oppressive ethical and religious view of the past).

Building Bridges to the Gospel

Given the reality of our postmodern “Athens,” we discern at least three universal longings which can, following Paul, serve as starting points for building bridges to the gospel. The philosopher Peter Kreeft speaks of three longings of the human soul—truth, goodness and beauty—and three prophets (or guides or capacities) of the human soul—reason, conscience and the imagination. Each of these prophets can point to Jesus—the source of our longings for truth, beauty and goodness, as revealed in the gospel.

These three universals longings, for truth, goodness, and beauty, can serve as fitting starting points for a cultural apologetic, much like Paul’s appeal to the Athenian’s worship of an unknown God. Humanity was made to be nourished on them. These universal human longings cannot be eradicated. Unfortunately, they can be and often are muted and repressed. It’s possible to settle for cheap counterfeits too. This is why God has provided guides within the human soul to help us on our journey. Reason guides us on the quest for truth. The conscience leads us to goodness. And the imagination transports us toward beauty. This is also why we have intellectuals, prophets and artists. They can perform a priestly duty, leading us if we allow them toward the ultimate object of our soul’s longing: Jesus Christ, the source of all truth, goodness and beauty.

If we utilize these three universal human longings as starting points from within culture to build bridges and connect them with the three “planks” of reason, conscience, and imagination we have a model for cultural engagement.

Let’s briefly consider each universal longing and its quest for a fitting and satisfying object.

As rational animals, human beings naturally desire to know the truth about reality. As Aristotle puts it at the beginning of The Metaphysics:

“All men by nature desire to know.” But this desire for the true knowledge of reality is often suppressed in our sensate culture. Part of the reason, as we shall see in chapter 2, has to do with the fact that when it comes to God, human beings often suppress the truth. Our job in seeking a missionary encounter with modern human beings is to reawaken the rational faculties of the soul to the reality of God and a God-bathed world. We want to help people see the truth clearly. One way to do this is to use the deliverances of philosophy, history, and science (prominent among other sources) to show there is such a thing as truth and that Christianity is the embodiment of that truth. How do we reawaken the rational sensibilities if they lie dormant today? Familiarity with evidence for belief in God, the historicity of the Gospels, and the resurrection of Jesus are key. In ably articulating the truth of Christianity, we demonstrate intellectual credibility, humility and our God-given call to love God with our minds.

Regarding the longing for goodness, we can consider that one tragedy of the fall is the loss of paradise. Our innate longings lead us, if we pay attention to them, to desire a better world, a world that has faded from conscious memory, yet that memory persists in our hearts. Deep within the human conscience, we find an unexplainable longing for wholeness, justice and a meaningful life. We long to experience life “the way it was meant to be,” even if we cannot explain why we think it should be that way. Because of sin, our efforts to attain happiness—the fulfillment of that inconsolable longing—have been frustrated. Our longing for goodness takes on specific form in our longings for wholeness, justice and significance, all of which form contextual bridges to the gospel. By living lives of wholeness under the banner of Christ, finding Jesus as our greatest need and highest good, and seeking to be agents of shalom, of peace and reconciliation, in the world, we point others to the true object of this desire. Further, as we demonstrate (and articulate) a richer understanding of happiness, not as hedonistic, as contemporary caricatures suggest, but as “edenistic,” we reawaken the human longing to live for something greater than self, something we once had in paradise but now have lost.

Finally, the human longing for beauty is another plank we can use to begin building our bridge from “our Athens” to the gospel. Human beings are drawn to beauty. We are, as C.S. Lewis puts it, votaries “of the blue flower,”—the mythical symbol, prevalent in German literature, of intense longing and desire for something that is on our horizon but remains elusive. This universal longing for beauty is nourished through the imagination. Our longing for beauty draws us to literature, film, music, and art; they entice us and awaken within us our desire for a world that dazzles and satisfies us. Like the apostle Paul in Athens, we can utilize the cultural narratives embodied in literature, film, music and art to build bridges to the gospel.

What we find in Christianity is a perfect blending together of reason and romance, a comprehensive understanding of reality that speaks to both head and heart, rationality and experience. In a passage chronicling his preconversion mind-set Lewis wrote, “The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest conflict. On the one side a many-island sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’ Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” Lewis’s discovery of the Christian story as true myth enabled him to bring the two parts of his mind together. He had found a place to stand and a story that understood him. As Lewis’s spiritual story illustrates, rich gospel themes are easy to find in the literature, films, music and art produced by our culture. As cultural apologists part of our job as bridge builders is to find those points of common interest and make the gospel connections.

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Excerpted from Cultural Apologetics by Paul M. Gould. Copyright © 2019 by Paul M. Gould. Used by permission of Zondervan. Zondervan.com.