Principles to Live By

Prepared by: JAMES HOUSTON

My basic convictions as a Christian have remained the same all through my life, but the attentions that I have paid to certain issues have altered. Personal priority to the nurture of individuals has long been a basic concern. In this regard, the tutorial system at Oxford  for twenty-five years was formative for me. Then the move to help found Regent College in 1970, was motivated by the desire to see that intelligent/professional lay Christians have an equally informed Christian faith, as they had in their professions. But a third perspective, since the student revolts of m1968 onwards, has opened my awareness to the relativism of Postmodernism which has occurred since then. Before that, modernism was about rationalism, and even our Evangelical heritage was friendly to the Enlightenment. “Your mind matters” was a bias that tended to overlook our emotional life and of the need of more personal nurture, which I have long sought to redress. Now the “Po-Mo” – as Postmodernism has been nicknamed – emphasizes relativism as a regulative principle, which denies the validity of truth claims. In place of ‘orthodoxy’, which implies truth claims, moral relativists now interpret any expression of absolutes as ‘fundamentalism’.

The Protestant world is poorly prepared to confront this “cultural tsunami” of subjectivism. But the election of Cardinal Karl Ratzinger as the new Pope highlights this crucial challenge to Christian orthodoxy.  For since 1981, as head of the Congregation of Faith and Doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, he has been the world’s most respected voice against neo-pagan relativism. Since so much of our religious institutional life in the Protestant world is semi-secular and relativist, Evangelical Christianity itself is compromised. We may not even be aware how much departure we have made from early Christian orthodoxy, since the Protestant world has no “concilium” to act as a watchdog of our faith, such as Cardinal Ratzinger has controlled so effectively within his own church.

We may begin by contrasting a religious frame of mind, with secularism today:

Cosmic/Religious Consciousness Modern /Secular Consciousness
View of Eternal Earth-grounded, human-scale
Expressive of ‘eternal truths’ Fixated by self-opinion, subjective
Liturgical, cultic, ceremonial and public acts, expressive of Anti-formal, unconventional, individual acts
Mysterious, poetic, relational attitudes Rationalistic, prosaic, superficial, technical, clinical attitudes
Communal and Hierarchical stable structures Popular ‘Democratic’, Equality as fluid social mores
Worship as a sacramental way of life No sense of Moral Order and of moral accountability
Righteousness and Truth, as Moral absolutes Self-sufficiency, Self-Confidence as Self-referents
Inhabits a Relational World Inhabits a Technical World
The aspirations of the ‘Soul’ are its focus and integration The ‘Body’ as its sexual focus to interpret ‘self-freedom’

Even sixty years ago, C.S. Lewis was aware that the lapse of Western civilization into a post-Christian ethos, as we have just summarized, was a more traumatic cultural change than that from a Roman pagan society to early Christianity. “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian”(C.S. Lewis). For one thing, the sense of the ‘self’ was much more porous then, in interdependence, in openness to the spirit world, and therefore of need of exorcism from ‘bad daimons’, or in contrast, of living so profoundly “in Christ”.  Whereas the effect of the Renaissance, then of the Enlightenment, and now of our Technological society in Post-modernism, has been to increasingly close up the ‘self’, in alienated self-sufficiency. It is far less ‘open’ to any other ‘spirit’ than its own. The irony of a contemporary culture of ‘spirituality’ is that it has less ‘spirit’ than ever before, for it is all about ‘my spirit’. So again C.S. Lewis concludes, “It really is the greatest change in the history of Western Man”. For the dictatorial power of subjectivism refuses any truth claim, which is why liberal secularism is itself a power struggle as ‘fundamentalist’ as any other ideology.

The inter-penetration of the human and the divine, what is reasonable and yet also revelatory, implies a tension, or a dialectic/dialogue between God and human beings. So the book I have completed,  Joyful Exiles, describes some of these dialectical principles of faith:

  1. It a life “hid in Christ”, yet it is not “underground in pride”.
  2. It a life “open to God”, and yet it is not credulous in superstitions.
  3. It is public, yet this can be very surreal, unless it is deeply interior in its spirituality.
  4. It is expressive of being a ‘person’, who is not merely and ‘individual’.
  5. It is integrated in community, and yet is transmitted to future generations,
    because it is intrinsically sacrificial.

    Such a synthesis is not Hegelian, of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, because “Jesus Christ” is “the true synthesis”, as the God-Man. So always our tensions of apparent contradictions are resolved “in Christ Jesus”. But when our religious institutions, which we now inherit, are compromised by Modern and Postmodernist influences, we find ourselves incapable of combating the relativism of our society.

Cultural narcissism is a corollary of cultural relativism, so we need to affirm Christ-centeredness ends egocentricity. Re-living the Psalms with Christ changes our emotions, to focus upon worship of God. Walking through the Gospels with Christ, changes our behaviour, to virtue and service. Living in the Epistles, leads to relationships with Christ and his Church, that educate our enjoyment, and thus give joy to others. Hoping in the book of Revelation, leads to humility and peace, as one entrusts one’s future to God. Small communities such as the ‘Desert Fathers’, or the early monastic communities, brought reform to the Constantine Church in late Antiquity. Perhaps today, small study/retreat centers, personal nurture, network of friendships in Christ, will facilitate a ‘Relational reformation of the Church’, to live with a much more radical consciousness that truly is ‘Christ-like”.