Ironically, much evidence today suggests that the West is moving in the opposite direction of "progress": the rise of crime, unemployment, family breakdown, depression, suicide, burnout, low self-esteem, obesity, environmental degradation and spiritual poverty are some of the symptoms of this era.
It is said that what goes up must come down. History tells us that all human civilisations, after enjoying a period of ascendancy, declined to make a room for the next one to rise up. Perhaps we may already be living through the twilight of Western predominance in our generation. Some even argued that it peaked in the 1960s and is now sliding into the abyss. How do we make sense of this fuzzy reality?
History repeats itself
Christianity has been the backbone of the Western world for centuries. The gospel penetrated every fabric of society with the message of love. The beauty of the gospel is that it is translatable into any culture. The true gospel does not simply reject the local culture. Instead it renews and transforms for the better.
But when the gospel takes a cultural form, there is always a danger that it would be distorted by the idolatry of the culture. The synthesis between the gospel and humanism in the West has gradually come apart, creating confusion and disillusion. Reason is now largely divorced from faith, and Christianity has been relegated to the private realm of spirituality with little relevance to daily living for most people.
Do we see some resemblance between the West and Israel in the Bible? God blessed Israel at every step of her development as a nation. There were times that the Jews honoured and obeyed God. After a period of enjoying the benefits of their obedience, they would give in to complacency, opening the door to idolatry.
Tampering with pagan cultures resulted in disobedience and the end of prosperity. Repentance under difficult circumstances led to forgiveness by merciful God, and the whole cycle repeated many times over. Isn't this the same pattern in Christendom?
Modernity is a new religion?
Faith in progress, reason and science gave rise to modernity. Modernity is rooted in humanism, which calls people to be their own saviour and redeemer. Ever heard of phrases such as "Be the master of your own destiny." or "You can be anything that you set your mind to be"? Isn't modernity a religion in itself? It is a genuine form of faith in human willpower. Faith and religion go hand in hand.
The roots of modernity can be traced back to Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato advocated a dualistic view of the world made up of the material and the spiritual realms. Aristotle proposed the Greek world-view that cherished the power of human thought and reasoning to discover the truth. Collectively they provided the seeds for the Enlightenment and the subsequent conversion of the West to a new form of faith. They became the incubator for secularism as we know it today.
Then what happened to Christianity? When the Roman empire accepted Christianity as the national religion (380AD), the church suddenly found itself from the margins to the centre. This made the church increasingly vulnerable to the cultural idolatry with the newly acquired money and power. The essence of the gospel had been slowly eroded and the call for reform was inevitable. The reformation of the 16th century challenged the overfed and overweening authority of the church often contrary to the true teachings of Christ. This was both a victory and a defeat for Christianity. The West had gradually lost its faith in God and found in science and in humanism.
But people are beginning to wonder whether modernity is good enough. While modernity still shapes much of our life, the West has moved into the new era called postmodernity.
The signs of our time
To simply put, postmodernity is skepticism about modernity. It questions blind confidence in the ability of science and reason to progress the world. Postmodernity promotes subjectivism, relativism and consumerism characterised by human dissatisfaction and craving. It says there is no absolute truth except the truth that there is no absolute truth (isn't that a contradiction?). While secularism cements its grip on the West, the gospel is increasingly seen as the religious remnant of a bygone age.
The centre of Christianity is on the move. The church is experiencing phenomenal growth in the developing world. They are now sending missionaries to the West to teach the postmoderns about the true gospel. At the same time, there is a rapid growth of Islam both in the West and around the world. In one sense, Christianity and Islam stand at the same vantage point. But it seems that Islam has had a much better track record in resisting secularism and holding onto its faith and tradition.
A Muslim journalist once explained why Muslims distrust Christianity this way: "Christianity in the West became a handmaiden to secularism. The spread of Christianity in the Third world, despite its loud declaration of love, often goes hand in hand with the introduction of liberal secularism and dehumanising capitalism."
This remark reminds me of the Sadducees compromising with the Roman Empire, the Pharisees making an idol out of religion, and the Zealots using violence to expand their own kingdom, all in God's name.
It is a wake up call for the Western church. Are we spreading the contaminated gospel while struggling to even live out authentic Christianity in our own backyard? As we stand at the crossroads, let us pray that God gives us wisdom to be a faithful witness and a loving neighbour in this challenging time in history.
Daniel Jang is a Graduate Diploma in Theology (GradDipTh) student at Laidlaw Bible College in New Zealand.
Daniel Jang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/daniel-jang.html