One of the more intriguing observations about the flow of history surfaced in an important essay written just after the Second World War that I was introduced to while studying at Oxford. It was written by a historian named Christopher Dawson.
In it, he makes the case that there have been six identifiable “ages” in relation to the Christian church and faith, each lasting for three or four centuries, and each following a similar course.
He argued that each of these ages began, and then ended, in crisis. The heart of each crisis was the same: intense attack by new enemies, within and without the church, which in turn demanded new spiritual determination and drive. Without this determination and drive, the Church would have lost the day.
Dawson accounted for six such ages at the time of his writing. I believe we are now living at the start of another. We are at the end of an age, and stand at the beginning of another.
A “seventh” age.
But what is going to mark this seventh age?
What are the trends, the patterns, the movements, and most of all, what is the crisis from within and without that we should pay attention to?
There is much to choose from.
From within the Christian movement itself, there is the expansion of Christianity southward in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that can only be called explosive. And with it, the new challenge of the globalization of Christianity. Philip Jenkins argues that by the year 2050 only one Christian in five will be a non-Latino white person, and the center of gravity of the Christian world will have shifted firmly to the Southern Hemisphere.
The challenges this will bring are enormous, including the relationship between the western and the non-western church, which has not always been an easy one.
Another significant challenge is the continued rise of Islam, and whether Islam will modernize peacefully. Or whether we will continue to have what Samuel Huntington called the clash of civilizations which has so defined our world since 9/11. In other words, will it be the model of, say, Indonesia, or that of ISIS?
Of equal global importance is what will lead China once Marxism falls. Will it be authoritarianism, a national socialism, a type of Buddhism, or the powerful surfacing of the underground Christian church?
Another major crisis to be reckoned with on a different front is the radical redefinition of the most foundational institution within creation itself - marriage and family. No longer is family defined as a male husband and a female wife, much less children.
Male with male, female with female, children with surrogates, multiple parents, polygamy, polyamorous unions; it’s a new day where the very idea of “family” is being redefined.
But even beyond family is the challenge brought to the very idea of what it means to be human. I have long told my graduate students that the doctrine of humanity is, by far, the most pressing doctrine of our day in regard to culture. It is the area of Christian thought that is most challenged by the world in which we live, and the one where we have the least to draw from historically.
Find a reflection from Origen or Athanasius, Luther or Melanchthon, Barth or Brunner, that speaks to stem-cell research, human cloning, or transsexualism.
As the first five centuries hammered out Christology, and later generations tackled everything from the Holy Spirit to revelation, ours may be the day that is forced to examine the doctrine of humanity in ways that serve the church for years to come.
But the most profound cultural challenge is the one that encompasses all of these and more.
It is the context of culture itself. Here is the great crisis of the 7th age:
There has been a second fall.
The first fall led to God’s expulsion of human beings from the Garden of Eden.
The second fall was when we returned the favor.
In our world, most people lead their lives without any sense of needing to look to a higher power, to something outside of themselves. Leaders of science and commerce, education and politics, have ceased operating with any reference to a transcendent truth, much less a God.
This is a new and profound break with the history of Western thought and culture. Even among those times and places that might be termed “pagan,” true secularity in this sense has been unknown. Because whether it was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the gods of Greece and Rome, there were gods! Something outside of themselves that they looked to. It would have been alien to anyone’s thinking to begin, and end, with themselves alone in terms of truth and morality.
The second fall changed all of that, and now shapes the world in which we live.
And it is in that deeply fallen world that we now live.
James Emery White
Adapted from the opening address of the 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Click here to purchase mp3s of this and other #CCConference2015 addresses.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.