I have long told my graduate students that the doctrine of humanity is, by far, the most pressing doctrine of our day. 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. Think gender, artificial intelligence, when life begins, when life ends—all issues related to the doctrine of humanity.
But I do not think it is the largest cultural issue. There is something more encompassing that challenges us, of which issues related to the doctrine of humanity are only symptoms.
The real nature of our cultural crisis is a crisis of authority.
Let’s state the obvious—there is a lack of trust, which leads to a crisis in terms of authority. And while you can trace that crisis back to 9/11, or to the 2008 financial meltdown, or how some feel COVID was handled, the true crisis of authority rests in the rejection of transcendent truth and moral authority.
What I have called the 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 – regardless of their personal convictions – 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. Whether it was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the gods of Greece and Rome, there were gods! There was something outside of humanity to which people looked. 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.
What is happening in our cultural moment is this Fall being laid bare. To be clear, the process of secularization has been going on for some time. I am talking about the cultural chaos that comes with a disavowal of authority.
Evan after transcendent truth and moral authority rooted in a Creator God was abandoned, some sense of truth, authority and moral order continued. Only it was established and upheld through cultural institutions. While not rooted in the transcendent, schools and government, professions and media, maintained social order through authority and, yes, moral trust.
While there was still a sense of trust, a sense of authority, a sense of morality pervading things, chaos was avoided. But it was institutional in nature—not spiritual. It was trust and authority in cultural institutions that let culture move forward with a seeming lack of chaos.
But then distrust of institutions, followed by social media, misinformation (false information that people sincerely believe and spread) and disinformation (deliberate deception), took away the last vestiges of any kind of social glue holding us together.
So not only have we experienced a second Fall, but also a loss of the institutional and societal glue that used to hold us together in terms of trust and morality.
We now have nothing. It is very akin to the old story of the emperor’s new clothes. We have been naked all along, but only now are aware of it.
There is hope, of course. The message of Christ and the body of Christ (the Church) hold such power that not even the gates of hell can withstand their onslaught. Unless those carrying that message and embodying the Church are mirroring, in both thinking and conduct, the very world in which they live.
Which, sadly, too many are.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on X, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.