I've believed for some time that the religious right is fighting an enemy in secularism that is now a paper tiger. The culture war between the religious right and the secular left has more to do with the past than the future--it was a modern battle, and we are no longer moderns. It seems to be a fight that people who undertake it enjoy because it makes them feel as though they stand for something, but it's as pointless as standing for monarchy or the Confederacy. You can make all the eloquent arguments you want about this position or that, but it's all hot air unless it has some grounding in the spirit of the times. The Age of Reason is as dead as the Age of Faith. We're entering a new era now, and it's not clear what it will be like, but we have a few indicators to work with. I think it can be described in a preliminary way as "post-secularist."
We are entering an era in which for a while anything goes. It's an era in which at the beginning, where we are now, there will be no consensus about anything, and people will believe pretty much whatever they want, whatever suits them. The human mind is ingenious and endlessly inventive. It can come up with the cleverest ways to justify the most absurd ideas. All any argument needs is a splinter of truth, and with it an elaborate fortress of delusion can be built.
And yet there is something in the sanest of us that, despite our proclivity toward delusion, knows the real thing when we find it. And we are more likely than not to find the real thing in those elements in our heritage that, even if a little tattered and worse for wear, have withstood the test of time. And the future lies in salvaging or retrieving those elements from the Western tradition and using them to build something new. In the coming era, I think, that new thing will involve fusions with salvageable elements from other non-Western traditions and with the ongoing developments in science and technology.
A healthy culture's mythos has to mesh with its logos--right now there's very little connection between the two. And attempts to begin to integrate them are rejected by both sides. Think about Teilhard de Chardin's treatment at the hands of either the Vatican or Steven Jay Gould. But Teilhard is a proto post-secularist thinker--a man writing perhaps a century before his time if by "his time" we mean a time when a thinker grapples with questions the culture at large cares about. However provisional the validity of his ideas, his attempt to merge logos with mythos, in his case science with a mystical, experiential Christianity is central to a healthy post-secularist way of thinking.
So the mythos side of the equation has to be rooted in both experience and in traditional wisdom, all of which was in its time derived from experiential inspiration or illumination. The world's great religious traditions provide the ballast that keeps things on an even keel. It doesn't matter what the officials of these traditions say or how they try to control things, because they cannot control the uncontrollable. Everything we need is available to us or is implied in these traditions; the question only remains whether we have the discernment and will to undertake the quest to find there what will do us any good.
What will all this mean for Christians? I think it's pretty obvious that what passes for spiritual or moral authority is changing. Too great a proportion of the world's population is too well informed and will continue to have too easy access to too much information. People will not consent be told what to believe or how to behave if what they hear makes no sense, but they will hearken to those who have found a way to live deeply that which has been retrieved from what sleeps in the tradition.
The new authorities will be those who live something that demonstrates that a robust alternative exists that is plausible to the mind, resonant with conscience, and refreshing to the soul. If what conservatives believe is really true about the Logos having incarnated in history, what are they worried about? That Logos, because it is at the center of everything that's real, and because it is the very substrate of Being that makes everything intelligible, is always with us. We don't need the old forms; we just need to develop a kind of post-rationalist 'Logos think', a way of thinking and imagining the world that is saturated by the Logos. And sooner or later there will emerge people who speak with transcultural "authority," because how they live and their justification for it will resonate in both heart and mind; it will make both soul sense and intellectual sense.
There will always be the people who want things in black and white, and while they can cause a lot of trouble, they are not the future. Even if their influence is strong for a while, it will be short-lived. They are not the ones who are searching out a way forward. The future lies with others who can no longer be satisfied by the rationalist/materialist, flat-souled straitjacket of the cultural left or the dead, abstract fundamentalism/dogmatism of the cultural right. They will demand something real, something that lives, that's intellectually honest, and yet warm and fertile.
We no longer can maintain a "first naivete", which is the state of the believers in premodern traditionalist cultures in which it wouldn't occur to anyone to question the traditional beliefs and lore. We've lost that innocence forever, no matter how much fundamentalists and dogmatists on the religious right resist accepting it. Nevertheless, we must search out what Enlightenment thinking has rejected as irrational with a 'second naivete', which is the attitude toward the suprarational that is childlike in its receptivity, but shrewd and discerning in its judgments about what is necessary and what superfluous, what makes sense and what brings life--and what's just obsolete, primitive thinking.
Secularism and the materialism that is associated with it is on its last legs, but they will continue to have their partisans. Rationalist secularism/materialism was for a short time the spirit of the age, and it excited those who were among the age's most influential thinkers from the French philosophes through Marx, Darwin, Freud, and to their followers today on the cultural left. I don't begrudge them their day in the sun; I learned much from them. But their day is done. Some kind of post-secular fusion narrative will emerge after a lot of thrashing around.
The way forward requires that we look ahead with hope but also backward with a second naivete. This avoids the calcification problems associated with Lot's Wife Syndrome, because it is not motivated by a desire to retreat to the familiar. Rather it is motivated, as was our father Abraham, by a longing to move forward into an unknowable future yet trusting in a promises whose fulfillment lies in the far distant future. We must travel lightly, but not without bringing along essential gifts that were bequeathed to us from the ancestors.
[Ed.: This is a substantive revision of a post originally put up here in January 2006.}