5 August 2011
In several posts I have argued that entities must change in order to survive, and to express this I formulated what I call the Principle of Historical Viability: “An x fails when it fails to change as the world changes.” failure in this context means annihilation, and thus I have first expressed the principle in the negative. An affirmative formulation of the Principle of Historical Viability is simply this: “An x is historically viable when it changes as the world changes.”
While this is really nothing more than natural selection favoring those entities that can adapt most readily to changed conditions, I took the idea a little farther (in Adaptation and Viability) when I recently formulated what I called the paradox of survival:
“Change is the price of historical viability; complex adaptive systems ‘succeed’ by adapting to changed conditions, but when the conditions are globally changed a global response is necessary, and a global adaptation means that the complex adaptive system has been changed beyond recognition. In other words, the ‘success’ of a complex adaptive system extrapolated over time means that, in order to survive, a complex adaptive system must change its nature, and if it is an entity of a wholly changed nature that ultimately “survives” as a result of adaptation, it is at least arguable that the entity of the original nature has not survived and therefore the survival strategy of complex adaptive system has failed.”
I was very interested to read a story on the BBC today, Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world, perfectly exemplifies these principles in the sphere of religious thought. The BBC story covers Reverend Klaas Hendrikse in the Netherlands and his this-worldly, perhaps atheistic interpretation of Christianity. The BBC article said that traditionalists had tried to expel the radical reverend, but, “a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out.”
We are a very long way from this being the case in the Western hemisphere, which lags behind Europe’s cultural developments by about a century (largely because it lags about a century behind Europe in industrialization and the attendant social changes this imposes), but this is clearly the future of “religion” in what once was Christendom.
From the brief sketch of Hendrikse’s views in the BBC piece, it is clear that he is expressing views that reflect the evolution of European intellectual life, especially over the past five hundred years. Shrill and ideologically-motivated people will be blind to this, but take my word. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about this. Hendrikse is quoted as saying, “God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.” This is a perfect evocation of recent philosophical thought, which has mostly jettisoned the metaphysical aspects of traditional Christianity while retaining the cultural aspects.
Like it or not, this is what Christianity is becoming. And in so becoming, Christianity is demonstrating both that it remains historically viable, and that it is slowly changing into something that would not be recognized by those who formulated its doctrines in distant lands and distant times. In changing into something unrecognizable, Christianity is coming to perfectly exemplify the paradox of survival.
This isn’t the first time that theologians within the church have attempted to come to grips with the changing climate in which they practice their faith. Walter Kaufmann, who was not a Christian, was particularly contemptuous of the so-called “Death of God” theology, which he called, “predictably stillborn” (Critique of Religion and Philosophy, p. xvi). While I completely sympathize with Kaufmann’s insistence upon intellectual honesty, I can also see the handwriting on the wall, and I know that neither piety nor wit can cancel half a line.
These reflections are particularly appropriate now in the wake the unfolding debate in the media as to whether Anders Behring Breivik was a “Christian terrorist.” Certainly he came from a Christian tradition, and there seem to be some reactionary threads in his manifesto suggesting the importance of the Western religious tradition, and that this tradition be maintained in the face of growing Muslim influence in Western Europe. But does that make Breivik a “Christian terrorist”? If he was, Breivik does not seem to have taken his Christianity too seriously, unlike Christian terrorists in the US who have bombed abortion clinics and shot abortion doctors. These latter folks are serious about their religious beliefs.
But exactly who is, and exactly who is not a Christian in post-modern Christendom? This is not at all easy to say, especially since Christianity is rapidly evolving to adapt to changed conditions. And it has been rapidly evolving since the Protestant Reformation, followed by the social shocks of the industrial revolution.
In his wonderful television series Magnetic North, Jonathan Meades observed (I can’t remember which episode this was, but it was the same sequence of his appearance in the Hanseatic cities of Northern Germany) that it was in Northern Europe that Christianity began to “grow up” and “self-secularize.” I agree with this judgment. And it is in this tradition of progressive self-secularization that has given us a post-modern Christendom that retains many features of Christian culture while dispensing with the dogmas that once separated true believers from all the rest.
It would be easy to ridicule these recent Dutch developments in theology, just as it was easy for the Romans of the first century AD to ridicule the Christians — until the Christian Machtergreifung placed a Christian emperor on the imperial throne, and the empire moved from suppressing Christianity to promoting Christianity and persecuting its opponents. History is filled with such reversals; we should expect them rather than ridicule the very possibility.
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