Into the future, darkly

By  Brian Welter, Catholic Register Special
  • April 24, 2008

{mosimage}Emerging from the Dark Age Ahead: The Future of the North American Church, by Charles Fensham (Novalis, softcover, 226 pages, $24.94 list).

If Donald Rumsfeld was good for anything, it was savage mockery of pessimistic liberals. “Henny Penny the sky is falling,” he once jeered to their flagellations. “Sometimes even liberals themselves tire of liberal negativity.”

Charles Fensham’s book, though deep and thought-provoking, spends too much time being afraid of the future. He is perfectly correct in warning about the dramatic loss of meaning Western societies and individuals are suffering through. He is correct in worrying that humans rely too much on technology as a panacea for our problems — problems often caused by technology in the first place. He is also right to point out that churches themselves have followed certain of society’s wrong turns.

He defines the darkness ahead in stark, challenging terms.

“The darkness is not lodged in the loss of prosperity and the stimulation of infotainment, but rather in the more basic things that make us human, allow us to relate meaningfully and organize our relationships for the common good.” Fensham was born in South Africa and raised in the Reform tradition. He teaches at Knox College at the University of Toronto.

Emerging from the Dark Age Ahead contains perhaps the best liberation theology around in its analysis of this loss of meaning and the changed consciousness that never-ending technological change has created, something he calls technique. Liberation theology usually fails because while it keenly opposes the material poverty of the developing world, it doesn’t examine the spiritual poverty of northern countries. This book is a welcome change.

The author spends a great deal of time analysing spiritual poverty with a sharp sense of why things are going wrong. Fensham’s thought-provoking words connect spirituality, organized religion, the economy and technological change.

Fensham is one of the very few theologians to take the technological bull by the horns.

“This power of technique suggests to me a state of unprecedented cultural change and a shift in consciousness for our society. Its presence is covert. People who live under its spell do not recognize it.” It becomes “a kind of ‘domination

system,’ ” he concludes. Most religious thinkers avoid science and its many offspring except to offer a few muddled thoughts on evolution versus creationism or intelligent design. Once again, this is a welcome twist in theology.

Fensham’s discussion of this changed consciousness and, most importantly, what it means for theologians, makes it well worth the effort of buying and reading his book. Few discussions put the finger on contemporary religious and social problems as well as these middle chapters.

He offers interesting, easy-to-understand examples that leave the reader thinking about these things long after putting down the book. Technique has led to a change in the very meaning of words, and therefore a blurring of boundaries between the biological and the mechanical or digital. “Virus” can mean something in a person or animal’s bloodstream, or something in a computer or on the Internet.

The book takes critical aim, then, at the Enlightenment’s need to rationalize and dominate. We classify, schematize and describe. We ask which are “techniques that give me control over my subject.” This modus operandi does not address deeper human needs.

Thankfully, the author doesn’t leave the Christian reader dangling. “To understand the church’s mission today one must first describe shifts in consciousness that are occurring and then identify the impact of those shifts on contemporary culture and people.” He guides us through some responses, above all missiological, where he calls for a non-triumphalistic evangelism.

He also criticizes the emphasis on teaching and information in churches over relationship. We need authentic relationship in this postmodern era which decontextualizes images and shakes every bit of tradition apart from its original place. Fensham’s discussion of deconstruction and postmodernism is one of the best around. Interestingly, he highlights the fact that in the age of postmodernity, which has rejected all-encompassing narratives or foundations such as Christendom, technology’s “restructuring” of our lives “functions as a kind of meta-language.”

Too bad the author feels compelled to stir the kettle of left-wing pessimism. This forces the reader to wade through a long opening series of panic attacks, some of which are rather empty: “Yet, privileging marginality is not without its caveats. One of the pitfalls lies in not attending to where power is located when difference and marginality is considered.”

As usual with a liberation theologian, poor people are placed on the highest pedestal, with no critical awareness of the marginalized or of the fact that in a country as wide-open and accepting of immigrants’ cultures as Canada many new Canadians have chosen to stay on the margins because of their rejection of Canada.

The basic problem is that, contrary to the author’s thesis, many of these ideas express that there is not so much a dark age ahead as a challenging age ahead and Christian churches have all the resources to meet the challenge. After reading this book, one can feel more confident than ever that Christ’s love will meet the present and future.

If readers can hold their noses through the bad stuff, the good stuff here is really very good. Too bad Donald Rumsfeld never went into editing.

(Welter is a doctoral student in systematic theology at the University of South Africa.)

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