Overcoming the "third great schism"

This post continues an exploration of the book Deep Church Rising by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry. To read other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 3456789. 

Walker and Parry assert that a move toward "deep church" is essential if the church's "third great schism" is to be healed. That schism resulted from a centuries-long movement in Christendom away from the historic, orthodox Christian faith. In this post we'll see how the schism arose and what it entails.

Modernity and secularization
The authors largely attribute the third great schism to the secularization of western-Christian cultures. They define secularization as "the complex of social processes by which religious thinking, practices, and institutions become socially marginalized" (p. 32). The rise of secularization in the West has stretched from the 1500s until now, with the net effect being that God was effectively banished from acting in the world. Deism became the popular conception, with God seen as operating "from a distance" on a largely mechanistic cosmos.

Portrait of René Descartes
by Frans Hals (ca. 1649-1700)
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Within this secularized, modernistic setting, human reason reigned supreme (recall RenĂ© Descarte's statement, "I think, therefore I am") and supernaturalism was suspect (how do you rationalize miracles?). A hermeneutic of suspicion replaced that of trust toward God, his revelation and Christian tradition. Orthodox doctrines of the church such as the Trinity, the incarnation and the resurrection became open to attack. Christian values were more and more relegated to the sidelines in public life and discourse. Add to this the rise of the industrial age with its urbanization, individualism and rapid growth of capitalism leading to a rampant consumerism that is expressed in this statement: "I shop, therefore I am."

As a result of these factors, the social significance of the church diminished--a move exacerbated by the emergence of scientism in which religion, viewed increasingly as subjective and arbitrary, was relegated to the private realm (p. 30). The authors comment:
The public world came to be dominated by pragmatic, instrumental reason that aims at maximizing efficiency by tailoring means to ends. By contrast, the private world is the world of emotional escape from the harsh impersonal and rationalistic realm of the public square.... This way of dividing up the world was unknown before modernity but seems second nature now (p. 34). 
In this modernistic setting, the work of the church, along with belief in God, became largely a private matter and, therefore, only marginally relevant in the life of the culture at large. As the authors note, it's not that modernity rejected Christianity, but that it began to view Christianity with indifference (p. 36).

In modernity, the individual and not God or the church, is at the center of life. This person-centeredness continues in postmodernity, though the individual is "subjected to de-centering and deconstructing" (p. 40). Postmodern thought also differs from modernism in its rejection of scientism with its inherent positivism. Instead, postmodern thought is open to truth beyond the scope of science. In that way, postmodernism represents a return to some aspects of premodern thinking, though the church continues to be marginalized, with religion being seen merely as one of several options with therapeutic benefits.

The Christendom of pre-modernity (and the early years of modernity) is gone forever (p. 43). The cultural shift that sidelined Christianity from the center of public (and even private) life and discourse, is an undeniable reality. At times the church sought to respond to this shift in ways that were tantamount to abandoning the historic, Christian faith (tradition). It is this abandonment that the authors of Deep Church Rising refer to as the "third great schism." This movement was, no doubt, often motivated by good desires to make Christianity relevant to modern/postmodern people. But the effect, in many instances, has been to lose the very center of the Christian tradition, namely the gospel itself (the apostolic tradition).

Retrieving the tradition
In order to heal the third great schism, the authors call upon the church to return to its ancient, premodern tradition. This move toward deep church, "is neither 'renewal' nor 'revival,' but retrieval... A quest for something old" (p. 49). It's not a church-growth gimmick, another program or a mere technique. Instead it's a necessary step back so we can move forward toward a church faithful to the tradition while being relevant in the current modern/postmodern cultural context. The authors comment:
The purpose of going back is not one of antiquarian curiosity, but to retrieve something that we have lost in order to make the church vital again in the present. And the something that evangelicals and others have lost and need to retrieve is tradition" (p. 49).
Of course, the word tradition makes many Protestants nervous. Why? Because to them, "tradition" means "dead tradition." But that is not what Walker and Parry want to retrieve. Instead, they are calling for a return to the "apostolic tradition." Next time we'll see what that entails.