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March/April 2006 Historically Speaking 25 The Big Problem with History: Christianity and the Crisis of Meaning Kenneth E. Hendrickson For the last decade and more I have made it my business to watch the "culture wars." Though at times I have internally battled this conclusion, I am convinced that the polarization ofAmerican intellectual and political life is real, significant, and perhaps even dangerous. I have also come to the conclusion that these "wars" seem so intractable because, the multiplicity ofparticipants aside, the conditions fueling them are not well understood. On the one hand, social conservatives tend to miss the point about the nature ofthe social challenges facing us today. They like to argue that Americans suffer principally from an unwarranted abandonment of the transcendent vision afforded by general acceptance of Christian theism. Such people hope to remedy social ills by finding ways to restore the public understanding of and respect for religion. I prefer to argue that there never was such a golden age of faith and that we are merely experiencing something less than the apocalypse: life as it usually is, only better (and more sensationally) reported, and a culture which through experience and technology is readily and voluntarily leaving behind older certainties for seemingly more fruitful options. Conservatives seem to propose a "stab-in-the-back" thesis in which "bad ideas" like philosophical materialism and scientific Darwinism play the leading roles in an unjust and unjustified coup against reigning Christian theism. Though they don't frequently use the word, in fact they like to write about apostasy. On the other hand, political and social liberals seem to doubt the very idea of a crisis, excepting ofcourse hysterical visions of some "victory of reaction," currently personified in the administration of George Bush. Though I disagree with the conservative apostasy model, I believe that we do indeed face a crisis , of which politics is a symptom but not a cause. We face rather a crisis of meaning. In the West, Christianity has collapsed: intellectually , theologically, institutionally, if not numerically. It has certainly collapsed in its former role of metanarrative, or "super story," organizing knowledge and the other day-today stories constantly afoot among Western cultures. While this collapse obviously concerns social conservatives, it should also trouble secular liberals. The collapse of the Christian metanarrative is not just a crisis of religion. It is also a crisis ofhistorical meaning. History is literary and thus inextricably tied to the tools of literThe collapse of the Christian metanarrative is notjust a crisis ofreligion. It is also a crisis ofhistorical meaning. ary thought. In the West the dominant literary source has been the Bible and the Christian idiom derived from it. Historians and philosophers have tended to underplay this fact and for that reason have underappreciated the power of the Christian metanarrative in Western intellectual life. The abandonment of that metanarrative, which has occurred recently , rapidly, and violently, represents an incapacity of history to produce a product meaningful to the Western public at large. It constitutes the first time a culture has attempted a post-mythic outlook. I suspect that it is impossible to supersede mythical thinking and that therefore the present moment represents a crisis or a limit of Western historical consciousness . Some attribute the collapse of the Christian metanarrative to naughty intellectuals and their apostate theories: Darwin, Marx, and Freud among others. But intellectual theory , even science, has never been very good at convincing large numbers of people to abandon religious faith. Lived cultural experience does that. Until the post-1945 realities and entirely new intellectual possibilities came into focus, Western intellectual discourse remained locked in Christian idiomror at least anti-idiom. It seemed the options were to attack or to come to some terms with Christianity, but not to get past its categories of concern completely. Only since the period 1945-1970 has the West entered an era of Christian metanarrative aliteracy, a functional consensus that Christian ideas just do not matter anymore. The West has accepted a condition of competitive, multiple narratives, the seeming only link between them being that we agree there is no metanarrative. Because I believe this transformation resulted from lived cultural experience, I believe that...


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