In my recent review of The Many Altars of Modernity by Peter Berger and How (Not) to Be Secular by James K.A. Smith, I observed that any interpretation of “this present age” assumes some particular “picture of the past.” I took issue with each of the pictures assumed by the Berger and Smith. Specifically, I objected to their emphasis on the discontinuities between the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and modernity. Rather, if the conditions of belief in each of those eras is of radical pluralism among individual subjects, which is suppressed or captured by a hegemonic metanarrative: Roman imperial paganism, Christianity, and Anglo-American capitalism, respectively. The upshot of this objection (if correct) is that today’s pluralistic/secular environment does not pose a novel problem for the church. A strategy of ressourcement, therefore, may be most effective in both contesting the technocratic and utilitarian assumptions of our reigning hegemony and communicating the gospel to the endlessly diverse audience under its sway.
The pictures of the past offered by Berger and Smith have several features in common. One is the notion that the pagans and Christians shared a fundamental openness to the transcendent whereas modern subjects are increasingly closed to the transcendent and live within the confines of an “immanent frame.” This movement away from a world shot through with transcendence to a closed system of mechanistic processes and “buffered selves” has also been described as “disenchantment.” The objectionable aspect of this picture is that it conflates the animism of the ancient pagans with the rather different kind of interventions attributed to God by the Jews and later the Christians, lumping them together under the heading of transcendence.
In reality, the difference between the pagan gods and the God of Israel could hardly be more marked. Almost all of the distinctive characteristics of Jewish religion are, in fact, directed toward amplifying and expressing this difference. The pagan gods exist within the kosmos and differ from the other objects therein primarily in their potencies. In contrast, the God of Israel is the Creator of everything else that exists and is Himself self-existent and non-contingent (“I am that I am.”). This difference was articulated by the ancient Jewish law in its ban on graven images and the special respect shown even to the name of God. In the Jewish tradition, the true God is never represented as an object among other objects.
One of the best illustrations of this difference the Jews perceived between their own religion and their pagan neighbors is the story of the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal. In that account, Elijah and the priests of Baal agree to each prepare a sacrifice to their respective gods, relying on their gods to provide the fire to consume it. Having prepared their sacrifice, the pagan priests embark upon various rituals to invoke Baal, but he completely fails to appear. Elijah’s response clearly demonstrates the Jewish attitude toward the pagan gods: “About noontime Elijah began mocking them. ‘You’ll have to shout louder,’ he scoffed, ‘for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” For Elijah, the futility of Baal is bound up with his similarity to mortal man and other created things. The God of Israel is superior to all pagan gods, because only He transcends the created order.
A more accurate picture of the past would have to account for this difference between the Jewish and Christian traditions and paganism. Rather than saying that the ancient world and Christendom were both “enchanted,” it might be more accurate to say that both paganism and secularism are encompassed by an immanent frame: all that’s changed is the prevailing belief concerning what constitutes the immanent. To describe pre-modern animism as “transcendent” is to commit a category error. We mean simply that animism reflects a belief in “the supernatural,” which is itself a construct of modernity. But there’s nothing inconsistent about belief in an “immanent supernatural,” and this might be a very accurate way to describe the pagan worldview.
Why does this matter? On the one hand, I have argued that we should look to the fundamental continuities between “this present age” and all the past ages of humankind. These continuities point us to what we might call a fact of (fallen) human nature: a tendency toward radical pluralism dominated by imperial acculturation. On the other hand, if there is a discontinuity to be observed, it is not between Paganism/Christendom and Modernity but between Paganism/Modernity and Christendom. That is, the God of Israel who Christians believe was incarnate in Jesus is the real anomaly. To borrow an image from Barth, both the law and the gospel are impact craters from the breaking-in of the transcendent, “marking a fiery miracle which has taken place… disclosing the place where God has spoken.”