The Cross-Pressured Life

Charles Taylor suggests that the Christian life is a “cross-pressured” one, where we are enticed from all sides by competing and contrasting worldviews and ideas that we cherry pick from to create our own unique religious/social identity. For most people these pressures are subconscious influences that we can’t necessarily articulate, but once we’re made aware of, we see them everywhere. Or rather, we feel them everywhere.

But the hard part for most Christians is deciphering exactly what these foreign influences are and exactly how we’ve given ourselves over to them. We must be devoted to our Bibles and to the understanding of the way of Jesus; this is the most crucial and important discipline for the devoted Christian. But there must come a time when we step out of our Christian utopias and, like Paul, engage with the Cretan poets.

Examining extra-biblical ideas and “arguments”, “taking them captive”, and submitting them to the Lordship and “obedience of Christ” is part of the Christian’s calling (2 Corinthians 10:5), and is not something to be ignored. For example, Esther Meek says:

“Early Christians read the pagan philosophers and said (something like), ‘Hey this stuff is amazing!’ They also said, ‘Hey, the Christian religion actually helps the pagan philosophers better their philosophy.’ Christianity makes for a better Platonism, a better Aristotelianism. This isn’t meant as a contest, but as a dignity-conferring affirmation and consideration, and a generously hospitable collaboration.”

The common grace of God allows that unbelievers and even ardent opponents of Christianity are able to stumble upon and discover truth. And a “generously hospitable collaboration” is an acceptable partnership for Christians to forge with unbelievers. There is much that we are able to learn about Life, even from those who deny the Resurrection. But more importantly, understanding extra-biblical thought allows us to “see” the various ways we are cross-pressured into unwittingly adopting unbiblical values. Christopher Watkin begins his critical analysis of the thought of Michel Foucault with this description of his influence:

“By one 2016 measure, Michel Foucault is the all-time most-cited author across every academic discipline from fine arts to hard science, with over a quarter more citations than his nearest rival and leaving in his wake figures like Freud, Marx, and Einstein. Whatever measure is used, it is beyond doubt that his influence in the arts, humanities, and beyond is equal to or greater than that of any other twentieth-century figures.”

Taking Foucault as an example and working off this data, it would be unwise for us as Christians to ignore Foucault’s thoughts and underestimate his impact on culture. We should, instead, use his thoughts as “lenses” through which we try to understand and respond to our current cultural moment. This is what is required of those who live in a post-Christian culture, which Mark Sayers describes as a society that “wants the Kingdom without the King.” Attempts have been made all throughout history, but especially since the Enlightenment, to nudge Christ out of the center of Western thought. And if Watkins’ analysis of Foucault’s influence—only one man—is true, then it’s not ludicrous to think that we may have inherited pre-fabricated Kingdoms that have the King delicately balancing on His throne with one foot, perfectly poised to be toppled by the next “wind of teaching” that comes along (Ephesians 4:14). As goes the King, so goes the Kingdom, and so go the citizens of that Kingdom.

We must not consider ourselves immune to this kind of influence. And in actuality, we need to consider that these alien roots may already be sown in deep. Even atheists have considered this possibility with the ideas of Christianity. They have realized the effect that Christianity has had on society and culture and have used the doctrines and teachings of Christianity as analytical tools to understand the world they find themselves in. Prominent psychologist James Hillman wrote in A Terrible Love of War:

“…we are all Christians, regardless of the faith you profess, the church you attend, or whether you declare yourself utterly atheistic. You may be Jew or Muslim, pay tribute to your god in Santeria fashion, join with other Wiccas, but wherever you are in the Western world you are psychologically Christian, indelibly marked with the sign of the cross in your mind and in the corpuscles of your habits. Christianism is all about us, in the words we speak, the curses we utter, the repressions we fortify, the numbing we seek…We are Christian through and through. St. Thomas sits in our distinctions, St. Francis governs our acts of goodness, and thousands of Protestant missionaries from every sect you can name join together to give us the innate assurance that we are superior to all others and can help them see the light.”

What Hillman understood was that the Christian worldview had such a profound effect on the world that the environment he grew up in was steeped in Christian ideas that were soaked up by his psyche and ingrained in him, whether he identified as Christian or not. Functionally and confessionally, he was not a Christian, but psychologically and ideologically, he understood that he was much more “Christian” than not. He did not study Christianity in hopes to be persuaded of it and adopt its worldview, but in order to understand himself and the world around him. Hillman, ironically, was acting very Christian in his analysis of the world and serves as the perfect example of what the Christian’s goal should be in critically analyzing the world through the lenses of Foucault, Derrida, or Nietzsche.

Whereas Hillman understood the influence of the Christian worldview in shaping the culture he grew up in, and how that culture ended up shaping him, Christians at large seem to be naive about the degree to which the adverse has happened with us. The Christian worldview is not immune to foreign influence. As James K.A. Smith points out, “the secular touches everything. It not only makes unbelief possible; it also changes belief—it impinges upon Christianity (and all religious communities).” The cultural air we breathe is so polluted with both Christian and secular ideas that to some degree, as Smith has so iconically stated, “we’re all secular now.”

So we find ourselves in a strange, “cross-pressured” world. Christians are secularized just the same as the secular are Christianized, but neither are either brave enough to admit it, or aware enough to articulate it. To be fair, there is hope that this overlap will come to serve as a sympathy generator for those who realize that we all are not really that different from one another, whether we believe in the Resurrection or not, because ultimately, we’re all just an ideological stone’s throw away from one another. But to hold on to secular sympathy without giving into secular influence will require us to acknowledge the power and veracity of secular ideas, seek to understand them and acknowledge what is good while neglecting the bad, and then disarm their ability to negatively sway us by countering their arguments with solid scriptural philosophy and reason.

The primary tool we have to help us in this task is, of course, the Bible. But it’s not merely Bible knowledge that will help us ward off competing ideologies. The truth of the Scriptures is not fully understood until it is not only known but also lived. The reason that so many Christians are unknowingly convinced of unbiblical ideas is because their own dogma has not progressed beyond a mere mental assent of the facts of Christianity to become actual lived convictions that shape the way in which they live and operate. For them, Christianity is only a veneer covering a majority secular worldview. Because of this, many Christians are unable to distinguish between the pressure of secular ethical responsibility laid on their shoulders by Kant and the cruciform moral pressure of a cross on their backs given to them by Christ. The sting of nihilism will outlast the pain of crucifixion, but in the moment it all feels the same. The true cross-pressured life is the one that is demanded of us by our Rabbi, but until we take up the pressure of that cross and truly follow Him, we’ll never be able to break free of all the other weights the world has thrown on top of us.