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‘Live My Truth’: The Gospel in an Age of Privatized Faith

When you overhear conversations that touch on something spiritual, you’ll often hear two words come up: “For me.” They rush in as soon as the discussion turns toward claims about truth and falsehood: “For me, there is a God, and believing in God just feels right.” Or, “In my experience, for me, Jesus is the best path to God.” The introduction of those two words personalizes and relativizes what’s being said.

It’s not necessarily wrong to personalize and relativize an issue. When asked about what outfit someone should wear or what direction to take in the boardroom, saying “for me” signals I’m sharing a subjective opinion. In some situations, that’s acceptable—there are minimal consequences to my opinion being received or rejected.

But when the conversation shifts to God’s existence, Christ’s claims, or the gospel’s truth, adding “for me” can be problematic. When we’re in the realm of truth and falsehood, orthodoxy and heresy, sin and righteousness, we’re not merely making a claim that’s true for us; we’re saying something real about the world. Those two words spoken in the wrong way at the wrong time soften a truth claim and make it only a matter of personal belief.

Unsurprisingly, people today celebrate the importance of “speaking” or “living” their truth. When someone says, “I need to speak my truth,” he means this: “I need to speak honestly about what I’ve experienced.” And that’s a good thing. But in matters pertaining to religion and spirituality, when we surround the word “truth” with adjectives like “my” and “your” and never get around to making a truth claim, we shrink from the biblical imperative to preach the gospel as an objective, publicly accessible truth. We imply our perspective is only one of many viable options.

I want to look closer at this development and its challenge to the Christian mission in the West. When we talk about Jesus or share the gospel, most people today will assume we’re talking about a private, personalized faith, as if we’re asking them to adopt the same hobby. I’m just speaking “my” truth or sharing about the religious identity that works “for me.”

However, true evangelism goes further, announcing the good news that cannot be reduced to personal preference or private spirituality; it confronts the listener with a choice, and that confrontation presents a challenge in sharing the gospel.

How We Got Here: Influence of the Enlightenment

To see how we arrived at this moment, we must do some historical work, tracing our way back to the Enlightenment. This philosophical tradition saw human reason as history’s pinnacle and the implementation of science and technology as hastening toward a better future. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) defined the Enlightenment project in one oft-cited paragraph:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity . . . the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. . . . Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.[1]

Humanity’s problem, according to Kant, is dependent ignorance—the inability to use your understanding without someone else guiding you. Notice, then, his solution is independent thought: “Have the courage to use your own understanding.” The way of dependent ignorance is cowardly; the way of independent thought is courageous.

True evangelism announces the good news that cannot be reduced to personal preference or private spirituality.

It’s impossible in one essay to fully reckon with the Enlightenment’s influence on our society. And we shouldn’t overlook the many benefits this pursuit of knowledge has brought us. But it’s a mixed bag. Consider how these three aspects of Enlightenment thinking have profoundly influenced our society and, by extension, affected the way we carry out our mission.

1. Human reason replaced revelation as the foundation for universal morality.

Enlightenment thinkers looked for a way to adopt and promote a moral life which didn’t rely on some transcendent reality beyond this present world. Is there a way to establish a moral society based on reason apart from divine revelation? Can that way be the basis of universal civilization?

We see the fruit of Enlightenment thinking in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations in 1948. Read the preamble and then the articles—a declaration of humanity’s intrinsic dignity as the basis for human rights—and you’re seeing a moral vision set forth as normative for every civilization yet without any appeal to God or a higher power. It’s a terrific example of Enlightenment thought: the passionate pursuit of a universal moral standard based on autonomous human reason (reason independent of God), not in divine revelation. Who needs God? We can be successful, moral, happy, fulfilled, virtuous, and (fill in the blank) without him.

2. Religion was viewed as an obstacle to growth in knowledge.

If you try to establish morality and knowledge apart from divine revelation, you’re going to give the side-eye to traditional religious belief. You may still appreciate Christianity for some of its moral teachings, but you must challenge society’s reliance on religion, which gets recast as insidious superstition and myth. Enlightenment scholar Peter Gay writes,

Myth could be sympathetically understood only after it had been fully conquered, but in the course of its conquest it had to be faced as the enemy. . . . The Enlightenment had to treat religion as superstition and error in order to recognize itself.[2]

In secular environments today, a common assumption is that we’re on the road toward greater heights of human knowledge, and walking this road requires us to turn away from the religions of the past and any reliance on supernatural revelation.

This doesn’t mean the Enlightenment progresses as religion declines, or vice versa. Charles Taylor argues secularity hasn’t arrived as a result of the steady erosion of religious faith; instead, we might define secularity as a society in which faith is no longer axiomatic.[3] What has changed isn’t that people don’t believe anymore but that a wide swath of people view unbelief as a legitimate option.

Once faith is no longer axiomatic, reason and science often rush in as the (allegedly) objective referees in all sorts of disputes, resulting in a split between facts and values. Values are subjective and morality is an invention. Meanwhile, science is objective and the facts are indisputable.

Christianity gets reduced to private beliefs and values where it can flourish as a subculture for people who wish to be into that sort of thing, but it has no basis for speaking to what’s happening in the other spheres of human life. Religion is reduced to a private and personal matter, intimate and important but not something that can be out in the public square. It may be “true” in the sense that it gives me meaning and purpose—“true for me”—but it isn’t “true” in the objective sense: the truth about our world.

3. Usefulness and mastery became humanity’s new telos.

A third characteristic of Enlightenment thought involves a shift in the foundation of moral theory that leaves humanity without a telos—a shared end or goal.

In the past, people believed nature was purposeful and that further study could help us discover not only scientific but also moral laws. But once it became clear that morality couldn’t be “proven” in the same sense as scientific experiments, society lost a sense of its purposefulness. Everyone must figure out meaning for herself. We’re free—from the past, from superstitions, from religion, from outdated moral teachings, from community formation, from anything that would inhibit us. But what are we free for? What are we to become? There’s no clear answer.

What happens to religion when society loses a sense of what humanity is for? People begin to see their faith not in terms of its overall truthfulness but in terms of its workability or its effects on their lives. If the purpose of religion is to better your life, not to tell you the truth about our world, then you can judge a religion based on its usefulness.

If the purpose of religion is to better your life, then you can judge a religion based on its usefulness.

This idea of usefulness goes hand in hand with modern society’s attempts to master the world and make it “controllable.” That’s the word employed by the German philosopher Hartmut Rosa, who believes this hope and desire to make the world controllable is “the driving cultural force” of modern life. We follow a particular path to bring the world under our control:

1. Making the world visible, that is, making it knowable, expanding our knowledge of what is there

2. Making it physically reachable or accessible

3. Making it manageable

4. Making it useful, pressing it into service . . . to make it into an instrument for our own purposes[4]

The problem, as Rosa sees it, is that once we try to make the world controllable at every level (accessible, manageable, and useful), we begin to see the world as a series of objects that we’re to know, attain, conquer, master, or exploit, and this control kills wonder in the world. It leads us to experience what Max Weber called “disenchantment.”[5] The experience of feeling alive, of truly encountering the world (what Rosa calls resonance), eludes us. The world becomes a dead thing we act on, not something that can call out to us or lead us to that feeling of wonder and awe.

This tendency toward mastery and controllability affects not only how we see the world but also how we see religious faith. We begin to judge religion based on its usefulness, on our ability to press it into service for our purposes.

Navigating the Challenge of Privatized Religion

What does all this mean for the church today? A survey of the landscape will lead us to recognize several factors that must influence our mission and evangelism.

1. We hold out a real encounter with a real God.

The answer to our disenchanted world isn’t a disenchanted church. Unfortunately, this was the approach of theological liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. By reducing the Scriptures to something less than God’s divine revelation and flattening the Bible into a mere record of human experience of the divine, liberalism stripped the church of its power.

H. Richard Niebuhr famously summed up the result: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[6]

But lest we pick on theological liberals, we should note the pragmatic turn among many conservative evangelicals in the last century, where the supernatural was downplayed in favor of whatever seemed most practical, giving the impression of a manageable, predictable God who affirms us in our deep desires, offers a sprinkle of transcendence, and blesses all our endeavors. In some cases, the gospel was instrumentalized for political purposes. Churches that still held to orthodox teaching about God and his revelation resembled little more than voluntary associations for social activism, either culture warriors for the right or errand runners for the left.

In contrast to these approaches, the church must remember that what we hold out to the world, more than anything else, isn’t a program for better living, good advice for financial gain, a healthy approach to raising children, a moral anchor for the world, or a socially active plan to make the world a better place or eradicate injustice. Christians may be involved in all these efforts and more, but the one nonnegotiable element is this: the church holds out a real encounter with a real God. Our purpose isn’t to share something that works for us but to summon the world to worship the only true and living God.

At the center of the Christian faith is not personal experience but divine revelation. God has made himself known in the world. And yet, because this revelation is real, it issues forth in powerful personal experiences, whereby we find ourselves by losing ourselves in the worship of God.

Our purpose isn’t to share something that works for us but to summon the world to worship the only true and living God.

We cannot truly worship a god who always affirms our desires and approves of our actions; a god like that is the equivalent of a smarmy acquaintance who does nothing but flatter and ingratiate and thus has no real value. But the real God, the God we see in Scripture, has broken into our world and extended himself in real relationship. This is the God we must present to the world.

Christopher Watkin has said that the myth of modernity is the myth that there are no myths. The idea of disenchantment is itself an enchantment. And so the disenchanted world needs a church that can be a prophet, not just a chaplain to a declining culture: A church filled with confidence that God is real and has revealed himself. A church that unmasks the attempt to find fullness only in immanent sources instead of transcendent ones. A church that cares about Scripture and doctrine because we’ve encountered the true and living God and want to worship him rightly. The church’s main goal isn’t workability but worship.

2. ‘What works’ will often be our starting point but cannot be our ending point.

How do we proceed when most people in our society aren’t asking whether a given religion is “true” but instead are asking if it “works,” or feels “right” or “good” to them?

First, we shouldn’t be surprised. Eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis noted this shift toward pragmatism:

In lecturing to popular audiences I have repeatedly found it almost impossible to make them understand that I recommended Christianity because I thought its affirmations to be objectively true. They are simply not interested in the question of truth or falsehood. They only want to know if it will be comforting, or “inspiring,” or socially useful.[7]

What was true in Lewis’s day is even more broadly the case now. The question of “what works” will likely be our starting point, simply because that’s the nature of the soil in this mission field. Most of our initial conversations with non-Christians will not be about proving God’s existence but more about how life is going for them, discussing whether the Christian vision of life is workable, or helping them see that Christianity’s overall influence on society is positive, not negative.

And yet this starting point mustn’t become our end goal. We must press deeper. As Lewis argued, if we only speak of Christianity on the plane of “what works” and never get to the “truth” question, we leave Christianity without distinctiveness, relegating it to the realm of “good advice” for moral living. He wrote,

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audiences’ mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion, they will at every moment try to escape from the issue. . . . You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point . . . that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.[8]

Of course, Lewis would affirm that Christianity isn’t only true; it’s also good, it’s beautiful, and it “works.” He would’ve been happy to meet people wherever they were in their spiritual understanding. If, at first, a discussion of Christianity’s beauty or goodness makes the most sense, then by all means, let’s have that conversation. Start with what works. But don’t stop there.

We can discuss how Christianity works as a way of life or its effect on society and culture and assess its legacy. But to perpetually delay the “truth” question tells a lie about reality. Just because something works doesn’t mean it’s true or good. When the time is right, press in on the one clear and burning question: Who is Jesus Christ?

3. We must recapture evangelism as a daring act of subversion.

Here’s where the adventure begins. Even if we start with the question of what works, we’ll at some point need to call someone to cross from death to life, to pledge allegiance to God, to repent of sin and trust in Christ, to renounce the Evil One and all his deeds. And that’s nearly unconscionable in a pluralistic society that relegates religion to the realm of values and preferences.

Real evangelism is daring for two reasons. First: real, full-throated gospel proclamation dares to say what mustn’t be said: in discussing Christ’s claims, we aren’t talking about my truth and your truth. No, we’re talking about a public announcement that’s true for the whole world.

Real, full-throated gospel proclamation dares to say what mustn’t be said.

This announcement is powerfully subversive because it takes an axe to the great idol of our day—a pluralistic conception that permits us to think of Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, or as the King of our own hearts, or as someone who helps us through life, while forbidding us to claim his lordship is objectively true for all people, in all places, in all times. No wonder it feels scary. No wonder we’re tempted to qualify our statements with the palatable preface “for me.”

Second, robust forms of evangelism are daring because they put forward another offensive claim: that you and I are implicated in the murder of God’s Son, our sins are on the docket, and only he holds the key to free us from our prison of guilt and shame. We’re all sinners, having fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Coming face to face with that reality is subversive in a world where everyone likes to think of himself as the hero.

Courage will be required if we’re to recapture the God-intended subversiveness of evangelism. There’s something adventurous about proclaiming God’s kingdom because we aren’t in the realm of my truth and your truth. Jesus is the rightful King of kings and the Bible tells the true story of the world.

The church’s task is to push through the fear and tell the truth with love, embodying the scandalous nature of our proclamation with a striking expression of genuine attentiveness. God gave early Christians the fortitude to preach the full gospel in the face of persecution.

He gave Soviet-era Christians, like my father-in-law, the grit to speak the truth even under threat of physical force or social ostracism. Even now, he gives Arab-world Christians the resilience to bear witness, though suffering will be their lot. Chinese house church pastor Wang Yi, arrested in December 2018 and still in prison today, told his church,

Test yourself to see if you are crazy for the gospel. When you are threatened with death for the gospel, you find out for whom you really live. When faced with the risk of job loss, you know for whom you really work. When you may lose fortune and position for the sake of the gospel, you find out whether you are crazy for money or crazy for the gospel.[9]

While we don’t face the threat of imminent persecution in the West, bearing witness will always involve a cost. The story of Jesus centers on the cross, which means our faithfulness will take on a cruciform shape. When we say we want to be the hands and feet of Jesus, we must remember what happened to the hands and feet of Jesus. We’ll experience sparks, friction, and dissonance, but we also trust he’ll give us the courage to lift up his name, no matter who stands against us.

If we give up the public truth of the gospel, settling for the pluralistic confines of a personalized and privatized faith, we’ll lose the adventure of evangelism and the heart of Christianity. Live my truth? No. With Jesus, we declare, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.”

[1] Kant, “What is Enlightenment?,” in Gay, Enlightenment Anthology (Simon & Schuster, 1973), 384.

[2] Gay, Peter, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism (Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), 37.

[3] See Taylor’s essay, “Disenchantment-Reenchantment,” in Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays (Harvard University Press, 2011), 287-302.

[4] Hartmut Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World (Polity, 2020).

[5] Max Weber, “Science as a vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. and trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Routledge, 2009), 129.

[6] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 193.

[7] C.S. Lewis, “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought” (1946).

[8] C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics” (1945).

[9] Wang Yi, “Twenty Ways Persecution is God’s Way to Shepherd Us,” Faithful Disobedience: Writings on Church and State from a Chinese House Movement, edited by Hannah Nation and J. D. Tseng, (InterVarsity Press, 2022), 176.

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