Posts Tagged With: Christianity

Non-Contradictions

You may have come across the “law of non-contradiction” in your religious readings. It appears frequently in apologetic writings that seek to defend certain religious doctrines. It is a simple rule that goes like this:

A concept or rule cannot be true and false at the same time.

Technically, it looks like this:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Now there are truck loads of articles and books addressing this rule, but all I’m really concerned about is how it is used by church apologists to make an argument. This rule was key for me as I developed my theology in college. I was a modernist who rejected all forms of postmodern thinking.

Ravi Zacharias

One of the main illustrations that made the law of non-contradiction clear to me was a story told my one of the heroes from my college years, Ravi Zacharias. It is often repeated in churches, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes; and is one that I have used frequently.

After Zacharias had finished a lecture, a professor of philosophy challenged him on a significant point. Zacharias had pressed the law of non-contradiction. Putting it in simpler terms for his audience, he said that the law might be called an either…or system. Christian theology uses this system. For example,

Either Paul is an Apostle or he is not.

Either Jesus is the Son of God or he is not.

Either Christianity is true or it is not.

You see the rule here:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Paul cannot be an apostle and not an apostle.

Etc.

The irritated professor went to dinner with Zacharias and one other school administrator to talk things over. The philosophy professor insisted that the either…or system is exclusively a western philosophical idea while eastern philosophy uses more of an both…and system of logic. So…

A can be both B and not B at the same time.

Thus…

Paul can be both an apostle and not an apostle.

Jesus can be both the Son of God and not the Son of God.

Zacharias opposed this view with a simple statement: “So you are telling me that it’s either the both…and system or nothing else, is that right?”

The philosopher puzzled over this: “The either…or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?”

Zacharias added, “You know, even those in India look both ways before we cross the street, because they know ‘It’s either me or the bus, not both of us!'”

The main point is that the either…or system–the law of non-contradiction–is something that even Easterners use in their thinking. This is a very important distinction and has helped me a great deal over the years. It also tended to lock me in a modernist way of thinking, and I think it has done the same to several of my contemporaries.

What I erroneously took away from that illustration was that all legitimate ideas come from either…or thinking; the both…and system of thought is worthless and even deceptive. That worked for me for a while, but I started having some pretty big problems with it when I went to seminary. In my biblical and theological studies I found that you must employ the both…and system to make things work. Otherwise, those who champion the non-contradiction rule will actually contradict themselves!

Jesus is both God and man.

The church is both currently redeemed and not yet redeemed.

God is both a single person and not a single person.

A strict either…or approach would have to deny these principles, even though these concepts are central to historic church doctrines. To be sure, there are many who try to reconcile these doctrines with an either…or system; and it seems to me that the harder we try, the further we separate ourselves from the teachings of the text.

Ultimately, I think we need to learn to use both systems where appropriate (see what I did there?). It seems to me that the “either…or” system promotes a more mechanical and objective style of thinking while the “both…and” system is much more organic and subjective. There will always be a tension between the two of them, but they are both helpful.

Advertisements
Categories: Biblical Studies, Philosophy, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Universe Is 29 Years Young

A new map shows the oldest light in our universe, as detected with the precision by the Planck mission. Image by ESA and the Planck Collaboration.

When the thirty-something women I know lament their age, I usually tell each of them that they can’t be over twenty-nine years old. Everyone wants to be young, and for some reason people think you’re officially old when you’re thirty. I’d complain about this, but then I’d sound like an old-timer. Well I still might, since I have something else to gripe about.New cosmological evidence points to a universe that is even older than once thought. The evidence of a very old universe keeps piling up, even though young-earth creationists continue to chase “yabbut” trails.

“Yabbut radio carbon dating is flawed.”
“Yabbut science cannot observe past events”
“Yabbut the fossil record actually points to a young earth”

I used to be a young-earth creationist, but gave it up mainly because the evidence of an old earth always crushed the young-earth propositions. But it was a long haul for me, because I held tightly to my literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. And that is, I believe, the main motivation behind most of the young-earth chatter. If the universe is very old, if the earth is very old, then that will affect the way you read Genesis. And how you read Genesis could greatly influence your theological approach to the Bible. A deeper fear is that if someone concedes an old universe, then they may give up their Christian faith. That’s not true but believe me, I have felt that fear before.

One of the most popular young-earth arguments is one that I often found hard to accept: God created the universe to appear old, but it is really very young.

So the universe looks 13.8 billion years old, but really she’s only 29 (or 6000–she’s still flattered).

It may sound preposterous on its face, but the argument goes like this:
-When God created Adam, Eve, the animals and the plants, they were mature enough to reproduce (Gen. 1:11, 22, 28).
-Thus, it is not surprising that God created the rest of the universe to look old.

This kind of argument has big problems. The biggest is the fact that it is an argument ad ignorantium–an argument from ignorance. There is no possible way that someone can prove God created the world this way.

Epistemologically, the argument is completely useless even if it were true. Think about it. For the sake of illustration, let’s pretend that you are 50 years old. What if God actually created the universe just 1 year ago. One year ago today, God created the space-time continuum, Earth, all the people on earth, and you. But you look 50. You still have memories of your past 10, 20, 30, 40 years of life already, even though those memories didn’t actually happen. Everyone else in the universe was created the same way and at the same time. They were also created one year ago, but have no perception of it. God created all things to appear as if they have existed for a long, long time.

If this scenario were true, how old would you be? Would you be one year old, or fifty?

Well, you would be fifty. God made you to be fifty. All the evidence in the universe points to the fact that you are fifty. Scientific research says that you are fifty. Your friends tell you that you are fifty. Every ontological bit of evidence in the created universe points to the fact that you are fifty (because it was created to show that).

But aren’t you really only one year old? No! God is the one who made you one year ago with all your perceptions and knowledge which proves beyond a shadow of doubt that you are fifty.

Now this gets to my point. What if God created the universe 6000 years ago but made it appear in every way shape and form to be 13.8 billion years old?

Well, then it is 13.8 billion years old.

You may say, “No, it only appears to be that old!”
But if God created it to be old…then it is OLD! Its ontology is old, so it is old. It doesn’t simply appear old, it is old!

You see, the “universe only appears old” argument goes nowhere. Even if it is correct–even if God created the cosmos to appear old, then there would be no other way for us to see it.
You might as well say that the world is only one year old and God created it to look much older. There is no direct evidence to support that, so it cannot be affirmed. It is a useless argument.

This is a little heady, but hopefully you see my point.

Categories: Creation, Evolution, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Incarnational Humanism by Jens Zimmermann–My Thoughts.

Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World. Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2012), pp. 357.

I must say, the book’s beautiful cover caught my attention, and then the title made me take it home. My recent reevaluation of Christian theology has me reading more philosophy and theology than usual these days, and I’m glad that this book was pretty enough for me to read (that’s why everyone reads philosophy books, isn’t it?).

All kidding aside, the book is well-written. Zimmermann teaches English and German at Trinity Western University, his main interests being literary theory, theology, and philosophy; so he knows what he’s doing. He argues that a great deal of Christianity has lost touch with its roots. The two thousand years of theological and philosophical thought from the first century until now has taken it’s toll. The western church seems confused about it’s main purpose. Is it exalting Christ? His birth? His life? His death? Is it saving lost souls? Is it feeding the poor? Is it retaining a traditional liturgy? Is it social action? There are many more possibilities, but Zimmermann recommends that the church re-embraces the incarnational humanism promoted by the church fathers.

Even uttering the word humanism concerns many of the laity, since they usually relate humanism directly to secular humanism. Though he doesn’t say it outright, I think that is part of Zimmermann’s point. The fact that this misconception is widespread indicates that the church has forgotten its most important mission: the restoration of humanity. The incarnation event heavily influenced the early church and promoted humanism. So Zimmermann spends most of his time tracing the main ideas about humanism from the early church to the present.

While the idea of a deity becoming flesh was certainly not new in the first century, the Christian story of the incarnation represented a tremendous paradigm shift: we are not like the gods, but the holy God–the one who is completely other and separate from humanity–has become like us. We are not like the gods, but rather God infinitely condescended to become like us. Not born to royalty, but to poverty. Not born to prestige, but to the lowly. Humanity had now achieved a special level of dignity because God had ensconced himself in a human form and triumphed over sin and death for the sake of the rest of the world. God had achieved the victory that man could never win. He did that while he was a human being made of flesh. Thus, Christianity promoted the dignity of humans. Christ had proved that the world can be redeemed, so Christians ought to redeem the world. They should seek the betterment of humanity through education and social action. Furthermore, the church fathers made a sharp distinction between Neo-Platonism and Christian humanism. The truth of Christianity was more relational than cerebral (though truth and facts were very important).

Later, the Enlightenment and Reformation championed personal knowledge and independence. Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel equated knowledge and logical thought with humanity. Dignity had more to do with the cerebral instead of being itself. The reformers had legitimate and serious concerns with Rome, but also championed ideas and ideals over some of the more mysterious elements of Christianity. The Eucharist had to be modified in Protestant circles to accommodate to new ways of thinking. Even Luther modified his view of the bread and wine based on enlightenment thought. The center of Christian worship–the moment acknowledges the mysterious union between spirit and flesh–the Eucharist became segmented. To many, they became symbolic. The bread was just bread and wine was just wine. A Neo-Platonic separation between flesh and spirit thus became standard doctrine for many churches. So human beings were similarly segmented into flesh and spirit beings.

Later, philosophers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Heidegger negated the “spiritual” side of humans. Beforehand, people assumed that there was a common and even divine expectation for all human beings to fulfill, but these philosophers identified such expectations as elements of control that impeded the freedom of human beings. Thus, the cerebral element to humanity is really irrelevant; being is the only issue relevant to humans. So, expression becomes important for humans with no prescription for normality. Humans are not obliged to be anything or to act in any specific way. They simply are what they are. Later postmodern philosophers developed these concepts even more. As a result, the uniqueness and dignity of humanity became a misnomer. Humans no longer had innate value or dignity.

Zimmermann argues for a return to an incarnational humanism promoted in the Christian Church. Such an approach emphasizes the Eucharist as the embodiment of human dignity. It is the center of Christian worship which reminds the congregation of the incarnation event when God became human. This event brought ultimate victory for all humanity. It also represented divine struggle with human travail. It is God’s goodwill toward humanity. It teaches us that all human beings are valuable because all are in God’s image and God became flesh to save us all. God’s efforts should be our own. We should take on a similar mission when we partake in the Eucharist.

Zimmermann is quite fond of Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s approach to humanity and the Church’s mission. The Church must participate in the current state of the world (the penultimate) with a view to bring about the world’s ultimate redemption (the ultimate). Thus, the church seeks to bring about common good and divine good in the world, unabashedly involved in social action. We ought not be legalists who consistently separate ourselves from the world and huddle triumphantly in our local congregations; neither should we be antinomians who have no stance on morality.

What a great aspiration! Zimmermann points us in a nice direction, but what kind of that church would that be? How does that look practically? Zimmermann doesn’t offer much practical guidance with these questions (except for some broad comments here and there). He remains philosophical overall.  I also wish that Zimmermann interacted with the theologians who had similar concerns in the twentieth century. There are no references to Barth or Tillich, for example. That was very surprising for such a well-documented book! There are also very few biblical references. To make his case among those who hold the scriptures in high regard, Zimmermann would need more biblical support to make his case.

On the other hand, Incarnational Humanism, represents a fantastic history of humanism from the first century until now. The writing becomes rather heady at times, particularly when he discusses the postmodern period, but the discussions are rich and enlightening. It is a strong philosophical argument that modern church academics should consider in an era where church identity can be hard to define.

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Authority: Who Has It and How Should It Be Handled? (Emergence Christianity Once More)

This should be my last post on my interactions with the Emergence Christianity conference a few weeks ago.  I keep thinking of everything I’d like to say, but can’t manage to get it in one entry.  So here is one more bite at the elephant.

I think Phyllis Tickle put her finger on one of the biggest issues in Christianity today: authority.  Authority matters have divided Christians since the first century.  Divisions over circumcision between Christians at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a good example.  Should the Gentiles be circumcised since the first century bible (the Old Testament) required it?  The Christian literalists thought this was a slam dunk (v. 5): the Bible requires all believers to be circumcised.  That’s it. Game over.  The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.  But Peter disagreed.  So did Paul and Barnabas.  All these guys used their personal experiences an argument.  At this point, a Bible literalist’s head will explode.  Personal experience should always bow to the Bible; and in the first century, that was the Old Testament.  What’s worse is the fact that James quoted Amos 9:11-12 (LXX) [and alluded to Isaiah 45:21] which have nothing to do with circumcision.  A Bible literalist, would have to say that James, Peter, Paul and Barnabas lose and the Pharisee Christian converts win.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead the church issued a statement freeing the Gentile converts from the circumcision requirement.  Consequently, I’m sure the circumcised Gentiles were pretty peeved.

Who had the authority to decide what God required and what he did not? The leaders of the church: apostles and the elders (15:22-23).

During the 1500s, corruption in the church went unchecked until the Protestant Reformation opposed the church’s authority.  The basis for their revolt was that the Roman Catholic church was contradicting the Bible, which should be man’s sole source of divine authority.  Thus, Sola Scriptura was one of the enduring battle cries of Protestants.  The printing press made it possible for more people to have the Bible and to see clearly what it required.  Now that people had the complete Bible translated in a their native language, they could hold the Church accountable to do what it required.  God wrote the Bible, so it is infallible; there can be no contradictions in it (if you think there are, you have either misunderstood or are rebelling against God).  If we all study the Bible correctly, we will see the one message that God wants to convey.  As Phyllis Tickle stated, the Protestants exchanged a physical Pope for a “Paper Pope.”

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  Each and every Christian is a priest with that right  (1 Peter 2:9).

Centuries later, the Catholic church made their own rule about infallibility.  The rule of ex cathedra, the Pope’s infallible utterance, was dogmatized during Vatican I (1869-70) and reaffirmed at Vatican II (1962-65).

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  The church leaders who are approved to interpret the text correctly, and infallible statements may come from the Pope via ex cathedra.

These days postmodernism has affected us all.  We acknowledge that there is more than one approach to truth because all our perspectives will always influence how we see and interpret information.  The Protestant idea of the Bible being the only source of divine truth is still a pleasant idea–it is comforting to know that something is in black and white–but the fact that there are thousands of protestant denominations in the world today is certainly not encouraging.  Many of these denominations evangelize by saying things like “Do you know for absolute certain that you will go to Heaven when you die?  I mean, do you know that you know that you know?  Is there any doubt in your mind?”  Well, considering the fact that there are 6 different Christian churches on this street alone, and that I have about 5 different English translations of the Bible on my shelf…there is at least a little doubt.  But I trust Christ and participate with him in worship.  I’m certain that is enough–relatively speaking.

Tickle mapped this framework out in her lectures and suggested that we are currently in a Wikipedia kind of Church age, where authority is really a matter of public discourse than determining who has the right to give us direction.  So Christianity becomes much more broad, we listen to those other Christ-followers who have different ideas, learning to love and respect their views even if we disagree.  Pledging allegiance to Christ and participating in worship is the center of gravity.  We must allow the latitude for others to disagree.  Let the Spirit of God work in that person and stop thinking that you will turn argue that person out of their “wrong thinking.”

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  The church community via discourse.  Regularly engage in respectful dialogue and let authority take care of itself.

I found these ideas very intriguing and wonder where we will be in the next 10 years.

Categories: Emergence Christianity | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Thoughts on Emergence Christianity

My last post gave a cursory description of the Emergence Christianity conference I attended which featured Phyllis Tickle.  Here are some more concepts I learned there, with my responses:

“Emergence Christianity” or the “Great Emergence” is a recent phenomenon among many Christian denominations (and perhaps other religions), so it is not confined to a few denominations only.  It is a new attitude about religion and spirituality that represents, as she described, a probable and major shift in history.  It is one that is more sensitive to the spirit of God who reveals truth to local congregations.  It values one’s experience in life and with the spirit of God alongside a reverence for the Bible and tradition.   Tickle suggested the beginning of this movement sparked at the Pentecostal Azusa Street Revival, referencing the efforts of Charles Fox Parham and Bill Seymour.  Tickle showed no skepticism to the miraculous gifts supposedly manifested there.  The implication is that some congregations might receive specific direction from God–theological, social, or practical–communicated through these gifts.  Thus, prophecy is an important spiritual gift.

Response: I’ve left my old circles which tended to have cessationist views regarding the charisma (charismatic spiritual gifts–tongues, healing, etc.), but I still have reservations about it.  I think most people do.  This is because many a charlatan has mimicked them to take advantage of people.  Those gifts given for building others up twisted to manipulate the congregation is more than a little detestable.  So I have some hope that people genuinely practice these gifts in humble ways.  So you can imagine, I am very suspicious of new social and theological direction coming from these kinds of divine utterances.

Furthermore, I’m concerned about how one can validate the legitimacy of a prophecy these days.   The Torah called for some pretty severe consequences on those bearing empty prophecies (Deut. 13:5); but the New Testament doesn’t seem to call for such harshness.  Paul instructed the Corinthians to evaluate prophecies but didn’t even hint at what to do if they were illegitimate  (1 Cor. 14:29).  What standard might one use?   Obviously, the Lordship of Christ was a standard that prophecy could never violate (1 Cor. 12:3).

_____

Tickle argued that history works in cycles (see my earlier post) but also suggested a view of all religious history that references the Trinity.  The Old Testament time period was the time of the Father who focused more on judgment.  The New Testament time period (I suppose CE 33 to present?) is a time that emphasized experiences with God the Son.  The present is a transition into the time of the Spirit which will see much more spiritual activity.

Response: I’ve heard this kind of thinking before.  It sells well, but it suggests Modalism (Sabellianism), that God has presented himself in three different modes throughout history, and that each mode is a different personality.  It suggests that each member of the Trinity behaves differently in each time period.  On the other hand, it may not be that they each act differently, but rather that they each interact  differently with humanity.  That would have some clout, but there should be a distinction here to ensure that all three members of the Trinity were simultaneously involved with human history.

On the other hand, I agree completely that something big seems to be happening in Christianity.  Regular church attendance is way down, but people desire spirituality.  Many believe in Christ but have been burned by the church.  They prefer sincerity over strict dogma because, like the Pharisees of the first century, religious leaders often sacrifice goodness and common decency for the sake of religious ideas.  So in this “post-postmodern” environment, I’m sure that the face of Christianity will change.  How it will ultimately look is something that none of us can really predict.

Related articles

Categories: Emergence Christianity | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ever heard of “Emergence Christianity”?

A few weeks ago some new friends asked me if I was going to the Emergence Christianity conference in Memphis. Apparently, it was a big deal, but I was oblivious. A sold-out event, there wasn’t much chance of attending; but that week, someone who couldn’t go offered me their spot. I took it, pretty much flying blind into unfamiliar territory.

The shindig’s main attraction was a local figure, Phyllis Tickle. I must confess, I had probably only heard of her once before and never read her work. She is the founding editor of the religion department at Publisher’s Weekly and has written several pieces on what she calls, among other things, the “Great Emergence.”

In fact, the word great came up a lot in her lectures. She spent most of her time talking about church history, mentioning the Great Schism between the East and West Church, the Great Reformation led my Martin Luther, the “Great Unpleasantness” between the northern and southern states amid the American Civil War, and other great’s. She was well spoken, not needing notes or a podium and cramming a much information into her pleasant and almost casual orations as possible, at times confessing that she didn’t have sufficient time to cover all the material (the teacher’s curse).

I can see why she has impacted the community so much, since she really is dealing with some of the most obvious problems of modern Christianity…and really religion as a whole. It’s been clear for some time that church attendance has dropped over the years, but people have retained their own private spirituality. They believe in higher power, but not in organized religion. People have lost hope in human leadership, and so spiritual anarchy looks better and better all of the time. Tickle noted that this is not unique, but is common throughout human history. She argued that history shows a pattern that about every 500 years a massive shift takes place in human authority, particularly in religious doctrines. So there were four in the common era. The first was when Constantine made Christianity the state religion (AD 313). The second was the Great Schism between the East and West Church (AD 1054). The third was the Protestant Reformation (AD 1517), splitting the church again. Tickle observed that it is about time for another shift, and all of us can feel that tension now. Religious authority has frustrated many of us. We want to express our religious views but feel that we are oppressed from every direction. [To be clear, she was not calling for any kind of split or revolution. Tickle was only observing what was happening in the current religious climate.]

So, what is Emergence Christianity, then? Here’s my take on it. It is an ecumenical movement that spans across all Christian denominations and sects that liberates from dogmatism–that is, control of human systems–and pursues the religious freedom and dignity of all people. It elevates Christ above all but does not impose Christ above all. It recognizes that Christ is the supreme demonstration of God’s love to the world, but understands that people have to come to that understanding on their own terms. In other words, the Spirit of God will move in people’s lives whenever and however he wants to, and we can’t force that to happen.

*Emergence Christianity is not the so-called “Emergent Church,” which is a movement that tends to be more conservative. As Tickle put it, the Emergent Church tends to be more sexist and homophobic. I’m not sure how fair an estimation that is.

I believe this movement is similar to the post-evangelical phenomenon. The term “convergence” also came up in the discussions, and I thought of the ‘post-postmodern’ label a few times in the lectures. There are some positives and negatives about all of this that I may flesh out later.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Redeeming Christmas

Christmas tree

Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Around A.D. 336, the Christian Church made December 25 the official date to celebrate the birth of Christ. Some of the images and rituals popular in Christmas celebrations today, have their origins in ancient pagan celebrations.  The Christian Church could have rejected these images but instead redeemed them, pointing them to Christ instead of false gods.  The Biblical authors had no problem with such methods.  In Psalm 29, David described a storm rolling over Lebanon striking down trees with lightning.  Canaanites thought Baal was behind such power, but David corrected this notion, claiming YHWH was behind it all.  Pagans were right to acknowledge a deity who brought the storm, but their adoration was misdirected!  David took the religious enthusiasm fomented by the image of a storm and directed praise toward the Lord.  He used an image that was common to his Canaanite neighbors and corrected the theology behind it.

Likewise, in the New Testament, Paul recognized the religiosity of his audience by noting the pagan idols they worshipped and paid special attention to the writing on one particular altar (Acts 17:23).  Paul used the altar devoted to “the unknown god”  to preach the good news to his listeners!  They had religious momentum, yet Paul sought to correct their misconceptions about religion and direct their devotion to the true God.

So when I remember Christ in December of each year, I enjoy putting up my Christmas lights and admiring their beauty during some of the longest nights of the year, because they remind me of Christ–the light of the world who shines in the darkness.  When I decorate my Christmas tree, I think about how it stays green and vibrant while the  other trees of the woods look dead.  Christ similarly makes believers alive in a world spiritually lifeless in sin.  The gifts under that tree remind me of how Christ was a gift from the Father to the world.  The Yule log in the hearth should keep a home warm through the night until the daylight shines once again, just as Christ’s Spirit in our hearts will keep us until the dawn of the second advent.  Just as God has redeemed our lives and corrected our theology, some of the traditions of Christmas which had pagan roots long ago are now symbols that point to the true God.

Categories: Biblical Studies, Christmas | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Little “Ah Ha” on Saturday Morning.

The word is very qarob to you…and so is this coffee.

I’m working my way through a very good book: The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer).  So, I’m learning a whole lot more about this postmodern business.  The essays are by some really smart people, and are on topics such as Anglo-American Postmodernity, Postliberal theology, Postmetaphysical theology, Deconstructive theology, Reconstructive theology, and Radical orthodoxy.  It covers more topics than you can shake a post at.  One of the great things about it is how it does not simply promote postmodern theology, but rather explores and critiques it, giving credit in some places and caution in others.

The essay I worked through this Saturday over a pastry and cup of joe was “Deconstructive Theology” by Graham Ward (a priest of the Church of England and professor of lots of philosophical and religious concepts that you and I would probably have a hard time understanding at the University of Manchester).  He gives a history of deconstructive theology and hermeneutic concluding with his own appraisal of such methods.  Discussing Jacques Derrida’s ideas, he notes that Derrida only became academically interested in theology when theologians began using his methods to interpret the scriptures.

Derrida’s approach to the text was nihilistic.  It seems he believed that any given text was a platform upon which a reader constructs meaning.  I think there is some truth in that, but I’m not entirely convinced.  I grew up interpreting the Bible a certain way.  I interpreted it the best way I could based on what I knew.  When I went to seminary, I learned a lot and so interpreted the Bible differently based on my new-found theological education.  I have more tools and knowledge of the text now.  Some bothersome questions arise now: Can God speak to me more clearly through the Bible now that I have a theological education?  If God uses the Bible to speak to me, can he speak to me better now that I’m “educated”?  Are my interpretations of his message more legitimate now than they were in the past?

And here is my “ah-ha!”  My engagement with the Bible is a divine interaction, and the Holy Spirit can and does use these readings to speak directly to me.  When I read the text, in a way, I construct the meaning of that text and I expect that the Holy Spirit is involved in that process.  It’s mysterious, and cannot be entirely measured or regulated.  My education may give me the tools and skill to have a more critical reading of the Bible, but not necessarily a more devotional and thus a more meaningful reading of the Bible.  I can now see the significance of Karl Barth’s approach to the Biblical text.  A Bible laying on a desk is the Word of God.  But an open Bible that I am reading to a church audience behaves differently.  In which instance is the Word “living and active”?–while it sits on the desk or while I actively engage it?   The Holy Spirit works in me while I read it.  I may not always get it “right,” but I have faith that it will affect me positively.

Now, I still believe there must be regulation in reading.  If the text is “God is Love” interpretations like  “My cat is red” would be delusional, illogical, or dishonest.  How does all of this work together–well…this is just an ‘ah ha!’ not a full exposition.

Categories: Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Better Approach to Postmodernists

So I left my readers hanging on my last post that showed folks how not to argue with a postmodernist.  Since then life got busy, so I’m later than I wanted to be (a month–sheesh!), but here you go. Let’s begin by remembering the way the postmodernist thinks.  Postmodernism is a mindset which considers the truth to be something constructed by each person based on their life experiences.  Someone born and raised in Asia will see life differently than one in America, or Brazil, or Africa.  This is a phenomenon we’ve noticed in the Christian church.  Christians of the same tradition, on the other side of the globe will have a different take on many different things religiously.  Different life experiences make people ask different questions about life.  Each individual is forced to come up with answers to those questions on his own.

The “authorities” on any subject are often eyed with suspicion.  Everyone knows that for every expert on a given topic, you can find another one with different or even opposite views.  Both of them will have great reasons for their positions.  Which one will you believe?  How will you determine which one is “right”? You’re not an expert in that field.  You’re not qualified to decide. You don’t have the smarts that they do. So what are you going to do?  Easy…you’re going to choose.  Your choice may not be “right,” and you may never be able to tell if it is with absolute certainty; but the choice you make gives you power and ownership over the situation.   You may choose to side with scholar A, scholar B, or not to side at all.  Whatever choice you make, your choice is completely yours.

Agent Smith and Neo. Neo is the one in the dress.

If you recall, this is one of the themes of the Matrix films.  The main character Neo tries to figure out what is going on in his life, asking some of the deepest questions one can.  Questions like “what is my purpose?” and “What is reality?” In the end of the last movie (the most disappointing of the trilogy, by the way), the arch-villain Agent Smith pummels poor Neo nearly to death.  Utterly broken, Neo stands to fight again.  A frustrated Agent Smith then starts a
lengthy tirade of questions, wanting to find the purpose and motivation behind Neo’s ambition:

Agent Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?

To Smith’s maniacal rant, Neo pants out a simple answer:

Neo: Because I choose to.

This is the triumphant answer of the postmodernist to life’s deepest questions.  There are many why’s and many systems of belief in the world.  Every one of them have logical reasons for their system.   Every one of them have logical inconsistencies as well.   Ultimately, people choose to believe what they believe.  This relates to my previous post where I mentioned that I won a debate with an acquaintance but apparently didn’t convince him of anything. He lost the debate, but I really didn’t convince him of anything.  In a way, I was Agent Smith, questioning all the logical problems of my opponent–but I didn’t win anything.  No, I wasn’t as nihilistic as Smith, but my badgering was the same.  So, what’s a Christian to do?

Here’s where the sovereignty of God comes into play.  If you’ll remember a secretive meeting between Jesus and one of the Pharisees in John 3, the Lord mentioned that the work of the Spirit–conversion–is as unpredictable as the wind (v. 8) [an obvious play on words since wind  and spirit are the same Greek word].  Luke tells us of a woman named Lydia who believed because God opened her heart, enabling her to respond (Acts 16:14).  Paul states that we believed because God made us spiritually alive (Eph. 2:5).  The point is, Christians tend to believe that a supernatural element is involved in all your conversations about Christ.  You may carry the message, but God will determine it’s efficacy.  Though important, apologetics and arguments go only so far, especially with a person who has a solid postmodern perspective.  Remember that the postmodernist sees your best argument as an attempt to control and manipulate others.  So when we talk to people about Christ and Church, you need to have a conversation and not a debatAlvin Plantinga after telling a joke ...e.

In the same way, I’m reminded of something Alvin Plantinga(John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame) said in a podcast interview some years ago (Unbelievable? July 26, 2008, ~30:00-32:00).  When asked if philosophical arguments could be effectively used to persuade someone to become a Christian, Plantinga indicated that most people are not moved by such an approach.   Instead, people tend to believe in God for existential reasons–that is, life experiences and events which have direct bearing on their thinking.  So experience tends to be more meaningful to people than well-reasoned arguments.  Certainly, God himself interacts with the human heart on this level.  But God also interacts with people externally, and we are privileged to be a part of that process.  That brings us back to the main question of this post: what’s the best way to talk religion with a postmodernist?

It seems to me that a person is not argued into the Christian faith, but is instead wooed.  Certainly, logic and reason are a part of the process and you shouldn’t abandon your convictions.  But there are some things that we can do to communicate a little more clearly.

Disagree, don’t correct.  “Jesus is not the Son of God”  If you are a Christian, what’s your immediate response?  Naturally, you want to say “Oh yes he is!”  Your knee-jerk reaction is to correct something that you see as error–a very big error.  But the moment you try to correct someone in this way, they will likely see you as arrogant and even manipulative.  Think of the people that correct you in life; who are they?  They are usually authority figures such as teachers, parents, judges, etc.  When you move to correct a friend in conversation, you’re acting more like an authority figure than an equal.  A more welcoming response would be disagreement: “I think that Jesus really is the Son of God”  or “I have a different view on that.”  Even “I don’t think that’s accurate” works better, because you’re saying what you think.  Instead of trying to be the truth-police, talk about why you believe what you do.   Otherwise, you may come across like a teacher trying to grade their oral report on religious ideas.

Ask meaningful questions.  One of my most influential professors  at seminary was a man who knew how to ask great questions.  When the topics became particularly controversial he tried not to tell us what to think.  Instead, he asked us a series of important questions about the topic so we could probe deeply.  Each of our answers revealed something about how we all thought about theology, God, and ourselves…which led to some great discussion.  In that class we learned that theology is not a cold machine-like system of facts, but is much more organic.  It is an extension of ourselves, and is subject to growth and change over time.  The prof had at least three reasons for asking questions: (1) so he could evaluate our thinking, (2) so we could evaluate our own thinking, and (3) so he could get to know us a little better.  Essentially, he asked us questions because he cared for us and for what we thought (unlike  Agent Smith).  As we answered these questions out loud in class, we learned to value each other’s opinions and understand how we got to the ideas we had.  Theology was not simply about right and wrong; it valued human relationships and experiences.

No doubt, Christians believe in right and wrong, good and bad.  I’m not denying that.  But when you ask questions with a genuine interest in the other person’s views, you’ll find it helps you communicate better.  It will help develop the relationship.  It also shows that you value that person, even though you may not agree with their views.  This makes a much greater impact than a debate approach.

Find common ground.  People grow through community and conversation, but what do you do if you’re trying to have a conversation with someone who believes that all religion is worthless?  You need to find some issues on which you both agree.  People who give public speeches to foreign audiences do this all the time.  An American speaking to an audience in Germany might try to speak some German just to bridge the obvious gap.  I remember the UK Prime Minister and tremendous orator Tony Blair’s speech to the US Congress, where he mentioned the following:

“On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where, in 1814, the British had burnt the Congress Library. I know this is, kind of, late, but sorry.”

Funny stuff!  And it helped to bridge gap between this British leader and the US Congress.  Such gestures show your good will and desire to have a friendship.

Likewise, there will be an obvious gap between you and someone with another religious view.  You may not be able to agree with someone’s religious ideas, but you can find something that you both agree on.  Finding common ground will give both of you confidence with each other.  And you do that by asking meaningful questions!  Take an interest in the other’s views even if you disagree.  You may be surprised how much you agree with each other after all.  That’s valuable to the postmodernist because it shows respect for the other person even though you may not agree with them.

The best argument you have is love.  It’s really a simple and powerful concept and one that Jesus stressed.  No argument speaks louder than a genuine concern for the well-being of others.  The Christian believes that the crescendo of everyone’s well-being comes through embracing the Gospel message…and that’s why  some folks want to present it so urgently…it’s why they are so quick to disagree with other religious views.  But that kind of urgency to present the Gospel looks very suspicious to the postmodernist.   He thinks you’re trying to con him, to trick him.  But if you show a genuine interest in his views, if you live out the Gospel daily in front of him, if you are there for him when he needs you, that makes the Gospel clearer than any philosopher or theologian’s approach.

Overall, how should you talk to a postmodernist about Christianity?  Take it easy.  Respect that other person’s views and interact with them.  Rest in the sovereignty of God.  Love first and speak the Gospel when God presents the opportunity.

Categories: Existentialism, Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Not to Convince a Postmodernist

Postmodernism is rebellion against modern reasoning.  In a earlier post, I showed how modernism used reason to liberate itself from the corrupt control of premodern authorities (kings, lords, popes, etc.).  Modernism indulged in reason and promoted the hope that reasonable societies were on their way to Utopia.  However, the bloodshed in the twentieth century was the worst the world had ever seen. People began to realize that even the best educated and most intellectual people disagreed about many things.  So, postmodernists rebelled against the modernist approach.  Instead of trying to find meaning in objective truth, they found purpose in their own subjective views. Personal opinion became everyone’s own reality, and the pursuit of an objective truth (a True truth) was abandoned all together.  Sure, some people still believed in one supreme truth, but the postmodernist doubted that we could see it for what it was.

Since the postmodernist has such a great suspicion against the keepers of reason, the Evangelical Church was frustrated time and time again in its efforts to reach them.  People started saying that they were against organized religion, though they found a spiritual side of life important.  Jon Meacham‘s “The End of Christian America” revealed just such an idea.  This disinterest in the church has been called the post-Christian Era.  Postmodernism has clearly affected the religious affections of America.  Though a number of scholars suggest that we have actually moved beyond postmodernism into a new era (some give it the tedious name post-postmodernism), the remnants of postmodern thinking remain.  How can the church expect to reach a post-Christian and postmodern society that distrusts (1) organized religion and (2) a pre-packaged, well-reasoned argument such as a gospel presentation or church sermon?

Let’s begin with an approach that isn’t as effective.  That is, a purely modernist approach.  When I was growing up, one of the most popular Christian books was Josh McDowell‘s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and a second volume would follow. The book was an attempt to prove without a shadow of doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was the divine Son of God who had physically resurrected from the dead and offered salvation to those who place their trust in him.  Supposedly after reading the evidence, you wouldn’t be able to deny McDowell’s claims.  The approach is clearly modernist: the truth exists and we’ll get there with reason.  The postmodernist scoffs at this kind of book.  He knows that there are many other books that seek to prove that Jesus of Nazareth never existed at all, or that he existed only as a good teacher.  The postmodernist sees a book like this as an attempt to control, not to convince. The postmodernist is not surprised that I find such books helpful because it reinforces my beliefs, but he does not because it doesn’t reinforce his.

(To McDowell’s credit, he dealt with this problem in a later book, Beyond Belief to Convictions)

If somebody wants to have meaningful dialogue with someone in this [post-]postmodern era, the best approach I’ve found is one that genuinely seeks to understand another person’s perspective.  Some years ago, I prided myself how well I could debate with others.  I had taken my college philosophy classes seriously and enjoyed any logical dialogue I could get.  I remember one rather intense conversation with a fellow who had studied to become a priest, but had later abandoned all that in favor of atheistic ideals.

My attitude? I was going to change that guy’s life.

My ego was a little too strong.  I knew the One truth, the One God, and the One way, and I wielded the tools of logic and rhetoric well enough to defeat virtually anyone.  My conversation with this gentleman was pleasant, though we disagreed about many things.  To each point he made, I offered a solid rebuttal; and at the end of the conversation, I had him in a logical corner where he had to admit that his own position contradicted itself.  It was a victory; I was very proud of myself. But I was shocked at his final response: That’s just what I’ve always believed, and I still believe it today.  It didn’t matter to him that I had out-argued him in a debate, he was still committed to his thought-system.  That day I learned a very important lesson.  Few are argued out of their positions, they are wooed.  I had engaged this man in a logical wrestling match and won.  I may have bested his outer defences, but I had not touched his inner world.  The only thing that I taught him was that his outer defences needed to be improved.

No one will woo a person by arguing them to the ground.  And the postmodernist who is cynical to a packaged logical system (and there are lots of them) will resist any notion that one logical system is objectively superior to another. So if you defeat him in debate, he is not going to abandon his system over that.  In fact, you may have inadvertently entrenched him even more, making him harder to reach next time.

There’s another approach that works much better.  I’ll propose that in my next post.

Categories: Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

goodbye religion

So long to institutional thinking...

j b gissing

books | culture | faith | publishing

Dunelm Road

Dunelm is Latin for Durham (England)

Next Theology

Just another WordPress.com site

Semitica

An Academic Blog

100worddash

Just another WordPress.com site

maskil leDawid

meditations, supplications, lamentations, disputations

Naturalis Historia

Exploring the Intersection of Science and Faith in the Spirit of John Ray

%d bloggers like this: