To say that we live in a distinctively confusing period of human history may seem like a rather bland, superficial way to begin what I hope to be a continuing conversation about the direction of The Church and Christianity’s place in the contemporary West; however, I believe it to be fairly accurate particularly from the Christian perspective. At the risk of generalizing, we can say almost certainly that many generations throughout history have felt confused, have sought to find meaning, have tried to discover how everything fits together. One could then very easily point out that postmodernism, over the last forty or more years, has given rise to a certain type of relativity—a dismissal of all transcendent foundations upon which one can rest universal truth—as one way in which the current epoch differs from those previous. But it is not as simple as that. Somehow it seems that culturally, intellectually, and spiritually, the West has arrived at very different places.
The Church and the Academy
First, allow me to preface this discussion by disclosing that I am trained as an English scholar, and in particular have a special interest in post-structuralism and Continental philosophy. As such, my discussion will necessarily ignore certain key figures in the development of postmodernism, particularly with regard to its Marxist critics and contributors as well as the American analytic tradition. I hope to provide a more comprehensive picture at another time.
Let’s go back about fifty years. In 1959, we could probably say that church, in general, was seeing the beginnings of a revival within popular culture. Billy Graham had been organizing revival meetings for ten or eleven years that were covered by the Hearst papers and Time in the early 1950s. At the core of church evangelism was the very modernist message that Christianity was the absolute truth all were searching for and that it was the responsibility of Christians to be Warriors of Christ. This is quite possibly a term that many are still hearing. The Church, as a whole has changed very little in the last fifty years; it still operates under the ideology of modernism—there is one knowable, transcendent truth, and its discovery is necessary for the betterment, even the salvation, of humanity.
During this same period, however, a new epoch was emerging in the academy. Atheistic existentialism had been gaining mass appeal since the 1930s and the prominence of Martin Heidegger. At the core of existentialism is still a transcendent truth—man himself. However, the rest of the universe is completely meaningless. It is man who must rise above this and create meaning and purpose for himself. Heidegger provides the famous analogy of being marooned on a desert island without having any idea of where we are exactly or why we are there. We must invent a purpose or else, as Albert Camus argues in The Myth of Sisyphus, we would have no reason to live, and would commit suicide. This worldview was still largely modern in that it rested on mankind finding the Truth within himself despite the meaninglessness of everything else. It wasn’t until the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Franscios Lyotard, and other Continental and post-structuralist philosophers and literary critics coupled with the publication of novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Slaughterhouse-Five, and so on, which both reflected and fragmented the ethos of the post-industrial age, that postmodernism truly began to take some shape.
No longer was the search for an absolute truth important or even possible. In fact, the idea that there is such a transcendental truth is primarily a power play made by those seeking control over others, particularly in the minds of Foucault and Lyotard. For Derrida, such a “Truth” is impossible because of the nature of language itself—the constant play of signifier and signified. Rather than the existence of a single transcendent, universal Truth, truths are developed as a product of community interaction, historical circumstance, and cultural influence. The world we perceive is composed of fragments, partial truths, and ambiguity. It is quite obvious then why this remained, and in some sense has continued to remain, such a threat for The Church. If we can’t know absolute truth, then how can we really know that Jesus is our Lord and Savior?
It took until the mid-1990s through the current decade for theologians and other religious academics to really start paying attention to this shift within the academy. The timing was perhaps fortunate and unfortunate simultaneously. Fortunate, because it was in the mid-nineties that intellectuals, particularly in America, began to realize in far greater numbers that the problem with post-structuralist “modes” like deconstruction is that they can become ideologies “without ideology” far too easily. That is, deconstruction was only ever meant to be a method of reading—a way to recognize the places in a text where the text subverts itself through its own language. Such a method is supposedly without agenda or ideology; however, it has been widely misread and misunderstood to merely be an ideology, which undoes the priorities of other ideologies but simultaneously claims to be without ideology. The pessimism that came along with the dismissal of absolute truth was losing its importance among some by this point within the academy. This made it far easier for theologians to swoop in and point out the ways in which postmodernism was not threatening to The Church. Books such as Stanley Grenz’s A Primer on Postmodernism (1996), Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy (2004), James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (2006), theologians such as Ted Peters, Mark Taylor, and Harvey Cox, and within the secular academy, John D. Caputo’s work including The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997) are all major contributions and contributors to The Church’s understanding of how postmodernism fits in with and helps to inform the Christian narrative in a much different way.
I say it was unfortunate because it seems it was far too late to make much of an impact on the culture of The Church. Many Christians are very fearful of the postmodern worldview. However, they are not addressing the postmodern from a position beyond it; rather, they equate it entirely with the secular, not realizing that they are still only barely holding on to the sinking ship of modernism. And even though the Emergent church has made attempts at change, they certainly haven’t been radical enough to constitute an entire paradigm shift in Christian culture. Many of these churches are not changing the way church is done—just the way it looks. And now the academy is transitioning away from postmodernism.
Regarding transition in the academy, I can really only speak for English departments, since that is where I was trained primarily, but what I can say is that the focus of high literary theory and the use of theory itself is currently experiencing a major shift. Timothy Keller, in the preface to his most recent book The Reason for God, cites an article written by Stanley Fish, a prominent Milton scholar, in which Fish relates a brief anecdote regarding the death of Jacques Derrida. Fish writes that following the news of Derrida’s death, a reporter asked him what would replace the triumvirate of race, class, and gender in high theory within the academy. Fish answered with one word: Religion. Fish of course isn’t suggesting that we’ll some how crawl (or fall) back into the Dark Ages or that we’ll return to religion because we couldn’t deal with facing the meaninglessness postmodernism presented us. Rather, I see Fish’s comment as representative of a post-secularism in which religion will be raised up from the mud it’s been thrown in to by the academy and searched extensively for any intrinsic value that can be found in helping us make sense of objects of study—as Marxism has, as the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan has, as deconstruction has. It will no longer be seen as an ideology of the Dark Ages that somehow managed to hang around despite the countless attempts on its life. It will be seen as a legitimate tool for exploring and writing about a text.
So it seems as if the Church is now, mostly, two steps behind the academy. However, in relation to Science, the two are on the same plane.
The Church and Science
Science seems to occupy a very strange place within culture and the academy. It, along with the majority of the Church, seems to be the last bastion of modernist thinking. Perhaps accusing Science itself of this isn’t quite fair—those who adhere to Science as an ideology is more accurate.
A few months ago, I began posting comments on a website called soulpancake.com. The site was created by Rainn Wilson of The Office as a means for people of all walks to come and share their views on “deep” questions about the existence of God or the meaning of this or that. Some of the people who post are cordial, open to possibilities they hadn’t thought of, and willing to engage in intelligent conversation. Many, however, were not. And of those, the vast majority was sternly rooted to the idea that Science was really the end-all be-all with regard to what human beings can know. Take for example this response:
“Absolute truth can only be awarded to one religion. So let us look at the probability for a second. All religions say they are the truth, what are the odds that even one of them is remotely close to the truth?? It seems to me that all religions are actually wrong… none of them hit the nail on the head about anything. The closest thing to truth and the closest thing to finding actual truth through knowledge is science.
So my conclusion is that all religions are at least 98% incorrect and inaccurate. Some day religions may be proven to be 100% incorrect through the triumphs of science. Ahh science… the calming, soothing, realistic, logical, factual quest for actual truth. I’m excited to see what science can show us in the next few years.”
Notice, that although this person discounts religion completely as being able to find absolute truth, he claims that Science will find the Truth. There is a direct trade: Science for Religion. His faith in the “triumph of science” as he puts it is unwavering, and his conviction that it will find all of the answers is a very obvious mode of modern Enlightenment thinking. Stanley Grenz, in his aforementioned book, gives this concise description of Enlightenment thinking:
“At the intellectual foundation of the Enlightenment project are certain epistemological assumptions. Specifically, the modern mind assumes that knowledge is certain, objective, and good. Moreover, moderns assume that, in principle, knowledge is accessible to the human mind. [. . .] The Enlightenment perspective assumes that knowledge is not only certain (and hence rational) but also objective. The assumption of objectivity leads the modernist to claim access to dispassionate knowledge. Modern knowers profess to be more than merely conditioned participants in the world they observe: they claim to be able to view the world as unconditioned observers—that is to survey the world from a vantage point outside the flux of history.
[. . .]
In addition to assuming that knowledge is certain and objective, Enlightenment thinkers also assume that it is inherently good. The modern scientist, for example, considers it axiomatic that the discovery of knowledge is always good. This assumption of the inherent goodness of knowledge renders the Enlightenment outlook optimistic. It leads to the belief that progress is inevitable, that science, coupled with the power of education, will eventually free us from our vulnerability to nature as well as from all social bondage.
[. . .]
Enlightenment optimism, together with the focus on reason, elevates on human freedom. Suspect are all beliefs that seem to curtail autonomy or to be based on some external authority rather than reason (and experience.) The Enlightenment project understands freedom largely in individual terms. In fact, the modern ideal champions the autonomous self, the self-determining subject who exists outside any tradition or community.”
This description does not only describe Enlightenment science, though I think it’s fairly clear to see how the comment above fits almost exactly with Grenz’s explanation. In some ways, this describes the mindset of the modern Christian as well. The assumption of the modern Christian is that God is completely “knowable”—a point of theology that we’ll perhaps have to dive into later on as this conversation progresses. The modern Christian also believes that all the evidence for God is merely lying around, waiting to be collected and catalogued in order to build a case for the existence of God. Of course, this affinity is what seems to cause the greatest point of tension between Science and Christianity. Like the commenter above, those who hold to a scientific ideology are naturally going to be at odds with someone who holds to a modern Christian ideology because they seem to be diametrically opposed. Science, at the level of ideology, is no longer a tool. It becomes a worldview complete with its own system of priorities, exclusions, inclusions, and claims. This is then to suggest that a Christian worldview that is not modern, will not be diametrically opposed to Science.
There is nothing superficially wrong with Science at the level of worldview. To be sure, all of us, many even without realizing it, adhere to some kind of worldview. Our perception is shaped by our families, our communities, our culture as a whole—our heroes and villains, teachers, friends, and so on. But there are two problems with the contemporary scientific worldview, specifically within the popular culture of new atheism created by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and the like.
Cultural Duality and the Veil of Perception
The first issue at hand is that of the prominence of relativism and scientific certainty at the same time in Western culture. Coupled with the problem of ideological incompatability between the scientific worldview and that of the modern Christian is the sense that Christians are close-minded, intolerant, and archaic. Part of this stems from the perception that Christianity attempts to provide a literal explanation of natural phenomena like the creation of the universe that seems to rooted in myth (viewed as an inferior way of knowing,) but it also stems from a desire to be inclusive of all religious viewpoints. I’ve seen questions posted on soulpancake.com asking things along the lines of “How can Christians be atheists with regard to every god except their own?”, a reworking of a similar question that has been posed by Dawkins, essentially asking, “Of all the ‘beings’ invisible to us, how is it that Christians have the nerve to claim their invisible being is the right one?”
The question raises some very interesting problems. On the surface, it is a question about the “close-mindedness” of Christianity and the atrocities Christians have perpetrated in the name of it. Dawkins and his followers will point to the death, war, and pain caused all for what they see as an ultimately ridiculous endeavor. Their solution is to either outlaw individual religion altogether, or to attempt to convince people of individual faith that they should adopt a pluralistic view for the greater good. The underpinnings of this answer, however, are tied to two very non-relativistic presuppositions. First, it presupposes that Science is the actual location of absolute truth, and furthermore seems to suggest that wars, death, and pain would not be caused by Science—a claim the survivors of the twentieth century know to be a complete load of crap, if I may be frank. Secondly, it seems to suggest that asking one to abandon his conviction regarding the “rightness” of his religion for a pluralistic view is not contradictory, when it most definitely is. In other words, a staunchly pluralistic worldview regarding religion is in fact not pluralistic. This is the classic problem with absolute relativity—it can’t truly exist. There seems to be then a duality, culturally speaking, that desires Scientific certainty, even autonomy, but also religious plurality and an illusion of cultural relativism.
The second issue is tied to the fact that there is a strong sense among the popular atheistic community that atheists do not have to make a case for their position. In fact, it is not a position at all. For many, it just “is” as evidenced by the previous comment and the following two:
“But the thing is, it’s not a system. One doesn’t have to understand science to be an atheist. One merely needs to reject/ignore religious claims. Atheism is a neutral stance, not making any claims. Although some do say, “There is no god,” atheism says “I don’t believe in a god.” Semantics, but important. As an atheist I see no evidence for a god therefore I don’t believe in one. I’m not making a statement, but rather dismissing the statements of others. You can consider it the default setting. It really is that simple.”
“Let me be clear, what I believe is not at issue, because it is self evident and within the natural Universe. What you believe is supernatural and not of the Universe. That is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. That, as they say, is that.”
These two positions are also distinctly modern. What is most interesting is that neither accounts for the veil of perception that we experience as observers. They speak of what Christopher Hitchens calls “the chainless mind.” I see this desire to be a chainless mind, to simply believe only what you can see, as symptomatic of an extreme backlash against what Western culture has perceived to be the “blind faith” of religion. In other words, if one hates Religion and everything it stands for, one is going to attempt to find a location that is furthest from it.
Conclusion: The Search for a New Core
I’ve touched on quite a bit that needs further explanation. I hope that this site can be a forum for developing these points. But before that, we need to take a look at where this confluence of worldviews leaves us. First, it is important to realize that the church is confronted by culture on at least two major fronts: Science and postmodernism. Even though the academy is beginning to abandon postmodernism, it will certainly be a few decades before culture does. Paradoxically, modernist Science still thrives within a culture that is more and more distinctly postmodern. The church, however, is fading into obscurity the longer it clings to the dying body of modernist thought. How did the Church become so irrelevant and how do we make it relevant again? The answer to that, I believe, lies in radically changing the way we as Christians view not just The Church, our individual, and secular culture as well. How we react to the responses offered to our faith like the ones above is important too. If we attempt to fight fire with fire, we will lose. However, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated to some extent, the modernist view of Science is not just an objective position, free of human influence. Despite what the third comment says, it is at issue. But if we approach this problem from the same point he does, a modernist worldview, it will be very difficult to convince anyone that what we have to say is valid. The third commentator is correct on one level after all—there is lots of evidence in the natural world, which validate the claims of Science. But that is certainly not the only kind of evidence there is.
Addressing the popular claims of postmodern culture requires a similar strategy—we must find a different ground from which we can critique these claims. This is how the dialectic of history works. Whatever foundation we find now will have to be modified again when nonbelievers come up with a rebuttal. It won’t end. The Bible tells us as much. Why should we assume that the modern church, the church of our parents and grandparents, were the ones who got it right? the problem has been that The Church as a whole has been steps behind, culturally and academically, for nearly 150 years now. It’s time for us to take a leap forward.
by Joel Harrison