Category Archives: New Theology

The Word in the Flesh in the Word: A true, Postmodern Understanding of the Incarnation

The “pursuit” of a postmodern Christology is something that is inherently paradoxical because on the surface, the postmodern seems to be itself the antithesis of a unified doctrine of the person of Christ. Furthermore, the postmodern is a term that by its very “definition” escapes definition. It may be better to speak of the postmodern in relation to Christology, or the Church itself for that matter, as pursuing rather than being pursued. Such a statement indicates two important details about the current milieu. First, it emphasizes the importance and inevitability of an adaptive theology that is in history and diachronic. Second, it reverses the violence found in the history of the Church of tracking down and subsuming competing worldviews. Both are points I shall develop in this post.

The reason why my attention is focused on the doctrine of incarnation is because it is that moment in particular that provides the most robust understanding of the postmodern recontextualized within Christianity. It is a moment where transcendent and knowable, eternal and contingent, divine and human come together in a way that is both comprehensible and incomprehensible simultaneously. Therefore, the incarnation can be fruitfully understood as a moment of différance in which the divinity and humanity of Christ are in constant tension, neither subverted by the other, both escaping the full grasp of understanding at moments and casting themselves into sharp relief at others and is thus indicative of our human inability to ever completely pin down what divinity incarnate—or full humanity—really are.

My argument will consist of three main parts. First, it is important to get as clear an understanding as possible of what exactly the postmodern is not only from a historical standpoint but also from a historiographical one regarding its history in theology. I will be drawing primarily upon the work of Jacques Derrida to do this. Secondly, I will develop a postmodern understanding of the incarnation and point out the ways in which such an understanding not only highlights important aspects of our frailty as human beings but also how it defeats the violence of metaphysics found within natural religion as well as “modern” Christianity. Finally, I will argue that the nature of the Jesus-event requires that we place our understanding of incarnation into the scope of history, making it diachronic, and formulating it with the knowledge that it is in no way nor can it ever be absolute.

1. The Continental Postmodern Mis/understood

There is resistance among evangelicals regarding an appropriation of the postmodern into their theology, and it is certainly understandable. First, there is the perception that postmodernism advocates an “anything goes” relativism—that because postmodernism has dismissed the search for Truth, it claims that there is none. This has led most evangelicals to see the postmodern as necessarily atheistic. However, as I will demonstrate, postmodernism is not absolutely relativistic.

Secondly, the theology that originally came out of postmodern thought has been anything but promising. The effect of postmodern thought can be seen in theology as early as the 1960s with “death of God” theologians such as Thomas J.J. Altizer[1] and continues through the 1980s with Mark C. Taylor’s Erring in 1984. In short, the argument is that the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth necessarily brought about the “death” of the God of the Old Testament. Taylor writes: “With the appearance of the divine that is not only itself but is at the same time other, the God who alone is God disappears.”[2] However, Taylor, who is drawing primarily upon the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida, misreads Derrida by taking him too seriously. If the God who is God alone, the God fully present, Alpha and Omega, disappears, then what has happened is mere reversal, not deconstruction of the divine event of incarnation. The postmodern at the general level of “Truth” and in the more narrow use of deconstruction and différance needs to be re-examined.

1.1. truth and Truth

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the forefathers of postmodern thought, writes in his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” of the nature of Truth: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force.”[3] In other words, for Nietzsche, there is no “Truth” with a capital ‘T’ that humans have access to. Everything we claim as a “truth” is really just a metaphor for a larger Truth behind the veil of our perceptions. One way to formulate this, as Merold Westphal does, is, “The truth is there is no Truth”[4]—that seems to broadly describe the conclusions of many postmodern thinkers, though it does not do justice to any of their individual formulations (I will be touching on Jacques Derrida’s formulation of this statement in the next section.)

One might be quick to point out that it seems the statement is contradictory, much like the liar’s paradox: This statement is a lie. However, such a statement is self-referentially contradictory only in the performative sense,[5] meaning it is the nature of the language within the statement that makes it self-referential. In the act of hearing this utterance, in the case of the liar’s paradox, the listener must paradoxically accept the truth of the statement in order to accept its falsity. However, the same cannot be said about Westphal’s T/truth statement. The postmodern claim is not that the Truth, capital T, is that there is no Truth, capital T. The claim itself is still a contingent truth, lowercase t. Critics may then argue that such a truth is no more than a useful fiction; however, the claim is never that there is no Truth—only that we as human beings do not have access to it. Rather than point to the absurdity of the universe and thus lead to a paradoxical absolute relativism, this statement about our inability to access Truth points to our falleness as human beings. We never have knowledge of Truth, for that would be God’s knowledge; our knowledge will forever be in flux, forever slipping.

1.2. Derrida and Différance

This notion of the slippage of meaning is vitally important to the work of Jacques Derrida and a brief explanation of différance will help in developing a postmodern doctrine of the incarnation. In his landmark essay “Différance,” Jacques Derrida attempts to establish a “non-concept” by which he can demonstrate how Western philosophy has been based upon what he calls in Of Grammatology “the metaphysics of presence.”[6] The essential question in Western metaphysics is the essence of being. Derrida points out that, “The formal essence of the signified is presence [. . .] This is the inevitable response as soon as one asks: ‘what is the sign?,’ that is to say, when one submits the sign to the question of essence.”[7] In other words, being itself, in the metaphysics of presence, has no predicate. Being itself, in this case, is transcendent because it presupposes presence. We can more narrowly define Being for the purposes of this paper as an onto-theology, which attempts to describe the essence of God, the First Cause, etc. Both philosophy and theology have shared this as a goal for centuries.

Différance, on the other hand, according to Derrida, is not a word and is not a concept. It is not describable, not even as “nothing.” In order to describe such a “thing,” Derrida writes that one must, “delineate that différance is not, does not exist, is not a present-being (on) in any form; and we will be led to delineate also everything that it is not, that is, everything. [. . .] It derives from no category of being, whether present or absent.”[8] Derrida claims that différance, therefore, defies the metaphysics of presence because its to be, so to speak, is not dependent upon presence. In other words, it is never fully present, never fully absent, always indicating a slippage of meaning and the inability to find center.

This play of language is the epitome of the postmodern ethos. However, we must be careful not to take it too seriously. While deconstruction illuminates the privileges inherent in seemingly “objective” language, this does not mean that we can ever fully escape that language. Derrida, in his essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, points out that

[A]ll of these destructive discourses [referring specifically to Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Freud] and all their analogues are trapped in a kind of circle. This circle is unique. It describes the form of the relation between the history of metaphysics and the destruction of the history of metaphysics. There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics.[9]

For Derrida, it is impossible to critique metaphysics by attempting to dismiss its terminology because we “have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.”[10] What Taylor and other “death of God” theologians are guilty of is a reading of différance that suggests the proposition of God as transcendent and universal must be overturned because he “slips” into the temporal and human realm. In other words, they move God from fully present to fully absent, and thus announce His death. They attempt to do what Derrida explicitly says we cannot do in deconstruction—dismiss metaphysics altogether. However, as I will suggest and develop, reading the incarnation as a moment of différance prevents us completely from locating God using either the category of presence or absence. He is both, and he is neither.

2. The Language of the Divine

In order to begin to speak of the divine, we must understand that our language will never be that of the divine. In other words, our language is always contingent, never fixed. As Christians, we can believe that the Bible is fixed, transcendent, inspired, but our reading of it never can be—otherwise someone would have discovered long ago the way to read the Bible. We are always interpreters of everything we encounter. Gianni Vattimo phrases the issue this way: “Interpretation is the idea that knowledge is not the pure, uninterested reflection of the real, but the interested approach to the world, which is itself historically mutable and culturally conditioned.”[11] To understand the incarnation as a moment of différance is to accept the fact that our interpretation of the Christ event can never be fully centered and must always be diachronic and historical.

2.1. The Impossibility of Transcendent Language: The Incarnation

From a postmodern perspective the incarnation represents the greatest point of mystery and tension in the Christian faith. At the simplest level, it seems to represent a classic binary opposition between divine and human, eternal and contingent. However, the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ are much more complex than that. If we affirm, in line with Nicea and Chalcedon, that Christ was one person with two natures, divine and human, then we must ask ourselves what the relationship between those two natures is.

For “death of God” theologians, this event is the inscription of the Word into humanity—the eternal become temporal and thus this relationship “subverts all forms of transcendence.”[12] The incarnation is read as the descent of the divine Word into the person Jesus, an event which cannot be reversed and which destroys the violent God of natural religion. However, as Ted Peters points out, “[A] healthy Christology maintains a parallel tension between the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. Never absent is the temptation to relieve this tension by weakening or eliminating one of the poles.”[13] Certainly, the full divinity of Christ is weakened in death of God theology. What does it mean to be fully divine if there is no transcendent God as a referent? Furthermore, there is a contradiction here because the death of God itself an act of violence. To claim God’s death in this event is also to signal the establishment of a new absolute—one of pure absence rather than presence. It is not that Taylor is arguing that God in total is completely gone; he still affirms the divinity of Christ and the existence of the spirit. It is only the transcendent Father who is gone. In other words, as Kärkkäinen correctly assesses, for Taylor, “Without God—since God is ‘dead’—there is no central perspective, no objective truth of things, no ‘real thing’ beyond language.”[14] However, as I have argued, this is not necessarily an accurate postmodern perspective.

If the incarnation is read as a moment of différance, then we have an interplay between the two natures of Christ that cannot be completely understood. Yes, we can say that Christ is fully human and fully divine, but can we describe what either of those actually means? We do not have access to the language necessary to describe what anything is fully. If we did, to use it would be to look over the shoulder of God in order to see what He is seeing.[15] What différance in the incarnation of God in Christ represents is the constant sliding of meaning as we attempt to understand as best we can what it means in Truth for Christ to be one person, two natures, fully human and fully divine. This does not mean that we cannot affirm, in faith, that God is fully human and fully divine. A postmodern reading does not affect our belief in this doctrine, only our knowledge of its Truth. Furthermore, this moment of différance does not follow necessarily from the death of God nor does it lead to the death of God. Such a claim is itself deconstructable, as I have demonstrated above, and an act of metaphysical violence on par with a claim of absolute presence—it does not accurately reflect a postmodern reading of the incarnation.

2.2. The Violence of Metaphysics and the Frailty of the Human Condition

I have used the term “violence” to describe metaphysical claims. In the turn toward the postmodern, we necessarily turn from the violence that metaphysics brings. When I term metaphysics as violent, I echo Frederiek Depoortere who offers this explanation: “[M]etaphysics is the search for a first and indubitable foundation and is therefore inherently violent. The reverse is also the case: violence is the result of metaphysical thinking, of the belief that one has access to ‘objective’ reality, to reality as it eternally is in itself.”[16] As I have argued, the postmodern rejects the violence of metaphysics. Furthermore, the incarnation is also a rejection of the violence of natural religion, which is bound up in the violence of metaphysics in general. Such a religion requires not only sacrifice but violent defense as well. In other words, when one claims to know, to have complete access to absolute truth, one has no reason not to defend it with violence.

The embodiment of the transcendent God in human flesh and his subsequent sacrifice necessarily rejects the violence of natural religion, and the incarnation as a moment of différance rejects the violence of metaphysics. It is a moment that continues throughout history. It defines our experience in the world—différance inscribes anthropology, but

[I]t is a theological anthropology because it suggests that although we cannot talk about God , and have no direct knowledge of Him, neither can we cease talking about God, and having the promise of knowledge about Him. Différance, examined theologically, becomes the play between the presence and the impossibility of God.[17]

A postmodern doctrine of the incarnation throws our frailty as human beings into sharp relief. It allows us to continue to search for the Truth of what it means for Jesus of Nazareth to be fully human and fully divine—to literally know what the adjective fully means in Truth—but humbles us with the reality that to find Truth would be to see as God sees. Graham Ward phrases it thus: “[It] is the possibility for the impossibility of the Word in our words—the possibility not that God himself appears, but in the economy of theological representation that Jesus Christ is the scene for the impossible made possible; the text for the Word made words.”[18]

Conclusion: History as Truth

The tendency in the history of theology has been for theologians to attempt to develop doctrine that will remain untouched by history—to develop doctrine outside of history. While that may not necessarily be the case among contemporary theologians, even those who are not postmodernists, the radical contextualization of theology within culture and history is not always fully realized. The difficulty is in making a distinction between the eternal nature of the text of Scripture itself and our interpretation of it. We must keep in mind that Christianity is a distinctly historical faith. This is not to say that our knowledge comes only through historical fact and not divine revelation; rather, the incarnation “is the claim that history—a specific historical set of events, indeed—is the final, decisive, and complete locus of divine revelation, of the truth.”[19] The history of humankind, played out as the divine drama of God, reaching a pivotal moment in the incarnation is the location of truth. The crucified Christ is the image of human history—a political prisoner, innocent, broken and executed.

That history itself is the location of truth indicates that the attempt to establish a doctrine of the incarnation with the intention that it might be fixed and ahistorical necessitates its “incorrectness.” The postmodern turn allows us to develop a doctrine of the incarnation that is always developing, always diachronic,

For the incarnation could also signal the trace of an otherness that defies ecclesial definition and ownership, and confirms materiality and history as the inescapable context for experiencing the impossible gift. This would be an incarnation of the good, of the gift, that takes us beyond all calculation. It would be the condition of a nondogmatic faith.[20]

Dogmatism is something we have a heightened awareness of in the 21st century and is something the church could perhaps easily avoid with a stronger consideration of the postmodern.

Further study must be done with regard to the postmodern, not only because it is relatively “new” to church culture and mainline theology but because the very nature of it, as I have argued, requires that our interpretations never be absolute and outside of history. We must allow God to be the one both outside and a part of history, lest we claim to look over his shoulder to attempt to see with His eyes.

by Joel Harrison

 

Works Cited

Altizer, Thomas J.J., The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).

Depoortere, Frederiek, Christ in Postmodern Philosophy: Gianni Vattimo, René Girard, and Slavoj Zizek (London: T&T Clark, 2008),

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

—, “Différance” in Alan Bass, trans., Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1982).

—, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Alan Bass, trans., Writing and Difference (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1978).

Edwards, James, “Deconstruction and the End of Philosophy: Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and the Hope of Salvation,” in Henry Ruf, ed., Religion, Ontotheology, and Deconstruction (New York: Paragon House, 1989).

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003).

Peters, Ted, God—the World’s Future (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

Nietzsche, Friedrich, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” in The Rhetorical Tradition. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds., (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001), p. 1174.

Shakespeare, Steven, Derrida and Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2009).

Taylor, Mark C., Erring (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1984).

Vattimo, Gianni, “Toward a Nonreligious Christianity” in Jeffrey W. Robbins, ed., After the Death of God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

Ward, Graham, Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Westphal, Merold, Overcoming Onto-theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2001).


[1] Thomas J.J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).

[2] Mark C. Taylor, Erring (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 103.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” in The Rhetorical Tradition. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds., (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001), p. 1174.

[4] Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2001), p. 81.

[5] Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology, p. 85.

[6] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 23.

[7] Derrida, Grammatology, p. 18

[8] Jacques Derrida, “Différance” in Alan Bass, trans., Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 6.

[9] Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Alan Bass, trans., Writing and Difference (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 280.

[10] Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play” in Bass, trans., Writing, pp. 280-1.

[11] Gianni Vattimo, “Toward a Nonreligious Christianity” in Jeffrey W. Robbins, ed., After the Death of God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 31.

[12] Taylor, Erring, p. 104

[13] Ted Peters, God—the World’s Future (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 196.

[14] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 218.

[15] Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology, p. 80.

[16] Frederiek Depoortere, Christ in Postmodern Philosophy: Gianni Vattimo, René Girard, and Slavoj Zizek (London: T&T Clark, 2008), p. 7

[17] Graham Ward, Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.  232.

[18] Ward, Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology, p. 233.

[19] James Edwards, “Deconstruction and the End of Philosophy: Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and the Hope of Salvation,” in Henry Ruf, ed., Religion, Ontotheology, and Deconstruction (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. 186.

[20] Steven Shakespeare, Derrida and Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2009), p. 170.

Advertisements

Whose Authority?

“We need to discover what the author’s original intentions were.” I hear this occasionally at Fuller Seminary where I’m attending school from both students and professors. and it always gets me thinking: What is the state of Biblical Studies in relation to other humanities disciplines?

This summer, I had the opportunity to take New Testament 1 (Gospels) with Craig Evans, a visiting scholar and professor from Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia. Dr. Evans is, as I understand him, a renowned scholar who speaks all over the world about issues regarding the historical documents that comprise our New Testament, their authenticity, their priority, their importance, etc. During the course of lectures in the first week, Dr. Evans touched on a number of approaches to hermeneutics which included redaction criticism, literary criticism methods, as well as just “opening the book and reading.” Since the vast majority of the class was focused on the texts that comprise the New Testament, their authenticity, the controversies surrounding them, etc., it was clear that Dr. Evans felt that redaction criticism was the best approach.

This was confirmed when he told us the purpose of redaction criticism was to attempt to come to the author’s original intentions and that other forms of criticism, particularly those of the literary variety, relied too heavily upon interpretation.

Stop.

As someone coming from the field of literature, I have some issues with this, especially when it comes to the Bible. Leaving Dr. Evans out of it from here on in (since he really was a very nice guy), I’d like to make a few comments on “authorial intention.” This was not the first time I had encountered this phrase being used at Fuller as sort of the ultimate goal or endgame for Biblical Studies. I’ve had quite a number of conversations with other students who say that if we can’t rely on the Bible as our ultimate authority, our go-to, and if we can’t come to understand what authors originally intended, or at least come close, then how can we be sure about anything in our faith?

There are, in my mind, a number of contradictory words in that statement. We need to break this down in order to understand it better, but I’d like to preface that by mentioning that there will certainly be assumptions made below and things left unexplained that hopefully will be developed in future posts.

Can We Know an Author’s Original Intentions?

Communications 101: Speaker–>{{NOISE}}–>Listener

What this picture represents is something that is actually far more complicated than it seems at first glance. What it tells us is that in every communication, written or otherwise, something is interpreted. I use the word “know” in italics above because I want to emphasize the difference between understanding an author/speaker’s words in a way that may match their intentions generally and knowing exactly what those intentions are. In more philosophical terms, when we hear someone speak, or read something someone has written, we are encountering the Other, someone not Self, and unfortunately we can never put ourselves in the place of the Other because to do so would be to make that Other into Self. We can never know another person the way he knows himself. Everything we encounter is interpreted, or, to put it in the (in)famous words of Jacques Derrida, “There is nothing outside the text”–meaning there is not a single thing we encounter or know that can somehow be known, described, etc. outside of language. I’ll say it again–everything is interpreted. Sometimes, those interpretations happen so quickly, so intuitively, that we don’t ever think of them as interpretations at all. They’re automatic. If I say, to use a good friend’s example for this problem, “A cat ran across the street,” you would have a picture of what I meant by that. However, you wouldn’t necessarily picture exactly what I had seen. In fact, without more information, chances are you wouldn’t–especially if by cat, I meant a lion. Of course, once you have that information, you have an easier time picturing it. With all the information, there is no misunderstanding on a general level. I don’t need to describe the lion exactly, hair for hair, though that would bring the listener closer to what I had actually seen. And therein lies the problem. Even if one were standing right next to me, witnessing the events, one might have a different interpretation of the events. We’re two different people. We’re going to see things differently, and even if those differences are slight, even imperceptible, they’re still there. They will never have identity, and it is those differences that create the necessity for interpretation.

A Multitude of Interpretations

This absolutely applies to all texts, particularly when an author is deceased, but even when an author isn’t. For example, an author could say in an interview that he or she intended a certain message in a text he or she wrote. However, what if you read that text, saw what the author intended as stated in the interview, but also saw another message, another theme, perhaps unintended? Is that not a valid interpretation? Think about what a story is in the first place. All the very best novels convey some sort of subtextual message, theme, etc. that is never explicitly stated in the story (only the bad ones do that.) So if we take that text autonomously–which for now we’ll take as a given, though the autonomous nature of the text certainly could be debated–then the author is actually placing his or her own interpretation on the text. The author can justify the interpretation using textual elements from the story, perhaps contextual elements from the author’s time period or life. Another interpretation, different or even contradictory to the author’s may also be able to be justified using the exact same tools. This is why literary studies exists at all–and this is why Biblical studies exists. If we had discovered the “correct” interpretation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or Shakespeare’s The Tempest, English departments across the country would consist merely of fact checkers, trained to scientifically hash out the correct meaning of texts. The thought of such a thing should be ridiculous to us (or at least to me and my friends in literature departments across the country.) There are literally thousands of essays written on just one of any of Shakespeare’s plays, each offering a different, nuanced way of reading them. But this idea of hashing through the facts to get at the “actual” meaning, the one true meaning, of Biblical texts is not ridiculous at all to some. In fact, this is the purpose of Biblical studies in the minds of some.

Do We Need Authorial Intention to Speak with Authority?

Setting aside whether or not knowing an author’s intentions are possible or whether they equal the “correct” interpretation, I’d like to suggest that the term “authorial intention” does not add any authority to the reading of a text. Let’s return to my statement about the cat. Some would say that my original intent, whether that be to give a warning about an escaped lion or to inform someone about a lost house cat, is communicated once all the details are given to a satisfactory extent. The question, however, becomes this: In order for us to say we understand a statement, do we need the phrase, “The author’s/speaker’s intent is…” in order to say that our understanding is correct, best, authoritative? I say no. We can decide the purpose of the statement without knowing exactly what my intentions are given other context. Here’s an example from the Bible: Mark’s gospel begins, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Of particular interest in framing the text is the use of the phrase “the Son of God.” If we know anything about the history of the 1st century Near East, we know that it was under Roman imperial control. We know that the Roman Imperial Cult, the Roman religious order of the day, held that Caesar was the one true Son of God, and it required that all people citizen or not of the Roman Empire had to worship Caesar accordingly. We can then deduce that this text, because it was widely circulated, probably caused a political and social disturbance in the parts of the empire where it was circulated. Was it Mark’s intention to undermine the Imperial Cult? Probably. But does saying that it is add anything to our deduction that it most likely did undermine it? I would say no. What if we discovered, somehow, that this was not Mark’s intention? Would we suddenly say the statement that Jesus, not Caesar, is the Son of God did not undermine the Imperial Cult? I don’t think we would. We would perhaps call it an unintended consequence of that statement. Isn’t that familiar to us? Aren’t unintended consequences of communication a regular occurrence? In those cases, the consequences usually outweigh intentions. We gain nothing in terms of “correctness” nor do we come any closer to the “best” or “actual” interpretation when we claim an interpretation is what the author intended a reader to understand. Instead, statements about authorial intention become plays for power and authority over the text.

Whose Authority?

I think all of this is driving at one particular point–the purpose of using authorial intention. Scholars past and present have tried to arrive objectively at authorial intention because they believe that if they can, they’ll know the one true meaning of the text. In other words, it’s about gaining authority over a text–to be the one to disseminate the “Truth” of a text to others. The problem, as I see it, is that people who search for this and claim to find it, mistakenly see their interpretation as objective, authoritative truth, not realizing that it is another interpretation–and perhaps even a valid one! This maybe isn’t a problem for a historian or someone in an empirical, secular field, but it should be a huge problem for Christians. Is the goal of Biblical studies to be able to lay claim to the authoritative reading of the text? What are we really saying when we claim that authority? I don’t know about you, but I understand “the authoritative reading” to be the one that God would get upon reading the text. Are we really so bold as to claim that we can “see over God’s shoulder” as Merold Westphal puts it? I think that’s a dangerous game to play. It’s what leads individuals and groups to metaphysical violence (rather violence over metaphysics) as I wrote about in my last post (Violence). In that post, I mention people who carry signs declaring the doom of sinners. Some of their protests (such as the ones put on Westboro Baptist Church) are really horrifying. Yet, they’re acting on the belief that their understanding of the Biblical text is the understanding. They’re attempting to disseminate that understanding. We can make excuses for them and say, well they obviously don’t have the correct understanding. They’re misguided. They haven’t thought about it enough. They’re not willing to look at the facts. All of that may be true, but the point is that their bottom line is their belief that they posses the author’s true intentions, and all who oppose them will burn. Now, I don’t want to make a direct comparison between peers at Fuller who think authorial intention is a worthwhile endeavor and the hate mongering perpetrated by the members of Westboro. I haven’t encountered anyone at Fuller, student or professor, who hasn’t wanted to discuss this issue or others when disagreements arise. I merely want to point out how easily the quest for or claim to authorial intention can slide into fundamentalism.

A Familiar Worldview

The source of the use of the intentional fallacy in Biblical studies is right in front of us. It’s the same thing that fuels the fires of New Atheism, Young Earth creationists, and astrophysicists: Enlightenment science. Many Christians don’t necessarily see this connection, but it’s there. The basic, underlying assumption of the Enlightenment is that human beings have the capacity and capability to discover, either through scientific or philosophical inquiry, absolute truth. As Christians, we believe we have an idea of what that truth is. Notice I didn’t use the word know. By the requirements of the scientific method, we don’t know a lot of things. This is why so many Christians find it necessary to prove their faith through empirical means. We base what we believe upon the requirements of science. Science says we need empirical evidence to know something. We try to produce that through what many call pseudo-science, some real science, and examination and redaction of historical texts. These are tangibles that are supposed to point us in the right direction. But is it really necessary to “prove” the Bible is… what? True? Inspired by God? Many Christians aren’t entirely sure what those terms mean. And if we do somehow prove these things empirically, then what? Do we somehow know any more about our infinite God than we already do now? Does the Bible become the core of our belief instead of God?

Letting Go

Let’s look back at that first statement I paraphrased from those at Fuller with whom I’ve had this discussion and take apart two things. First, we should not rely on the Bible as an ultimate authority–God is our ultimate authority, and the Bible often times, but not all the time, helps us get to God. There are other ways we encounter God, his will, authority, etc. Second, we don’t need to be sure in our faith the way a scientist is sure of gravity. When we attempt that, we put God in a box as the famed theologians of Five Iron Frenzy once said in a song. When we attempt that, we’re not really operating in faith, or rather we’re saying that faith is good enough for now, to hold us over until we can prove some things. It’s possible to be sure in our faith without scientific proof. We need to let go of the idea that we have to “prove” the Bible. Trying to claim knowledge of authorial intention is part of that because it’s an attempt to empirically describe meaning of the text. But as I’ve hopefully argued, there is no way to ever arrive at an author’s actual intentions and even if there were, it wouldn’t necessarily represent the authoritative interpretation. I could spend ten more pages arguing for why certain methods, deconstruction, new historicism, post-colonial cirticism, and others are worth using, but those methods can become just as falsely authoritative as authorial intention. I suppose then that the point is to recognize that we should not be trying to arrive at the reading of a text and instead recognize that a multitude of readings all contribute to a richer, fuller understanding of the text.

by Joel Harrison

Violence

I see people holding signs reading “REPENT OR BURN–JESUS SAVES”, “FOR ALL HAVE SINNED”, or “GOD HATES FAGS”. These people believe that they are saved by faith through Jesus. They believe that what they are doing is evangelizing, doing the work of The Great Commission, turning those who don’t believe into disciples. I wonder: Why shouldn’t we minister to them? I’m not talking about questioning whether or not they’re saved, just whether or not they truly understand the grace of Jesus. I don’t remember Jesus scaring people into following him. He simply told them to follow, and they did. Scaring people into conversion is also not what Jesus called us to do when he gave The Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus simply says to his disciples, “Teach [the nations] all that I have commanded you.” I don’t remember Jesus commanding us to guilt people into salvation, to threaten them with eternal damnation, or to claim that God hates them.

It’s very easy for most evangelicals to look at what I’ve written above and say that they feel the same way—that the people with the signs are wrong or even downright embarrassing to the Christian faith. But we need to ask why. It’s not enough to say that their fundamentalism bothers us. In a sense, many American evangelicals practice the same fundamentalism that the sign holders do; it just manifests itself differently. I would go so far as to say, however, that if pressed by a non-Christian about the “Truth” of Christianity, most Christians would feel threatened even if the non-Christian is only making an attempt at productive dialogue rather than persecuting diatribe. We tend to avoid facing the really tough questions, and when we are finally forced to, we attempt to do so from a foundationalist position—from the position of the Enlightenment, of absolute Truth.

Truth is a difficult word. In the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, the Church commanded “it.” Many who spoke against “it” were labeled heretic and placed under house arrest (Galileo) or burned alive (Joan of Arc). The threat of violence was eminent. But how much has actually changed? Obviously, no one is burning anyone else at the stake. However, the threat of violence is still just as eminent, from the event of 9/11 to the bombing of abortion clinics to the violence perpetrated by those people holding the signs. The violence of metaphysics still exists, only in different forms.

For me, this is why a claim to know something is absolutely true is dangerous. Such a claim is inherently violent. Even if one does not think that he or she will react violently—even if one never reacts with physical violence, foundational metaphysical claims imply a level of violence in order to defend them. Frederiek Depoortere writes in his 2008 book Christ in Postmodern Philosophy “Violence is the result of metaphysical thinking, of the belief that one has access to ‘objective’ reality, to reality as it eternally is in itself.” When people firmly believe that they know something metaphysical, outside of physical experience, is absolutely true, they will inevitably act with violence against those who try to subvert their position. It is no longer belief in their minds; it is absolute knowledge of fact. We see that in Islamic fundamentalism. And we see that manifested in the Christian right as well when they carry signs like the ones described above.

What it seems to boil down to for them is righteousness. A person holding a sign like these is saying to me, “I know righteousness because I believe in Jesus. I can show you the way to righteousness.” But how can we possibly know anything absolutely when it comes to the Bible when Jesus explicitly tells us that we are saved by faith (Luke 7:50), and Paul tells us the same (Ephesians 2:8)?  We make similar claims all the time, even if those claims do not manifest themselves in physical violence. We assure ourselves that what we know is Truth. We gingerly step around the subject of our faith sometimes, because we don’t want to have to try and defend it—probably because we have no idea how to defend it. Some of us respond defensively, either by making broad generalizations about our faith or by attacking the other person—an act that is certainly violent.

There’s a lot about this attitude that reminds me of the Pharisees rather than Jesus. The Pharisees were deeply concerned about the Truth, trying to catch Jesus getting it wrong. They thought they were godly—that they were pursuing God, that they were living blamelessly. Nothing makes this more evident than the story in John 8 where the Pharisees bring an adulterous woman before Jesus, asking if she should be stoned. They know the answer. They are ready to act in violence toward her because ultimately her sin is not necessarily one against God but against the Pharisees’ establishment of Truth. Jesus, however, turns the question around on them asking the one who is without sin to act with violence first. Rather than violently try to get those who oppose any earthly standard of Truth to conform, Jesus blesses those who are persecuted in the name of that standard—in the name of righteousness (Matt. 5:10). But this attitude of righteousness seems to be extremely pervasive, or at the very least, is the picture of Christians that most non-Christians have thanks to the media attention that fundamentalists draw to themselves.

I think this attitude is symptomatic of the way church exists currently in America. As I began discussing in my first post and as I’ve alluded to in this one, we’re extremely Modern in our thinking—meaning we don’t just believe we have the absolute truth, we somehow claim to know we have it. Now, I’m not saying that we don’t. Certainly, as a Christian, I affirm that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, but my knowledge of this is not set upon anything that I would consider to be an absolute foundation. The reason foundationalism, i.e. metaphysical claims, are inherently violent is because such claims are indefensible. Ask this question: What does it mean for an epistemology (system of knowledge) to be foundational? It means that the system must be based upon a foundation that is known a priori (intuitively) and is indubitable. But now we must ask: Is the claim that a knowledge system must be based upon an indubitable, a priori foundation itself indubitable and known a priori? No. How could it be? Upon what experience could we base such a claim if we were an empiricist like David Hume? And if we are a rationalist like Descartes, how is it that we intuit such a thing if we have discarded all our presuppositions and  everything that we know about method? How would we know how to begin in that case? Foundationalism is a seemingly rational yet culturally conditioned response to the larger philosophical question of the origins of our knowledge.

Let’s take the Bible as an example. We can claim that we believe the Bible to be the Word of God. There’s nothing wrong with that. But certainly we can agree that there is not one way to read the Bible. There are no “plain facts” in the Bible that just need to be read in order to be understood. If that were the case, then someone would have long ago discovered the way to read the Bible, and there would be no reason to have this discussion. People would either read the Bible and accept the plain facts it has laid out or not. But since this is not the case, we must interpret the Bible, which means that we cannot rely on the Bible to fulfill our requirement of “foundation.” Our reading of it is subjective.

The important thing is that this in no way diminishes our faith. If anything, it emphasizes how frail we are as human beings. Who are we to claim we know anything absolutely? Wouldn’t such a claim necessarily entail that we see as God sees? The men of this world who have laid claim to divinity have ruled with the bloody fist of metaphysical violence. That is not who Christ called us to be. Socrates always famously claimed to know nothing at all, yet had strictly philosophical reasons for doing so, no infinite God to which he was comparing himself.

Letting go of absolute certainty is extremely difficult for Christians. It’s something that I had to come to terms with a few years ago as I immersed myself in the work of Jacques Derrida. When will we decide that we have had enough of the “righteous” representing to the world who Christians are? These people need to experience the love, grace, and forgiveness of Jesus just as much as a non-Christian does, and in many cases more so. Learning to let go and let the old die does not just apply to our old lives before Christ. It can also apply to the way we conceive of The Church, if that way is not enabling us to live the way Jesus is calling us. I want to see The Church change in this direction. I want to see it freed from self-righteousness.

by Joel Harrison

The Post-____________ Church

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