Keeping my promise to hit all the hot buttons in PostModernism, I started
bookmarking articles relating to my thesis
that PoMo denies Absolutes
by absolutizing the Process. Today, as I began the compilation, I
realized that the first 3 bookmarks all dealt with PoMo within the
Church, within theology. Taking that as a sign, then, this first post
will not deal with the easy targets, the Clintons and Harvards of
post-processed truth-food, but something closer to home, the conceits of
theologians and progressive religious institutions.The Modernist Challenge
let me restate the characteristics of PoMo as applied to religion. The
idea that religion is about absolutes, led to conflict in the early
20th century, as modernist historians / scientists / philosophers made
counter-claims to the accepted truths of religion. From the left side
of Kant's divide, we had modernist claims that the virgin birth could
not possibly be true, nor walking on water, ex nihilo creation, Noah's
flood, etc. From the right side, we had claims that animal sacrifice
was barbaric, that expiation and propitiation were horribly primitive
distortions of the God of Love, that sex and guilt were the origin of
religious taboos no longer relevant for today, etc. Under this
onslaught, the Orthodox hunkered down, demanding that Scripture be
infallible, inerrant (in the original manuscripts), that orthodoxy
required creedal faith, unchanged down the centuries. The battle lines
were drawn, with the Progressives, the Broad Church, the mainstream on
one side, and the Fundamentalists, the Independents, the Bible Churches
on the other. (Similar lines appeared in the Catholic church, though
with different labels.)
Lest you think that these dividing
lines were artificial, there is no doubt that observers at the time saw
the conflict as real and significant. Chesterton's brilliant Orthodoxy
was a prophetic critique in 1911 of Modernism's eventual outcome. Here
is Eric Miller, a professor at a Christian college, writing at Touchstone magazine
, on the purposeless world Modernism bequeathed:
We’re not just disoriented, we’re barren. We don’t know
to whom or to what we belong, or should belong. In Aristotle’s useful
way of framing it, we know neither our formal end nor our final end. We awaken and find that we have jumped into a culture moving at breakneck
speed, powered by great economic forces dedicated to expanding and servicing
the appetites of the voraciously hungry selves we’ve become, and we eat
and eat and eat and we’re just as hungry as before, so we eat and eat
. . . and we’re still empty. Hungry. Alone.
after 80 years, or roughly 3 generations, it is time to assess the
outcome. Who won the battle of absolutes? How many churches are being
founded today with the word "fundamentalist" displayed prominently, or
even discretely? What has become of formerly "fundamentalist" schools:
Wheaton College, Fuller Seminary, Bob Jones University? How many
churches still have the venerable KJV bible in their hymn racks? (How
many still have hymn racks?)
In response to this Modernist
onslaught, many churches and schools began to bend with the wind.
Fighting over absolutes was considered a lose-lose situation, far
better to talk about directions, motivations, attitudes, than concrete
objects of our worship. Guilt replaced sin, and therapy replaced
absolution. A Protestant Example
before you say "yes, yes, it's all going to hell in a handbasket; we
should all return to literalism.", let's look at some historical
situations when we all said abandoning absolutes was a good thing.
Here's Victor David Hansen
explaining the motivation behind indulgences.
What do leftist, mostly secular elites share with medieval sinners?
They feel bad that the way they live sometimes doesn't quite match their professed dogma.
Many in the medieval church were criticized by internal reformers
and the public at large for their controversial granting of penance,
especially to the wealthy and influential. Clergy increasingly offered
absolution of sins by ordering the guilty to confess. Better yet,
sometimes the well-heeled sinners were told to pay money to the church,
or to do good works that could then be banked to offset their bad.
Of course, critics of the practice argued that serial confessions
simply encouraged serial sinning. The calculating sinner would do good
things in one place to offset his premeditated bad in another. The
corruption surrounding these cynical penances and indulgences helped
anger Martin Luther and cause the Reformation.
could possibly have convinced the Church that indulgences worked? The
idea that sin was a concrete thing (an absolute) that existed apart
from man's proclivity toward it, a literal thing that required
atonement, penal substitutionary atonement. The rest is bookkeeping.
Luther and the Reformers went after this concept in a big way, arguing
that sin was an attitude, and all the penance in the world was
worthless if the attitude didn't change. And whereas the Reformers had
a much more nuanced (dare I say balanced?) view of intent and deed, the
progeny of the Reformation simply learned the supremacy of process over
deed, act over action. After all, was it not Luther who said "Sin
boldly", indicating that the attitude justified the outcome?
I've had some who think I am overly critical of the Reformers here, but
let me state this problem in a very contemporary way. Several British
Evangelicals wrote a book last year called, Pierced for our Transgressions
which was provocatively subtitled "Rediscovering the glory of penal
substitution". Now I remind you, that is the view that justified the
practice of indulgences above, which viewed the main consequences of
sin as being some thing outside ourselves. N.T. Wright, an Anglican
Evangelical, Bishop of Durham, and a New Testament scholar takes
umbrage, and let's loose with several missives
where he tries to reinstate the Reformed perspective. Rather than bore
you with the infighting of godly men, let us cut to a NT Wright essay on CS Lewis
that preceded the debate.
One of the puzzles, indeed, is the way in which
Lewis has been lionized by Evangelicals when he clearly didn’t believe
in several classic Evangelical shibboleths. He was wary of penal substitution,
not bothered by infallibility or inerrancy, and decidedly dodgy on justification
by faith (though who am I to talk, considering what some in America say about
all project ourselves into our heroes, and Wright does the same here.
So what are the things he likes about Lewis? A risky commitment to
process, to evolution, though of a 2nd order kind (think "recursion"):
He is happy to affirm basic biological evolution, but then suggests that
if the world, and the human race, have advanced in the way they have so far,
we are maybe due now for a different kind of advance, a new step in which evolution
itself will evolve, producing a new human race, a new kind of human being,
but by a new type of step. Lewis is here, of course, stealing not only Darwin’s
clothes, but Nietzsche’s, and he is well aware of that.
I did wonder how dangerous a position it was to take, but he disarms potential
objections by making his New Humans not a powerful race of the species Übermensch, but
actual children of God, those who have caught the “good infection” from
being with Jesus Christ and who are thereby changed from being toy tin soldiers
into actual warriors, from mere creatures to newly begotten sons like the Son
This is where he locates his powerful and moving (and of course biblical)
material about dying and rising with Christ, a major theme here and in several
of his other works. I don’t know that anyone else has either advanced
this synthesis of regeneration and a kind of second-order evolutionism, but
it remains evocative and suggestive.
And what does the good bishop dislike about Lewis? A Platonic belief in absolutes:
Thus he can say, in a moving but I think deeply misleading passage, that “the
anaesthetic fog which we call ‘nature’ or ‘the real world’ [will]
fade away”; I regard this as a substantial hostage to Platonic fortune.
This problem emerges particularly in his repeated insistence that all human
beings have an immortal soul, which is the “real” part of them,
and which is to be one day either a creature of loathing and horror or one
we might be tempted to worship.
I simply don’t think this is either biblical or helpful, and I fear
that those who read Lewis will at this point have their traditional expectations
of a kind of Christianity-and-Plato reinforced where they should have them
of what you think of Lewis, Wright is clearly bothered by absolutes,
especially Platonic ones, and seems enamored of process, particularly
recursive ones. All these mark him as a man who has eaten of the fruit
of the tree of the knowledge of PoMo.A Catholic Example
Now that I have slandered Protestants, let me address the PoMo in Catholics. The scientist who inspired the previous post,
Guillermo Gonzalez, is catholic, and reviewed a book on the history of George Lemaitre
, a Catholic cosmologist who introduced Einstein to the "Big Bang" solution of his gravitational equations. Here is Gonzalez' review
To understand why Lemaître objected to Pius’s statement [that the Big Bang supports the Genesis account of creation], one
must understand his theology. Farrell quotes from a telling 1933 interview
of Lemaître on this topic:
The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less—some more than
others—on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as
wise or as ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant
that errors of historic or scientific fact should be found in the Bible,
if errors relate to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote
“The idea,” he concluded, “that because they were right
in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all
other subjects is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding
of why the Bible was given to us at all.”
So Lemaître maintained that God preserved those truths in Scripture
related to salvation. But Scripture had nothing to say on specific scientific
questions, and might even be full of scientific errors.
the claim made by Lemaitre, the Vatican, and perhaps even Pope John
Paul II himself, is that the Bible is only authoritative on issues
pertaining to salvation. This, of course, is a "bend with the wind"
approach to the secular onslaught of Modernism, and requires the
careful compartmentalization of religion from science. This makes the
process by which one extracts theology from the text more important
than the text itself.
It is a bit like saying the assembly
instructions for your new grill are only correct about this model and
are not intended for any other grills that might be built by the same
manufacturer. But would you trust the instructions if the picture on
the cover doesn't match the one in your box? Or if they call a pair of
pliers, a "wrench"? And then give you two pages of legalese that say if
the grill explodes and you didn't follow the instructions to the letter
it will be all your own fault? No text can be interpreted without
establishing some sort of trust, some sort of relationship between the
text and the reader, and Lemaitre's trust doesn't even extend to his
own supreme Papa.
If the "Truth will set you free", then
Lemaitre is the final arbiter of the truth of scripture, setting
himself free, thereby saving himself. Although Lemaitre is an
unreconstructed Modernist, his attempted solution to faith and science
leads directly toward PoMo.An Evangelical Example
then is the way forward for Evangelicalism in a post Modern world? (I
leave the future of Catholicism to B16 and EWTN) Many have suggested
Last year before his death, leading evangelical Bob Webber
proposed that Evangelicalism become more inclusive of ancient
Christianity, incorporating more Orthodoxy and Catholocism in its
worship. He wrote his "Call to an ancient evangelical future
in Christianity Today. The ecumenical Touchstone magazine brought in a
collection of editors to review it. Their critique sheds light on the
PoMo roots of Webber's call. Here's D.G. Wilfred McClay in Touchstone
If one radically edits the past before appropriating it, then it is no longer
the past that one is appropriating, but a version of the present. Language
matters, and the preference for academic over Scriptural language in this document
is powerfully indicative of which worldview actually gets to do the trumping.
This project comes to us just
as Evangelicalism is in the throes of an infatuation with the so-called emerging
church, which is also fueled by publishing houses (the sellers of youth ministry
curricula) and which is also enamored simultaneously with postmodern cynicism,
egalitarianism, doctrinal flexibility, and ancient-seeming worship.
As the latest historical scholarship has shown, this indifference to form
was essential to the Evangelical movement. It stemmed from a conviction that
mediation of any kind, whether Catholic or Protestant, posed a barrier to direct
communion between God and the individual Christian. Ecclesial forms, the logic
went, could be faked; they could result in nominal Christianity or dead orthodoxy.
Evangelicalism, accordingly, sought authentic or genuine faith, unencumbered
by rites, dogma, and clergy. As such, born-again Protestantism is a new and
highly modern form of Christianity, one that regards dependence on churchly
mediation, whether through catechesis or creedal subscription, sacraments or
ministerial blessings, pastors or priests, or councils of bishops or presbyteries,
as in tension with rather than constituting a personal relationship with Christ.
First, the errors the Call identifies. The authors bemoan a “resurgence” of “rationalism” in
American Evangelicalism (something I confess I hadn’t noticed) and the “modern
theological methods” that are “reducing the gospel to mere propositions.” Evangelicals
are supposedly adhering to “ that focus on God as a mere
object of the intellect.” Some of these forms of worship rationalists evidently “disregard
the . . . legacy of the ancient church.”
The Call is, despite its abundant good intentions, much too vague
to be fruitful. My reaction to almost every sentence was “But just what
does this mean?” The claims rarely have a concrete connection
to anything in the real world, that is, they offer the reader no clear and
binding way to get from the statement to practice. This would not be such a
fatal problem, were the Call not intended to change what American
So to summarize the critique of the Call,
it changes language in a postmodern way, despising form, emphasizing
attitude, disdaining reason, cherishing a simulacrum legacy, but one
without a concrete connection. I couldn't have described PoMo better.A Religious Litmus Test
now, perhaps, you are thinking I am against liberalism and all that
squishy PoMo language introduced as a way around modernism. But I leave
you with one last example, an example much closer to home--those pesky
funeral home expenses. Russell Moore from Touchstone
A Christian burial seems, in this culture, more and more nonsensical: a waste
of money, a waste of otherwise usable land, a waste, perhaps, even of emotion,
as we try to “hold on to the past” and fail to “move through
our grief and get on with life.” But if someone had asked any previous
generation of Christians or of pagans if cremation were a Christian act, the
answer would have seemed obvious to them, whether they were believers or infidels:
Christians bury their dead.
For you see, the best gauge of one's metaphysics is a wallet. People
spend money on things they really believe in, not things they are
indifferent about. Is the extra $5000-$10000 for a casket worth it?
What is this whole thing about graves and bodies anyway? The Vikings
had funeral pyres, as did the wealthier Hindus, though even today, I'm
told, there are many in India who drop their dead in the river. Why did
Christians insist on burial?
The early first-century church
collected 12 assertions that they felt clearly identified one as a
follower of Christ. The number 12 was significant, one for each of
Jesus' disciples, and hence this earliest known collection of
assertions became known as the Apostle's Creed
One of those "fundamental" assertions was: "I believe in the
resurrection of the body (or flesh)." Now you may be forgiven for
thinking that it is merely peasants who believe that a buried body is
intact enough to be resurrected after 100 years, much less 2000. You
may even indulge in a little nominalism, that responds "but surely God
could raise ashes as easily as bones", (which raises the question why
He used any matter at all.) But ask yourself why this clause was so
important it had to be put in the Creed? Why did the early church
emphasize this point about bodily death and resurrection? Why did the
early church (and of course, the Jewish faith) emphasize whole body
I can see what you are thinking. "Rituals. Taboos.
Proper burials were supposed to prevent ghosts from haunting you.
Improper burials were punishment for suicide. All superstition and
gothic novel rot." And you are also undoubtedly thinking "It's the process
that is important. The rite of passage. The symbolism. The need to grieve. Not the form
of the burial." [For a breathless, right-brain riff on the significance of the burial process, drop everything and read Joseph Bottum's essay Death & Politics.
And when you get back, ask yourself if your remember anything pertaining to form.]
now, suppose there is a very good reason, though not recorded for us
directly, for the form. I discuss the burial practice of ritualistic cannibalism
among the Fores people of Papua New Guinea in an earlier booklet,
but here I summarize. The Fore suffered from a wasting degenerative
brain disease called kuru, which turns out to be nothing else than mad
cow disease. And mad cow disease was spread by enriching cattle feed
with meat scraps, cooked of course. It was the modern understanding
that all parasites and germs would be destroyed by cooking, by
pasteurizing this feed, guaranteed to scramble every bit of DNA in all
known living organisms. It failed to stop the spread. Why? Because kuru
and mad cow disease had no DNA. What they had, was a most unusual
protein that was heat resistant, untouched by digestive enzymes, found
in great quantities in the brain, and which perversely auto-catalyzed
the normal brain version into swiss cheese. (And you wondered why
science needed final causes?)
Now suppose, just suppose, that
there is something about cremation that similarly spreads a virus, a
disease that can survive 1000 degree cremation ovens. For the sake of
argument it could be the element selenium, or if you are
anti-materialist enough, a singed soul. And the practice of burying the
dead while waiting for the resurrection of the body, is the solution to
this plague. Is the Apostle's Creed telling us that forms matter?
"But", you may object, "if this were true, wouldn't the Bible give us the reason for the form?"
begin with, no scientist would have believed you had you described mad
cow disease before 1999. For that matter, no scientist would have believed you had you
described germs before 1860 and Louis Pasteur's work.
Even the existence of microbes wasn't established until 1670 by Leeuwenhoek
. But the Bible still told you to wash your hands before you ate, oh, 3500 years ago or so.
This is not to say that process is irrelevant, there may still be plenty of good symbolic reasons for the washing of hands. I'm sure Joseph Bottum can write a long essay on the significance of hand washing for the establishment of motherhood and civilization. But surely, surely, the form matters as much as the process. Surely, it requires water, and some modicum of soap. Surely the microbes must be physically removed, and not just their evil intents. Even when we do not understand it, even when bodily burial seems wasteful, the form is important.
be humble, we don't do explanations very well, we're not even very good
at following directions. PoMo assumes that the directions aren't
significant, as long as the process of reading maps is properly taught,
after all, maps change, but the process remains the same.
Fundamentalism assumes that map reading is a first grade skill in
"literality", all that is needed is an eye for landmarks, which never
change, except like the Reformation, when they do.
Let's be honest. We don't do directions at all. And in that sense, we are all PoMo.