Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

What Extreme Theologies?

January 23, 2009 2 comments

I’ll attempt to highlight some strands of theology that might be seen as extreme or have extreme implications. But first, let me suggest that the word extreme is completely perspectival. If I am standing the New Jersey side of the the George Washington Bridge, I might squint my eyes to see over on the Manhattan side and point to the other extreme. But either the New York side of the bridge or the New Jersey side still crosses the Hudson River. So both sides cross the same river even while resting in different states.

Two ideas that may seem extreme opposites when they make explanations from different times and places but they may be more similar than two ideas that never traverse the same river of thought. I sometimes struggle with the joy of sitting in the center of many different bridges, because something in me wants to connect everything. And some people don’t think everything should be connected. Does that sound overly mystical? Hopefully not. Oddly enough I think the world needs connectors and dis-connectors. Somehow we all help each other out.

As I think about 20th century theology or better yet, nineteenth century theology (that found popular expressions in the 20th century), I see some theologies moving toward a “fundamentalist position.” The word fundamentalist is not from a group of terrorists but a group of theologians in the early 20th century who feared the direction some theological ideas were headed, so they drew up what they called the “Fundamentals.”

These fundamentals defined what they considered to be essential Christian theology. As the term has popularized, it has been attached to everything from a way of dressing to a way of thinking that appears to reject the modern world (which is not wholly accurate). There are two doorways of insight that might be helpful here. In the 19th century, Enlightenment thinking continued its progression into multiple fields of thought including theology in ways that seemed to threaten the foundations of Christianity.

Particularly in German schools of thought a method of applying critical sciences to Scriptural study began to grow in popularity. Applying historical tools and language tools to the text, scholars began approaching Scripture in new ways, some of which questioned the historicity of the stories. This movement accompanied by the growing popularity of Darwinism in the natural sciences (and emerging social sciences) disturbed some Christian theologians because it seemed to lead down a road that would call into question some essentials of Christian faith.

The Fundamentalists circled around fundamentals of Christian faith that could not be rejected. Liberal theologies were not afraid to question some of those fundamentals like the virgin birth of Christ, the historicity of Scripture, the divinity of Christ and so on. From what I’ve read, I tend to think the liberal theologies weren’t necessarily an organized front. They represented a variety of ideas and approaches. Some focused on social service, others focused on critical study of text, some focused on history and so on. Oddly enough, thinkers sometimes moved between the groups.

Karl Barth was trained in the liberal German school of thought. But then he watched his liberal German professors wholeheartedly support the Great War. In disgust, he responded to their tendency to make God too closely aligned with this world (too immanent) by articulating a renewed theology of transcendence (God as Wholly Other). The marks of Kirkegaard are strong in his thought, but he also made room for some liberals and non-fundamentalist to embrace doctrines like the Trinity. Interestingly, he was not embraced by many fundamentalists even though he seemed to be defending many of their ideas. While all these early 20th century strains cannot be simplified this easily on a broad level their were groups that leaned more toward believing in Biblical revelation and those who believed more in human invention.

Now this may sound strange but I think both groups were like two sides of a coin. They were both essentialist rationalist in that they tried to reduce their theologies into a containable set of ideas. One applied their “rationality” to the text as it is received. The other applied their “rationality” to the origin of the text and/or doctrines surrounding texts.

Then suddenly the post-modernist ideas begin emerging that suggest every rationalist is still subject to some kind of narrative. So pure objectivity is a myth. Alongside this kind of questions, a whole sphere of writers begin thinking about rhetoric in terms of narratives, symbol systems and so on. By mid-twentieth century there are all kinds of voices coming to the table. Marxist readings of the gospel that suggest the story about Jesus is the overthrow of powerful rulers. Feminist readings that highlight Jesus’ interaction with women and the church’s crushing abuse of women.

As the floodgates began opening, universities were and still are trying to find ways to hear the minority voices that modernism silenced, thus the emergence of African American studies, Gender studies, Native American Studies and so on.

With all this opening up, a strange thing happened to fundamentalist Christians and liberal Christians. They both were influenced by these changes in philosophy and suddenly the lines were less clear. Some liberals started sounding like conservatives. Harvey Cox, a liberal Harvard theologian, wrote a glowing tribute and exploration of the highly emotional form of fundamentalism: Pentecostalism. Some conservatives started championing social causes.

I would suggest that’s where we are now. There’s a great big mixture. Some theologies that emerged out of fundamentalist evangelical worlds are questioning things like God’s knowledge of the future. If we really read the Bible at face level, the future appears open-ended. Maybe we really can change God’s mind? Some liberals have begun to embrace liturgy so seriously that they are returning to high appreciation of the Trinity and a liturgical worldview.

It seems there is a new springtime of exploration in Christian Evangelical theology accompanied by a renewed commitment to social causes on everything from poverty to AIDS to the environment. The leading popular Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today was formed in the 1950s as a response to the liberal magazine “The Christian Century.” Today, both magazine are routinely running articles by the same authors. And recently, the Christian Century recently ran an issue by liberal theologians about the doctrine of hell and why it’s important.

All the traditional categories of modernism have broken down in theology. Some ministers are terrified that this implications of this open-ended shifting is dangerous. And in some ways, it does mirror that chaos of the Medieval Europe when Reformation thought would sweep through an area. When King Charles was executed in England and the Puritans first came to power, there was a springtime of theological thought there. All kinds of wild and strange theologies were appearing. Some sects thought the end of the world was at hand and they were the specially appointed prophets. Men like George Fox appeared and began prophesying by the Spirit. Many movements died away or went into hiding (but the George Fox’s Quakers are still here).

The results seems to have been both chaos and renewal, social upheaval and a traditional resistance. Today some of the conservative theologies are questioning traditional as too Greek and not Hebrew enough. All the categories seem messed up. Writers and movements are questioning church buildings, musical style, doctrines such as predestination and God’s Sovereignty and even traditional readings of the Jews. There is one large group of theologians that suggest our understanding of Paul is skewed because we fail to understand the second Temple Judaisms that were prevalent during Jesus’ life were not inconsistent with justification by faith. Their objection to Jesus may really have been that He (and later Paul) kept suggesting that the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies opens God’s salvation to the Gentiles.

Okay, thus far I’ve done a desipicable job of summarizing and have even managed to confuse myself. So let me cut this short by highighlting the implications of emerging theologies without listing because there are so many divergencies. In spite of some folks suggesting that post-modernism is dead. Actually modernism continues to be challenged and redefined. What is really altered is the dominance of a Western European understanding of rationality and empiricism. It still plays a role, but we might speak of a humbled epistemology (or way of knowing). In this humbled way of knowing, theologies and philosophies that have been built upon distinctly Western forms of logic/reason and experience/empiricism/observation must recognize that not all people used the same categories of thought, rely on the same forms of knowing (epistemology), or make the same either/or distinctions, and even ask the same questions.

As communication opens the way between east and west and north and south, we will be challenged on every level. The West seems to have been caught off guard by the response in the Islamic world. There are more conversations and questions and challenges to our whole notions of reality coming from all directions, including the native peoples who lived in this land before us.

As an Evangelical Christian who believes that the Gospel is God’s revelation to man, this does not terrify but excites me. Because they will open doors of revelation and thoughts that we have yet to consider. And as we learn to talk and listen to each other, the possibilities are exciting. Right now the Gospel is experiencing revival and growth in Latin America, India, Africa, and China. All these peoples are raising new questions that will join in the conversation with the Western form of Christianity to open a new door.

While I can’t begin to summarize all of the variations, I’ve included links to a few that are provocative: the changing center of Christianity, open theology, African theology, Hispanic theology, Asian theology, emergent theology, Radical Orthodoxy, New Paul Perspective, and so much more! As I wrote in my other post, at times it will seem like there is little in common with these varieties of Christian theology, but I see a conversation taking place that will always have fringes in all directions. And yet, there may be some exciting possibilities for common ground as well.

Living Amid the Ruins

April 9, 2008 Leave a comment

Almost four years ago I wrote about the fall of modern structures, suggesting that gatekeepers like government, media, church, and education were crumbling due to their reliance on a modern worldview that had collapsed. Later I was to discover that 30 years earlier, Ivan Illich had been thinking and writing in a far more comprehensive way on a similar theme.

As some people proclaim they are tired of church, others proclaim they are tired of voting. In fact, there is a great deal of disappointment and distrust of church, government, science, universities, and more. Whenever frustrations move from personal, localized distrust to mass distrust then something is not working in the society. I think this is a sign of breakdown of the Western world

Today while I was driving over to eat dinner with our little community, I started thinking of ways to better explain what I mean by the end of the Western world.

When we speak of the Western world, we generally refer to the commonality of cultures between people of Western Europe (including US and Canada). While the local languages may differ, there are certain common symbols that guide our way communicating, impacting the way we think and act. These symbols are rooted in a common core that reaches back to the forces that shaped our modern Western world: Christianity and Greek philosophy.

Even though many people reject Christianity and have never studied Greek philosophy, these symbols still shape the way they see the world. If we look backward into an earlier era such as the Medieval world, we are looking back to a time/place when people shared a different symbol set. The symbols may include a certain set of rituals such as the Latin Mass and a set of Holy Days. While there where local variations, the common mass and the common calendar defined a way of experiencing life and communicating life.

Each local area may express and develop the symbols uniquely through particular types of clothing, speech pattern, songs, dances and so on. In other words, the stuff of life that connects people: family, dress, home, language, worship, etc. When we speak of a world, we are suggesting that there is a commonality of symbols that caused people to see the world/understand the world in similar ways. While each person viewed and experienced the world slightly differently, a common set of boundaries for defining the world was shared by most of the people.

When I speak of the Western world, I am speaking in a similar way. The Western World might in one sense be a combination of eras that stretch back to ancient Rome up through today. In that sense, the Western world contains many worlds such as the Classical, the Medieval, the Renaissance and so on. The controlling group of people in any given era share some common core of meaning that allow them to communicate and build a society together. Every world is always fragile and never independent of the people within it.

As the Western world passed through the Enlightenment and moved toward the modern world, there was a great anticipation among many people that the world was going to get better. We could understand the world around us through disciplined reason. We could observe the world around and find the real. A sense of hope in progress propelled many of family and individual to expect a better world tomorrow. (This is a super simplistic reduction.)

While a sense of hope and anticipation led the charge, a certain pessimism also begin to grow. The multiple tensions within this world stretching for tomorrow might show up in the arts through artisits like Charles Dickens who kept reminding the “civil” world of an underclass with struggles and pains.

Charles Darwin exemplifies this expectancy of the progress just like many revivalist preachers did. Their zeal and hope were expressed in vastly different ways but a common threat still held them in a one world. Some people saw beneath the fabric and knew it was unraveling. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both identified a rotton apple within their world even if one moved deeper into faith while the other move away from it.

As the nineteenth century waned and the twentieth century waxed, a growing denizen of thinkers, writers and artist began to question the fundamental symbol sets that held the Western World together. Then Einstein rocked the science world with his theories. WW1 resulted in over 40 million deaths (Wikipedia). From 1918 to 1919, influenza killed off between 2.5% and 5% of the world’s population (see Wikipedia). These strains kept building and pressuring a world view that was already starting to crumble. As Yeats proclaimed, “The center cannot hold.”

Within ten years, nations around the world descended into a Great Depression and then another devastating war (WW2), which demonstrated that even science could prove the demise of the world through atomic warfare. These external strains were only coupled within internal strain that questioned the core symbol sets that pointed to a hopeful future, that trusted our reason, that believed in what we could see, smell, hear and taste.

Gradually more and more groups of people began to notice the problems of the Western world. It’s wasn’t as rosy as we had believed. The institutions made of people (like government and education and church) could act destructive. And collectively people could really be destructive. The stories and symbols and ideas that held this world together seemed questionable. They also allowed for slavery, prejudice, destruction of native American lands and families, sexual injustice.

The 60s was not a surprise blip on the map of the 20th century. It was when masses of young people finally abandoned the common symbols that bound the West together. The death that impacted many thinkers at the end of WW1 had now spread to young people. Some suggested the world would be so much better if we did away with all the trappings of Western civilization like religion and nations and conflicts.

The symbols that were cracking in earlier centuries completely collapsed in the twentieth century. Even the basic symbols sets of common language were questioned. Could we really even find a common meaning? RD Laing suggested that we could and would never know anoyone elses experience beyond our own. The meaning of words and even the trustworthiness of our own observations were questioned. We saw a man land on the moon, but did he really land on the moon? We saw a plane crash into the two towers, but did we really?

While the late 70s to the present have tried to turn the clock back before the 60s, it cannot happen. The 60s were an explosion of mass doubt and disbelief in the Western World that was a long time in coming. And yet the contradiction of the 60s (as well as the contradication of many would-be messiahs today) is that the people before screwed everything up but this modern project really does work and if we just make a few tweeks, through out a few behavoirs and add a few new gadgets, we can still make the world a better place. Using some vague modernist idea of progress, people continued to rely on a world view that was busted and broken.

We’ve watched over the last 40 years, the collapse of this world view played out in our institutions (made up of people who are losing their common symbol set). From the government corruption to the shootings at the schools, we see a world where we no longer trust institutions (and no longer want to go to church).

This disintegration is being played out all around the Western world, including the fighting in Iraq. While most people will point at someone or something else as the problem, they fail to see that the whole ship is sinking. We can never go back to 1950 (or the garden for the matter). Now we go forward to a new creation, a new world.

When I say that the Western World is dead, I mean that the symbols expressed in ritual and language and ideas no longer bind us together. So we abandon this civilization and revert to a tribe of like-minded people for comfort and security (liberal, green, conservative, libertarian and so on). We are living at the edge of chaos even if we try to convince ourselves otherwise.

We chaos will not prevail. The West will move forward. A new articulation of the future will eventually speak a vision of the world that will draw the masses together and we’ll move forward beyond this interim period. We will probably not even realize when that happens. But it will. And as I Christian, I believe that we will move forward learning and living out the radical implications of our confession in even more fuller ways. We are moving from glory to glory.

What will it look like to move forward? Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy suggested we move look back to move ahead. And many have begun to look back. The challenge of the church is to articulate through the voice of humility the way forward that leads to the resurrected Christ Jesus who calls us from glory to glory.

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