Tag Archives: modernity

Bishop Spong, the Fundamentalist

Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.
Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, retired. Courtesy Scott Griessel via Wikimedia Commons.

In our last post, we looked at how fundamentalism is actually a modernist phenomenon, and not its opposite.  As I have continued to read through Billy Abraham’s excellent The Logic of Renewal, he makes these relationships even more explicit.  It’s not only that fundamentalism is representative of modernity, but that the most thorough-going modernists can also be fundamentalists.  Case in point is Bishop John Shelby Spong, the infamous Episcopal bishop (now retired) known for questioning virtually every distinctive Christian belief and yet – somehow – remaining a bishop.  Abraham explains:

“Converted within the boundaries of modern fundamentalism, he has never really recovered from the thinness of its doctrines or the narrowness of its structures. The marks of the former Fundamentalism in his preaching and teaching are obvious.  There is the same sense of alienation from tradition, the same angry self-assurance, the same hunger for intellectual and scholarly recognition, the same boundless evangelistic energy for the cause, the same pretentious self-importance, the same note of apocalyptic urgency, and the same faith in simple, sure-fire arguments that will shoot down the opposition in flames.”

Having spent many years among conservative fundamentalists, I find it pretty easy to recognize that streak among progressive fundies as well.  As Abraham so aptly names, the same tone, methodology, and simplistic world-view is found in the left-wing fundamentalism of Spong as it is in the right-wing fundamentalism of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fundamentalism, in other words, is not a matter of the left or the right.  It’s a quintessentially modern habit, found in any faith or faith leader co-opted by its norms and modes of discourse.

Where do you see fundamentalism – right and left-wing – in the church today?

 

Source: William Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 40.

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Fundamentalism as Modernity

Richard Rohr has helped me to be wary of focusing too much on what I dislike or despise.  He argues, as we’ve said before, that what we fight against too long or too hard often becomes determinative for us.  We become what we hate, if we aren’t careful.

An excellent illustration of this is the fundamentalist/modernist split in the early 20th century (a fight still being waged, though pseudonymously).  The crux of that divide is often cast as “modernists who embrace Enlightenment, rationality, science, etc.” and “fundamentalists who reject all of the above.”  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Both fundamentalists and modernists drink deeply from the waters of modernity.  William (Billy) Abraham from Perkins Theological Seminary describes it thus:

“The fundamentalists clearly see the elemental problem of the church as intellectual and theological. More precisely, they are betting the future on a very particular epistemology of theology. The solution offered, however, is wildly off base. For one, the whole attempt to secure the kind of formally approved foundations required is precisely the heart of the whole Enlightenment project. Hence, contemporary fundamentalists are throughougly modern creatures committed to the same intellectual aspirations as their secular enemies.  If the Enlightenment has caused so much trouble, it would be odd in the extreme to argue that we could get beyond it by accepting its basic premises and modes of operation. Second, as I have argued at length elsewhere, the Fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture is deeply flawed. The crucial weakness is that it has historically depended on a doctrine of divine dictation or on a latent confusing of divine inspiration with divine speaking and related speech acts of God.  Thirdly, and most importantly, the move to include the inerrancy of Scripture as the linchpin in a new creed for the church involves not only a radical departure from the actual canonical decisions of the church as made in the great ecumenical councils but also a profound reorientation of the inner structure of the church’s intellectual heritage and vision. It involves a shift from soteriology to epistemology.”

Read through the lens of intellectual history and philosophy, it thus becomes clear that the fundamentalist/ modernist spat, however vicious, is a civil war.  They are neighbors, not opposites.  it is a war of brother versus brother over whose mode of epistemological certainty is better.  This is why Christians who try to “prove” dogmas such as the resurrection false, via the means of scientific discourse, or prove it valid though Biblical or historical inquiry, are essentially doing the same thing.  They have both made the (mistaken, if well-meaning) choice to try to prove Christian doctrine rather than celebrate, confess, pray, or teach it.

As Abraham so insightfully points out, the decision to privilege epistemology over soteriology or some other aspect of Christian truth is not a neutral one.  In pursuing this, both do damage not only to the visible church, but to Christian doctrine, witness, and unity.

Where do you see evidence of this capitulation to modernity – in either its modernist or fundamentalist forms – in the church today?
Source: William J. Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 20.

God is Winning in 2015: The Continued Failure of Secularization

The now infamous 1966 cover.  And no, He is very much alive.  I talked to Him this morning.
The now infamous 1966 cover. And no, He is very much alive. I talked to Him this morning.

In 1966, Time magazine famously asked, “Is God Dead?”  For almost 50 years, the geopolitics of the world has indicated a strong and loud “no” to this question.  So argue the editors of a great volume, intended for journalists but a worthwhile read for anyone interested in faith or politics, entitled Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.  At the conclusion of their background article, “God is Winning,” Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft argue,

“Contrary to the influential scholarly theories of the 1950s and 1960s, religion is not dying with modernization. Contrary to conventional wisdom, religion plays an independent and powerful role in how people view themselves and how states conduct their affairs. And, contrary to the assumptions of recent U.S. foreign policy, democracy promotion may only increase the political role of religion – including radical religion – throughout the world, most immediately in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. God is winning in global politics. And modernization, democratization, and globalization have only made him stronger.”

The chorus of New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens [RIP], Harris, Dennett, etc.) continues to argue that religion either will or should go away with advances in modernity and science.  And yet, the exact opposite is happening.  There is a message here for all of us, religious and nonreligious: to understand the world around us, we had best understand our religious neighbors on their own terms, lest we are fated to be ignorant of our world and one of its indefatigable factors.  This has been true since Time‘s infamous cover, and will, in all probability, remain true in this new year – despite what the cultured despisers happen to feel about it.

blind spot book

Source: “God is Winning,” in Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 28.

The Blindness of Rejecting Tradition

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Notice the use of a creed here?

Much of modernity (think the post-1700’s world) can be explained as a steady, systematic rejection of tradition. Whether this is in the realm of politics, science, religion, or social norms, the last several hundred years have seen the Western world (and those places influenced by the West like Turkey, for instance) steadily retreat from the moors that had held it in bygone eras. Whether this is a positive or negative development is a separate debate; what interests me is the way in which the rejection of tradition has itself become a tradition in the oh-so-un-self-conscious modern world.   Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of Christian doctrine at Yale (until his death in 2006), wrote the following reflections about the debate between “Bible” and “tradition” that came to a head during the Reformation:

“But tradition there certainly was, even before and within the Bible and not simply after the Bible: tradition was…the ‘source and environment of Scripture.’ [However,] drawing a sharp distinction between gospel and tradition had been a major plank in the platform of the Protestant Reformers.”

As NT Wright has described elsewhere, the newly invented Reformation divide between Scripture and Tradition is in many ways a false dichotomy.  What were the gospel authors writing out of, if not established (even if early) traditions about Jesus?   Paul uses the language of tradition when he reminds Timothy to keep “what I passed on to you.” (1 Cor. 15:3)  Pelikan argues that studying the historiography of the Reformation leads one to

“…the uncovering of the processes by which the very anti-traditionalism of the Reformation has itself become a tradition.  After four centuries of saying, in the the well known formula of the English divine, William Chillingworth, that ‘the Bible only is the religion of Protestants,’ Protestants have, in this principle, nothing less than a full-blown tradition.” (The Vindication of Tradition, [New Haven: Yale University Press 1984], 9, 11.)

There really is no escaping tradition.  Jeff Stout of Princeton made a similar point in Democracy & Tradition: those who would reject Western-style democracy as antithetical to tradition (particularly, here, Christian tradition) should take note that democracy is itself a tradition and a simplistic rejection for rejection’s sake is ultimately unhelpful.  So too, is the knee-jerk and often over-blown reaction against any kind of tradition.

My own part of the Christian family just argued about the possibility of online communion. As with so many other fronts in the so-called ‘Worship Wars,’ many took sides based solely on a rejection or embracing of tradition itself.  Thus, every attempt to get “beyond” tradition only forms a new one in its place. This is why an increasing number of young adults find ‘contemporary’ worship a vapid experience designed by and for their parents’ generation, and are turning instead to expressions of faith that are more tied to practices and prayers which possess deeper roots.

Simply replicating or rejecting tradition is not the point. The point is healthy development, which neither rejects tradition willy-nilly nor embalms it in order to preserve it.  As Pelikan says elsewhere, “It is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the fossil museum.”  (p. 60)

A History of Philosophy in One Paragraph

Courtesy of Marva Dawn:

A premodern umpire once said, “There’s balls and there’s strikes strikes, and I calls them as they is.”  Believing in an absolute truth that could be found, earlier societies looked for evidence to discover that truth.  A modern umpire would say instead, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I calls ’em as I sees ’em.”  For the modernist, truth is to be found in one’s own experience.  Now a postmodern umpire would say, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin’ till I calls ’em.”  No truth exists unless we create it. (p. 36)

That covers a lot of ground in just a few sentences.  Just one of the many gems I’ve discovered thus far in Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down.

Vaccinating the Church Against Modernity: The Hartford Appeal, Then and Now

https://i0.wp.com/pics.librarything.com/picsizes/9f/40/9f40405137cdd45593255725677434d414f4541.jpg

In 1975, a group of folks got together to refute 13 heresies of modernism affecting the church(-es).  I don’t know enough to say if they represented a “who’s-who” at the time, but they certainly do now: signees include George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, Avery Dulles, Alexander Schmemann, Thomas Hopko, Lewis Smedes, William Sloane Coffin, Peter Berger, Robert Wilken and Richard John Neuhaus.  They came from many parts of the Christian family, but agreed on one thing (though expressed 13 ways)…faithful Christians across the board had to stand up against the modernist impulses that were threatening the teaching, preaching, and spread of the gospel.

Their original introduction and the rejected themes are below:

An Appeal For Theological Affirmation
THE renewal of Christian witness and mission requires constant examination of the assumptions shaping the Church’s life. Today an apparent loss of a sense of the transcendent is undermining the Church’s ability to address with clarity and courage the urgent tasks to which God calls it in the world. This loss is manifest in a number of pervasive themes. Many are superficially attractive, but upon closer examination we find these themes false and debilitating to the Church’s life and work. Among such themes are:

1. Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.

2. Religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse.

3. Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God being humanity’s noblest creation.

4. Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.

5. All religions are equally valid; the choice among them is not a matter of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or lifestyle.

6. To realize one’s potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning of salvation.

7. Since what is human is good, evil can adequately be understood as failure to realize human potential.

8. The sole purpose of worship is to promote individual self-realization and human community.

9. Institutions and historical traditions are oppressive and inimical to our being truly human; liberation from them is required for authentic existence and authentic religion.

10. The world must set the agenda for the Church. Social, political and economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative for the Church’s mission in the world.

11. An emphasis on God’s transcendence is at least a hindrance to, and perhaps incompatible with, Christian social concern and action.

12. The struggle for a better humanity will bring about the Kingdom of God.

13. The question of hope beyond death is irrelevant or at best marginal to the Christian understanding of human fulfillment. (1)

There seem to be a lot of seeds here.  Shades of post-liberalism, radical orthodoxy, and emergent Christianity are plenty.  Though many conservative Christians, especially fundamentalists, are stuck in their own varieties of modernism, this seems to be a clear shot across the bow of liberal (think Enlightenment-worshipping) Christianity.  Such Christianities are still alive in both the mainline Protestant denominations and elsewhere.  They were admirably dismissed by H. Richard Niebuhr, who summarized their basic assumptions as, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Some useful commentary and background was later published as Against the World for the World. The full text is linked below.

Yeah, I know it’s old news.  But for those of us attracted to these ideas today, it is interesting to see the early stages of later seminal works like The Nature of Doctrine.  Do these affirmations hold up 40 years later, or were they wrong from the start?

1. http://www.philosophy-religion.org/handouts/pdfs/Hartford-Affirmation.pdf

On being Christian in a postmodern context

I want to highlight a recently (re-)posted article by Joseph Bottum at First Things.  He reflects on being Christian in light of both modern and postmodern sensibilities.  I admit that philosophy is not a strong point of mine, and I will need another couple of readings to really digest this, but it is worth your time.  Here is a sample:

Of course believers are tempted, when they hear postmodern deconstructions of modernity, to argue in support of modernity. After all, believers share with modern nonbelievers a trust in the reality of truth. They affirm the efficacy of human action, the movement of history towards a goal, the possibility of moral and aesthetic judgments. But believers share with postmoderns the recognition that truth rests on a faith that has itself been the sole subject of the long attack of modern times. The most foolish thing believers could do is to make concessions now to a modernity that is already bankrupt (and that despises them anyway) and thus to make themselves subject to a second attack—the attack of the postmodern on the modern. Faithful believers are not responsible for the emptiness of modernity. They struggled against it for as long as they could, and they must not give in now. They must not, at this late date, become scientific, bureaucratic, and technological; skeptical, self-conscious, and self-mocking.