Why I am (sorta-not-really-but-then-again-maybe) emergent – part 2

At the end of my last post on the subject, I posited (not without substantiation) that Christendom is currently undergoing a detox of sorts to purge some of the gunk that has built up over the last five centuries or more. So what’s the gunk?

In short, the “gunk” is modernism, the train of thought in Western philosophy that arose out of the Enlightenment/modernity (meaning the historical timeline after the Middle Ages). Enlightenment thinking advocated reason as the primary source of truth and authority. Now, I firmly believe the development of linear thinking was a precious gift, but when it becomes the over-arching, all-encompassing theory of existential thought, there are major problems. On a profane level, it has led (particularly with late modernity) to secularism and Dawkins-esque thinking. On a spiritual level, it has led to the type of faith Rob Bell illustrates very well in this anecdote:

Somebody recently gave me a videotape of a lecture given by a man who travels around speaking about the creation of the world. At one point in his lecture, he said that if you deny that God created the world in six literal twenty-four-hour days, then you are denying that Jesus ever died on the cross. It’s a bizarre leap of logic to make, I would say.

But he was serious.

It hit me while I was watching him that for him faith isn’t a trampoline; it’s a wall of bricks. Each of the core doctrines for him is like an individual brick that stacks on top of the others. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble…

[Last week] somebody showed me a letter from the president of a large seminary who is raising money to help him train leaders who will defend Christianity. The letter went on about the desperate need for defense of the true faith. What disturbed me was the defensive posture of the letter, which reflects one of the things that happens in brickworld: you spend a lot of time talking about how right you are. Which of course leads to how wrong everyone else is. Which then leads to defending the wall. It struck me reading the letter that you rarely defend a trampoline. You invite people to jump on it with you.

Rob Bell, “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith”, pg 26-27

[I should probably give you a heads-up at this point that I’m largely going to be making my points through hefty quotations, as I deem others to have expressed this material much better than I could.]

Peter Rollins sums up the modernistic impulse behind the man in Bell’s story:

At a very basic level the creationist judges the truth of faith as a factual claim that can be externalized from the one considering it, objectified, and dispassionately reflected upon. For the creationist the truth affirmed by Christianity can then, in principle, be proven via the same empirical processes as those embraced in classical scientific theory, because it is fundamentally of the same substance as the objects studied in science. Of course, the creationist can be seen to engage in bad science, and this is no doubt what the evolutionary biologists are reacting against. My point here, however, is not related to the debate itself but rather to how the creationist’s approach to religious truth presupposes that the truth of faith is on the same level as scientific statements…Yet, such an approach seems foreign to the unconditional commitment that is demanded of authentic believers, a commitment described by Paul as one that involves becoming a living sacrifice. Distancing oneself from one’s faith asks that believers engage with the deepest, most intimate, most personal, and most pressing issue in their lives in the guise of a detached, disinterested observer…

To be a believer would thus require some hefty subscriptions to the latest academic journals in order to see if the truth claims of Christianity could still be regarded as plausible, or even possible. Philosophy journals would become a stable diet for the preacher who would, in fear and trembling, be working out whether belief in Christianity is still rational.

Peter Rollins, “The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief”, pg 88-94

Cornel West understands modernist discourse to be influenced by three main processes: the rise of the scientific worldview, the Cartesian remodelling of philosophy (Descartes was the philosopher who deemed that the mind was sufficient to prove or disprove God) and our re-enchantment with Hellenism. The Greek mindset, as opposed to that of Hebraism, is concerned with analysing life according to precise categories and linear logic. The Hebrew mindset, out of which the Bible was written, had no trouble embracing mystery and complexity. Greeks were concerned with knowing; Hebrews with doing. Our adoption of the mindset of Athens is evidenced in the way in which many Christian circles seem overly focussed on issues of systematic theology and the differentiation between orthodoxy and heresy, regardless of whether or not these doctrines have any practical outworking in believers’ lives. In contrast, West suggests a more appropriate conception of Christian truth:

The paradox of the Christian tradition is that it precludes its own descriptions from grasping the truth; that is, the Christian notion of the fallenness of human creatures does not permit even Christian descriptions to be true. This is so, because, for Christians, Jesus Christ is the Truth and the reality of Jesus Christ always already rests outside any particular Christian description.

For Christians, truth is not a property, characteristic, or attribute of a theory, portrayal, and description, not even a Christian description. Rather, Jesus Christ is the Truth, a reality which can only be existentially appropriated (not intellectually grasped) by fallen human beings caught in ever-changing finite descriptions…

If there is any test for the “truth” of particular Christian descriptions, it is their capacity to facilitate the existential appropriation of Jesus Christ. This means that any “true” Christian description makes the reality of Jesus Christ available.

Cornel West, “Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity”, pg 98

To be continued..