Modernity and Christianity: Like Oil and Water? Part 3 (and Final)

Modernity and Christianity: Like Oil and Water? Part 3 (and Final)

In the previous two posts I’ve raised the question whether modernity, as a “blik” (a worldview perspective, lens through which reality is seen and interpreted), and Christianity are at all compatible. Can they be integrated? Can authentic Christianity be contextualized with modernity without terminal loss to one or both? Must one leave Christianity behind to be truly modern? Must one leave modernity behind to be truly Christian?

These questions arise out of the research project leading up to my forthcoming book The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (InterVarsity Press, 2013). And that research project has basically been my life’s work as a professional Christian theologian. My first book was 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (IVP, 1992). The forthcoming book was to be a light revision of that first one, but it turned out to be a whole new and vastly expanded one—covering roughly the same time period and issue (viz., how modern theologians have dealt with the task of relating Christianity to modernity).

As far back as I can remember this issue has gripped me. I was raised in a form of Christian life that claimed to abhor and resist modernity. Whatever was “modern” was inimical to truth, beauty and goodness—unless “modern” only meant (as it does to most untutored people) “contemporary styles.” (I should add here that we were not so sure about that, either! Contemporary styles in cars was one thing; hair and clothes were something else!) My spiritual mentors had at least a vague understanding of what “modern” meant.

I remember sitting in a remote location under a pine tree at “Bible camp” reading a book by a modern theologian (Paul Tillich). I was about 20 years old. The “camp evangelist,” who had been my youth pastor earlier, walked by and saw what I was reading. He said “You oughtn’t be reading that.” I asked why and he told me it would corrupt my mind and spirit. I respectfully disagreed and told him he had taught me well enough how to discern the good from the bad and that I could do that even with Tillich. He simply said, “No, you can’t. Nobody can.” In other words, he, in concert with most of my spiritual mentors, thought just reading modern theologians, studying modern thought, was corrupting.

I didn’t believe him, but I was intrigued. Then I got to seminary (an evangelical Baptist seminary) and my systematic theology professor assigned me to do an independent “reading course” under him. He wanted me to read “1960s radical theology”—Cox, Hamilton, Altizer, et al. He actually trusted me to read it and not be corrupted by it! I was amazed by that. Of course, when we met to discuss my readings he firmly nudged me away from “death of God theology” while helping me to appreciate some ideas in Cox and even John A. T. Robinson.

Those things happened forty years ago. Since then I have immersed myself in the study of modernity and modern theology (or perhaps it should be “modern theologies” as there is no one modern theology).

I certainly don’t agree with my youth pastor and camp evangelist friend that merely reading a modern theologian corrupts a person. However, my study of 1960s radical theologies, including especially the various “death of God theologies,” convinced me that, modernity, taken to an extreme, taken to its logical conclusion, embodied certain impulses strongly inimical to authentic Christianity, to the gospel itself. What I have found in modern theologies is a series of sometimes bold, sometimes lame, sometimes intriguing, sometimes disgusting attempts to merge, integrate, accommodate modernity with and to Christianity and vice versa.

Of course all this begs the question “What is ‘authentic Christianity?” In my immediately preceding post I described how I regard modernity—its basic impulses, tendencies and trajectories. Here I will layout briefly, wholly inadequately, I’m sure, how I regard authentic Christianity as a worldview, as a blik, as a  life-and-world perspective. Yes, to be sure, it’s more than that, but it includes that. If Christianity is compatible with any and every view of reality it is meaningless. While we must not inflate the cognitive aspect of Christianity to the whole of it, neither should we minimize it to the point where it is endlessly flexible.

Here, due to limitations of time and space, I will focus on one point of an authentic Christian worldview that raises problems for modernity and vice versa—belief in the supernatural.

The word “supernatural” sends shudders down many Christians’ spines and makes their skin crawl. I understand that. Like “awesome” it has been over used so much and so wrongly that it seems almost useless. But I can’t discard it. Authentic Christianity necessarily includes belief in the supernatural in the sense of acts of God that transcend anything explainable by scientific reason alone. One example, the crucial and obvious one, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many modern theologians, allergic to anything supernatural (because they think it contrary to science), have “reinterpreted” the resurrection of Jesus Christ as an existential experience of faith (Bultmann and Tillich). They regard the resurrection appearances reported in the gospels as “visions.” Bultmann spoke for many modern theologians when he said (paraphrasing) “We know dead men do not rise.”

I do not think authentic Christianity includes gullible belief in every supernatural story that emanates from a seemingly spiritual source (e.g., popular books and television testimonies). But I do think belief that God raised Jesus from the dead such that the tomb was empty is part and parcel of authentic Christianity. Modernity inclines against that. Swallowed whole, modernity tends to force one to reinvent Christianity such that it does not include any miracles or supernatural events even interpreted as special acts of God insofar as they are in principle unexplainable by scientific methods and means.

The impulse I’m talking about in modernity is “naturalism”—an inclination to be skeptical of anything, including Jesus’ resurrection or ours, that is in principle beyond science’s ability now or ever to explain.

But, of course, not all modern Christian theologians have gone so far. Some have pushed back against naturalism and attempted to rescue belief in the supernatural (even if they don’t like the term) by various means.

I studied under German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in Munich who is famous for pushing back against Bultmann and the whole existentialist, “demythologizing” approach to the New Testament and Christianity. Pannenberg is most definitely “modern” in some regards while not swallowing modernity hook, line and sinker. His modernity shows especially in his epistemology which, even though not foundationalist, is rationalistic. He does not believe truth should ever be based on special revelation and faith alone; in order to be considered truth it must be publicly verifiable using the ordinary (modern) canons of rationality.

The range of accommodations to modernity by modern theologians is vast—all the way from the deepest accommodation, wholesale sell-out by 1960s radical theologians and their contemporary followers (such as Don Cupitt), to conservatives who don’t realize they are accommodating to modernity when they emphasize propositional truth as the form of revelation (Paul Helm) and biblical inerrancy as essential to Christianity.

My conclusion is that modernity represents something new in human history—new as of modernity’s birth in the later 17th century and especially its pinnacle in the eighteenth century. That something new is a secularized view of reality—the idea that life can be lived successfully without any reference to anything spiritual beyond what is discoverable by science. Hellenistic culture, the Greek-inspired “blik,” was not wholly congenial to Christianity, but at least it included belief in a spiritual reality beyond the physical and its governing laws. Plato’s philosophy, Aristotle’s philosophy, neo-Platonism, even Stoicism believed in a spiritual reality beyond complete human comprehension and control.

The secularizing impulse in modernity has forced Christianity and religion in general into a defensive posture. Too seldom have Christian intellectuals gone on the offensive with strong arguments against modernity’s secularity. One reason I appreciate John Caputo, in spite of thinking he is not wholly consistent, is his scathing scorn aimed at the over-reaching rationalism of modernity. Postmodernity has opened doors for taking religion seriously that modernity tried to close.

In sum, I consider modernity, taken to its logical conclusion, inimical to authentic Christianity. Christian theology’s various attempts to escape its threat by radical revisioning of Christianity, especially de-supernaturalizing it, were, I believe, misguided. Only a few theologians really rose to the challenge and defended authentic Christianity in the face of modernity without retreating into pre-modern obscurantism. They include especially (and they are my heroes for this reason) Karl Barth among Protestants and Hans Urs von Balthasar among Catholics. Neither can be accused of obscurantism. Both saw modernity as inimical to authentic Christianity without retreating into an escapist anti-modernism that failed to wrestle with it.

What is needed is a form of Christian life that preserves the essence of Christianity (not redefined and reduced so that it cannot conflict with modernity), including belief in supernatural acts of God, past and present, and at the same time takes the cultural changes modernity has introduced seriously. Such a form of Christian life would 1) value and encourage critical thinking without reducing truth to what autonomous human reason can discover unaided, 2) believe in and look for supernatural acts of God in persons’ lives without miracle mongering, 3) allow the biblical narrative to “absorb the world” without withdrawing from modern discoveries and contributions, 4) value science without idolizing it, and 5) embrace those aspects of postmodernity that re-open the doors of the spiritual without rushing into relativism.

  • Rob

    So what do you think of the judgment that post-modernity is just hyper-modernity? That is, post-modernity embodies many of the same problematic views of modernity but simply recognizes where they lead and embraces them? Also, I’ll add my own particular gripe about epistemology: foundationalism in its most general form is not peculiar to modernity. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas were foundationalists too but of a different variety.

    Thankfully, in the previous point you identified the defining feature of modern foundationalism, the requirement of absolute certainty for the basic beliefs. But on the issue of justification, there are really only 4 logical possibilities: foundationalism, coherentism, infinitism, and skepticism. Post-moderns seem to largely embrace skepticism and I see very little to commend them for that choice. It seems as though they have simply given up the project of seeking justification for beliefs. When I ask why, their response seems to confirm this because they typically point to the failure of what they label modern foundationalism (as though that were the only game in town). In that sense, it appears that at some level they accept the premises of early modern epistemology as though they are the only ones that have a chance of being correct.

    • Roger Olson

      I agree with those who make a distinction between hard postmodernism and soft postmodernism. You are right about the former, but the latter can include a coherentist approach to epistemology. What differentiates it from earlier coherentisms (e.g., Nicholas Rescher’s) is a strong dose of intellectual humility contributed by an inclination toward perspectivalism.

  • Zach Waldis

    What I think is missing in this assessment is the progress made in human rights and quality of life. Those are decided advances over pre-modernity and significant advancements in the Kingdom of God. I also think you’ve neglected in these posts the fact that the Protestant Reformation has, to a greater or lesser extent, with its focus on the individual, sort of set up this dilemma (contra many Protestant fundamentalists!). I agree with you on the philosophical stuff (supernaturalism), but I would argue that Barth, Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, all understood that modernity is a mixed bag, not unlike any historical epoch or, as you say, blik. I would agree that, to a limited extent, modernity is inimical to authentic Christianity.

    • labreuer

      I’d like to see Roger compare modernity to what came before it. I question whether we had a good idea of what a “biblical worldview” was before it, and I question whether we can nail down this “biblical worldview” once and for all, in a way that will never need major revisions. Indeed, I would say that modernity exposed failings of the pre-modernity biblical worldview—excessive confidence.

  • jedidiah

    awesome. thank you for this insight.

  • http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/ Russ Slater

    LOL. I see the word “postmodernism” snuck back into the vocabulary :) Though admittedly its the back end of modernity, for contemporaries it helps to distinguish yet another evolving period within modernity (in this case, its secularistic excesses, oversights, pervasiveness, satuaration of society, thinking, doing across all things including religion and faith).
    Too, it’ll be curious what age we next move into… my initial thoughts is perhaps an age of global authenticism or perhaps pluralistic participation. But if so, we should be seeing this newer age even now in its pre-formulative stages of thought and discovery. And of course, it’ll need a fancy German name with “-gist” at the end of it, don’t you think? But then again, I’m showing my preference for all things “Western” and not Eastern, Muslim, or Asian.

  • labreuer

    Authentic Christianity necessarily includes belief in the supernatural in the sense of acts of God that transcend anything explainable by scientific reason alone.

    Roger, I suggest looking at Kenny Pearce’s A Leibnizian Theory of Miracles:

    Most accounts of miracles assume that a necessary condition for an event’s being miraculous is that it be, as Hume put it, “a violation of the laws of nature,” or, at least, that it should not follow from the laws of nature. However, any account of this sort will be ill-suited for defending the major Western religious traditions because, as I will argue, classical theists are under significant pressure to reject such lawless events. In place of the rejected lawlessness accounts, this paper seeks to develop and defend a Leibnizian conception of miracles on which an event is said to be miraculous just in case we can discover its final cause but not its efficient cause.

    If you’d rather an overview than a philosophy of religion paper, see Kenny’s blog post on the matter. The bottom line is that miracles need not be law-breaking. You didn’t say that (indeed, you got awfully close to saying that at least the Incarnation is not comprehensible to a finite mind), but many people think it when they see the term “supernatural”. That’s a shame, since Christians, above everyone else, ought to believe in a lawful universe. There’s just no guarantee that said laws are finite.

    • Roger Olson

      I specifically and consciously avoided defining miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. That has no place in my definition of miracle. Please read my book especially the chapters on Reid and Bushnell–both attacked that definition of miracle quite rightly and yet both would agree with mine.

      • labreuer

        Yep, I was just adding some philosophic rigor to what you said. I definitely look forward to seeing where this idea of miracles permeates theology; it certainly hasn’t made it to the allegedly “Bible-based” churches I have attended in the past, but that is a tiny sampling. I only found out by meeting Kenny himself!

  • Derek

    Thank-you so very much for touching on this subject and I look forward to your new book.

    If I may just clarify the substance of what I was saying earlier in part 1:

    I picture a society operated by Christian’s with, obviously, a Christian worldview. This worldview rightly places the priority on eternal things. We as Christian’s essentially believe in an eternal fate for every person alive on the planet. Therefore, we strive and labor for the kingdom of God and eternal matters.

    Of course this doesn’t mean total neglect of the world here-and-now, however, we realize this isn’t our home and therefore our minds are set on things above – a city not made by human hands, but by God Himself. This mentality definitely utilizes all God’s good creation for food and basic living.

    However, to be engrossed in the here-and-now (a secular mentality) is what truly produces more than mere basic living. The secular mind is fixated on the material world, because that is all that really matters, and thus the secular mind produces an abundance of cool gadgets and devices (not to mention secular academic, medical, and scientific endeavors) that most certainly never would come to fruition if their eyes were fixed upon Christ and the things above.

    This is how I see things as a Christian. Do you agree with the above Dr. Olson? If not, why not?

    Thanks again.

    • Roger Olson

      I think God has given us this world (physical and social) as our home “for now” and we should strive to make it as much like heaven will be (peace, love, justice) as possible without regarding it as our final destination.

  • John Walker

    I am really appreciating these posts. You clearly know your stuff and it’s a joy to read. I can’t believe you studied under Pannenberg!

    • Roger Olson

      Why can’t you believe it? :) (Sometimes I almost can’t believe it myself. It was a wonderful year but it convinced me Pannenberg’s theology is not for me.)

  • http://howardmerrell.blogspot.com/ Howard Merrell

    Dr. Olson,
    I just recently “met” you in the book “Spectrum of Evangelicalism.” Thanks for making your blog accessible to non-academics. I am long-term small church pastor who tries to stay fresh.
    A couple of comments:
    1) I found your 5 points at the end of #3 quite similar to what I’ve muddled out in my pastoral way. So often those who examine various philosophical “isms” seem to think that they must be accepted or rejected in whole. I can’t see the computer I’m typing on having been invented without the desire to conquer, and the willingness to challenge truth that was just handed down that are inherent in, or at least that go along with modernism. I think I am mostly a modern–I am uncomfortable with the spirit in the box explanations of pre-modernism, and the “it is arrogant, or oppressive, to claim you know anything” of postmodernism. The revelation of scripture trumps modernism taken to its logical, so called, conclusion. So am I a Bible carrying modernist?
    2) The second of your 5 points is a tough balance.
    Unless one is going to suppress clear thinking, one has to admit that most of what passes for supernatural–and I am comfortable with that word–is lacking in credibility. To point this out often makes one look anti-supernatural. I would rather think that I am anti-super-gullible.

    • Roger Olson

      Most of us (contemporary Western Christians) have mingled some modernity in with our Christianity–just as most ancient Christians mingled some Hellenism in with their Christianity. I don’t see that as all bad. It becomes a problem when modernity, as a “blik,” becomes dominant in our thinking and living and submerges the counter cultural aspects of the gospel. I, too, am anti-super-gullible and have been vilified for that by many (former) friends and spiritual mentors. In the form of Christian life I grew up in you were supposed to believe every miracle story if it was told by a “truly spiritual person.” Problem is, I later found out many of those stories were “evangelegands” (religious urban myths). I tend to be very skeptical of miracle stories and “testimonies” but I don’t dismiss them all because of the resurrection.


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