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

Modernity and Christianity: Like Oil and Water? Part 3 (and Final) September 1, 2013

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.


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