Tuesday, December 21, 2004


What could be more conducive to holiday cheer than another millinerd post on postmodernity? (Please don't answer.)

Although Oliver Davies and David B. Hart both show a lot of potential, I will continue to promote this book on postmodernity. It's not the easiest read, but it reviews and celebrates the philosophical and scientific developments of postmodernity, expresses a generous openness to other religions, but all while managing to begin with these words,
"Why should I go to church," someone once said to me, "when I have no religious needs?" I had the audacity to reply, "Because Christianity's true." (p.1)
Now why would a book dripping with relief at the advent of postmodernity begin with such a seemingly "modern" statement?

Perhaps because, I'll suggest, postmodernity is not a crisis in the church. For the church it's merely an opportunity. Postmodernity is a crisis in the western mind. The crisis is due to the western mind having built a house on the sands of rationality. The storms have come, and that house has fallen. Only to the extent that the church has been yoked to the western mind is postmodernity a crisis in the church as well. As Pascal warned, the church should never have collaborated so closely with modernity in the first place, and so postmodernity should not have to be a crisis in the church.

Had the church not married the spirit of the age, she would not now be a widower so desperately clamboring for a mate. But unfortunately at least Protestantism and modernity got pretty cozy. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Protestantism and the modern mind are on parallel trajectories, due to their both having been born in the wake of the Renaissance (which would mean they're both doomed). Nevertheless, Karl Barth, and many since him, have tried to separate the trajectory of modernity from that of Protestantism. Barth wrote,
"I weep over the constantly increasing barbarism, tedium, and insignificance of modern Protestantism, which has gone and lost - apparently along with the Trinity and the Virgin Birth - an entire third dimension, the dimension of mystery... only to be punished with every possible worthless substitute. (Ii p.xi)
Barth says the Protestant Church pawned off the Trinity, the Incarnation and any sense of mystery and wonder for what what turned out to be a worthless sack of modern rationality. Barth went on to rebuild the house on the rock, that is, the rock of the revelation of God in Christ. He insisted that we don't believe in abstract "propositions," we believe in Christ. Fortunately he had many resources to draw upon, because the Church, including its best thinkers, existed for quite a while before the Enlightenment. Now the awkward English translation of Barth is not the most beautiful way to access such postmodern insight... but what makes them appealing is when they were said. We in 2004 are just getting around to establishing this perspective as normative. Barth so articulated himself in, any guesses? the 60's? The 50's. Nope. The year was 1936.

Meanwhile Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a Roman Catholic, was on a similar mission in his tradition, stuck as it was in a stale Neo-Scholasticism. Notice how Barth's influence on him is clear, for in justifying faith, Balthasar appeals to no abstract standards of modern rationality. He insists that faith must be judged by
"its own interior authenticity, as faith in a proposition ('belief that Christ') becomes faith in a person ('believing Christ')
Balthasar continues
"Such a revelation of glory needs no justification but itself: God's Logos is the identity of God's free Word and of God's Resason; and, if the believer cannot at times penetrate the inner reasonableness of the free Word, nevertheless, from the sole fact that it is God speaking, he knows directly that his Word is Reason itself." (p.140).
His Word is Reason itself. I've been chewing on that for month, as with only few other things, it just doesn't get old.

Often when Christians, frightened by a relativist world, make claims to "Absolute Truth," they may unwittingly be continuing an unholy alliance with modernity, which claimed a universal standard of reason based on "self-evident" truths. But, if his Word is in fact reason itself, then it follows that Christians can make claims to "Absolute Truth" without being in bed with modernity. Jefferson may have been right, but when push comes to shove his rightness is based not on a planetary Enlightenmnet consensus, but on a basis he would never have assented to: Christ. In fact, if all things were made through him, and if his life is the light of everyone, then ability to make any coherent statement at all is, ultimately, based on Christ. Our words then do have meaning. They have meaning because the Word became flesh.

Lest the wind suddenly change, caution should always be employed when relating Christianity to reigning scientific theories. Nevertheless a comment on Einstein might here be helpful. His theory of relativity is often taken to support "relativism," But his theory was that all things are relative to the unchanging constant of the speed of light. In my reading of Einstein, which was revolutionized here, he was staggered not by how confusing and random the Universe was - he was staggered by the fact that the Universe is intelligible. That is what he meant when he said famously that "God does not play dice." In turn, a Christian realizes that the Universe is so intelligible because Christ, who is intelligibility itself, made it so; and then made humanity capable of discerning the patterns. (Or at least some of us - personally, physics has never been my best subject.)

That may seem like quite a claim to make, but Christian claims have never been small, no matter how moderns may have tried to tailor them.

Barth and Balthasar (and Diogenes Allen for that matter) are all post-foundational thinkers who have absolutely no dependence upon "modern" epistemology, but manage nevertheless to speak "as one with authority" in regard to the Gospel. So if asked "Why should I go to church?" a postmodern Christian can continue to answer as the Church has always answered, "Because Christianity's true," without having to appeal to anything essentially modern.