Limits to Progress

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of progress arose out of the technological euphoria of the modern era and entered theology in the nineteenth century with the euphoria over the abolition of black slave trading and ownership. The idea that progress is an inevitable and irreversible force remains, however, economically and culturally tenuous. 

While the specific reasons for economic and cultural backsliding will always be unique, the general reason to be suspicious of economic and cultural progress is that progress is a cultural artifact that changes with circumstances.

If cultural progress an historical anomaly, especially in view of the economic stagnation that many Americans face, what conditions support it?

Economic Progress

Standards of living that were rising with the increasing rationalization of different industries and regions have come to an end with the construction of the interstate highway system, national media, national banking, and the internet.  In this context, rationalization means the opening up of local markets to competition from outside firms and the destruction of the local cultures through universal education consisting of both new knowledge and indoctrination.

If science can tame the natural world and put it to work in the service of humanity, then standards of living should rise. However, diminishing returns to new investment will be reached at some point as the cost of implementing new ideas rises. From that point forward, additional growth can only come from demographic growth and technological innovation. Falling fertility rates and poor choices with respect to education and public expenditures suggests that we are not focused on making public policy choices consistent with growth.

In an environment of slower growth, social groups will compete increasingly for limited resources and opportunities—this can get nasty, as we have seen. Outside of deliberate policies to focus economic resources on the most productive investments and to maintain equal opportunities for all groups, standards of living will decline for all but favored groups able to maintain and expand their relative position. This competition makes it increasingly unlikely that everyone will share in economic progress.

Cultural Progress

The abolition of black slavery in the nineteenth century is a source of pride for many people. In my case, I am named for my great, great grandfather, Stephen DeKock, who as a young man volunteered to fight in the American Civil War. Success in abolishing slavery motivated latter efforts to expand voting rights to women and minorities, to prohibit alcohol consumption, and to extend rights more recently to homosexuals. 

A byproduct of the Civil War seldom mentioned in this context was the development of large corporate firms that supplied Northern troops and major advances in weapons of mass destruction—iron clad ships, submarines, the gatling gun, and repeating rifles. Modern warfare (war on civilians) is said to have begun with Sherman’s march to the sea in Georgia that helped starve the Confederacy into submission. These innovations helped pave the way for the United States to become a super power (the American empire) over the decades that followed and, as a consequence, fueled the economic expansion that led to the economic and social progress than we enjoy as Americans.

The abolition of black slavery is unlikely to be reversed, but slavery itself has not so much gone away as been re-defined. Many former slaves in the rural South in American became share croppers who were technically free, but caught in debt to their former masters. During much of the twentieth century, American men were involuntarily drafted in the military and forced to fight in foreign wars from the First and Second World Wars to the wars in Korea and Vietnam. For women caught up in gangs, drugs, and prostitution, a different kind of slavery exists that never really went away.

While nasty institutions like slavery, debt-enslavement, and prostitution will probably continue to exist in the shadows of society, major reversals in the number of slaves occurred during the Second World War. Nazi Germany rounded up millions of Jews, political dissidents, and undesired groups and placed them in concentration camps where many were worked to death. Japan had similar policies and the U.S. had its own internment camps. Today such camps continue in communist countries, like North Korea.

The point of raising these examples is, not to throw salt in old wounds, but to highlight the tenuous nature historically of human rights and notions like progress. If progress is a cultural artifact and can be reversed by changing circumstances, it is not inevitable or irreversible. The key question is what foundation supports these rights and progress itself?

Cultural Reversal

For those who believe in progress, the biblical support is slim because of original sin and our fallen nature both individually and collectively. The most apt metaphor for progress is found in the Book of Genesis with the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), but other metaphors can be found. 

Although we are created in the image of God, original sin polluted both our hearts and minds instilling in us a rebellious spirit. Cain, best known for murdering his brother Abel, started the first city mentioned in the Bible (Gen 4:8, 17). Human sin, after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, grew to the point that God destroyed most of humanity with a flood (Gen 5:5). However, starting out fresh with a new family, Noah’s, proved not to improve the faithfulness of humanity after the original sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:6). Even Jacob’s sons, the fathers of the Nation of Israel, sinned in selling their brother, Joseph, as a slave to the Egyptians (Gen 37:28). 

What should we conclude from the witness of Genesis? The idea of adding fallen human beings together in forming a community will somehow result in progress towards righteousness is not to be expected. The biblical expectation cited earlier is the Deuteronomic cycle: doing evil, angering YHWH enough to produce historical subjugation, crying to the Lord in need, and raising up a deliverer (Deut 30; Brueggemann 2016, 59). This is not an endorsement of cultural progress, but rather of divine intervention in spite of the proclivity of human beings to sin.

From my earlier model of culture, reversal of progress is expected when any culture comes under stress. The dying culture then takes on more attributes of a traditional culture. These reversals normally occur on the outbreak of war or during economic crises. However, large corporations that now dominate markets throughout the world frequently have traditional cultures that profoundly influence their employees from morning to night. Democratic rights such as free speech are routinely denied corporate employees and even legislatively mandated employee rights, such as unionization rights and whistler-blower protections, are dead-letter for employees unable to afford legal counsel. Consequently, the inevitable, irreversible cultural progress is not expected and the progress that we have witnessed should be seen as a gift from God, not a natural right.

Christian Foundations

The only glimmer of hope cited in the Bible is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that led to the giving of the Holy Spirit and the founding of the church (Act 2:1-4). Yet, outside of faith even the church is a fallen institution as we read in the first three chapters of Revelation.

The warning in Revelation of special concern to the postmodern church is the letter to the church at Laodicea. John writes:

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev 3:15-17)

We could imagine the postmodern church sharing in tribulations similar to those articulated in Deuteronomic cycle that applied earlier to the Nation of Israel. More generally, Revelation talks about a great tribulation (Rev 7:14) that will occur before the second coming of Christ. This tribulation has all the markings of a reversal of cultural progress and should serve as a reminder that our only hope is in Christ.

Limits To Progress

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Does Faith Matter?

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

The moment that we discover that faith in God undergirds all that we think, feel, or do our attitude about faith changes. If faith is a logical necessity, then the quality of our faith starts to matter a lot. Are we going in all directions with an unreflective faith in a vague god of our own imagination or do we believe in God almighty, the maker of heaven and earth whose son, Jesus Christ, walked among us and died for our sins?

For the skeptic, the next question is: so what? Does it really matter what we believe?

Conducive to Rationality

In studying epistemology in the previous chapters, I have implicitly argued that faith matters because it is conducive to rational thought and behavior. We worship God who identifies with truth, as when God revealed himself to Moses:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exod 34:6)

The word translated as faithfulness (אֱמֶֽת; amuth) in the Hebrew means both faithfulness and truth. The King James Bible actually translates this word as truth. 

This focus on truth is conducive to rational inquiry, as is obvious from many points of view. If truth were not important, Christianity might as well focus on mystery or fantasy, as many other religions do.

History of Public Education

Christians have always linked their faith to their actions. Jesus’ brother James writes:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (Jas 1:22-24)

Thus, we expect that Christians will act on their beliefs.

Because the Bible plays such a prominent role in Christian faith, Christians have always promoted literacy and education. The oldest universities in Europe were all started by the Catholic Church. Public education in Europe began with an academy begun by John Calvin and in America began as church Sunday school programs designed to help children learn to read their Bibles.

American Colleges

The oldest colleges in America also started out as Christian schools even if they later wandered from their Christian roots. The reason for this was that before the twentieth century about half of all university students aspired to become pastors and pastors were the best educated people in most towns and villages. 

The story of David Brainard is instructive.  Brainard, a young man infected with tuberculosis, got into trouble because of a private conversation:

“In 1742 he was expelled from Yale College when he claimed that one of his teachers did not have any more of God’s grace than a wooden chair” (Noll 2002, ix).

Because of his expulsion, Brainard could not be ordained so he embarked on a career as a missionary to the Indians in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In spite of his great passion for missions, Brainard died of tuberculosis at the age of 29 (Noll 2002, ix-x). Brainard also inspired the founding of Princeton University and, in the nineteenth century, a generation of missionaries who evangelized the entire world. Jonathan Edwards edited and published David Brainard’s journal and later went on to inspire the Great Awakening and serve as Princeton’s first president.

Later, the first college in America to admit women and men together in 1834 was Oberlin College in Ohio whose president at the time was evangelist Charles Finney, who played a key role in the Second Great Awakening. Oberlin became a model for other Christian colleges that campaigned for women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and temperance (Dayton 2005, 35-43).

Benefits of Rationality

Now some of you are probably thinking, education is all well and good, but does faith impact my earnings? Two recent studies show that churches and missions can have a direct and long term effect—the halo effect—on the communities that they serve.

First, Mike Wood Daly studied the spillover effects of congregations in Toronto, Ontario, Canada following methods employed in an earlier study in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He writes:

“When applied in twelve congregations [10 Christian; 2 Islamic], the methodology revealed an accumulated ‘halo effect’ or economic contribution of $51,850,178. The estimate translates into an average value of $4,320,848 per congregation. Even the smallest of the congregations studied, a Presbyterian Church with approximately 150 members and an annual operating budget of $260,000, was estimated to have an annual halo effect of $1.5 million.” (Daly 2016, 9)

The study looked at seven spillover effects: open space, direct spending, education, magnet effect, individual impacts, community development, and social capital and care.

Second, economist Felipe Valencia Caicedo studied the residual impact of education provided by Jesuit priests in missions in Brazil that were later closed. He writes:

“The Jesuit order founded religious missions in 1609 among the Guarani, in modern-day Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Before their expulsion in 1767, missionaries instructed indigenous inhabitants in reading, writing, and various crafts. Using archival records, as well as data at the individual and municipal level, I show that in areas of former Jesuit presence—within the Guarani area—educational attainment was higher and remains so (by 10%-15%) 250 years later. These educational differences have also translated into incomes that are 10% higher today.”  (Caicedoy 2018, Abstract) 

While faith and education may not necessarily go together, this research brings to mind a passage in Exodus:

“[The Lord] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod 34:7)

Normally, people focus on the second part of this verse, but the first part is instructive in reading the Caicedo study—250 years is not a thousand generations, but it is a blessing of twelve generations or roughly three times the length of time involved in the stated curse.

The halo effect of churches and missions is a blessing larger than expected.

Answers to Prayer

The focus on rationality is seldom mentioned by Christians when they talk about why they came to faith, but everyone has a story about how God answers prayer and performs miracles—if you do not believe me, ask around. 

In my own case, I could not have supported my family and gone to seminary but for two rather arbitrary events—the dates of my joining and leaving federal employment. I joined the federal government two week (one pay period) before they abolished the old federal retirement system, something that meant nothing to me back in 1983. I left the government at yearend 2010, announcing my retirement a week before my division was abolished—on the exact same day as my departure date. If either of these dates changed, I could not have earned as generous a pension and seminary would have been financially out of reach. 

Coincidence? Perhaps. But not everyone prays to a God that loves and cares for people because he created them in his own image. Human rights stem from our creation in God’s image. Does it matter? You tell me.

References

Caicedoy, Felipe Valencia. 2018. “The Mission: Human Capital Transmission, Economic Persistence, and Culture in South America.” Quarterly Journal of Economics.  October. Online: https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjy024. Accessed: 4 January 2019.

Daly, Mike Wood. 2016. Valuing Toronto’s Faith Congregations. June. Online: https://www.haloproject.ca/phase-1-toronto. Accessed: 3 January 2019.

Dayton, Donald W. 2005. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Orig Pub 1976). Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers. 

Noll, Mark A. 2002. The Work We Have to Do:  A History of Protestants in America. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Does Faith Matter?

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The Pathological Culture

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

At this point, it is helpful to return to a question posed earlier in our discussion of proper mental function in view of culture. What if a culture evolved that, far from supporting and sustaining proper function, made proper function more costly and unlikely? Would we see more dysfunction, anxiety, and suicide as people found it harder to thrive and survive?

Proper Mental Function and Rational Culture

If as Plantinga (2000, xi, 153-154) argued proper mental function is a requirement for warranted faith, then it is also required to meet the demands of rationality, which drives our earlier understanding of culture as a deviation from perfect rationality. Much like a traditional, modern, and postmodern cultures are deviations from perfect rationality, one could argue that secular culture is a deviation from perfect Christianity.

The Apostle Paul appears to be focused on this line of thinking when he writes about God’s peace:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…” (Phil 4:8)

We can infer from Paul’s bracketing in verses 7 and 7 of this verse with God’s peace that when we take Christ as our role model we become more truthful, honorable, pure, lovely, and commendable. I could see Plantinga adding more rational to Paul’s list.

A Breakdown in Authority

If God is no longer a transcendent reality for most people, then obviously leaders in society no longer feel accountable for their actions outside of a political context and the organizing context for political action never extends beyond law. If postmodern society is also suspicious of all formers of authority (Blamires 2005, 132-133),  then our models of proper mental function and perfect rationality start to show wear and tear.

One explanation for this wear and tear is that the vesting of authority in parents, teachers, preachers, police, and government officials offers coherence and consistency to culture that is mostly dispersed in postmodern culture. Deconstructionism, a postmodern philosophy that is suspicious of all authority figures, disenfranchises traditional and modern leaders, via lawsuits and frivolous attacks, reducing the incentive to invest in leadership roles that previously gave stability to the culture.

Another explanation is that postmodernism no longer share Christian presuppositions that gave a foundation to objective truth during the modern era. Most moderns grew up in at least a nominally Christian environment, much like Nietzsche who was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Even if they rejected Christian faith, they knew its foundations. By contrast, many postmoderns are like sons of Nietzsche who have little or no experience with Christian beliefs and, because of the politics of suspicion, are not open to learning about it.

Thus, both practical and theoretical reasons can be cited for why postmodernism is not provide a stable foundation for unified national culture. Instead, it tends to decay into the formation of subcultures (tribes) that pursue their own interests at the expense of the larger society.

Formation in the Home

Consider the problem of raising children. Research by Stinnett and Beam (1999, 10) reports six characteristics of strong families:

  1. Commitment—these families promote each other’s welfare and happiness and value unity.
  2. Appreciation and Affection—strong families care about each other.
  3. Positive Communication—strong families communicate well and spend a lot of time doing it together.
  4. Time Together—Strong families spend a lot of quality time together.
  5. Spiritual Well-being—whether or not they attend religious services, strong families have a sense of a greater good or power in life.
  6. Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis—strong families see crises as a growth opportunity.

What happens when both spouses work, neither feels like they are in charge, and the family finds itself under economic and time pressure? The strong family model outlined here breaks down. Assuming a strong family starting out, stress shows up potentially in all six characteristics outlined as time and economic pressure are increased.

A key point in unifying these different models of behavior as it pertains to raising children is that adults are present and fully attentive to the children. When television becomes the primary baby-sitter and the adults are buzzing to and from work and activities for the children, the children are not formed rationally or in the image of Christ. It is not unusual in my home town to observe children roaming in packs through the neighborhoods and to hear complaints from libraries, neighborhood pools, and church vacation-Bible school leaders that children are simply abandoned for long periods of time by their parents during the summer. 

The model of strong families clearly is being tested severely in our society.

Signs of Wear and Tear

News reports and studies showing a stagnating standard of living, drug use, declining fertility rates, lower life expectancy levels, and record levels of suicide all point to a culture under stress.⁠1 This stress leads to greater deviations from rationality because highly rational decisions require time and energy that are no longer available. In this environment we expect cultural change to occur more rapidly and, because of stress, we expect traditional subcultures to become more pronounced, as argued earlier. 

Broken Glass Theory

While the exact time-path and particular difficulties cannot be exactly forecasted, the general trends are obvious and dysfunction in one area of society increases the likelihood of contagion elsewhere. In his book, Serious Times, James Emory White (2004, 158) highlighted of the broken glass theory of criminologists James O. Wilson and George Kelling (1982). The idea is that crime is contagious. It starts with a broken window and spreads to an entire community. 

Cleaning up trash, graffiti, and broken windows and minor violations of law through increased emphasis on foot patrols by police, New York City substantially reduced crime in the 1980s. For those of us who grew up scared to walk the streets of New York, this reduction in crime was a big deal. Pushback against this program came later as not everyone was happy about the increased police presence in the neighborhoods.

The broken glass theory has a familiar ring: “I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev 11:45). If attending to the appearance of neighborhoods in New York helped reduce crime, how much more couldn’t focusing on our own sin and weakness and forgiveness in Christ improve the quality of life in our families, churches, and communities?

References

Bernstein, Lenny. 2018. “U.S. life expectancy declines again, a dismal trend not seen since World War I.” Washington Post. November 29. 

Blamires, Harry. 2005. The Christian Mind: Hoe Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stinnett, Nick and Nancy  Stinnett,  Joe Beam, and Alice Beam (Stinnett and Beam). 1999.  Fantastic Families:  6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family.  New York:  Howard Books.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

White, James Emery. 2004. Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Wilson, James Q. and George L. Kelling. 1982. “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” Atlantic Monthly. March.

Footnotes

1 (Tavernise 2016); Bernstein 2018).

A Pathological Culture

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Cultural Adaptation

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Up to this point, most of our discussion has focused on individual behavior and learning, but no one is an island—even Robinson Crusoe was never truly alone even before he met Friday.⁠1 We live and participate in the cultures of our families, workplace, and society that influence our thinking and behavior directly through rules, regulations, and law and indirectly by structuring the presuppositions that we use in all our decisions.

What is Culture?

Culture is term taken from sociology that is often described as the sum of a society’s traditions, especially as they pertain to literature, the arts, language, and music. A more helpful framework, however, can be built based on decision requirements in a corporate context. Far from irrelevant to spiritual formation, the culture context of work plays a key role in secular formation. The same framework for culture can by analogy help interpret personality.

Nobel laureate economist Herbert Simon defined rationality as making a choice among all possible alternatives. Economists more generally hypothesize that the firm strives to maximize its net present value assuming perfect knowledge of all future cash flows. If all decisions are rational and predictable given knowledge about technology and market prices, this theory implies that a firm has no culture (or no cultural effect) because given a set of circumstances every managers would reach the same decision.

In practice, we observe that decisions are costly, resources are limited, and decisions are frequently made based on rules of thumb and habit. For these reasons, in part, Simon extended the theory of the firm to limit rational behavior—his theory of bounded rationality (Simon 1997, 88). Culture arises because highly rational decisions are costly. Managers ration their time by applying rules of thumb based on previous decisions and known costs and benefits, not perfect information. These rules of thumb plus manager training and experience determine a firm’s decision culture. Interestingly, the more costly rational decisions are, the stronger the cultural effect.

The existence of culture implies that a firm’s history is interesting. The time sequence of decisions and their consequences predisposes the organization toward some growth paths and away from others, a concept sometimes described as path-dependence. The personal histories of leaders are important in understanding attitudes about alternatives and the speed at which decisions are made. 

Cultural Personality Types 

The existence of culture suggests why organizations develop classifiable personalities. Several widely observed types can be described. Criteria describing these types include preferred decision style, key values, primary mode for training, nature of control process, and default transaction-opportunity cost trade-off. A culture articulates key values in terms of where decisions ideally take place. 

Three cultural archetypes stand out in society today that compete for dominance: a traditional culture, a modern culture, and a postmodern culture. A fourth type, a dying culture (or culture under stress) is more of a transition phase than a stable culture. At any time, subcultures within society may favor any one of these types. Competition among these types is influenced by the resources available and other circumstances in the environment beyond immediate control. This suggests that one or the other subculture can rise in dominance and dominance can also pass back and forth. Progress from one to another is neither inevitable or expected because circumstances external to the firm dictate the ideal culture.

The Types⁠2

A modern culture delegates authority to line managers, whose leadership role is often earned through technical competence, because good decisions require the objective information they produce. A postmodern culture shares decision authority to assure that decisions are equitable. A traditional culture centralizes many decisions to adhere to senior management preferences. Training and control processes reinforce these cultural preferences. 

A dying organization is an organization in crisis. A dying organization may start with any cultural affinity but evolves toward traditional culture. This is because crises consist of a rapid series of nonstandard problems that exceed delegations and require senior management input. Cutbacks likewise strengthen the position of senior managers.

The mix of transaction costs and opportunity costs also reflects cultural affinities. Transaction costs rise with the number of people participating in decisions, while opportunity costs (the cost of no choosing the next best alternative) rise as decision alternatives are excluded. The traditional culture has the lowest transaction costs because it considers the fewest options—only senior manager preferences are consulted. The postmodern culture consults the most people, but it is not particularly reflective—only options actively advocated are considered. Transaction costs in the modern culture fall between these two extremes, but the modern culture prefers a review of all options.

Williamson (1981, 1564) sees both organizational costs constrained by market prices. The implication is that cultures evolve to reflect competitive conditions in the markets that firms serve. The dominant culture type may evolve with both market pressures and leadership changes, which may over time lead to overlapping cultural attributes. An office evolving from a modern to a postmodern type, for example, may begin to exhibit more group decision making, place less emphasis on academic credentials in assignments and promotions and rely less on peer review of work products. As Alchian (1950) argues learning process is likely a combination of trial and error, imitation of successful firms, and deliberative planning because uncertainty makes it unlikely that future market conditions can be fully anticipated.

Behavioral Weaknesses Impede Learning

Cultural types describe attributes at a point in time. Changing circumstances, however, force organizations to learn and adapt. Learning behavior is therefore a key measure of risk management performance. We observe behavior problems when incentive structures disrupt normal learning processes, create logical traps or exacerbate normal organizational inertia.⁠3

An organizational culture mirrors its environment because decisions and rules evolve over time to deal with environmental challenges. Rewards of money, power and status within an organization accrue to leaders that facilitate this evolution. When prior decisions and rules need to change, a conflict arises because those changes may threaten the social position of those leaders.

Consider the case of a firm in a growing business. Suppose the firm starts out as a specialized firm in a competitive market. As it grows and acquires competitors, it takes market prices as given. As market share grows, however, it eventually becomes the market and can set price. Further growth requires that it diversify into new markets. At each stage in the firm’s growth, the rules for success and risks change (Porter 1980, 191-295). If the organizational culture adapts with a lag and a threat grows quickly enough, firm solvency could be threatened before adaptation is complete.

Christian Culture

Although the Christian faith encourages rational decisions, Christian culture should not be confused with any of the cultural types outlined above. Christian culture differs from these types because the objective of Christian culture is conformity to Christ rather than conformity to the rational model. Still, the above cultural types are also evident in a Christian context, as when dominations employ different polities.

The term, polity, refers to how a denomination or church is governed. A denomination managed by bishops is likely organized with a traditional culture while a church managed through direct voting by the congregation likely has a postmodern culture. Meanwhile, a church managed by elders and professionally trained clergy likely has a modern culture. Each of these polities can operate differently in practice, but the formal structure of the polity clearly shapes the culture of churches and denominations.

Just like no perfectly rational firms exist, Christians cannot obtain perfection in this life but Christ is the standard, our sacred North Pole, and the Holy Spirit to guide us. With our compass set on north, we are not easily led into darkness, but focus on the light. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we normally avoid logical traps and quickly repent when we fall into one. The basic ideal is that in Christ we have the perfect guidance system even when our lives are not perfect.

Footnotes

1 The name of a characters in a novel (DeFoe 1719).

2 Adapted from (Hiemstra 2009).

3 Inertia is the physical property expressed in Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Inertia leads organizations to resist change and discount low-probability events.

References

Defoe, Daniel. 1719. The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. United Kingdom: William Taylor.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pp 51-54 of Risk Management. Society of Actuaries. Issue 16. June.

Porter, Michael E. 1980. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors. New York: Free Press.

Simon, Herbert A. 1997. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations (Orig pub 1945). New York: Free Press. 

Williamson, Oliver. 1981. “The Modern Corporation: Origin, Evolution, Attributes.” pp. 1537-1568 in Journal of Economic Literature. December.

Cultural Adaptation

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God’s Immutability

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”  (Num 23:19)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

God’s unchanging character, his immutability, is not revealed in scripture in the creation accounts directly, but it is implied by his status as creator. In order to create, one needs to stand outside of that being created. When God created the universe, he stood outside of the time and space of the universe. While the universe had a beginning and will have and end, God is eternal. While God’s internal nature is veiled to us; his character is immutable relative to his creation. 

God’s Meekness

God’s immutability is also implied by his attribute of being omniscient.  Because God is omniscient, he does not need to learn like us to be humble or meek.

The attribute of meekness appears in the Third Beatitude only in Matthew and in the Greek, the language of the Old Testament, meek means: “… Not [being] overly impressed with a sense of self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate” (BDAG 6132). Meek is like “poor in spirit”, which we find in the First Beatitude, and at least three other times in Matthew (e.g. Matt 11:29; 21:5; 26:62-63).  These three events—the invitation of Jesus to be disciple, his humble entrance into Jerusalem, and his silence during his trial—demonstrate the humility of Christ. The humility of Christ is also observed in the writings of the Apostles—Peter, James, and Paul.

From this evidence, it is obvious that humility is important to Jesus in the New Testament. But, no one normally wants to be humble—we have to learn to be humble. Is it possible that God also learned to be humble? 

No. God did not learn to be humble and we are told at least twice in the Old Testament that God does not change (Num 23:19; Mal 3:6).

More specifically, God looks meek and gentle. For example, in Genesis before “God sent him [Adam and Eve} out from the garden of Eden” (Gen 3:23), “God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen 3:21) like a mother prepares her kids for the first day of school. God had every right to kill them both and create new people, but he did not do that. He did not do that because he had compassion on them and made provision for them, in spite their sins and against his own rights and power. In this context, God seems meek both in the Old and New Testament because he does not change and has no need to learn.⁠1

God does Not Change like Us

Tozer (2014, 63) writes: 

“To say that God is immutable is to say that He never differs from Himself…[He never goes] from better to worse or from worse to better…[or] change within himself.”

Again, standing outside of time and space God sees all of human history before him. We change and grow but God’s character remains immutable. By contrast, confronted with an unmovable, immutable Holy God, we must change. This is why every divine appointment transforms us.

We Care A Lot About God’s Immutability

It is fashionable to argue that God somehow learns like we do. Frequently, it is said that the God of the Old Testament is full of wrath and vengeful while the God of the New Testament is loving, but this interpretation inconveniently suggests that God could continue to change. What if God decided that he made a big mistake in creation, forgot about his promise to Noah, and sends another flood? (Gen 9-17) Or what it God decided that the atonement of Christ was a mistake? (I Cor 15:2-3) Clearly, God promises are tied to his immutable character (Exod 34:6). Otherwise, we are without the assurance of salvation.

Footnotes

1 God also shares his meekness with Moses (Num 12:3) and is prophesied in Zechariah 9:9 to be meek.

References

Tozer, A. W. 2014. Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God. North Fort Myers: Faithful Life Publishers.

God’s Immutability

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Proper Mental Function

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think⁠1 about these things.” (Phil 4:8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

As alluded to in earlier posts, many questions about information, learning, and decision processes have a core concern about proper mental function. This is especially true in view of the unity of feelings and thinking that we see throughout the New Testament, as when the Apostle Paul writes: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)⁠2 Similar concerns arise in criticism about the reasonableness of faith.

Modern Complaints about Faith

Plantinga (2000, 136-142) observes that atheologians (Freud, Marx, Nietzsche) have criticized Christian belief as irrational but not in the sense described above—Nietzsche, for example, referred to Christianity as a slave religion. Freud described Christianity as “wish-fulfillment” and as an illusion serving not a rational purpose, but serving psychological purposes. In Marx’s description of religion as “the opium of the people” suggests more a type of cognitive dysfunction.

Plantinga (2000, 151) concludes:

“when Freud and Marx say that Christian belief or theistic belief or even perhaps religious belief in general is irrational, the basic idea is that belief of this sort is not among the proper deliverances of our rational faculties.”

Plantinga (2000, 153-154, 163) accordingly concludes that the real criticism of “Christian belief, whether true or false, is at any rate without warrant.” Plantinga’s strategy in analyzing the atheologian complaints accordingly is to discuss what they are not saying—not complaining about evidence, not complaining about rationality in the usual sense, not offering evidence that God does not exist—to eliminate the non-issues. What remains as their complaint is a twist on rationality—actually more of a rant—you must be on drugs or out of your mind—which is not a serious philosophical complaint except for the fact that so many people repeat it. 

Plantinga politely calls this complaint a charge of cognitive dysfunction. More recent critics are even less formal in their criticism.  Ganssle (2009, 4) observes that the New Atheists⁠3 do not bother to valid their hypotheses and maintain a deliberate strategy of innuendo that he describes as a Nietzschean genealogy—a genealogy given not to prove that one’s family includes royalty, but to discredit the family (Ganssle 2009, 136-137). This pattern of arguing dysfunction and innuendo makes it important to clarify what proper mental function looks like.

A Model of Mental Function

In outlining a proper mental function, Plantinga (2000, xi) defines: 

“warrant is intimately connected with proper [mental] function. More fully, a belief has warrant just it is produced by cognitive process or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment that is propitious for the exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief.” 

He goes on to explain: 

“…a belief has warrant only if it is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, subject to no disorder or dysfunction—construed as including absence of impedance as well as pathology.” (Plantinga 2000, 153-154) 

We accordingly care a lot about the mental state of society when in comes to faith, as cited above in Philippians 4:8.

Education and Goodness

In this argument about proper mental function is a hint of the age old belief that faith and education are related. In developing the  discipline of study, we become are more open to truth, including the truth of God and God’s goodness. However, discipline is a necessary but insufficient condition for faith. Faith is an act requiring emotions and the mind working together. The mind alone cannot bring about faith.

Rational Thinking and Sin

Implicit in Plantinga’s concept of warrant is a preference for rational thinking, much like an economist would argue consumers consider all competing products, features, and prices before making a purchase. Proper time and effort are taken to consider all the facts pertinent to a purchase and assesses these facts independent of other consumers—no mandates from leaders or fads influence the ideal purchasing decision. Obviously, the economist also assumes that the consumer is not high on drugs, not subject to impulses brought about by psychiatric dysfunction, and able to afford the products under consideration. 

The point is that Plantinga’s model of proper mental function is a common feature in many fields of inquiry.

Interestingly, Plantinga cites the Apostle Paul in his rebuttal of atheistic critiques:

“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20)

Paul goes on to share what is essentially the God’s curse for rejecting salvation under the new covenant in Christ. The curse is that the disbeliever is “given over to” (become a slave of) the desires of their own heart which has, of course, been corrupted by original sin. Paul’s assessment here is that disbelievers have specifically fallen into the sin of idolatry (Rom 1:22-25).  

Sin appears in Paul’s argument as a generic mental dysfunction that obscures rational decisions and destroys relationships by cutting us off from other people and from God. Stealing, adultery, lying, and disrespecting our parents all obviously undermine relationships oftentimes for selfish reasons and are irrational in an atmosphere of full-disclosure in a highly interdependent society. Even if the Ten Commandments are not displayed in every courtroom, many court proceedings could be avoided if everyone took the commandments seriously.

Footnotes

1 The Geek word for think, λογίζομαι, means: “to give careful thought to a matter, think (about), consider, ponder, let one’s mind dwell on “ (BDAG 4598, 2) The word also carries a mathematical connotation as with the word, reckon (BDAG 4598,1).

2 Thompson (2011, 107) characterizes the entire Letter to the Philippians as focused on developing the proper frame of mind (φρονέω e.g. Phil 1:7)

Ganssle (2009, 1-2) views the New Atheists as: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Their work shares three things in common:  passion, belief not only in atheism but the danger of believing in God, and their status as public intellectuals speaking outside their fields of experience.

References

Ganssle, Gregory E.  2009. A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, James W. 2011. Moral Formation According to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Proper Mental Function

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Advent_Mas_2018

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Overview of Epistemology

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our post-Christian, Western society challenges faith, strips life of meaning, and leaves us to sort what we know for ourselves, an epistemological problem. Much like the Great Recession created a need to learn more about personal finance, the postmodern crisis of faith has created a need to learn more about epistemology, the study of how we know what we know.

Faith Not Optional

The need for confidence that what we know is true also arises because life is too short to test every assumption for ourselves. Imagine a world in which we argued about the definitions of red, yellow, and green every time we pulled up to a stoplight? In this ad hoc information age, it is important to examine basic assumptions in our thinking much like it is important to build a house on a solid foundation. Faith is not optional; neither is the epistemological task.

Anthropology and Epistemology

The need to have confidence in our assumptions about what we know is contingent on who we are as human beings. The New Testament teaches that the heart and mind are inseparable. Confidence is not a mind-game; it also depends on our emotional response.  Our epistemology accordingly depends on our interpretation of anthropology.

Anxiety due to Uncertainty

Anxiety arises when we depend on knowledge that we cannot evaluate for ourselves. Our emotions reflect our assessment of threats to our being, social position, and livelihood. Who could concentrate on studying Einstein’s theory of relatively if you worried about the roof collapsing? Living in a complex, technological world where the consensus on basic values has broken down is an anxiety-generating event because we can no longer trust that the experts we rely on to share our values and to value our lives more than their own economic interests. The risk of loss increases our interest in the  epistemological task.

Meta-Narrative is Participatory

Being part of a cause greater than ourselves provides security and meaning to life that cannot be obtained as individuals, a source of comfort that what we believe to be true is also in our best interests in view of our human vulnerability. By contrast, opportunities garner attention mostly when we feel secure. We care about the grand story of humanity, the meta-narrative, which we have no choice in participating in. Because, as postmoderns, we no longer believe in objective truth, which can be distilled easily into simple concepts, we want to know: who tells the best story of who we really are?

Overview

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

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The Church as an Authority

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Earlier I wrote about the importance of authorities in our own decisions. Each Christian has Christ as a mentor, but we also have human mentors within our families, church, and community. Because I have talked already about the transition from a modern to a postmodern culture, let me turn to discuss the church context. Again, I will speak about authorities in personal terms because I am not a church historian able to address the wider experience within alternative Christian traditions.

Upbringing in the Church

The Hiemstra family has over the past hundred years been associated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), a church strongly associated with the Dutch immigrant communities in New England and the Midwest. I was baptized in an RCA church and my uncle, John, is a retired RCA pastor who has been a lifelong mentor. When my family moved to Washington DC in 1960, no RCA churches could be found within driving distance and we attended a number of Presbyterian Churches in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA), where my dad and I both have been ordained as elders. My mother grew up in the Baptist tradition associated with Scotch-Irish communities, but in marriage she became a Presbyterian.

Denominational Identities

Both the RCA and the PCUSA arise out of the reformed tradition which has historically focused theologically on confessional faith. Both denominations affirm these confessions:

  • The Apostles’ Creed
  • The Nicene Creed
  • The Heidelberg Catechism

The RCA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Athanasian Creed
  • The Belgic Confession
  • The Canons of Dort
  • The Confession of Belhar⁠1

The PCUSA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Scots Confession
  • The Second Helvetic Confession
  • The Westminster Confession of Faith
  • The Shorter Catechism
  • The Larger Catechism
  • The Theological Declaration of Barmen
  • The Confession of 1967
  • A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)⁠2

Theologically, the RCA is the more conservative denomination having little or no change to their confessional statements or polity in the last hundred years, adding only the Confession of Belhar, while the PCUSA has amended its polity (the Book of Order) almost routinely every two years and affirmed three confessions written in the twentieth century (the last three on the list).Coming into the twentieth century, the primary confession of churches now affiliated with the PCUSA was the Westminster Confession.

Confessional Wunderlust

It is widely recognized that the RCA takes its identity primarily in its reformed confessions while the PCUSA’s identity is vested in its polity. This observation is, however, a twentieth century development.

For about three hundred years,  the Westminster Confession united Presbyterians in the Americas.  It was written in 1640 and was adopted early on as the primarily confessional document among Presbyterians  and remains in use today. However, the attitude about the confession changed dramatically in the 20th century. Serving first as a bulwark against liberalism in the early part of the century, but the 1930s the General Assembly passed a resolution forbidding any part of the denomination from offering an authoritative interpretation of the Westminster Confession. Later, a Book of Confessions (cited above) aggregated a number of confessional statements leaving the Westminster Confession simply one of many by the 1970s (Longfield 2013, 15, 126, 142-143, 196).

The Scot’s Confession of 1560, which is included in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA), outlines three conditions for a true church.⁠3  A true church is one where the word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly administered. 

When the PCUSA removed its ordination requirements centered on the five fundamentals of the faith in 1925 and then moved away from the Westminster Confession in the next decade, it effectively lost the ability to practice church discipline on the basis of common doctrine and to distinguish itself as a true church as defined in the Scot  Confession. The boundaries between church and society were fuzzed because of doctrinal diversity and with the passage of time the fuzz grew as elders were elected and pastors ordained that held increasingly diverse views.  In effect, Presbyterians began a transition from being a reformed, confessional church to being a church united primarily by a common polity.

Ecclesiastical Authority

The authority of the church is vested in scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit, given on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The confessions of the church likewise derive their authority from these two sources. When scripture is clear on a subject, the church’s role is to teach scripture, When scripture is silent on a subject, the church’s role is to interpret scripture under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit. At no point should the church’s teaching violate the clear direction of scripture, which is why church discipline is critical to retaining the vitality of the church.

The focus on the authority of scripture has been a distinctive of Protestant churches since the Reformation period of the 1500s while the Catholic Church affirms the authority of tradition in addition to scripture (Sproul 1997, 42-43). The admission of authorities other than scripture, such as new cultural insights, tradition, and philosophy, into Protestant churches represents a return to controversies that led to the first Reformation schism.

In denominations unable or unwilling to maintain church discipline, individual churches are left to themselves in navigating a faithful witness. In churches unconcerned about faithful witness, the members themselves must navigate on their own, placing a burden on families to discern for themselves what to believe and how to act on their belief. Consequently, the absence of church discipline has facilitated the rise of individualism within the church.

While God can sovereignly use unfaithful denominations and unfaithful pastors to prosecute his will, we all strive to remain among the faithful at a time the church is less helpful than it could be in its mentoring role.

Footnotes

1 https://www.rca.org (as of 16 November 2018).

2 https://www.pcusa.org (as of 16 November 2018).

3 “The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.” (PCUSA 1999, 3.18)

References

Longfield, Bradley J.  2013.  Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. 

Longfield, Bradley J.  1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Sproul, R.C. 1997. What is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

The Church as an Authority

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

 

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The Better Story

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

How do we know what we know is true?

The end of the modern era spells the end of the modern pretension that we can logically prove that objective truth is knowable and provable. It is not. Because it is not knowable and provable in the abstract, proof requires that truth be knowable and provable to a human audience. An argument must both make sense and feel right in the context of the human condition. In the context of a confusing and dangerous world, who has the best story, one that you can bet your life on?

The Gospel Story

The Gospel story is the story of Jesus’ birth, life and ministry, death, and resurrection. This story is the focus of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—in the New Testament and of faith statements, like the Apostle’s Creed.

Christianity began in a graveyard with the resurrection. The resurrection could not have occurred without Jesus’ crucifixion and death which was, in turn, associated with his life and ministry. Because Jesus’ life and ministry was chronicled looking back from the resurrection, each sentence in the New Testament should be prefaced with these words: Jesus rose from the dead, therefore . . . Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection are the Gospel story.

Christians, like Mary Magdalene, are the ones running from the cemetery to tell the rest of the world that Jesus lives (Matt 28:8).

After the Gospels themselves, the story of Jesus is the subject of many New Testament sermons by both Peter (Acts 2:14–41; 10:34–43) and Paul (Acts 13:16–41).

Context for the Gospel

In Genesis 11:1-9 we read the story of how men schemed to build a tower up to heaven to force God to come down and bless their city. The God who created heaven and earth (Gen 1:1) looked down on this effort and just laughed. These devious and obviously stupid men thought that they could manipulate a god that stood outside of time and space having created both. To prevent further foolishness, God confused them with different languages so that they would not be able to scheme together any further.

Because God transcends the material world and time itself, no physical or metaphysical tower can reach up to heaven.Towers, temples, religions, philosophies, and sciences are all equally vain. God must come down to us; we cannot reach up to him. The story of God’s efforts to reach down to us is recorded in scripture; he himself came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 1; Luke 1). God reversed the curse of Babel on the day of Pentecost with the giving of his Holy Spirit and the founding of the church (Acts 2), the oldest, continuous institution known to humanity.

But this story is not over; the church is not a museum of the past. Jesus points to the future and promises to reunite with his disciples:

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3)

Because the future is in Christ and we worship a loving and all powerful God, we know that our future is secure. In the midst of the traumas and tribulations of life, our hope is assured.

The Better Story

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

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Postmodernism

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James Smith (2006, 26) Describes post modernism as a kind of pluriform and variegated phenomena, an historical period after (post) modernism, heavily influenced by French philosophers, especially Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michael Foucault.  Adding to the confusion, Smith observes that postmodernism does not make a clean break with modernism, but tends to intensify certain aspects of modernism, particularly notions of freedom (Smith 2006, 19-21, 26).

Smith starts with the intriguing premise that the basic ideas of these three postmodern philosophers have misunderstood. When properly understood, postmodern philosophy and the traditional teaching of the church remain compatible.  The collapse of the church in our lifetime can accordingly be seen to lay the groundwork for a revitalization of the church around traditional teaching—once purged of its modernistic thought patterns (Smith 2006,  22-23, 29).  This re-imaged traditional teaching he refers to as radical orthodoxy and has an incarnation focus which takes time, place, and space seriously and which affirms both the liturgy and the arts (Smith 2006, 127).

Jacques Derrida

Smith’s premise that these philosophers have been misunderstood because of weak bumper-sticker summaries of them. For example, Derrida’s misunderstood statement is: “there is nothing outside the text.” (Smith 2006, 36)  The idea that one can simply read a text, particularly an ancient text written in another language, and understand its meaning is to misunderstand the role of language, context, and interpretation. 

While often said to mean that the Bible cannot be read and understood by just anyone, Smith says that this is not what Derrida is saying. Derrida’s point is simply that all understanding of texts requires interpretation—the context and the interpretative community—which implies that there is no such thing as 

objective truth.  Interpretation is always required (Smith 2006, 38-40, 43).

Jean-François Lyotard

Smith also sees Lyotard’s idea of a meta-narrative as misunderstood in its bumper-sticker characterization. Postmodern critics have trouble with the meta-narrative or big story of scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology.  Smith disputes, however, that the scope of meta-narratives is Lyotard’s main concern.  Smith sees Lyotard’s main concern being the truth claims of modern use of meta-narratives—science is itself a meta-narrative but falsely and deceptively claims to be universal, objective, and demonstrable through reason alone. Smith writes:  “For the postmodern, every scientist is a believer.” Lyotard is perfectly okay with the idea of faith preceding reason, following Augustine  (Smith 2006, 62-72) and Anselm, who cites Isaiah 7:9.[1]

Michael Foucault

Foucault’s concern about institutional power structures is hard to reduce to a bumper-sticker characterization, in part, because he resists reductionism in his writing style and focuses on tediously pure description.  Smith sees Foucault preoccupied with disciplinary structures, but wonders what his real intentions are.  He talks about two readings of Foucault:  Foucault as Nietzschean and Foucault as a closet enlightenment liberal (Smith 2006, 96-99).  Smith (2006, 102) writes:

“What is wrong with all these disciplinary structures is not that they are bent on forming or molding human beings into something, but rather what they are aiming for in that process.”

Smith sees Foucault offering three lessons to the church: to see “how pervasive disciplinary formation is within our culture”; to identify which of these disciplines are “fundamentally inconsistent with…the message of the church”; and to “enact countermeasures, counter disciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be” (Smith 2006, 105-106).

Weakness in Modern Witness

Smith sees hope in the Derrida’s critique because the modern understanding of the Christian message is itself a distortion of traditional church teaching.  In attempting to frame the Christian message in ahistorical truth statements (God is love), the narrative tradition (God showed his love by sovereignly granting the exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt) has been lost.  Because the Christian message is contextual in biblical accounts and is interpreted by the church, it meets Derrida’s primary concerns.  Consequently, according to Smith, the church must, however, abandon modern stance and language in order to thrive in the postmodern environment (Smith 2006, 54-58).

When exactly did the church relinquish its internal discipline and why?⁠[2]  Smith (2006, 107) sees communion, confession, foot washing, and economic redistribution as the kind of disciplines that need to be maintained.  A more normal reading of discipline might ask why the teaching of the church—church doctrine—is ignored and no dire consequences follow for those most engaged in the ignoring.

References

Davies, Brian and G.R. Evans [ed}. 2008. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. Oxford World Classics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Longfield, Bradley J. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Smith, James K.A.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

Footnotes

[1] In his Proslogion, Anselm writes: “I believe so that I may understand.” (Davies and Evans 2008, 87)

[2] Longfield (1991, 79-91) chronicles changes 1925-1936 in the Presbyterian Church from dropping the five fundamental of faith as ordination requirements in 1925 to changes at Princeton Theological Seminary serving to allow theological diversity within the denomination. These changes also effectively removed doctrinal basis for church discipline, accept in the case of gross error.

Postmodernism

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

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