Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 2 after November 13)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most difficult things that I have done in my life was to work with integrity as an economist in financial regulation and actually measure and report on the risk being taken by the institutions under our supervision. I likened my job as being a lifeguard hired to watch people drown. The better my team got at actually doing our jobs, the more trouble we found ourselves getting into. When I threw up my hands and left my well-paid career to enter seminary, I discovered that much the same environment engulfed the pastors that I worked with.

Introduction

In David Well’s Losing Out Virtue, he writes:

“In the language we use to understand ourselves and our world is not simply a matter of words. It is the result of the interactions of many other factors…In this engagement, I shall argue that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation. That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing: functionally, we are not morally disengaged, adrift and alienated; we are morally obliterated. We are, in practice, not only morally illiterate; we have become morally vacant.”(13)

Well’s goes on to observe:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues. First Plato and then Aristotle talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues. These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control) …. The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived.”(14)

Obviously, having morals in the classical sense meant much more than simply being able to keep one’s pants on. In a world where virtually every adult male served in the military (as is true in small counties today), hand-to-hand combat quickly tested at least one’s courage and other virtues. Following this train of thought, Hauerwas and WIllimon (2014, 35) write: “States, particularly liberal democracies, are heavily depend on wars for moral coherence.”

What Makes the Postmodern Era Different?

Wells observes four distinctives of the postmodern period:

  1. “We are seeing on an unprecedented scale the birth of a world civilization…
  2. Ours is the first major civilization to be building itself deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations…
  3. Our experience of modernity is intense to an unparalleled extent…
  4. As a result of these factors that are unique to our time, we are seeing on an unprecedented sale, a mass experimentation with new values.” (23-27)

Note that Wells is using the term, modernity, to apply primarily to what I would call the postmodern period. Changes that might have taken generations during the modern period (1800 through 1960) have been compressed into just a few years during the postmodern period (since 1960).

Recovering our Moral Vision

Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:

“it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)

In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:

“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.”(180)

Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.

Background

Dr. David Wells is a Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Wells is a graduate of University of London with a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate from Manchester University, England. He is the author of numerous books.[1]

As a GCTS graduate myself, Wells taught one of my New Testament courses and I read this book before taking the class to acquaint myself with his work, as was my custom in seminary.

Organization

Wells writes in these chapters:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualities
  2. The Playground of Desire
  3. On Saving Ourselves
  4. The Bonfire of the Self
  5. Contradictions
  6. Faith of the Ages

These chapters are preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I will examine his arguments in more depth.

David Wells’ Losing Our Virtue focuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This is a book desiring of more attention from academics to frontline pastors.

Footnotes

[1]https://www.gordonconwell.edu/academics/view-faculty-member.cfm?faculty_id=15912&grp_id=8947.

References

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon.2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

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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.

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Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.[1] 2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Fundamental to the problem of the postmodern church is grasping for how much society has changed. In Christendom, a sense of right and wrong permeated the entire culture—even those that never entered a church shared Christian morality even if reluctantly. An important problem in postmodern culture is its fragmentation—kids frequently introduce themselves by who they listen to and prefer communication with friends, not in person, but by texting. One gets the impression that for a boomer a FB friend is an acquaintance, but for a millennial a FB friend is a intimate—in part because of differences in the personal details shared online.

Introduction

 In their book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (hereafter H&W) described the church already in 1989 as:

“The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief…Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.”(49)

My wife and I had our first child in 1989 right after I received my first job in finance and could afford for the first time the house that we lived in and we attended a church plant in our community that now is a well-established church. We were among the fortunate few because anyone without a post graduate degree still earns probably little more than they did back then.

Church in the Lurch

Churches not serving the fortunate few were already struggling back in the 1980s and have lost members, especially young people, ever since. H&W observe:

“An army succeeds, not through trench warfare but through movement, penetration, tactics.(54)

The old saying goes, the best defense is a good offense, yet most churches never learned to play offense because in Christendom evangelism consisted primarily in keeping those that showed up on Sunday morning. If no one shows up, they are lost as to what to do.

The Importance of Story

The church played defense pretty much throughout the modern era. In attempting to respond to the unscientific nature of faith, churches used abstract concepts, like “God is love”, to communicate the Gospel, but for the most part such abstractions merely served to vaccinate people against real Christianity. Conceptual—ersatz or cultural— Christianity is sterile and cannot reproduce itself.

H&W write:

“How does God deal with human fear, confusion, and paralysis? God tells a story: I am none other than the God who ‘brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ (Deut 5:6)”(54)

 At its heart, the Gospel is the story of Jesus, not the concept of Jesus! We cannot understand and appreciate the Gospel unless we follow Jesus and participate in his story. (55) For postmoderns, it’s all about narrative and the Good News is that the church has the best story around—if it is willing and able to tell it.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have outlined a few key points and summarized the book. In part two, I will endeavor to engage their arguments in more depth.

In Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon outline an approach to a post-Constantine church from perspective of the church and Christian ethics. The text is engaging and is often cited as a follow up to John Howard Joder’s The Politics of Jesus(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), which they frequently cite.

Footnotes

[1]https://divinity.duke.edu/faculty/directory. @Stanleymemelord

Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

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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 

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

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

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Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

Review of Davide Bentley Hart's Atheist DelusionsDavid Bentley Hart. 2009. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The old saw goes: you cannot argue someone out of a position that they were not argued into. Apologetics is accordingly most useful in convincing oneself of the reasonableness of views that you already loosely hold. For critics who engage primarily in slander, correcting the veracity of arguments propping up such slander does not normally lead to retraction of the slander so much as the advancement of new arguments of similar veracity, particularly when political or financial incentives motivate the slander. Even weakly argued slander can imperil loosely held faith so the apologist is bound to remain fully employed.

Introduction

David Bentley Hart opens his book, Atheist Delusions, with these words:

“What I have written is at most a ‘historical essay,’ at no point free of bias, and intended principally as an apologia for a particular understanding of the effect of Christianity upon the development of Western civilization.”(ix)

Hart’s concern about bias is interesting because quickly proceeds to outline his decision criteria for establishing historical truth:

“It may be impossible to provide perfectly irrefutable evidence for one’s conclusions, but it is certainly possible to amass evidence sufficient to confirm them beyond plausible doubt.”(ix)

Again, this is interesting because Hart begins playing by postmodern rules of argumentation—a modern writer might appeal to objective truth (or rationality) at this point, which would invite derision from postmodern critics.

Central Argument

As an historian, Hart focuses on using the past as a vehicle for understanding the present, writing:

“This book chiefly—or at least centrally—concerns the history of the early church, of roughly the first four or five centuries, and the story of how Christendom was born out of the culture of last antiquity. My chief ambition in writing it is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome.; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred up on the human person…”(x-xi)

What struck me in the middle of this lengthy essay was how much paganism of these first centuries of the church resembled the anxiety that we see every day in postmodern culture.

The Mythology of Modernism

Through the lens of historical observation, Hart furthermore chips away at the mythology surrounding the modern period. He writes:

“…what many of us are still in the habit of calling the ‘Age of Reason’ was in many significant ways the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value; that the modern age is notable in large measure for the triumph of inflexible dogmatism in every sphere of human endeavor (including the sciences) and for a flight from rationality to any number of soothing fundamentalisms, religious and secular; that the Enlightenment ideology of modernity as such does not even deserve any particular credit for the advance of modern science; that the modern secular state’s capacity for barbarism exceeds any of the evils for which Christendom might justly be indicted, not solely by virtue of the superior technology, but by its very nature…”(xi-xii)

Hart’s comment about barbarism is particularly interesting because today’s culture is quick to forget about the millions killed by the National Socialists and by various Marxian governments in our time yet obsesses about the thousands killed during the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition hundreds of years ago, where the historical veracity of various claims requires close scrutiny that is almost never offered.

Faith in Choice

An important critique that Hart examines at length is the postmodern obsession with personal freedom. He writes:

“…there is no substantive criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology. In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is—to be perfectly precise—nihilism.”(21)

This observation is damning in its implications for the banality of our time. Freedom defined in terms of market choice for goods and ideas leaves no philosophical room for God, the development of personal character, or even the organization of communal activities, present or future. Inherent in this focus is an assumption that individual making choices has the resources required to make them and society is eager to provide them. Focusing on choice accordingly leaves decisions about everything else up to whoever is powerful enough to enforce them. Even the choices offered today may disappear quickly as a lack of interest in the future may lead one to eat one’s own seed-corn or to trade away one’s own freedom in the rush to consume.

Outline

Hart writes his book in 17 chapters divided into four parts:

  1. Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present
  2. The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past
  3. Revolution: The Christian Invention of the Human
  4. Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human(vii-viii).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by notes and an index.

Assessment

David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions is an interesting read for the historically sensitive and philosophically astute. Hart offers commentary on current cultural controversies that both enlightens and challenges one to probe deeper, if for no other reason than to understand his voluminous vocabulary.

Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

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Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.(Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The wholly confusion that dominates the church today is rooted the Greek dualism that pervades western thought. While Greeks distinguished mind and body, Hebrews did not. The Hebrew mindset saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) and decidedly not simply emotions that come and go. Stroking emotions and teaching the head neglect the heart that responds principally to ritual. Neglected hearts see no reason to become disciples or attend church. The church then finds itself full of confused thinkers and traumatized emoters who ridicule and neglect ritual leading to even more neglected hearts. Wholly confusion naturally leads then to holy confusion.

Introduction

In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith opens his preface with an enigmatic statement:

“This book articulates a spirituality for culture-makers, showing (I hope) why discipleship needs to be centered in and fueled by our immersion in the body of Christ.”(xi)

The word, spirituality, signals an interest in applied (or practical) theology; the word culture signals a long-term focus moving from the church to society; and the phrase,“immersion in the body of Christ”,signals an interest in worship, particularly the sacramental aspects of worship where God is the principal actor and the rituals date to the first century church.

Work of Christ

For a Christian theologian, unpacking this agenda requires an interpretation of the work of Christ (the metaphysical question) that shows up immediately:

“Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His ‘teaching’ doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who ‘penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit’; he ‘judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Heb 4:12)” (1)

Hebrew Anthropology

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” (5) If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith to observe: “What if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire?[the heart] (7) If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek and unfamiliar in American culture.

Background

James K. A. Smith[1]teaches philosophy at Calvin College and writes for Comment magazine. His doctorate is from Villanova. He is the author of many books, including Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, that I reviewed previously. Smith grew up in Ontario Canada.

Smith writes in seven chapters:

  1. You Are What You Love: To Worship is Human
  2. You Might Not Love What You Think: Learning to Read ‘Secular’ Liturgies
  3. The Spirit Meets You Where You Are: Historic World for a Postmodern Age
  4. What Story are You in? The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship
  5. Guard Your Heart: The Liturgies of Home
  6. Teach Your Children Well: Learning by Heart
  7. You Make What You Want: Vocational Liturgies(ix)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by a benediction, suggested readings, acknowledgments, notes, and an index.

Part one of this review gives an overview of Smith’s work; part two will go into his arguments in more detail.

Assessment

James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habitis a deeply theological reflection on the formative aspects of Christian ritual and worship. Those familiar with prior work on spirituality and worship will find his analysis compelling and better integrated for a topic often offering divergent pieces and perspectives. Those unfamiliar may find reason to attend a more liturgically-oriented church respectful of the bells and smells. In any case, Smith is an engaging author and his writing is cogent and accessible.

References

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

[1] http://jameskasmith.com. https://calvin.edu/directory/people/james-k-a-smith.

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1

Also see:

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2 

Smith: Speak Postmodern to Postmodern People, Part 1 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Positivistic and Normative Information

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my training as an economist, my philosophy of science professor taught us to distinguish several types of information. Most important among these types were positivistic and normative information. Positivistic information observed information about what is (facts) while normative information focused on what should be (values). One might observe, for example, that a farmer owned one hundred pigs (a statement of fact) while the value of those pigs might depend on whether your religion accepts pork as a reasonable food that people might eat (a value statement). Christians usually eat pork while Jews, Muslims, and vegetarians typically do not.

Facts and Values

The usefulness of this distinction between facts and values arises when people disagree primarily on details, not the broad sweep of things. An old saw goes that we are each entitled to our own opinions (statements of values), but not our own set of facts (statements about what is). In the postmodern era as the consensus on basic values has broken down, the line between facts and values has also become blurred.

Breakdown in the Modern Consensus

A deconstructionist, someone who questions all authorities and focuses on power relationships, might argue that facts depend on whose value system is being imposed. The statement that a farmer owns one hundred pigs might, for example, be a provocative statement in a country where pork consumption is not accepted.

When the Gospel of Matthew writes—“Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them” (Matt 8:30), the implication certainly is that this region is outside Israel (where pork consumption was not accepted) and may also imply that the people in this region are morally corrupt or simply Roman. An Muslim commentator on American grocery marketing today might likewise conclude that the United States is obviously a Christian country because no Muslim or Jew would accept open sale of pork in a grocery store.

The point is not that we cannot observe whether or not pork is being sold. The point is that the interpretative gloss on such an observation quickly leads to a change in the conversation serious enough to make the distinction between value and fact less helpful.

Breakdown in Consensus Influences Professionals

The breakdown in consensus about basic values not only makes conversation about disputable matters more difficult, it also leads to challenges to authority figures, like professional economists. One forgets that professionals are specialists whose experience focuses on making fine distinctions that an ordinary person might not be sensitive to. When large values are in flux, small values get less attention and making such distinction adds less value. Thus, we see that professionals continue to earn high incomes, but the focus of their work has changed and it carries less status in a social context.

The New Testament makes frequent reference to the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews distinguished themselves from Gentiles not only by their religious beliefs, but by their dress, food laws, and other customs. As Christians in the first century began to evangelize outside the Jewish community to Gentiles, these distinctions made it harder to focus Gentiles on God’s character and Jesus’ teaching. The separation of the Christians from the Jews ironically came not over these customs but over the absence of Christian political support for a Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Starting Point for Science

Returning to the observation that now in the postmodern era the consensus on basic beliefs has broken down. What exactly were the beliefs that brought us the modern era and science? Going into the nineteenth century, nearly everyone in Western countries subscribed to belief in one God who created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). This fundamental belief proved important to the growth of science because one creator implies one set of scientific principles that were assumed to apply to all of creation.

If more than one god were believed to exist, then this unity of principles would seem quite arbitrary and one would not spend a lot of time and effort to impose such an idea. Why wouldn’t another set of principles exist in the realm of another god? Consequently, the idea of objective truth is reasonable in the context of the first verse in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deut 6:4) It is not surprising that in the early years of the modern era the best scientists were often religious individuals, Jews and Christians, influenced not only by their intellect, but by their faith in one benevolent God who created and loves all of us.

Positivistic and Normative Information

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 2

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option

Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 2

Rod Dreher.[1] 2017. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel. (Goto part 1; Goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those of us active in church leadership, the hollowing out of the Christian faith is nothing new. Biblical illiteracy has reached the point that seminaries routinely test their new students on their biblical competency and about 90 percent of incoming students are required to take remedial work in biblical studies. Because it is hard to apply biblical knowledge to solving life’s daily challenges if the Bible is largely unknown even by the clergy, it is small wonder that the church has not prevailed in influencing postmodern culture.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

In The Benedict Option Rod Dreher makes the point about biblical illiteracy citing sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton who define the religion of American teenagers as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  MTD has five basic tenets:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to solve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (10).

  MTD is especially prevalent among Catholic and mainline Protestant young people, according to Dreher. The problem is that it has little to do with the God of the Bible and focuses on the worship of the self and material comforts (10-11).

If the church has lost the culture wars, the lost emanated from inside the church outwards. Therefore, the hollowing of the church is the problem, not barbarians at the gates. Still, Dreher sees barbarians anxiously taking advantage of the church’s lost vision (16-17).

How Did We Get To This Point?

Dreher sees five landmark events over seven centuries rocking Western civilization and stripping its ancestral faith:

  1. In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality.
  2. The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
  3. The eighteenth century Enlightenment, which displaces the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy.
  4. The Industrial Revolution (ca 1760—1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  5. The Sexual Revolution (1960—present) (22-23).

It is interesting that Dreher reverse-engineers the antecedents of the postmodern era. The enchanted world that he sees prior to William of Ockhams (1285-1347) development of nominalism or metaphysical realism. This world distinguishes God from his creation (not realism which keeps them united, according to Dreher) can actually be traced to the first verse of the Bible. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (23-27). In order to create the universe, God had to have been separated from it.

Commentary on Worldview

As a conservative Catholic, Dreher begins his march towards postmodernism with a Middle Ages world view, not a biblical world view, as might be more typical of a Protestant writer. Dreher’s starting point is important because it colors his view of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. In my own thinking, for example, I have often referred to scientific discoveries as “God’s Easter Eggs” which he hides from us in such a way to assure that we would find them. If all of knowledge is God’s knowledge, our faithfulness is not necessarily undermined by what we know so much as our attitude about it.

The more corrosive problem that arose in the nineteenth century was not so much the Industrial Revolution or the Enlightenment, but emergence of the Romantic movement. Dreher writes:

The Romantics, as they were called, found many aspects of the new rationalist, mechanized society distasteful but had no interest in returning to the Christian world. They prized emotion, individuality, nature, and personal freedom. (38)

Here attitudes about God and his relationship with human beings and the created order clearly changed. If Christians came to believe that God primarily worked through our feelings, not our minds, then it was a small step to insert the self in place of God. This is because no one outside the self can mediate our feelings, which ultimately undermines the authority of the church and scripture.

The Sexual Revolution

Sexuality might easily remain the domain of family life within the community. However, if the self mediates feelings, sexuality takes on a completely new role. Dreher writes:

‘Eros must be raised to the level of a religious cult in modern society, not because we really are that obsessed with it, but because the myth of freedom demands it.” Says political philosopher Stephen L. Gardner. ‘It is in carnal desire that the modern individual believes he affirms his individuality.’ The body must be the true subject of desire because the individual must be the author of his own desire. (43)

If this comment appears oblique, think of it as a creation story for the individual. Much like Marx banned Bibles because his communism lacked a valid creation story, postmoderns deny God’s sovereignty through the worship of desire and must have their own creation story, which however unlikely places the individual at the center of the universe [of desire].[2]

Summary

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation ties together numerous concerns about the church. He then offers the development of new schools and community as necessary components to maintaining a vibrant faith community in the face of the coming secular deluge.

In part one of this review, I outlined Dreher’s book. Part two looks at his definition of the problems facing the church. In part three, I will look at his solution to those problems.

References

Gardner, Stephen L. 1998. Myths of Freedom: Equality, Modern Thought, and Philosophical Radicalism. Greenwood.

Smith, Christian and Melinda Lundquist Denton. 2005. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] @RodDreher, TheAmericanConservative.com/Dreher

[2] This is why gender advocates express no interest in hearing about the problems—disease, drug abuse, suicide, depression—created by the risky behavior that they advocate. To recognize these problems, they must admit that they have no credible creation story and that God is sovereign.

Also See:

Books, Films, and Ministry

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The Scientific Method and Objective Truth

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The scientific method is a learning method that led to many discoveries about the physical world that have defined the modern period. Discoveries in agricultural production, medicine, and manufacturing have alleviated hunger and poverty, and have extended the life expectancy of the vast majority of people since the early nineteenth century. These discoveries has so dramatically improved the lives of modern and postmodern people that claims about the method have pervaded virtually all aspects of our lives. While almost no one discounts the usefulness of the method, the spillover of rational thinking into other aspects of life helped accelerate exploration of limits to its usefulness.

Definition

In its simplest exposition, the scientific method consists of series of steps in analytical thinking:

  1. Problem definition
  2. Observation
  3. Analysis
  4. Decision

In the problem definition step, the researcher forms an hypothesis. The researcher then proceeds to collect observations about this hypothesis in the second step. In the third step, the researcher analyzes these observations in view of other discoveries. In the final step, the researcher decides whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.

Usefulness of the Scientific Method

The flexibility of the scientific method to be applied to many aspects of the physical world accounts for its enormous usefulness. As researchers make new discoveries, they publish their finding so that other researchers can replicate their results. Thus, over time the knowledge of the physical world grows and is decimated throughout the scientific community and applied to practical applications in agriculture, industry, and medicine.

Critique of the Scientific Method

For many years, people believed that using the scientific method did not involve philosophical prejudices, but simply revealed facts about our world. This belief, however, came increasingly under scrutiny as researchers began to apply the scientific method especially in the social sciences. Scrutiny gave way to outcry during the Second World War as people learned of German scientists performing inhuman experiments on prisoners in concentration camps, such as learning the minimum nutritional requirements to prevent starvation, cold water survival rates, and so on. It soon became more widely understood that which problems came into focus in research involved serious philosophical and theological presumptions that had previously not gotten much attention.

Philosophical Presupposition

One particularly important presupposition in the modern period and in the scientific method had to do with the nature of truth. Arising out of the Christian worldview came the assumption that one objective truth exists which, if we take the time to research, we can discover. This assumption is reasonable in the physical sciences; it is less tenable in the realm of social science, where cultural assumptions often dictate how particular activities are judged. For example, we can all agree on the weight of a particular bucket of sand, but we may not agree on whether to eat pork or whether it is acceptable to charge interest on a loan.

Objective Truth

The existence of objective truth may sound like a trivial issue, but it becomes important in determining the status of professionals, such as scientists, doctors, lawyer, economists, and even pastors. If one objective truth exists, then it makes sense to consult the professional responsible for that subject matter. If truth is socially defined as is often argued in the postmodern period, then it is less clear which professional is most appropriate or whether a professional is even needed. In the church, for example, who is most suitable to preach and teach the Bible in which translation and with how much training? The answer to these questions are hotly debated within the church, in part, because we have come to doubt the nature and importance of objective truth.

Why Do We Care?

Crisis of Authorities

In the postmodern world that we live in, rational learning and decision making is still important, but the cynicism surrounding rationality is everywhere to be seen and it affects our attitude about anyone in authority. Prior to the modern period, authority stemmed primarily from wealth and political power in secular society and the church’s authority stemmed from reverence for God. In the modern period in America, authority still stemmed from wealth and political power, but this authority was increasingly tempered by the knowledge-based power of professionals and respect for God waned as rational thinking led many to question God’s existence. For postmoderns, respect for both God and professionals has waned leading to the rise of authority based primarily on wealth and political power. In effect, if objective truth and God do not exist in people’s minds, then my truth and my group’s truth take center stage.

Importance of Objective Truth

A second important result of this lack of belief in objective truth is that it undermines, not only professionals, but also respect for democratic and judicial process. On a theoretical level, if objective truth exists, then through debate and argumentation we come closer to understanding this truth, which is embodied in both our democratic and legal systems. If no objective truth is believed to exist, then debate and argumentation are simply a power play that does not enhance the credibility of the decision reached.

Sour Grapes

Therefore, the losing parties in debate or legal process have no inherent reason to accept the outcome of the process. This is why we observe so many sore losers on the evening news today that previously did not seem even to exist in popular culture. The postmodern rhetoric about the lack of debate in the modern period attributing the peace to an overwhelming majority of Americans being simply white is a half-truth, not the whole truth. Everyone believed in the American system, even when not everyone benefited equally. This why people still prefer to jump over the fence to come to America from other places. One seldom hears of people escaping to join most other, non-western destinations—it is not entirely about the differences in wealth.

Assessment

While the modern period is clearly over, the challenges and risks that we face remain poorly understood without understanding the role played by the scientific method and objective truth in the world that we continue to live in.

The Scientific Method and Objective Truth

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Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 1

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard not to notice the crisis of identity facing Christians and the church today. If we as Christians see ourselves as created in the image of an almighty God, then nothing is impossible for God and, by inference, for us as heirs to the kingdom. On the other hand, if we start to believe our critics that God does not exist and church is just another human institution, then our options are no different than anyone else’s—limited by the time and money immediately available. Because we act out of our identity, we need to care about what our identity is in our heart of hearts, not just on our business cards. For Christians, our truest identity is defined in our theory of God or, in other words, in our theology.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher writes:

“This book represents some of the philosophy I have been reading, as one context for thinking about a new way—or maybe a very old way—of doing theology.” (7)

By “old” Placher means to argue apologetically from a Christian perspective with Christian assumptions. This “old” perspective, which he calls the “unapologetic” approach, is interesting because:

“Christian apologists can adopt the language and assumptions of their audiences so thoroughly that they no longer speak with a distinctively Christian voice.” (11)

Arguing from the “new” Enlightenment perspective means:

“questioning all inherited assumptions and then accepting only those beliefs which could be proven according to universally acceptable criteria.” (11)

If those universally acceptable criteria preclude faith in Christ Jesus by their nature, then the “new” perspective blunts effective witness (12). Worse, if no universally acceptable criteria exist, which essentially means that the Enlightenment (or modern) era is over, then the price of arguing is paid without gaining any credibility as a witness. Thus, adopting an unapologetic stance appears warranted in the postmodern era which we find ourselves in.

Placher’s argument raises two questions that we care about. First, is the modern era truly over and, if so, how do we know? Second, because Placher clearly believes that the modern era is over, how do we approach apologetics in the absence of universally acceptable criteria for discussion? We care about these questions because it is hard to witness for Christ in the postmodern era if, in effect, we do not speak the language of a postmodern person.

In part 1 of this review will focus on the first question while part 2 will consider the second.

Is the modern era over? Placher starts his discussion of the Enlightenment with the father of the Enlightenment, René Descartes, writing:

“Descartes had set the goal of seeking a foundation for knowledge, but modern philosophy soon divided between empiricists who looked for that foundation in bare, uninterrupted sensations [things you see, hear, feel, taste…] and rationalists who sought it in logically unchallengeable first truths.” (26)

For empiricists, a problem quickly emerged because:

“We cannot build knowledge on a foundation of uninterpreted sense-data, because we cannot know particular sense-data in isolation from the conceptual schemes we use to organize them.” (29)

If this is not obvious, think about how one knows that a light is red and different from yellow or green. In order to recognize the difference, one needs to understand the definition of red and how it differs from yellow or green. Without knowing that definition, red is not a distinct color. We teach colors to children at a young age so they seem obvious to us as adults, but to untaught kids colors have yet to be learned. The definition of red is what is meant here as a conceptual scheme.

For logicians, Placher observes:

“What we cannot do is find some point that is uniquely certain by definition, guarantee to hold regardless of any empirical discoveries, independent of any other elements in the our system.” (33)

Placher notes the definition of a mammal, “a warm-blooded animal with hair which bears live young”, had to change with the discovery of the platypus (32). While the problem posed by the platypus seems trivial, Placher notes after referencing Russell’s paradox that:

“If our definitions in mathematics or logic lead to problems, we may decide to change them, but we always have more than one choice.” (34)

In conclusion, Placher cites Wittgenstein observing:

“when we find the foundations, it turns out they are being held up by the rest of the house. If theologians try to defend their claims by starting with basic, foundational truths that any rational person would have to believe or observations independent of theory and assumptions, they are trying to do something that our best philosophers tell us is impossible.” (34)

In other words, the attempt by Enlightenment scholars to find a defensible basis for objective truth has failed and we are now in the postmodern era where it can be said: “how you stand on an issue depends on where you sit”.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, is a fascinating review of modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part one of this review I have summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part two of this review, I will summarize Placher’s arguments for how we should do theology and witness understanding that we are in the postmodern era.

 

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