WHO WE ARE
Though conservatives and liberals dismiss each
other, they share the same agenda. Both claim credibility by
glorifying reason and deifying science. Both reduce God to
manageable proportions . . . workable ideas . . . convenient
categories. Both manage "truth" through "objective observation . . .
exact methods . . . precise facts."
But today, neither group leads society. The great
historical gap is no longer between liberals and conservatives. The
gap is between both of them and the rest of the world. Read further
to find out why:
It’s easy to see why our leaning in history
ignores the Lord of History. Our stagnant truth demands new
realities, yet we remain stubbornly in denial.
All the blessed visions of the past surely rose
from the Spirit, and our intent surely sought God’s Kingdom. But
rendering the infallible Word is not without error. And living this
Word is not without distortion.
That’s the human condition.
So we need to see clearly where we’ve been. We
need to get reflective distance on our past. After all, the church
is not a silent consensus. Let faith seek its understanding:
Creatures of Culture
To begin, know that we are creatures of culture,
and know that culture never retains its pristine vision. For
finally, God’s Truth transcends culture.
Yet, we find our identity in lifestyle enclaves .
. . in the self-love of similarities . . . in the symbols that
enshrine us. We admire ourselves in these mirrors. While Scripture
insists that our true identity reflects something far more than
culture, we continue to "find ourselves" within culture.
One author calls it "salvation-in-the-sauna."1
Yes, we belong to culture. We must! But too
often, we remain immersed in the masses, unaware. We’re like fish
who don’t know they’re in a fish bowl. Then, our culture becomes a
racial amnesia . . . an illusory history . . . a collective
As a result, "objective" knowledge becomes, in
fact, social knowledge. "Reality" becomes, in truth, an agreed
reality. And, the reigning paradigm becomes, in honesty, the only
window scientists look through.
Then, finally, these assumptions lock us into a
local time and place. They become rigid codes . . . closed systems
that continue through the pride and power of a favored few. And
these myopic leaders protect their legacy at all cost—defying the
past . . . blocking new ideas.
History embarrasses us. Each previous science
proves incredibly naive. Each previous religion—reckoned more
hallowed than Scripture—runs rivers of innocent blood. And we search
without hope for a culture that successfully resists becoming a
"Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture
that you fit into it without even thinking."2
Confusing Culture and Spirit
Yes, we know prophetic voices through the
centuries that cry to be heard. Yes, we discern cultural victories
that deserve their monuments. And yes, we recall new visions that
someone paid dearly to envision.
But, too often, prophetic voices codify into
canon where mere flesh speaks only to flesh. Too often, cultural
monuments only celebrate who We are. And, too often, "new visions"
simply sow seeds of carnal incarnations.
"Tradition is the living faith of the dead. But
traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."3 There’s
Linking faith too closely with culture proves
deadly: We begin to create God in our image. We begin to justify our
worldly system. And we begin to create canons out of unquestioned
causes. In short, we begin to confuse "Culture" with Spirit.
Sometimes, we even confuse "Religion" with Spirit. After all,
religion is merely the earthly form that Spirit lovingly assumes
within a community of believers.
For a while.
Then things change. Today’s religious institution
has become "a fossil within a box within a box within a box"4—precious
remnants hidden beneath endless strata of hardened dogma. Take the
elaborate robes, for example, of mainline ministers that set them
apart from laity. Their attire comes from Reformation leaders who
desired to differ from the costumed Catholic priests. So these
reformers dressed, instead, in the business suit of their day.
My, how we mistake their intentions.
Or, take today’s independent, "popular" church.
These market-driven churches package stylish trends with negotiable
content. "Of the boomers, by the boomers, and for the boomers,"
these "faithful" end up not only "in the world," but "of the world."
Instead of "The Word becoming flesh," "The flesh becomes the
True, they rehearse clichés
that weren’t always clichés. But
their worship turned common because "We cannot possibly hope to
bottle the mystery and sell it for $99.95 with a beautiful day-glo
label and fresh alpine scent."5
So "new wine skins" aren’t enough if we don’t
have "new wine."6 Being up-to-date is not enough if we
still slumber in a vanishing age. God’s Word, after all, stands
totally autonomous . . . unconstrained by culture.
We—the church—have been shaped by the world more
than we have shaped the world. And, deprived of all culture, we
would retain little of the glory and power we now ascribe to
Why have we grown so suddenly blind?
Our story begins with the ancient Greeks,
because—if truth were known—we are more Greek than Christian! (Most
college courses, for example, trace directly to early Greek
We rekindled this love affair in earnest a few
centuries ago. The Reformation reformers, for example, fought
medieval mystery by exalting the intellect. And later Enlightenment
thinkers, like Descartes, proclaimed, "I think, therefore I am."
("My reason proves my reality.")
By then, the path was fixed toward a culture that
glorifies reason and deifies science. And that culture still
wet-nurses us today. It claims to know the world through objective,
unbiased observation—rational and reasoned. And it finds the
evidence for this world in exact methods with precise facts.
Its reason puts rigor in our rules.
These rules insist that we think in categories .
. . that we "divide to conquer." So everything breaks into neat
compartments, isolated facts, separated segments. In schools, for
example, we parcel different disciplines to different departments:
Mathematicians have little to say to theologians, physicians ignore
astronomers, and a variety of physicists don’t even speak the same
These rules also insist that we think
sequentially . . . like beads on a string. Each thought follows the
other, one at a time, on one line, leading to one goal.
Finally, these rules refuse anything
nonrational—like intuitions, poetic visions, or inspired values. Our
thoughts, in other words, remain dispassionate, detached, and
discrete. We avoid suspicions, mysteries, and the unknowable at all
cost. We tame them or shoot them with the quick triggers of
analysis, judgment, and extracted answers.
After all, "We are pure spectators."
Of course, these rules also require a matching
language—credible, logical, and well-schooled. So speech yields
information, not sensations . . . data, not emotions . . . form, not
rhythms. And we assume that the same word conveys the same reason to
Being well-schooled in the rational also means
being well-skilled in the rhetorical. Good arguments are
well-constructed with the weight of oratory, the rightness of
rhetoric, and the logic of debate.
The printed word does the same.
All other forms of communication fall suspect.
Modern leaders bear dutifully the clichés
and dead metaphors of the dictionary, but they have no tolerance for
a live metaphor with its ambiguous, enigmatic, and open-ended
origin. The modern ideal—to make its point—means discourse "emptied
and reduced to a calculus."7
Words without inspiration or sympathy.
Art, of course, is a child of this age. So it’s
no surprise we treat art as a science—a system of rules and methods
for things that have little to do with rules and methods.
Those who enjoy the arts, for example, have
little in common with those who study the arts. Art schools follow
the lead of an inner circle of intellects. And, by virtue of their
"positions," they rule the arts world and censor things against that
Since the art world mimics reason and science,
its leaders fear things unexplained or uncontrolled by reason and
science. So the only beauty they allow is a mythical—yet
well-defined—beauty, based on what they "think" is the legacy of
That legacy—ascribed to Plato—declares the mind’s
independence of the body. Accordingly, we divorce fact from feeling,
mind from emotion, and intellect from intuition. As a result, the
appreciation of beauty turns to intellectual "good taste," or
"indifferent interest." It becomes art for its own sake . . . for
its own contemplation . . . for itself! So it performs for its own
world . . . for a lifeless world . . . for a world without value
John Cage caught this silliness: "When we
separate music from life what we get is art."8
Yet, this lifeless "art" is the love of the
elite. It is their surrogate god. Picasso said, "I love art as the
only end of my life." And, in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus,
the composer Salieri says, "The God I acknowledge lives in bars 34
to 44 of Mozart’s ‘Masonic Funeral Music’."
How pathetic! What a tiny God.
But the joke is on artists like these. They take
such pains to insist there is nothing there but the work of art.
Yet, they also know that art signifying nothing might seem trivial!
So they squeeze out a "meaning beyond meaning" and get caught
describing an "inexpressible presence" or "profound depth" to things
already declared void of presence and depth.
How pathetic! What a sneaky beauty.
And some—at war with the Spirit—won’t even allow
a "sneaky beauty." These intellects remove beauty from the selfsame
theory of beauty.9 And they ban the notion of inspiration
from inspired art itself.10
Tragically, this war against the Spirit comes not
without casualties. For a love/hate relation besets art and
religion. Bringing the arts into the church was problem enough in
earlier ages where the fear of "false idols" threatened church
leaders. Today it’s different . . . but worse! We simply consider
art useless to religion. At best, it serves as mere decoration or
Respected critics of Christian art, for example,
insist the arts can never provide "meaning," nor a way of "rising
toward God."11 Their prideful callousness explains, of
course, why we seek fruitlessly for true theologies of art and
creativity. It also explains why artsy theaters, museums, and
concert halls replace churches as modern shrines.
Yet, there remains a more serious warning: A
spiritually blind culture with "useless" and "meaningless," and
thereby "harmless," art proves defenseless against the demonic.
Most of modern art and literature have merely . .
. described the malady of life, the riot of its cravings and
dissatisfactions, and so exaggerated life in the direction of decay
rather than rebirth.12
Examples are rampant. The artist, Lucio Fontana,
angrily slit his canvas with a razor and named the work, The End
of God. Concert-goers hopelessly search for a peaceful moment in
"serious" modern music. And Henry Miller wrote in Tropic of
It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for
us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last
agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance . . . a
last expiring dance.
Clearly, the modern period remains an age of "art terrorists."
Thank goodness for clear thinking and the
blessings of science. But we place too much trust in this heritage.
In the words of Carl Jung, we have become "reason-mongers." Even
modern leaders admit that "objective knowledge" is not always a
"seaworthy craft. "13 Indeed, it is not always the most
suitable vehicle of thought.
In fact, it’s often a myth! "Reason is not the
supposedly neutral medium in which human reflection takes place."
When we pose as pure spectators—without reflective memories,
emotions, insights, or sympathies—we parade a grand illusion.14
So even the nature of reason itself remains a disputed topic.15
And, dissecting the enigma and paradox of art,
mystery, and metaphor gains no mastery over their truth. Such
reasoning proves absurd, and the photographer Ansel Adams caught it:
"There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."
Our lives are not the lives of librarians with an
endless series of items filed on the proper shelves. Our
illuminations, inspirations, and raptures are not those of engineers
with their slide-rule logic. And our multilayered symbols are not
the simple designs of highway signs.
Our real world reflects the way the brain
actually works with its multitude of minglings, links, and
belief-mosaics. Our metaphors find their power on the ruins of
rationality . . . on the death of the literal sense. And our
emotions become the basis for belief . . . not the basis for
More important, God is not an idea. Let’s face
it, the basic life questions of "Mother Greece" remain unanswered
even today. For finally, changes of heart sway us, not rational
Worship survives as a living language only as it
refuses the weight of mere ideas. Worship becomes an incarnational
art only as it speaks through the body. Worship speaks to our
thirsty spirit only as it moves in the ambiguity of beauty. In
short, the nonliteral surface of worship does not lend itself to
logic, nor does it insist on categories of ideas.
If modern church leaders still prefer
by-the-numbers beliefs, they must at least consider postmodern
youth—the future church—who refuse reducing God to four points,
twelve steps, or seven habits . . . and who refuse fitting the
mystery into nice, neat, little catch phrases. Their spirituality is
not creedal or propositional. Their spirituality is experiential or
Finally, modern church leaders must at least
consider Scripture. "Paul was an improviser, but we read him as a
theologian. Paul rejected the conventions of the sophists, those
itinerant, professional orators-lawyers-educators of his day, but we
somehow read him as instituting ordination, preaching and
(Greek-styled) church services."16
Paul’s "treasures of wisdom," were neither
"intelligence," "a critical faculty," nor "understanding."17
For the Kingdom of God, he said, stands on "power"—"not talk." So he
gave his message without "lofty words of eloquence or human
philosophy and wisdom." He did not stoop to mere "enticing and
In fact, Paul said, "Reason without the Holy
Spirit . . . is death."19
Have we dug our own grave?
Modern religion has reduced God to workable ideas
. . . and mysteries to convenient categories. As a result, worship
and rhetorical sermons are one and the same. And we surely assume
our most recent snapshot of God’s Truth is the final and total
Of course, there’s no room for the Holy Spirit in
this picture. So we turn revelation truth into static dogma . . .
intuitive feelings into legal reasonings . . . and embryonic images
into codified canons. Then the managers of the sacred submit their
trainee mutes to an ordained spiritual amnesia.
We mistakenly assume that seminary degrees bear
proof of renewed spirits. Not so. Intellectual pride strides the
halls of sacred schools as well as secular schools. Sin is sin.
These prideful scholars often spend their lives "correcting
grammatical errors in love letters."20 And their cold
corrections become the propaganda of aspiring priests in a worldly
theocracy . . . interpreters bickering with interpreters . . . texts
contradicting texts . . .
. . . in a long and dreary intellectual history.
Today, no theologian enjoys a privileged
position. No theological tradition—neither conservative nor
In this passing world, the conservative church
still makes doctrine our foundation. Doctrine is the medium, and
"the medium is the message." Of course, Scripture is important
because it is the source of our medium. And this source is totally
true because it is "literally true." The inspired Word of God,
recorded miracles, and fulfilled prophecies remove all doubt.
Their scholars are certain of these things
because of logic and science. God is revealed through intelligible
ideas and words that point to those ideas. They parse the facts,
then pose the propositions. And—though they endlessly disagree with
science—their theology remains a science . . . because tangible
senses must affirm the facts.
It’s an "outside-in" knowing where outer facts
determine inner realities.22
Unfortunately—or rather, fortunately!—spiritual
reality does not reflect the world of logic and science. "The very
limited knowledge we can have of God is not a part of the sphere of
pure reason."23 Scripture, for example, speaks only for
itself. Its Truth does not lend itself to skilled debate. Its
meaning does not bow to precise definitions.
We need, instead, an inner witness. We need a
confirmed Truth from within, not from without. We can’t "know" the
power of God through some mediated, secondhand report. There’s no
deep conversion there.
Where is the personal proof?
Good scholarship in Scripture is a wonderful
thing. But when Scriptural truth surrenders to the "higher" goal of
"doing" doctrine, our inspiration turns into a fragmented—even
sloppy—collection of proposed facts. Then, the very foundation of
our knowing—reason and science!—collapses from lack of integrity.
The result, poor scholarship.
For many, the classics of conservative books, for
example, go back no further than the 1950s. Some have even convinced
themselves that every important spiritual event happened within the
past century and every important book—except the Bible—was written
in their lifetime.24
Then, incapable of critiquing their own biases,
they become suspicious and defensive, counting those who are "with
us" and those who are "against us." Finally, they become, "Holy
Office types with twitching nostrils who can sniff out heresy at a
Perhaps we could endure so much wrong thinking if
the world still accepted our "proof" . . . still spoke our language.
But it doesn’t!
The liberal church claims no greater victory.
Here, we remove ourselves even further from Scripture. Not only does
doctrine supersede Scripture, experience even supersedes doctrine.
Experience is the medium, and again, "the medium is the message."
The liberal "experience" arises from the natural
world. Though involving the "inner self," this religion becomes,
instead, the "idea" of experience . . . the "philosophy" of
experience. It is not the mystical experience of the biblical
Hebrews. It is an abstract experience.
This theology converts the "outside-in" world of
the conservatives to an "inside-out" world. Here, our reasoning
minds analyze experience, then we describe the outer world from that
inner opinion. So religion becomes an experiential psychology that
supposedly applies to every era and every culture.
This religion mimics the philosophy of aesthetics
or the ideology of beauty. It examines natural beauty, for example,
then expresses it in religious language. Long ago, its anointed
voice became a natural voice. Its inspiration became an invention.
And its metaphors turned literal.
Unlike the conservatives, liberals find no
conflict with science, because they speak with mythical symbols, not
objective facts. And—if and when God acts—He acts through natural
means. Of course, this means we never know whether God is acting or
not, for every event is equal, including calamities. So there are no
miracles . . . no divine inspirations . . . no prophetic metaphors.
And we easily predict the results: Scripture, in
essence, becomes superfluous. And, truth, indeed, turns relative.
Literate liberals, for example, ask the same question Pilate asked
Jesus, "What is truth?" The world has always known that Pilate was
morally bankrupt, yet this question gives stature to the liberals of
Yes! Experience is the witness of our faith.
There can be no other way. But we must discern the difference
between those experiences that relate to God and those that relate
to the world. Otherwise, experience claims no value for the
rendering of Scripture or the basis of theology.
In this cheap faith, we must rely on something.
So we downplay the difference between Church and world and lift up
our vision of progress and perfectability . . . a self-created and
We have met the "Truth." And We are
Bad blood creates bizarre bedfellows. Though
liberals and conservatives angrily dismiss each other, they share
the same agenda. Both reduce God to manageable proportions. Both
claim credibility through reason and science.
The same professional "experts" . . . the same
elderly white males . . . the same stained-glass ceilings run these
two traditions. These elite leaders are the only ones that "get it,"
and they decide truth and reality with invincible certainty.
Though they preach "the priesthood of all
believers," they believe only in their priesthood.
Strangely claiming to "protect grace," the
professionals of both groups too often preach a blend of debate and
legalism. To accept their message is to accept culture. To accept
culture is to accept their message. But, of course, it is a Greek
culture . . . and, often, a Greek message.26
Finally, both liberals and conservatives deny the
mystery, the transcendent, the supernatural in human affairs. Both
have discovered something "more important."
The great historical gap is no longer between
liberals and conservatives. The gap is between all of them and the
rest of the world. In fact, spiritual awareness among the
"unchurched" sounds more in tune with the future than any modern
If truth were known, a Christian futurist is an
In short, the public is not buying our message.
We simply do not command the allegiance we once enjoyed. So both
liberals and conservatives are "in dramatic retreat."27
In the words of Robert Webber, we are living in a "post-Christian
culture." In fact, the only churches that are growing are those that
have left the "system." (Some for the right reasons, some for the
In this new reality, we can’t dig in our heels
and defend ourselves. We can’t outlive a time that has already
passed us by. We can’t go on describing who God was—merely managing
"the residue of the mystery."28 Nor can we simply
"improve" ourselves, tinkering and tweaking our modern ways in a
postmodern world. None of these will work.
A new world calls. The dialogue is no longer
between man and man. It’s between God and man.
My hope is that there will be a
convergence of ‘post-liberals’ and ‘post-conservatives’ who
stop defining themselves around arguments of the 16th - 19th
centuries, and start listening to the questions of the 20th
and 21st centuries.29
© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt
1. Mary C. Grey, Prophecy and Mysticism: The
Heart of the Postmodern Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997) p
2. Romans 12:1, 2; The Message Bible.
3. A comment by Professor Jaroslav Pelikan of
4. William Irwin Thompson, The Time Falling
Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of
Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981) p. 210.
5. Mark Riddell, Mark Pierson, Cathy Kirkpatrick,
The Prodigal Project: Journey Into the Emerging Church (London:
Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000) p. 135.
6. Mark 2:22.
7. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of
Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p. 428.
8. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action:
Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980) p. 55.
9. Wolterstorff, pp. 162-163.
10. Ingo Swann, "Unbinding Prometheus," The
American Theosophist, May 1982, Vol. 70, No. 5, pp. 132-136.
11. Wolterstorff, pp. 193-196.
12. Arianna Stassinopoulos, After Reason,
(New York: Stein and Day, 1978) p. l96.
13. Thompson, p. 87.
14. Hahn, p. 425.
15. Stanley J. Grenz, John R. Franke, Beyond
Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context
(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 47.
16. Mark Strom, editorial comments on his book,
Reframing Paul, at Amazon.com. (My parentheses).
17. W. E. Vine, A Comprehensive Dictionary of
the Original Greek Words with their precise Meanings for English
Readers (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1989) p. l244.
18. I Thessalonians 2:13; Colossians 2:3; I
Corinthians 4:20, 2:1, 4; AMP.
19. Romans 8:6, AMP.
20. Leonard Sweet, "SoulTsunami: Sink or Swim in
New Millennium Culture" (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1999) p. 132.
21. Grenz and Franke, p. 16.
22. Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism &
Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the
Theological Agenda (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press,
1996) pp. 2, 28, 35.
23. Immanuel Kant, quoted in Grenz and Franke, p.
24. Grenz and Franke, pp. 110,111.
25. Paul L. Maier, in A Skeleton in God’s
26. Mark Strom, Reframing Paul: Conversations
in Grace and Community (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,
2000) pp. 187, 196, 197, 209, 210.
27. Grenz and Franke, p. 24.
28. LaMar Boschman, Future Worship
(Ventura, California: Renew Books, 1999) p. 86.
29. Brian McLaren in an online interview. (Internet page