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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:

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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 unconscious.

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 pagan cult.

"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 a difference!

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 ‘Word’."

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 ourselves.

Why have we grown so suddenly blind?

Enlightened Thinkers

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 culture.)

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 language.

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 every person.

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.

Greek Beauty

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 world.

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 Greece.

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 outside itself!

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 mood manipulation.

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 Cancer:

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."

Grand Illusions

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 unbelief.

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 arguments alone.

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 relational.

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 plausible words."18

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 picture.

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.

The Conservatives

Today, no theologian enjoys a privileged position. No theological tradition—neither conservative nor liberal—leads society.21

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 hundred kilometers."25

Perhaps we could endure so much wrong thinking if the world still accepted our "proof" . . . still spoke our language. But it doesn’t!

The Liberals

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 today.

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 self-sufficient humanity.

We have met the "Truth." And We are the "Truth."

Bizarre Bedfellows

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."

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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 theology.

If truth were known, a Christian futurist is an oxymoron.

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 wrong reasons.)

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

ENDNOTES

1. Mary C. Grey, Prophecy and Mysticism: The Heart of the Postmodern Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997) p 29.

2. Romans 12:1, 2; The Message Bible.

3. A comment by Professor Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University.

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. 65.

24. Grenz and Franke, pp. 110,111.

25. Paul L. Maier, in A Skeleton in God’s Closet.

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 now missing.)




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