IT’S TOO LATE
We live in an extraordinary time. Future
historians will split this era into "before" and "after." Our
"endings" and "beginnings" used to be incremental, now they’re
exponential. And in their headlong rush, history forces goodbyes to
all the things already gone by.
Nothing has "gone by" more than the clash between
Christian "conservatives" and "liberals." The current news regarding
their cultural war is irrelevant—one of the illusions of our time.
And here is why:
Though each group fervently believes the other
has "missed it"—though each group believes they are history’s
"chosen ones"—though each group plots the destruction of the other
("in the name of love and compassion," of course), both groups have
been firmly rejected by the postmodern world.
The unchurched masses, for example, are not
impressed by "hypocrisy in religious poses." They are not moved by
"money and power in pious garbs." And they are not affected by
"empty pieties within worn-out traditions." Their disinterest has
turned menacingly toward even a dislike of the church. The more
rebellious ones, for example, insist that "faith in God is not only
out of date, but (even) dangerous."1
No wonder Christianity is now called a
"subculture."2 No wonder it looks more and more like an
old "pink Cadillac with huge tail fins."3 And, no wonder
rock groups sing, "Theologians don’t know nothing about my soul."4
And the upshot of these disaffections? . . .
We live in an age of theological anarchy—a
virtual vacuum of any truth.
"The Emperor Wears No Clothes"
Certainly, both conservatives and liberals
rightly celebrate their previous destinies. Liberals, for example,
expanded civilization with universal rights in opposition to
slavery, democracy in rejection of monarchy, freedom of the
individual in place of herd mentality, and investigative science in
resistance to superstition.
Surely, we are grateful!
Yet, the harm liberals have done now outweighs
the good. For finally, they have reduced life—not expanded it. Their
doctrinal formulas, restricted definitions, rigged rhetoric, and
narrow science demand claim to "all truth." Yet, even their most
"profound" revelations remain "in-house"—mere agreements among
So, in their world of pigeonholed priorities,
narrow analysis proceeds from the narrow analyst. In their world of
fragmented expertise, "people in similar but specialized fields . .
. find it hard to communicate."5 And, in their Tower of
Babel disciplines, truth gets shattered into countless
pieces—partial truths, narrow truths, shallow truths—seldom
It’s no surprise, then, these modern sages also
restrict themselves more to "thinking" than "doing"—inaction than
action, contemplation than improvisation, teaching than modeling,
labeling than experiencing. . . .
Yet, their "thinking" remains law! Their
politically correct "thought-police" allow only "acceptable"
worldviews and disallow "unacceptable" worldviews. Though liberals
profess "freedom for all," their coldly closed ideas and harsh
intolerance demand the very conventions that rob others of their
It is impossible, this much is clear, to
exaggerate the heroic self-inflation of academic literary
and cultural criticism.6
Of course, the church hasn’t escaped their
criticism. The modern world—with its philosophy of liberalism—came
into existence as an "anti-religion" movement. The "Enlightenment,"
we should remember, stood brutally against all nonrational—even
transrational—claims. Again, "One enormously precious baby was
tossed with tons of unpleasant bathwater."7
Ever since, liberals have remained suspicious of
"transrational" (beyond-the-logic-of-the-mind) religion. Many, in
fact, reject any religion. As a result, much of the liberal movement
abandoned its interior life—its transrational or spiritual life—to
the conservatives. Liberal churches, of course, sincerely embrace
their own gospel. Yet, that gospel often reduces "the huge mysteries
of God to the respectability of club rules."8
Assuming that God is bigger than we say He
is—that His manifest power and presence are more than myth—that our
own leading role with the Lord of History is more than poetry—then
the liberal attack on conservatives seems pathological, even
suicidal. For the more they succeed in destroying the conservatives,
the more they destroy themselves.
Yes, liberals are still in charge of our schools
and our liberal politics, and they remain the planet’s dominant
force (though relatively few in number). But their game is up.
History has rejected liberalism. The world now challenges its . . .
. . . internal self-contradictions, its
failed political agenda, the harsh intolerance of the
politically correct thought-police, its claim to be superior
in a world where nothing is supposed to be superior . . .
(In short, liberalism has) spectacularly failed the test.9
Like the old fairy tale, this emperor "wears no
A Box Within a Box Within a Box
What about conservatives? After all, 70 percent
of the world’s population is conservative.10 And, in a
way, that’s good. When liberals abandoned "interior" faith in
preference for "exterior" facts—when they turned away from
"vertical" dialogue to "horizontal" debate—somebody had to protect
society from the anarchy of the mind.
This protection, this preservation, has always
proven the "backbone" of society—the substructure, the cohesion, the
unifying factor. It represents, after all, our collective memory,
the history of our experience, the proven benefits of our knowing,
the "time capsule" of our glory.
It has always been the "destiny" of the
Yet—like liberalism—we’ve been harmed by this
great tradition. All the protection and preservation in the world
can’t make up for the misuse of tradition. Conservatism easily sets
up a chain of events where we gradually credit the power of God to
doctrine itself. In other words, we slowly imprison ourselves within
our own realities.
No doctrine escapes the soiled hands of man’s
interpretation. So questionable doctrines are always backed up by
questionable decrees. And questionable decrees are always propped up
by "grim and meaningless" clichés:11
The uncritical use of tradition . . . is
essentially an archaic or dogmatic traditionalism that is
determined simply by rigid formulas and ingroup prejudices.12
Still, doctrine—good or bad—"must be protected."
So, we must fortify it against all threats. And those threats
include any revelation larger than our understanding of it—any
creativity cut loose from "acceptable" moorings—and any prophetic
voice challenging existing "realities."
Such "protection," of course, creates closed
minds. And closed minds invite ignorance.
Ignorance, then, easily opens to the manipulation
of others: Prepackaged evangelism with cookie-cutter salvations win
more souls by man than by God’s Spirit. Of course, the goal is
quantity, not quality. And these souls are won more by fear than by
joy, more by sin than by grace. Manipulating clergy are, in reality,
life insurance salesmen, promoting their benefits package.
Conservatives, with their uncritical traditions,
have missed both the intentions of the first century and the
interests of the twenty-first century. Hidebound, doctrinal rulers
can’t hear as deeply as God speaks. They can’t move as quickly as
God moves. And they can’t repent as rapidly as God demands.
The credibility of the conservative church has
been lost somewhere in a box within a box within a box. . . .
Am I being unfair to either conservatives or
liberals? Have I overstated the case? Should I even apologize?
After all, everyone reports revelation in his or
her own way. And, whatever the revelation, it reveals a portion of
truth—and that truth should be honored. Further, there will always
be conservatives and liberals. More important, they will always
"perform crucial functions . . . they are the necessary foundation
stones for further development."13
Yet, something is wrong.
Current history refuses both traditions.
Conservatism and liberalism may be the "foundation stones," but they
are not the "further development." The tools that achieved results
in our era are not attaining results in the next era. The "progress"
and "improvements" of modern culture have not found a path into
In rare moments, history outstrips our
understanding, and the past becomes almost useless as a compass for
the future. Today, for example, we confront "a pervasive and often
painful uncertainty about how hearing God’s voice actually works."14
So, in this vacuum of paradigms we invent
paradigms—postmodernism, the "cultural creatives," "evolutionary
psychology," and on and on—all of which have failed in their vision
for our time. Of course, "newly awakened" emerging leaders usually
choose postmodernism for their "poster boy." But the narcissism of
postmodernists—"You do your thing, I’ll do mine"—has proven a great
destroyer of Truth. Truth, after all, places an unwelcome demand on
them, so they must strenuously "deconstruct" it.
And don’t forget, "Nobody tells us what to do."
A Compromised "Legitimacy"
Yet, in humility, what should we do?
We should begin by seeing the "big picture." If
we can see where we are and see its risks, we’ve already solved most
of our problems.
Seeing the "big picture" includes seeing this:
"Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the
form spirituality takes in civilization."15 In other
words, "The chief role of religion is that of legitimating the
socially constructed world."16 And, in the end, we always
compromise that "legitimacy."
Here’s an example:
Most would say a successful culture simply needs
more love and compassion. But lots of "love and compassion" was the
very problem of the Nazis. The Nazis loved their God, their
families, their race, their culture. Yet, their "love" led to
unbelievable death and destruction. Need we be reminded that
"religion" has waged more war than any other pretense in history?
So we must finally recognize the fallibility of
every tradition. We must finally recognize that man’s truth is only
partial truth. And, yes, each must recognize his or her own
fallibility, as well. Few Christians, for example, can consistently
discern the difference between "flesh" and "spirit." For the
fantasies of our religion
make (us) feel good because they are in
harmony with (our) opinions, prejudices, and unconscious
assumptions about the nature of reality.17
Again, I call on emerging church leaders to avoid
using tricks, formulas, and gimmickry—to avoid mimicking the
distortions and inventions of culture—to avoid confusing
intellectual sophistication or the hierarchical positions of power
and prestige with mature spirituality. . . .
. . . for the thin crust of our reality is too
weak to support the status quo.
Of course, emerging leaders also need a good dose
of humility. Both conservatives and liberals need to reconsider the
notion that their doctrines, rituals, symbols, styles, ideas, or
philosophies are the only mediators to God’s Presence. And, both
conservatives and liberals need to relax their grip on narrow and
Like Ezekiel, who was driven into exile, yet knew
God’s presence in a strange land, emerging church leaders have also
become a religious remnant and must seek God’s presence in an
equally "strange land." And, like Ezekiel’s followers, who later
returned from exile, yet knew no identity as a national cult, we,
too, must create new communities that transcend their identity with
After all, we’re being reintroduced to God.
© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt
1. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., "The End of
Faith—Secularism with the Gloves Off,"
2. Mark Driscoll, quoted in Sarah Means,
"Postmodern church targets Generation X in Seattle,"
Thunderstruck, August 12, 1998
3. Leonard Sweet, Post-modern Pilgrims: First
Century Passion for the 21st Century World (Nashville, TN:
Broadman & Holman: 2000) p.2.
4. Dick Staub, "Theologians Don’t Know Nothing,"
Culture Watch, September 3, 2004
5. Joseph D’Agnese, "Scientific Method Man"
WIRED 09/2004 pp.112-121.
6. Frank Lentricchia, quoted in Ken Wilber, A
Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics,
Science, and Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala, 2000) p. 4.
7. Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything: An
Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality
(Boston: Shambhala, 2000) p. 81, 82.
8. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message//Remix: The
Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress,
2003) p. 1860.
9. Wilber, pp. 79, 80, 124, 125.
10. Wilber, p. 134.
11. C. S. Lewis, quoted in "The ‘Authentic’ C. S.
Lewis" Culturewatch, May 28, 2004
12. Thomas C. Oden, Systematic Theology: The
Living God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 338.
13. Wilber, p. 118.
14. Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a
Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, Illinois:
InterVarsity Press, 1999) p. 25.
15. 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. 103.
16. Grenz and Franke, Beyond Foundationalism:
Shaping Theology In A Postmodern Context (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 76.
17. Thompson, p. 92.