Monday, July 13, 2015

Is there a Rational Christianity Still Out There . . . Somewhere?

I feel that I live in a world where you can only be a Post-Modern, mystical Christian or not one at all. I realize that the mainstream of secular society has now moved past Post-Modernism into an ill-defined Post-Post Modernism.  However, throughout history, the Church, unfortunately lags behind the mainstream by at least 50 years.

My church is having a class right now on Soren Kierkegaard. The good news is that they are having the class. Few churches would have the insight that the man is worth the time to study . . . and he is. The bad news, I think as it has only met for one week, is that he will be framed as a hero.  Speaking of heroes, my personal one, Francis Schaeffer, saw Kierkegaard as a little less than the philosophical devil.  I can still hear Dr. Schaeffer's voice echoing in my head about the "Kierkegaardian, existentialist leap."  I do believe that Soren was the first step of the Church on the path that eventually led it to mirror what was happening in the post-rationalist in secular society.

Here is how I frame the problem and as always my time is limited.  My hyperactive Saint Bernard (the dog not the man) is in an open top Jeep that I'm watching from across the street at Starbucks. It would only take one poodle to get him to spring out the top and terrorize that town like Cujo.  So I'm sure I will have little (or big) typos that I will not have time to fix.

Western civilization has been defined by Plato and Aristotle. We have been riding on a pendulum, back and forth, for 2500 years.  So we are in a market where there are only two brands of milk. We have the dualism that states this material world is insignificant (from Plato). That is the breeding ground for mysticism because if this world is crap, then all you have is mysticism.  On the other side you have the rationalism of Aristotle.  The Dark Ages were a 1,000 year love affair between the Church and Plato. The enlightenment was a much shorter courtship between western society (the French mostly) and Aristotle.  

Aristotelian rationalism failed (gradually throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). So, because it had no where else to go, the pendulum flew back to transcendent mysticism. Kierkegaard gave the pendulum its first push.

My argument is that Biblical Christianity is neither of the above. It is time that we mature past the Greeks for our metaphysical foundations.  Aristotelian rationalism (if your read his works) was based in empiricism + logic. Empiricism, by definition, limits truth to the material and what our senses can tell us about the material. If the senses can't perceive it, it is not real.  This is the great tension and why most Church thinking has been dominated by Platonism.

Let's take Christianity at face value and try to shed our Greek presuppositions. Imagine that God was there and he was real.  He didn't exist in an inferior place (as Aristotle would see Him) or a superior place (as Plato would see Him) but in the reality of that which is there, both the seen and unseen.  Since God is the author of our rational brains (as an organ) and reason itself (as an abstract mathematical construct) then we could embrace it fully. However, we would not put the limits of Aristotle on our reason that it has to obey the rules of our senses.  That is a true Christianity. But now what we have is this terrible place were to be spiritual we must be mystical and irrational. 

There is tremendous mystery in the universe and there, in that place, is a form of true mysticism. It is not a shapeless mysticism (being defined by our psychological minds for our own benefit) but is has definite boundaries. We just can see those boundaries with our material eyes. Metaphysically I'm talking about things like dark matter and dark energy. But it is far beyond that to things like the mind-boggling size of the universe and then it goes on to ideas such as how God can be the way He is.  He loves us each, knows us well and yet we dwell in a space were we are less than the size of an atom. That is mystery, that is a form of real mysticism. But in this more Biblical way of thinking, truth comes through learning, reading, studying, our senses and our reason. It does not come from rolling your eyes in the back of your head and drifting off into nothingness.

I cannot have a conversation with a modern Christian without them quickly combining psychological magic with Christian spirituality.  They say things like "God spoke to me this morning to do such and such."  Really?  Was it an audible voice?  Was it a feeling?  Does objective truth come though feeling?  I've met many people whose emotions have told them all kinds of lies. Virtually all of this subjective "truth,"  if you deconstruct it, is always narcissistic.  "God spoke to me this morning and told me how wonderful I am and how I'm better than everyone who is different from me.


Nestus Venter said...

I hope there is still rational Christianity out there, but I am afraid I am not really hearing their voices. With the Scotus ruling, every person with a voice came out and voiced an opinion. Most were terrible. None talked about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Our focus seems to be everywhere except on The One Who gives life. As an introvert, all the blabbering is really getting to me.

I think we miss that fact that Jesus was real. He came and set an example as a servant. Everything that happened flowed from a Man who was rooted in everydayness. We miss that. We want the wondrous experiences, but we are not rooted as servants. We are all Plato.

I honestly do not see things getting better soon. Christians at the moment feel like they are targeted which makes them desperate, paranoid and losing focus. They want a supernatural mythical salvation experience from the current conditions, missing the Real right in front of them.

Trevor Morgan said...

Have you heard of 'Science Mike' ( ?

I heard him speak on Friday night at Wild Goose Festival - he seems to be approaching Christianity from a very rationalist perspective, which was absolutely fascinating to hear about. I don't often get to hear awesome music mixed with meditations about God, doubt, and cosmic microwave background radiation.

Coincidentally, Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis, was also one of the speakers at the festival.

j. Michael Jones said...

I always think of I Kings 19:18 about the thousands that have not yet bowed to Baal. I just can't seem to find them. I don't know what the Wild Goose Festival is but it sounds interesting. Yeah, I still respect Frank although I keep hearing how he has gone over to the dark side.

NOTAL said...

Perhaps people like Francis Schaeffer unfairly set up postmodernism as antithetical to Christianity. To quote a comment I read elsewhere on the web that I found very illuminating:

"Christianity should react to a post-modern society by recognizing that Christianity has been a post-modern philosophy all along, struggling to exist in a modern and pre-modern world. The Christian narrative of a God who loved the world, then fully contextualized himself, constantly deconstructed every attempt at pigeon-holing and broke apart every preconception is as post-modern a story as you can have. A god who constantly refuses to use his power to destroy opposition, and instead comes in weakness, is a God who defeats accusations of power and authority, who instead shows himself worthy to be praised through his character of love.
I am not in any way saying this tongue in cheek - Christianity is postmodern, Christianity is what post-modernity is searching for, it is where their insights can/should take them/us."

j. Michael Jones said...

I think it depends how you define "Post Modernism." In the simplest of terms I would define it as the loss of universals. Truth is now "local." Within that framework you couldn't call Christianity Post Modern (in its essence) because it is all about universals. The problem with the empiricist (modernity) is that they only considered universals that could be measured by human senses and thus had no choice but to finally exclude God in the end.

Dana said...

Well, postmodern thought started as post WWII literary analysis, and was not concerned with making truth relative. Deconstruction was employed as a tool to get behind agendas and reveal whatever truth there was at the bottom of any piece of writing, including the motivations of the author.

Modernity has been fixated on what could be measured by human senses, that's true. As much as Schaeffer helped me, I think his focus on "universals" was mistaken, but understandable.

Christianity isn't about "universals" - it's about Jesus Christ the incarnate God/man, his life, death, resurrection, ascension to the right hand of the Father, and the sending of his Spirit to indwell us - and all that means with regard to our own life and death. It's not "conceptual" except that we have to employ words to talk about it; it's a matter of existence.

Putting in another plug for Fr Stephen Freeman's blog - or maybe you can listen to his podcasts on your way to work, as they're only about 10-12 min long.

Best to you, Michael-

j. Michael Jones said...

I do think that literary deconstruction was a part of post-modernism. Like many movements it started with noble goals and helped to lead many of us to truth. I constantly use such techniques or thoughts when I evaluate my own words or thoughts and those of others as I look for their real psychological intent.

However, like virtually all human thoughts, eventually it goes too far. Eventually it leads to a place that you must assume that every word out of the mouth of a man is intended on oppressing and hurting women, every word from the mouth of a white man has the intention of manipulating and controlling the person of color and so on.

It may be a matter of definition but from my prospective, the essence of Christianity are the universals. If God is there, and I think He is, He is the same God for me as you, the same God for the Muslim, the Atheist . . . the same God of 4,000 years ago as well as place . . . on Pluto. That the truth of God, while seen by people with different cultural eyes, is the same.

If you read Heidegger, one of the key philosophical architects of post-modernism, you will see him stepping away from reason, (where you seek a universal truth by discovery), but feeling truth through being . . . however you define that. You will see that Kierkegaard had a powerful influence on him.

The emotions are, in my opinion, a poor source for knowing truth because our emotional selves are not trustworthy for knowing truth. Christians simply relabel the emotions as "spiritual" means that they can escape any deconstruction of their "truth." The way they package it, to doubt them (and what God "said to them" in their secret palaces) is to doubt God. A universal truth stands independently from our emotional perceptions or ill-intent to manipulate language for our personal gain.

Dana said...

I guess it gets down to definitions. To me, "universals" means much the same as abstractions, as in a Systematic Theology list. I don't think Christianity is about abstractions. If by "universals" you mean things that are always and everywhere true, then yes, Christian thought does depend on knowing what these things are. But what if someone were mentally incapacitated and could have no understanding of "universals"? How would that person be able to be meaningfully called "a Christian?"

When I say Christianity depends on Christ, I'm not saying that rationality is unimportant, or that emotionalism is what matters. I didn't write that, and I don't think that. I know you don't have a lot of time and may read quickly through comments, but considering all that I have written here, I'm surprised you could read that into what I wrote; though in the scope of a blog comment there may not be enough space to insert all applicable definitions, and maybe I have too high an opinion of myself to think you would remember all I wrote...

I'm as irritated as you are with people who "relabel emotions as 'spiritual'" to escape deconstruction of their truth, or to manipulate people. That's one of the reasons I had to exit non-liturgical Western forms of Christianity.

All I'm saying is that whatever Christianity is, it must have Jesus at its center, not any kind of philosophy, even Christian philosophy. However, one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time was St Athanasius; have you read his "On the Incarnation"? Would be a good place to start. But you have to read him on his own terms, with an open mind, and realize that when he speaks about the "mind" or "intellect" he is not referring to the brain or what happens in it; he means the faculty humans have that makes us able to perceive God (and emotionalism is not a part of that - it wasn't really part of the apparatus of Christian thought in the 4th century). He does prize rationality as the ability to employ our thoughts logically, and be self-aware, as what differentiates humans from animals. With those understandings about his vocabulary in mind, it's pretty approachable for an intelligent reader, which you certainly are. He sets out to describe why Jesus had to be crucified. Spoiler: penal substitutionary atonement is not to be found in this book.