Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Both And, And/Or, Either Or Again

I recently heard a good presentation about the need for Christians to be more actively and obviously led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, for the presence of God to characterize individual Christians and the body of Christ more explicitly. To this presentation, I give a hardy “Amen!” I would like to offer three responses. One is a general idea that formulated as I reflected upon the presentation, another is a response to the presentation itself and the third is a statement about distinguishing between times when as “both and” approach is appropriate and times when an “either or” approach is appropriate.

Having an increased sensitivity to the way cultural ideologies can replace Biblical thinking, my studies have revealed that, what we refer to as, postmodernity is, in great measure, a response to the failures of modernity. I do not intend to expound upon that thought at this point but refer to it in order to say that there is a similar “movement” within the boundaries of the church. Often, one generation of believers will choose a path that is, in some measure, a response to the failings of shortcomings of the previous generation. This is understandable but we must realize that such a response does not automatically result in improvements upon the failings and shortcomings of the previous generation. With that said, I would like to state a concern about the tendency within a portion of the younger generation of professing Christians. A longstanding emphasis on truth and doctrine is being questioned in a way that is likely a “swing of the pendulum” toward another unhealthy extreme to which some future generation will find reason to respond. As a religious postmodern, relativistic, nihilistic, existentialism seeps through the walls of the church, there is a tendency to ride the pendulum in the direction of subjective experience. Surely, there is nothing wrong with subjective experience – unless it is disconnected from objective truth and reality. Imagine a group of bakers in a kitchen with all of the ingredients needed to bake a wonderful cake. One baker wants to pour all of the milk down the drain, one wants to use only flour and butter, one wants to triple the amount of sugar called for, another wants someone else to tell them what to do, while another simply watches cooking shows on TV. What does it take to bake a good cake? All of the ingredients blended in proper proportion and baked for the appropriate amount of time. It seems like the church has never gotten the cake in the oven because we continue, generation after generation, struggling with the ingredients.

This brings me to an observation about the presentation referred to earlier. As the speaker went through a list, comparing things such as wisdom and revelation, consistency and balance, anointing and skill, theology/doctrine and power, etc., he cautioned about emphasizing one over the other. Due to the obvious fact that he saw a tendency in the church to lean, for example, toward theology/doctrine (though this is likely not an impressive feature of many individual Christians), he emphasized the need for power. Though I cannot indict the speaker of this error, it seems as though even an attempt to caution people about overemphasis can result in an overemphasis. A “yea, he’s right, we’ve made too much of doctrine” response that discards doctrine as unimportant and launches upon a pursuit for power. I once told someone that it's possible to have an imbalanced emphasis on the need for balance.

When it comes to the issues referred to in the previous paragraph, we are to find the appropriate “both and” blend. When we get into discussions about foundational ideologies, we enter upon “either or” territory. There is either absolute truth or there is not. Either there is a God or there is not. Either pragmatism is a sufficient basis upon which to approach life or it is not. Distinguishing between the need for an “either or” approach and a “both and” approach is more important than we might realize. Finally, let me point out one further distinction that should be useful. There is a difference between embracing pragmatism as a building block for one’s foundation and being pragmatic within one’s structure. For example, pure pragmatism would say, “if it works, it is good”. The measure of right and wrong hinges upon whether it accomplishes one’s goals. If lying, killing, cheating advances one’s purposes, pragmatism approves. On the other hand, operating upon a foundation constructed of a Biblical perspective, our measure of right and wrong are based upon God’s communication to us. Upon the parameters of this foundation, we hope to be pragmatic in our effort to be fruitful. It is often said, “every religion/philosophy/ideology/worldview has some amount of truth in it” (if you believe in truth). There might be shards of truth here and there but the question is one of what serves as a proper foundation. A wall, a window, a ceiling are all useful parts of a house but none of them serve as a proper foundation. In addition, if a sufficient foundation is not in place, the walls, windows and ceilings cannot serve their intended function.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Modernity and Post Modernity or The Many Faces of Humanism

While preparing a sermon, I had the following thought come to mind. “It is our task to put things in their proper place. This excludes worshiping them unless that is their proper place. Worship is, therefore, reserved for God alone. To worship other things is to improperly perceive their value and, consequently, pervert their worth and usage.”

Having spent some time considering how cultures are shaped by ideas, I’ve been interested in understanding the foundational character of a “modern age” and a “postmodern age”. A central factor in shaping the distinctive character of the mindset associated with each of these ages is the way we approach issue of reason.

Often, the issue we are dealing with is that of imbalance. We then produce increased difficulties when we have a reactionary response to the imbalance, as opposed to making necessary (often simple) adjustments or corrections. Characteristic of the “modern age” was the recognition of human ability to reason, to engage in meaningful, rational deliberations. I would agree that this ability is one that must be acknowledged and appreciated. The proper place for such ability is in subordination to the God whose mind such ability reflects. Embracing and maintaining the reality that God and His reasoning capacities are supreme protects us from a dangerous misuse and imbalance when it comes to human reason. Unfortunately, it also became characteristic of the “modern age” that human reason was disconnected from its relationship to God. As this happened, reason became a type of god and savior, a role and function it is unable to perform. This is a central tenet of humanism. If I were to attempt to fly a car, I would have a serious problem at the end of the runway. It would be wrong for me to declare that cars are bad and useless. Attempting to use a car to fulfill a role and function it was not capable of fulfilling produces bad results. Getting rid of cars is not the answer. The age we refer to as “postmodern” is, in a significant way, a reaction to the failures of the claims and expectations that the “modern age” placed upon reason. When human reason did not produce world peace and solutions for all of life’s woes, doubt about the legitimacy of human reason began to grow. This was not the adjustment or correction that was needed. Along with this, because reason is a faculty design to deal with truth, doubts about truth and absolutes were fostered. This, as well, was not the solution needed. However, this is the grain of sand around which postmodernity has been formed. In the case of both modernity and postmodernity, it is not all of the ingredients that are bad. Imagine making a soup in which you added turpentine. Good ingredients can be overpowered by certain wrong additions. Modernity had a wrong expectation of human reason (human reason, itself, being a good ingredient) and postmodernity has had a wrong reaction to the failures of human reason. In attempting to abandon reason, postmodernity has turned to experience. The abandonment of reason is a wrong response that will be counterproductive (and impossible as they often use reason to defend this approach) and the expectations placed upon experience will prove to be comparable to modernity’s expectations of reason. The solution to all of these errors is to put reason (and experience) in its proper place and use it for its proper purpose.

In conclusion, in an effort to keep this entry short, I will state that human reason must be placed in a subordinate relationship to God’s reason and must be used, under the guidance of God, to study His revelation to us.