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.


Caleb Wilde said...
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Caleb Wilde said...

You wrote, "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."

I think that's a good assessment, and I would like to add some clarification from my reading and personal interaction with some of the Christian postmoderns/emerging/missional believers.

I don't think Christian postmoderns flatly deny truth or even absolute truth (ex. John Franke, Rob Bell, Clark Pinnock, Donald Miller, et al), but they say that our assumptions, influences, culture, etc. influence our understanding of Truth (with a capital T, or absolute Truth) to such an degree that all claimed Truth by men is actually just truth (small "t" truth that is muddled by our own assumptions ... with some people offering a less muddled view than other men/women). They would argue that we can never escape subjectivity, but just move "closer" towards the Truth (thus, the hermeneutical spiral (circle) between the object and the subject).

It's not that there isn't absolute Truth, it's that our understanding of Truth is only truth.

Most of the postmodern / emerging theologians would hold to the above ... at least the one's I've read and personally know.

And you're right, some of these guys are strictly reactionary in that they are reacting against the absolutism, tribalism, exclusivism and resultant colonialism that they see in "modern" Christianity, but ... to borrow from Hegel ... many (who aren't primarily reactionary) ARE synthesizing the views and Emerging with a new understanding that is still in process.

I think they (the Christian guys who grew up/ are postmodern) themselves would claim that their thought trajectory is still developing ... it other words, they aren't entrenched in the opposite of modernity (many of them are highly critical of postmodernity), but are emerging/synthesizing/developing.

And I think there is common ground, as you allude in your introduction, on emphasizing the Holy Spirit's active work in the life of the believer, guiding him/her closer to Jesus.

Also, I deleted the first post because I saw some grammatical errors, which I corrected but I'm sure some alluded me.