Category: Theology and Practice


I’ve recently had an article published in Missio Apostolica entitled, “Candy Machine God, or, Going to Church without Going to Church: Millennials and the Future of the Christian Faith.” In it, I discuss how millennials may not be going to church because the church might not be faithfully embodying its own identity as the church. That is, it might actually be preaching a message which is not its own. That message is a therapeutic one. In the article, I give a substantial amount of evidence to make my case. You can read it here for free.

There’s more to be said however. One thing in particular came up at a pastor’s conference where I presented the content of that paper. A recurring question to me went something like this:

I agree with your argument—in fact it’s quite convincing [full disclosure—I’m actually personally bothered by the argument I make…I wish I didn’t have to make it. So I’m not trying to wave my own banner here.]. What I don’t know how to answer for myself is this question: The Christian Gospel seems legitimately able to be called therapeutic. For it indeed does cure us from our greatest ailment, sin. The Gospel is a powerful healing force. But, your argument against therapeutic religion, therapeutic language, and the church’s psychological captivity [I encourage you to read the article, and then come back to this post], leaves me wondering how I can preach in a manner that doesn’t make the mistake you’ve clearly shown that the church is making, while at the same time preaching faithfully in a manner that performs the very life giving and healing—therapeutic even—work of the Gospel. Can you help me understand how to do that?

This is a very good question. And in my presentation, I really didn’t have time to answer it adequately. My article doesn’t answer this question clearly either. And frankly, none of the resources I cite within the article are helpful in this regard either. So, here I try to offer a little help.

Preaching the Gospel should be life-giving. Especially in the tradition of the Lutheran dogmaticians who used the language of the biblical narrative of killing and making alive (Deut. 32:39, Rom. 7:9), or of death leading to new life as the very means by which God made a human being a member of his people (Rom. 6)—this Gospel should be the center of our existence for it is the very narrative by which we orient ourselves as the church. Christ himself is the living embodiment of it. And our preaching (as well as our liturgy [in its various forms], our teaching, our discipling, and our evangelizing) should flow forth from this story as well as embody and carry it such that as a narrative it is continuously passed down as the tradition of the church itself in its own life of practices as well as the story by which it lives.

Preaching the Gospel that is therapeutic in a manner that is consistent with the sense of being life-giving is only possible when it is preached as a Gospel that raises dead people to life. But people have to die in order to be raised to new life. And God has chosen a specific means for that to happen. That particular means is the same means as that of bringing the life-giving word of the Gospel: the mouth of the preacher, and furthermore, the various modes of proclamation present in the practices of the church’s life (I mentioned them above: catechesis, evangelism, liturgy, etc.). Thus, the killing word of God’s confrontation with the sinner, his terrifying word which works death must also be proclaimed. Only then, can a therapeutic act be performed. Only then, can new life be created. Only then does God work also through the preacher, this time not to work death, but to work life.

So, allow me to say that I think we can say that the Gospel can be described as “therapeutic” if and only if we are understanding it within the framework of God’s transformative work of killing and making alive. But notice the “if and only if.”

Let me follow up with this warning. I’m wary of using the term “therapeutic” at all. It has too much baggage. In my article, I discussed the church’s captivity to psychological language, such that our imaginations are bent toward interpreting reality in a particular manner. We have come to expect our religion to be delivered a certain way; in fact, research seems to show we even demand it. That is, we look to religion to provide therapy for us. So words that are quite central to the biblical narrative like comfort (Isaiah 40:1), restoration (Psalm 23), and others end up being circumscribed within a different language game to which our ears are attuned. We listen instead for the therapeutic tone which promises relief, the ability to cope, some opportunity to get through the moment/day/week, or words of refreshment. Thus I cringe at even suggesting that “therapeutic” is an appropriate word for describing the Gospel in our time. Therapeutic religion is the enemy of the Gospel, of faithful Christian proclamation, and even subsists parasitically by feeding upon the church’s life (and that of other religious traditions) to proliferate itself because it cannot stand on its own. Through the church’s own use of the term and captivity to therapeutic culture, therapy rather than the transformative work of God is what is being performed by the church.

And so I argued in my article, more substantially of course, that that is why we are not seeing millennials in church. Millennials are not oblivious to what’s going on—they likely realize they can get better therapy elsewhere. Or if they are in church, they might not actually be at “church.” Rather, they might just be getting therapy instead.

So, I hope this brought some clarity to a question that might arise in reading the article. I also hope my warning is convincing enough to abandon the desire to “hold on” to the sense that the Gospel is “therapy.” Call it something else. We’re the church. We’ve been creative for 2 millennia. We don’t have to feel trapped into using this particular term. If we do feel so trapped, I’m concerned that such a feeling is more a symptom of our captivity than a lack of flexibility in the English language.

As one of the coordinators of the Church and Postmodern Culture blog hosted by The Other Journal, I mostly bring together other people to write for that forum. But on occasion, and hopefully more often, I’ll be a contributor. Today I posted some reflections on a brief one-day conference where I heard from two interesting and articulate voices about the future of evangelicalism. The conference was held locally here in Portland at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. It was of interest to me because of my teaching at the undergraduate level about religion in America, and furthermore because of my own work on Christianity’s cultural captivity to America itself. Without saying much more here, I’ll just point you to that post over there. Happy reading.

I’m occasionally asked to give a chapel message at my new post here at Concordia University. Here’s one from last week. The given text comes from John 13:34-35.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Something calls to us in this text today. It’s haunting. It’s utterly haunting. We cannot do what it asks of us and we know it. But we want what it calls for and we want it desperately. These two lines are perfectly maddening.

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

There is no shortage in our world of criticism for the church and especially for Christians. The accusation of hypocrisy is leveled at them perhaps more than anyone else. The power of such accusations works in part because the world is knowledgeable of the church’s calling. It knows that Christ has called the church to love one another, and not just each other, but elsewhere Christ’s calling upon the church appears to be even more maddening—he calls us to love our enemies, those who by default we consider unlovable. This is pure madness. Not only can I not do it, but it simply does not make sense.

It was the atheist philosopher Jacques Derrida who saw something special in the church. He understood the church to be THE paradigmatic institution on earth where unconditional love, acceptance, hospitality and forgiveness should be experienced. The church is that place.

But is that what we experience? Are you perfectly accepted in the church? Can you REALLY be who you are, I mean, who you REALLY are, in the church? Are you sure you’ll still be loved? What if I tell you my deepest darkest secrets? How will I know when I have not crossed that invisible line on the one side of which I’m welcomed and on the other side of which I suddenly become unacceptable, unlovable, deplorable, despicable, a sinner beyond the pale of love and redemption?

Let me give you a practical example of how this plays out. I’m borrowing this from John Caputo, who, in his excellent book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, spoofs on the phrase that was popular in the last decade, “What Would Jesus Do?” Caputo focuses on the practical act of forgiveness as a concrete expression of Christian love, for what else can we think of that might be the best exhibit of unconditional love in the Christian life—a love that loves in the same way that Jesus loves? To set this up, Caputo presents what might be considered our normal practice of forgiveness, even in the church—that very paradigmatic places that proclaims unconditional forgiveness and acceptance, but just so happens to practice otherwise. That is, Caputo points out surprisingly (or perhaps not at all!) the church actually practices forgiveness not without conditions but with them: In our everyday interaction with others forgiveness from one to another is generally understood to operate via a certain set of steps. The one in need of or seeking forgiveness must do certain things to earn forgiveness. Jacques Derrida, in his characterization of how forgiveness is actually practiced, frames it in this way: “forgiveness can only be considered on the condition that it be asked, in the course of a scene of repentance attesting at once to the consciousness of the fault, the transformation of the guilty, and the at least implicit obligation to do everything to avoid the return of evil” (Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness). Caputo, riffing on Derrida, captures this process more succinctly, saying, “Forgiveness requires an expression of sorrow, the intention to make amends, a promise not to repeat the offense, and a willingness to do penance. If someone meets all four conditions, they have earned forgiveness. We owe it to them the way the bank owes us the deed once the mortgage is paid off.”

Here we run in the quandary presented by our text. We treat forgiveness in very economic terms. It is a matter of exchange for us. And so our love for one another is all out of order. And deep in our soul we know this. And that is why I say that this passage in maddening. Because we desperately want the kind of unconditional love Jesus calls for, the kind that would be experienced in unconditional, uneconomic forgiveness, but we find that we cannot do it. We inevitably slip into these economic ways of operating.

Yet there is a further madness. This calling to love one another inevitably still haunts us. Jesus’s words won’t go away. And right now, we are journeying through Lent, the season of the church’s life where reflection and repentance take center stage in a way that they do not during other parts of the church year. One of the things I am well aware of in my life, and this just came up for me yesterday, is that many people in our world are hurting, and much of that hurt has been caused by the church itself. Derrida is right you know. Even as an atheist, he recognizes something true about the church. It IS the paradigmatic institution of unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and hospitality. But so many have been hurt by the church’s inability to believe God’s unconditional love for them, and thus they have not been so transformed as to be able to embody it toward others. Or they have faltered in their love for others in ways that have unwittingly caused the worst kinds of damage in other’s lives. For this, we must repent. And so we pray…

Prayer of repentance:(here I offered an extemporaneous prayer in the spirit of Lent, reflecting on how we as the church have no loved, but also on how we as the church have not trusted God and so have been unable to love. Then I moved into the following petition.)

Petition of Transformation:

God, teach us to know you as a God who gives gifts. In Jesus you gave the gift of love in human form. Make us a people who can truly receive them, who can be radically transformed by them, who can be vessels through whom your gifts of love are given. God, make us a people who give gifts uneconomically, unconditionally, unaccountably. Make us a people who operate unreasonably, who do not make sense. Make us not a people of principle, not a people who love only those who are lovable—who love only those who love us (for even the mafia does that)—but make us a people who do something offensive and crazy and difficult and impossible. Make us a people who love not just ourselves and each other, but who love our enemies as well. Make us a people who love without worldly reasons, but with kingdom reasons. Make us a people who have experienced the madness of your love in the kingdom, a love from you for us—who have been and very often are still your enemies—so that we can be the very vessels through which the madness of the kingdom is revealed to the world.

I have the huge privilege of participating in Calvin College’s Summer Seminar Program. Specifically, I applied for and was selected to participate in James K. A. Smith’s seminar entitled, “From Worldview to Worship: The Liturgical Turn in Cultural Theory.” I’m surrounded by a fantastic set of scholars, thinkers, and lovers of the Church who are quickly becoming my friends. They challenge me immensely, and it’s somewhat hard to believe I’ve been so blessed to be allowed to participate.

While we’re spending the bulk of each day reading and then discussing our readings, some of us have been recruited to blog a bit about the happenings and discussions in the seminar. It’s an effort to engage a wider audience than our small group of participants. Perhaps it will give a taste of what is challenging us in our discussions. Perhaps it will serve to inspire others to read what we’re reading. Perhaps it will nudge others to engage with the questions we present in the blog itself.

If you’re interested in checking it out, visit http://worshipweblog.com. I’ve written two post there thus far. Consider using the “Like” function on your Facebook profile or “tweeting” the links in an effort to get even more people involved in the conversation. There are multiple seminars happening concurrently, so if you want to keep up with the one in which I’m engaged, look for the tag “From Worldview to Worship–Summer Seminar 2011.”  Happy reading.

Earlier this week, I posted on Facebook about a brief moment in the midst of a Sunday morning worship service that caught my attention. Responses to the post didn’t quite seem to understand what I was getting at–this is clearly my fault, since Facebook really isn’t the place for posts which carry with them a substantial amount of implicit information. I can’t expect my readers to know what exactly I had in mind. Consequently, after a few misinterpretations, I took the post down with the promise to elaborate here. Comments are welcome, as keeping the conversation going here will be easier. Here goes.

The brief moment I’m speaking about occurred during the children’s sermon. While the sermon itself was leading to a very significant yearly ritual in the congregation involving parents and their children, what I saw only emerged as a response to a particular object involved in the sermon, not to the sermon itself. As the speaker was beginning the introduction to the sermon, a variety of objects were brought out which would help communicate the lesson. One of those objects was a Green Bay Packers helmet. As the helmet was raised out of the bag containing the objects, a middle-aged woman in the pew in front of me nearly jumped out of the pew with excitement. I found in this particular reaction rather striking. It was one of those moments, I think, where the church’s liturgy inadvertently became complicit with a secular one. That is, unwittingly, unintentionally, and unpredictably, the use of that Packers helmet, at least in the life of one person (if not a handful of others), suddenly brought a burst of excitement about a sports team and their future role in Super Bowl XLV. What stood out to me was the difference between the kind of excitement that could be engendered by the use of a football helmet in the midst of a Christian worship service over and against any excitement (or emotional display, involvement, commitment, enhancement, etc) for  Jesus. I became concerned in that moment, how the church had simply reinforced that woman’s devotion to the Green Bay Packers over and against Christ.

[What do I mean by liturgy here, such that I can use it with regard to both the church and the secular? Quite simply I mean this: liturgy (understood broadly here) is a set of practices meant to shape and form our devotion in a particular manner toward a particular object or way of being. Christian liturgy is meant to shape our devotion toward Jesus. A secular liturgy, such as nationalism is meant to shape our devotion toward a country, such as America. An exemplar practice here would be the recitation of the pledge of allegiance. For this general understanding of liturgy and for various themes in this post, I am borrowing from James K. A. Smith’s work, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation.]

Before I go on to comment on this event, let me explain a few things. First, I want to be clear that the use of a Green Bay Packers helment, or reference to a sports team, or any other cultural artefact may well have a place in Christian worship–I think those places are limited, to be sure, but I’m not saying such things do not belong there outright. This is because we bring our identities as sports fans, Apple product fans, Coldwater Creek fans, Williams Sonoma fans, Lexus fans, into church every single week. It is impossible not to do so. And since, as Martyn Percy (Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology, 40) and others have pointed out, religion is part of culture and culture is part of religion, avoiding their interaction is impossible. So a sermon might have a cultural reference. The question is, why is it there? How you answer that is particularly important. Second, I am not condemning, criticizing, or ridiculing the preparer of the children’s sermon for their use of cultural objects (the Packers helmet wasn’t the only one). Third, as I mentioned above, there could have been no possible way to predict the reaction I witnessed. It must be assumed that all motivations behind the children’s sermon were innocent and/or praiseworthy in this regard. What else is a children’s sermon for than to bring the pure Word of God to the children (and often, more clearly than many “adult” sermons, to adults)?

What should stand out here is only this: the reaction of this woman to a cultural artefact in the midst of a Christian liturgy was symptomatic of her involvement in a different, secular liturgy, wherein her devotion toward the Green Bay Packers had already been shaped–and this phenomenon occurred in the midst of Christian worship which is supposed to shape and form our devotion otherwise, that is, toward Christ. The question that bugs me (and should bug you) is this: How often is the church inadvertently, unwittingly, and certainly unintentionally (I hope) complicit in forming the devotion of its members toward something other than Jesus Christ by invoking, involving, or using secular liturgies? How often, in the church’s self-perceived faithfulness, is it in fact subtly complicit in a simultaneous unfaithfulness? One might argue that the answer simply is, all the time, since the church is constituted by sinners. My question for us all strikes more pointedly. Are there times when the church is complicit which can be countered, corrected or undone? Can we become aware or conscious of our complicity such that we can make moves against it? Is the church willing to be considerate and self-critical enough to look for those places where such complicity might exist, and subsequently do something about it?

Here are some examples of where such complicity might be present in the life of the church in the 21st Century:

Nationalism

Many congregations have the American flag (and often a state flag) present in their sanctuary. Various post-Constantinian authors have argued implicitly that the practice of having these flag present is a form of Constantinianism–that is, that the presence of the American flag in the sanctuary of a Christian church reveals a certain implicit confusion about the relationship between Church and State. Under Constantine, Church and Empire were united. Such a relationship no longer exists, technically speaking. However, I have heard Christians speak about America as God’s promised land. In the minds of some Christians, and possibly many, there is still an implicit sense that the church is the same political body as the state–and hence, within many Christian circles, there is a significant effort to return the US to its roots as a “Christian” nation (various examples and the attending problems with this belief are highlighted in the first essay of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World). The post-Constantinian authors are attempting to recover a more faithful understanding of the church–that is, that the church has a politics of its own, that it is a unique political body with citizens of its own (even if they are simultaneously citizens of various other communities, societies, clubs, nations, etc.). I have written about this a little here. Theologically speaking then, having an American flag present during Christian worship confuses the point that Christian worship is meant to be a public disturbance–one which announces Jesus as Lord and calls everyone to account for their allegiance (or not) to Him.

In addition to the presence of the America flag, what kind of language is used in the celebration of Veteran’s Day, or Memorial Day? While I am definitely thankful for the service of members of the military and those who work to preserve the safety of our nation and many others, I am concerned about the language (or better, grammar) used when we refer to people who have lost their lives in the midst of their service, choosing to call it “the ultimate sacrifice.” Should not that reference of “ultimate” be used for Christ alone? What reference might we use then for the sacrifice they made, since it is still important to be thankful for that work? I am not sure. But in our shared use of the term “ultimate” with the rest of American culture, Christians are potentially complicit in a liturgy which works devotion toward something other than Christ.

Individualism

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written (in his work Unleashing the Scripture) that the Bible should be taken out of the hands of North American Christians. He notes this especially regarding the fairly typical practice of churches giving them out, perhaps to confirmands or visitors. Why has he made this rather striking argument? Because he believes, and I think rightly so, that the Bible is not just any other book, but one which people must be taught how to read. The Bible is a book which belongs to and forms a particular community. To treat it as something every individual has a right to, or to make some sort of missional effort at simply giving them away without any ongoing and intentional connection to a church community in which one might learn to read it, is problematic. Interpretation, which is treated in so much of the North Atlantic world as the native right and ability of any person, is actually quite the opposite. From our youngest moments, we are learning and being taught how to interpret. We don’t simply “just know” how to interpret. Reading the Bible is another way of saying interpreting the Bible, since all reading is interpretation. And since the Bible is the special book of the church–the very people of the Book–should those new to the church not be taught how to read and interpret faithfully? The church must continue to form the communal relationships which are the work of Christ, rather than simply further promote such individualism.

Commodity-Fetishism

Somehow, companies that sell products know how to get us to need their products–not just want, but need. Somehow, they are able to capture our devotion, even through simple things like television, internet, or print media ads. For example, Apple creates something new, and in so many words says to us, “Look what we made for you. See how it will make you life better? See how by having this product you will be the envy of so many? See how it will make you feel special?”

In our culture, our imagination has in many ways been passively formed to the extent that we see our lives as being filled with work so that we can have things. Indeed, in many ways this is true almost beyond our ability to resist. How can one have food, shelter, and other basic necessities as well as support a family with the same things, without working? Fair enough. But in many ways we take this too far. Our culture, it has been argued (by such thinkers as Josef Pieper, in his Leisure, the Basis of Culture), is one of total work. We work more than we have to. We work in order to have, and to have even more than we need (Apple knows how to make us need through its own liturgies). We work because work defines us. We work, because somehow we were taught that to be a good citizen in our society, we need to productive (with the underlying agenda there being, so you can be a good consumer, and so the economy can keep booming, and so we can keep being happy–another liturgy working devotion to a particular image of what it means to be human).

Many church workers that I have known work more than 50 hrs per week (in some cases that’s too much already). Some work 80 or more. How is this a witness to those in the church who also hear these same workers speak about Sabbath, rest, peace, the light burden of Christ, resisting busyness, and other topics which imply that work for the sake of work is not honoring Christ? Church workers who work so much, for whatever their justification for doing so, are complicit in living an implied theology which serves as an unspoken (and likely unintentional) witness to those whom they serve. The devotion they teach is not toward Christ (as much as one might say they work so much for His sake, because He would not want one to do so), but rather toward the secular imagination’s image of a good citizen–one who is productive, and therefore a good consumer. There are a handful of problems here, and I’ve written about some of them here. Suffice it to say that the church’s complicity in this cultural liturgy is widespread, and likely quite harmful.

——–

What shall we conclude? That’s probably not the right question. Since I write to try to “do” something to my readers, the question is more directly, what should we do? The answer is simple: pay attention. I’ve written this to raise awareness, to bring to conscious thought something we might simply be taking for granted and therefore missing altogether–something which is immensely influential for the church, yet subtly and subversively so. But don’t just pay attention. When you notice the possibility of something you or your church is doing that might be complicit with a secular liturgy, think, converse, and analyze with others about whether your estimation is on track. Then begin to explore how you might change your practices for the purpose of being more faithful and helping those around you to do so as well. I write this as someone who is regularly haunted by these questions–AND regularly convicted about my own complicities. Christ comes to give freedom. The liturgies of His church are meant to work that freedom and form us in devotion toward Him. Thanks for reading.

If you’re new to the conversation or following along, please refer to the initial post announcing this series. There you can see the outline of what has been discussed and what’s ahead.

Situating the Conversation about Absolute/Objective Truth

First of all, it will be helpful here to at the beginning to define and distinguish between what is meant by Absolute Truth and Objective Truth. For the purposes of this discussion, there is basically no difference in meaning between the two concepts from within the grammar which I am calling into question. I’ll elaborate that grammar a bit below, and it will be implicit throughout these posts. There will however, be a somewhat different usage of the sense of Truth later in the discussion. At that time, there will be no more use of the adjectives “Absolute” or “Objective.” The way Truth will be used will be significantly changed, as it will exist within a different grammar. What I mean by “grammar” is a way of speaking, but not just speaking, also a way of being and doing. It refers to a deep connection of life in community – a key concept which will be important in the future discussion. What I see myself as being “up to” in this series of posts is presenting a different grammar, one which better suits Christians in their use of the word “truth” as it will be more faithful to our lives as members of the community of the Church.

The grammar which I intend to call into question, I’ve already called into question on different occasions (primarily here – do read that one for more on what I’m up to – and here). This series of posts will be more elaborate in that regard. I intend to deal with many “basic issues” that undergird some of my published arguments so that my readers (and live conversation partners) can in a sense, “catch up” with some of my thinking. In other words, I’m hoping to lead you along the same path I’ve followed, noting the important stops along the way.

The grammar which I intend to call into question is that of contemporary apologetics. This grammar is shared in many ways with theological methods that might be considered foundationalist.

Foundationalism

In order to describe foundationalism, it is appropriate to use an analogy. If one thinks of mathematics as that field of study which can be practiced anywhere in the world, at any time, by any person, the results would always be the same. If one adds 7 and 9, the answer will always be 16. In the same way, foundationalism, whether in philosophy or theology (since it is a methodology and a system of presuppositions, it works the same in both fields), assumes that as any individual seeks to know the world, by following a particular method, that one will come to the same conclusions at all times and places.

Foundationalism is a doctrine of philosophy – a particular philosophy (some other kinds of philosophy don’t subscribe to the doctrinaire methods of foundationalism). Foundationalism emerged as a way of coming to knowledge of the world in which we could be confident, sure, and without doubt. Thus, the kind of knowledge desired within a foundationalist system is considered indubitable or objective. Indubitable or objective knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is meant to be exactly reflective of the world as it is in itself. This is the model of Rene Descartes. Descartes taught that when the human mind is able to perfectly picture the world “out there” then the individual who is picturing the world in this way is said to have and indubitable or objective view of the world. To arrive at such a view, one must divest oneself of all biases, prejudices, and other social influences that might distort one’s image of the world. Such a disengaged and detached view is said to be objective, rather than subjective, because the individual has no subjective connection or investment in his/her view. Through the methods given by science, the very methods that are supposed to work like mathematics which I noted above, any person, at any time or place is supposed to be able to arrive at exactly the same view of the world, an objective view which is indubitable.

Foundationalism is supposed to be able to arrive at such a view because of its foundational presuppositions: namely, the divestment of one’s particular biases, prejudices, and social influences. The methodology for such divestment is provided by the scientific method, which eventually makes all conclusions open for confirmation by other, non-interested parties, so that all knowledge is thus established authoritatively via the authorized method of study and the authorized means of confirmation.

Foundationalism goes on to view language as that means of construing the world through words. We use words to describe what is out there, and thus, our words are said to correspond to reality. This formulation about words and their direct connection to reality out there is called the correspondence theory of truth. Thus, sentences that are true are said to correspond to reality. When such correspondence is present, such sentences are said to be the Absolute Truth or Objective Truth.

In a synthetic sort of way, the foundations of foundationalism consist of both the methods and mathematical doctrinairity of the view, but also the assumption of the existence of Absolute/Objective truth. All that is left is in fact to proclaim accurately what the Absolute/Objective Truth is. In the case of Christianity then, Christians claim that Christianity is the Absolute/Objective Truth. The challenge is, there is not a universal agreement with this conclusion, which is the assumed end of the methods of foundationalism. This problem will be addressed below.

Foundationalism and Christianity

There has been assumed within Christianity at least since Descartes’ influence became widespread, the necessity to argue for Christian claims using the methods employed by foundationalism. As a result, especially in the 20th Century, Christians have come to claim that they possess the Absolute/Objective Truth. In a sense, what they mean is that any person, if they would only be humble and willing enough to divest themselves of their biases, prejudices, and social influences, would come to the conclusion – via the scientific method, much like a practitioner of mathematics – that Christianity is the Absolute/Objective Truth. Christians go on to validate that claim via biblical passages such as John 14.6 where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Further, Christians then claim that constitutive of being a Christian is believing in the existence of Absolute/Objective Truth. Belief in Absolute/Objective Truth has thus become the newest article of faith within the Christian tradition. Before Descartes, this issue of belief was not a concern. If a person who claims to be a Christian claims to not believe in Absolute/Objective Truth, they are considered to not actually be a Christian but in fact a relativist who is confused about what it means to be a Christian. On an altogether different level, such individuals are considered morally “bad” in some sense because of their belief, and thus dangerous.

Non-(anti-)foundationalism

I noted above that even though Christians assert that Christianity is the Absolute/Objective Truth, there is not a universal agreement of this fact. What we see in the world around us instead is a plurality of views. Foundationalism is an effort a reconciling this disparity. It has been an ongoing effort for the last 300 years or so. Some hold out hope that the world will some day arrive at such an agreement. Others however, are trying to find a way to describe the world around us in a way that makes better sense, and is not confined to the grammar of foundationalism which has a problem with plurality and thus would define all those against its system as a relativist. Those who are against foundationalism reject such a label however, because within their grammar, there is no room for the objectivist/relativist distinction. The question that is posed is, “why do we speak that way?” and should we continue with that grammar?

Foundationalism is an effort at gaining certainty, overcoming doubt, and establishing one view as the truth over and above all others. Foundationalism seeks a secure position so that society can be organized well, judgments about moral issues can be clearly and cleanly worked out, and peace can be maintained. This is the project of the Enlightenment and the modernism of the 20th Century. Many philosophers and theologians have called this project a failure and argue that for internal, philosophical reasons, it was bound to fail. This criticism and diagnosis, along with the fact that there is no actual agreement emerging amongst the people of the world about what the truth of reality really is (or that there is any good reason to hope that at some point there will be such agreement), an alternative to foundationalism has emerged.

The alternative to the above view of foundationalism, or better, a critique of it, is non-foundationalism. A better way of speaking about non-foundationalism is in fact, the concept “anti-foundationalism.” (For those more familiarily with the grammar of this view, making the distinction between non- or anti- isn’t so important). Non-foundationalism, does not in fact, deny the existence of foundations. This is why anti-foundationalism is a better term. Anti-foundationalism denies the presuppositions of foundationalism – that is, it denies that it is in fact possible for anyone to have an unbiased, unprejudiced, unsocialized view of the world. It does not however, deny that there are foundations. In fact, one of its primary claims is that there is a myriad of foundations, almost one per person.

Within the anti-foundationalist program, there is a different grammar about truth. There is no need to speak of Absolute/Objective Truth because there is within anti-foundationalism an overcoming of the subject/object divide. Without getting too complicated, anti-foundationalism has no need for objectivist language because of the claim that all knowledge is situated, contextual, communitarian (a product of and local to individual communities, and shared between them), and provisional. This is an intersubjectivity. Individuals are not knowers of the world outside of their community context. Learning about and knowing the world is radically related to one’s place within a particular community (and people are members of numerous communities at once, which informs one about different elements of reality).

But one might object, regardless, there’s still a “reality out there” and whether or not there are myriad ways of knowing the world, or myriad foundations, still only one is right. That may be true, but there is no way of distinguishing which one that is. There is no way of getting at that view. There is no privileged position. We have the view we have. And we’ve most likely inherited it from our community based on where and when we were born, who are parents are, how we’re educated, etc. However, there’s nothing saying that at some point we might not be convinced of a different way of seeing the world. But, howevermuch we might be so convinced, there is still no way of ever having the certainty of being totally right, possessing the Absolute/Objective Truth. There is no possible way of our language hooking up with reality out there in any sort of correspondence with certainty. There is only our take on reality – a take which emerges from within communities and shaped by narratives, like the Christian narrative. Each take does a better or worse job of capturing our experience of life, thus making them more or less persuasive.

To go even further, the concept of an Absolute/Objective truth is a concept that has emerged from within a particular context. As I mentioned above, it has come to us (we have inherited it) from the Enlightenment, a program designed to rescue us from what has been called “Cartesian anxiety”, the radical doubt that emerged from the myriad voices of religious, political, and cultural authority in the 17th century. In a very real way, that way of thinking “has us”. We have been captured by it.

To situate the concept of Absolute/Objective truth in this way also allows us to situate the concept of relativism. Relativism is merely the flip side of objectivism. Yet, if an anti-foundationalist program has no need for objectivism because it admits of the impossibility of objectivism, then there is no need for relativism. In place of objectivism, there is a radical intersubjectivity, rather than simply a radical subjectivity. There is no such thing as a radical subjectivity because our learning and knowing of the world is based in community. It follows then, that to make a critique of an anti-foundationalist program as relativistic (or subjectivistic, which is related to relativism), is to misunderstand anti-foundationalism and the kind of argument it is trying to make. It is still to remain within a foundationalist program seeking after something that doesn’t exist – the privileged position, the ability to critique every other view, the ability to claim to possess Absolute/Objective Truth. This ability for criticism only works within the logic and grammar of foundationalism. It is argued by means of what is assumed to be self-evident logical conclusion. For example, it is said that to deny the existence of absolute truth is to make a statement of absolute truth.  Such a critique is called the self-referential argument. We’ll discuss this bit about logic, self-evidence, and the self-referential argument in a later post. Needless to say, it only works if the foundationalist program is possible and if its assumptions about how language works are legitimate.

There is a great deal more to say, but this post is already quite long. For now, please consider reading these two articles in addition to this post. They are quite illuminating on the topic. Please, if you wish to post critical comments, do not proceed to do so without reading these articles. If you have questions, read these articles before posting as you may find some answers.

“How Firm a Foundation: Can Evangelicals be Non-foundationalists?”, Rodney Clapp. From The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, eds. Timothy Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996), 81-92.*

“There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s A Good Thing, Too”, Philip D. Kenneson. From Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, eds. Timothy Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995), 155-170.*

*I take no responsibility for the possible copyright infringement of these articles. I simply found them to be available through a Google search. I own the books in which they are found, but didn’t want to post pdf copies because of my own copyright concerns.

I’ve been reading through William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (listed on the left).

In his first chapter, he discusses in part the unknowns of our economic interactions. Free-market capitalists, he notes, believe that exchanges in the market are free because all the information that the consumer needs is in the price, thus there is no coercion to purchase any given item from any given seller. But what kind of info do we find in prices besides how much items are going to cost us? What we don’t find out, and this is Cavanaugh’s point, is how much the product cost to make, who made it, where it was made, what the working conditions are where it was made, etc.

To elaborate using the example of the beef products we purchase, he cites an article from the New York Times Magazine entitled “Power Steer” by Michael Pollan. The original article is an engagement in the debate between which is better – corn-fed cows or pastured cows. I’m not willing to engage in this debate per se, but it’s worth looking into in light of this article. The information that Cavanaugh highlights is definitely not available in the price. I’ve posted an excerpt from Cavanaugh that gets at the main points of the Pollan article.

When one buys a steak at a large chain grocery store…all the information one needs in order to make a free decision – assuming that the steak is not simply defective or contaminated – is conveyed by the price. The true story behind the shrink wrap, however, is more consequential than [we typically believe]. A calf might spend the first few months of its life eating grass on the range, but typically the rest of its short life is spent in a feedlot, ankle deep in manure. By nature, cattle are equipped to turn the grass that grows naturally on arid land into high-quality protein. However, allowing cattle to graze is considered inefficient these days, because it takes too long. Today’s beef cattle in the United States go from 80 to 1200 pounds in just fourteen months on a crash diet of corn, protein supplements, and drugs. They are given hormone implants (banned in Europe) to promote growth. Their calories come from corn, which is cheap and convenient but depends on the use of lots of petroleum products, and wreaks havoc on their ruminant digestive system, which is designed for grass. The only way to keep cattle from dying of bloating, acidosis, or abscessed livers as they fatten up on a grain diet is to give them steady doses of antibiotics. Still, many strains of bacteria survive. In the past, we could count on the fact that such bacteria, raised in a cow’s natural-pH digestive tract, would be killed off by the acids in the human stomach. But now that the cow’s digestive tract has been acidified by a corn diet, acid-tolerant strains such as E. coli have developed; when those are found in our food, they can kill us. When the cattle are slaughtered, they are caked with feedlot manure, which is where the E. coli reside. Rather than altering beef cattle’s diet, or keeping them from living in their own feces or slowing down the processing speed of the slaughter lines, all of which are considered inefficient and impractical, processors spray the meat with disenfectant solution and irradiate it. Then they shrink wrap it and send it to your local supermarket.

The meat is cheap, but the social costs are not included in the price. Each head of cattle requires about 284 gallons of oil in its lifetime. As Michael Pollan says, “We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.” Runoff from the petroleum based fertilizer has traveled down the Mississippi and created a 12,000-square-mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Extensive use of antibiotics has led to resistant strains of bacteria. And scientists believe that hormone use has contributed to dropping human sperm counts and sexual abnormalities in fish. One cattleman interviewed by Pollan said: “I’d love to give up hormones. If the consumer said, ‘We don’t want hormones,’ we’d stop in a second. The cattle could get along better without them. But the market signal’s not there, and as long as my competitor’s doing it, I’ve got to do it, too.” But it is difficult to imagine how this signal would be generated, because the system is designed to keep the origins of beef a mystery to the consumer. So the cattleman continues to feel coerced into using hormones. (Being Consumed, 29-31)

Here is the link to the original article, “Power Steer” in the New York Times Magazine, 2002.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Cavanaugh suggests buying beef from local farms where you know the farmers allow for pasture-grazing, or local stores where you know the owner and can get an idea of his sources for products. Not only would this make you feel better about the food you’re buying and consuming, but it would also help the local economy.  At the very least, this is the kind of suggestion that helps Christians think better about their practices, while at the same time advocating a deeper awareness of what we’re participating in regarding the everyday practices we take for granted, like grocery-shopping.

Okay, so as I wrote this paper (which is pretty much done, but still requires some edits, footnotes, and maybe some other adjustments cuz I’m at the edge of the word count limit), things changed a bit. One reason is, I have a word count limit, so I can’t just say everything I want to–that doesn’t mean an expansion isn’t possible after the conference in prep for publishing. Another reason is, I just couldn’t do much with one of the ideas as I had it–I didn’t like how it was going; I wrote the beginning of the paper 3 times. So below, I put strike-throughs in the old stuff, and wrote some new stuff to make the abstract more reflective of what actually happened.

Title: The Politics and Poetics of Forgiveness

New Title: Transforming the Politics of Forgiveness

The very idea of forgiveness needs to be reframed from a sense of an “economy of exchange,” one in which forgiveness is merely owed upon the payment of some sort of debt. Recent conversations in continental philosophy and Christian theology have offered helpful new understandings of the nature of forgiveness. The discussion of the “gift” in Derrida’s work and those influenced by him reveals a certain calling into possibility something which seems impossible—true forgiveness. Coupled with insights from the Christian theological tradition, the “gift” of forgiveness through grace becomes powerfully transformative for both personal and communal identity. In giving the gift of forgiveness, a space is opened in one’s identity for real and lasting transformation to occur, such that the resultant relations in a given community will be directly influenced in large part, by the expression of further forgiveness, further giving of the gift. The transformation of the one becomes a flow of transformation of others.

Bookending this discussion of forgiveness, this paper will also explore the political relations which form the conditions of possibility for forgiveness. Stated simply, humans live in communities in which there are disagreements, transgressions and conflicts. Even further, these communities are themselves in relation with other communities (the boundaries of many of these are fluid; individuals are members of many different communities). The political nature of these communities is characterized by a sense of contestation. Each community embodies a story of its own, inhabits a worldview of its own—all of which are in conflict with each other. characterized by the existence of perpetrators and victims, fights and conflict, the demand for justice and repentance. In light of this reality, my paper will re-imagine how forgiveness—viewed through the concept of “gift” and empowered by a Christian theology of transcendence—challenges and changes the political relations of individuals and communities as well as the poetics of the grammar of forgiveness. and following from the central discussion of transformative forgiveness, I will offer two concrete ways that individuals and communities can practice the hope of forgiveness as they anticipate the eternal peace of the coming Kingdom.

I’m glad the paper is more or less done. I know I’ll at least be able to submit it on Monday. Now to bug one of my friends to read it over for me. I’m glad I’ve got people in my life who can read so well and think critically but generously about my work. It really is a God-given gift.

I left the call for papers and the link to the conference below.

The paper is for a conference on the Politics of Peace by the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology.

Here is their call for papers:

SCPT’s 2010 conference will focus on PEACE. We invite papers that examine the many dimensions of peace from social, political, religious, scientific, theological, and philosophical points of view. We also seek papers dealing with complementary topics such as justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace-making, and that deal with the practical aspects of the above topics. SCPT is an organization that seeks to promote inquiry at the intersection of philosophy and theology, through the study of phenomenology, deconstruction, feminism, Radical Orthodoxy, and other related fields.

I’m currently working on a new paper for a conference in April. Here is the abstract.

Title: The Politics and Poetics of Forgiveness

The very idea of forgiveness needs to be reframed from a sense of an “economy of exchange,” one in which forgiveness is merely owed upon the payment of some sort of debt. Recent conversations in continental philosophy and Christian theology have offered helpful new understandings of the nature of forgiveness. The discussion of the “gift” in Derrida’s work and those influenced by him reveals a certain calling into possibility something which seems impossible—true forgiveness. Coupled with insights from the Christian theological tradition, the “gift” of forgiveness through grace becomes powerfully transformative for both personal and communal identity. In giving the gift of forgiveness, a space is opened in one’s identity for real and lasting transformation to occur, such that the resultant relations in a given community will be directly influenced in large part, by the expression of further forgiveness, further giving of the gift. The transformation of the one becomes a flow of transformation of others.

Bookending this discussion of forgiveness, this paper will also explore the political relations which form the conditions of possibility for forgiveness. Stated simply, humans live in communities in which there are disagreements, transgressions and conflicts. Even further, these communities are themselves in relation with other communities (the boundaries of many of these are fluid; individuals are members of many different communities). The political nature of these communities is characterized by a sense of contestation. Each community embodies a story of its own, inhabits a worldview of its own—all of which are in conflict with each other. In light of this reality, my paper will re-imagine how forgiveness—viewed through the concept of “gift” and empowered by a Christian theology of transcendence—challenges and changes the political relations of individuals and communities as well as the poetics of the grammar of forgiveness.

I actually have to submit the whole paper rather than just the abstract. The deadline is next Monday, Feb 8. I’ve got a good chunk of the paper put together. I’m working out some messy parts currently.

The paper is for a conference on the Politics of Peace by the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology.

Here is their call for papers:

SCPT’s 2010 conference will focus on PEACE. We invite papers that examine the many dimensions of peace from social, political, religious, scientific, theological, and philosophical points of view. We also seek papers dealing with complementary topics such as justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace-making, and that deal with the practical aspects of the above topics. SCPT is an organization that seeks to promote inquiry at the intersection of philosophy and theology, through the study of phenomenology, deconstruction, feminism, Radical Orthodoxy, and other related fields.

Pray for the final process of my writing. This is yet another opportunity for me to interact with a body of scholars whose disciplines (continental thought) are congenial to my own tradition of theology–both of which, I think, have a great deal to offer each other.

**Here is the text of a talk I recently gave at another one of the ACTS64 gatherings. I answered the question “God…did you use evolution to create the world?” I certainly didn’t cover all that could be said in this short talk, but maybe you’ll find some of this info helpful even in its brevity. Sorry about the lack of posts (for all the devoted readers…). I’ve been working hard to prep for my comprehensive exams. Hopefully I’ll get to posting some stuff I’ve been saving up by mid-November and December.

In order for me to really deal with the question for tonight with much depth, I would need a significantly longer time than we usually have at ACTS64. So, for tonight, my intent is, as usual, to simply challenge our “taken-for-granted” types of thinking. Primarily, I want to challenge a thought that seems all too common – that is, that Christianity and evolution are in some way compatible, as in theistic evolutionism (the basic idea that God created the world using evolution). But I also want to challenge lesser common ideas that are becoming more popular like Creation science, and others like Intelligent Design (yes, I know you might be surprised that I’m saying this, but keep listening). Keep in mind, however, that I am a creationist in the strict sense – that is, I believe what the Bible says: that God created the heavens and the earth, all things visible and invisible. I just have serious reservations of how we, as a culture, tend so willingly to use science, even to rely in it, to make our case for how we think God played a role in the creation of the world.

So, ultimately, I will deal with a couple of basic theological and philosophical problems of trying to marry science and religion.

What I’m about to say might shake your thinking. If you haven’t caught on to what I’m up to as a theologian/philosopher yet, that’s what I’m trying to do most of the time. I think the Word of God tends to force us into that kind of situation – one that shakes up our thinking. Here’s how Martin Luther said it in his commentary on Romans: “When however, the Word of God truly comes, it comes as the enemy of our thinking and desires. It does not allow our thinking to stand, even in those matters which are most sacred, but it destroys and eradicates and scatters everything.”

With that in mind, what kinds of theological and philosophical problems are there with theistic evolution, creation science and Intelligent Design?

For one, there is the assumption that Christianity and science are essentially talking about the same thing in the exact same manner, and thus, if and when Christianity needs to borrow from science, for whatever reason, it’s just perfectly fine to do so. Therefore, since evolution has become the dominant story of science for the last 150 or so years, Christians have either stood ardently against or, as evolution has come to have seemingly more and more explanatory power, Christians have found themselves almost forced to find a way to integrate evolutionism in some form into our Christian thinking. So, for example, you might hear arguments about microevolution and macroevolution, which state that Christians can easily accept into their worldview microevolution because it’s clearly visible empirically (the usual example is with a story about moths, but Darwin’s study of canaries in the Galapagos Islands is also a key example of microevolution). However, Christians cannot accept macroevolution (the idea that all creatures evolved by a process of accidental mutations and natural selection – one of those primary ideas being that humans evolved from primates) because the idea is still theoretical. That is, there is no empirical evidence, at least not in terms of a complete set of links in the chain from the first primates to humans as they are today. There is certainly hope in the scientific field that we will eventually find these links, but for now, the idea is just accepted theoretically. Why Christians can’t accept this macroevolution is because it stands in opposition to Genesis, which states that God simply created man special among other creatures and at a specific moment in time. In some Christian circles however, there is almost an openness to a time when, if the chain of links for the first primates to modern-day humans is completed, Christians would just have to change their story, even if it’s contrary to Scripture – that’s how much we take science for granted without realizing just how badly we’re unwittingly undermining our Christian beliefs.

And that’s exactly what is so problematic with this whole line of thinking: it’s the easy willingness of Christians to simply accept the assumptions of science. It does not matter whether we’re talking microevolution or macro, the problem is that we’re taking science for granted altogether as if it always gives us the truth about reality. And to follow that up, we then feel as if we need to augment our Christian talk about reality with scientific talk. Yet deep under the FACTS of the evolution which we are so willing to accept are the theologically deceptive and philosophically empty assumptions of atheistic science : 1. Science does not believe in a supernatural reality (so what about the idea of “all things visible and invisible” from the Creed – and by invisible, the Creed was definitely not talking about quantum particles?) 2. Science does not believe in the existence of God (so what about our confession that God created all things) 3. Science does not believe there is a purpose to life (so that means YOU are nothing but a cosmic accident, you’re expendable, you don’t matter) and 4. Science does not believe there is meaning outside of the meanings we arbitrarily impose on life and events (which means whatever you do in life is never an investment in the good and will never have lasting value – nothing you have done, are doing, or will do is meaningful in anyway). So, the big question is, why are we so easily willing to marry atheistic science with Christian faith?

And my answer is, maybe we shouldn’t be so willing. Maybe we should be significantly more cautious. Maybe our willingness in many corners of Christianity is the deceptive work of the devil himself in his attempt to weaken our theology and our faith from the inside out – from places that seem safe and simple, but that are ultimately a slippery slope out of the kingdom. Maybe.

This is my problem with theistic evolution, creation science and Intelligent Design. Each of them is an attempt on many levels to marry the apples of religion and the oranges of science and it just can’t be done. Under the surface, things are much more complex and problematic than they seem. I hope in what I’ve just said, this is becoming clear to you. Theistic evolution is the most blatant example of this – and the most closely related to our question for tonight. Creation science simply attempts to use science (often times with the fully atheistic presuppositions mentioned above) to prove that the story of Creation happened as written in the Scriptures. But an additional problem comes into play here – the same kind of problem I mentioned in my discussion about the Bible last month: the story of Creation should not be treated as something which needs to be proved in the court of science – if the Bible is authoritative, we don’t need scientific proof to authorize it. Every time we feel as if this kind of proof is necessary, the Bible becomes relativized to a higher authority and the whole process becomes self-defeating. Intelligent Design, while falling guilty to some of the same problems of Creation science, also has another short fall. It doesn’t actually argue for anything specifically Christian – it can be used for any sort of monotheistic worldview, from Deism to Islam to Christianity and everything in between. That’s a problem because the Christian revelation is specific about Who created and how it happened.

Now, some of you might be asking, isn’t there a way to do science with Christian assumptions? Yes, I think there is. But, the question we’re dealing with tonight wasn’t about doing science with Christian assumptions. By asking if God created the world with evolution, we’re inherently invoking non-Christian science. It would be an entirely different conversation if we were to talk about science with Christian assumptions. So, we’ll have to save that for a different time.

So, you might be feeling like I haven’t left you with much by taking as much of science away as I have. Or you might be feeling better, because you’ve finally got a little bit of confirmation for some of the intuitions you’ve already been sensing about these issues. Either way, let me encourage you, even if you don’t have all the questions answered as of now, keep the faith. What the story of Jesus gives us that the atheistic presuppositions of science don’t is a story about purpose for our lives – you were created for a reason; a story about creation as opposed to accident – you were made, specifically at this time with intention by a Creator, and with a purpose. And because of Jesus, you’re not damned to hell nor are you destined for pure annihilation as evolution says – instead, you’re destined for a lifelong journey in community with the people of God and a place in God’s heavenly mansion in the New Heaven’s and New Earth. The story of Scripture promises so much more than evolution.