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Trained to be Judgmental?

Our world forms us to become judgmental. This happens simultaneously with our ongoing training as Americans to be non-judgmental—that is, tolerant—of everyone else. That we’re taught it is important to be non-judgmental (tolerant) is rather obvious. It’s an explicit value articulated in the media and our educational system, and even (perhaps often) within the Christian tradition. So I won’t say much about that here.

To make my point, however, that we’re formed to be judgmental, I must reflect on something that’s not so obvious. And to do that, I have to say a few other helpful things first.

A book that’s been critically important to my thinking about Christian formation (and cultural theory) in recent years has been Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I’ve suggested it to so many people who’ve also liked it—and with the help of some colleagues made it required reading at my seminary for worship students. But it’s not the simplest read. It takes some wrestling and pondering.

I’m now using it with my undergraduates to think about how culture has formed us. In the book, Smith argues that culture often forms us unwittingly through ingrained habits and rituals that function like liturgies. He calls them “secular liturgies.” The analogy to the church’s liturgy is quite intentional. And if you read the book, his argument that culture can be understood as constituted by “secular liturgies” is quite compelling. So I encourage you to read it. And I promise you’ll get more out of it than that if you invest the time in reflecting on Jamie’s work and the various sundry applications of it to your life. He makes it easy, using examples from popular literature, movies, the mall, TV, the university, sports, and even the Pledge of Allegiance to make his points concrete.

One of his main arguments is about how we are formed as human beings to be particular kinds of people in a manner that operates at a pre-reflective or pre-conscious register. On this point, he means to push back against the rather staid position in Western thinking that, as autonomous agents (which we imagine ourselves to be, since that is what we’ve been taught we are in the story of Western anthropology), we deliberately come to believe everything we believe by choice. Or, in terms of the things we do, they are done as matters of intentional deliberation. Jamie rejects this position. And he is not alone in pushing back on this view. Even recent NYT bestsellers are telling us otherwise—mind you they’re doing so by making the case scientifically borrowing from psychology, neurology, and cognitive philosophy: check out David Brook’s The Social Animal and/or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (I recommend both).

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has also argued convincingly that our formation as human beings is not primarily a cognitive phenomenon, but something much more bodily oriented. Thus, for Bourdieu, our thinking and reflection emerges from our primal and chief means of engagement with and comportment toward the world—our bodies. He uses the language of “practice” to help us understand this. His work gives an account for why we do what we do, not by accounting for our “thinking and deliberation” regarding our actions, but by accounting for how the logic of practice is pre-cognitive and pre-reflective. Bourdieu describes our embodied lives as trained toward certain dispositions through regular habitual practices in which we participate. These dispositions structure our engagement with the world. He gives a name to these dispositions, calling them habitus. Our habitus governs our actions at a level below the cognitive and reflective register. The focus isn’t on our brains or minds but on our bodies.

At the risk of scaring some readers off, it’s worth quoting Bourdieu on this very central idea within his work. If this passage doesn’t seem very clear, keep in mind part of the problem Bourdieu has in his writing is that he is trying to challenge deeply ingrained assumptions, ways of thinking that we simply take for granted and which have been rooted in the West for three centuries. Our present condition as captive to a certain way of thinking about and imagining “why we do what we do” prevents us from understanding him easily.

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively “regulated” and “regular” without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor. (The Logic of Practice, 53)

Here we see Bourdieu explicitly pointing up the nature of habitus as an ordered, structured and structuring register of our lives that functions explicitly at a non-cognitive level. There is no need for a “conductor.” There is no need for the intentional “following of rules” or “aiming at certain ends.” These are not, however, ruled out as impossible or dismissed, but Bourdieu’s point is to reorient our imagination of what it means to be human actors who explain why we do what we do, forcing us to take into account a substantial part of who we are that does not emerge from our “free will,” our freely made decisions, or rational deliberations about what is to be done.

From the time each of us was very young—I mean, from moment after we were born (and now we ought to be paying attention to our formation in the womb it seems)—our dispositions were being created. We were developing a habitus, or better, a habitus was happening to us, on account of how we were engaged with others in our experience of the world. In the same way, this still happens. In fact, it’s ongoing throughout our lives. Our habitus continues to be shaped as much as it shapes our engagement with and comportment toward the world. We constantly engaged with the world in a variety of ways and this engagement is always rubbing off on us. Our world is full of “liturgies” according to Smith—that’s part of what constitutes and forms “culture” in his argument—and human beings are always formed by the cultures in which they participate. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom argues that our engagement with the world, as it is inevitably communal, shapes our dispositions, and thus forms us to be certain kinds of people. Liturgies of any kind foster habitus.

Thus I’ve reached a point where I’m ready to make my suggestion of how we are passively trained to be judgmental.

Our culture provides many opportunities for us to be trained—to develop a disposition, a habitus—to become judgmental. Since this post has gone on for some time, in the next day or two, I’ll supplement this one with some concrete examples of how I see this happening.

A Return

I used to be an atheist. For part of my life I doubted God’s existence.

Every now and again, when I haven’t seen someone around for a while and I start to miss them not knowing where they’ve gone off to, the next time I see them, I might jokingly tell them I was beginning to doubt their existence. Perhaps, if I have any readers left, you were feeling the same–doubting my existence. I made a promise last April to get back to this blog that I didn’t keep. Sorry. Things happened. Big things.

I got a new job. I now serve as Assistant Professor of Theology at Concordia University, Portland, OR. In order to accommodate performing the duties of this job, I had to move. So pretty much as soon as I wrote that last post…it was over. I was suddenly overcome with things to do to get ready to be here. Then, not long after arriving, my wife and I had our first child. Our daughter came 1 week before I began teaching my first term. Additionally, I finished my doctoral dissertation just before the holidays.

So, sorry about not writing. But some important things took me away from here for a while. I’m hoping to truly get back to it. And I’ve got some things brewing.

Mostly, I’m hoping to share some of the material I use in my classes. I’m reflecting with my students on some current books that deal with religion in America, as well as on the topic of how Christianity and culture shape (and counter-shape) each other. Some challenging stuff that has emerged from my teaching is a little bit of cultural exegesis. I’m glad to share it, not only because I find it interesting, but also cuz it’s kinda fun.

Additionally, I’ve still been active in coordinating the Church and Postmodern Culture blog. I’ll be posting there as well, and things are kicking back up over there now that the holidays are over and all of the contributors are back to the grind. So if you’re interested in that sort of thing, check it out.

Beginning Again

It’s been more than a year since I’ve offered any sort of substantial post here. Today is no different, but that’s because I’ve offered something more substantial over at The Church and Postmodern Culture blog. I’ve been thinking about the use of social media lately, for various reasons (I’ll post something here on the topic soon), so I wrote something over there that engages a stream of thought within postmodern philosophy that helps me think about “What Facebook Makes Us.”

My intent is to slowly become more active here. While I’m still doing edits on my dissertation, I’m also teaching as an adjunct at Concordia Seminary, so things are busy enough. To add yet more to work on, I’ve officially accepted a Call to be Assistant Professor of Theology at Concordia University in Portland, OR. We’ll be moving out there in June and all the preparations for that have brought plenty of additional things to do.

In light of being involved in a job search for more than the past year, I’ve kept my distance from blogging and other social media outlets on the advice of other academics I know who participate in faculty search committees. Apparently some committees are sharp enough to investigate potential candidates’ social media presence. While I didn’t take the site down during my job hunt, I didn’t write much new either.

All the changes in life are exciting. Moving to the Pacific Northwest should be fantastic–my initial visit was phenomenal. Getting back into blogging will be fun. I’ve got a handful of drafted things sitting on my hard drive. So you can expect some more activity here. My next post will be slides from a presentation I made a while back on Using Social Media for Evangelism.

I haven’t posted much here in the past year. Maybe once every 2 or 3 months. That’s because I’m trying to be diligent at finishing my doctoral dissertation by December. In the meantime, I’ve been asked to help coordinate the Church and Postmodern Culture Conversation, now hosted over @theotherjournal. I’m excited and privileged to work with James K. A. Smith (editor of Baker’s book series of the same name) and the long-time coordinator of the site, Geoff Holsclaw. The site just went up this week, and things look great. There’s an exciting lineup of posts over the next couple of months. I’ll have some things to offer there, and I’ll be sure to alert you here about when those are happening. In the meantime, consider creating a bookmark to churchandpomo or adding it to your RSS feed.

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.

On Being Wrong

I’ve written a good amount here about the provisionality of knowledge, a key assumption of post- or non-foundationalism. Check out this video by Kathryn Schulz, entitled “On Being Wrong.” It’s gold.

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.

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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.

The Suppressed Binary Opposite

**This post follows in a series according to this outline.

To define the “suppressed binary opposite” is to say that behind whatever someone might be arguing for, there is something that is left unsaid, usually the very idea which the argument being made is trying to protect. So for example, in keeping with the argument of this blog as of late toward a non-foundationist way of seeing the world, there hasn’t been a suppressed binary opposite because I’ve been rather clear about what I’m trying to argue against: foundationalism. But, if I were a foundationalist, the suppressed binary opposite would likely be harder to detect. Foundationalists are, in my mind (because I used to be one), trying to protect a certain view of something. Within Christian apologetics and the practice of theology, usually the desired object of protection is a certain view of God, truth, or morality.

Thus these are at least three of the suppressed binary opposites of foundationalism, at least as far as theology is concerned. Here is how they tend to be argued (or assumed) and a few problems which non-foundationalists try to point out.

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God is generally held to be a logical necessity. The arguments which assumes this tend to reflect on the Big Bang and Creation ex nihilo, and conclude that someThing had to start everything, someOne had to create from nothing (the operative concept being “had to”), and that someOne or someThing is GOD. In addition, it is argued that for there to be a meaning to life, there must be a someOne to give life meaning or purpose.

The problem here can be identified with a simple question: who is God is this case? Christianity tells the story of who God is by telling the story about God’s Son, Jesus Christ–the very Word of God, God’s self-revelation to the world, God-in-the-flesh, the God-man. We receive the story of Jesus Christ through the Church and through the Scriptures (simultaneously – a theological point that I won’t elaborate upon here).

To say that God’s identity is known in the narrative of Jesus Christ might seem quite obvious to most Christians. As it should be. What stands out in this particular conversation however, is the nature of the issue that the God referred to by foundationalists is a God WITHOUT a particular identity. That God is the so-called “God of the philosophers.” (In case you didn’t notice, that God is also an idol.) It is the platonized God, the God of logical necessity, required by reason to justify a story we made up. What is that story? Well, it is one which claims that the world around us was created. Was it? How do you know? Could the cosmos not be an eternally recurring thing as is argued by some astrophysicists? Or could it not be an illusion, as is argued in the East?

The point of those questions is to point up the debatability or contestability of the particular story which says the world was created. What is argued (or assumed) first is that the world was created. But should that be the first point of argument. Do not the Scriptures begin in another way? They proclaim God’s existence, then His subsequent creation of the world. Why start with the world and then demand a God as its creator simply by logical necessity? Such a claim is not, in fact, Christian.

I mentioned above that the story of the world/cosmos is one we made up in which we invoke a God of logical necessity in order to explain its existence. A second feature of that story is the assumption that there must be meaning to life. That begs the question, must there? Who says? Again, the problem is beginning with a certain story about the way things are and then making up a way to justify it.

It may seem a trifle or a mere nuance to argue that we should tell our stories in the right order, but this works out to be vitally important. If we only begin with the features of the world/cosmos we see around, if we only tell a story which works by simply stating propositions (i.e., there is meaning to life, something can’t be created from nothing, etc.), then we end up formulating a sophisticated means of justifying those premises, justifications which may work out to be nothing but great falsities and problematic stories which future generations will have to work hard to undo (see what I did there?). If on the other hand, we simply tell our stories the way they have been given to us–that is, if we simply proclaim the story of the Christian narrative and go on to make sense of the world through the story it tells of the world, we in fact do not have to deal with complicated fabrications like a “God of the philosophers” because we meet the God of Jesus Christ instead.

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Truth is understood to be Absolute, simply because the opposite of Absolute Truth is Relative Truth, and relativism regarding truth is absurd. Thus, truth is Absolute in a self-evident manner, or so it is argued or assumed.

What to do with this…? I’ve written in some of the other posts (as well as noting in personal conversations) that when we deal with truth, we always do so as if whatever we are saying is true REALLY IS TRUE. That’s how we do it. We can’t argue for something being true without this phenomenon (except when we’re doing something different, like pretending, fantasizing, or lying – but that would be SOMETHING different).

I’m making a descriptive argument here. Truth may indeed be Absolute. We tend to operate as if it is. The problem with the above assumption of foundationalism is this: it does not admit that when we speak of truth we are making a claim about truth. Whatever we take to be Absolute Truth is not incontestable (unless of course you think you have perfect knowledge of everything – but why would you be reading this blog?). There may be good or bad reasons for thinking one claim is the truth as opposed to another claim. But our claims to truth are made in faith. There’s no other way about it.

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Morality is God’s Will for how we should live. Get rid of truth or God (which foundationalists are afraid non- or anti-foundationalists are doing), and morality falls apart because morality always needs some sort of foundation–an eternal Law-Giver–so that morals are unquestionable and all are accountable.

This argument is simply naive. There is not room to go very far into the issue here, but the naivety of this argument is shown clearly in the written records of the experience of missionaries to foreign lands where the local people’s don’t live like people in the West – their moral code is simply different. Historical studies also show that morals have changed over time – not necessarily on the continuum of good to bad or vice versa. Morals adjust to social situations. Sociological observations of this sort simply demonstrate that morals differ among peoples and among time periods and that it is ultimately within cultures and communities that morals are established, agreed upon, change, and measures for accountability or transgression are constructed.

How does this line up with biblical morality? First of all, is there such a thing? The obvious answer might seem to be, duh, of course there is. How about the 10 Commandments? What about Natural Law? Regarding the 10 Commandments, where is the perfect interpretation of how to carry them out? Consider how exactly one might honor one’s mother and father…What if someone is orphaned? What if honoring one’s parents means respect and doing what you’re told as a child, yet doing what’s best for your parents (as you understand it) when you’re older, even if it’s not what they want (which might still be honoring and respecting them)? Regarding Natural Law, what exactly is it? Natural Laws are human efforts to use language to describe reality. Who’s to say that gravity, a so-called natural law, won’t someday work differently – might not something fall UP? What about murdering someone? What about lying? These may seem more simple, yet there are complicated questions which surround these issues as well, making the interpretation of how to carry them out difficult to sort through (think end of life issues, think of when an ax-murderer shows up at the door asking for someone whom you know is present).

These questions are enough to compel one to rethink the uncritical adoption of such foundationalist presuppositions about morality.

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The three assumptions are what foundationalists are AFRAID of losing in the challenge presented by non-foundationalism. Because of such fear, there is an effort in their argumentation to protect these presuppositions. In that way, they stand as at least three of the suppressed binary opposites of foundationalism. They often go unspoken. Apologetics will at times deal with these arguments explicitly, but that is the at times simply the role of a particular kind of apologetics. However, more often than not, these assumptions stand behind a Christian foundationalist view of the world – they are the assumptions that we cannot give up because if we were to do so, we would no longer be Christian. My argument is such a position is hopelessly unChristian. They begin outside of the Christian narrative and are smuggled in the backdoor, as if the Christian narrative were talking about these ideas all along.

The significant issue which compels this writer to challenge the assumptions of a God of logical necessity, absolute truth, and absolute morality is simply this: faith. Underneath these assumptions is a distinct inability to prove any of them, and thus, they are maintained only by faith. If that is the case, they might be at the very least, rephrased or reframed so that if they are going to be associated with the story of the Christian faith, they might be articulated in a manner that shows how they distinctly emerge out of it, and thus are more faithfully Christian. At times (and this is more often than not), truth remains a debatable question in some way, as does morality. The question of God, even though we have a distinct revelation of Him in Jesus Christ, is constantly under fire in a self-critical way. Jesus Christ always comes to us through the Word to challenge our understanding of Him as the revelation of God. Thus theology and theologizing go on, indefinitely, until He returns. Such is the way of non-foundationalism.

See my previous posts here, here, here and here, as well as my initial outline of this argument to get caught up.

Today was the end of the 21st Theological Symposium at Concordia Seminary. This year the topic was on Scripture, asking whether it was “formative, or formality?” Clearly the question was rhetorical, but the challenge of the Symposium was to think critically once again about things we generally take for granted. Regarding Scripture, we know the right answer is of course, “formative,” but the challenge is to go on to further answer, “in what way?”

One presentation in particular, which argued about the fact that there will never be an objective, certain, absolutely correct interpretation of Scripture–an argument that extends from a non-foundationalist approach to theology, which I have argued for in previous posts–really bothered some people. That’s not surprising for a couple of reasons. First, to even begin thinking about theology from a non-foundationalist approach is not really something one can do after only an one-hour-long presentation, especially when that presentation simply assumes non-foundationalism (which this presentation did–it simply operated within that kind of framework). To think as a non-foundationalist about theology, one must take the time to wrestle with it. Second, and this will constitute the topic of this post, a non-foundationalist presentation of theology seems to beg certain questions for foundationalists which cause certain visceral, emotional responses. In so many words, for foundationalists, non-foundationalist theology freaks them out.

What do I mean? Well, in the course of the presentation on interpretation, which argued that in the end, all we really have the is ability to argue persuasively through offering our good reasons for holding a particular position or adopting a particular interpretation, some hearers felt like they were left with NO means for arguing or establishing their positions. Why did they feel so helpless? My sense is because for so long, they have lived with the assumption that there is a perfectly correct interpretation of Scripture (God’s interpretation, the author’s intention) and if we all just act sensibly everyone would simply come to accept the “right” interpretation, which is what we believe we have. I’m not sure what thinking sensibly would mean. Remember, it cannot mean jettisoning our biases and approaching Scriptural interpretation objectively because that’s simply impossible; our presuppositions are what we think WITH and without them there would be no thinking.

What I believe those people felt–the ones who were disturbed by the implicit non-foundationalism in the presentation–is a sense of loss, and further, a sense of not being grounded anymore, of not having an anchor, of not being able to defend their position, and quite possibly, that all theology is now thrown out the window and maybe God is gone too. I don’t blame them. I think that’s a perfectly natural reaction to something so unfamiliar. And I must admit, there was a time when I had that feeling too. That feeling scared me. It made me worry. It haunted me. And for a long time, I was a foundationalist, if only to avoid having to feel that feeling. I was worried about relativism, anything-goes interpretations, and lacking the ability to adequately defend what I believed. How could I even hope to convince other people of the truth of Jesus Christ, the existence of God, and the promises of the Gospel if I didn’t have the foundation of Objective Truth to cling to? How could I go on arguing for and exhorting people to a certain way of life–morals and an Absolute Morality–if there was no such thing as Absolute Truth?

These are all valid concerns and questions. And there are answers. Many of them have been hinted at in the previous posts. But, in this post, I want to address the valid emotional and visceral responses that are raised in a presentation of non-foundationalism or one in which non-foundationalism is operating.

For foundationalist, the operation of non-foundationalism, and many of the conclusions that one might draw as a non-foundationist (for example, that there is no “correct” interpretation of the Bible that is at least available to us, thus we’re left with a particular interpretation which we assert, argue for, defend, and try to persuade others to share), seems to be the very thing that Christians are meant to guard against. Non-foundationalism is the danger of the devil, we’ve been taught. It’s all postmodernist relativism, that Parisian perversion that proves Paris has nothing to do with Jerusalem.

All this thinking results from the fact that the foundationalist has read the non-foundationalists wrongly, but because he couldn’t do otherwise. Trying to present a non-foundationalist argument to a foundationalist is like trying to send a fax to someone who doesn’t have a fax machine–there is absolutely no way to translate the message so that it is received properly because the appropriate apparatus, namely the fax machine, doesn’t exist. The foundationalist simply cannot understand the non-foundationalist because he doesn’t have the proper apparatus. His terms, his concepts, his logic makes the non-foundationalist seem like a living contradiction who is merely oblivious to his “error.” So, common reactions of foundationalists to non-foundationalists include dismissiveness and a superiority complex that adopts the stance of, “well, once they let go of all that mumbo-jumbo, they’ll come to their senses and see that they’ve been wrong all along, then they’ll come back to our sensible position.” Foundationalists act as if everything is perfectly clear (or at least, that it can be if you think like them)–and that’s the problem. So much of the world does appear perfectly clear, both to foundationalists and non-foundationalists. The difference is, one group knows how to handle things when there is disagreement (the non-foundationalists can account for it–basically, they already know it’s gonna happen); and the other doesn’t. The foundationalists scoof, shake their head, rub there eyes, and wonder if they’re really seeing what they think they’re seeing (that is, a whole bunch of people who don’t think like they do, as if it’s a logical impossibility; but there it is, right before their eyes)–they’re always making an effort to get everyone to join some universal point of view, as if it’s obvious and sensible, and they just cannot understand why people disagree.

Hence, when Christians, who stake their very life on what they believe, teach and confess, run into non-foundationalism, they often react in highly emotional ways. Non-foundationalism opens the door to doubt, agnosticism, and demands at the very least an effort a re-accounting for the beliefs they hold. That’s a lot to face down. It’s ominous and threatening. Foundationalism is safe. The tendency is to be reactive, retreat, or hunker down and hope that big bad devil will just go away.

But what if foundationalism really is wrong. Further, what if it’s theological unfaithful? What if certainty, the “correct” interpretation, and our “sensible logic” has become an idol? Well, those are threatening questions too.

How do we work through those questions? How can we face down the challenges of non-foundationalism? How can we try to listen with a hospitable spirit to non-foundationalist presentations from people who purport to be Christians (that is, people like you and me, who share the same convictions about God, Jesus, salvation, hope, the end of all things, etc.) without reactively dismissing them? How can we seek to understand, so that maybe somehow, we can develop the apparatus of translating our understanding of them into something other than sheer dismissiveness?

My answer, which is also my own experience as someone who has been through it, is this: Listening. Patience. Humility. And by clinging to the promises of Jesus through prayer. Moving from foundationalism to non-foundationalism is undoubtedly a bit of a traumatic experience. It is very much a “conversion.” And I treat it with that sort of sensitivity. This isn’t just a game about logic, or different kinds of logic, or about one person being smarter than another. It’s serious business, especially when the emotional and visceral responses center around the fact that all of these ideas directly impact our faith convictions, the very beliefs we stake our lives and our eternity upon.

This post has been an effort at highlighting and taking seriously the emotional/affective elements of our journey toward non-foundationalism and the ability to give up concepts like “Absolute” truth and “Objective” truth–yet not Truth, but still admitting that what we call truth is our claim, our take, our conviction based on good reasons. I cannot in one post, or even in one conversation (but perhaps over the period of many) sooth all the fears, questions, doubts, frustrations, etc., that come with the challenge posed by non-foundationalism to foundationalists. I cannot in one post rid Christians of the sometimes haunting sense that to be a non-foundationalist means God, morals, and truth go out the window. I can only tell you that such conclusions are not warranted–you don’t have to give it all up. But in order to see whether or not I could be right, you have to stick around long enough, you have to participate in the conversation long enough, to see that it only means re-situating those beliefs within a framework of faith and confidence (rather than certainty). That transition (or if you wish, conversion) is not easy. This post is a means to freely admitting that fact. Been there; done that. I’m with you.

I leave you with these words from Lesslie Newbigin, British missionary to India for more than a quarter century and highly respected missiologist, who wrote them upon returning. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it demonstrates with humility a non-foundationist Christian perspective.

If we are in search of the kind of indubitable certainty which Descartes claimed, the Bible must be set aside. The Bible claims to be a true interpretation of universal history. Since we are not yet at the end of history and since it may yet contain many surprises, we cannot have indubitable certainty. The only possible responses to the claims that the Bible makes are belief or unbelief. There can be no indubitable proofs. No one has seen God so as to verify the claim that he exists. No one has seen the end of the world so as to be sure of the direction in which we have to go. There is no scientific way of testing the claims and promises that the Bible makes. There is no way of being indubitably certain that this is what history is really about and that this gives us the direction of our lives. It must be, as the church has always said, a matter of divine revelation accepted in faith (John 1.18). Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 54–55.

The wait is over, at least for one more post. My apologies for those who may have thought I’ve fallen off the planet, or gave up on the blog, or abandoned the series on Truth and foundationalisms. None of those things has happened. I’ve simply been busy teaching courses this summer, writing curriculum for one of them, and then writing and traveling to present conference papers. All of that was a great adventure, but now I’m staying put for a while. And I’ve been thinking about the next post in the series for a bit. Forgive me for the long wait. I can’t predict how often I’ll write, but I hope it won’t be another 4 months until the next one!