Is Something Missing In Church?

Lately I've sensed an increasing number of Christians who feel that something important is missing from their church experience, their personal experience of God, or both. They often can't put their finger on what it is, but the number of people who feel this way is significant. I've seen it in many conversations and situations I know of first-hand, as well as sensing it as a subtle (even background) theme in much of what I read.

And what's interesting is that it's coming from within evangelical Christianity. I expect non-Christians to find Christianity somehow wanting - that's probably why they aren't Christians. But I'm talking about people who believe the Gospel of Jesus, and who participate in church regularly.

Below is a short video in which I share some of my observations about 4 places they're often going to look for "what's missing." And more importantly, what the answer is. Because in short, yes: I think something is often missing from our experience with God (as it has been from my own life for a long time). And better still, I think the Bible provides the answer to what it is. The answer hit me like a freight train this past Fall, and I discuss it in the video below (with a brief cameo appearance from Rosie the dog at the 12 minute mark!):

For some related thoughts on problems with the emergent church movement, see The Adrift Church?

For some related thoughts on how big (and sometimes small) evangelical churches tend to miss the centrality of the Gospel, see The Glitzy Church?


Ryan Hofer said...

Doesn't Evangelical theology say that people are incomplete without assenting to the story of Jesus as the only possible True meaning of human life? Perhaps the incomplete feeling stems partially from the abdication of fulfillment towards a conceptual and historical idea? It seems there is the beginning of a solution in the video, but my take was that the Pauline gospel message is correct and fulfilling if we can truly comprehend it in the present, yet as humans we can never actually comprehend it because the fullness is beyond us. So in a sense, the incomplete feeling is built into the theology itself, no? Maybe acceptance of our finitude is one possible way of knowing beyond conceptual theology. I'd like to offer some more thoughts regarding postmodernism, but I'd like to read your thoughts on this post first.

Matt Guerino said...

Hi Ryan, good to hear from you! Thanks for commenting.

In one sense, you're going a different direction than my original post, but it is a relateddirection. My point is essentially that churches often don't take the Gospel as seriously as they perhaps should, and the resulting "hollowness" in the spirituality of many evangelical congregations drives many orthodox, Bible-believing Christians to seek something "more real" in places that aren't consistent with their own beliefs. The answer, I argue, isn't to go further away from historical orthodoxy, but rather to delve further into it.

Now to your point: I think you're onto something, though I'm not sure where it's heading. You're pointing out that at a larger, philosophical level the Gospel itself says we should anticipate feeling somewhat empty apart from God, because he is what we were made for. That's pretty consistent with my point in the video (I don't think "assenting to the story pf Jesus" is the best way to capture the Gospel's proclamation, but that's perhaps a different discussion). You also point out, rightly I think, that the God for whom the Bible says we were made is infinite whereas we are finite, so there's no way I can ever say I have come to know everything about God fully.

A difference I see between the Bible's message and the postmodern view is that the Bible says we CAN know some things about God with accuracy, a high degree of certainty, and experience them fully. So while I can't know everything about him, and while some tags about him will remain an almost-total mystery to me, there are other things about him that are quite clear, knowable, and concrete.

To put this differently, whatever I come to know of God beyond conceptual theology is consistent with and guided by conceptual theology. Conceptual theology isn't an enemy of knowing - even knowing beyond the cognitive. It is actually a great ally.

What do you think? I'd be interested in your additional thoughts on the strengths of the postmodern mind.

Ryan Hofer said...

Hello Matt, thanks for your reply. I think I am following you and I'll try to articulate the uneasiness I find when reading. The seeking of something more real that is inconsistent with conceptual belief is an important point, I think. My sense is that a theology is composed of concepts we agree with and perhaps place varying degrees of belief in. The individual gospels contribute to evangelical theology as a whole, though they differ from each other. For example, Matthew proclaims the Son of Man prophecy for Jewish believers and not Gentiles, though current evangelical theology includes all races (thank you St. Paul). Some aspects of God found in the Bible are stated as Truth at the time of authorship, though many people have difficulty seeing them as such today, such as OT directives, equality for women, and equal rights for homosexuals. While claimed as divine message for a time, these aspects of a worldview have changed. At some point, a conceptual shift occurred and I think we see a lot of that happening in the Bible. The problem I see with saying that every real experience of God will be consistent with conceptual theology is this: how would you ever experience anything outside of your conceptual world? As an SPU theology professor once said, "the hardest thing about teaching theology is having a relationship with God." While I see concepts and theology as allies, I don't see them as completely binding for experiences of transcendence and divinity. Here I think postmodernism can be seen as a cultural and academic awareness of conceptual limitations, and no coincidence that our current Western culture also seems to be newly interested in Eastern ways of knowing as well. While not providing much direction, postmodernism is at least adept at pulling people into an awareness of their worldview, refusing to replace it with a different worldview. Anathema to any totality worldview, it seems to bring us to a point of immediacy and present moment that can be existentially discomfiting. OK, hope that makes sense.

May I ask, how do you feel a church can take the Gospel more seriously, and what immunizes your worldview from the postmodern way?

Matt Guerino said...

Thanks for that reply Ryan. I enjoyed reading it and I do think I see what you're saying. Again I find myself partially in agreement, yet even more convinced that postmodern thought overreaches some in an effort to correct some of the problems with rationalistic reductionism. For brevity, two responses follow: one of commonality in our thinking and one of possible divergence.

The commonality stems from the built-in arrogance and limitation we both seem to see in Enlightenment rationalism. Believing that all truth can be reduced to cognitive propositions is stifling and inadequate in my view, and I think everyday human experience of things like love, belief, and beauty demonstrate this. I do think this is a big part of what draws people to postmodernism, which is the value it brings that you point out. So yes, there's no way that a proposition can fully capture the essence of relationship (which is, I suspect, what the theology professor you quoted was driving at). Of course, that doesn't mean that propositions can't actually capture much of the truth of what the relationship is. Just that a relationship is more than the articulate-able facts.

The divergence (?) appears to me to lie in the relativizing of fairly concrete things that postmodernism requires of its adherents. For example, your comments about the varied audiences to which the 4 Biblical Gospels were addressed seem to imply that they actually contain contradictory messages. I would disagree with that assessment, and I think demonstrating their message-cohesiveness is a fairly straightforward and concrete task.

But more to the point, your example about shifting values is extremely important in my view. Cultural values have indeed shifted over time, as they always do over time and across cultures. Of course this doesn't automatically invalidate the Bible's claim (or any other claim) to be once-for-all true. Once a given shift in cultural values is in view, the question that seems to ensue is whether that shift is an improvement or a deterioration. How are we to know? By what standard would we measure this? Postmodernism insists that there is no accessible universal standard by which such shifts can be evaluated. I think that's a huge and unwarranted (and very difficult to support, incidentally) assertion.

So basically, I think Rationalism is too reductionistic, and because Rationalism has ruled Western thinking for over 300 years it has crept into some of the teaching of theology too. That's a tragedy, but this is a problem of Rationalism in my view, not theology or the Bible's truth claims. And I agree with you that the interest in Eastern thought which has been in vogue in the West for the past 70 or so years is a manifestation of our intuitive rebellion against Rationalism's limitations. There has always been such a backlash in the West: before it took the form of Romanticism.

So in short, the problem in my view is Rationalistic reductionism. You're right that postmodernism frees its adherents from that limitation, but I think such freedom comes at far too great a cost. The "cure may be worse than the disease." I would argue that Rationalism took us away from the classical Western worldview, and the better response to the ensuing problems is to return to it. Not to so radically relativize all truth claims that we end up with both feet firmly planted in mid air. I'm not sure that really gets us anywhere.

Ryan Hofer said...

It sounds like we agree that there is something outside of Rationalism. What was the classical Western worldview that Rationalism took us away from? Is a return to this part of being more serious about the Gospel?

Toril Asp said...

Not a comment, but a question!
I read that you have once been to a life revision course in Switzerland. Can you please tell me who to contact to get to know more about this!!
Mrs Toril Asp.
- running a retreatcenter in Norway. I do not have a blog only a mail adress:

TimChalm said...

So... as it so often goes... I listened and read this article a few weeks ago and wanted to comment, but time to come up with something that sounds intelligent has escaped me. So, I'm going to comment anyhow.

I think you're hitting the nail on the head. Yes, I agree that the Gospel is missing from many churches. But it's more than just the Words of the Gospel that's missing, I think it's the actual Real Life of the Gospel that's missing. What I mean is, that I think it's the application of the Gospel in our lives that's missing. And yes, I'm including myself in there, too.

Knowledge of God's Word is important, but it's absolutely necessary that it is interpreted correctly and then acted on. The distinction I want to make is that all too often, God's Word is misinterpreted, mis-characterized mis-stereotyped and misunderstood. All too often we make false assumptions about the Gospel and then hear what we want to hear so that we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility to actually live the Gospel.

Sometimes "church" is not much more than a social structure where we tell each other we're "fine" even when we know we're not and they know we're not, and then trade business cards. And when it looks like the stream of potential business has been exhausted, we move on to another church where we think we might find some more business opportunities. But please Lord, don't let me find anyone who has any real needs.

Matt Guerino said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments, and I apologize for the delay in my response. Easter is a busy time for pastors, but my attention can now return to the blog!

Ryan: the classical Western worldview centered on God the creator, and everything else flowed from this. Western development of such things as political theory, human rights, science, morality, and the arts progressed to previously-unheard-of heights under the banner of serving our Maker and the purposes he gave us in his organized world. For more on this, several good books are available but I'd highly recommend "Why You Think The Way You Do" by history professor Glenn Sunshine (see my book review to the right on this blog).

Rationalism has attempted (for over 200 years now) to extract God from the center of the Western worldview and replace faith in him with faith in human reason, under the (I believe) misguided notion that we can get much farther without him there than we can with him. As we've already said, this is reductionistic at the very least, and I'm suggesting we'd make far more progress if we returned God to the center of our worldview and proceeded from that point.

Toril: welcome to the blog. I think you have me confused with someone else. Sorry!

Tim: I think you basically hit the nail on the head. We (most definitely including me) are comfortable, and naturally seek to remain as comfortable as possible. So if Jesus went though the discomfort so that I wouldn't have to, then yipee! Trouble is, that's not the gospel, even though that is the basis of many Americans' Christianity. Jesus invites us into the divine life he lived, including the death he died, so that redemption can be completed through suffering to the glory of God. That means we have to be uncomfortable, for there's no other way to truly love another person.

Ryan Hofer said...

...and we're back!

I feel like the academy is reaching the point where it is skeptical of individual rationalism being the cure-all for human problems. We as humans are biased in our approach to problems; we're contextual and embodied. To ration and make relationships we often rely on values and axioms of truth, and it can take a multitude of perspectives and voices to arrive at a workable solution. The scary part of putting one notion of God into the "center" is that we then have to start making actual applications of that idea into concrete circumstances. It's fine to say that God stopped the sun for Joshua in a story, but ultimately ignorant to assert this means astronomy must find that the sun orbits around Earth. So I guess my first objection is that your proposal is quite vague, and not really applicable to social theory or research programs that are seeking new knowledge apart from conventional theological thinking. Applying vague language across a large spectrum is part of what the Enlightenment pulled us away from. That's how I'm seeing it.

Matt Guerino said...

Actually, I think you've got it precisely backwards. The first step to curing vagueness in thinking is to identify first principles, without which we can't reason at all.

Both Christianity and Rationalism posit an intellectual starting point, which is what enables us to think through everything, including social theory, in the first place. It is true that I have argued Rationalism's starting premise is wanting, and I have suggested Christianity's is better. But at least Rationalism has a clear first principle.

Postmodernism, not so much. It seems to be trying to replace other First Principles with the belief that we can have no confidence in any First Principle. But this undermines all coherent thinking by leaving us with our feet firmly planted in mid-air.

So I'm a little surprised at your response. If vagueness in thinking is your enemy, then postmodernism is not your friend.

Ryan Hofer said...

Being surprised is a good thing, right?

Yes we will usually start from an axiom, but I'm suggesting theological propositions are vague when applied to studying the natural world, and even usually to studying human beings. We may posit that man is higher than bacteria, yet man will die without the bacteria in his gut. Man may be higher than rat, but we rely on many of the same biochemical processes. Even when we start with values there are infinite caveats and elaborations to be made. I feel like you're taking what I'm suggesting and pulling it into a world of binary absolutes. Postmodernism, to me, allows explorations without the requirement of arriving back where one started. Theology can make all sorts of assertions about God, but applying those to human activity involves constant conversation, and surprises. If your coherent thinking is always dependent on dogmatic first principles, then there is no validation or consideration of other first principles, or other experiences. Isn't coherence influenced by context and values? Surely other cultures suggest that to our Western minds.

Ryan Hofer said...

How would we put God at the center of studying evolutionary biology, anthropology, political science, Marxism, genetic research, space travel, or socialism at a university?

Ryan Hofer said...

Perhaps postmodernism is the cultural result of skepticism?

Matt Guerino said...

Interestingly, I'm having the same feeling of being "binary-ized" by you that you are from me! :)

You seem to imply that settling on one conceptual Center (such as God) rules out consideration of multiple perspectives. But I disagree - as you have well said, positing God's existence still leaves tons of intellectual ground to plough, and lots of ways to plough it. I would actually argue the opposite: that without a starting axiom we have no basis from which to consider/evaluate other perspectives.

Postmodernism attempts to start with the un-axiom that due to our finite perspective there can be no ultimate axiom (which, interestingly, is itself an ultimate axiom: an un-provable, assumed First Principle). I don't often quote existentialist philosophers, but it was Jean Paul Sartre who said “No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point”. Was Sartre wrong, in your view?

So as to keep things streamlined, I'll address your other question re: what impact the question of God has on different areas of thought in a later post

Ryan Hofer said...

I'm looking forward to the later post.

I asked for examples so as to get some idea of what putting God at the center would be. I find it helpful to ask for the functional result of the rhetoric we are employing. If we constantly assert that people are not putting enough God somewhere, it's helpful to surmise what results might follow from a specific prescription. I mean, the assertion "more God" does not really lend itself to specific conversation or criteria-based refutation. It's more straightforward to reason (and ration) about concrete manifestations that may result from the concept (science!). That way I could say "no, that's not how I see God" or "that aspect of God's character doesn't really apply in this situation". I guess you can claim "more God" as a prime axiom, but what can I say to that? Yes? No? It will look very different across situations. Can you somehow allay my sense that your axiom might very well end up functioning as "more of my idea of what God says" at the center of everything?

I really feel that you're saying postmodernism is just a philosophical wasteland, but at least one functional result of postmodernism is a valuing of plurality and a consideration of individuals in their concrete contexts. Of course evangelical theology rejects it; the prime axiom of evangelical theology is that it literally IS the only Correct. It will always find a way back to being Right, over and above any cultural zeitgeist. Having an Other to rejects fuels the sense that one is on the better side.

OK OK I've got a thesis to write and you've got sermons to write, but thanks for reading.

Matt Guerino said...

Postmodernism doesn't have an Other to reject, which fuels the sense that its adherents are on the better side?

It sounds to me like your Other may in general be anyone who has a settled worldview assumption, and in particular evangelical Christianity.

Ryan Hofer said...

I think Postmodernism allows others, but shies away from the Other as a force that reliably negates towards truth. Since this blog is heavily about Evangelical Christianity, and I can speak to it from experience, that's a main topic, but I think we could apply some of the concepts I wrote about to other worldviews. Any system that pathologizes dissenting opinions without explaining itself is ripe for commentary. I don't get this: if postmodernism is just as vulnerable as evangelical christianity, which seems to be the point of your last post, how does that strengthen or further explain evangelical christianity, and your original claim of needing to put God at the center of everything?

Matt Guerino said...

I really enjoy the dialogue with you Ryan; thanks for being willing to maintain it.

I don't think "vulnerable" is the word I would use. But you are correct that I'm saying Postmodernism does the same thing every other worldview does, but it does so while claiming that it doesn't. All worldviews are based on a foundational truth claim, by which they critique other truth claims. This seems to be what you're reacting against (more on that in a moment), and you seem to be doing it from the conviction that Postmodernism is an exception in the 'pantheon' of worldviews in this regard. I'm pointing out that it isn't. Postmodernism claims that dogmatism is bad, which is itself dogmatic. It claims that certainty regarding the truth is unattainable, which itself is a claim of certainty regarding truth. In past discussions, you've referred to this as an "interesting paradox" (if my memory serves me correctly) but I think it is self-evidently a contradiction, which is a big clue that something isn't quite right.

I don't say this to bash Postmodernism or to put down its adherents; I say it as an observation. I want Postmodernists to lay their cards on the table, the way Theists, Naturalists (atheists), and New Agers do, so that a respectful debate about which view of truth is right can commence. Postmodernism refuses to lay its cards on the table by refusing to identify and own up to its core assumptions. That's its great shortcoming in my view, not just the fact that I disagree with it.

Which, in a very round-about way, brings us back to the point of the video blog entry. I don't know what your experience with evangelical Christianity was like or how you evaluate that experience completely, but I know that the environment of many evangelical churches tends strongly toward anti-intellectualism, which in turn tends to produce in practice an easy, us-against-them mindset which is actually contrary to much of Christian theology. We've been working to change that at Harvest for several years by delving further into the very Gospel we proclaim, the Scripture that teaches it, and the worldview it produces. This vlog entry is a small part in that effort.

To sum up this whole discussion: If I'm reading you right you're concerned about a dogmatic, closed-minded, us-against-them mentality that isn't willing to learn anything from anyone else. I agree with this completely. Where we appear to disagree (and what I'm respectfully trying to get you to see) is that Postmodernism can't deliver on its promise to free us from this problem, because its core premise removes any basis upon which to engage with others' ideas and evaluate them. The Christian premise, with its belief in the Image of God being in every person, leads to a basis of mutual respect and humility (if followed through - I sadly acknowledge that many Christians don't seem to see this). So I believe it's a better basis for actually accomplishing what it seems like you're after: respectful, gracious, dialogue with people who have opposing views in the pursuit of truth.

Which, BTW, is one very big way that "putting God at the center" would change things: it undermines our pride, opens up our mind, and makes us value other human beings regardless of who they are or what they believe. And you only get there if you know what you believe. I believe.

Ryan Hofer said...

Thank you; that was very enjoyable to read. Let's see, there are several thoughts I can offer. I don't know that there's really a central dogma of postmodernism to be put on the table. Maybe dogmas are good for some people, but I think postmodernism distrusts the application of these dogmas onto people in ways that victimize or diminish human potential.

Here's what's troubling to me right now: there's no checks or balances from the world when one starts applying a dogma. When the unknowable is claimed to be known, there's no way to refute the adherent's claim of inspired revelation. And if that is the basis for action in the world then why stop until the establishment of total victory for the claimed knowledge, whether in an individual life, or an entire society? It's claiming that each person is imaged from God, but using a definition of God to determine what each person must be. Why not let the person find and develop their God-image? If evangelicals are willing to grant themselves this privilege, then why deny it to Others? Because that's now how God works? That's back to square one where we began.

I just don't see how one can be intellectual in that sort of climate. How can we make nuanced observations if the primary goal of the system is to establish it's veracity through replication and homage, rather than a reckoning with the everyday world and the present?

Matt Guerino said...

Well, first off I think you're letting Postmodernism off the hook too easily. :) It does have a central dogma - it HAS to, as does any intellectual system. It just doesn't admit it openly, but now I'm repeating myself so 'nuff said on that point.

But a very significant issue IMO is the one your last comment focuses on: the application of one's dogma to the real world in a way that victimizes others. For example, you wrote "I think postmodernism distrusts the application of these dogmas onto people in ways that victimize or diminish human potential." Sure it does, but you don't need Postmodernism to have such mistrust. I mistrust humanity's ability to justly apply dogma, and I'm a wholly-committed evangelical Christian. Two observations here re: the Christian Gospel.

First, I think you have correctly identified a major problem in human history, but have mis-identified its source. The source of humans victimizing one another is not the existence of dogma in the human mind. It is the existence of evil in the human heart. The problem is not external (what we believe is true "out there") but rather internal (what we choose to do to each other in our hearts, which eventually manifests in words and actions). So you can't change victimization by changing the dogma (even with a Postmodern un-dogma) because any dogma can and will become the basis for evil people to divide into us-vs-them camps (Postmodernism is no exception here, as I alluded to above) and treat others in inhumane ways. The modern concept of Tolerance is itself quite intolerant. The Gospel is the only worldview that locates the source of inhumanity in the human heart and offers a heart solution, and I unashamedly believe that the Gospel is right on this point and we ignore it's right-ness to our own peril.

Second, the Gospel also offers the solution. Of course there's the ultimate solution of Christ's salvation, freeing us from sin. But even in the meantime in a world in which not everyone is a Christian or will become so, the Gospel itself IS the check on dogma that you're wanting to see. Because the Gospel tells us our nature is inherently warped, we learn not to trust anyone completely with power, including ourselves. This has lots of real-world applications. For example, Western Civilization invented the concept of limited government because it saw too much potential for the abuse of power in the hands of a single entity. Samuel Rutherford wrote the book Lex Rex ("The Law is King") in 1644, arguing against the old notion of the Divine Right of Kings and stating that the king himself was subject to the law, which was ultimately rooted in... the creation order. This book broke the hold of tyranny in Western governments and paved the way for John Locke and others, and our political philosophy of limited power, checks and balances, and the rights of the individual. Incidentally, the book's author, Samuel Rutherford, was a Presbyterian pastor.

So what I'm saying is I agree with your concern about dogma being used as a weapon. But Postmodernism doesn't save you from this dilemma even though it appears to on the surface. Only the Gospel can do that, despite the fact that many who claim to follow it have used it to victimize other people. They have not been following it when they do that. To the contrary, there has been no greater dogma in the history of the world in protecting innocents and advancing human dignity than the Gospel of Jesus. I don't think that's my opinion. I think the real history of the real world bears that idea out.

Ryan Hofer said...

I can vibe with an intellectual system having a starting point, but I'm not claiming intellectual systems are ultimately satisfying in the apprehension and creation of meaning. I mean, what's the meaning of meaning, you know what I mean? ad infinitum. So you can keep a hook in Postmodernism as unfulfilling if you want, but I still don't understand how Tolerance gets morphed into Intolerance.

Isn't the Gospel a check and balance for every evil in the world? Even if it is applied in a terrible unworkable way, we can always say that imperfect people were applying a perfect Absolute Gospel, so how could we ever disprove it? And if the source is always in the human heart, which is equally undefinable, then the two absolutes can coexist without input/output from life right now.

I'm wondering why not just go with the idea that the Elect are chosen before time to serve God's purposes on Earth? What evidence disproves that for you? Are human hearts like yours and mine too evil to accept this most fundamental truth?

Put another way, what capacity is allowing people to choose the good, or to choose your theology? And if you're going to recite Genesis Adam and Eve Garden of Eden, that's part of your theology. Free will gets messy because now the human heart is both an agent in choosing good, and a participant in choosing bad. So how about all the good choices people make? Not valid unless brought under your theology?

No doubt people can do terrible things with harmful intentions, but to understand causes and effects in organic and shifting reality, it takes definition and conversation in a multitude of realms. I don't think that will take place when abstracts are privileged before process.

Ryan Hofer said...

There's some sort of reciprocation going on between knowledge and experience...

Matt Guerino said...

Well, (in reference to your April 25 11:39 comment) I'm not sure what you're trying to say with your first couple paragraphs. I really apologize, but I've read it three times and I'm afraid I’m still lost.

As to the last couple paragraphs, which seem clearer to me, all I can say is it really isn't nearly so complicated as that. And I think most people know it. For example, "the human heart" is really not a difficult concept for the average person to grasp. People aren't confused when someone uses that phrase in conversation.

When I've talked with advocates of Postmodernism about the concreteness of First Principles (even if we don't agree on what they are - just about their necessary existence), Postmodernism's allergic reaction to dogma usually rises to the surface, typically in the form of lots of words that don't say anything clearly. That’s kind of how your first couple paragraphs read. The idea seems to be that saying a lot without saying anything definite somehow demonstrates that things can't be said with clarity, but I think all it demonstrates is that the speaker has read a Thesaurus. Please understand I’m not intending to barb or criticize, but rather to simply state what I see to be true. I point this out as one more attempt to demonstrate to you how Postmodernism leads us AWAY from understanding, not further into it.

Example from your second-to-last paragraph: I would respond that of course free will is a messy entity (hugely so!) and is indeed responsible for both choices of good and choices of evil. No problems at all from the vantage point of the Christian worldview. But it is a problem from the vantage point of Postmodernism, because you refer to people making "good" choices (which presumes that some standard exists by which a choice can be measured as relatively good or bad) yet you imply that no such absolute standard can be known, rendering any discussion of anyone's choice as being either good or bad totally meaningless. And you've further suggested that meaning itself doesn't mean anything definite... in which case no one knows anything and why are we even talking? Do you feel the clarity and understanding increasing? I sure don't.

And I must say that once again you have demonstrated, unwittingly I’m sure, the central problem of Postmodern thought – the contradiction at its heart. In your last paragraph you state clearly that understanding will only come when abstracts are not privileged above process. But this very statement is itself an abstract. It is another way of stating Postmodernism's central premise, which you said earlier doesn't exist, but you keep coming back to it and restating it as the basis of your own thought. This is exactly my point: thinking can't happen without a First Premise upon which to begin thinking. You’ve illustrated that quite well.

Incidentally, I think your very last comment (11:41am) is true: of course experience factors in to our perception of knowledge. Postmodernists are hardly the first ones to recognize this. And that observation is completely consistent with all common worldviews including Christianity (that's why we have different denominations!), Naturalism, etc. One doesn't have to go so far as to claim that 'meaning has no meaning' in order to recognize that culture and experience help shape perception. So do First Principles.

Ryan Hofer said...

OK I'll rephrase. (communication is a process...)

I'm not advocating postmodernism as a totality worldview. There's some starting points that are open for critique, but I also don't see much merit in your claim that the tolerance of postmodernism ends up being intolerant. Maybe logically or abstractly, in a discussion about epistemology or axioms, but not really functionally. I would say there has been an increase in tolerance as postmodernism has taken its course.

Second paragraph: Under Evangelical Christianity, the Gospel is the answer for every human problem that stems from everyone's human heart. This is functionally the same as saying put God at the center of everything, or put Jesus at the center of everything. How can I argue with that rhetorical construction? Any example or analogy I could give would have to, a priori, already be included in the framework of God Gospel Jesus Correct. If I say the Inquisition was terribly intolerant, then it was a poor interpretation of the Gospel. If I say Paul is terribly unfair to women, he's justified due to his status as speaker of the Gospel. This is really just restating one of my former points: a placeholder can be applied across multiple situations, thereby minimizing ambiguities and diversity. I don't see modern societies as functional under a placeholder dogma system.

Look, Matt, I'm not taking excerpts from a book I wrote on Postmodernism. I'm posting on a blog. I really enjoy it and appreciate the venue, as it helps me grow, but my posts won't all be intricately crafted. You're writing about stuff you research and publicly speak about every week, in a tradition that's been around for quite awhile. If some of my analogies don't make sense, then I welcome your questions. Just because you don't understand doesn't mean my statements are doomed to incoherence by all parties, forever.

Good and bad is not totally meaningless outside of a pre-set standards system. Think of art and music and dance; we don't know exactly what will happen until we encounter and discover them as embodied interpreters. Of course these blog statements are abstract; I'm pointing towards my experience of process being important. You say that the human heart is understandable in ordinary conversations, but isn't it a lifelong faith journey to understand how this heart can relate to God? If everyday conversation was the measure of knowledge, then we wouldn't write stories, books, songs, and sermons.

In closing, and to restate paragraph 3, I'm wondering why you don't believe in pre-election. It could remove all ambiguities and could be justified in reference to a perfect ideal. An adherent to such a belief could claim inspired knowledge and apply the Correct across every area of life. He could preach as testament to his status and no one could ever disprove him. In fact, everyone else is evil and doomed, so why even care? Total freedom!

I don't think you believe all that, but from a pre-electionist's viewpoint, you are evil and stubborn and doomed. So explain to me how an Absolutist formulation of the Gospel isn't pre-election with a little ambiguous adventure thrown in? And if you're going to grant free-will, then why not take it further, past dogmas? I think you're into ambiguity on some level, and maybe you even like it.

And FWIW, I don't usually need a thesarus, I'm just good with words.



Matt Guerino said...

"And FWIW, I don't usually need a thesarus, I'm just good with words. lol, that made me chuckle. :)

You seem to be saying that in order to argue against Christianity (or by extension any claim to Truth) you'd have to grant its premises, but then this dooms you to being unable to refute it since it's a somewhat circular (or perhaps better, self-justifying) system. Is that close to reading your right?

Sounds pretty hopeless. But I don't think we're that bad off, for at least a couple reasons. First, we can "put on" the clothes of other worldviews and understand them from within, but this doesn't prevent us from critiquing them and contrasting them with one another. I do this semi-regularly in a class I teach that compares Christianity, Naturalism, New Age, and Postmodernism, and consists of many non-Christians students who do not share my personal assumptions. It works well (it's pretty fun, actually). And I think I do a fair job presenting the other worldviews from their vantage point - I've had students who hold them tell me so, which I take as a great compliment.

Second, we can look at a worldview and see its effects on the real world. What we have is competing and mutually-exclusive claims about the way things really are. Well, like a map we can hold them up to history and see which one works best. Of course there is still lots of disagreement, but my point is that objective evaluation of truth claims and respectful, healthy debate is entirely possible even from the vantage point of holding a First Principle.

A corollary to this is that I believe I can demonstrate objectively that aspects of the Inquisition were contrary to the Gospel. I think I can also demonstrate objectively that Paul is not misogynistic. Again, one might not agree with my conclusions when I was done, but (again) I don't think we need to reject First Principles in order to critically evaluate truth claims in a healthy, respectful way. It seems like you think we do.

And for kicks, I'll go with your Election example as an illustration. The Bible teaches Election. It does not teach (I can demonstrate this objectively) some of the silly conclusions and bad attitudes Election adherents have sometimes displayed, such as 'everyone else is evil and I'm one of the good guys' or what have you. It actually teaches that everyone is equally sinful (elect or not), everyone is equally valuable and worthy of respect (elect or not), and the Gospel should be shared with everyone in love (not writing people off in a self-justified 'who-cares' way) because only God knows the elect. So without wasting your time citing all the requisite Bible verses, I'd offer this as an example of how belief that the Gospel is actually Truth (which I do) doesn't lead to totalitarian, denigrating, self-justifying judgmentalism.

It actually leads to the opposite, which I think history bears out quite well. I would never duck or minimize the bad things Christians have done in the name of Jesus. But not only can it be shown objectively that they were in fact not representing Jesus despite their words, more importantly it can be shown that those who do take the Gospel seriously produce a very different kind of life. I could list lots of names and examples, but this is long enough already.

TimChalm said...

May I interject? I think I see one small point.

The "tolerance" of Postmodernism is intolerant of almost everything that Jesus said. For example, "I am the way the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except thru Me." Postmodernism can't tolerate the fact that someone puts up a standard as being the only standard. And the list of examples is long.

Now if I might make one more point about the practicality of the Gospel. The Gospel, in its essence, is very understandable by even a child. Jesus loves me this I know. Yes, there is a step of faith there, but once you examine the historicity of Jesus and documents that we have as the Bible, there also needs to be an intellectual understanding that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and then you're faced with the predicament that you must either agree with the simple essence of the Gospel or reject it. Those who refuse to examine the historical facts with an open mind, are then forced to close their minds even further and complicate the Gospel by academically intellectualizing it, thereby hollowing out its truth, which then allows them to ignore its many calls to action. Faith without action, is dead. And so are many churches.

Ryan Hofer said...

Seems we can use theories to start from, but I'm pointing out that Evangelical Christian rhetoric is prone to use repetitions that mask a lack of depth. Seeing that doesn't lead me to hopelessness. Why do you keep jumping off a cliff and taking me with you?

I'm skeptical towards your claim of proving Christianity objectively through historical analysis. If you have some work for me to read, I'll take a look.

But I like your idea of "putting on" other worldviews. In a way you're showing a capacity for empathy and understanding. But still, you are engaging in the practice to prove yourself right by the end of the class. Imagine if you ended up with a different worldview! You'd have to stop teaching at George Fox!

But as for my little thought experiment, I'm saying this pre-electionist doesn't take your interpretation of the Bible as Correct, so pointing out textual contradictions isn't going to work (Evangelical Christianity lives with textual contradictions). I'm not asking this just for kicks; how can we prove to this person that they are wrong? We can't use "because God said so". He already knows what God is saying. Why would he listen to someone who is obviously not Elect, who obviously is not seeing things Correctly? Who cares if Electionists have exhibited silly behavior; maybe they were a little off, but his view is still True in all its glory. What is the common ground where a discussion could take place?

Also, your synopsis of "elect" renders it functionally meaningless outside of the placeholding language we've discussed, IMO. If only God knows about Election then we have to read God's mind, and how did you do that? Because your first principle is Correct? :sigh:

TimChalm said...

Have you read C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity, and Miracles? He provides a logically rigorous discussion that goes farther back before the typical starting point.

If you have read those two books, what are your thoughts?

Matt Guerino said...

Well Ryan, to answer your question: I keep jumping off the cliff and taking you with me because I think you've jumped off a cliff already on your own, and you just haven't realized it yet. I'm trying to get you to think it all the way through to the conclusion, to see where the fundamental Postmodern assumption inevitably leads.

I believe we may have covered some of the historicity before. Strobel's book The Case for Christ is an excellent work for non-scholars, like all of us. And I may have referred before to Glenn Sunshine's book Why You Think The Way You Do (my book review in the sidebar of this blog), which I think you'd really enjoy and learn a lot from (I did ) about how all these different worldviews came to be historically, how they bled into one another, etc. So I don't know where your skepticism of history comes from, but there are many great, accessible ways to dig a little deeper.

Matt Guerino said...

There are two problems with your "closed-minded Electionist" hypothetical as I see it. First, you seem to be radicalizing doubt. But this is unrealistic and it tends to falsely dichotomize thinking, creating straw-man arguments in the process. "If even one small detail of what you believe might even remotely be considered wrong, then what about the next detail, and the next, and all the way down even to all the core principles?" This kind of thinking seems designed to force one into saying they either have no doubts about anything (which is absurd, hence the Straw Man) or to say they must doubt everything, which is a non-sequiter since it assumes all knowledge is equally unknowable. Now we're back to Postmodernism's un-admitted First Principle.

And it doesn't get us anywhere. Is the point of questioning to arrive at a greater confidence about what is true? If not, then why question? Just believe whatever works for you and don't worry about it. If so, what happens when we do make some progress and come, through whatever process, to consider an idea as more true than its competitors? Are we now "closed-minded" again because of that, and unable to appreciate process, nuance, and other peoples' perspectives?

So I think one can have all sorts of questions and doubts about something like Election, and consider all kinds of different viewpoints, but still be operating from a settled confidence in the existence of God, the veracity of the Bible, etc. You seem to be saying it doesn't work that way. Maybe you never thought you saw it modeled, I don't know. But it definitely does work that way.

Secondly, the Bible's teaching about Election doesn't function the way your hypothetical guy thinks about it, which (broken record, sorry) I can demonstrate objectively. Election serves 2 purposes in the Bible, and they're both for Christians: a partial explanation of why some people who witnessed miracles still didn't repent and believe, and to remind Christians that they are not extra holy or more special than non-Christians, but that they are saved by God's sheer grace (to make them humble and worshipful). The Bible never suggests that Election is something one uses to evaluate the spiritual status of another person, and it explicitly says it isn't something that makes us proud; just the opposite. I only say all this to challenge your notion that Christianity's veracity is either unassailable (by granting it's presuppositions) or meaningless (by rejecting them). I've now shown or alluded to several specific examples of how one can rigorously evaluate the claims of Christianity for veracity, whether from inside the faith or outside of it. As can happen with all worldviews.

And for the record, I don't teach at Fox to convince myself I'm right. I already believe the Gospel is True, and I've evaluated it and enough of its competitors thoroughly enough to have a high degree of confidence in that belief. I teach to get people (Christians and Postmodernists alike) to think beyond simple surfacey ideas in their worldviews.

Ryan Hofer said...

I think I'm getting the first two paragraphs; we have choices right on top of us and so the only possible way to live without doubt would be to just end the process of life, but very few people do that. Matt, at your best you sound like a pragmatic psychologist. :)

But people outside your view are misunderstanding truth, and misunderstanding their own feeling of knowledge?

Once again, my imaginary Electionist doesn't really believe in the Bible as totally binding. He doesn't think God would really tell people to commit genocide, and he thinks women are just as capable of being leaders of the Elect. Your tradition may be full of great thinkers and human struggle, but nonetheless he thinks your view muddles who God is, and it's too confusing.

I'm having trouble squaring your statement of getting beyond the surfacey with your claim that everyone pretty much knows what we're talking about already. It feels disingenuous to claim superior knowledge of human knowing apart from being informed by modern philosophers and psychologists, or at least apart from some sort of study and process. Do you know more than other people or not?

Tim, I read Mere Christianity a long time ago, but I don't think I've read Miracles. C.S. Lewis is really fascinating for me. My take is that he understood that people can be aiming towards a similar thing, while using different forms and metaphorical vehicles. For example, he writes about the worshiper of Tash being let into Aslan's realm because, turns out, Tash and Aslan are the same. And Lewis writes about Jesus being the Way, but admits not knowing how many different ways to Jesus there may be. In other words, people before Christ still have access to the metaphysical "work" of Jesus, though they never had any knowledge of him. Which actually brings me back to my questions regarding Matt's knowledge.

TimChalm said...

Well... not exactly. Two thoughts on CS Lewis... One, don't take the allegorical stories as theology.

Two, if it's been several years since you read Mere Christianity, I'm sure you would have a very different perspective now. I just re-read it last year for the first time in about 30 years and yes, my understanding had matured. And of course,there is no way to summarize CS Lewis in a blog post, but I think you would be interested to see how he starts at point zero, and logically builds his case point by point. And he explains logically why various opinions need to be set aside.

In one way, I think the title of Mere Christianity is probably misunderstood by many people. I think I would call it Foundations or something like that. But then, I'm obviously not CS Lewis.

Miracles is also fascinating. He starts by explaining the definitions of "Naturalist" and "Super-naturalist". Even that takes a few chapters; it is very seriously one point at a time. No hand waving, no smoke or mirrors. It's all straight logic.

Honestly, I can only read it a page or so at a time. I mean, I have work to do.

It's really good reading and thinking. Have fun!

Ryan Hofer said...

I thought Lewis himself said something to the effect that fairy tales get at truth in a very important way, and that a compelling reason for the Jesus story was that so many other stories had similar elements. You'll have to help me on the dividing line between allegory and theology. Why are so many Christians reading Lewis if it doesn't affect their theology? Doesn't the Bible contain many allegories/parables?

Sadly I have no time for more reading in my life right now, but if you want to summarize I can think about it and comment.

TimChalm said...

Parables and allegories are great for providing word pictures to illustrate something - which could be either truth or fiction. Unfortunately, a story does not provide a good foundation for a systematic theology.

And, I'm terribly sorry, but any attempt by me to summarize CS Lewis would also include an excessive amount of cliff jumping.

Maybe I could tap out to Matt on this one. No scratch that. I think you take this one from here.

Matt Guerino said...

Back to your April 26 comment...

Well Ryan, I'm not really sure what to say at this point. The apparent dilemma you pose to me has very little to do with anything I've actually said. So let me respond briefly by repeating what I have said in the simplest possible terms, and then summarize what I think this long string of comments shows us.

First, I never claimed knowledge totally apart from study and process. I don't know where that idea even came from (I’ve actually stated the opposite explicitly at least once). What I have said repeatedly and in a variety of ways (and to which you have still not offered a coherent response, incidentally) is that all thinkers (contemporary and past, scholars and lay people, Christians and Postmodernists) start their thinking on foundational First Principles, for thinking itself is impossible apart from doing so.

Regarding my "everyone knows what we’re talking about already" comment – please read in context. That was a response to your assertion that definitions are so elusive that no one even knows the meaning of words like “meaning.” I argued that such a statement is somewhat silly, and it reads more like an attempt to avoid dealing with the issue rather than offering a coherent argument.

Now, whether or not you agree with me on either of these points, it should be obvious that neither of them have anything to do with the “dilemma” you evidently think I’m stuck in.


Which leads me to take this whole discussion in view and attempt a summary. I have attempted to argue at least two major things. First, that all worldviews start with First Principles including Postmodernism, but that unlike the others Postmodernism isn't honest about this. And I have shown logically, several times, that this is the case. You have tended to respond by either not addressing that argument at all, or dismissing it with a shrug by simply stating your view that Postmodernism has no central First Principle that can be stated.

Second, I have also attempted to argue that the Christian worldview provides the best explanation for reality among the competing suitors, as evidenced by its logical cohesiveness and the evidence of its impact on the actual history of the actual world we live in (hence my reference to Rutherford's book, using human rights and political theory as one of many possible examples). You have mostly responded to this line of argument with a simple assertion that any such critical analysis is hopelessly fraught with self-referential circularity. This seems to render the whole discussion moot rather than helping us make progress in sorting out truth from fiction.

And this is what I have called having one's intellectual feet firmly planted in mid-air, or what you referred to as jumping off a cliff (though I understand that you think I'm the one doing it, not you). And as long as the above is your approach I don't see much prospect of us getting anywhere, since anything else I offer would be much more info along the same lines as what I've already said.

I certainly hope that my evaluation of this discussion doesn't feel harsh, but rather merely critical (there is a difference). Nevertheless, if you feel I've misrepresented anything I'll be happy to let your response be the final word.

Ryan Hofer said...

Yes I was thinking of summarizing my impressions as well; seems we’ve exhausted this thread. I’m discouraged that I haven’t been able to clearly articulate to you the connections I see, but the time we’ve both spent writing is, I think, commendable.

I haven’t claimed postmodernism as the foundation of my thinking, but rather tried to point out that it has a reciprocal relationship with things in society that many deem as very useful and desirable. That’s one reason it irks/puzzles me when you readily call it completely hopeless and devoid of any redeeming qualities, or when you claim that my lines of thought are hopeless. PoMo may not compute as a totality logic system, for better or for worse, but I think a lot of people are tacitly utilizing it in modern societies, and I think they experience a lot of meaning and hope. First principles play a large role in rational thought, but they are not the only component of it. One could also look at cultural influences, emotional background, and how the brain physically functions. In other words, a human person never lived a life logically from a first principle; that’s the job of programs. And when programs get stuck they just stop, unless they can learn and change their code.

Up top my initial concern was that the language of evangelical theology reinforces a separation between the knower and fulfillment, and I wondered how putting God at the center of everything addresses this gap. Then we moved to postmodernism as a cause of confusion because it doesn’t claim a clear first principle. Near as I can summarize it, the argument seems to be that thought requires a starting point and this starting point is best conceived of as God. To prove this, we can attempt to show that belief in God brought about all the goods of the Enlightenment. This may be a defensible anthropological case, though I don’t think that physical science, or the social sciences, will be the most effective in our present day if driven by the particulars of this past viewpoint, nor does this specifically address an evangelical view of God. It also asks me to compare an idea of a past society with an idea of society today, which is the sort of super-abstraction that has a lot of holes in it. I think a historian could probably make a case, within any society, regarding how theology affected the pursuit of science and political organization, but linking that to a divine plan in hindsight is dubious, and is mostly used in service towards prescribing a present and future.

I refer back to my earlier question of how we could really push a scientific research program off of a literal reading of the Bible as a whole. I don’t see that happening anytime soon in any major research university or corporation. Soooooo… at least we are gaining a lot of knowledge about the physical world that is not really guided by direct readings of the Bible. And there’s a strange tension in the view that special revelation provides us with obvious and concrete facts of life. It they’re obvious and concrete, then why the special revelation? I guess that’s where I was headed with the questions about the knowledge you have, because the superior nature of it, and the requirement that this superiority be maintained at whatever cost, shapes the application of it into situations. Tim’s example above, that stories and systematic theology are different, privileges the Christian system above others. Short steps then to the eradication of indigenous theology. One set of stories (because how could you have a systematic theology without stories and metaphors) becomes the system which, a priori, ought to be believed by everyone in all times and places.

Ryan Hofer said...

It’s like we’re coming at this from two different angles. I’m critically appraising the application of language that dodges present justification (I’m trying to anyway) and, from my reading, you’re attempting to prove, through historical analysis, that Christianity is worthy because it worked as a worldview for a time. Yet even if it hadn’t been the dominant Western view, I don’t think evangelical dogma would be much altered because it claims justification in the conceptual Absolute. I could make the same critique towards Mormonism, though it wasn’t around when the Enlightenment took place.

We both agree that rationalism isn’t satisfying but, from this snapshot of a thread, we’ve got different methods of living out a solution. We’re both uncertain of what to do in the face of a world-experience that won’t be tamed by rational thought. Evangelical theology takes that uncertainty and assuages it with an abstraction into language, past events, and a claim of special revelation. I’m more into seeing what happens when we let that uncertainty sit in the present world, when we accept it, acknowledge that we don’t know for sure, and take concrete steps to improve our minds and bodies. I respect that the above argument against postmodernism attempts to use logic and rationality as immediate keys into how we know, though I don’t understand how it’s going to solve the missing piece that people say they feel at church.

At this point to me the historical argument is more of a comment on how societal values can influence science, and not really proof that we should return to the values of previous times. I’ve been thinking a lot about choice lately, because when we allow for choice and free will, outside of reality being chosen for us as in pre-determination, there are many complications that arise. Why do people make different choices? What necessary information is required to make the choice in the first place? How do choices change over the span of development? I don’t see how proponents of evangelical theology can avoid dealing with their capacity for choice, and how they’re managing to make the superior choice. There’s some sort of belief that one’s mind is connected to the Absolute through concepts, and justified through assent to doctrine. (?) This will probably come up in my future comments.

As a sidenote, check out this sociologist’s view on “Liquid Modernity”.
He’s making connections between societies today and how we think. I think C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, criticized a Science that makes man completely beholden to his environment, and capacity for choice is within that debate. There may be lots of negative consequences of purely mechanical science, including the feeling that we’re engaged in a kind of empty pursuit.

Thanks for providing the forum and giving actively to this conversation.

Jerry Casper said...


I sent this video link to myself weeks ago and just got around to watching it. Work travel and vacations tend to put me behind on the non-work stuff that I want to consume. :-)

In watching the video tonight, I was struck by you saying, "When were you last blown away by the Gospel?" Sometimes the good questions are the hardest to answer.

You followed that up with 'We don't grow past the Gospel, but we grow in the Gospel.' Immediately, I thought of Hebrews where the author talks about moving past milk to meat and how I've subconsciously interpreted the milk as the Gospel and the meat as 'other' even more important things.

In reality, the meat is understanding how that very Gospel should shape our lives and completely mess up our priorities by putting God first. As you said, while we were in the very depths of our sin, he came to suffer and die to save us. He did so knowing that many of those he died for would reject him, and some would reject him with vitriolic hatred.

That thought blew me and Kari-Ann away tonight.

As for something missing in church, having grown up in charismatic churches and having attended a megachurch for many years, I think you're spot on. Do I miss the high levels of emotion and passion in the charismatic churches or the heavily polished professionalism and energy/buzz of the mega churches? I'd be lying if I didn't say yes. At the same time, it seems to come back to the I Corithians 13 passage that you preached on a few days ago. "...if I do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol" I realize the passage was talking about gifts, but there are all sorts of trappings in our lives that will be meaningless in eternity. That isn't true of the love given to us by Jesus because according to I Corinthians, it will never end (fail). Focusing on His love and His priorities makes the feeling of 'missing something' in church diminish or go away completely as we respond to the love shown to us and remember that church and this faith isn't really about us, but is about the God who loves us.

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