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I Am Far Too Premodern To Be Postmodern

As some of you know, I went through an “Emergent Phase” in 2008, then made a radical break with Emergent in ’09. (An e-book version of my blog during this time is coming soon).

Recently, I have been flipping through these old posts, wondering what it was that really triggered the break with Emergent? There were many factors which played into it – some of these factors were apparent to me at the time (see post, “No Longer Emergent“). However, as I recently re-read my blog-posts and journals from this time, I realized there was a deeper reason for the break.

Probably the most important post I have ever made, to date, has been the post “Taking My Education into my Own Hands.” In this short post (it’s worth your time to read it!), I expressed my belief that:

1) There is no end to the books being written on theology (Ecc. 12:12)

2) Most of these books are crap, and thankfully disappear without a trace

3) There are a select core of books which:

3.a) Have not disappeared

3.b) Continue to be read, interacted with, enjoyed, and highly regarded

3.c) Continue to influence and shape modern theology

I decided that it would be more important to master these ancient classics than to become an “expert” on the trendy, wispy theology of today.

I began my quest with Augustine. In the summer of ’09, I read Confessions, City of God, The Enchuridion, and excerpts from Letters. (Note: I found all of this free, in audio format at librivox.org)

As I later reflected in A Wise Shepherd of A Wandering Mind, to read Augustine is to be changed by Augustine. You cannot understand him without thinking like him. And to think like a person is to be changed (usually permanently) by that person.

The odd thing is that I actually disagree with Augustine on many significant points. For example, he was a neo-platonist which means that he tended to see matter as bad, and spirit is good. It’s his fault that we still think of heaven as a spirit-place, rather than a place where we have resurrection bodies (Rom. 8:11). It’s his fault that the church got tangled up in politics, and it’s his fault that it cannot become “untangled.” The crusades, witch-burnings, and religious wars are all due to the doctrine of “Just War,” which he pioneered. He also believes in infant bapitsm, and a host of other serious errors, including the belief that sex is always a sin – a doctrine which has lead to celibate clergy and a distorted view of marriage in the Catholic church to this day. Finally, the whole edifice of Catholic ecclesiology is built upon his belief and teaching.

However, even saying all of that, it is his mind and his use of Scripture and his deep commitment to, love of, and worship towards the one true God which held me captive, from the moment I began reading him. And in reading, I have been deeply changed. His blunt exegesis on Hell challenged me on my shallow and passive understanding of the topic (see “What if there is a hell?”). On re-reading him more recently, I made another very significant shift in my thinking, realizing that “Christianity is Not A Religion

No doubt, if any educated Emergent folks happened upon my mature thoughts on Emergent (see “What is the Emergent Church” and “The Myth of ‘Post’ Modernity“) would think that I am too “Modern.” Influenced unduly by the successors of Hodge, Warfield, Finney, Spurgeon, Edwards and especially Calvin, I am too biased, to shallow, too trusting of what I learned in sunday-school and church, too bound to the near-past to break out into the light of the future, the next evolutionary step, the grand finale of church history which is the Emergent Church.

Now frail and shallow I may be – but Modern I am not. The truth is, I had read none of the above-mentined authors at this time. In fact, I have still read only snippets of Edwards, half of The Institutes, and nothing of the others. The true influence was Augustine.

After breathing deeply of the crisp logic, linear reasoning, solid exegesis and passionate spirituality of Confessions and City of God, I was never again really “at home” in postmodernity, or in Emergent.

True enough, in turning away from the Emergent/PostModern literature, I found my way home. I stopped focusing all my attention on pop-culture and the liberal/news-media culture (I used to listen to the news a LOT), and stopped trying to wrap my mind around contemporary deconstructionism and the like. I stopped listening to “The Relevant Podcast,” “The Emergent Village Podcast,” “The Phoenix Journal,” and even scaled back on listening to Bruxy Cavey quite so much.

But I didn’t simply run home to mommy. I found an old, a trusted, a deeply wise and personal friend who directed me, time and again, to a burning heart, a clear head and the Scriptures. It is through the agency of these working in harmony that I came to be bored, then indifferent, then skeptical, and now hostile to Emergent/Postmodern thought.

Rather than flee from culture, I believe I stepped back from it for a few months. With the aid of Augustine, I was able to become aware of the trendiness, the shallowness, and the hypocrisy of it all.

To put it simply: I just became far too premodern to be postmodern anymore – and that was the beginning of the new direction, which I am still walking to this day…

2 Comments »

  1. I can’t wait to have a conversation with you, Josiah. You are a most expressive and articulate writer. You are passionate and logical; you sound confident and persuasive. I admire and almost envy the writing ability and the body of knowledge you display.

    However, I am struck by the irony I perceive in the process and the bases for your conclusions–conclusions that are evidently “mature” and superior to any other “trendy, wispy” versions. I doubt that I disagree very much with your conclusions, but I’d like to offer some thoughts about the process.

    I expected that you might celebrate your growing and deepening beliefs about critical doctrines on having reached a clearer understanding of how various Scripture passages combine to teach us a coherent understanding of, let’s say, eternal punishment.

    Instead, I understand you to say that the writings of Augustine (and others on an approved list) are so compelling and logical that you found “your way home”. And this while brushing casually aside a list of doctrinal aberrations (“a host of serious errors”) that—if recently-produced by any current theologian—would, I dare say, prompt you to relegate such a person to the category of—well, what category would it be? That of toxic theologians?

    What your post verifies to me is that we mostly pick and choose among a variety of doctrinal systems and conclusions; and we usually claim that this is purely a Scripture-based process. As I read your posts, I’m not always sure that you arrive at conclusions based on deeper understanding of Scripture—as compared to a satisfying convergence with “classic” doctrine that helps you feel settled, accepted, and ready to graduate from that stage of questioning.

    So I ask you: How did you decide that Augustine is an inspirational, classic, trusted, source of insight and shaper of “essential” doctrine; while Rob Bell is toxic and dangerous? Is it because people and agencies you care about extend grace to Augustine, but consider Bell a heretic?

    Do you use a balance to weigh the list of deviations from “biblical orthodoxy”, and then decide that Augustine’s is lighter than Bell’s? How, from the perspective of absolutes, is there a measurable difference? I wonder with incredulity: how is it that you have such an admiration for Augustine’s “use of scripture” when you refer to the “host” of ways that his use of scripture leaves the church with huge misunderstandings and errant doctrines to this day? Whose influences have sent more souls down paths of error? Is that how we decide who is a heretic?

    Help me understand that you don’t just arbitrarily choose to believe that one set of writings is trustworthy and superior based on one or two points out of a longer list of serious problems, while arbitrarily deciding that another set of writings are destructive and toxic because they take a different view of the doctrine in question.

    Help me understand why, in God’s scheme of absolutes, it is essentially admirable for people of another era to “rewrite theology” but in our time it is a dangerous break from orthodoxy? And to bring it to my world, is it God’s assumption that an indigenous culture today must start their theology from where people like Augustine, Menno Simons, and John Calvin left off? Or from where you or I left off?

    I suggest that you didn’t step back from culture, you stepped sideways into another culture. Actually, it’s not primarily culture you are stepping around: it’s worldview. It’s a worldview that proceeds from assumptions, e.g., that God intends us to create systems that fill in the gaps left by the author of the Scriptures; that we must choose from among those systems of belief in order to please God; that the Bible is not adequate; that human believers filled with God’s Spirit can’t be expected to find their way without such systems; that God finished helping people do theology some time ago.

    I don’t like my fear that you will view this, and any such writings or questions, as “trendy, shallow, and hypocritical” simply because I don’t revere all the classic writers or hold all their doctrines as timeless insights into God’s word. But the fear is my own problem. (Maybe this kind of response makes you fearful of me.)

    So, since I had a visceral response to the post, I decided to write this stuff down anyway. Writing this helped me discover why my stomach tightened up. Because, when I think about it in terms of integrity how can we, with integrity, affirm and celebrate the theologizing of those in distant history while we apply a completely different standard of grace to our contemporaries? That’s how it looks to me. The Bible doesn’t provide for that.

    Merle

  2. Hi Merle!

    We indeed did have that good talk, and more will come.

    Thank you for posting this, since you asked a lot of good questions which point to weaknesses in my own process, and helps people see and benefit from the dialogue that we have been enjoying.

    I am not sure whether I can adequately answer all of your questions, or if that is even the purpose of your asking. I’ll try to be brief and hit as many points as I can. You can ask questions again (or others can jump in) if I have missed the important questions.

    As I alluded to in the post “Essential and Non-Essential Theology,” there is such a thing as too much theology, and not enough. I don’t appreciate people who sit down with “just me and Jesus” and never crack open a commentary, etc., because “God doesn’t speak through that.” In contrast to this, I would see myself as having the Great Honour of sitting down to Scriptures not only with a host of living saints, but also with the likes of Augustine, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, etc.

    How do I decide which ones to listen to more? This is a completely subjective choice. Likely, you have heard many, many people say, “Well, I think the Bible says….” and “God told me…” and the like. How do you decide whom to listen to and whom to ignore? Of course, nobody is perfect, but after walking with a person for a while, one can sometimes get the sense that “This person is truly motivated by Biblical and spirit-filled motivations. I want to listen to him, to learn of God.” I get that sense from Augustine, and Tertullian and some others I could name. I tend to trust them more – but I always weigh everything against Scripture, Spirit and reason.

    The fact that they are old and that I know all or most of their errors is also comforting. As you point out, Augustine especially (and Tertullian and Origen) were Theological innovators of their day. Origen especially was: he earned the dubious title “the father of all orthodoxy and all heresy” because all later orthodox theology borrowed from his thought to some degree – but also, many cults sprang up from his works. This is the problem with innovators – usually it takes a few hundred years to identify all of the flaws and weaknesses in their thinking. Usually, this process only takes place through many falling away into errors and heresies and the church suffering grievously. It’s sad, but it’s true.

    …so the fact that I know so many of Augustine’s errors so clearly actually makes him more appealing to me. When he gets off on church/state, or infant baptism, or tries to “teach” about sexual ethics, I can raise a hand and say, “Okay, I know that in your glorified state you would want me to skip over this, so I will…” and I get on to the good stuff.

    I don’t have this same ability with a recent innovator, such as Karl Barth – there just hasn’t been time to test out the impact of his doctrines – although the Emergent Church is certainly making many things clear.

    However, I am able to read him a little more freely now that I have written a paper on him in which I worked through and systematically critiqued his central doctrines of humanity, sin, christology and salvation. Now that I know where he is going on those things, and where I think he is wrong, I can read him more confidently on other topics.

    ….and so I guess in answer, I appreciate authors for two reasons: 1) subjectively, I “just get the sense” that they are close to God, see Scriptures clearly, and speak faithfully for God, and 2) (if they are doctrinal innovators, rather than just popularizers) I don’t like having to read real recent innovative theologians because I don’t want to be part of the pendulum swing which follows such writers, until (one or two generations later) a consensus is reached, and several major points are identified as wrong for various reasons.

    Concerning Rob Bell, I critique/harrangue him because as a post-Emergent person, who sees those issues clearly, I stand against what he teaches. I did take a lot of time to break down and critique his thought, so it’s not just a visceral reaction. I’m not sure if I spend too much time on him. Do you think I do? He is a spokesman for the Emergent movement in the same way that Marx was/is the spokesman for Marxism, however, and so I think I am really just trying to critique Emergent by critiquing the main, current spokesman. It’s not meant to be personal, although how one draws that “personal/just business” line is itself subjective.

    Finally, concerning your question about how much a native culture needs to mimmic western theology, and how much it can construct its own: I think there’s a few things to be said.

    1) We need to get it really clear (as I know you know) that it is God who speaks, not us who speak about God. Relevant Christian theology is not various cultures expressing their highest ideals and cultural customs and ideas about God. That is called “idolatry” – it’s a sin. Christian theology is about listening carefully to God and trying hard to make sense of it all and find helpful ways of expressing the truth which He teaches us.

    2) There is a teaching which is merely recital and memory work. There is also a teaching which is wrestling and working and struggling with mystery. So no – I don’t know that it is neccessarily helpful to sit a culture down and make them all five-point Calvinists, or strict Mennonites or whatever. But so long as we are talking about the wrestling rather than the rote memory, I don’t know why you would NOT want to teach theology in a native context. Why would you want to exclude the dead saints of old from the discussion? Why would you want to isolate a culture like that, cut off from the past and from the broader family of God? Every culture will have something to add, a new way of hearing God and looking at the Scriptures: but of course every culture has much to receive and much to learn from other Christians too…isn’t it a strange, backwards-form of racism to try too hard to emphasize a “native theology” or “hispanic Christianity” or whatever? (I’m not sure that is where you are going…can you make yourself clearer…?)

    3) In my work on the Creeds, it became very apparent that some concepts (e.g. the Trinity) are IN Scriptures, but they are very hard to express. It took hundreds of years to mine out the doctrine of the trinity! And so when you just hand a person or a culture a Bible and say, “here you go – figure it out!” it is like throwing a math textbook at a five year old and saying, “try your best and don’t screw up!” …all the while, you don’t tell then that after centuries of work, people have devised the “multiplication table” which really is the key to sorting it all out.

    …in a culture without theology you will end up with a culture which struggles (uneccessarily!) with many of the heresies and cults which were present in the early years of the church, but against which doctrines and creeds were formed to safeguard. For example: would the “Jesus only” cult/denomination be so strong if there was a stronger emphasis on the creeds in the Evangelical missionaries? This is really nothing more than monism – a heresy which the creeds stand against, which was virtually stamped out in the first centuries of the church.

    If I may offer another analogy: good theology is an immunization against many heresies and errors. Like immunizations, nay-sayers and purists do much damage to their own good when they turn down solid, historic, Biblical theology.

    Anyways, I am very disorganized in this response but since it’s a response and not a post, I have vowed to just write it and let bygones by bygones. I hope you will forgive the typos and poor sentence structure. I’ve probably painted you as saying all sorts of things you didn’t say, and missed the whole point of your question…I’m sorry!

    I’m not even proofing this! I’m just finishing it and sending it off – otherwise I will micromanage and edit it for years, and never get around to sending it. (I already have about three such projects on the go!).

    Respond in print or person, but whatever the response, know that I love and appreciate you, Merle – my mentor, my friend.

    In Christ,

    Josiah

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