Christian theology ♥ modernist philosophy: Why do Christians love modernism?

The desire for absolute truth is wrong.

As I’ve sketched it in relation to Christianity, it starts as a wish for absolute access to the Bible’s truth claims, achieved by absolute openness to the Bible through unprejudiced neutrality, with a goal of providing absolute security: certainty about the Bible’s truth values.  But absolute access, absolute openness, and absolute security are all the same:

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As I hope I’ve shown over my last number of posts, they are wrong because they are simply impossible.  And they are even more wrong for Christians because these views presuppose either the claim of being like God (which is idolatry) or a disparagement of creation (which is a key, God-given resource for validating biblical truth values).

But this is more than overblown aspirations, more than finite humans coveting the absolute.  In Christian terms, if this is sin then it is not simply a sin of commission—acting wrongly.  It is a sin of the mind and of association—choosing the wrong friends, for the wrong reasons.

Specifically, it appears that Christians have developed an entrenched affinity for “modernist” philosophy.

Thus as I argued in my last post, the quest for absolute access to truth claims via absolute, unprejudiced openness and arriving at absolute security (through certainty about truth values) is a portrait of Modernism.

Originating in 17th century Europe, modernist philosophy favoured reason over the senses, experience, tradition, etc., as the best—and only—way accurately to assess truth claims and adjudicate their truth values.  Its goal was to help people to decide on matters that concerned them, and to have certainty about the truth of their decisions.

Modernist thinkers like René Descartes, influenced by Plato, viewed knowledge as stronger (and so better) than belief.  But how could he be sure that was basing his decisions on knowledge and not just mere, unfounded belief?

Viewing reason to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, Descartes’ “method” involved doubting our customs and former beliefs until they pass the test of reason (and so can be considered true knowledge) and rejecting our emotions and passions as outrightly deceptive.  In effect, by starting anew from this neutral “view from nowhere” we would be free from false beliefs and reliant upon true knowledge alone.

The similarities with how some Christians approach the Bible could not be plainer.

So is Christianity bankrupt as a result?  Not at all—at least not on this count.  For again, these ideas are not inherently Christian.  The question is, Why have these views been so broadly (and unwittingly) embraced, and what can be done about it?

As to why, I believe that many Christians have embraced Modernism not only as a hedge against relativism but because it is easier than the alternatives.

First, the finite, contingent nature of human existence implies that we live with various tensions (knowing versus not knowing, presence versus absence, present versus past and future, etc.).  Part of our “job” as human beings, then, is to maintain a flexible and variable relationship between the poles of these tensions.  For example, on some matters we know more (and so can be more confident of our views), whereas on others we know less (and so must be more humble).

Modernism is easy because it effectively collapses the tensions into hierarchies—by following its method we avoid struggling with the hard questions of how to balance these tensions, and with the resultant hard work of possibly revising our beliefs when the balance shifts.

Second, however, Christians who embrace Modernism even collapse key tensions in the Bible!

For example, many over-emphasize how much the Holy Spirit aids Christians in understanding the Bible and under-emphasize (or ignore?) the detrimental and universal effects of sin on the same.  As a result, such Christians are often overconfident concerning how well they know the Bible.

As to what can be done, Christians clearly need to move beyond Modernism.  Next post looks at how.

More than April’s fools? (aka, Descartes’ unwitting disciples)


Confession time:

I began this blog intending to show how Christianity is viable, and how the co-centrality of love and truth is instrumental therein.  But I have certainly not done so.


Because much about Christianity is problematic or broken and this must first be identified, cleared away, and better understandings / approaches put in their place.  For example, I cannot hope for the notion of truth-for-me to seem meaningful so long as readers continue to believe in such false ideas as being able to read the Bible without interpreting it, or to access the Bible’s (absolute) truth absolutely.

Thus my last nine posts have aimed to debunk false views about how we relate to the Bible.  Particularly, false views about how (and how well) we can know the Bible’s content.  Among them, the concepts of certainty, neutrality, and historical independence.

So where does our desire for certainty come from?  Why do we think that we should (or even could) be neutral rather than having biases and prejudgements ?  And why do we want to read the Bible “free” from the views of the past?

As I’ve shown in past posts, the Bible stands against human certainty and nowhere espouses neutrality or historical independence.  Further, it is important to note that the above are all questions about knowledge: how reliable it is and how we get it.  And knowledge (or epistemology) is the domain of philosophy.

Strikingly then our fascination with knowing, or accessing things, absolutely finds its origins in the philosophical movement known as “Modernism.”

The poster boy for modernist thinking is René Descartes.  A French mathematician and philosopher, Descartes is famous for the conclusion “I think, therefore I am.”  But the problem that precedes this conclusion—and the method he used to solve it—are what interest us most.

Through his studies and travels Descartes found that people held all manner of contradictory beliefs.  Nor did the number or education of people who believed something guarantee the truth of it.  In contrast, Descartes observed that in mathematics the proper use of reason guarantees certainty about our conclusions, and so decided that reason properly applied could grant certainty in other areas of life.

Now he had already deduced that all humans have the capacity to reason and that each person is equally able to apply this capacity.  So with the right method and enough practice, human beings could not only know things truly but could even master the natural world, living happier (and even longer) lives.

So what was his “method”?

He started with reason, which is not simply thinking but is specifically the ability to determine truth from falsehood.  Next, Descartes held that “properly applying” one’s reason meant only accepting things as true that were accessible to the mind in a clear and distinct fashion—things that could not be doubted.

But in order for something to be undoubtedly true it must be true despite one’s best efforts to doubt it.  And this is just what Descartes did.  He went through a process of doubting everything that he believed up to that point.

Having already observed how people typically establish their views on inherited practices and customs rather than reason, his method rejects all past opinions as false until proven–by reason–to be true.  Sense perceptions (what we see, hear, and experience) are likewise false until proven true.

The only thing that Descartes could not doubt was that he was thinking, and this gave him absolute certainty of his own existence, upon which he founded his entire philosophy: I think, therefore I am.

But is this important?

You bet.

For in showing us where these “problematic and broken” views about the Bible come from (and what they are based on), we are more able to replace them with better, more functional views.  Specifically, it seems Christians need a better philosophical orientation than Descartes’ Modernism if they are to do justice both to the real world  and to the Bible itself.  More next post.