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.

8 thoughts on “Christian theology ♥ modernist philosophy: Why do Christians love modernism?

  1. I see a lot of idolatry amongst “christians”. Many will not admit the deeply entrenched paganism that flows through them. Paganism not necessarily being bad, however, it is flat out hypocritical when one believes that they must not be pagan, preaching adamantly against it, yet all the while they think, act and live in pagan ways. I wish we would all be a little more quick to admit our ignorance and go forth in humility, rather then with absolutes.

    Good Thoughts.

  2. “As he viewed 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.”

    Reading the piece above reminded me of my personal journey with “knowledge” and “experience”. What I have learned is that knowledge is absolutely meaningless without experience… it is a total waste… experience is what really matters… it is real… “Reason” has no true validity unless it can be associated with experience… most likely involving passion and emotion… which can be different for everyone… experience is what changes us, alters us, deepens us… sounds like Descartes’ primary focus was on developing the intellect. I wonder if he had too much time on his hands… Maybe he needed to pick his woman a bouquet of flowers once in a while or practice the ancient art of cloud watching. Then again, I know nothing about Descartes, other than he was French and a bit of a big deal.

    As far as I am concerned, “reason” is no arbiter of truth… at least not in my experience… relying on “reason” is much like trusting my eyes and ears to guide me… neither of which have been of any use… at least not when it comes to truth seeking. In my world, only by following the words of my heart have I ever discovered anything close to the truth. It is that soft sweet voice within that guides me and moves me… and at times there is absolutely no “reason” about it.
    Thank God!

    • Hi Mama,

      Thanks for sharing your ideas. Yes, I too find the Cartesian way of separating emotions (and experience) from reason really problematic. And your point about the heart being “that soft sweet voice within that guides me and moves me… and at times there is absolutely no ‘reason’ about it” has strains of Blaise Pascal: “Le couer a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas.”

      Yet while I value my emotions (they can lead me to truth, and help me to love aright), and while all of my faculties (reason, emotions, imagination) are engaged with the world–and so make sense of it–within the experiencable realm of space and time, yet still I find that my reason and that knowledge are a key part of how I interact with myself, others, the world, and God.

      Experience, it seems to me, is always interpreted experience, and my skill in interpreting it comes about through all of my faculties. Further, to be a good reader of sacred texts like the Bible requires, I believe, that I am a good reader of myself.

      In other words–and this is huge–experience is itself like a text! As such, our readerly competences (say, concerning the Bible) are themselves conditioned by those same competencies applied to ourselves. And this relationship is reciprocal: I read the text well to the extent that I read myself (and author my [hi]story) well; I read myself well to the extent that I allow the text (and more so, the “what” of the text, who is God) to read me–that I legitimately grant the God of the text a “voice” to speak into my life. For God claims not only to love me beyond what I love myself, but to know me more truly than I know myself.

      So what about the idea of “writing” our stories or “reading” ourselves? It seems to me that we both read our own stories and write our own tales. Not writing in the sense of creating situations and events that did not take place–we live in time and space where real events take place: we truly act (to create and develop) and we truly suffer (real pain and loses). Nor can we read the events of our lives in any way that we see fit–we are constrained by real events and actual situations.

      Yet within that there is always the tension between the actual and the possible, between the remembered an the forgotten, between the know and the unknown. Here we return to the co-primacy of love and truth. So while I write my story in terms of “what is,” I yet aim for what “might be.” And where truth is the barometer of “what is,” so love sets the trajectory for what “might be.” In this way mothers hope for their children and see them not only as they are but as they most could be. So spouses hope for their spouses: not only that their partner will overcome his/her personal obstacles (and even demons), but they indeed see the other as she might be–as one who has in some sense already overcome.

      And while some may view the preceding as unwarranted fancy, I say that this is love’s own vision. And I wonder if it does not find its greatest kinship (and origin, maybe?) in the most essential biblical notions: that I am deeply beloved of God despite how I may feel about this; that God claims me as being of ultimate value despite all of my experiences to the contrary?

      In the case of God loving and valuing me, there is much work to explain how these possibilities interface with the real–how the possible can in some sense become actual. Yet my wager is that the parallels I’ve drawn between the vision of the mother for the child (and that between lovers) is indeed the starting point.

      Thanks, Mama. You open up so much by your honest reflections. Honesty begets honesty, truth begets truth. And your love of life and goodness–that is inspiring.

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