Monday, October 27, 2008

The Architecture of the Post-Modern Mind, Part I



You may remember Rene Descartes, the person most often credited with providing us with the philosophy that was to undergird, and indeed help to create the modern mind with its focus on the individual self, leading to rampant individualism. You will remember that he famously said "cogito ergo sum", "I think, therefore I am". Actually what he said, which was in French, not Latin, was that a person's thinking is what demonstrates that there must be a thinker and therefore that the individual in question exists. The bottom line reality that one can be sure about is the undeniable thinking one does demonstrates something or someone doing the thinking.

If you would like to read a fascinating account of Rene Descartes life and influence I would suggest to you the recent and best-selling book by Jeremy Shorto entitled Descartes Bones. It is a fun read. What Shorto is able to demonstrate quite clearly is that the rationalism, and logic of modernity can be traced back to Descartes famous treatise on Method. What is also interesting about Descartes is that he was a committed Roman Catholic, and his main concern was actually about medicine and how the science of medicine requires observation and deduction from reality, not merely spinning out the medicinal logic or philosophy of Galen and others about disease and decay, healing and cures. The philosophical bifurcation of reasoning, logic, experimentation, observation from tradition, faith, and the like helped to set up the clash of science and faith thereafter, which having been put in separate categories thereafter were seen as not merely parallel ways of knowing but as antagonists. The rest, as they say, between the death of Descartes in 1650 and the rise of post-modernity in our own age, is well-recorded intellectual history.

What then is post-modernity? Post-modernity, sometimes called After-Modernity neither involves a flight from reason back into faith, nor a rejection of reason in favor of faith, but rather an attempt to get beyond the impasse. It is interesting that most of the adamant and now famous atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens are in fact unreconstructed modernists, who have simply taken for granted the rationalist paradigm for analyzing reality set in motion by Descartes and his Enlightenment successors. Somehow they have not gotten the memo yet that Western culture has moved on to post-modern ways of thinking about reality and its nature. Its as if they have never read people like Derrida or Foucault or Stanley Fish or Umberto Eco, to mention only a few agent provacateurs who helped nudge the West in the direction of post-modernity in differing ways.

In this particular post I want to talk about one of the ways post-modernity has affected religious, and more specifically Christian discourse, and that is that it reflects the globalization of human discourse and opposes the re-tribalization of it.

What do I mean by this? In the wake of the computer and Internet revolution, post-moderns look at life as not primarily involving an allegiance to some sub-set of humanity, but rather to the human race in general. The post-modern worldview transcends hard line nationalisms of any sort, or to speak in more American and religious terms it seeks to get beyond the pigeonholing of persons, including that particularly Protestant sort of pigeonholing called denominationalism.

The post-modern Christian not merely takes for granted the dictum of Paul that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile..." it takes seriously the dictum of John Wesley who famously said "the world is my parish". Post-Modern Christians talk a lot about being world Christians, and about global anything and everything-- the global economy, global politics, global missions and evangelism, global poverty initiatives, and the like. This is not because they do not love their own particular tribes and tongues and peoples and nations. It is because the opportunity has now arisen through the Internet and other means to be a less parochial and more cosmopolitan Christian, viewing and loving the whole world of humanity more like one would think God views and loves it.

Now this whole post-modern movement, sometimes associated in Christian circles with the emergent or emerging Christian movements, is in some ways a strong reaction to the waning influence of Christianity in the West, which in turn has led to the supplanting of the Judeao-Christian world view by 'the civil religion' of our culture. What I mean by this is that everyone, whether they are aware of it or not, has a value hierarchy by which they live.

In an age of increasing Biblical illiteracy and waning Christian influence in America (including increasing intolerance of Christianity and its theology and ethic), what has risen to the surface as the primary religion of the culture is the civil religion-- the use of sacred language and divine discourse to characterize one's nation, its wars, it's capitialistic enterprises and the like. God bless America and God bless our standard of living which we will protect at all costs.
'One nation under God' becomes 'our nation is our object of ultimate belief and concern', and thus becomes a form of idolatry.

Now let me be clear. There is nothing inherently wrong with either being an American or loving one's country and making sacrifices for it and serving it. What is wrong is when love of country rises to the top of one's value hierarchy above the love of God with whole heart and one's global neighbor as self, and indeed very far above the mandate of Jesus to love one's enemy. It's a matter of the orienting priorities of the heart.

Let me give an illustration. On the Sunday after 9-11 there was a minister on the West coast, who actually got into his pulpit and basically said "I am an American first, and a Christian second, bombs those terrorists back into the Stone Age." When he was called on this by a leader in his church after the service who asked "Don't you mean you are a Christian first, and an American second" the minister said No! He said he had meant what he said. Here is a revealing moment. In a crisis, the deepest thoughts of the human heart are often unveiled, and in the case of this minister it became clear that the civil religion and its ardent nationalism were in fact at the top of the man's value hierarchy, not Christian thinking about such matters.

Post-moderns are tired of tribalisms of whatever sort. They think that in a world fast becoming a global village, such narrow thinking cannot possibly show the way forward, much less show Jesus' way forward. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this post-modern view of reality, Christians will increasingly have to reckon with it. In the battle for loyalty between the civil religion of whatever country and Christianity, the post-modern is praying fervently for Christ's kingdom to come on earth, supplanting all earthly ones. In my next post, I will be discussing post-modern pedagogy, for we increasingly live in an age of those who primarily learn visually, not in an auditory manner.

32 comments:

phil said...

Dr. Witherington,

I know you have a read a ton of books, and probably have a long list of books just waiting to be read, but given your recent post and expressed boldness to recent topics, I think you would really enjoy the book "Mere Discipleship" subtitled "Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World," (Brazos Press)by Dr. Lee Camp (PHD, University of Notre Dame).

John Wilks said...

To borrow a phrase from Lawsone Stone, I trend to think of pomo more as an "allergic reaction" the the direction of modernism than a true movement in thought.

That said, I think you are on to something. I can't wait for part two.

Scott said...

Thank you so much for this post. I have been having a conversation with a man who holds firmly to an understanding of modernity=good & postmodernity=bad. It is refreshing to hear from a Christian scholar who recognizes that a cultural vantage point is not inherently bad or good.

Shalom,
Scott

Recovering Sociopath said...

Can't wait for the next post in this series. Thanks for this!

I have found Lesslie Newbigin's Proper Confidence extremely helpful in thinking on these matters.

Jc_Freak: said...

One of the great joys of the post-modern movement is that it has brought back to Christianity its tactile expressions. There is a reclaiming of the sacraments that are going on, and a decrease in the overdevelopped rationalizing of our faith.

Mind you, I think there are a lot of problems with the movement as well. I do not think that post-modernity is our friend, but then, I dont think that modernity was either. It is a new context into which we must speak the gospel and declare the truth of our Savior, and with the power of His Spirit, we can do it!

Link McGinnis said...

How can I send you a request for a topic? Can't find your email address anywhere but would love to have your take on something.

Thanks,
Link McGinnis
Knoxville, TN

Margueasio said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for beginning a discussion about modernity and post-modernity. I have a question about your statement, "What is wrong is when love of country rises to the top of one's value hierarchy above the love of God with whole heart and one's global neighbor as self, and indeed very far above the mandate of Jesus to love one's enemy." Is not killing and dying for one's country placing one's love of country above love of God, neighbor, and enemy? If the answer is yes, then it would seem to me that there is a conflict of priorities for Christians serving in the military. I have heard Christians in the military state that their allegiance to God is first, even though they serve their country. But, I see killing and dying for one's country as overriding love of God, neighbor, and enemy. Your comments suggest that there is a point when the priorities can shift, I see them as ultimately in conflict. I was wondering if you had some more insight on the issue?

Blessings

Timothy said...

Dr. Witherington,
Could you define what you mean by 'post-modernity', other than simply a rejection of modernity? The word has such fluid standards of usage that I have only a vague idea what people mean when they refer to it. If 'post-modern' = a rejection of Cartesian foundationalist epistemology, then a great many contemporary philosophers would be considered post-modern, but as a matter of fact no philosopher I know of in the Anglo-American analytic tradition considers himself post-modern.

The only philosophical thesis I know to associate with post-modernism is some kind of flimsy relativistic epistemology. I know Brian MacLaren claims some kind of post-modern epistemology, but I'm not sure what he means by that. I'm a bit more familiar with it as a literary and arts term. I think I basically understand the idea of a text having no objective meaning, though this seems plainly false.

In any event, I don't see any connection at all to rejecting parochial and sectarian Christianity in favor of a global view of the faith. I tend to think that way, and I don't consider myself post-modern at all.

William Lane Craig wrote an interesting response to a letter about this. He argues that what people talk about in saying we live in a post-modern society is really just the ensconced positivist/empiricist view of knowledge--what can be known can be verified with our senses, so what can't be so verified is either false or meaningless.

http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6479

-Tim

Ben Witherington said...

Margueasio I think the answer to your question is yes--- a Christian should not serve in the military in a military capacity (being a medic or a chaplain would be o.k.).

Blessings,

BW3

crystal said...

Russell Shorto? Thanks for the post - really interesting.

doug said...

Along with Margueasio- what about even "I pledge allegiance to the flag...."

Leon Bloder said...

Dr. Witherington. About four years ago I was a seminary student at McCormick Theological Seminary. I am now a pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Florida. I just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed following your blogs, and this one particularly captured me. At McCormick I took a class on the Historical Jesus and your book The Jesus Quest was such solid ground for me as I waded into the quicksand of that conversation. Thank you, and thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas in this way.

Ben Witherington said...

You are most welcome Leon. You are the very sort of person I write most of these books for.

Blessings,

BW3

wabbott said...

Dr. Witherington,
Thanks for this post. I can see the case that Dawkins, Hitchens, et al are living in the past, but I feel uncomfortable when we as Christians make a big point of it, because many, many of our own brothers and sisters are doing the same.

In many apologetics circles, the stance still seems to be: "'Jesus is the only way'" and I know so because I am so much more rational and open to facts and open to the spirit than you non-theistic Buddhists, polytheistic Hindhus, and idolatrous Muslims." The cottage industry started by folks like McDowell, Strobel, Craig, and Zacharias are examples. I have yet to read in any of their materials: "Well, you know, this is what I think is religious truth, but I could be wrong"

There is nothing wrong with Christians holding to their faith, but it just seems to me that if we want to engage in 'world discourse', the first thing we have to do is give up on our provincialism and the toxic certainty that causes us to wink and nod at each other because we know we have the right answer.

Sincerely,
Wayne

Darryl Schafer said...

I'm currently taking a grad class called "God and Politics." We just went through this idea of civil religion, and I read Robert Bellah's article for the first time. I think he's spot on.

And I'll echo Leon's sentiments: Your work was a wonderful help to me during my undergrad work and continues to be of help as I'm pastoring a church and working on my graduate degree. Thanks.

Drew said...

BW3,

Stimulating thoughts. I began to respond here, but it got to long and so, I responded via blog format if you care to entertain. If not, it's fine.

Blessings.

Timothy said...

Nice post. Too bad we still think the kingdom of God has yet to come to earth.

"But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." (Matthew 12:28.)

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Timothy: That of course is a yes and no proposition. In one sense the kingdom has come-- God's divine saving activity changing human lives is a force in this world. But in another sense it is perfectly appropriate to pray, as the Lord's prayer says, "thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven". We are a long way from heaven on earth, by which I mean the complete reign of God's goodness on earth as in heaven. So kingdom in the sense of a complete reign on earth where nothing opposed to God's will ever happens--- that is yet a future prospect and a consummation devoutly to be wished.

BW3

mattw said...

Dr Ben, what ever happened to that West Coast Minister you mentioned?

He sounds a lot like most people from the church I go to, though I hear it more often. I mean every year the patriarch talks up his race/nation, with some Christian exhortations (which would make the Christians of other races feel weird).

Ben Witherington said...

I have no idea at all what happened to that West Coast minister. It was a news report on the TV.

BW3

ben cassil said...

Ben Witherington,

Pretend you are John McCain (or anyone in his campaign I suppose). How do you compromise the slogan "country first" and a biblically-based Christianity?

I know this is a silly question, but I cannot come up with any hypothetical logic...it seems like the contradiction is unnoticed.

(I wonder what Hauerwas would say).

cpapashley said...

It is interesting to contemplate on the post modern mind, and its global focus. One can only muse that our predilection for idols runs rampant, makes me understand afresh why Jesus said HE was the way. Any other way breeds idols..

I find that for me to redefine my idolatrous thinking is only possible by following Jesus and his way of suffering which stands in stark contrast to the modern, post modern and any other view.

Great read, and I look forward to reading the second installment.

Stew said...

How do we reconcile this:
"It is interesting that most of the adamant and now famous atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens are in fact unreconstructed modernists, .... Somehow they have not gotten the memo yet that Western culture has moved on to post-modern ways of thinking about reality and its nature."

with this, only a few paras later
"In the wake of the computer and Internet revolution, post-moderns look at life as not primarily involving an allegiance to some sub-set of humanity, but rather to the human race in general. The post-modern worldview transcends hard line nationalisms of any sort"
given that it seems to describe Dawkins, Hitchens and humanism in general?

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

Ben, you are espousing the one world govt. of the anti christ. next thing you know, we will need to sign in with three 6's! :-) actually, it's pretty good stuff.

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

Alos, Stew, you need to drop the pitch fork from your photo. You scare me!

LivingAsOneFreed said...

Dr Witherington -

You stated:

"a Christian should not serve in the military in a military capacity (being a medic or a chaplain would be o.k.)."

What, then, of the Old Testemant passages where Israel would raise armies to fight their enemies (or the enemies of the Lord)?

Do you not believe that this need exists today?

James W Lung said...

Ben: So I guess you would condemn D. Bonhoeffer (SP?) for plotting with others to kill Hitler? Was that really un-Christlike?

Your second post on post-modern pedagogy is very informative, although I question your post-modern presuppositions about the nature of knowledge and ways of knowing.

This Part I is, to my thinking, a leftist screed, using a straw-man to demonize Christians who disagree with you about what is essentially a political proposition -- that there can be such a thing as a "global village" and that a man be a citizen of the world.

Citizenship means something. Bonhoeffer was compelled by love of God to try to kill an evil man. I quess in your eyes he was a mislead German super-patriot participating in an evil plot because he loved Germany more than he loved Jesus.

Love and Blessings. Sorry about the leftist screed thing, but that's the way I feel. I guess I'm post-modern at least to that extent.

JWLung

Timothy said...

Hi Ben,

Agreed. My point was not that the kingdom of God has been fulfilled - it hasn't, but that it's not something limited to eternity.

It can begin here and now.

Falantedios said...

As an uncomfortable post-modern (uncomfortable both with the awkwardness of the term itself and the quicksand uncertainty that "credulity of metanarratives" generates), I don't want you to think I disagree with your explanation here.

I just want to voice one of my fears/observations -- the tendency towards a "more cosmopolitan" Christianity can also mask a lack of love for those right around you.

I don't mean to suggest that this always happens, but I think it is a real danger in our increasingly fragmented and isolated society, where everyone is listening to their own I-Pod and spending much more time relating to the world vicariously via electronic media rather than actually sitting down or walking with those around them.

For all the good that we can do by broadening our vision, let us not forget that the gospel instantiates little exile communities in the midst of broken and groaning societies. Those little communities, through indiscriminate love and truth-telling, compassion and faith, model a new kind of life.

I just don't want people to become so global-minded that they forget that there are people next door, people in the cubicle next to them... maybe even people at that aggravatingly modernist church down the street that post-moderns have rejected for its parochiality... people who are seeking intimacy and striving as best they know how to invite the kingdom of God in their midst.

Stephen Hand said...

An extreme nationalism which only seeks to dominat rather than cooperate with others is wrong, just as is a New World Order which implicitly seeks to make man the measure of all things and where only the world State ("global governance") can determine what is good and what is evil.

There can certainly be international cooperation between (truly) sovereign states for trade, for help in times of natural disasters. But to seek to "transcend" the tribal is neither wide nor possible is is likely to be antichristic. Tribalism in the positive sense is the default position of humankind.

Stephen Hand said...

pardon the typos.. kindly replace?..should read

An extreme nationalism which only seeks to dominate rather than cooperate with others is wrong, just as is a New World Order which implicitly seeks to make Man the measure of all things; and where only the world State ("global governance") can determine what is good and what is evil.

There can certainly be international cooperation between (truly) sovereign states for trade, e.g., for help in times of natural disasters, cultural sharing (arts, music, etc). But to seek to "transcend" the tribal is neither wise nor possible; and is likely to be antichristic because syncretistic. Tribalism in the positive sense is the default position of humankind but should never preclude altruism.

TheGroundworks said...

Very helpful understanding of Post Modernism!

Thanks!