David Wells, author of Above All Earthly Pow’rs, was one of my teachers in seminary and the best lecturer I have ever heard. I was mesmerized by his sketch of theology, and will never forget his standard answer to questions: “How do I know? I’m just an ‘umble church historian.” This book is the fourth in a series, and I read the first two and this one. This book is a Christology that confronts postmodernity (culture) and postmodernism (philosophy). Does it succeed?
I have some questions.
For being a book about christology, it takes Wells a long time to get there. This post will be on the first four chapters and frankly it is all preliminary. Preliminaries that I enjoyed reading — his style is engaging and poetic if at times a little bombastic and repetitive. But still preliminaries.
First, the Enlightenment gave rise to modernity, and what modernity offers is freedom, individualism, capitalism and pluralism — if not relativism. What it also offered was:
1. The disappearance of God
2. The disappearance of human nature
3. The omnicompetence of the human being.
Second, the current American religious scene is marked deeply by the distinction between “religion” (Church, theology, creeds, boundaries, demand, discipleship) and “spirituality.” This latter term is important to the book and it is a term that describes a religion (pardon that term here) that emerges from the self and is designed to pander to the self and one that is therapeutic for the self.
Third, postmodernism, which assaults foundationalism, leads to:
1. No worldview
2. No truth
3. No purpose.
Fourth, a major issue for Wells is a discussion of immigration, pluralism, and the pastiche of spiritualities and religions that now characterize the West. Very few have approached this question, so I welcome this issue at the table to see where it can help us.
Fifth, back to spirituality: it is internal, private, experiential, a pick-and-choose approach to world religions and philosophies etc. It is a spirituality of a journey rather than a house or dwelling; it is on a journey for the sake of a journey instead of a goal or a destination. Most importantly, this spirituality is from the self and for the self.
Sixth, we need to confront culture by affirming that we are fragmented, not innocent; that truth is public, not private; and that the faith is personal, not impersonal. The truth is found in the biblical revelation of God in Christ through the Spirit.
Well, this should give you a taste of his themes. How to respond? Overall, there is some good description of Western spirituality, and more need to listen to what he has to say here. But, I have some questions:
1. Do his categories lack nuance? Is there not space between the postmodern and the (seemingly) certaintist Christian?
2. Is not the problem today for postmoderns the nearly unconscionable issue of particularism rather than that of pluralism? Pluralism sometimes is the solution to the problem of particularism.
3. If his critique of individualism hits the target, is there not a groundswell today of something else? Namely, a growing social conscience? Wells focuses on individualism that embraces the therapeutic and self-healing. I don’t think the emerging generation is quite like this: it embraces as never before (other than with social gospel proponents) a profound sense of responsiblity for the world and for justice and for others. A spirituality that merely heals the self is not enough for the emerging generation. In a sense, Wells offers to some emerging Christians a hand filled with kings: the critique of self-fulfillment gospel is what the emerging generation wants to hear.
4. Is his use of “postmodern” a little too simplistic? A person like Newbigin was not unaware of the problem of certainty nor was he unaware of the problem of relativism. So, he carved out what many of us prefer: a chastened epistemology and a proper confidence. It is a faith seeking understanding. In the first four chapters I see little awareness of any middle ground between the two, and I’m not sure it is fair to the current theological scene to clip from the discussion those who find a critical realism or a chastened epistemology to be the most truthful Christian position. Not all of this chastened epistemology stems from radical postmodernism but some of it emerges directly from a biblical and theological convinction that we are limited by sin and the fall, limited in mind, and therefore limited in what we can claim with certitude.
In our next post we will look at three more chapters, and then I’ll save a separate post for his critique of megachurches and seeker services.