The Bible and Culture

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.

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