Saturday, November 5, 2011

Hi, I'm Zelph and I'm a Modernist

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God

If you find the Bible hard to read, it’s probably because you are a modernist.

This might be something of a surprise to you. You didn’t choose modernism, you didn’t convert to modernism, and you didn’t apostatize from anti-modernism (whatever that may be). Yet, you are a modernist, nonetheless.

Another thing you may not know is that modernism has a history. You probably think that people all through the ages think just like you. However, that’s actually not the case, and the fact that you have assumed it is a tell-tale sign that you are a modernist. Professors of the History of Philosophy put the genesis of modernism around the time of the French Revolution. From there, it took a grip on the Western World, and it’s fruit is found in you, whether you willed it or not. 

The Bible, as you probably know, was written before the French Revolution, which means that it is not modernist. It has an entirely different frame of reference, which is why "us" moderns have such difficulty with it. It’s as if we have to un-learn our modernism, or at least recognize it for what it is, to understand it. That’s also a sad indictment of what gets taught in church. If anything, churches need to teach people how to understand the Bible, and to do so, they need to expose our inherited modernist tendencies so that we can see them for what they are.

So, what is modernism, and why does it present such difficulties to people who want to understand the Bible?

In a nutshell, modernism tends to look to the future (well, the present, actually) with the belief that we are evolving into something better. Christianity, by contrast, tends to look to the past, to see what has happened “in the flesh”, as John puts it.

A more complete picture is well painted in an interview with Thomas Oden in 1990, who described modernism as the "idolatry of the new". His interview is reproduced in Christianity Today here. Oden, defines modernism thus;
Modernity is a period, a mindset, and a malaise. The period begins with the French Revolution in 1789. The mindset is that ethos reflected by an elitist intellectual class of "change agents" positioned in universities, the press, and in influential sectors of the liberal church. This elite continually touts the tenets of modernity, whose four fundamental values are
  • moral relativism, which says that what is right is dictated by culture, social location, and situation,
  • autonomous individualism, which assumes that moral authority comes essentially from within,
  • narcissistic hedonism, which focuses on egocentric personal pleasure,
  • and reductive naturalism, which reduces what is reliably known to what one can see, hear, and empirically investigate.
The malaise of modernity is related to the rapidly deteriorating influence of these four central values between roughly 1955 and 1985.
(I reformatted Oden’s list to  “bullet points” in an attempt to make them easier to digest)

Oden goes on to say that a Post-Modern is someone who “…has both seriously entered into the assumptions of modernity and transcended them by disillusionment.”

Yes folks, the ultimate destination of modernism, if we start to think about it, is disillusionment. Which means that if you haven’t thought about it much yet, you’re not a post-modern quite yet.

The second item in Oden’s list caught my eye. It probably describes “us” more accurately than we’d like to think. How many Disney movies have taught our kids to “trust their heart”?

Some people take it to the extreme. They argue that, if moral authority comes essentially from within, then they have a right to judge God, based on whether they like or dislike what they see God doing.

Atheists, of course, take God right out of the equation. Some of this might be rationally thought out (a position that I have some sympathy for), but much folk atheism is simply a visceral dislike of any moral authority that is higher than the individual (a position that I don’t). The latter group has judged God, and found Him wanting. That’s because they are modernists.

A symptom of modernism in believers it their tendency to remold the Gospel in an attempt to make people feel comfortable with it. The “I’m a Mormon ads” do this superbly. They say, effectively “You don’t have to be American, or religious, to be a Mormon, you just have to be normal.” Believers of all types and stripes will also say things like “I know it’s true because it feels true within my heart”. That's because they are modernists, too.

I’ve been on-line with Mormons on and off for some time. I see some profound difficulties with the origins and ethos of Mormonism, especially with its colorful founder, Joseph Smith. He set the agenda for Mormonism, and Mormonism is stuck with it until it becomes something that is not Mormonism.

When I start talking with Mormons, I find that some of them also share these concerns. Even so, some have argued that what a dead Prophet may or may not have said is not important (see the commandments to practice polygamy, for example) – it’s what Mormons believe now that is important.

Maybe I missed the memo about what a Prophet, Seer and Revelator is supposed to do (something other than make known the eternal and everlasting mystery of God, apparently), but it seems that modern Mormonism has no time for him. Joseph Smith does not feature in the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. Why not? It seems to me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which he founded) is trying modernism on for size. So, what’s driving their agenda here; an everlasting and eternal revelation of God, or the spirit of the times? My vote is with the latter.

But, the Mormons are not the only crowd to appeal to modernism. I’ve seen it too, in my denomination and in previous churches of which I have been a member.

Consider this; when someone gets up in church to give their testimony (life-story), they usually talk about how they became a Christian. These life-stories are usually interesting and challenging, but they typically affirm modernism by re-stating that it is what God is doing now in my life, that is important. The modernist might react to this by saying “that’s a nice experience for you, but what possible relevance is it to me?”

Contrast this with Stephen’s testimony in Acts Chapter 7. He’s on trial, and the words he chooses to say will determine if he lives or dies. Does he say something like “I asked Jesus to come into my life, and he made me into a better person”? No. Stephen gives a history lecture to the people holding the rocks. It’s only when the stones are going to fly that Stephen finally tells them what it means to him.

You see, Stephen, like the first Christians and authors of the New Testament is not a modernist. He does not evaluate the Gospel by what it means to him, but by what God has done “in the flesh” in history. It only means something to him because he sees himself within that history; a history that calls both him and his interrogators to account. We are not told of the state of Stephen’s inner state of mind, because Luke (the probable author of Acts) considered it to be something of an irrelevance.The critical point here, is that Stephen is not looking into his own heart; he is looking beyond himself (to Jesus Christ, specifically) and that is why he is not a modernist.

I don’t think I have the authoritative take on modernism, or on Christianity, for that matter. However, I do believe that Christians ought to be mindful of modernism, and they should not confuse it with the Christian Gospel, which it is not (as Oden’s list demonstrates).

Perhaps the best way to approach this is to ask “what is the Christian response”? I would say that the Christian response should not be to focus on the (supposed) impact of God on the inner workings of my heart. That would be to affirm modernism, and before you know it, everybody is affirming the leadings of their own hearts, and we are left isolated, alone and vulnerable. 

No, the Christian response ought to be to declare what God has done in “the flesh”, especially in the life, death and resurrection of His Son. That is certainly where the focus of the Bible lies, and modernists will search in vain about how it supports their agenda.

This is where John wants to lead us. It is a place where we can no longer say “I believe in an [imaginary] Jesus because he has appeared in my heart”, but a place where we affirm, with John, that he has appeared “in the flesh”. Crucially, Christianity looks beyond the self of the believer, and this is Good News because we have a redeemer who is not dependent on our efforts to make Him "true".

Nothing you or I will do, say or feel will change this Jesus of the Flesh, contrary to the ‘gospel’ of modernism. God forgive us for ever believing otherwise.