I’m in a Baptist church.
That’s scary enough.
I’m sitting before a council of men who are testing my readiness to enter the ministry.
It isn’t going well.
First of all, I didn’t know that one had to “enter” the ministry.
But, in order to fulfill one of the qualifications to participate in launching a new church, something I was curious about, I “needed” to be ordained because soon I would be “baptizing new believers”.
I didn’t know you had to be ordained to baptize new converts. In reality, I didn’t even know you had to baptize new converts.
Secondly, they’re asking me questions and I’m getting all the answers wrong.
To make matters worse, I’m not the only person being tested today. And, the other guy is good…real good.
The serious men sitting around the table ask a question. The other candidate answers and the table becomes a sea of nodding heads. They ask him more questions and their enthusiasm grows. The accumulated weight of his right answers is creating a doctrinal and theological ecstasy. If we keep going like this revival is going to break out and I’m going to feel really uncomfortable.
Baptist’s don’t dance. But that could change right here right now and I don’t want to be here if that happens.
They turn to me. They ask a question.
I answer naturally.
They steal glances at one another as if searching each others faces for cues to right behavior. Their response is underwhelming.
Because they alternate between us as they ask questions, it creates a kind of roller coaster effect.
He answers. Applause.
I answer. Silence.
He answers. Cheers and hooting and leaning forward to the table.
I answer. Ughs and leaning back in their chairs.
That may be a little exaggerated, but not much.
Up and down we went with the distance between their responses to each of us growing ever wider.
After a while, they stop stealing glances at each other. A couple of the men rock all the way onto the back two legs of their chairs. The questions keep coming.
I got it wrong.
Women in leadership?
I got it wrong.
And the straw that broke the camels back, the Inerrancy of the Scriptures?
One of them drops his pencil on his yellow writing tablet. The silence is deep. I sense that the disappointment of some is profound. The antagonism of others is tangible.
The other candidate is obviously feeling empathy for me. Everything about this moment is utterly, beautifully truthful. It was saying to me, you don’t really fit here. They were graciously broad, though, and ordained me anyway because I had an “evangelistic” spirit.
Thinking back, I should have listened to myself. In all fairness, that would not be the last time that would happen. It would be the first of many times. I still had much to learn. But there was more going on there than my lack of knowledge. I was experiencing the fact that the past is always in the present.
FOUNDATIONS OF FOUNDATIONALIST FAITH
That’s right. Century 17.
Knowledge in that world came from the outside in. Truth was taught by the Church or dictated by the state. They didn’t have to explain themselves. They simply knew better. Like a parent who tells a child, because I said so.
Renee Descartes, on the other hand, was not a fan of the “because I said so” school of knowledge. Descartes, considered the father of the modern era, desired a way of getting at “truth” that would work for everyone. If men and nations could agree on a universal way of knowing “truth” then consensus, agreement, and finally peace could be achieved.
Descartes concluded that a reliable belief system needed to be constructed on a reliable foundation.
Note: this is a key word: foundation.
If the foundational belief were not rock solid, he reasoned, then the entire system of beliefs would be questionable. But if you were able to begin with a foundation of certain knowledge, then you could build a new world. Eventually (in the 1900s) this process would be called “foundationalism”.
And so Descartes began his search. What do we really know? What he needed was a foundation that no one could doubt, an indubitable foundation.
Note: this is another key phrase: indubitable foundation.
To get there he employed the principle of doubt. Doubt everything. If it can be doubted you cannot build on it.
He questioned everything about his own belief system and like an onion it began to peel away layer by layer. He was finally left with nothing save one thing: I think therefore I am. He could not doubt his own existence. He began to build a system of beliefs from this new foundation.
After Descartes, the need for an “indubitable” foundation was assumed. Without this certain foundation, we could know nothing with certainty.
Science had the scientific method as its way of establishing its foundations for knowledge. Philosophy had logic, syllogisms and reason. Over time, these together ate away at the “because we say so” truth claims of those in authority, both state and church.
Fast-forward in time to 1926 and cross the Atlantic in space.
Yes, Century 20.
There you will find a court case in Tennessee known as the Scopes Monkey Trial that pits these two foundations against each other. The challenge of the Church and the Bible as a foundation for knowledge had been heating up over time — the “Sun” centered solar system, evolution, etc. At its worst, the Church often asserted its “Divine Right” to violently oppress free thinkers. But usually, these challenges led theologians to debate and defend the Bible as the foundation of faith.
Historically, theology has often been a response to philosophy (ht: Nancy Murphy). This was no exception. The challenge of two hundred years of philosophical debate and scientific discovery drove US theologians and denominations to engage in the debate over the foundations of Christian knowledge.
Science and reason promised to give all men everywhere the indubitable foundations needed to know “what is real” and “what is right and true” Theologians fighting for the legitimacy of the Christian tradition to speak to these issues within a culture of science and reason, wrestled to establish foundations for the faith.
Fourty-seven years later again, in 1983, I sat in a room filled with leaders from a good local church. This was a committee of faithful men gathered together to assess my qualifications for ministry.
To a large extent, their faith had been shaped by the conversation with Descartes and the Enlightenment project. I understood that for them the scriptures were the foundation and basis for faith. Their entire belief system, if not founded on an indubitable foundation, could potentially be brought down.
Why I didn’t share this fear, I don’t know.
The doctrine of biblical inerrancy was a “hedge” of protection they had raised to protect this foundation. Because the critical approach to the study of scripture had made this already dubious claim difficult to justify, even the hedge had a hedge: it is the original manuscripts of the scriptures that were absolutely flawless. Yes, the Bibles we held in our hands may have a glitch here and there but the original documents themselves were a pristine work of beauty from the hand of God on which men and women could risk their lives.
In what museum were these originals contained? Oh that. There are no original documents.
Let’s recap. How did we know the gospel was true and how could we prove the truth of the gospel to others? The answer: Inerrant, original manuscripts that don’t exist. That’s how. These flawless original manuscripts give an unspoken pass to the Bibles we held in our hands, a kind of imputed inerrancy.
Modern theologians, and everyone in that room at my session with the ordination council, were shaped by the Modern era’s focus on foundations. As foundationalists on the conservative side of the spectrum, the men in the room were objectivists. Their faith was grounded on the scriptures, an object, a thing. On the liberal side, faith was grounded on “experience,” the subjective aspects of faith.
They each saw the other as being in error, as placing their faith in the wrong place, but in fact they were kissing cousins. They both grounded their faith on a foundation (scripture or experience). That’s what Descartes taught them to do. Without an indubitable foundation the whole building falls.
But no one can question your experience, the liberals said.
No one can question the Bible, the conservatives said.
Oh yes they can.
Certainty was more than a need; it was a lust. Everything depended on having a public foundation that could not be challenged. Without this indubitable foundation the Christian voice would be lost. This was a war Christians were not willing to lose even if no one was fighting them anymore.
In 1983 conservative leaders, like some of the men on my ordination council, and liberal Christ following thinkers, were still fighting over foundations as if somebody cared.
But the issues they had battled over no longer mattered. The answers they had polished over decades of debate did not address any of the new questions being asked. Few believed in objective, absolute truth anymore. Even science had lost its privileged position as objective and unbiased. The questions now assumed the realities of relativism, subjectivism and pluralism. What no one in the room during my ordination council knew was that the philosophers, after a couple of hundred years of testing out foundations for knowledge, decided that the search didn’t have a future.
At the beginning of the 21st century, many thinkers both believer and secular are post-foundational while many Christians are still disciples of Descartes.
In fact, any claim to an indubitable foundation for knowledge today is looked upon with suspicion and distrust, as an attempts to impose one’s will over others. (If this is true, think about what much of our preaching must sound like to a post-foundationalist listener). The post-modern person was someone who understood that while the search for a universally held absolute truth may be illusion, the drive to power was not.
Creating a world that works for everyone could no longer be based, as Descartes had hoped, on a universally indubitable foundation for knowledge. As followers of Descartes, many Christians feared the subjectivism, relativism, and pluralism of postmodern culture.
Yet, postmodern culture—and the set of “isms” that revolve around it—was never faith’s main enemy in the 20th century western world. Not even close. Faith’s enemies were what they have always been: hate, betrayal, contempt, greed, arrogance, indifference, revenge.
The enemies have always been the set of entrenched immoral behaviors that revolve around the reality of our inhumanity. These were, are and ever will be the enemy, and not just of the church but of all humanity.
Contrary to stereotypes, the real postmodern problem was not that we had lost the ability to know the truth, but that too many knew all too well the truth about the human condition. Humans would use anything, even the divinely inspired Word of God, to assert power over others.
What do you think?
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