Thursday, July 8, 2010

In Quest of a Sharply Articulated Christian Identity in Light of the Challenges of a Profoundly Secular Era

There seems to be something fundamentally at odds between a sharply defined Christian identity and the basic assumptions of the contemporary era variously described as postmodern, post-industrial and post-Christian. The short of it is that the precepts of faith and those of the times in our secular age do not easily fit in with each other nor can be strictly correlated even by the most rigorous interpretative sensibility. One cannot get to faith through the pathway of human reasoning even as we are called to seek God with all our mind, as well as heart, strength, and soul, and not to quit knocking on the door of salvation until a pathway of understanding and new life in Christ is opened up. On the other side of the ledger, even a strong faith stance can seem woefully inadequate in dealing with the challenges of contemporary existence, particularly in the last century, to say nothing of its enormous evils where any notion of “God” has been evacuated from the intellectual history of the west and vast portions of its culture. From this vantage point, the Bible, theological reflection, song, Holy Communion, the preached word, and prayer can be perceived, even among those professing the Christian faith, as anachronistic or simply irrelevant to the main currents of contemporary life, however personally significant to our respective faith journeys.

This schism is a prime characteristic of 20th century Protestant thought and culture. It is expressed in its sharpest tones in the modernist-fundamentalist great divide, which continues to have an indelible influence on the relationship between faith and culture in our time. Calls for a return to the great tradition stemming out of the Protestant Reformation as a way of revitalizing a 21st century faith in such mainline denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Methodist (UMC) Church, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and the United Church of Christ (UCC) as advocated by Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackre within the UCC, can only come by way of a substantial resolution of this 20th century problem. The only way through, I argue, is by a direct grappling with the crisis in faith that was evoked in the late19th and early 20th centuries, the challenge of modernity itself, which continues to have a profound impact on contemporary Protestant culture in its varying liberal, Reformed and evangelical expressions.

The core tension throughout the Protestant culture in our contemporary setting is that between the need to push out large segments of secular identity in exchange for a firmly based biblically-grounded belief, and that of marginalizing a strong orthodox faith stance in order to achieve deep congruence with prevailing precepts of secular assumptions as the sphere which shapes so much of the identity of our personal and public lives. Various “two-world” positions as advocated by sociologist Peter Berger are also plausible which require substantial “bracketing” between the secular and religious spheres of life in which the twain only seldom meet. Even here, matters of ultimate identification are operative, even if only latently so. Regardless of one’s position in coming to terms with the realm of faith within the contemporary secular setting, there is no alternative except to stand somewhere, ultimately as an article of faith, no matter how exacting, precise, or logical one’s thinking assumes to be. In short, as H.R. Niebuhr puts it, “centers of value” cannot be avoided even in the knowledge that such centers can only fall short of their desired objective. This is the case even if one adheres to the postmodern credo that “metanarratives” are historical constructs “all the way down, which privileges history as the ultimate arbiter of human understanding. Such historicism as the final vocabulary of 20th century modernity has had a profound influence on Protestant culture throughout the last century and into the current one, particularly liberalism, but fundamentalism as well, a product itself of modernity.

In grappling with the thorny issue of one’s ultimate identity, the underlying concern remains not only the stance, but also the grounds upon which one’s choices are based. The issue of where and upon what basis one locates this identification is of no minor significance, which cannot be slid under the gaze of postmodern relativism. Wherever one places what Tillich refers to as one’s “ultimate concern,” it is one of costly faith. In terms of contemporary Protestant theology, whether lay or academic, one of the most fundamental issue upon which a great deal derives is that of Christology. To put it in the most radical of terms, and, however analogical one’s reasoning may be: the key question remains whether one’s faith is based on the unswerving belief that Jesus the Christ is the way, the truth, and the life as God incarnate in human flesh, ultimately without equivocation, which begets a corresponding need to grapple theologically with the fullest possible dimension of what this may mean. If not this incarnational Christology, the issue, however nuanced, becomes whether one places the Christian claims within the context of some other narrative constructs, particularly in the assumption that all truths are at bottom worldviews historically construed all the way down in which there can be no theological remainder.

Closely related is the deconstruction of the radical particularity of the Christian credo in the interfaith vision in which all the great faiths of the world are viewed as various pathways leading to God (or the ineffable) as reflected in different times and cultures. On this interpretation the Christian “story” has had obvious appeal in different historical contexts, including our own. However, given the triple impact of the postmodern credo, the ineradicable pluralism of contemporary culture and society, and the democratizing ethos of radical egalitarianism, any claims of ultimate religious truth, however dimly perceived based on the radical particularity of the Christian revelation are not merely considered archaic, and therefore na├»ve. They are also suffused with consequences, intended or otherwise, of cultural and political imperialism as reflected throughout the last two centuries in the operative assumptions of at least certain depictions of Protestant missions.

The issue, in brief, is whether the Barthian “strange new world within the Bible” absorbs the world, however subtly, or whether the “world,” that is, culture, absorbs the Bible within the precepts of its various metanarratives. If there is a dialectical tension between the two in that neither stance is absolutely clear cut, the lurking issue of ultimate identification, including the basis for whatever stance is argued remains operative. On this latter challenge there is no escape. For to evade the issue is to choose sides even in the acknowledgment that much nuance is required in the hard work of coming to terms with the ways in which the revelation of God as embodied within the Bible are refracted within and through historical experience.

On the matter of Jesus Christ, the fundamental question remains, “Who do you say I am?” In theological terms, Jesus the Christ either is or is not, to put it baldly, the Incarnation of God in human flesh as discerned first and foremost through the entire Bible refracted through the prism of the New Testament and secondarily through the theological and spiritual Christian literature throughout the ages. Equivocation on this central question of “who do you say that I am” has led to much confusion even as the result, in part, has been some very creative, and for me, at varying periods throughout my Christian odyssey, highly stimulating theological work, particularly through the insights of Rudolph Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Langdon Gilkey.

The theologies that these three, particularly in the areas of myth, symbolization, and apologetics speak deeply to the challenges to which contemporary U.S. theology needs to grapple to be meaningfully appropriated by modern and postmodern adults. The rich and provocative work of these three can be dismissed by serious evangelical theology only at the latter’s peril. No doubt, as critics have well argued, an uncritical embrace of these liberal theological giants may well result in a deracination of a full bodied trinitarian orthodox Christian faith stance. This is a clear possibility, although it need not be so. The consequent tendency of evangelical theology to dismiss or at least marginalize this creative work is to disregard much that is potentially viable, which could contribute a great deal toward a faithful revitalization of Christian orthodoxy in our time, in a manner that can also speak meaningfully to the culture.

The challenge in my view is that of adhering rigorously to the “strange new world within the Bible” as the operative standard of Christian faith. This includes drawing in as much as possible from the best insights of theological liberalism in a manner that enhances what Brian McLaren refers to as a “generous orthodoxy.” This would be based on a canonical framework that views “all scripture” as “given by inspiration of God, and” therefore, “profitable for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man [and woman] of God may be complete for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16). This would require, on my assessment, the mutual objective of taking the Bible with extreme seriousness as a primary canonical resource in all matters related to faith without the necessity of embracing a rigid doctrine of a scriptural inerrancy. The search for greater interpretive scriptural clarity and discernment of the Word would, in turn, be an essential component of an ongoing dialogue between postliberal and contemporary evangelical perspectives in which I seek to situate this text.

Any imaginative exorcism of the modernist-fundamentalist divide as a proximate goal entails separating out as much as possible what is essential from what is beside the point or even outright dubious within 20th century US fundamentalist, evangelical, and liberal theology. This would include a more discerning depiction of theological liberalism within evangelical theology and a deeper appreciation for the centrality of the Bible as a primary source of revelation within the mainline sector as reflected in miniature in the current discourse between postliberal and evangelical theology. The judgment of what the tipping points in 20th century theology are is obviously mine, as discussed throughout the book, although more than simply “my opinion” in a narrowly subjective sense. In the effort to move beyond mere subjectivism, through close historical, biblical, and theological analysis, I seek to establish a solid grounding within the key discourses of contemporary religious culture in a manner that moves toward what the philosopher Karl Popper refers to as “objective knowledge.” As put by Popper:

"We can never rationally justify a theory—that is, a claim to know its truth—but we can, if we are lucky, rationally justify a preference for one theory out of a set of competing theories, for the time being; that is, with respect to the present state of the discussion. And our justification, though not a[n absolute] claim that the theory is true, can be the claim that there is every indication at this stage of the discussion that the theory is a better approximation to the truth [italics in original] than any competing theory so far proposed.”

It is with such a degree of what Popper refers to as “versimilitude” that I seek to defend the view that a canonically comprehensive understanding of the biblical story in its various narrative and dogmatic articulations through the New Testament lens can serve as a cogent and highly imaginative baseline for the potential revitalization of contemporary Protestant theology. The existential matter of meaning is also crucially important, which can be shortchanged only at much loss. In the most fundamental and Barthian sense, the existential matter of faith would serve in a ministerial role, and therefore, however much in dialogue, in service to the biblical revelation itself, of, in the language of Francis Schaeffer, “the God who is there,” as proclaimed in Scripture. The theological task requires much discernment in the working out of the tensions among these competing sources of revelation that have given shape to so much of 20th century Protestant thought and popular religious culture, complicated further in the realization that any cognitive claim invariably overshoots its appropriation in which world-word interaction can only be more complex than what can be possibly described in words.

The crucial matter of “centers of values,” pointing to the indubitableness of ultimate vocabulary and identity is inescapable. Unless mainline theology is able to come to terms, however subtly with its most formative religious identification, the specter of relativism and syncretism; more fundamentally, the ubiquity of history as ultimate discourse through which revelation is sifted, can only continue to plague such denominations as the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the United Methodist Church (UMC), the two that I know best. In such a mindset, faith claims can only be contextualized within the frame of their varying historical perspectives rendering any notion of truth as utterly devoid of meaning on its face. I do not argue that one can escape historical finitude. I do maintain that any privileging of historical interpretation over that of the universal message embedded throughout the New Testament on the central redemptive role of Christ as God incarnate in human flesh gives to the former a sense of absolutism which itself requires attenuation in the light of the latter, for the very survival of Christianity as a distinct religion based on its own metanarrative claims.

Given the finitude and fallibility of human nature, this call for a certain level of theological exactitude does not mean that equivocation will not take place, for we do see in a “mirror, dimly.” However subtle the work required to flesh out the core claim that Jesus is Lord, if accepted as foundational revelatory truth, then the consequences of Christ in whom “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col 2:9) needs to be addressed and implications for missions, evangelism, apologetics, interfaith dialogue, and discourse with the “world” drawn. This primary issue of “who do you say I am” requires square facing by the Protestant mainline. This is my core thesis, for if any other name or title than Lord Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah is given, then what is in jeopardy is Christianity itself as a sharply distinctive faith. There are clearly schools of contemporary theology that move in this direction of other naming and I encourage those who seek to travel this pathway to continue to flesh out the logic of such assumptions, including the fruit thereof derived. My objective is to lay out to the best of my ability the implications of a vision based on the most generous orthodoxy that I can possibly discern consistent with a fully-embodied theology of Scripture, clearly an ideal, in which the latter serves as the interpretive lens to define the parameters of the former.

In the process, triumphalism, the temptation of fundamentalism, will need to be avoided. So, too will a too easy accommodation with what Hinkle refers to as “privatization, pluralization, and rationalization,” the ethos of modernity/postmodernity, the primary temptation of Protestant liberalism. Such work will need to proceed with consummate sensibility to other perspectives, even those within Christianity which posit a more “metaphorical” interpretation of the fundamental tenets “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). However incomplete human understanding remains, ultimate identifications are still required; for any effort to escape the issue of the radical particularity of the Christian revelation is to posit an absolutism of some sort even if it is that of “self-evident” acceptance of pluralization, hence the relativism, and radical historicism of human knowledge.

The argument that I seek to lay out is grounded on the assumption that the most radical faithfulness to the religious tradition founded on the revelation of Jesus the Christ requires a thorough embrace of the Bible as a holistic canonical text. This necessitates a reading that is both generous and textually faithful to the core precepts of the biblical claims about God, Christ, and humankind as the principal basis for serious mainline-evangelical encounter as a potential baseline for Protestant revitalization in the very midst of the challenges posed by modernity, postmodernity, globalization, and the marginality of Christian identity in the contemporary setting.

Any intentional shift in this direction will require some fundamental recasting of at least a few key assumptions of mainline and evangelical sectors, particularly those that fuel the persisting culture war in both its hot and cold formats which stem from the modernist/fundamental splits of the early 20th century. Many of the specific issues that shook Protestantism to its core in the earlier decades of the last century have seeped into the background. I contend that there remains an enduring culture lag in their continuing influence on the collective consciousness of both sectors in contemporary Protestant theology and culture that will need to be substantially resolved before denominations such as the UCC and the UMC will be able to embrace a 21st century based Reformation-derived revitalization of its theology, ecclesiology, and sense of core identity. Any such an effort may be improbable if not downright quixotic, yet, arguably, one worthy of the most rigorous and faithful pursuit, at the very least as a rigorous theological ideal.

There will be many within and without the mainline denominations who will argue that this is not a viable direction. I will take the position that it is the only plausible pathway for Protestant renewal in a manner that is most faithful to the original revelation of Jesus the Christ as Israel’s Messiah and the early church’s Trinitarian theology, in which equivocation places the radical uniqueness of Christianity itself in much doubt. However, much clearing of the ground is needed if mainline denominations or even substantial subsets within them are able to move in this avowedly orthodox direction at the dawn of the 21st century, as there remain many forces militating against such an effort. There are various ways of proceeding. The heart of the book is a detailed examination of the theology of Scripture and corresponding theology of God of five key contemporary expositors, which provides one critical way in of examining the various tensions within 20th century U.S. Protestantism. As prelude I lay out a highly selective survey of key issues in 20th century Protestant theology, which have given shape to the issues discussed throughout the book. I conclude this initial chapter with a discussion of Lesslie Newbigin’s, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society through which I lay out in more detail my core argument.


  1. The divide and the mindset are so vastly at polar odds that it sometimes amazes me that the "Christian" umbrella is above it all. What a study! Although even in the Bible itself we see diversions among followers and continual clarification by Jesus and his disciples as to God's intent. It is indeed a battle. Praise God that the battle is the Lords! And He is triumphant!

  2. Susan,

    Good to hear from you and thanks for sharing,

    Indeed it is as you say Susan, in which the polarities perpetually call us to ultimate commitments in the very definition of who we are and at the very least who we aspire to be.

    I sometimes reflect on Romans 7:14-23 and pick up particularly on v. 20: "Now if I do what I don't want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells witthin me." I think it is, in fact, the "I" that is very much at stake. Whatever we think of the doctrine of election, I think we can safely say that the wages of sin have at the least profound consequences of a very radical sort. Viewed thusly, the "I" being formed and grounded in a solid, biblically based Christ consciousness at the level of our lived reality depends at least in part on the quality of our faith walk.

    To be sure it is faith all the way down, but I think one can only authentically live within the grace of Romans 5 in conjunction with the call to holiness as laid out in Romans 6, however imperfectly our walk may be.