When You Sort of Miss Disenchantment

myth of dis

People who read Charles Taylor talk a lot about “disenchantment.” Well, other people to do too, but those are the folks I know. I am/have been one of them. The notion is contested, but very, very, very roughly, the idea is that part of what makes the modern world “modern” is that it’s chased out belief (and the sense) that we inhabit a world of spirits, fairies, goblins, deities, and possibly even the greatest supernatural reality of all, God.

Now, there are all sorts of explanation for what that means, why it happened, whether it’s good or bad, and so forth. One popular one says it’s largely bad and has pushed us towards a technocratic, rationalistic society that’s lost a sense of creation as a place of wonder, mystery, and so forth. And then, when you come to find out what did it, well, wouldn’t you know it’s Protestantism with its rationalistic (read ‘non-Roman’) doctrine of the Lord’s Supper that evacuated our sense of the cosmos as ‘sacramental,’ meaningful, etc., or Protestant doctrines of sovereignty that killed all sense of mediate, spiritual agencies.

I go back and forth on this quite a bit. When I read Taylor years ago, I was all in on seeing this as a thing. I had some doubts about big narratives as a whole (especially pinning the blame on Protestantism), but it sort of fit a long-running one you’ve been hearing about the West and modernity for years in various settings, so you just kind of go with it.

Then last year I read Jason Josephson-Storm’s excellent work, The Myth of Disenchantment, which casts doubt on whether things are so tidy. You can read a fantastic summary engagement with him, John Wilson, and Doug Sikkema over at The New Atlantis right now that is a welcome introduction to his thought and the wrinkle he puts in the debate.

He points out a number of problems with the big story we tell ourselves about disenchantment. For one thing, we’ve been telling stories about the loss of the fairies and so forth since about 13th century. It’s a recurring narrative trope suggesting a loss of the sense of the “magic” of the world has been with us for a very long time–at least a couple of hundred years before Calvin was born.

Second, many of the theorists of disenchantment weren’t all that disenchanted themselves. Freud believed in telepathy. Madame Curie was attending seances when she was conducting her scientific experiments. Max Weber, the grand theorist of disenchantment in the early 20th Century palled around with all sorts of spiritual weirdos. “Spiritualism” is a 19th Century, post-Enlightenment phenomenon. Indeed, Josephson-Storm suggests there is often a paradoxical relationship between theorists of disenchantment and the phenomena itself. Some theorize about it in order to bring it about, while others tell the story as a precursor to a program of re-enchantment, and so forth.

Finally, (for us), the big data point is that folks don’t really seem that disenchanted right now. People all across Europe and even the US have become less “religious”, but they have not necessarily become more “rationalist”, “secular” in the sense of completely rejecting the supernatural, etc. That’s too clean of a blank slate, replacement narrative. No, many recent studies have charted a rise in all sorts of alternative spiritualities instead.

A recent post over at Quillete, “From Astrology to Cult Politics” highlights this well:

Nearly one third of Americans report having felt in contact with someone who has died, feel that they have been in the presence of a ghost, and believe ghosts can interact with and harm humans. These numbers are going up, not down, as more people seek something to fill the religion-shaped hole in their lives. By no coincidence, infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers.

Americans are abandoning the pews, but are increasingly fascinated by astrology, “spiritual” healing practices, and fringe media sources that purport to describe the powers of the supernatural realm. The number of claimed “haunted houses” in the United States is growing. And paranormal tourism centered on such allegedly haunted locales has become a booming business, now accounting for over half a billion dollars in revenue annually.

And, of course, you can see this trend strongest in the least traditionally religious generation, the youngest:

Young adults, being less religious, are more inclined to believe in ghosts, astrology, clairvoyance and spiritual energy. But it also can be observed geographically: The parts of the United States where secular liberals are predominant tend to be the same areas where the market for alternative spiritual experiences and products is most lucrative. Even prominent media outlets such as The New York Times and (in Britain) The Guardian, whose readership consists primarily of secular liberals, frequently publish articles about topics such as witchcraft and astrology—even if they are careful not to legitimize the claims made by proponents of these beliefs.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth the survey.

I remember seeing this transition in real life, as a kid I grew up with in church started to carry crystals right about the time he began expressing doubts about Christian orthodoxy. Jump over to websites like the Goop and you’ll find articles on how to purchase and select the right sort of ethically-sourced crystals that give off the right energies. You can go to upper-class neighborhoods in LA and find bookstores that sell instruction books for how to arrange them around your house for the proper spiritual effect, right next the section with artisanal cookware.

Where am I going with all this? Mostly just noting a trend pastors and observers of contemporary culture should be aware of. When it comes to “disenchantment”, be careful about confusing skepticism about Christianity or traditional religion with hard-nosed, atheistic, rationalism. Most of it isn’t.

Second, you really need to be aware about this when it comes to dealing with the spiritual challenges in your congregation. The threat of syncretism isn’t just metaphorical in the West right now. You probably have folks in you congregation who come to hear you preach on Sunday, but seriously check their horoscopes on Monday, and get worried about Mercury going into retrograde, talk about a sense of their energy being off, and so forth. It’s probably time to start reading up on apologetics against new age spirituality, astrology, issuing serious warnings about witchcraft, etc.

Yes, you need to push on late-modern, expressive-individualist consumerism, but also how easily that can coexist with checking your star sign, thinking white magic is cool, and trying to find just to right crystal to balance your energy. There is more to it than that, but these modes of thinking fit hand-in-glove.

Which is to say, when it comes to preaching out of Colossians or Corinthians, talking about Christ’s defeat of the powers, not being captive to empty philosophy, or participating in pagan feasts, you may not need to find “modern”, metaphorical analogies for your applications. All of a sudden, Augustine’s sections in The Confessions refuting astrology are worth quoting from the pulpit. Maybe, just maybe, we need to start consulting with our brothers and sisters in less “advanced” countries about how they preach the gospel to their neighbors caught up in the worship of spirits, and so forth.

Finally, returning to the earlier conversation, whether or not you buy the disenchantment narrative, it’s worth remembering that for much of the early church “disenchantment” was good news. Only they had a different word for it. It was called “exorcism”, and it was the defeat of Satan, unclean spirits, and the dark, pagan gods who haunted their nightmares and held them in bondage to sin and terror.

We may begin to miss “disenchantment” in the coming years.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: I completely forgot this recent piece by Ross Douthat on the “return” of Paganism, both Left and post-Christian Right. Also worth the time.

The Best Apologetics Is Good Systematics

o'donovanYesterday’s post on the shape of atonement doctrine raised the issue of how the wrong sort of apologetic mindset when it comes to preaching and forming doctrine can distort our understanding of how and why we believe what we do.

After the fact, I recalled some comments by Oliver O’Donovan about how to think about apologetics as a form of Christian thinking. He has been situating his own project and notes that in the contemporary context (2005), one of the secondary values of engaging political theology is for its apologetic value. Given the loss of intelligibility of political institutions and practices, the fact that Christian political reasoning can shed light on these matters in a way secular philosophies no longer could might prove attractive to nonbelievers.

In that context, O’Donovan issues a corrective explanation of just what does and does not separate apologetics from other modes of theology:

Now, apologetics is not a distinct genre of religious thinking. There are no apologetic reasons and arguments that do not belong in the ordered exposition of Christian belief traditionally known as “doctrine.” The only satisfactory reason to believe is the reason of belief. If I could think out for myself a total and rationally coherent account of all my beliefs, I would have found all the reasons I knew for anyone else to believe as I believed. If I were then to urge some other reasons for believing, it would have to be a pseudo-reason that I did not myself believe, and I would be a charlatan.

Apologetics is, on the other hand, a distinct genre of exposition. For dialogue’s sake I may organize my account of my beliefs in relation to somebody else’s doubts or counter-arguments. The rational equilibrium always remains the same: a reason for an unbeliever not to be swayed by an argument against belief is at the same time a reason for a believer not to be swayed by it. Yet different trains of theological thought may acquire greater or lesser apologetic weight circumstantially, as the crises or doubts of the culture may dictate at any moment.

The Ways of Judgment (xiii)

Another way of putting this is to say that your apologetic theology should just be your systematic theology arranged in a different order, so that its inherent logic and justification is more clearly defensible against contemporary attacks (or attractive to the current moment). But it’s not a different theology, or your theology plus extra reasons to believe. It is the same truth with the same justifications, not ones we’ve simply adopted for their usefulness in the moment.

I’ll simply add that O’Donovan’s clarification is well-made as this is where the danger of the apologetic endeavor looms large for confessional theology.

Without a sense of your theology as, in a sense, prior to your apologetics, it becomes ever more tempting to succumb to the pressure of presenting a doctrine “defensible” at the bar of whatever is currently passing itself off as universal human reason (which is the liberal theological impulse). There is a shift in balance from presenting Christian truth in a way that is more accessible to the current moment, to deciding what Christian truth is on the basis of its acceptability to the current moment.

But when the Lord tells Ezekiel to preach, “Thus says the Lord God”, he tells him to do it, “whether they hear or refuse to hear” (Ezek. 3:11). Why? Because the the Word of the Lord is the Word of the Lord whether we hear it or not.

Putting things more positively, when I was younger, I was concerned with theological issues more as apologetic issues, and so my dives into systematic theology were usually aimed at answering some objection. As time progressed, I realized that some of the most satisfying apologetic answers I found were found by pursuing a solid grasp of systematics in itself. Most of my apologetic encounters ended up being a clarification of basic misunderstandings of Christian doctrine anyways.

Of course, as I continued to study, it became clear that some of the best systematics come, not from trying to figure out which doctrine is most defensible to the day’s most aggressive skeptics, but from striving to discern as best as possible the coherence, beauty, and truth of God’s Word in its own positive right. In other words, the best apologetics is just a good systematics.

Soli Deo Gloria

Owen’s Polemical, Trinitarian Spirituality

communion with GodHistorian Richard Muller points out that if Reformed Orthodox theology had a “central-dogma”, contrary to most popular perceptions it wasn’t the doctrine of election, but that of the Trinity. That made intuitive sense to me when I read it. Even though I haven’t always been Reformed, the charge that it’s a sub-trinitarian tradition has never made sense to me.

Maybe that’s because one of the first books I read when I started getting into Reformed theology was John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God. In it, the Puritan giant’s main aim is to present his readers with an understanding of how we are called to communion and union with the Triune God. And not just the Trinity as “God in general.” Owen shows that we are also called to appreciate and commune with and worship each person distinctly in a manner appropriate them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s really a phenomenally warm piece of Trinitarian devotional spirituality derived from sermons he preached to his congregation. I can tell you that it had a great impact on my spiritual life when I read it and I would recommend it highly.

What I didn’t know early on was that this wasn’t Owen’s only piece of Trinitarian theology. In fact, he’d written numerous volumes on it one way or another, including a number of heavily apologetic defenses like his lengthy Vindiciae Evangelicae, or the Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined  in which he refutes the Unitarians and Socinians as well as his later A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Trinity. These are far more technical and polemical (at least the former is) pieces aimed at dispelling error and refuting heretics carried out with great passion and meticulous care.

The thing that’s key for us to see, though, is that these two kinds of works are just two sides of the same coin.

Nowadays, it’s very common to distinguish between writers of “spirituality” and “pastoral theology” and those who care about defending doctrine and carrying out polemics. But this was far from the case for the Puritan writers like Owen and his contemporaries.

For them, the polemics protected the spirituality and the spirituality drove the polemics.

In fact, some historians like Paul Lim suggest it’s at least partially because of his polemical context that Owen was driven to pursue and lay out such a rich Trinitarian spirituality. At the time there was a tendency on the part of the Socinians (and even some Arminians) to downplay or denigrate the Trinity as useless, false, or not of fundamental importance, since it was spiritually impractical. And so authors like Owen pressed to give a counter-response and left us with rich treasures of devotional trinitarianism. You can see the same thing in Herman Witsius, for instance.

Of course, when you stop to take in the broad sweep of Church history, that can’t be too surprising. Doctrine is often clarified, developed, and re-appropriated best at precisely those times when it comes under pressure from skeptics. Without them we wouldn’t have the polemics or devotional spirituality of Athanasius on the deity of the Son, Basil on the Holy Spirit, Augustine on Grace, and on down the line we could go.

In the history of the Church and even in the Scriptures (Paul, John, Jesus, the OT prophets…), those who care most passionately for the true worship of God often end up being those who argue for it most forcefully, looking to cut off idolatry and protect true worship. Those theologians of the Church deeply invested in the spirituality of the Church have been the most passionate in her defense. In the long run, then, spirituality and polemics are not at odds.

Indeed, they actually fuel one another. Knowing the good defenses of the faith and key doctrines can often serve to make them more secure in our minds and hearts moving us to worship. At other times, worshiping in Spirit leads us to pursue a deeper knowledge of the truth, which includes its defense.

And this is why I think we should not always be dismayed or discouraged beyond comfort when doctrinal fights break out. Nor should we always avoid it for the sake of a false peace. Yes, there is something distressing about it. But we should take comfort in knowing that God can (and often will) bring great fruit from these episodes.

That said, I think there is an order which should be maintained in the long run. Polemics are conducted for the sake of worship, not the other way around. That should be obvious, and I doubt any would deny that explicitly. All the same, I think the distaste some people have for reading clear, polemical theology comes from encountering those who have made the argument the point.

Thankfully, John Owen doesn’t seem to have been one of them.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Nyssa: The Recovery Must Fit the Disease: (Or, Not Everyone Is A Youth Group Refugee)

nyssaEarly on in my theological reading, I gained the impression that contextualizing our presentation gospel was a new concept that Lesslie Newbigin came up with in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not. Understanding the unique challenges that each culture, or sub-culture, or philosophic and religious tradition poses to the gospel is a task that has been with the church since its inception.

Case in point: Gregory of Nyssa. Reading in preparation for my courses this week, I ran across this fantastic little passage on contextualizing our presentation of the faith in the prologue to his The Great Catechism.

The presiding ministers of the “mystery of godliness” have need of a system in their instructions, in order that the Church may be replenished by the accession of such as should be saved, through the teaching of the word of Faith being brought home to the hearing of unbelievers. Not that the same method of instruction will be suitable in the case of all who approach the word. The catechism must be adapted to the diversities of their religious worship; with an eye, indeed, to the one aim and end of the system, but not using the same method of preparation in each individual case…The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease. You will not by the same means cure the polytheism of the Greek, and the unbelief of the Jew as to the Only-begotten God: nor as regards those who have wandered into heresy will you, by the same arguments in each case, upset their misleading romances as to the tenets of the Faith. No one could set Sabellius right by the same instruction as would benefit the Anomoean. The controversy with the Manichee is profitless against the Jew. It is necessary, therefore, as I have said, to regard the opinions which the persons have taken up, and to frame your argument in accordance with the error into which each has fallen, by advancing in each discussion certain principles and reasonable propositions, that thus, through what is agreed upon on both sides, the truth may conclusively be brought to light.

Gregory is preparing this catechism to be used widely, so he reminds potential pastors and apologists they need to be flexible in their presentation. In their catechetical classes where inquirers and initiates come to learn about the faith they will be dealing with a wide variety of hearers. Some are traditionalist Jewish monotheists offended at the incarnation. Others are Greek, folk polytheists tempted to chop up God’s unity into a diversity of gods. While still others are semi-Christian heretics of various varieties, many influenced by leading philosophies of the day. Which means you can’t count on the same formula, the same order of presentation to work every time, even if you’re teaching the same truth at the end of it.

It is the same today. For some, you’ll have to tackle philosophical questions about ethics, while others are interested in the Bible and science, and still others care about where the gospel speaks to their deep, existential questions about meaning or the trauma they’ve suffered. Without ultimately surrendering the content, or key principles, we need to learn a certain flexibility as ministers of the gospel in our instruction and proclamation.

I’m reminded of the recent kerfuffles over how to present the gospel raised by the Tim Keller interview with Nick Kristof. There were plenty of complaints coming from all angles. For me, a lot of the complaints seemed variations of a frustration that Keller didn’t present things the way they would have to the particular audience they were concerned with. He’s speaking to progressive New Yorkers and they’re thinking about their friends in the conservative youth group they grew up in.

Pete Enns, for instance, thought Keller’s responses could be seen as dismissive towards questioners or skeptics wrestling with doubt. He thought he didn’t sufficiently empathize with questioners struggling with issues of recurring concern, or acknowledge the tension sufficiently. The kind of blunt, straightforward answers Keller gave seemed clipped, formulaic, and would likely turn off the hearers Enns had in mind.

Now, that may be so for a particular kind of skeptic. But when I read it, I thought of my aggressively skeptical classmates in my philosophy undergrad who probably would have rolled their eyes at a show of empathy. If you didn’t immediately follow it up with a straight answer to a straight question, or a respond to the challenge, they would probably see it as a squishy dodge and walk away convinced Christians really didn’t have anything to say. In which case, it’s precisely the sorts of answers Keller gave which would have at least made them stick around long enough to argue about them and hear more.

My point is not that Keller’s way in the interview is the only possible or right way to respond to skeptical questions. It’s not even a defense of his interview. (Though, I thought Scot McKnight’s response to most of the critics was well-put, and that most didn’t consider the nature of the interview carefully anyways.) My point is simply to highlight the fact that we need to take care to not reduce all those who we’re trying to reach for the gospel to one pure type. Nor should we imagine the apologetic tack you would use for one group is obviously suited for all.

Of course, the key figure giving us warrant for “contextualizing” the gospel in the New Testament is the Apostle Paul. To Jews, he quotes Scripture to prove the Messiah; to Greeks, he engages in a bit of “worldview” evangelism before he comes to the figure of Christ (both in Acts 17). In the freedom of the gospel and under the Lordship of Christ, he makes himself all things to all people for the sake of reaching some (1 Cor. 9). But I would imagine that to those trying to reach Greeks, his approach with the Jews would seem narrowly Biblicistic and dogmatic. While to those concerned with Jewish outreach, his broad philosophical appeal might seem too initially accommodating.

Not every skeptic is a youth-group refugee. Nor are they hard-core atheist apologists. Some are squishy, New-Agers. Others are pragmatic, business-types. Still others are people who already think themselves properly “religious” and chafe at the notion they need an upgrade. And in our post-Christian society, some are just curious inquirers without all the hang-ups about which we might be worried. We need, then, to heed Gregory’s wisdom: “The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease.”

In which case, some of us should be slower to condemn those who are skilled in administering the medicine of the gospel to patients different than those we typically treat.

Soli Deo Gloria

Making Sense of God by Tim Keller (Reviewish Write-Up)

making-sense-of-godWhen I was in college ministry, I had a small budget for books and resources to use with my students.So for almost the entirety of those four and half years, I had a small stack of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God sitting on a shelf in my office, as well as one or two tucked in the backseat of my car to hand out to students. Ever since reading it right after college, I have found it to be the single-most helpful one-book, contemporary apologetic introductions to Christianity out there. I’ve led small-groups through it, handed it to doubters, skeptics, fervent Christians, and everyone in-between.

So when I found out that he wrote a prequel called Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, I thought to myself, “What? Why would you do that?”

How Different Is It?

As it happens, Keller thinks that for some, the conversation needs to start farther back in the process than he does in The Reason For God. In that book, an interest (even if a somewhat hostile one) in Christianity is assumed. And on that basis, Keller proceeds to deal with some of the biggest objections and then making a positive case for Christianity. The way I used to put it was that the first half was for showing you didn’t have to be an evil idiot to believe, while the second half argues it may actually be smart and moral to believe.

In this book, Keller’s on the (gentle, welcoming, professorial) offensive trying to drum up the interest by raising some objections to, or just complicating any comfortable, self-understandings that secular people may be trying to live with. Instead of focusing on the rational case (though that’s present), he’s expanding his focus on the emotional and cultural argument for Christianity. And, of course, presenting the gospel all throughout.

One way of thinking about the book is to look at The Reason for God’s chapters on “Christianity as a Cultural Straightjacket”, the moral argument, and the problem of sin and spin those out at greater length. He tackles issues of science and rationality, argument for belief in God, Jesus in particular, and so forth, but for my money, the meat is at the center where he’s making the case that on the big questions of meaning, hope, identity, etc., secularism can’t deliver a coherent, satisfying vision of life. In that regard, it’s less like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith and more like Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (sans the profanity).

It’s a bit more than that, though. In some ways, it reminds me most of two of his other works, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and Counterfeit Gods. In Counterfeit Gods, Keller specifically goes on the offensive against the main idols promising us satisfaction and fulfillment. In Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering he spends a solid third of the work showing the way secularism has a very high bar to meet when it comes to making sense out of suffering as well. It’s not just that Christianity isn’t overwhelmed by the problem of evil, but that it offers help for a universal problem that secularism never could.

Should I Grab it?

You might be wondering, then, if I’ve read The Reason for God and some of these other works, should I grab this book? Short answer: yes!

For pastors and preachers looking for preaching and apologetic points, this is a no-brainer. There will be a number of familiar moves and material, if you’ve been reading and listening to Keller for a while. That said, there is plenty of new material, or new examples, authors cited, applications, and problems that he’s working through in a way he hasn’t elsewhere.

For instance, on the issues of faith and science, Keller cites and engages with a surprising amount of work out of the critical theory of T.W. Adorno, Horkhiemer, Habermas, and the Frankfurt school. Or again, the fruit of Keller’s time spent with Charles Taylor’s works, not just A Secular Age, shows up throughout.

And, of course, there are the endnote-essays. If you haven’t realized by now that you always need to read the end-notes, repent, and go back and start scanning them. There’s a treasure-trove of references, analysis, taxonomies, and more.

As Andrew Wilson pointed out in his review, Keller’s form of response and maturity in handling the material has the feel of conversationally-honed insight, rather than a repackaged apologetic textbooks, which is extremely helpful.

Which One Should I Give My Friend?

For everyone else, you may be wondering, “Which book should I hand to my unbelieving friend first, if I had to pick between The Reason for God and Making Sense of God?”

Honestly, it depends on your friend. If they’re struggling more with issues like hell, the problem of evil, other religions, or more straightforward evidential objections, The Reason for God is still the way to go. If they’re chewing more on Christianity’s moral stances, cultural issues, and so forth, or they’re of a more existential, searching, inquisitive mindset (whether high existentialist like Camus and Sartre, or pop-“existential” like Elisabeth Gilbert and the Oprah book club), then Making Sense of God is probably the way to go.

So, if I was back in college ministry with my book budget, I’d probably start to stock up both and make the judgment call on which book to hand the student based on our conversation.

One last comment on general “feel.” While I’ve been a fan of basically all of his stuff, after writing books for something like 10 years now, I have to say Keller’s voice continues to pick up that book feel. I noticed it first in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and again in Prayer. This one has it too. Just a thought for those interested in that sort of thing.

Well, to wrap up, Tim Keller’s got a new book and (big surprise!) it’s good. I recommend it to people at all stages in their walk with Christ, whether seasoned believers looking to grow in evangelism, or those who haven’t even taken a first step.

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine Against the Gods and the City of God For a New Age?

course of empireAs I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve finally taken up Augustine’s City of God in my reading and after the first seven books (of twenty-two) have been finding it immensely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I’d been exposed to small sections in my undergraduate courses, but now I’m finally taking in the full sweep of the argument and it’s quite a different experience. For those of you who don’t know, most of the first ten books (roughly 4oo pages), is caught up with Augustine’s polemic against the pagans. They had charged Christianity and Christ with the sack of Rome by the Goths, so Augustine launches a sweeping counterattack against the official theology of Rome as well as its most “enlightened” interpretations via Varro and some of the philosophers such as the Neo-Platonists.

Though not quite through the polemics, I thought it might be worth highlighting a few observations worth reflecting on briefly.

Augustine Against the Gods

First, on the material critique of the gods, it’s fairly amusing to read Augustine pick apart the official state religion and the popular iterations presented in Homer and the poets on its own terms. Augustine takes the time to comb through the writings of the poets and point out the various internal inconsistencies and between common Roman morality and the lecherous, shameful gods that are celebrated as ‘select’ among the pantheon. And then he goes on to document in detail the licentiousness that’s passed off as the proper worship of the gods: prostitution, castration, drunkenness, and countless other abominations. The gods weren’t simply non-existent for Augustine–whether figments of the human imagination or demons masquerading as gods–they were positively dehumanizing.

Looking at the practice and reality of idolatry, one Augustine’s main lines of attack is that it’s all rather untidy. Why the multiplication of so many gods to various functions? Why one god for the planting of seeds and another for their growth? If Jupiter is both father and mother of all, why the profusion of feminine and masculine deities? At one point he quite humorously points that there were about six different gods supposed to be invoked at weddings in order to ensure the consummation of the marriage, making things a bit too crowded for the Bride and Groom to get any of the work done themselves. The spirit of Elisha against the Baals on Mt. Carmel stalks Augustine’s work.

Beyond this, it’s not just that polytheism is metaphysically untidy. Augustine points out that the idolatrous spirit, once it begins down the road of multiplying deities, has no natural way of stopping. The logic of polytheism takes over and gods and goddesses begin to pop in the places that you’d least expect them. Indeed, that’s one of the problems with it. As soon as you lose the one God who creates, redeems, directs, and orders all things, you begin to need more and more gods to keep the system going. It’s not as if idolaters simply switch out the True God for another main deity. This creates the perpetual duty to please and propitiate all of them, or the anxiety that comes in making sure you pick the right one for your needs. There is no rest in polytheism.

Augustine’s polemical vision is broader still, though. He takes aim not only at popular piety, but even the more sophisticated and academic attempts to save or reinterpret the worship of the gods by Varro or even Cicero. Poet or philosopher, it didn’t matter. Augustine aimed both high and law. Actually, one of the more interesting features of his polemic is to show the way that even the more sophisticated constructions of Varro and others eventually fall prey to the same faulty metaphysical assumptions, or else fall prey to others that, while possibly less crass, are no more plausible. Idolatry is idolatry is idolatry. Of course, in order to demonstrate that, Augustine had to be familiar with both popular piety and it’s more academic variations.

In modern polemics, if it’s engaged in at all, theologians and pastors tend to stick to one level of discourse. Some love to get into the thick of more street-level apologetics, whether it be Mormons, skeptical Dawkinsians, or your run of the mill “spiritual-not-religious” critic.  Others enjoy the high-level “apologetic” conducted in academies–the kind of apologetic that doesn’t like being called an apologetic–with conversations centered around “modernity”, deconstruction, critical theory, and abstruse ruminations about the hope of a Christian theo-ontology. Usually, the two modes of discourse don’t mix. For Augustine that wasn’t an option. Chapters skewering the lewdities of the Bacchanalia or the foolishness of multiplying principles of being, give way to an examination of the metaphysical shortcomings of the Neo-Platonists.

One of the other features of note is that Augustine’s critique is conducted at the historical level as well. Indeed, after an initial defense of Christian providence against the pagans, Augustine’s critique of the gods begins there. If Christ and the worship of Christ is allegedly responsible for historical evils, for the loss of the blessings of the gods, Augustine will go to history to answer them. If the gods were such great protectors, why had the Romans suffered such great military losses in the ages when there was unquestioned Roman devotion? What of the horrendous civil wars that cause tumult and death? Or how about the various “natural” tragedies and plagues that this pantheon was responsible to deflect? Had not every god they ever worshiped failed them? Indeed, if Virgil’s press and spin-doctoring of history was to be believed and Rome was supported by the old gods of Troy, why did they have any hope in them? Why should the gods that failed Troy be expected to be the salvation of Rome?

Finally, in terms of material content, Augustine’s critique always contains an appreciation of the true desires contained in Roman values and attempts to show their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Though his judgment is almost unrelentingly negative in terms of the actual worship or philosophical positions of those whom he engages, he has a knack for recognizing those noble elements in Varro, Seneca, or some of the heroes of Rome such as Regulus. Some of them are clearly groping towards the truth, but they are unfortunately weighed down by tradition or a lack of courage to recognize the truth. In some cases, he looks at the gods they worship and points out that what they really  ought to worship is a different one like Felicity, who offers all that the Romans seek. Of course, that’s merely a set-up to point out that true felicity comes from the one God in Jesus Christ who is the source of all good in this world and the next.

A Modern City of God?

As I have read and reviewed Augustine’s work, I’ve been wondering what it would take to write a contemporary City of God for the current age. As the West enters (and in Europe has been in) a post-Christian era that increasingly resembles an earlier, more pluralistic and pagan age, what would a full-dress assault on the “gods” look like? Does it already exist? There are a number of good apologetics works out there, but I’m not sure I know of something engaging in as far-reaching, or exhaustive examination of the philosophies, popular spiritualities, and secularized idols (ideologies) that compares to the City of God. Possibly the David Bentley Hart duo of Atheist Delusions when paired with his more recent The Experience of God could be thought of as a contender in that way.

One of the challenges to reproducing Augustine’s work in the contemporary period is that there is no recognizable “religious” system on par with the Roman cult in contemporary Western culture. Thinking about the systems of worship we tend to call religions in the West, the pluralism involved seems to be of a somewhat different sort than the variegated worship of the pantheon in ancient Rome. To take on the “gods” of positive religions like Hinduism, Islam, and so forth, would be a massive undertaking, and in the West, is probably largely beside the point. No, the only comparable reality would likely be the sort of secularized idolatry of the deification of the goods of modern culture. In other words, the sort of “hyper-goods” Charles Taylor talks about like freedom as autonomy, unfettered choice, or more obvious candidates such as money, sex, power, celebrity. In that sense, something like Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods might just do the trick, only on a bit of a grander scale (and I say that loving that book).

I suppose, then, that the elements are probably all there in works that are out on the market, simply chopped up into smaller works and spread out, devoted to tackling more specific, niche issues. Perhaps City of God simply isn’t meant to be rewritten and the age calls for another kind of work altogether. A more impatient age can’t take the time to work through a thousand page onslaught on idols of the age.

I wonder, though. Maybe there’s space yet, for another Augustine to meet the current challenges.

And I suppose that’s where I’ll end this ramble. If you have any thoughts, opinions, ruminations, or recommendations, feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Four Helpful Words Before You Preach That Awkward Word

awkwardEvery pastor has sermons that they hate to preach, especially when it comes to cultural flashpoints. Unless you’re a glutton for conflict, or you’ve got nerves of steel, the thought of misunderstanding, rejection, or turning someone off from the Gospel because you’ve got to preach on that subject this week when Joe happens to be bringing his 10 unsaved, unchurched friends might just cause you some nerves.

The tension is there for various reasons. First, you want to be faithful to God’s word. You don’t want to hem or hedge or cover over what God has spoken. It’s God’s word and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s truth that, even when it cuts, leads to the beautiful healing brought about by the Spirit. Then again, you also want people to properly hear what was actually spoken, as opposed to what they’ve been culturally-trained to hear as soon as a couple of key buzzwords are dropped. As wonderful as the Word is, aside from our own natural resistance, people have mishandled it, creating a natural, understandable hesitation about certain hot-button topics.

In these situations, I have found that it’s helpful to say a few words before, or with, or after, those words we’re a little worried to utter or expound. Consider them framing words. They help set up, frame, or prepare your people to process what you’re about to say. To use an odd, distracting image, it’s like trying to clear some wax out of the ears before putting in headphones. You want as little hindering your people as possible. What’s more, these are the kinds of helpful conversation-framers that teach your people how to talk to outsiders beyond Sunday morning in the pews. By the way, at the outset, you need to know that I probably got all of these from Tim Keller at some point.

So what are these ‘words’?

1. Culture changes, so do our presuppositions. The first point is that our moral intuitions, while there for our good, are culturally-shaped, and therefore pretty malleable. Things that just “felt wrong” to people 60 years ago, didn’t feel wrong 60 years before that, and vice versa. Or again, things that just “seem obviously right” to someone in the Middle East, will “seem obviously wrong” to someone in downtown Chicago. Yes, there is a fundamental human nature, with instincts for the basic shape of right and wrong, but like our sense of fashion it’s got a certain sense drift. We’ve worn jeans for a while now, but in the 90s they were baggy and under your butt. Now, they’re skinny compressed. At both times, they “feel right” as pants, despite their wide difference.

In a similar way, some of the Bible’s answers will make intuitive sense to people out in the culture and sometimes they won’t. Right now the Bible’s answers about grounding the nature of human rights, cultivating empathy, compassion and forgiveness, all resonate with our culture even if they don’t buy the story. In other areas like sex and money, the Bible’s message is going to grate. Sometimes, then, the Bible’s answers are like an odd image on puzzle-piece. It’s only when you’ve placed it in the broader picture, that it will make any sense.

2. The Unchanging Cultural Universal. The next truth that goes hand in hand with the last point is that no culture has ever been universally right on every point. Every culture has blind spots. As Lewis has pointed out before, we might look back on the Medievals and judge them for their violence and love of marshall conquest, while they would look at an age like ours and wonder at our cheap view of sex, or physical cowardice. Compassion towards outsiders might be a premium we champion, but our lack of loyalty in marriage, or our workaholism and materialistic consumerism are things that other ages and cultures would look at us and shake their heads at. Just like human individuals, the Bible teaches that human cultures are both filled with common grace truth and yet broken by sin. If that’s the case, if the Bible is the transcultural truth of God, wouldn’t we expect for it to affirm and challenge each culture and age in different spots?

3. First Things First.  Next, and this one is mostly for the skeptics or newbies checking out the faith, keep first things first. As Keller asks in The Reason for God, “Surely you don’t want to say that just because you don’t like what the Bible says about, issue x (women, same-sex marriage, etc) you don’t believe Jesus rose from dead? You wouldn’t want to make such a non-sequitur.” The point is this: Figure out the main things first and then come back for the tough, but peripheral stuff. There is an order of importance in the Christian faith for which beliefs ground other beliefs. In other words, who cares what the Bible says about contraception or gender roles if Jesus never rose from the dead? If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then, as Paul says, “your faith is futile and you’re still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:12-20), so who cares right? So, if you’re troubled and new and don’t know what to think, that’s okay. Read and learn. But first, tackle the bigger issues like God, Christ, the nature of salvation, and then wrestle with what the Bible says about your pet issue.

4. If Jesus Did Rise… Now, for those of us who have come to the conclusion that Jesus did rise from the dead and he’s the Creator of all things and Cosmic Lord of the Universe, well, then it’s time to wrestle with the Bible he affirmed as true and authoritative. It’s not possible to say to him, “Jesus, you’re my Lord, my Savior, and I trust you with my eternal destiny when I die” and then turn around and add “but right there, what you said about my bank account (sex life, marriage, time, etc), is kind of off, so I’ll have to pass.” It just doesn’t work. Now, you may take a while to study and figure out what the Bible is saying, but after you’ve said yes to Jesus, straight-up disagreement is not an option.

So there you go. Obviously, you don’t have to frame them the way I did. And, it would probably be a good idea to go cruise through Keller’s Reason for God at some point if you haven’t, just to get the clearer version of all of these. Still, points like these are worth making. And now that I think about it, they’re good, not only during the particular sermon in question, but regularly, during all sorts of sermons. You often need to be tilling the soil long before planting season if it’s going to be ready to receive the more difficult seed you want to sow.

Of course, above all, trust God himself to be at work in the Word by his Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria