Ash Wednesday isn’t suppose to be comfortable. It’s a day when the church takes repentance public. A day when something we usually reserve for the private sphere get’s pushed into the public sphere. It’s a day when repentance becomes corporate. When repentance is there for all to see, with the sign of the cross inscribed in ash on our foreheads.
And it’s not just a time of repentance, but it’s also a time of relinquishment … relinquishment of our project of immortality.
As I wrote earlier this week:
Denial of death, for Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker, is an all encompassing explanation for human endeavors.
Death, though, for Becker has two levels of meaning: The first level is phyiscal death. After all, how many times a day do we attempt to distance ourselves from death? Do you eat healthy? Do you wear a seat belt?
The second understanding of death plays more into our discussion. This type of death can occur during life. It’s the type of death that takes place when we experience a loss of meaning, worth or affirmation. And this type of death, though it will happen eventually for us all, is what most of us work so hard to deny.
Ash Wednesday is an acknowledgement of Ernest Becker’s second type of death. It’s an acknowledgement of our mortality; an acknowledge of our finitude; and an acknowledge of our depravity.
It’s the day we repent for our denial of death. Essentially, it’s a day when we prove Ernest Becker wrong.
It does us good to remember the old saying that is found on some tombstones:
Remember friends as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.
It’s good for us to remember that the works of our hands will not last forever. That our kingdoms will fall. That America will one day be no more. That our bodies will die. That our jobs, our business, our children, our name, our political ideals, and even our religion will one day — if they are lucky — find themselves in the annuls of history. That even our Christianity as we know it will one day be rendered dead.
And maybe this type of doubt is the reason few evangelicals partake in Ash Wednesday. After all, we have fervently engaged in the project of death denial as we’ve built theological buildings that we believe will last for time eternal.
And maybe it’s right to even press this farther.
Maybe Ash Wednesday is a day when the church should allow ourselves to doubt in the life after this one. That maybe our hopes of heaven are misinterpretations of Jesus’ words. That maybe all we have is today to love and be loved. And maybe, in forgetting this next life, we might strive for life now. We might find eternal life before our death.
Ash Wednesday isn’t suppose to be comfortable. No, there’s nothing comfortable about this day.
“From dust you were made and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19
I think that’s cool.
The other week she told me that she got mad at me when she read in a previous post of mine where I said, “I’ll go so far as to say – at least propositionally – when it comes to the Christian faith, there are no absolute truths in the modern sense.”
Most Christians, my mother included, associate what I just wrote as me being sucked in by the postmodern currents of culture. And I guess that’s one way of looking at it.
For my mother’s sake — and maybe yours — let me explain the above statement by attempting to define what I meant, and how the little prepositional phrase, “in the modern sense” means a lot, especially for postmodern culture and people, who, when they hear the words “absolute truth” and “Christian” in the same sentence, interpret it to mean something very different than what you or I intended to mean. Sort of like telling a Hindu to be born again, if we want our locutionary act to match the illocutionary act we need to understand the other person’s perspective or we might receive an unwanted perlocutionary act.
Defining postmodernism is a difficult if not impossible task and I often cringe when academics approach postmodernism like they approach modernism. Postmodernism is like a young man in his teens. You might be able to name his parents, where he goes to school, where he’s from, etc. but to think you’ve got his identity nailed down – when he probably doesn’t know his identity himself – is presumptuous. A presumptuous act many evangelicals are committing.
Sure we can talk about this young teen (thus this discussion), but not like we can talk about modernity.
Modernity is like the grandparents of the young teen in that their identity is rather definable … their life, for the most part, has already been defined by where they worked, who they married and what they did with the 80 plus years of their living.
I’m all for getting a good grasp on modernity, which we can do because modernity’s day is nearly over and we have many smart men and women who are writing it’s obituary, providing a nice summary of its life.
I’m all for reading the sources of postmodernity, such as Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida and the oft overlooked Gadamer, but it should be understood that the movement is dynamic in nature – like the young teen – and although those thinkers lead the academic arm of the movement’s infancy, they can’t be said to totally define it.
This is an emerging movement and is still in the process of defining it’s identity.
I think the best way we can understand the existential undercurrents of postmodernism is to attempt to grasp post-colonialism.
Postmodernism explicitly rejects the “world-view” label … saying postmodernism is a world-view is like calling a Jew a Hitler lover, or vice versa. The idea of a “world-view”, they would contest, is colonial in nature, and is the very thing their critique is leveled against.
For many of us Western Christians, “world-view” is almost equivalent with the word “ideology”, but for many postmoderns “world-view” has an imperialistic tone. This is why they can say, “postcolonialism isn’t a world-view” and then we’ll make fun of them with the old “reductio ad absurdum” argument.
We in the West, according to our heritage, like to deal with the philosophical aspects of post-colonialism (i.e. postmodernism), but the larger conversation has less to do with absolutes per se and more to do with the praxis of absolutes: namely, the imperialistic tendencies that human’s get when they believe they hold an absolute or a universal.
Again, with postmodernism we like to satirically state, “Postmodernism states absolutely that there’s no absolutes.” We eisegetically apply our understanding of absolutes, overlooking that for the postmodern, the denial of absolutes is just as much a denial of imperialism. For many, the denial of the absolute is a denial of the imperialistic tendencies of the Global North. Do you really think postmodern philosophers are so stupid?
While many Christian apologists feel good about landing a straight right and a left cross to the face of postmodernism, they may find they have been fighting against a straw man.
Have I mentioned before that modernism is decidedly white? Have I mentioned before that white people embody the colonial tendencies oft associated with modernity? Have you ever wondered why it’s harder for the older white male, Western Christian Ph.D.’s to grasp postmodernism / postcolonialism? Their perspective just makes it difficult … I guess they just have trouble looking down. In fact, the less you have of the above characteristics, the easier it will be to understand (I didn’t say accept) the postcolonial / postmodern ethos … thus the reason woman, African Americans, Latinos, etc. have a nearly innate sense of the undercurrents of postcolonialism and so are able to understand postmodernism with more ease. As one black blogger puts it, “We’ve been postmodern since 1619.”
The questions from postmodernism are being posed more so from the background of “your country and it’s values are invading mine” and less from the “your truth is your truth and it’s invading my truth” spin from the white West.
Based on years where the Global North obliterated the American Indians, took control of Africa and much of South America, enslaved Africans, discredited woman and generally raped the Global South, believing that we possess “the truth”, all this lead guys like Foucault to believe, not only that “knowledge is power”, but that “knowledge is violence.”
The global discussion is less about doubting the value of truth and more about doubting the value of power. When this distinction is missed it’s easy to see why postmoderns often feel so misunderstood by liminal moderns who tend to look through the dialectic of reason (modernity) and rejection of reason (postmodernism). That dialectic touches on some of the discussion, but misses the larger discussion.
The imperialistic tendency of the Global North to impose their story on to others is one dimension of what I mean by “the modern sense” of absolute truth. For the postmodern person, when he or she reads that you or I believes in absolute truth, his or her first word association is NOT “scriptural principles” but is with colonialism, maybe imperialism and most certainly pride. As a Christian, by rejecting the “modern sense” of absolute truth, I am saying that Christ has no interest in overpowering others … but in giving his life for them.
Lyotard writes, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.” In other words, in the context of this conversation: we doubt that the white man’s perspective is all there is.
Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, as a southern preacher preceding the Civil War, writes,
“The scriptural argument for the righteousness of slavery gives us, moreover, this great advantage: If we urge it successfully, we compel the abolitionists either to submit, or else to declare their true infidel character. We thrust them fairly to the wall, by proving that the Bible is against them. And if they declare themselves against the Bible (as the most of them doubtless will), they lose the support of all honest believers in God’s Word.”
This type of attitude created post-colonialism and postmodernism.
Dabney’s quote points out two things that post-colonialism would claim as it’s context in which it was birthed: 1.) the way that universals tend to be used for power and 2.) the need for us to be chastised in how quickly we claim them.
Mom, I hope that helped you realize your son is not shaking hands with the world. He’s just trying to speak the language of his generation so that he might reach some who are having trouble seeing Jesus because he’s dressed in terms they have trouble understanding.
Any thoughts, questions, corrections or suggestions? Let me know : )
The past two blogs have been on the Westboro Baptist Church and the last one specifically was about their absolutism.
Below is a great clip where Tim Keller, missional reformed pastor in New York, makes an assertion of his view of absolute truth, which he asserts is contra absolutism. Keller is one of my favorite people in the world.
Mike (they guy who starts off speaking in this clip), asks Tim, and Rabbi David Gelfand, who is sitting to Tim’s left, why religion and culture demonizes so many people.
The conversation turns an interesting direction at the 1 minute, 50 second mark of the clip. And Tim is eventually asked by the host, ”What are the absolute truths (of religion)?” His response is profound in a number of ways and kind of leaves the Rabbi a bit shaken.
What do you think of Tim’s response? You might need to replay it a couple times to catch it because he says it sort of quickly. Is it possible to believe in absolute truth and not be an absolutist?
Applying Hegel’s dialectic to today’s situation: Modernity was the thesis, Postmodernism was the antithesis and the synthesis is currently in process, although we don’t know what it will be called. The excitement for the Christian right now, at this very time, unlike many other points in history, is that culture is in a transitory stage. And, we, as Christians, have the ability to actually help redeem those in these movements as they are emerging, searching and feeling the absence of substance.
There’s one major Christian Church that never “passed through the crucible of the Enlightenment” and ironically has something to say about the trajectory the church may be heading as it ministers in a context that is still emerging from modernity and postmodernity. (Light from the Christian East by James R. Payton; 169). That church is the Eastern Orthodox Church. The West is embracing what some are calling a “relational epistemology”, and to some degree, the Eastern Church has already held such an epistemology for well over a thousand years.
The Greek speaking East, as opposed to the Latin speaking West, had a Hellenistic history which influenced the theology of the Eastern Fathers including Clement and Origen of Alexandria (Alexandria was the center for Hellenistic thought), Athanasius of Alexandria and the Great Cappadocians (Basil and the Gregorys). .
While not intending to denigrate the West as much as praise the East, it was the Eastern fathers who rose to the heretical challenges of the early centuries (and to be fair, the controversies came from the East). The major role in the ecumenical councils that defined our Trinitarian and Christological tradition was played by the Eastern fathers. In fact, those councils that confronted the major Trinitarian and Christological heresies all took place in the East: Nicea affirmed Christ’s divinity (325), Constantinople affirmed his humanity (381), Ephesus affirmed his unity (431) and Chalcedon affirmed Christ as human and divine in one person (451).
Much of the definition of Christ and the Trinity is owed to the East.
Yet, due to the background of the East in Hellenistic philosophy, the East had “a cautious attitude regarding the possibilities of mere human reason, including Christian reason” (Payton; 30). The West, in contrast, took an Aristotelian trajectory and majored on categorization, clarity and explanation in their theological exploration. The Summa Theologiæ may be the greatest example of the Aristotelian influenced Western theological development.
For the West, the fall of Rome in the 400s marks the beginning of the Middle Ages as well as the isolation of the Eastern segment of Christianity from the Western segment; but for the East, what we know as the Middle Ages, the East knows as the Byzantine Period. And it is during this period of isolation that the distinctives of Eastern theology began to develop and the “cautious attitude” towards reason had a large part to play.
While describing the Eastern theologian, James R. Payton Jr. writes that they intended to pray, not explain (30), which is rather opposite to the theologians of the West. Payton continues,”
To be a theologian (in the East during the Byzantine Period) was the culmination of a life spent in communion with God, speaking out of the richness of his experienced grace and mercy; it was not the end result of a process of academic instruction. For Eastern Christians, “theology” was not the product of intellectual mastery of appropriate revelatory data. Their view point was well expressed by Evagrius Ponticus when he urged, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (31).
The Byzantine Period, contrasting with some of the early Eastern fathers … probably having learned from their Fathers mistakes … built, not on the static categories such as immutability, but on the dynamic character of creation and God (32). “Everything,” writes Payton, “was created by God for development and could not be understood or spoken of correctly apart from that dynamic process.”
It is out of both the early history and the Byzantine period that the Eastern understanding of the relational Trinitarian nature (and its implications for salvation, the church and epistemology) was developed … the very understanding of the Trinity that is being promoted by so many Christian theologians today who are attempting to engage Postmoderns.
And, in some sense the Postmodern chastisement of the Modern hope in human reason shares some similarities with the Eastern chastisement of their own Hellenistic history; a chastisement so well remembered by the Eastern church that they, unlike the West, were immune to the false hopes of the Enlightenment Project. And maybe that is why some are promoting the East as a beneficial aid in grasping a Christian relational emphasis that will help define the trajectory of the Gospel as we minister to the post of postmodernism.
Mike Miller and I share a lot in common. We’re both licensed and practicing funeral directors in the Commonwealth. We both love Jesus. And we both sort of felt called to the funeral business. We both look so good in suits that we can turn straight men gay.
He is married to a brunette … just like me. And both of our wives are awesome! We’re both Eagles fans, too.
But, our views of God are slightly different. He’s reformed and I’m not. I like the incarnational model and he’s skeptical of it. He’s also taller than me and slightly funnier. Mike’s so cool that he invented the term “winning” which Charlie Sheen then proceeded to steal.
When I saw that Mike gave an impassioned response to my article on Postmodernity and the Church Fathers, I asked him if he’d like to have the floor. So, it’s with a great deal of excitement that my first guest post on my blog is from my good friend, fellow undertaker and brother in Christ!
As I write this, I don’t want to be misinterpreted or misunderstood. I am an evangelical Christian. I am essentially reformed with a charismatic view of worship and understanding of the Holy Spirit and His work, both subjects which I am continually studying.
More than ever there is a great deal of emphasis placed on the need to make Christianity and the Church more relevant and attractive to younger generations. Churches of all denominations spend a lot of money trying to figure out how to get young people to come. Enter Postmodernism and the Emergent Church. At the onset, I want to make a distinction between the emerging church and the emergent church. I am not out to call into question those in leadership that preach in distressed skinny jeans, un-tucked flannel shirts, and Chuck Taylor’s, spend way too much time in Starbucks and have couches and bean bag chairs in their places of worship; as long as there is sound doctrine and the gospel message is being presented clearly.
In an iceberg issue, I am merely going to use my fingernail to scratch the top of this glacial mass. My belief is that the leaders of the Emergent Church, Emergent Village, etc. are going down a dangerous and slippery slope in order to be attractive to a postmodern generation.
It seems evident that certain historic Bible doctrines, which are essential to Christianity are being called into question or even dismissed by men that fill leadership roles in the Emergent movement (e.g. doctrine of real hell, exclusivity, Jesus’ primary reason for coming to earth, etc.) A clear example of this would be the controversial forth coming book by Rob Bell “Love Wins.”
I will be cautious going down this road because I haven’t read the book, but based on the publisher’s comments and the promo video that is out, it seems like Mr. Bell has taken long strides in the direction of Universalism. Many are pegging him a heretic, others have said his beliefs place him outside of the Christian faith. I will hold my tongue until I have read the book and have drawn my own conclusions. However, in a recent sermon defending his church Mars Hill, Bell said this from the pulpit in regards to his how his congregation should react or respond to such harsh criticism, “We are trying to live out Historic, Orthodox, Christian Faith.” I’m no scholar, just a regular guy who sins a lot, but to me Universalism, or even shades of it, fall way out of line with Historic, Orthodox, Christian Faith.
At its core, Postmodernism is about that which is pragmatic, relational, and non-offensive. It is skeptical of, or even denies the existence of absolute truth. My belief is that staying true to the offensive gospel of Jesus Christ and the solid doctrinal teaching of that truth from the pulpit, using scripture to reason and inform is absolutely necessary. These principles are then carried out in community-minded small groups, where the truths of scripture are applied in a relational manner. This leads to healthy, God-glorifying relationships in, and the expansion of, the local church. I have experienced this first-hand in my own church.
Is it so important that we bring the masses into an environment where the truth is secondary to subjective feelings and mystical ideas about God and where the Bible is deconstructed; or should the focus be on sound, Christ-centered, Cross-centered Bible doctrines emphasizing our need for a savior, even though it may turn many away? God always has and always will be faithful to his bride the Church. Let’s be faithful to His Word in our mission to defend the gospel, pursue the lost and grow His church for His glory.
Matthew 24: 4-5
2 Timothy 4:3 Psalm 1: 1-6