Monday, October 03, 2005

Post-Modernism, Post-Creedal Christianity, and Truncated Eschatology

Last week I received an email notification through the Religion and Popular Culture Yahoo group concerning a fascinating conference in the U.K. The conference is sponsored by the Research Centre for Religion, Film and Contemporary Culture, University of Chester, UK. The title and subject matter of the conference is "The Lure of the Dark Side-Satan and Western Demonology in Popular Culture."

The conference involves Christopher Partridge, a scholar out of the U.K. who's work in the field of religious studies I appreciate and admire quite a bit. I've commented on his work previously in connection with his exchange with John Drane on the new spiritualities. In addition to Christopher Partridge, another scholar working with him in the area of popular culture, theology, and religious studies is Gordon Lynch. Lynch teaches at the University of Birmingham, and he is the author of a number of books, including Understanding Popular Culture (Blackwell, 2005), After Religion: 'Generation X' and the Search for Meaning (DLT, 2002), and Losing My Religion: Moving on From Evangelical Faith (DLT, 2004).

As I poked around Lynch's web page, and did some further research on Google, I came across an article he wrote titled "Dreaming of a Post-Credal Christianity." As conservative evangelicals read this article they will no doubt react to someone who has left their religious fold, and thoughtful reflection does leave sound intellectual reasons to disagree with Lynch's conclusions on the viability of a creedal expression of Christianity in the post-modern world. Some of the problems with Lynch's assessment have already been provided in comments provided by Matt Stone on his Blog. But before we get our feathers ruffled up in disagreeing with his views on creeds and propositions, I wonder whether evangelicals might benefit from not only finding areas with which to disagree with Lynch, but might also benefit positively through reflection in at least four other areas touched on in the article.

First, we need to take his reminder seriously that evangelicalism (and other expressions of Christianity) face serious challenges to credibility in the post-modern West. We put a lot of eggs in the basket of Christianity and rationality, but post-modernism seems to be more concerned with credibility, at least initially.

Second, we need to feel the pain and existential angst that Lynch experienced in his own loss of faith as an evangelical in the U.K. He lost his faith in creedal Christianity, and searches for some kind of alternative that will satisfy individuals in the new spiritual mileu. While some may disagree with his assessment of the viability of creedal aspects of Christianity, we must sympathize and emphathize with his angst and search. He is not alone in this quest, as the voices of growing numbers of evangelicals, and emerging spirituality adherents will attest.

Third, he recognizes that something important changed in the course of the development of Christianity as it moved to become an institutionalized religion in the West. The Hebraic emphasis on the relationality and embodiment of truth in persons, and ultimately God, which is and must be demonstrated in the lives of the believing community, has been lost (or at least seriously neglected) in favor of another emphasis on truth in terms of propositions, one more philosophical in response to modernity than relational in a Hebraic sense. As Lynch puts it:

"Now one of the most astonishing revisions of the gospel narratives in the history of the Church is the shift from the proclamation of the arrival of the Kingdom of God by Jesus of Nazareth to the notion that Christianity is fundamentally about adhering to a set of doctrines. Jesus understood his mission as being one of being a witness to the reign of God that he saw breaking into the world. And when Jesus saw signs of this reign taking shape here on earth, he saw it in particular moments of transformation. These were moments when the blind saw, the deaf heard, the lame leapt, those oppressed by demons were liberated, and the poor heard the good news that a new time was coming in which they would be valued and honoured. Jesus never saw the arrival of the Kingdom of God in terms of growing numbers of people adhering to some kind of doctrinal orthodoxy. Jesus' mission was one of effecting transformation here on earth, not of inducting people into a particular set of beliefs. Yet the gradual institutionalisation of the movement that Jesus set in progress has seen his emphasis on transformation in this world sometimes forgotten at the expense of that institution's desire for people to assent to its own particular way of thinking about the world. "
Fourth, in reflecting on Lynch's comments above we should be reminded that through Jesus' kingdom actions and announcements, his ministry of life transformation was truly eschatological, in the proper, robust, and Hebraic sense of the idea. N. T. Wright and other Third Quest scholars remind us of the central place of eschatology in Jesus' entire ministry. By contrast, our "end times" models seem more like truncated, if not emasculated versions of truly biblical eschatology.

Evangelicals have used a lot of toner, ink, and pixels in responding to epistemology and relativity in academic postmodernism. Might we have a few more things to learn if we stopped long enough to listen to the right questions being asked by popular level post-moderns? Even if we find their answers problematic, they seem to be asking the right questions, and we should be struggling with them too.

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