24 July 2004

Evangelicals and Modernism

I had an amazing talk with my friend Mark tonight. After dinner we adjourned to the local caffiene watering-hole and then, while our loving, patient spouses pushed on ahead of us, we circled the shopping center about four times, talking animatedly like Kant and Goethe, even making the Kaiser get off the sidewalk for us.

First, Mark is a great "cheerleader." He is able to see where you are and where you need to go, and is very capable of getting you to go there. I don't know if we would have made it to France without his wisdom and counsel.

Second, Mark has an amazing grasp of where we are philosophically and theologically. I've been working on a pet theory about the state of evangelicalism today. We evangelicals have a rationalist streak that makes us, for all intents and purposes, practical atheists. By this I mean that we believe that we can rationally apprehend and comprehend the word of God without recourse to his Spirit or revelation. We then proceed to puff and wobble our way through this matrix called life and pretend that we've got it all together.

But what has slowly come about in my thinking is what we do as evangelicals, i.e., our ability to objectivize and manipulate others. I came to this conclusion as I thought through what the French refer to as the "other." Emmanuel Levinas and others reacted to Martin Heidegger and his ontology and program of capital B "Being," which focuses on the subject, and as a result turns everyone who is not me into an object that I can brand, categorize, and otherwise manipulate. The ultimate logical conclusion of this was the abiltity of the Nazis to turn six million Jews into faceless cattle, brand them, and put them to death.

Levinas reacted to this ontology with the idea of the "other," the one who isn't me. I do not have the ability or the right to treat the "other" as an object for me to manipulate. The "other" has a face, and the "other" begins where I end. Levinas' reaction came not only as a response to Heidegger and his ontology, but also as a result of the French crisis with the Algerians in the 1950's, and the the potential civil war of the 1960's that caused Charles De Gaulle to walk away from the government because he could not order French soldiers to fire upon French citizens.

Obviously this is somewhat of an over-simplification, but the point of this is that the French have tried to see others as the "other," and not as a statistic, number, or whatever. Granted, this is all part of their humanist worldview, but be that as it may, evangelicalism has this down pat. We gather a bunch of people together and paste a label on them, such as "pagans," "unsaved," homosexual," "feminists," and so on. Once they have a label, I can put them on the shelf, and now I can deal with them, I can manipulate them, and I can react to them without getting involved with them.

As Mark pointed out, evangelicals are still locked into a modernist, enlightenment philosophy that drives their theology, ecclesiology, and practice. Which is also why countries in Europe such as France, Germany, and Austria reject Christianity. They look at what we have to offer (our brand of Christianity), see the modernist trappings, and ask us why they would want it? It is like telling someone that we will give them a new television for their birthday, pull out a 1961 black and white Philco, and then wonder why they don't fall over themselves in appreciation.

All this to say that we evangelicals are in trouble. Why are people walking away from the church? Go buy a vowel.

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  2. The Lord has really been working on me with regard to this in the past couple years. We evangelical Christians need to see people as Christ sees them and not the way we so often do that you describe.