Grace and Justification in Catholic Theology

Stayed up late and finished that paper last night.  I never did choose one vision over the other; I hope it doesn’t bite me.

The next (and second-last of the semester!) paper that I’m working on is about the hermeneutical issues surrounding a contentious issue: I’m supposed to describe the hermeneutical choices that have been taken to lead to differing views on a particular issue (this time I’m not even allowed to take a side).  I’ve chosen Hell as my topic, and thus have been perusing Four Views on Hell, edited by William Crockett.  I’m sure I’ll probably write a rant complaining about the “literal” view and its lack of consideration for literature and hermeneutics, but for now I’m still musing about the chapter on Purgatory by the Roman Catholic Zachary Hayes.

I’m not here to talk about purgatory either, but rather the fundamental reason that Protestants don’t believe in it: because we have a very different understanding of justification and grace.  Typically, our understanding of God’s grace is that we receive it when we confess that Jesus is Lord, and from that moment on we are fully and completely saved (though some argue that salvation can be lost by different means).  Because of this, we can pinpoint the moment we were saved, and also judge whether or not someone else is saved – based on whether or not they’ve made that public confession, whether or not they’re “born again”.  We’re troubled by the fact that the lifestyles of people who are already “saved” don’t always point us to Christ, but we’re even more troubled by the notion that those Catholics have, that works (whether actual good deeds, or participation in the Eucharist, or penance and suffering) are the method through which we are saved.  In all fairness to my fellow protestants, that’s really how it comes across, quite a lot.  In fairness to my Catholic brothers and sisters, hearing that out of their context bothers them too.  So let me describe Hayes’ understanding of salvation, and we’ll see if we still think Catholics are works-based legalists.

In heaven, we have perfect relationship with God.  Right now, this relationship has begun but is far from perfect: God is perfect in his offer of relationship and salvation, but our response to that is often very imperfect.  Like us evangelicals, Catholics believe that human beings must accept God’s offer of salvation; unlike us, they see it as more than a yes-or-no question.  In the Catholic view, our response to Christ involves our actual life.  Ingrained selfishness and sin do not hinder God’s grace from saving us, but they do serve to hinder our ability to accept it and respond accordingly; and like us, they believe that human beings must respond accordingly to God’s offer of grace through Jesus Christ before it can be effective.

So here’s where the works come in.  Protestants have a notion of a thing called sanctification, by which we basically mean that we are being made more like Jesus through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes we even talk about how this is evidence of our salvation.  Us Pentecostals go on about this especially: we’re all about “lifechange”, and the evidence of what God is doing in us.  Being very cautious about appearing as works-based folk, we talk about this in abstract ways, as though it’s a completely spiritual change that is fully affected by the Holy Spirit in us and completely separate from the choices we make (except of course the choice to yield to the Holy Spirit!).  Catholics see this another way: they believe that these changes are affected by the Holy Spirit through such actions and disciplines as receiving the Eucharist, spiritual disciplines, prayer and penitence, and other ways of interacting with the Church, or with the world in Christian service.  There’s an understanding there that not only is the change in us witnessed to by our works, but that our works serve to further that change within us.  So every time we participate in a spiritual discipline, or a church service, or Christian service to the world such as charity, God uses that experience to bring us to a greater maturity, to mold us further into the image of Christ.  And the more that we are like Christ, the more perfectly we can respond to the grace He freely gives us (and ultimately, thus the better suited we are to enter heaven).

That doesn’t sound so bad, right?  (Well, except for that entering heaven part; I’d like to think that God will admit us in process, or else that the process will be completed at the resurrection).  The point here is, God’s grace is freely offered, but we can only imperfectly receive it because of the damage sin has done to us, and the more that we become like Christ the more we can receive it, and we can become more like Christ by following him (i.e. doing what he did, which is – let’s face it – works).  It’s not saying that God’s grace is less efficacious, or that God owes more grace to those who do good deeds or give more money; he’s freely given all of his grace, and it is sufficient, if we’re able to accept it through an appropriate response.  And we do receive a measure of it, because it is only by God’s grace that we can become more like Christ at all, and thus receive more grace as we grow closer to him.

I like this doctrine for a few reasons.  First, because it serves to really underline the fact that Salvation doesn’t just include safety from the eternal flames of darkest Hell (more on that next post, I think), but rather that God saves us from sin.  That there is hope in this life for us to be free from the power of sin, and that it’s a process, and we can see progress in ourselves.  Secondly, I like it because this progress happens in community; it is through our place in the Church that we are conformed more closely to Christ, and through following in his steps and doing the very things that he commands us to do.  I suppose that’s the third reason I like this so much: Salvation isn’t just for me, it changes me and makes me into a person who, like Christ before me, cares for people enough to actually do something!  A fourth reason I like it is because it recognizes that salvation (or sanctification, if you want to call it that) happens in a process, which stops us from identifying a specific moment in which we are saved.  Let me unpack that a little bit.

When we can pinpoint our moment of salvation, we can also pinpoint others’ moments of salvation.  And then when we see other people who are “saved” sinning, we question the validity of their salvation experience (and maybe we question our own sometimes too, when we can’t stop sinning in spite of all of our claims beyond a shadow of a doubt that we know we are saved).  Recognizing it as the process in which you are made more like Christ means that none of us can pinpoint exactly where we are in this process, or exactly where someone else is.  It’s not a question of “in” or “out”, but a journey we can share in which we are guided by the Holy Spirit.  This doctrine leaves absolutely no room for saying the sinner’s prayer and going back to your old sinful lifestyle as one who is “saved”, while our typical protestant evangelical doctrines tend not to speak directly to that all-too-common occurance.

So I guess there are lots of reasons that I like this doctrine.  The more I think about it, the more I think that the only thing that I really don’t like about it is the idea that suffering is salvific.  Purgatory exists in the Catholic view because at our moment of death most of us haven’t “grown in grace” enough to fully receive Heaven, so we get to live on in an intermediate state for a while where we suffer until our sins are atoned for.  I’m still not down with that.  But Catholic views of Grace and Justification?  They’re okay with me, at least until I learn more.

Is God in Charge? Kathryn Tanner

Part Two of the Is God in Charge essay.  I’ve put off writing this for a week, because I found the assignment so frustrating.  I’m supposed to decide which vision of God I prefer, McFague’s (if you read the last one, you probably get that I don’t appreciate it) or Tanner’s.  Tanner has a nicer vision of God, but even more than McFague she fails to answer the question of her essay.  She paints a picture of God that says that he is very much in control of absolutely everything in creation, but makes absolutely no mention of how or why evil exists (the context of her very essay).  I’ll give a bit of a rundown of her essay, and I guess we’ll just speculate from there about how God handles evil in both her view and McFague’s.

First of all, Tanner doesn’t reference Scripture at all; kind of a strange omission considering the subject matter, and the fact that the questions of control and evil inevitably arise from certain passages.  She grounds her argument in Greco-Roman philosophy to explain the classic Christian understanding of God’s action in creation and providence.  I had to read it twice (it’s a bit dense and very conceptual), so bear with me as I stumble through it with you.

God is not a “kind” – there is no such thing as “God-ness”, there is nothing else that has a quality of “divinity”, there is nothing or no-one like God.  Therefore, there is no degree of divinity.  There is also nothing that can separate him from creation, because (unlike the Greek gods) contact with creation cannot dilute his attributes or destroy the attributes of creation, because his divinity is not in fact an attribute of his “kind” – because he doesn’t have one.  So God is separate from his creation in that it is made up of many different kinds and he is not a kind at all, but also very immediate to it.

Because God is not a “kind”, we can’t identify his creating acts with any kind of agency, operation, or principle of activity found in the world – God doesn’t create like we do, which is good, because we don’t really create anything anyways.  Our creation acts are actually just manipulation of existing materials through intermediaries like other creatures, machines, and even processes.  God’s creation is thus without all of those things, and does not use pre-existing materials.  His acts of creation are immediate; he uses no tools (he doesn’t even have hands) and his creation involves no process to carry out (he doesn’t need to stack bricks to build a house) and he uses no materials (he doesn’t need bricks at all to make a house) and he doesn’t create by making other agents build things for him (he’s not a divine foreman).  God creates because of who God is: the God who wants to create things (not that creating the world is a necessary part of God’s nature – it’s still quite volitional).  If you take the lack of process point to its furthest, God doesn’t even need to think about creating something; he desires it, and so it is.

The lack of a process in creation part was confusing, so I’ll elaborate (as Tanner does): if creation is perfectly comprehensive, then we cannot speak of it as change, movement, or process, which is why we can’t imply that God used existing things or intervening processes or agencies to create with, and thus would be a kind of agency, operation or principle of activity found in this world – i.e. something limited to a “kind”.  Obviously this view sees Creation as one comprehensive product, though it has many tiny parts.  I wonder what Tanner thinks of evolution or other processes that seem somewhat evident in nature.  This seems to me like she’s saying that God created the world with less than a thought in its comprehensive completeness.  But I suppose that’s neither here nor there, because we’re talking about God and not as much about creation.

Because there is no movement, change, or process to creation, it has no temporal dimension; we can’t even speak of it changing from non-existence to existence, we can only see it as existing.  As long as the world exists, it is creation.  To quote Tanner, “the world’s temporal movement away from its beginning is not distance from the creative activity of God.”  And “the world does not exist on its own, independently of God’s action for it as creator.”

We can describe these attributes of God through the combination of two images or metaphors: Personal Agency and Naturalistic Emanation.  To clarify, a naturalistic emanation is like a fire giving off light and heat, or a light source giving off light.  It doesn’t work as an image for God in the sense that Naturalistic Emanations (NE) produce or reproduce only in “kind” – i.e. a light only produces more light, a fire more fire, etc. – while God can produce whatever he wants.  He is a person with agency, or a personal agent, capable of producing endless variety without boundary.  But, though God is a person with agency, he does not work with preexisting materials like other personal agents; like an NE, God is self sufficient – his creations come directly from him.  He doesn’t make furniture out of wood like a human agent, he makes wood out of nothing.  An NE can only produce more of itself in this way, but as we already mentioned, God isn’t limited to that; he doesn’t make things out of himself that reproduce himself, he makes whatever he wants.  A personal agent takes steps in their creation (like putting together IKEA furniture), but like an NE God’s creation is immediate; he doesn’t even need to take the step of deciding to do something, he simply does it.  The creation of a personal agent eventually becomes independent from its creator (i.e. a house is a house separate from its builder, usually after it has been fully built) but like an NE God’s creation does not continue independent of him (i.e. without a continuing flame, the heat and light will dissipate; so too God’s creation without God).

Also like a Naturalistic Emanation, God does what he does not out of necessity (as it may appear) but out of a superabundance.  The sun doesn’t shine because it needs to shine, but because it has so much heat and light.  The sun doesn’t need to shine; it has a greater, more perfect light inherent to its very being.  God doesn’t need to create anything (it’s not like he’s lonely); he has perfect love in overwhelming abundance within the Trinity, his very being.  God’s love and goodness and creativity overflow in such generous abundance that he creates other things to love and be good to as a natural outflow of his being.

God’s creation is never ending, but we call this Providence.  “If the world is created by God in all its respects then the world is being created by God as things within it act and form arrangements and move toward new ones by natural and human causes.”  Tanner basically says that all things exist as a result of God creating and sustaining them, and thus everything that his creatures do are an extension of his act of creation, and God is responsible for all things within creation.  Me writing this sentence right now is an act of God’s providence, which is actually God creating a world in which this sentence exists (if that is his plan).  Providence is God’s plan for the world and its execution in a world that has its own powers of activity.  Because God’s creatures have their own activity, they have a hand in executing God’s plan, whether by choice or ignorance or even unwillingly.  He doesn’t need to do things “himself”; he simply creates something or someone with the ability to do the things he desires them to.  Creatures’ actions, however, do not replace God’s creative action (we don’t do everything for him); after all, the very existence of creation requires God’s continuing creative action to simply sustain it.  God also doesn’t need to augment his creatures with divine power: it is through the very human act of dying that Jesus saved us all in accordance with God’s providence.

I’m very sorry that this is so long, but I hope I’ve explained her view as well as I’m able.  If you’re feeling frustrated at this point, I’m with you.  While I feel that this essay exalted God far, far more than McFague’s, I feel like there’s a few enormously gaping holes in it.  For example, if God doesn’t even deliberate about things before he does them, what does that say about Sodom and Gomorrah, or Sinai, where God not only deliberated but actually changed his mind?  And that’s just in the first two books of the Bible (which Tanner didn’t quote)!  If God is responsible for everything that occurs within creation, what is sin?  Even if God is only responsible for the potential good in creation, and sin is going against his control, then what kind of control does he actually have?  If God is ultimately responsible for everything and creatures all play a role in his plan, even unwillingly, does that make him a puppetmaster in some tragic drama?  Is Tanner simply affirming hard predestination in a very roundabout way?  Except for the last, these are the questions I feel spurred on this chapter in the first place: Placher started off this chapter talking about theodicy and the problems of evil and divine justice, and Tanner seems to have promised to shed light on these questions and then done absolutely nothing to answer them.

Thankfully, my professor today told us that theodicy and justice are not issues this paper is to discuss; my task tonight is to choose which vision of God I prefer, comparing and contrasting, and then talk about how that vision of God affects my Christian life and ministry.  Personally, I quite dislike both versions: McFague demeans God and divinizes creation, while Tanner ignores scripture and demeans human agency.  To McFague, God is not in control; to Tanner, God controls absolutely everything and the world is messed up anyways.  Perhaps I need to re-read the essays, but I don’t have time for a third go-round.  If you’ve read this far, thank you; please pray that I can make some sense of it all.

Is God in Charge? – Sallie McFague

My last paper for Contemporary Christian Theology is coming up pretty quick, and the assignment is to compare the views of Sallie McFague and Kathryn Tanner on God in Creation in the chapter “Is God in Charge?” in William C. Placher’s Essentials of Christian Theology.  Last night I read McFague’s essay, and wrote out a mini-review to try to collect my thoughts on it.  Here’s what I wrote, and I’ll add some questions at the bottom.  My questions deal with an essay that obviously isn’t provided here, but I do try to outline her basic concepts in here; I don’t know how edifying this post will be for you, but your responses would be most edifying for me 🙂

Sallie McFague’s essay is fraught with problems, glosses over important distinctions, and completely sidesteps the question contained in the chapter’s title, namely “Is God in Charge?”  She begins her discussion of the level of God’s control in creation by criticizing traditional views and doctrines of creation and providence.  She does so by isolating them from the Biblical texts from which they were formed and simplifying them in such a way as to emphasize their weaknesses, criticizing not only the assumptions that she appears to have largely read into them but also the doctrinal errors and inappropriate actions that sometimes arise from or concerning them – and then mentions that they are not necessarily incorrect, but are not as useful in our 21st century context.  Her own understanding of God’s relationship to his creation is what she prescribes as important for this context.

McFague’s view of God’s interaction with creation can be classified as panentheism, as the introduction itself states.  She decries doctrines of creation and providence that depict God as somehow separated from creation, and sees this element somehow in each of the other models or doctrines she examines; to her, God is intimately and internally related to creation, yet still distinguishable from it.  In her own language, creation is God’s body: God is related to creation as a human being is related to their body, intimately and inseparably and yet not identically.  Just as I am not my body, so God is not creation, though the connection between myself and my body is of the deepest order.  In this way, her view of God’s relationship in creation and providence avoids pantheism (the belief that God is everything and everything is God), but only just: though God is not everything, neither is God other.  The distinction grows less clear as she describes the interactions within creation, finally getting to the point of natural and moral evil as she notes that God shares his power with all of his creatures, even as they compete with and kill one another in the processes of life and evolution.  Her answer to the question of “is God in charge?” is that he shares power with all of creation as he is incarnate in all creation, and thus we are all in charge, and God, who is present in all of creation, in no way stands above any created thing.  While this viewpoint seems to elevate humanity (rather than debasing us, as she claims other models do), if we were to continue with her model of all of creation being the body of God then sinful humanity, which goes against God’s created order, is a cancer, or at our best, on par with the lowest life forms or even with minerals and basic elements.

The outcomes of McFague’s model are largely positive: she uses her position to argue for a more ecological and sustainable worldview and lifestyle, a view of God’s creation that emphasizes goodness and stewardship, and even emphasizes God’s transcendence and immanence.  The outcome that relates most to the topic, however, points to the flawed means by which she arrives there: by stating that creation is God’s body, she ends up with a panentheism that gives human beings the power of God and at the same time giving that power to plants, animals, and viruses.  Her description of this model lived out is paradisiacal and ideal, but to achieve it she must ignore clear themes in scripture, which she seems to refer to only when it supports her view.  Perhaps she means to cover this by her reminder that all models are incomplete and only serve to emphasize certain important points, but the points raised by this model that are true do not require such an elaborate stretching of scripture to produce.  The entire model smacks of dissatisfaction with a particular view (which is articulated quite specifically and seems to represent a mixed batch of the more negative views of creation) and a radical departure from it, starting from the desired outcome and filling in the blanks.


So the things that I’m curious about are: do you think that there’s something to be said for a model of creation as God’s body?  Does it actually avoid pantheism, and if so is the distinction between pantheism and panentheism enough to allow us to appropriate it?  Even if so, is this a biblically justifiably position?  I’ve identified some of the problems I find in it; are there other issues that this obviously brings up?  McFague is obviously a smart lady, but I can’t help but think she’s starting with her own conclusions and then trying to justify them.  I’m all for being more eco-conscious and focused on stewarding God’s creation, but is it not possible to come to those conclusions with current models, or even a bare reading of the actual text?

Pondering Justice with Jonah

Taking a break from the series on Postmodernism (the whole class got an extension on the book report, so I’ll come back to it later, heh) something came up in class today that made me ponder justice and the question of good and evil.

My last Hermeneutics paper was on the use of the word “judgment” in the Bible, particularly OT.  Most of its uses are in the Prophets, used of God toward Israel/Judah, and in the sense of his doling out “justice” – i.e. vengeance – for their misdeeds in the form of foreign invasion and death.  This has always struck me as being backwards; revenge, in my opinion, is inherently evil.  Justice, in my opinion, is restorative and reconciliatory, but when God restores justice he does so with the sword.  Not that the use of the sword is never reconciliatory, even; the real problem is the description of it with terms like “punishment” and “vengeance”.  Justice, in my mind, involves discipline (punishment with the purpose of restoration): punishment itself is no different than revenge, hurting someone else because they’ve hurt you (or a third party).

The flipside of it is that the oracles of judgment in the prophets are always followed by oracles of restoration and reconciliation.  So even though God “punishes” Israel/Judah, and the word “punish” lacks the connotation of restoration or discipline (even in Hebrew), God does it with that aim in mind; he both punishes and disciplines, with both of these falling under the term of his “judgment” – and “judgment” (sapat for the Hebrew scholars) is concerned with upholding or restoring justice in the community.

Today in class we were examining Jonah (for a different reason) and something that kept coming up was that justice held different meanings for God and Jonah, depending on what they saw as evil (ra’ah).  God is slow to anger and will have mercy on whom he has mercy (Jonah himself notes this, quoting Exodus), and because of Nineveh’s repentance he turns back from the evil (ra’ah , but NIV translates as “disaster”) that he was going to do to the Ninevites.  Yes, God is capable of doing evil – and in Jonah’s opinion, that would have been just.  But God prefers to show mercy, seeing his own punishment of Nineveh as evil.  To Jonah, God’s show of mercy is “evil, a great evil!” (again ra’ah, but NIV just says he was greatly displeased).  Assyrians were the enemy of his people, and were known for their brutality and…being evil, basically, so to him the only just thing to do would be to return evil for evil.  In the end, of course, we see that it is God’s notion of justice and evil that is important, and I for one am very thankful that it includes mercy.

But how can justice include mercy?  As we tend to see it, justice and mercy are polar opposites: not carrying out justice (in the form of punishment) is the very definition of mercy, isn’t it?  Well, yes and no.  If we see justice in terms of establishing and upholding order and fairness in the community, and bringing restoration and reconciliation, then God’s mercy is inherently just, because it carries with it the notion (or requirement) of repentance.  But if we see justice (as our “justice system” does) as punishing someone for doing wrong, then justice and mercy are mutually exclusive.

Now, since I believe that God is both merciful and just, it would seem that my definition of justice should be one that reflects the restoration and reconciliation model – the one that describes discipline as opposed to punishment.  Unfortunately, I still have to reckon for the fact that God punishes and takes vengeance, even if he ultimately restores his people.  So, either there’s a problem with our understanding for the Hebrew words we translate as “punish” and “vengeance”, and in fact they mean “discipline” and are restorative in nature, or else our notion of justice and mercy is more complex than I can fathom.  My only attempt at reconciling it is to think that the use of the much harsher terms in the prophets must be some type of hyperbole (as hyperbole, or exaggeration for effect, is very very common in those writings): that is, that God says “punish” when he means “discipline”, and says “vengeance” when he means “very harsh instruction”.

But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

(Sorry for the italics – I hit the button by accident, and it won’t turn off!)

Baptising Foucault: Power is Knowledge

Part three of my series on James K. A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? is about Michel Foucault (if you know how to pronounce that name, please let me know) and his claim that “Power is Knowledge”.  We’ve all heard “knowledge is power” before (YEAH Schoolhouse Rocks!), and are aware that the more we know, the more power we possess.  But what does he mean by “power is knowledge”?

Foucault studied the relationship between knowledge and power, and found that what is considered knowledge is decided by the powerful.  He illustrated this in his book Punish and Discipline, in which he examines the institutions of punishment (i.e. prison) through the ages.  A few hundred years ago, law was the word of the King; anyone who transgressed the law would be tortured in order to set an example for others to follow, and thus the rest of the population was made to conform to a “norm” that was decided by the King.  But after a while, torturing people started to have the opposite affect; rather than ensuring loyalty to the King, it made people identify with the tortured and rise up against him; discipline replaced more brutal punishments, but with the same goal of making people conform to a certain way of life.  Now we live in democracies, where the norms are decided not by some monarch but by our entire society (supposedly); and the institutions that enforce these societal norms are numerous, from schools to media to…prison.

Smith uses an example from literature and film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  I saw the film years ago, and now realize that I didn’t fully understand it, but the gist of it is that it follows some inmates at a mental institution.  The main character, Chief, refers to the hospital as the “Combine”, because it’s a machine – a machine for fixing, or normalizing, people (note the play on words: a combine is a machine, but to combine is also an action, to put everything together, which in this case means to make everyone conform).  Most of the patients in the hospital are there by choice, but McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in a performance that undoubtedly helped him snag the role as the Joker in Batman) is committed; not only is he not there by choice, but he doesn’t think that he needs to be “fixed” – he doesn’t believe that he’s broken, that there’s anything wrong with him.  He resists the many controls that are placed on the patients, including drugs, restraints, electroshock therapy, and the ever-present control of constant surveillance, and it has the effect of giving the other patients hope.

Foucault obviously reads everything with suspicion.  After all, everything we think we know in the world is thought of as truth or knowledge because it has been established as such through the use of power.  We’ve probably all heard the phrase “history is written by the victor”, talking about how those who are conquered and destroyed rarely get a chance to tell their side of the story.  Foucault takes it a step further to say that everything we consider knowledge or truth is brought to us through some form of the use of power; the King, or society, tells us what is right and what is wrong, and creates institutions that reinforce this knowledge.  Ultimately, society itself is the control after which prison is patterned.

The Enlightenment (often referred to in close connection, or even synonymously, with Modernism) doesn’t like controls; it champions the individual.  Modern Liberalism champions the notion that we are all individuals, and control is bad (note: not talking about Republicans and Democrats here; they’re both liberal by this definition).  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an example of this portrayal of the freedom of the individual as being good and the controlling institution as inherently evil.  Arguably, Foucault’s works have a similar nuance, though he never overtly says that such use of power is negative (actually arguing for the use of positive terms to describe it).

Smith points out that in this sense, as in so many other senses, Evangelicals today are very Modern: we love the notion of personal freedom, and we use it to describe (and live) our faith.  We pinpoint salvation at the moment you make a personal decision to have a personal relationship with a personal God; we find a church that fits us personally, and if it tells us what to do too much we find another one; we cite scripture (which was ironically written to people who lived incredibly communal lives) in support of individuality as some type of ultimate form of freedom.  Like the society around us, we’re NOT cool with conformity.

A lot of people take Foucault to be a modernist in this sense as well, speaking out against the institutions that he examines and their use of power.  If he is, then this is where we disagree with him (sort of).  Conformity with a set of norms or ideals is not the problem; in fact, conforming to an ideal (i.e. Jesus) is central to what Christian life is all about!  Where we run into trouble is when we examine what we’re being conformed to.  Being conformed to Jesus is a great, fantastic thing!  It doesn’t mean that we all have beards, get circumcised, and like the same bands as him; it means that we, like Jesus before us, become truly human, become what we were made to be.  The trouble is, the thing that society is conforming us to isn’t Jesus; society conforms us to whatever is useful for society.  For example, these days we are being actively conformed to the model of a Consumer: our schools and families teach us to be productive, and our media teaches us to be consumptive, and the econ0my marches on.

So it’s okay to be a non-conformist.  In fact, it’s great!  Do not conform yourselves to the patterns of this world, but instead be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Romans 12:2).  The renewing of your mind, of course, is a work of the Holy Spirit, who is active in conforming you to Jesus Christ.  This is facilitated by disciplines (spiritual formation disciplines), which are put forward by an institution (the Church).  Be aware that you are being formed and conformed by everything that enters your mind, everything that comes to you through your society.  No matter what you do, you will be conforming to something; choose your conformity wisely.  If you can spot the conforming messages (today usually in media) then you can defend yourself from them, and choose another way.

Conform to the knowledge that comes from the true Power; this really comes down to who’s interpretation of reality you ascribe to (Derrida), which narrative you’re reading (Lyotard).  You can conform to the notion of reality that is handed down by a monarch, or you can repeat the narrative that is agreed upon by society – or you can go to the Truth, recognizing that the only way to live the life you were made for is to become human, to conform to Christ.

It’s okay to stick it to the Man, so long as you’re sticking to the (God-) Man.

Taking Lyotard to Church: Metanarratives

Well, since nobody has challenged me about deconstruction (the last post) then I guess that means that it makes sense.  I am glad.  Let’s look at another prominent postmodern philosopher and see why Christians hate his contribution to culture and history – but why we’ve got it wrong.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, another French philosopher, once tried to sum up postmodernism.  In his words, postmodernism is: “incredulity toward metanarratives”. defines incredulity as “inability or unwillingness to believe”.  Simply put, then, postmodernists are unable or unwilling to believe in metanarratives.

What is a metanarrative?  To break the word down, it means “big story”; it is often used of the epic tales that tell the story of the world, or even any view that claims to be able to explain everything – stories like the ancient Enuma Elish or…you know, the Bible.

Ah.  That’s it, right there; no wonder Christians hate postmodernism!  Because “postmodernism” is defined by one of its biggest figures as the inability to believe in the Bible!  That would certainly be grounds to dislike it, except that this isn’t in the slightest what Lyotard meant.

While it’s true that “metanarrative” is quite often used of any grand story that claims to have all of the answers (including atheistic metanarratives, like evolutionary naturalism – because we all know that guys like Dawkins have all the answers, or think that they someday will), Lyotard actually had a different use of it in mind.  Apparently, the rest of his extensive writings include a bit of fleshing that one simple statement out, so let’s see what he actually meant.

Lyotard called grand stories of the universe and everything “narratives” – like the Bible.  A “narrative” tells the story of the way the world is, and that’s it.  What it doesn’t do is try to offer you proof.  In fact, and the Bible is a prime example of this, a narrative usually depends on faith, not on proof.  Modernism hates this.  Modernism, a product of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is all about proof.  It’s such a big part of us that we don’t even believe each other in regular conversations without appealing to “proof”.  And in many cases, we’re right to do so – but that’s not the point here.  The point is that narratives (the Bible, for example) don’t offer proof.

Modern Science, on the other hand, is all about proof.  It discounts narratives like the Bible, looks down on them, de-values them and at best relegates them to the realm of helpful fiction, because there’s no proof.  Think of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, the modernist attempt to find the real figure of Jesus by ripping everything out of the New Testament that had reference to God or miracles or anything supernatural or unreasonable.  Modernism has no room for narratives, except for entertainment, or to be used as the “opiate of the masses” (what modernists back in the day called religion).  Modern science says that it can figure out what really happened in life, the universe, and everything.  It offers the real truth, that can be proven and verified.

But how can it be proven and verified?  By reproduceable experiments, of course.  But of course, that only works in the physical world; how can you prove something scientifically if you can’t put it into a controlled experiment?  By reason, of course.  And unlike religions, which each say sort of the same thing in different words, the language of reason is universal: everyone is reasonable, everyone has access to reason, and therefore nobody can dispute the cold hard facts of reason.  And this is what Lyotard called a “metanarrative”: modernism, science, reason, claims to be able to tell a narrative, but at the same time claims that it is not a narrative.  It tries to tell you the same story that narratives do, but tries to put itself above all the others by claiming to be universally provable – by claiming to not rely on faith.

I’m having a hard time getting this out, so I’ll appeal to the example James K. A. Smith uses in the book: O Brother, Where Art Thou? The main character of the film, Ulysses Everett McGill, spends his entire journey in the film ridiculing his travelling companions for their faith.  All the while, he contrasts their simple faith (“ridiculous superstition!”)with grand stories about how great things will be when modern ingenuity (in the form of electricity) will come to the South and all of the superstitions and ignorance will be washed away.  Of course, when faced with death, Everett gets down on his knees with his friends and prays for deliverance (but denies it after that deliverance comes).  Yup, Ulysses Everett McGill has it all figured out – not like those ignorant, superstitious friends of his.  It all comes down to universal, autonomous reason.

But does universal, autonomous reason really exist, or is it just another narrative?  Lyotard thinks that it is, simply by the fact that you can’t prove reason.  1+1=2, and I know this to be true because I’ve used my reason to figure it out, but where’s the actual proof of reason?  There isn’t any, because it’s in my head: perhaps it’s a faculty that I possess, but if you want to grant its existence without any proof then we can just as easily talk about faith.  In reality, the most devoted modernists have the strongest faith – in reason.

So when a modern scientist makes a claim about reality, he offers proof.  If we question the proof, he appeals to our reason – something which itself cannot be proven.  So, when pressed, modernism is itself a narrative that claims not to be a narrative.  Does that sound suspicious to you?  Perhaps we should be a little bit incredulous toward a story that calls down other stories by saying that they only appeal to your faith (and therefore must not be true), while hiding the fact that its own story depends just as much on faith.  Modernism is sort of like a politician running a negative campaign, trying to discredit the other politicians by revealing that *gasp!* they’ve said something that they can’t back up – when in reality, he can’t prove his own promises any better than his competitors.

I hope this is making sense.  So, if incredulity toward metanarratives doesn’t actually mean that postmodernists refuse to believe the Bible, what does that mean for the Church today?  Why should we care?

One huge reason that we should care is that science no longer has a monopoly on what is “true”.  Like Derrida pointed out, everything (even science) is interpreted, and every narrative has a competing claim for truth.  For the past few centuries, it was pretty easy for science to push Christianity (or any religion) out of the way by telling everyone that we can’t back it up with proof; now, we have a voice again, because people are more and more becoming aware that science depends just as much on faith as religion does.  Modernists are still around, and still try to tell people who believe in other narratives (like you and me) that we’re just superstitious, ignorant, archaic savages who don’t know where lightning comes from.  But nowadays, more and more people recognize that such statements are themselves pretty darn ignorant, not to mention rude and arrogant.  Faith is no longer seen as the polar opposite to reason; we can go back to the ancient notion that faith and reason work together – even that reason requires faith.  Faith comes first, and allows reason to work!

Secondly, this shift in thinking should remind us that we are a Church that is built upon a story – not a list of rules, principles, or even examples, but the story of how God came down to us.  Our culture doesn’t tell stories much anymore (modern reason said that stories aren’t true), but we can (and should) bring that back.  Our story is worth telling, worth exhibiting, worth enacting, worth presenting – and “postmodern” churches do just that, recognizing that there is a lot of value in telling or presenting the story, and not just reading it to look for specific points.  There are churches that re-tell this story in different ways, utilizing every art form to proclaim this great narrative.  They also act it out, not just in applying biblical principles in their personal lives but also in liturgy, where they gather together to reenact the story in things like the Lord’s Supper, recognizing the power and value in acting it out together.  Not just their personal lives, but their life together, is an enactment of the story of God, the universe, and everything, and in re-enacting it they participate in it.

FT, I miss you.  If anyone wants to see a church who is interested in reenacting the story, go to They’ve been branded a “hipster church”, maybe because they’re young and “cool”, or maybe just because they’re (at least in this way) post-modern.  Sure, there’s lots of artists there, but there’s also scientists, engineers, doctors, and architects, who all believe (on faith) in the grand story that they re-enact together at the weekly and beyond.  They’re storytellers, and they have one heckuva story to tell.