Back to Postmodernism: Dogma Without Dogmatism

A little while ago I was writing about James K. A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? and I’m back to finish it off – not with a final review of the book, however (overall it was a great introduction to postmodernism and the positive aspects for the church, but turns into a big plug for Smith’s Radical Orthodoxy posse – John Millbank, Graham Ward, Catherine Pickstock, etc.) but with a reflection on what postmodernism means for epistemology (or the theory of knowledge), the Church, and hermeneutics.

When Steven Sukkau reflected on his time in college, he said “I have no more statements to make, only questions.”  Such a statement works as a comment on postmodernism and the effect it has had on our world.  Derrida’s insistence that we must interpret reality itself, and that we cannot find the original intention or meaning of an ancient text like the Bible, makes us pause before we make any sweeping dogmatic statements.  Lyotard’s suspicion of metanarratives reminds us just how arrogant it is to have an answer for everything, and particularly because we actually don’t have answers for everything.  Foucault’s statement that power is knowledge reminds us that there are many forces that form what we consider to be truth or knowledge, and we need to acknowledge those forces and their impact on the way we see the world – and recognize that those forces are different, depending on where and who we are.

In a phrase, if it can actually be reduced to a phrase, postmodernism is a critique, suspicion, or rejection of modernity and its claims.  Modern Hermeneutics insists that we can access the original author of a book of the Bible, and once we know who that author is and what his agenda is, we can understand the true meaning of the text.  In the equation AUTHOR –> TEXT <– READER, modernists say that meaning is entirely at the Author end.  This led to the quest for the historical author of every book of the Bible, and the debacle of the JEDP (Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priest), in which critics would cut up sections of the Old Testament (and sometimes even individual sentences) and ascribe different parts of it to different supposed authors (J,E,D, or P) who can each be identified by supposedly distinctive terminology or content.  In the end, this approach butchered the Bible beyond recognition and suggested that its true meaning is only known to those scholars who could see it in its separated form (now if only those scholars could agree on what that form was, or what meaning could come from it!).  As ridiculous as this sounds to people who just read the Bible as it is, remember that when a modernist comes up with a metanarrative, an answer to all questions like this, it quickly becomes so-called “self-evident”: there was a time (about forty years ago) when this was not only unchallenged, but assumed to be self-evident to all.  It was how things were done, because obviously that’s how the Bible works.

Then, in the 1950’s, this began to be challenged by a few different schools of epistemology and literary theory.  People started noticing that this really isn’t the way people think, or read, or write, and probably never did.  A transition began, away from the modernist thoughts about knowledge and communication, and focus moved from the Author in the equation to the text.  While it takes the author into account, New Criticism suggests that the text itself is the carrier of meaning, and so if we can’t know the author it doesn’t really matter.  The text itself not only carries the meaning the author intended, but can actually carry more meaning than the author ever dreamed.  Take, for example, the so-called Proto-evangelion (or proto-gospel) in Genesis 3:15 – when God says of humans and the serpent “You will strike his heel and he will crush your head” (paraphrased).  Christians today quite easily see Jesus’ victory over Satan in that passage, and that is precisely how John sees it in Revelation as well (I think it’s Rev. 12 – the passage about the dragon and the woman and the child).  Did the writer of Genesis, whoever it was, really have that in mind?  Who knows?  It’s pretty unlikely, particularly because Genesis doesn’t mention its writer having ecstatic visions of the future.

Deconstruction took it even further than the New Criticism, by saying that the original author is not only unimportant, but that it is actually impossible to figure out what he actually meant by anything as long as he’s not around to clarify (and maybe not even then!).  Derrida puts meaning entirely on the side of the Reader: our understanding of a text comes entirely from what we bring to the text, our presuppositions or preunderstandings.  Basically, we see in the text whatever we want to see, or whatever we’re conditioned to see, rather than what was intended by the original author or even what is actually present there.  I think Derrida’s totally right, in that people do that all the time.  Barth said that we don’t read the Bible, the Bible reads us: our interpretations of the Bible usually say more about our own worldview and presuppositions than it does about reality.  That being said, I disagree that we cannot actually find the intended meaning of the original author, or even the meaning contained within the text itself (if indeed they differ from one another); but I think that this search for meaning in the text is made more fruitful and authentic when we recognize that what we bring with us has a major effect on what we find there.

So in Hermeneutics, as in culture and practice, we should take postmodernism in moderation.  Yes, each person will see the truth a little bit differently, but that doesn’t mean that truth is relative.  Yes, we each bring presuppositions to the text that do not match the worldview of the original author, and yes language is limited, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find the true meaning of something (or close enough to make sense).  We don’t have to throw doctrine out the window, and the Bible is still reliable and true!  But what we can’t do anymore is claim certainty apart from faith – and who ever thought Christians would try to do so in the first place?

At a certain point, the Church became so convinced of the modernist metanarrative that says that we can actually know everything that we, like modern scientists and political/social theorists (e.g. Marxists, Capitalists, etc.) became arrogant enough to say that we know something beyond a shadow of a doubt.  We not only said that about things, but we became convinced that for our entire worldview to make sense we had to say that…about everything.  If one little part of a doctrine was vague, it was a hole in our theory, and we were afraid that such holes would be exploited by combative atheists or those damned evolutionists, or whoever.  If ever there was something that we couldn’t prove, we’d say “that’s why we need faith” – which gave the impression that faith is for things that don’t make any sense, that aren’t logical, or that aren’t real.

Postmodernism reminds us that all knowledge requires faith – whether it’s reasonable, logical, or not.  Whether it’s empirically proven or not.  Everything we know, we take on faith AND evidence, and there’s plenty of both of those in the Bible.  We don’t have to say that we can’t know anything, but we can be comfortable with not knowing everything, and that changes everything.  I’m not a know-it-all, but I’ve got plenty of reasons to believe in Jesus Christ as my saviour and the Son of God; anything more than that is probably deceiving myself, and it probably won’t deceive anyone else.  I don’t need omniscient, objective knowledge to say that I know something, but I can’t say beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m right either, and that makes me more humble.  Thank God for that!

Being Embodied (in Worship)


All of my life, ritual has been some kind of unspoken enemy (and sometimes even a spoken one).  For a long time, I thought that the definition of the word included words like “dead” and “empty”.  It was just a mindless, obsessive compulsive set of actions at best, a set of actions that claimed to be able to affect the spiritual world, like magic, at worst.  Ritual is magic.  Ritual is idolatry.

The more time I spent in church, the more I saw that there were rituals even in those churches who were most against liturgy.  We just don’t call it that; it’s just the order of service, it’s not liturgy.  It’s just the acts of worship we’re most comfortable with, it’s not ritual.  Over time, I’ve come to understand that ritual is a part of everday life, and everyone has rituals.  Some people have rituals about sports that are slightly superstitious, and almost all of us have rituals that get us ready to face the world in the morning, like showering, shaving, and brushing our teeth, that we do without thinking and without any special meaning.  Ritual is actually quite a good thing, but religious ritual was still magic, idolatry, wrong.

The thing that really got me about liturgy and religious ritual is that I was always under the impression that the people doing the rituals didn’t really know what the rituals even meant, that they thought it was some magical formula that would get them to heaven.  I may even have been told something like this at some point, with a finger pointed at Catholicism, and it was certainly enforced by history lessons that (correctly) pointed out that the Catholic Church didn’t allow the people to understand their own worship service for about a thousand years by having it in a different language.  Dead, empty rituals are magic, superstition – and if they really are dead and empty, then I still say so.  What I’m discovering, though, is that not all ritual is dead and empty.  I’m not sure how I made the jump from thinking that dead, empty ritual is wrong to thinking that all religious ritual is wrong, but I’d like to fix that.  Ritual helps us to embody the Church, to embody theology, to embody Jesus Christ, in a powerful way.

In a modern evangelical worship service, we use our eyes and ears, our voices, and arguably, our minds.  We’re encouraged to raise our hands in worship, or fall to our knees, or sometimes perform actions or sign language.  These are the evangelical rituals, and they do contain some meaning.  Raising your hands to God is a posture that shows your relationship to Him, perhaps reaching out for Him; same goes for the humble posture of kneeling.  Actions and sign language convey meaning, usually along with whatever song you’re singing, but that meaning is aimed outward – is it to God?  Is it to the rest of the congregation?  What meaning are you aiming at these possible recipients?  I suppose it’s possible that performing actions to a song helps drive its message home to ourselves, but I don’t think it has had that effect on me.  Our strongest ritual, especially for us Pentecostals, is the altar call: when we take steps forward to the front of the church, we’re taking steps toward God, we’re taking action to bring us closer to Him, and likely even to take us out into the world to do the ministry He has for us.  It’s a powerful ritual, and I don’t think we need to be afraid of calling it that.

These rituals can be good, but the thing is, they’re all highly personal and quite vague and general.  There’s no outward difference between throwing up your hands to God in a worshp service and throwing up the horns at a metal concert; the difference is all internal.  I’ve always struggled with worship services, because I’m not sure why I’m there: I don’t like to sing (and think most contemporary worship music is both musically and lyrically shallow, vague, ultra-emotive, and sometimes even theologically empty), and so I don’t feel like mouthing the words to the songs is actual worship.  I don’t want to give God grudging praises, but I feel like my own private prayer time gives much more genuine praises, and prayers, and general interaction, than a corporate worship service.  All the way through Bible college I was told that the worship aspect of corporate worship comes from its very corporateness: it’s worship just to show up and sing the songs, because we do it for God, together.  So I keep coming out to Church every week, because they’re right: the corporateness of corporate worship is really important, and we do it for God.  But are we really being corporate when we believe that all worship takes place in your brain, or in your emotions?  The very rituals we use to worship God corporately cut us off from each other.  We close our eyes, lift our hands, and commune with God, one on one, in a crowded room.  Our worship songs are full of the word “I”, and even though they sometimes say “we”, in such an impersonal setting it means the same thing: “we” are a roomful of “I”s who are each personally worshipping God in our hearts (and on a good day, in our minds too).

If God were just spirit, disembodied, I suppose this might make sense.  But God is not disembodied: God is now, and forevermore, also a human being.  He has more than just a heart, a mind, and a voicebox: he sees and touches and smells things too.  We too often worship a disembodied God by pretending that we’re disembodied too – but we’re not, and never will be in life, either this life or the life to come.  We have bodies, and God has a body, and it sort of makes sense that an embodied God would take up a little bit of space.  And I’m not convinced that engaging in personal, individualistic worship all in the same room makes us the “body of Christ”; yes, we each personally represent a different part of the Body, but not when we’re individuals.  It’s only when we’re corporate, when we’re working together, and particularly when we’re doing so at the same time in the same place, that we’re demonstrably the Body of Christ.  And if we’re going to perform rituals in worship that point us to Christ, we ought to make him take up a little bit of space, to do something that lets us feel and smell and taste him, if only symbolically.

The rituals we’ve rejected involve all of the senses, and do so on purpose.  They are rituals that are not vague but laden with meaning, not individualistic and personalized but corporate and unified.  When the Church performs liturgy, we act out (through symbols) the reality of God in a way that we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.  Every week we participate in the reality of God, by performing it symbolically.  In so doing we also proclaim the reality of God, publicly.  And far from being impossible for a layperson to understand, liturgy actually instructs us about the theological reality it portrays.  We originally moved away from it, supposedly, because of the false notion that it is through performing such symbols that we are saved; perhaps we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Let’s have rituals with meaning.  Let’s make our theology take up space.

Hell No: the Case for Annihilationism

A few days ago I  mentioned the paper I’m about to write about the hermeneutical decisions that lead people to different opinions of Hell.  I’ve always been under the impression (and those who hold other opinions about Hell will certainly make it sound so) that the annihilationist (or conditionalist) position is based entirely on personal discomfort with the notion of Hell.  We think that the traditional view of eternal conscious torment is sadistic, and it leads to comparing God to Hitler or far worse.  Obviously this doesn’t line up with our understanding of a just and loving God, for eternal torture in response to finite sin is neither just nor loving.  Traditionalists say that even finite sin becomes infinite because we perpetrate it against an infinite God, but that logic is based on an understanding of justice from the middle ages that we no longer accept (i.e. in the middle ages one’s punishment reflected the amount of honour the person you committed a crime against had, so if you stole from a beggar it had a small punishment because he had small honour, but if you stole from a king it had a large punishment because of his great honour being offended).  Nowadays we figure that stealing is stealing, regardless of who you steal from.  So we’re left with a doctrine that makes God unjust, or unloving, or both.  Further, a conditionalist would say that their reading represents the text better than the traditional view anyways.  Let’s take a closer look.

The New Testament talks about Hell in pretty vague terms, but common terms to describe it include “fire”, “destruction”, and “eternal” (usually in some combination with the other two).  A literal or traditional reading of “eternal fire” is eternal torment, with “destruction” as a metaphor for that eternal torment.  Augustine described it in almost zombie terms, as being never dead or alive but eternally dying, burned by the flames and eaten by the worm but not consumed.  Interestingly, in this sense the “literalist” doesn’t read these images perfectly literally.  The conditionalist notices that literal fire consumes whatever touches it, a notion that obviously goes together with “destruction” much better than the notion of eternal conscious torment.  Revelation refers to a “lake of fire”, which is always identified with Hell in every view, but it calls this lake of fire “the second death” – which again makes more sense when read as destruction or annihilation rather than eternal conscious torment.  If you trip over the word “eternal”, it can fit either thesis: for a traditionalist, it is a fire that is burning forever; for an annihilationist, it is a punishment that is eternal in the sense that it is final, i.e. there is no second resurrection after the second death, the impenitent will be finally and eternally dead, consumed by the fire.  In this sense it’s not hard to argue that the annihilationist has a much better reading of the New Testament passages that deal explicitly with Hell.

Traditionalists will quote Revelation 20:10, which talks about the Lake of Fire, in support of their view of eternal conscious torment, and indeed it is the most troubling verse for an annihilationist view.  It says that the devil is thrown into the lake of fire with the beast and his prophet, and they are “tormented day and night forever and ever”.  A few verses later it says that death and hades and the sea give up the dead in them and everyone is judged, and then death and hades are thrown into the lake of fire as well, along with everyone whose name is not written in the book of life, and this is called the second death.  The argument is that if the devil and the beast and the prophet are tortured day and night forever and ever, then so must everyone that is thrown into the lake of fire.  This seems pretty rational at first glance, especially if we’re talking about a literal lake of fire (something that is highly debatable, considering the obviously metaphorical uses of fire in other texts, as well as the description of Hell as utter darkness, which is difficult when there’s so much fire around).  However, keep in mind that for the people thrown into it, the lake of fire is called the second “death”, yet for the devil and the beast it is referred to as torture.  Could there be a difference between a spiritual being’s experience in the lake of fire and a human being’s?  Is it possible that the devil is a spiritual being and can withstand a lake of fire, though it would be torturous for him?  Of course, a traditionalist might argue that human beings are also eternal beings with a spiritual nature, and that an everlasting soul would experience it the same way.

This is another interesting part of the annihilationist or conditionalist argument: it does not affirm the traditional view of the immortal human soul.  After all, if a human soul is immortal then God must do something with all of the wicked souls, right?  He can’t really get rid of them, right?  This is one of those doctrines that has been around long enough that we all tend to affirm it even though we can’t think of where it comes from in the Bible.  Turns out, it doesn’t come from the Bible at all!  The notion of the immortal soul is from Greek philosophy; in the Bible, human beings always have bodies.  It can be argued that in the intermediate state, after death and before judgment, we still exist despite the fact that our bodies are dead; but the fact of the matter is that nowhere does the Bible talk about disembodied human existence explicitly, and even implicit references tend to be a bit of a stretch.  If we don’t continue to exist without our bodies, then it’s a very simple matter for God to stop sustaining our life; the fires of Hell would consume the impenitent rather quickly unless God supernaturally sustained their flesh, which again comes down to how literally you want to read “eternal fire”.

So the conditionalist or annihilationist view is debatably a better reading of the Bible, and does not clash with our theology of God as loving and just and merciful.  It also doesn’t offend our sensibilities because it doesn’t paint God as an evil torturer, and it doesn’t argue for a sadistic impulse in the saints who (according to the traditional view) get great pleasure out of witnessing the torture of souls in Hell (as it makes their existence in Heaven seem that much better).  It really seems like a better reading all around, except for one little issue that changes everything: historical and literary context.

Around the time of Jesus, there were a lot of Jewish apocalypses floating around that clearly taught eternal conscious torment.  There were also Greek religions and philosophies that taught very similar versions of it.  So when we read Jesus’ rather vague statements about and allusions to Hades and Gehenna in the Gospels, we have to take into account the context of those statements, i.e. Jesus’ hearers would have automatically made a connection between what Jesus just said about Hades and what they already know of Hades: that it’s a place of eternal conscious torment.  If Jesus didn’t mean that it was a place of eternal conscious torment, the onus was on him to specify his own position…and he doesn’t.  He doesn’t explicitly affirm any of those visions of endless torture in Hell, but he doesn’t say anything against them either, and in his context people would have made connections between what he preached and what everyone else was preaching, and the annihilationist view makes no account of that fact.  So while it’s entirely possible that God will simply destroy the wicked impenitent, it’s not a good reading of Jesus’ references to Hell, and Jesus makes the most references to Hell in the New Testament.

Close, but no cigar.  I wrote this to point out that most of our defenses of the traditional or literalist view of Hell are not based in scripture, but in tradition.  We defend the traditional view pretty rabidly at times, but in many ways the other options are stronger.  We defend against annihilation by saying that it’s just “the Adventist view”, because we often call SDA’s heretics and therefore this view commonly held by them must be heresy.  If you have a better argument for the traditional view other than a very literalist reading of scripture, theology based in tradition, or attacks against the other views (that usually are straw men or red herrings), please let me know.  As it stands, while I don’t support annihilation based on the previous paragraph, I certainly don’t support a literalist doctrine of Hell either.  I’d be interested to hear the interpretations of Hell from my friends, the Lewis scholar and the Anselm scholar; both of those beloved theologians have interesting views on it.