Inability To Move?

Reflections on Moving Between Times, Modernity and Postmodernity: A Christian View by Brian Carrell (published by the DeepSight Trust, New Zealand, 1998), reviewed in Newsletter 30 by Noel Cheer.

There is a touching story about the aging Archimedes who, engrossed in a mathematical puzzle, was unaware of the hostile soldiers who came to kill him. Bishop Brian Carrell, while acknowledging the existence of forces hostile to Christianity, has produced a similar, inappropriately inward-looking book. Even the Foreword by the (now) late Archbishop Brian Davis acknowledges a changed world when he refers to "the attitudes, ideas and values that shape Western society today". But Bishop Carrell seems transfixed like a possum in the headlights, as the postmodernist future bears down on him.

But first he must deal with modernism. It is easy to mistake what the term "Modernism" signifies. It is not merely a posh way of saying "up-to-date". Modernism is usually thought to have come into being with the (European) Enlightenment. It is the nameof a set of worldviews that arose when more and more people realised that their own culture was different from that of their neighbors and, by implication, was challenged and threatened by them.

In what would be regarded as a paradox by proponents of the Enlightenment, that view had a lot in common with Christendom, the worldview that it was seeking to replace. From early Christian times and right up to the present time, the central power structures of societies took the view that there was one, and only one, (proper, appropriate, permissible) way of looking at things and that what they were promoting was that way. (A current example is the United States' efforts to gift "democracy" and "capitalism" to all corners of the world.) The philosophical term for a "way of looking at things" is metanarrative. The Enlightenment largely succeeded in providing rivals for the meta-narrative of Christendom with, first of all Reason, and then Science. Marxism is an excellent example. The battle of the modernist metanarratives continues with, for example, anti-evolutionists on one side hurling abuse at those scientists (such as Richard Dawkins) who are openly hostile to religion.

For a variety of reasons, the Christian metanarrative is in decline. The philosopher would have to count the Christian metanarrative as one among many, while the Christian counts it as the best, and not only the best but, at those points where it conflicts with other metanarratives, the correct one. Modernism, (the desire "to get everyone on the same page" as Walter Truett Anderson writes in The Fontana Postmodernism Reader) whether in its early form of Christian witness, imperialism and missionising or in its later forms of the Enlightenment Projectwhich promoted Reason and Science, has run its course. Postmodernism is, in essence, a claim or an admission that the Enlightenment Project (as well as Christendom which preceded it) was merely a set of arbitrary claims by the current leaders of society that where they were was the only place to be.

In response to Yeats' "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold", the postmodernist observes (joyfully or woefully), that, not only are there are many "centres" (or none, if you want to be purist) but also that none of the centres can hold. The Buddhist motifs of anatta and anicca-no permanent soul and no permanent reality-anticipated this view, and so the Buddha has been cited as an early Postmodernist. What I find most astonishing about a book that sets out to discuss how Christianity (actually New Zealand Anglicanism) might deal with postmodernism is not what is in it, but what is not in it. Christianity has, over its 19 or so centuries, encountered many challenges, many of which came from "inside".

From time-to-time people labelled as "heretics" arose. Many were slaughtered in the name of the God of love, to keep the faith pure, but some escaped and went on to materially change the direction of Christianity. I believe that it is reprehensible of Bishop Carrell to have written a book that omits (apart from one fleeting reference) any mention of these classes and examples of the challenges that historical Christianity is currently facing. It may be that Bishop Carrell is unaware of these challenges and, if that is the case, then that is doubly reprehensible. It is possible to discern at least three groups of unacknowledged challenges:

Challenges of Authenticity: To confine our survey to recent times, we could usefully start with John A.T. Robinson's Honest To GodThe Five Gospels and Honest To Jesus. In one way or another, these works challenge the implict and explicit claims to authenticity by mainstream Christianity—that there is an historical continuity between the life and teachings of Jesus and the movement that developed in his name. Chief among the challenges that mainstream Christianity has not been able to meet is the awareness, apparent in the extensive scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, that the picture of Jesus promoted by them is a reading back (into already fictionalised accounts of the "life" of Jesus), of post-Resurrection perceptions of Jesus as the Christ and as, in some sense, the "founder" of the Christian Church. The balance of probabilities supports the view that Jesus disowned the title "Christ" ("Messiah") and that the last thing on his mind was to set up a Church. Yet assertions in favour of these attitudes lie at the heart of contemporary mainstream Christianity.

Challenges to Direction: There are many within Christianity who believe that the direction that it is taking will guarantee its eventual extinction. Those who are guiding the major denominations seem oblivious to the rocks ahead, dismissing them as mere fabrications of an increasingly God-less world. This blindness has been pointed out in earlier works of Don Cupitt (Taking Leave of God and The Sea of Faith especially) and more recently and passionately by John Spong in Why Christianity Must Change Or Die.

It is strange that Bishop Carrell made no references to any of this genre of "loyal opposition" within the Christian Church. New Zealand's Lloyd Geering has been clearly articulating these concerns for over thirty years (see especially Crisis in the Christian Way available from St Andrew's Trust) but, apart from a footnote comment, his warnings have not been referred to.

Challenges to Relevance: Postmodernism is increasingly giving us a religious climate more like that of the first century Roman Empire than that of any time since. It is a time of speculative largesse, a time of genuine spiritual enquiry, a time of charlatanism and quackery, and a time of reactionary blandeur on the part of the older religious establishment. To dismiss, as the Bishop does, all religious positions other than Christianity, might provide a momentary rush of adrenalin to those faithful who remain, but it is not an adequate response. Right under his nose there are organisations whose members regard religion as of profound importance but who have been bruised by the inability or unwillingness of the traditional Christian churches to treat them as intelligent adults. Our own Sea of Faith Network, now healthily established in local groups throughout New Zealand, is one such organisation. These people are not wilfully turning their backs on religion, but are rather going further into spirituality, unhandicapped by a wilfully anachronistic Church. For them, Postmodernism is not a threat but a series of opportunities.

The flyleaf quotation by Jim Wallis describes the situation felt by us all: "We are caught in the middle, stranded between paradigms". We are all in that situation, but not all respond as passively as does Bishop Carrell.

Noel Cheer