07 January 2017

Riddles of Fundamentalism Part 4: False Fideisms, False Biblicisms and the Quest for Coherence

It is at this point in the discussion wherein fideistic and anti-modernist labels that are used to describe many 20th century movements such as Neo-Orthodoxy, Barthianism and the 21st century Emerging Church are exposed as flowing from the same polluted Athenian font that continues to overshadow virtually all Western intellectual endeavour.

Following in the wake of Kant and Kierkegaard and having rightly lost confidence in the scholastic-philosophical project of Christendom they are desperate to save Christianity and preserve a basis for faith in the modern context. But sadly their remedy is yet another variant of the philosophical project, one in which coherence is still being sought but through different means. Kant's transcendental logic is reworked into various semi-Scriptural forms of coherence through recondite (and often cliquish) forms of inferential and dialectic process.

Following in the footsteps of the Königsberg philosopher, there is a general embrace of the notion that the ultimate, metaphysical or noumenal reality is essentially 'other' or unknowable and yet like Kant they then set about in developing a methodology in which it can be explored and elaborated upon. They cannot leave the subject alone because they believe such an admission would be to travel the paths of incoherence and Nihilism. The more contemporary expressions continue to try and salvage a conception of reality in terms of self-reference.

This has gone in numerous directions, crisis and inference, individual and collective attempts at concretisation of abstract ideals, exercising the will as a form of self-actualisation and processes of stripping away modalities of thought wed to power-structures and language in order to find pure meaning, self and experience.

I contend there is another Christian option that embraces philosophical scepticism and yet can still find Truth. These efforts to 'save' Christianity actually represent attempts to re-create the Biblical-Philosophical synthesis, projects to save something of philosophy itself.

After Kant, the 19th century Romantics turned to a quest for the sublime, and the Absolute Idealists and Hegelians turned to process, which interestingly could be described as not only another footnote to Plato, but a new type or attempt to form, redefine (or even manipulate) Common Sense. This time it's accomplished through reification of the zeitgeist and other conceptualised ideals. These tendencies and trends affected society and worked their way into the thought of the Church.

For some the authoritative revelation was discovered by means of Krisis, or dialectical process by which modern naturalism and idealised concepts and forms could simultaneously function both in opposition and harmony. The crisis of contradiction produced a dynamic tension forming a variety or category of transcendental coherence. The text of Scripture could be elevated and yet not the words themselves which were mortal and flawed, but the ideas and truths behind them could be discovered through dialectical krisis brought on by an encounter with God.

Others along similar lines have heartily embraced the subjective (and at times mystical) path and through a process of contextualisation, critique and deconstruction have sought to peel away the shells and husks of human philosophical endeavour and social bias to discover what they believe is the pure word or meaning. But what is discovered is no conclusive authority at all but a dynamic and wholly subjective bundle of concepts and ideas which the individual must formulate into an expression that amounts to little more than a coherent ethic. Ironically and indeed sadly both of these generalised attempts at reckoning with the death of philosophy and the retention of Christianity are forced to resort (once more) to a form of philosophical method in order to generate something from the nothing they have been left with.

The collapse of the philosophical project drives one toward a series of possible conclusions... a so-called fideistic faith in transcendent revelation, solipsism or nihilism. Truth and an understanding of reality must come from a source other than this world, or it is found within the self or there is none to be found at all. The philosophical quest for truth and an account of reality is a dead end.

Inferred from within the New Testament itself, Biblicism is the only viable option. Faith in another religion on some other grounds is of course a possibility and at that point a limited apologetic can be employed. But really from a post 1st century, or post-Apostolic Christian standpoint, the only honest choices are between a Divine Textual Authority, a Charismatically inspired Magisterium or unbelief born of and resulting in Nihilism. Everything else and in-between is an attempt to establish Authority through some form of anthropocentric reference and necessarily degenerates into rank idolatry through either the deification of creation, man or man's works.

The Nihilist is on one level to be respected. He has honestly weighed and considered the nature of reality and man's limited capacity. He has acknowledged reality as it is without Christ. He is of course tragically mistaken but is at least coherent in understanding the world as it would be apart from the revelation of the Son of God. Of all unbelievers the Nihilist is the most honest and perceptive and yet also the most dangerous. His negation of epistemology actually finds a certain resonance with the basis for Biblicism. In human terms I sometimes have more hope in reaching the Nihilist with the Gospel than I do someone within the Analytic spectrum. The latter is in reality a self-contented and even proud adherent of a false religion while the former is already on the verge of brokenness.

The Incarnation perhaps more than any other doctrine demonstrates the fallibility of Common Sense in the realm of theology.  Theologians will often admit the element of mystery and the limitations of human reason in reconciling the doctrine with the laws of nature, experience and logic and yet they are unwilling to accept this principle as ubiquitous in the realm of theology. They refuse to accept it as a guiding principle, a Christocentric key to unlocking, through faith-sustained apprehension, the entire body of revealed doctrine. Instead they embark on a quest to reconcile doctrine with human spatio-temporal experience under a framework of static coherence. First doctrines like the Scripture, Kingdom and the Sacraments are assailed and subjected to reduction. Next come the doctrines associated with soteriology. They are parsed, dissected and split into unnatural divisions and categories wholly alien to the text of Scripture. Eventually despite their confessional safeguards, the very doctrines that are elevated as sublime mysteries are themselves subjected to this withering critique. The Incarnation and Trinity are continually elaborated upon, refined, tweaked and redacted in order to become more intelligible and acceptable to human sensibilities and philosophical commitments to coherence and epistemology. This methodology meant to elaborate Scripture in the end destroys it.

Faith is the essential element to understanding the Word and thus we may even say reality itself. Saving Faith as defined within the context of Scripture incorporates fiducia, a surrendered trust, reliance and assurance in the Authority of God and His Word.

The Faith cannot be placed into something nebulous or abstract, an idea of God, a set of principles or values that may (or may not) be found in a book ecclesiastical tradition has called The Bible. This is not saving faith but yet another expression or variation of treating the Bible as some kind of philosopher's stone, a key or starting point that the enlightened or mature thinker moves beyond through either some sort of intuition or systemic development.

The trust implied within the concept of fiducia includes an assurance that God has not left us blind and grasping in the dark. Scripture is sufficient and therefore authoritative and faith demands a confidence in its Providential Preservation and thus its sustained Authority.

Scripture doesn't have to conform to Common Sense Realism. It doesn't have to conform to the standards and dictates of human reason or experience. It will not meet the requirements of scientific inquiry and doesn't have to. This doesn't in any way mean that it isn't scientifically or historically true. The scope and spectrum of Scripture is not to provide a comprehensive worldview. It may provide something close to that in a corollary sense. And yet, this will only be meaningful, and of equal importance functional for those in the Spirit, those who possess Biblical faith.

Scripture reveals and unveils God's plan of redemption wholly focused on Jesus the Christ. The narratives concerning creation, history and phenomena are all related to this central theme. This doesn't mean the Bible is dishonest in its presentation but it orders the narratives didactically, morally and redemptively. So whether we're talking about genealogies, numbers, chronology and especially types and symbols the way in which they are fulfilled in time and space often is at variance (usually slight) with empirical sense-data or standards of human observation.

If we grasp the latter point and understand its limited and certainly subjective nature this is far less of a problem than it would seem. In no way do I mean to suggest that the genealogies are false, the numbers are exaggerated or that the chronology is fictional. I believe the Scriptures teach of an Earth that is thousands, not millions of years old. And yet I will also argue that closer study reveals the Ussher inspired six-thousand year orthodoxy that dominates Young Earth Creationism is erroneous and unsubstantiated by Scripture.

The New Testament itself, which properly speaking is the canon of the Church teaches us how to interpret the Old Testament and its host of symbols and sometimes difficult reports of numbers, chronology and phenomena. In no way am I positing an anti-literal viewpoint. Far from it. But at the same time, the Common Sense Realism that dominates Fundamentalism and much of Evangelical thought is not in accord with what the Scriptures teach about God, Christ, creation or saving faith. It's not the epistemology used by the Apostles in interacting with Old Testament data or the fulfillment of predictive prophecy. It's not how Scripture presents itself. In addition to being an unscriptural epistemology it is also philosophically erroneous.

By nature (viz. in a fallen world) Scripture is such that the world will never be convinced of its validity and there are no justifications (properly speaking) that will satisfy the world's criteria. The Hyper-Literalist hermeneutics of Fundamentalist and Dispensational thinkers is neither faithful to Scripture nor does it 'prove' their assertions. And in terms of apologetics and witness, by casting 'faith' in scientific and philosophic categories they allow the unbeliever to set the criteria of the debate. They allow them to draw the boundaries of the pitch or playing field as it were. And as a consequence Fundamentalism is its own bane.

One could also argue the world itself and all its philosophic theories are incoherent. Are the Scriptures the coherent philosophy? Is that how we should look at it? This is true in a sense, but it's just as easy to say that philosophy itself is a dead end. It's man's attempt to explain reality and even when he tries to integrate God into the equation it's an endeavour doomed to fail.

As Blaise Pascal understood, in order to escape scepticism man falls into dogmatism which by his own philosophical standards is unsustainable. It becomes arbitrary or (as has often been the case) pragmatic, wed to the political. Apart from dogmatism man is driven into the wilderness of scepticism which results in the equally incoherent trap of Nihilism. Either way, man is left living in a world of contradictions and in a state of incoherence. In order to live, at some point man is forced to put faith into something.

Continue reading part 5