Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Right Do You Have to Claim Your Form of Christianity as the Right One?

Questions like this are posed in different forms to historic, orthodox Christians today, and evangelical scholar Darryl Bock faced the dogged interrogation of agnostic scholar Bart D. Erhman in a debate not too long ago on the Unbelievable radio program, "The show that gets Christians and non-Christians talking."  Dr. Ehrman's point was that so-called liberal scholars like Elaine Pagels and others call themselves "Christian," even though they have an entirely different set of beliefs than Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant Christians who hold to the classic, historic, orthodox positions about the existence and nature of God, the atonement of Jesus, and so forth.  Erhman's point to Bock was basically, "Who are you to tell Pagels and others (John Shelby Spong, for example) that they're not Christian?"  (Now Spong is more of a pantheist than a classical theist in any sense).  A similar question fluttered in the face of Doug Wilson at Indiana University Bloomington by a young, teenage girl asking him "What gives you the right to tell others what to believe about Christianity (in this case, the Bible's teaching about marriage, sex and homosexuality) when you're just giving your side of the story?" 

Question like these, while fun for arousing cheer and jeer as an "in-your-face" to the pesky Bible-thumper, are telling of the skepticism and suspicion of the postmodernism which eschews both on ethical and epistemological levels, the idea of metanarrative, which is "a large-scale theory that seeks to make sense of the world."  Metanarratives today are the Darwinian theory of evolution, the theistic claims of Genesis (in various forms: young earth [multiple views, including an ancient universe, and a old earth consisting of a young Garden of Eden], old earth, theistic evolution, etc.), pantheist narratives of an eternal universe found in eastern religions, and so forth.  Erhman asks Bock what right (ethics) he has to claim to know (epistemology) that his form of Christian belief is the correct one, when so many others (Pagels, Spong, etc.) also claim the name "Christian" while holding to a very different set of beliefs.  Well?

Well, Erhman's question to Bock is illustrative of the ironic arrogance of postmodernism.  It is ironic because the most prominent postmodern philosophers such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michael Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, decry the authority of texts to communicate metanarrative because such a construction would be arrogant due to the text's use to control and gain power over others.  Marx's opiate of the masses claim comes to mind, as does the popular-level claim that the early Christians wrote the New Testament in order to control people with their money (laughable, as they all paid for their testimony and texts with their own blood).  Huxley's Brave New World also mirrors the idea of religious texts or sayings used with the express purpose of giving people false hope in a hereafter in order to steal the would-be heavenly travelers of their hard-earned cash for the sake of the tyrannic power of the oppressors.  Hence, postmodernism says "No you di'int!  Ain't gonna control me with no metanarrative."  And the winner in this scene is supposed to be the person who rejects the metanarrative, because "it's arrogant to claim you have the truth, and that others do not."  Now, why is this rejection of metanarrative arrogant?

If a metanarrative is used as a power-structure to control others, then people rightly reject that metanarrative, provided the control in question is negative, and not positive, life-giving, and open to free inquiry, scrutiny, hard questions and yes...rejection.  In a word, a metanarrative that is true should encourage freedom for the individual to make his or her own decision about whether or not to believe it (here's some more irony: I just used "his or her" in this sentence in order to appease the "power structure metanarrative" of my own society which demands that we all recognize men and women as equals and commit to such even in our own texts.  I'm happy to comply, for I believe it's true).

But if a metanarrative is rejected ipso facto merely because it is a metanarrative and because believing it would mean committing the sin of arrogance on the part of the one holding such belief, then really the arrogance falls on the accuser, not the holder.  Postmodernists prize individualism as the sine qua non of the human enterprise, and this in the inevitable conclusion of rejecting a metanarrative, leaving as the only alternative a radical individualism that defines reality based upon one's own personal ideals.  And even if the personal ideals are constructed with the use of reason, logic, science and historical inquiry, the suspicion and skepticism of postmodernism precludes any bone fide influence upon the inquirer to arrive at truth--a metanarratival truth.  With suspicion, skepticism, and rejection of metanarrative, radical individualism ensues, and epistemological relativism is the only end-result consistent with such a "foundation."  So, what is the solution to holding on to individualism as a good, which includes a healthy skepticism, and a healthy suspicion of power-hungry dogs who promise Huxley's everlasting fields of clover despite it being a lie that such fields exist?

Humans, if they are going to ask the big questions, need first and foremost the humility to make real, rational inquiry.  In addition to humility, the worldview questions everyone must ask in order to have a coherent, comprehensive system of thought, include questions about origins, meaning, morality, destiny (as Ravi Zacharias regularly propounds).  Under theses rubrics fall questions of God's nature and existence (atheism, pantheism, monotheism, polytheism), the nature of truth and knowledge, the external world (am I in a dream?  Is this the Matrix?), and history (can history be known?  Does it have a telos, or goal?  Will it end, or keep going?), und so weiter.  Now the classical Christian worldview, according to philosopher Alvin Plantinga is 
to believe that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good person (a person without a body) who has created us and our world, who loves us and was willing to send his son into the world to undergo suffering, humiliation, and death in order to redeem us.  It is also to believe of course, that no more than one being has these properties.  And Christian belief involves not only that there is such a being but also that we are able to address him in prayer, refer to him, think and talk about him, and predicate properties of him.  We have some kind of cognitive access and grasp of him.  We can refer to him, for example, as the all-powerful, all-knowing person who has created and upholds the world, and we can predicate of him such properties as being all-powerful, being all-knowing, and having created the world.  We can use a definite description like this to refer to this being, to pick him out, to single him out for thought; and we can give a proper name to the being thus singled out.  For example, we can use the term 'God' as his name.  
That's orthodox Christianity throughout the ages in a nutshell: the Triune, personal God, who atones for sin and has relationship with his people.  Now, in answer to the question heading up this post, one may reply with the fact that no particular individual is claiming her (you're welcome) form of Christianity as the "right one."  Oh, but she is.  Yes, she is.  But, here's the kicker: she's claiming it in a long, line of history that reaches back 2,000 years, a line paid for by the blood of martyrs, and those who risked family, livelihood, health, safety and yes--their own sanity--for the sake of the sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  And her claim isn't some concoction made up in 1972 when she was born.  No, she can point you to the earliest texts and creeds of Christendom right in the New Testament itself, asking you to take language for what it is, and setting your suspicion of texts aside and also your own arrogance that you, the 21st century Westerner, know so much more about how to interpret texts than any other non-Western culture, and any other culture throughout time.  For example, one of the earliest creeds of Christianity is found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, written by the Apostle Paul writing to the Corinthian Christians from Ephesus in A.D. 55:

Now I would remind you brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you--unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than fiver hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

There is also the creed or early Christian hymn in Philippians 2: 6-11:   

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.   Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Generally, New Testament scholars of all stripes recognize this as an early hymn, which is why many Bible translations print it in poetic form.  It's easy to see that the earliest Christians believed a metanarrative wherein God was reconciling the world to himself through the death and resurrection of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  In addition to the New Testament itself, one may read the writings of the early Church Fathers to garner this view as well.  Or, one might read the Apostle's Creed which dates back, one may infer with good evidence, to the early or mid 2nd century:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried.  He descended to hell.  On the third day he arose again from the dead and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic (small c!) Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  

That's a metanarrative, an' make no mistake, Samwise Gamgee. 

Is it the Christian who is arrogant in making a metanarratival claim?  Hardly, for she (you're welcome, again) stands in a long line of history, creed, confession dotted with the shed blood of many who confessed Jesus as the Christ of God.  She is simply submitting to the easy-to-understand metanarrative of Scripture clung to by millions just like her throughout 2,000 years of history, ranging over countless cultures, held to by scholars, businessmen, doctors, farmers, factory workers, taxi drivers, lepers, beggars, widows, orphans, imbeciles, fools, and wise men.  It is rather, the postmodern who is arrogant, in having a disdain through his (yup) suspicion and skepticism, that he knows who is and is not entitled to have a metanarrative.  It's as if one is saying, "I've investigated all the metanarratives out there, and I declare that they are indeed micronarratives, each one having no authority over any other one, and I, as an authority, say it to be so."  That's arrogance folks.  

A better witness is Jesus himself, who though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, giving his life on a cross so we can live.  

Works Consulted/Cited: 
1. Amy Orr-Ewing, "Postmodern Challenges to the Bible" in Beyond Opinion, Ravi Zacharias, ed. Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2007, pp. 3-20.
2. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Historic Church Documents: Apostle's Creed," by James Orr.  available online at CRTA.
3.  Warranted Christian Belief, Oxford, 2000.  p. 14.  available at

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