Friday, April 15, 2005

My Postmodern Protestant Dilemma

Right now I'm reading The Soul of the American University by George Marsden. It is a very challenging book to me because Marsden carefully uncovers some of my own cherished beliefs as belonging to the world of secularism. Or, in the case of individualism, he shows how shallow and uncritical my antipathy towards ideas are. Most of all though, and this is mainly due to the professor of the course, I am finding myself once again struggling with the issue of authority and, especially, "ultimate" authority in the Church. I had these same struggles while reading John Henry Newman's The Idea of the University.

With Protestantism as a whole, we have an authoritorial crisis. The Reformers, I believe, originally did not want to separate their ecclesial authority structure from the bishopric of Rome. When (basically) forced out, they wanted to set up their own authoritative tradition, much in line with the whole "Rome" idea, except without all the "added" trappings of 16th century Catholicism. However, they found that many began to take the whole idea of an individual's right to question the authority structure without any ultimate reference to ecclesial authority (by which I am refering mainly to the Anabaptists as I understand their history). With the onset of Enlightenment emphases on individualism and autonomy (notably popularized by means of the Reformation), the authority crisis became graver and deeper: we all know that story by now. In wasn't until the rise of postmodernism (thanks Derrida) that the authority of the individual to make broad, absolute (yet individual, go figure) claims was successfully challenged. The modernist church couldn't answer the claims, since it was largely built on the same and if you are sawing the branch the you sit on you only have two options: you could fall and "great was its fall" or the saw could bind and you could realize your folly. Postmodernism is the outgrowth of that bind (which in many ways proceeded to get off the limb, finish the cut, and then jump after it in existential angsty depression).

So, my postmodern protestant dilemma.

From whence comes authority?

This also grew out of a vague suspicion (once again, something I thought of in class when I probably should have been thinking about other things, but it was a logical jump for me, which isn't saying much...) that "orthodoxy" was ultimately situational because it invariably grew out of an historical context (I feel so adult using 'an' with 'historical'). The ecumenical creeds grew out of a religious and philosophical climate that was decidedly Greek and decidely neo-Platonic. Both of which, I think, have been successfully challenged from a Biblical perspective by H. Dooyeweerd (it was also challenged by the amount of vowels in his name--wow!). So how can we relate these ideas of orthodoxy to our modern context that has shades of Greece, Rome, Israel, Britain, Germany and many other cultures and contexts? Does our orthodoxy look (or read) any different? Is it truly an absolute and timeless truth that we must follow uncritically? Anyway, that's a bit off topic for now.

If we do question the orthodoxy, one of the only remaining vestiges of old church authority remaining in Protestantism as a whole, or even if we don't, where does authority come from? Protestantism already has a history of asking this question of the Bible, hence the rise (and God-blessed demise) of higher criticism. We (by which I mean Protestants) have a strong tradition that if a man senses (or feels or 'knows' or whatever) a call to the ministry, most likely he will end up as a pastor. The judges of this call are men who came to the pastorate by similar means. However, we also have a strong tradition that we don't trust 'feelings' or emotion to judge theological issues, which I think would logically apply to the issue of pastoral calling. The problem being that Protestants have for a long time had a problem determining the workings of the Spirit, fearing (rightly) the absolute quenching of any Spirit activity and also fearing (rightly) the mania that can (but not necessarily) accompany revivals and Charismatic branches of the church. We end up tending to the former end of the spectrum and then usually ending up as cessationists.

What we have used though to determine 'fitness' for leadership, and therefore authority, has been education. Education is close to a co-mediator with Jesus in many Protestant circles, especially as the definition of 'Protestant' becomes larger and larger and more inclusive (and therefore more nebulous). Originally, at Harvard, a man needed to be educated (in the classical tradition, especially with the Biblical languages) to be in the pastorate. I am all for, by the way, the mastering of the Biblical languages by the pastorate (and not just because that is what my academic degree is in). This was because since the Reformers and Reformed had cast off papal authority they needed to back up their claims to Scriptural meaning with first rate exegesis and scholarship (my friends, I hope, will note the drool that just proceeded out of my mouth in excited fervency). However, in many places today, we have "pastor's seminaries" and "academic seminaries"--meaning that "pastor's sem" doesn't need to be (and therefore, as a rule, isn't) academic or inclined to serious scholarship. In other words, you can be a better Biblical scholar by getting an undergraduate degree (or pulling a "Good Will Hunting") in Biblical studies than you can be getting a master's at a "pastor's sem". Although, if you do that, you don't have any authority (but you do get a lot of weird glances from folks who are wary of someone speaking theologically that hasn't been to seminary). This isn't to say that you can't be academically astute by going to a ps (I'm abbreviating further since I didn't know I'd be using the description so much): the pastor at my church is very astute and academically inclined without losing his practicality.

Anyway, the authority is based on education that might not be wonderful. Plus, that sort of education doesn't breed the liberal mind of critical self-and-other inquiry. It is rewarded by the candidate being tested on the basis of a (more) limited, sectarian orthodoxy (not to be confused, necessarily, with the orthodoxy mentioned earlier). Not that nonsectarianism is possible in our present state (or possibly any state). I hope that the problem is coming into focus. If orthodoxy is historically conditioned and we are in a furthered (not a different necessarily since history is a continuum) historical setting, how can we base our authority on a lacking education that conditions to an orthodoxy that may need to have its underpinnings examined in light of Christian philosophy?

One solution is that we need a dictator. Protestants, generally, see the papacy that way and would balk at such an idea. Whether or not I'd identify the papacy with a dictator, I too would balk at the total control of God's church by one fallible human. Order may arise out of that, but it would severely limit the truth of God's word being spoken in any age because it would produce an impenetrable dogma (in the bad sense) that eventually would be codified outside of its historical moorings and may, anyway, be based on philosophical presuppositions that would find the climate of Greece or Rome or Germany or America more favorable than that of ancient Palestine.

Another solution is anarchy. Technically, it has been argued that Jesus' church is to be an anarchy, based on the passage that says "The Gentiles lord (Gr. arche) it over their subjects, but it shall not be so with you..." Unfortunately, 'anarcy' conjures up images of bomb-throwing individualist dictators (they would impose their version of authority and truth on whoever couldn't withstand them--the mafia is a good example) that ends up as a true dictatorship, which brings us back to the other option.

Linguistically I fail to come up with any way to describe an ideal situation of church authority (possibly because I can't think of any ideal situation, but the question of "does language bring it into being or does the being create the language" befuddles the problem further). It would be nice to return to the system of communal appelate judges of the Old Testament, but they had Moses (or the king) to go to to settle hard disputes. We do, technically, have Jesus to go to, but my tradition doesn't believe that he speaks audibly anymore (he only speaks through the pastors, which is a convenient way to befuddle any congregation that thinks about how a pastor is claiming papal powers for himself, even if he contradicts the Protestant pastor--sometimes of the same denomination--down the street on regular occasion).

In the long run, I am reiterating what I starting to say in "The Spirit says 'Come'" (which, by the way, Gideon I would like to speak some other time, thanks for the comment): where is the presence of God today? The Old Testament had theophanies and the New Testament had the ultimate theophany in Jesus (even though I'm critical of 'official' orthodoxy that doesn't mean that I'm not still orthodox). We seem, though, to have nothing, except the feelings of either the "mad" (declared so by the establishment), the "bad" (see previous comment), or the "Godly" (the sort-of-inspired pastor in his "preaching of the word", which, by the way, is a poor misconstruel of what the apostles meant by that phrase--it never meant a sermon, but more on that anon). But feelings, as I've said before, don't cut it in my tradition.

My initial thought (if anything this late in a long post can be called 'initial') is that we need to stop viewing the church as an institution and more as a community. The definition of those two words, however, is greatly debatable--and the two concepts are sometimes conflated (hence the presence of an institutional advancement office at a college that calls itself a 'community'). Most view an institution as something governed by strict rules while a community is more 'informal'. Apart from being impossible (everything has limits and boundaries and rules, although I argued it in a different context), communities always have rules--membership is always by strict rules and exclusion from a community can be harsh and unrelenting. (This, as a side note, lends some credence, I think, to NT Wright's understand in the New Perspective, with faith--given by the Holy Spirit--determining the community's membership).

At this point, I'm at a loss of what to say next. I feel that I've argued this all before, both on this blog and with myself and others to no suitable conclusion. Any comments would be appreciated. If any of you, dear readers, have read this far, thank you for your time and consideration into this poor, bedraggled and ragged 'souls' spiritual wanderings and confusions. Maybe I should rename the blog "Job's Mutterings"?

Thanks for your time.

1 comment:

David Whitcomb said...

That is one heck of an blog entry. I have also considered the challenges of post-modernism and find myself going to back to some of the arguments of my friend trained in Classical Apologetics (which might as well be heretical to many "Reformed" folk). He always asks me that if the senses aren't reliable, why do I trust them every day? I can't argue much, and I think I have to take on faith that the reality that I perceive is indeed real, with laws for nature that God has created and upholds. I also find myself asking the question of authority. It makes me think about Catholicism occasionally, but I think there are too many nuances and weird beliefs for me to go that far. Also, I think about my roots of congregationalist Baptists, and see the potential there, but the problems as well. All that said, is there any authority other than Christ that has ever existed physically in the world that has not been affected by the philosophy of the day? I don't think so, and it relieves me to think that I don't have to know all the answers to these questions,and I probably won't get them all right. Also, it is a comfort and a humbler to think that 100 years from now (or less!) there will be another philosophy that enlightens us like pomo currently is, and we will realize that we are wrong, have other assumptions, and change our perspective.

Thanks for writing and the encouragement when I saw you at the hospital visiting Keith, Kristie, and Rene.