Reforming or Conforming?
- Thursday, November 06, 2008
“I don’t think there is one definition for the term or for its usage. Spirituality is an umbrella word, a catchall concept used to characterize a commitment to the sacred elements of life. It defies a singular definition, hence the fluidity of the usage of the word; it is also an evolving term rather than one of fixed determination.
“One thing that it does signify, almost universally, is the rejection of traditional faiths as a primary source of connection to the divine. I would argue that traditional faiths are no longer the first resource that people go to in order to develop and nurture their spiritual lives, but instead function more as secondary archives with which new spiritual permutations are created. Those who do choose to explore their spiritual quests within traditional faith environments do so with very different eyes and intentions than previous generations of seekers have. For me spirituality is the religion of the twenty-first century.
“This is a dramatic shift, and one that some might contest, but the momentum seems to be toward this perspective; it should come as no surprise to us that our understanding of religion is undergoing a transformation. In times of significant cultural change, all the ways in which we order ourselves socially are usually affected. For instance, religion as it was experienced in the post-Reformation period was quite unlike its pre-Reformation incarnation. That faith in the postmodern world is showing itself to be markedly different from faith in modernity only serves to underscore the significance of the cultural changes we are presently experiencing.
“If then we truly find ourselves in a new situation, one in which the old ways simply no longer suffice, what then of the future for Christian faith? I have already raised the notion that there may not be a future for “Christianity,” the religion of Christian faith. I mean no disrespect to historic Christianity when I make this comment, nor do I seek to simply dismiss centuries of faithful service, worship, and theology.
“I think that the Christian faith has been held captive to a “pseudoorthodoxy” for much of the late twentieth century. Christianity’s love affair with modernity and its universalizing tendencies created a climate in which the general assumption is a singular understanding of the faith. The easiest way to undermine different perspectives on issues like faith and practice during my lifetime has been to call someone’s commitment to orthodoxy into question. But Christian faith is open to discussion. Historically it always has been. It can be questioned and reinterpreted. In fact, I would argue that it is meant to be questioned and reinterpreted.
“Religion is always a cultural production, and sociocultural issues cannot be discounted from the ways in which we envision and understand faith. Issues and questions raised by our particular cultural situation not only inform but shape the various ways in which we interpret the gospel. If there ever was a time to question the status quo, it is now.”8
Barth would have been appalled and rightly so. Taylor, however, is right about one thing. We cannot escape the powerful undercurrents of postmodernity that course through the times we live in. The question that confronts us all is, how do we respond to such things? Since the apostle Paul tells in a very direct way—we are not to be conformed to the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:1–2)—exactly what do we do when we find ourselves being molded and shaped by the culture around us? Well, one thing is clear—we should not accommodate our theology to the cultural despisers of our times. But this has happened (in the case of Schleiermacher), and it is happening at an alarming rate today with those enamored with postmodernity. How did this come about?
The term “post-conservative” was first coined by erstwhile evangelical Arminian Roger Olson in the pages of The Christian Century.9 Critics like Millard Erickson described this as the new “Evangelical Left” and have taken umbrage with how Olson has responded to his critics.10 Olson, in mirroring the postliberal Yale School theologians like the late Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, wants very much for evangelicalism to escape what he calls the Old Princeton hegemony with its stifling scholastic methodology. In particular, Olson complains that the Old Princeton placed way too much emphasis on such doctrines as penal substitutionary atonement and biblical inerrancy. These supposedly distinctive trademarks of genuine evangelicalism need to be abandoned.11 As we shall see, this has struck a very responsive cord in what goes by the name “the emergent conversation.”
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