Note: This is the initial post in my new blog, "The Postchristian Christian." In it, I will occasionally post musings on issues, events, publications, and readings pertaining to the transition from a modern, Constantinian Christianity in the U.S. to one perhaps better called a Postmodern one. More on me and my personal background, and on my reasons for blogging, in future posts.
Part 1: A postmodern event.
One spring afternoon, an afternoon too fine after a chilly, dank winter to spend sitting in a stuffy university classroom, I asked my students to look around their space. I indicated the efficient use of space in the rectangular, four story modern monument to cost-conscious, taxpayer supported education. There was no wasted space: the corners of the building reserved for wide stairways capable of quickly moving herds of students from place to place, the doorways also wide and glassed so that no one would inadvertently push a door into someone approaching from the other side, the interior walls held in place by large metal clips, capable of being easily moved to enlarge or divide, create or recreate rooms to meet changing needs. I also asked them to remain silent for a moment and listen. Faint buzzing reminded us of the presence of the fluorescent light fixtures overhead, keeping our room well lit and almost the latest thing in energy efficiency (LED then was only used for little indicator lights in the Ohio State engineering and computing equipment).
There was a quick, flickering perception at that moment, in front of me harsh, spiky graphs recording color production by fluorescent bulbs. Fluorescent light is virtually impossible to use with color film and retain true color reproduction, no matter what combination of emulsion type and filters one tries. Once I had developed a cinematographer's eye for light, fluorescent bulbs always gave me headaches after a working day spent under them, as my brain tried hopelessly to make sense of them and then rebelled.
I had a brief notion, quickly dismissed, of drawing some lesson from fluorescence to apply to my topic for the period, postmodernism. Instead, as planned, I led the students down from our top floor hutch, into the sunshine and next door to the campus' newest building. In front of us was a glass-enclosed, two-story structure that stuck out from the northwest corner of the building like an architect's afterthought. Smack in the middle of the thing was a two-stage stairway to the second floor, surrounded by absolutely nothing but air, and beyond the air a few empty feet, then glass walls.
I then posed the question, “Why is there air”?
I hoped, against hope, that a phys ed major might answer, “Everybody knows why there's air! There's air to blow up volleyballs, basketballs, footballs...”1 Didn't happen. Someday, perhaps....
Part 1: Creating space.
From the time of creation, there has been a simple equivalence: Air = Life. At the birth of a filly, we check the airway. A plastic bulb is handy to suck out possible obstructions. Years later, as an old mare lays in the pasture grass, we watch tearfully for her barrel to rise up yet one more time. It does not. She passes.
Clearly, although we cannot see it, air exists. We can smell it, which we acknowledge in the ancient phrase--comme il faut--”Passing wind.” We can feel it as a warm breeze or a tearing gale. We can hear it in the tinkle of a wind chime or a sudden gust howling momentarily around our protective walls. It is evident that there is a difference between the “empty air” surrounding that campus stairway and what its architect might have called “airspace.”
Another way to put it is that the architect was trying to inject more life in his, or her project. Air = Life. Or, Airspace = Life.
Postmodern architecture, whether the curious collection of miscellany at MoPop, Paul Allen's Seattle Museum of Pop Culture (formerly the EMP Project)2, or the almost alien spires of la Basilica i Temple Expiatori de la Sangrada Familia in Barcelona3, endeavors not so much to provide a stately and organic presence as to explode on the scene. It challenges people to multiply their methods of experiencing it. MoPop challenges watchers to search their memory for something—anything--that might enable them to fit what they're seeing into their mental schema of “building.” There are elements of “building,” walls and doorways, but they are overwhelmed by the free-form sculptural roofs. It could be a collection of alien mushrooms from Perelandra4, or perhaps the roofs simply overheated and melted. (In Seattle? More likely acid rain...) Sangrada Familia's cluster of spires at the western (front) side seem to echo the gothic, but are obviously not—far too narrow and too tall to be from the medieval European centuries, studded with lacy openings large and small, echoing Iberia's Muslim heritage and topped with crosses that resemble the curled tops of weeds in a Catalan field.
One cannot approach the postmodern armed with traditional, easily accessible schemas. Not because the postmodern rejects comfort or tradition, but because it does not wish its space to be imposed upon by artificial limits.
Part 1. The modern age; a selected timeline.
1518, January. Friends translate Martin Luther's Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum [Ninety Five Theses] into German.
1619, St. Martin's Day, overnight. French military engineer Rene Descartes has a series of three visions he believes are from God.
1663. Catholic church prohibits Descartes' books,
1670. Descartes publishes Meditationes de Prima Philosophia [Meditations on First Philosophy].
1793. Immanuel Kant publishes Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der gloszen Vernunft
[Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone].
Part 1. Make it new!5
Renaissance: the transitional movement in Europe between medieval and modern times beginning in the 14th century, and marked by a humanistic revival of classical influence expressing in a flowering of the arts and literature and by the beginnings of modern science.6
Whatever has happened--
that's what will happen again;
whatever has occurred--
that's what will occur again.
There's nothing new under the sun.7
There was something new in the 14th century, and the 15th, and the 16th, and it bloomed in the 17th, and it bore it its first full fruits in the 18th. It was called “The Enlightenment.” At the beginning of the 14th century, Christianity was an immutable part of daily life in Europe. It was, along with growing and harvesting, winter and summer, birth and death, intensely woven into the warp and woof of the popular fabric. Whether one was serf or smith or noble, a leper burning at the stake in Jersey or a fine lady turning the pages of a lavishly illustrated Book of the Hours in Navarre, Christianity was ever and always present. Infants were baptized, lovers were married, marauding warriors rested on the Sabbath and during the days of the Peace of God, religious communities attended to the destitute, workmen—and their sons and grandsons and great-grandsons--labored on great cathedrals and basilicas, and through it all was the certainty of heaven or hell. Few people knew the details, but they knew they met God at the Mass and were pardoned of their sins by the priest. And they knew of Christ, because they saw him daily on the crucifix.
Under the surface, though, something else was happening. It probably began, quietly enough, with Crusaders returning from Palestine and Syria. They not only brought with themselves new ideas about everything from bathing to fortifications, they brought Plato and Pythagoras. The warriors of God unknowingly brought to places like Florence, Genoa and Venice a hidden treasure. At first, the scholars who labored over the old/new classics contented themselves with practical matters such as mathematics, science and engineering. But the treasures were there, like glimpses of a diamond peeking occasionally through a pile of straw being thrown into a stable. The diamond was drama, philosophy, poetry, oratory, and even theology. By the end of the 14th century, the die was cast.
The ferment that simmered across Europe and the Near East popped up in odd places and times. It involved, at times, capitalism, democracy, and trade. It also, and most significantly for Christianity, involved humanism. It quietly edged God out of the center of things in the human world, and replaced Him with Humans. The world belonged to humans. It was humans who dealt with the things of their life, who planted and built and tried to survive an often brutal and violent world. And as they found new and better ways of doing the things of their world, they realized they could also think differently about their world, about things seen and unseen.
Cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am,” declared Descartes, Although there are still arguments over whether he was Christian or not, his philosophy, which emphasized that only that which man can comprehend is “true,” at least in any meaningful way, marked the path to the modern age. Meaningful things were things that succumbed to the mastery of science, of postulation and proof, of experiment and confirmation, of measurement—above all, that succumbed to the Human. It was new. And productive. And wondrous. At least they thought so...
Part 1. A funny thing happened on the way to modern.
At the midpoint of the Renaissance, just before the modern age, a well educated law school student despaired of the philosophy of law which, then, as now, dealt more with the possible than the actual, and sought certainty. He found it not in the arguments of law, but in the love of God. As his world was moving inexorably toward science and reason, he entered a monastery to spend his days and nights in pursuit of something not comprehensible in reason. His pursuit led him to a university, where for the first time in his well educated life, he saw all the books of the Bible. He read them avidly, and found there the ability to comprehend the incomprehensible—the message of sin and redemption, freely given. His name, of course, was Martin Luther.
Luther's life was full of coincidences, odd bedfellows, and disputations in language that we would find quite inappropriate for a clergyman. The most important coincidence was that in 1440, Johannes Gutenberg had developed the printing press, and was able to begin publishing Bibles by the hundreds just in time for the Reformation. Bibles, once rare, expensive, and rarely complete, were now cheap and available. Although Protestants, as they came to be known, never agreed completely on just what the Bible's message was, just exactly, they did agree that the Bible was the only way to know the unknowable, the message of God to His children.
In the Bible, they found the word of God. They also found good reason to slaughter each other in decades of vicious little—and most not so little--wars between cities, countries, duchies, cantons and dukedoms. Their disputes had names like “The Thirty Years War,” “The Eighty Years War,” “The Schmalkaldic Wars,” and “The English Civil War.” France had so many that historians finally just gave them numbers, “First” through “Eighth.” Great for the later writers of romances, like Alexandre Dumas pere, not so good for the folks who were sliced, diced, burned and deprived of any hope of wresting life from the land.
One odd thing happened on the way to the institutionalization of an otherwise divided and divisive flock. The original, apostolic confession of faith, never changed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, who was
born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, he holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.8
Part 1. Le bon Dieu est dans le détail.9
When you believe rationality is the highest accomplishment of mankind, as you began to do somewhere in the Enlightenment, you find yourself a bit stuck when it comes to explaining certain things: falling in love, hearing voices in your head, electricity, and the awe and warmth of being touched by the Holy Spirit. Falling in love, you're told, is a matter of chemistry; there are medications that will take care of the voices (Effexor, in my case), and electricity—well, your grandson the electrical engineer can't explain it, either, but he can still build a bunch of really slick electrical gadgets.
You can't explain God, either, but somewhere, perhaps in the 42nd chapter of Isaiah, you read something like this:
I, the Lord, have called you
for a good reason.
I will grasp your hand
and guard you,
and give you as a covenant
to the people,
as a light to the nations,
to open blind eyes,
to lead the prisoners from prison,
and those who sit in darkness
from the dungeon.10
And you begin to get it. Because Flaubert was wrong. God isn't in the details.
Theology and doctrine are in the details. Wars are in the details. Like medieval doctors arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of Milady's hatpin, we divide and divide again. We are still good modernists. We comb the Word for the word that will make sense to us regarding Pilgrim's path. When the rational scholars find something new to say about the Word, some of us are enthusiastic listeners, some deny and decry, some rationalize, some withhold judgment, and some just shrug and go back to reading the latest Harry Potter. I'm not the leader of any people or nation—I've never led anything bigger than a small division of Navy sailors or a college classroom (unless a smallish herd of Arabian horses counts)--but I still take that passage from one of the great postmodern books as a guide and inspiration.
Raised an Evangelical (first a “loud” Quaker, then a Free Methodist), I spent several years of my later life worshipping among Episcopalians and (gasp!) Catholics. I found great satisfaction and fulfillment in the liturgical regularity, which was at home equally in the wonderfully airy, sunny sanctuaries of southern California, a small second floor room in an old Navy building on the San Diego waterfront, and the chapel of a VA hospital. Bur I never stopped being the eight-year-old who sat over in the right-hand section of pews in Newberg (Ore.) Friends Church, or the college kid who got up early on Sunday morning to lead singing in the downstairs chapel at First Free Methodist in Seattle. That is to say, I'm still, for better or worse, an Evangelical.
Evangelicals are Christians who have chosen to emphasize the central message of the Gospels: the need to consciously accept Christ's sacrifice and rulership. Of course, that's not all, is it?
But he said to them, “Don't be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn't here...Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there...”11
T oday, do we see Him there? Do we see Him, in the surprisingly Platonic phrase of 1 Corinthians, “through a glass, darkly.”?12 Corinthians suggests that full knowledge is yet to come, but in the meantime, there abides “faith, hope and charity. And the greatest of these is charity.”
Robert Webber listed some fourteen different varieties of Evangelicals (Free Methodists were number 7, between Anabaptist and Holiness) in his classic call to postmodernism.13 All of these folks, including us, have perfectly sensible, rational, defensible reasons for remaining separate. All have faith and hope. Charity, however, is hard, really hard, to come by. After several hundred years of defining, defending and propagating our faith, trying hard to earn our spurs in a rational and scientific world, we have perhaps become incapable of doing anything else. We just have to have, as good modernists, full knowledge. Dark glasses are only for sunny days.
Part 1. Living in multiple spaces.
I awoke suddenly, a knee and an arm braced against against the edge of a Navy bunk. Sailors live in an environment of constant noise, movement, smells—the regular noise of machinery, announcements over the 1MC (think PA system), aircraft slamming into the flight deck and firing off the catapult, the pitch and roll of the ship (even big warships don't just glide through the ocean like a stabilized cruise ship), the odor of lubricants, food, sweaty bodies, backed-up heads (bathrooms), floor polish—and experienced sailors, like the occupants of the Goat Locker (where the Chief Petty Officers sleep and eat), can be woken out of an exhausted sleep by any unusual change in the normal mayhem. This time, as I jerked back the privacy curtain, I saw rows of other heads during the same thing. According to my inner ear, the ship was about forty-five degrees short of vertical. This is not a good thing. If the ship continued to roll I and my bunkmates would find ourselves locked into a sinking coffin somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.
I've slept in a considerable variety of different spaces, from a sleeping bag on a snowy mountainside to a tile floor in a homeless shelter, from a comfortable queen bed next to a lovely woman to a single bed with a purring cat draped over my head, from a steamy Filipino room with rats scurrying over the rafters above to the cool Egyptian cotton sheets in a five-star hotel. Some of them were not very pleasant, like the pipe-and-canvas seats of a C-130, or the misery of a mock POW cage, or that homeless shelter, where the effusions of a few dozen closely packed denizens of the street sometimes left behind not only curious odors, but puddles of urine. One thing they all had common, though. God was always there, in all the spaces.
My house will be known as a house
of prayer for all peoples,
says the Lord God,
who gathers Israel's outcasts.14
There is a lesson in the postmodern. It asks, no demands, like the EMP Project, that we step outside our comfortable, rational schemas of understanding and begin to converse in other terms. It is not easy to do so. We are in sailing into uncharted waters, where answers often come in prayer, rather than logic; in sensibility, rather than certainty; in contemplation, in experience, in innocence, in hope, in open air.
Part 1. Looking up from Bethel.
I don't do heights well. Put me in an aircraft, and I love them, probably because about the time I first remember sitting in church I also remember sitting in the passenger seat of a Piper Cub, soaring delightedly over the Chehalem Valley. I trusted my dad, who strapped me in on his lap, and I trusted Merrill Dade, who taught me what a trim tab was and flew the plane. There is out there somewhere a retired Navy pilot who probably still remembers me as a screwy idiot because I laughed out loud when he started adjusting the trim in a T-34. I had chosen that moment to remember how I learned what a trim tab was—Merrill's parakeet, who liked to sit on the music stand when I practiced piano, was named “Trim Tab,” so I asked him what one was.
Nevertheless, when it comes to standing on the edge of a hayloft or that open-air stairway at Ohio State, my insides turn to jelly. Not to mention that fine day at the Seattle World's Fair when I first rode an elevator to the top of the Space Needle. That elevator puts one directly in front of a full-length glass panel, looking out over the Seattle Center as it rises up, and up, and up. I practically fell out of the elevator when it finally opened onto the observation deck.
Jacob, in his dream, saw a stairway to heaven. Not the A-minor Led Zeppelin anthem, but the real thing. He was terrified.15 Somewhere in the part of my memory that holds oddments of weird stuff there is a scene from a cartoon in which people are rising on an escalator to heaven only to discover themselves stepping into thin air at the top and falling back to earth. Neither Jacob nor I want to be one of those people.
Stepping in the multiple spaces, the multiple possibilities open to postmodern seekers, is just as scary as Jacob's vision at Bethel. Historically, there has been a strain of caution in evangelical thinking, most especially when it approaches those areas I mention above: sensibility, contemplation, experience, innocence and hope. Renewal, the original heart of the evangelical approach, is a starting point, not an ending point. It gives us a new beginning. A foundation is critical—I learned that with a song in Sunday school—but we still have to build and improve the edifice.
Part 1. ….here is where I will look: to the humble and contrite in spirit, who tremble at my word.16
My first lesson in religion, courtesy of the Friends, was that you can't hear the voice of the Spirit when your mouth is flapping.
1Cosby, Bill. “Why Is There Air?”, Recorded at Flamingo Hotel, Las Vegas , August 1965 (Warner Bros.)
4Lewis, C.S. Perelandra (U.K. Pan, 1943)
5Pound, Ezra Make it New (London, 1934)
7Ecclesiastes 1:9 (CEB)
8Book of Common Prayer. (It would be excessive to say all protestants; some few believe it's accurate as a statement of faith, but avoid using it because it's not found in the Bible.)
9Attributed to Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
10vs 6-7 (CEB)
11Mark 16:6-7 (CEB)
13Webber, Robert. Common Roots: The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Faith. (Grand Rapids, MI, 2009,Zondervan)
14Isaiah 56:8 (CEB)
15Genesis 28:17 (CEB)
16Isaiah 66:2 (CEB)