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a foot in each world

As I mentioned a week or so ago, I’m increasingly convinced that as evangelicals we tend to live with a foot in each of two worlds: a premodern world and a modern world. I think this is true to varying degrees for all Christians nowadays, but the different traditions within Christianity tend to live more in one world than the other to different degrees.

When I hear Roman Catholics and Reformed types discussing their doctrinal differences, this difference seems fairly stark: the Catholic will take a premodern tack, talking about the authority of the Pope to interpret Scripture. The Reformed type talks in more modern terms; he places the authority in Scripture itself, but interprets Scripture using modern tools: claims to propositional logic, extra-biblical historical information, especially regarding translating ancient languages, etc. As a result they go round and round, rarely finding enough common ground to sort out which of them is right or wrong.

As Evangelicals we tend to believe in varying degrees in the importance of seeing the world in a kind of “God context,” one in which God is immanent/transcendent, to the point that it makes sense to pray for healing, or for a parking space, or whatever, which I think I would have to argue is a fairly premodern mindset. On the other hand, we buy insurance, vaccinate ourselves and/or our children, and talk about social programs and risk management as if they made sense; I think I’d have to argue this is a very modern (even late-modern) mindset.

And we tend to see ourselves by turns as individuals (modern), but also as part of a collective identity (premodern). We even see ourselves constituted under some sort of hero or other federal head (very premodern). When I hear home-schooling advocates and other people with strong notions of family (and especially of the inviolability of the authority of the father in the nuclear or extended family) say things like “the fundamental unit of society is the family, not the individual” I think I’m hearing someone denying a modern claim and purposely moving in a premodern direction.

I occasionally hear people profess a modern article of faith with great firmness and confidence; I’d put claims that homosexuality will inevitably and irreversibly be accepted by society as normal, or that there are no problems that science will not eventually solve, or that democracy or free-market capitalism is superior to any alternative, I think I’m hearing a modern article of faith. Or put another way, faith in modernity itself, or in the inexorable progress of modernity. Postmodernism was supposed to have done away with a lot of this, but it hasn’t; not yet, anyway.

The corresponding premodern claims are better-known and easier to identify; when somebody claims that “the Bible is the Word of God,” they’re making a fairly clear premodern claim. Ditto “the Bible has all the answers,” or whatever.

I don’t think I would claim that either point of view is necessarily right or wrong; I think I’d argue that it’s hard to tell. The ongoing debate about vaccination seems to be a good case in point: for most people a given vaccine is safe; for most vaccines there’s good evidence to believe they benefit society by making it safer and by extending mean life expectancy. But these modern assurances don’t answer the sensible premodern question about whether a given vaccine will be good for “me,” whoever that is.

I don’t have a conclusion here today; today’s more about definitions, and I’ll probably have to work through some examples before reaching any helpful conclusions. Stay tuned.

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  1. October 1, 2010 at 9:56 am

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