Philosophical thought is an interesting thing. We all participate in it whether or not we use fancy words like “ontological” or “metaphysical.” Each of us has a steadfast view of reality that is part of a larger cultural atmosphere. Let’s begin with a brief overview of the eras of reasoning. This will give context to some pivotal concepts concerning symbolism & spirituality.
The stages of philosophical thought were: premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism. Each progressive era emerged from a natural build of failure, and the need to rectify the major blind spots of the one preceding it. At our current point in history humanity is once again recognising the large-scale failure to be simultaneously logical, just and sustainable.
Metamodernism is the name of this new era. The metamodern ambition is to work towards a higher quality of life for the world as a whole. In order to do this we concern ourselves (for the first time) with retracing our steps. We are now beginning to recognise the validity of each era of philosophical thought in an effort to integrate them. Metamoderns are willing to uphold the best of premodernism, modernism and postmodernism simultaneously.
What does this mean? The need for an integrity audit of societal deeds has arrived once again. The question against the backdrops of modernism & postmodernism is: What is the best achievable outcome for the globe that is inclusive of all races, all genders, all cultures, in all places, right now?
(The above section is a summary of what I gleaned from this article by the political philosopher, Hanzi Freinacht. In this post, I seek to transpose his assertions to a Christian worldview. The ramifications of a concept such as metamodern Christianity skyrocket out of the league of modernity’s notions of church, spirituality & truth, and have everything to do with a renewed value of symbolism.)
What does this change in philosophical thought mean for Christians?
There is a greater demand of integrity from anyone who wants to hold their claim on reality in a way that affects others. Trends in thinking have shifted, and people are asking different questions than they asked when they embraced modernism, and even postmodernism. Christians need to be prepared to answer accordingly – and with a depth that has never before been required of them.
This could be the most exciting moment for Christianity since Pentecost because Christianity is more than capable of rising to this challenge. I believe as we root ourselves in a profound revelation of the Scriptures we will be catapulted in our proclamation of Jesus to this new generation.
The onus is certainly on the Christian to stay nimble, ready to engage this change. However, fear arrises for those who have unwittingly married their Christian identity to their philosophical thought, rendering them resilient to transformation, and unable to engage the world effectively.
But as we see people leaving the “church” in droves, or that Christians are pitted against unbelievers in hateful political arguments, or that Christianity has become nothing more authoritative than, “he said, she said,” in the ears of the world, or that to some Christianity has become so dogmatic as to be odious to those who have experienced it – and that we even have a reputation of arguing amongst ourselves, we must be compelled to do something. What good news if this change turns out to be prompted by God in the first place, and actually takes us deeper in our maturity of knowledge.
Take a look at how Christianity relates to philosophical thought – the big picture surrounding our perplexing situation:
Christianity Married to Philosophical Thought
Christianity is fully involved in the cycle of philosophical eras. Take how we approach theology. The qualifier “systematic” before “theology” is every indication of its thoroughly modern character. Modernism taught Christians to take a specific verse and use it as proof of why we believe something. However, that verse was then interpreted differently by someone else (including a multiplicity of scholars) and they came to a vastly different conclusion. In the end we had two (or twenty-two) different opinions about how to take the same verse and apply it to our lives, or use it to teach authoritatively.
This “proof texting” arose from a love of axiom. Each side felt confident in their ability to argue their point-of-view, and make their version of the truth the most plausible. As a result we had myriads of “truths” being preached by a variety of groups/individuals all bearing the name Christian.
Was this the only approach to the discovery/dissemination of truth? Well all of this arguing effectively opened the door for postmodernism and waved it right in. The innumerable interpretations of Scripture (among Evangelicals alone!) actually lent validity to the concept of relativity. It proved that there were about a million ways to understand the Bible and that it could say whatever anyone wanted it to say. The fracture of the institution of the church over doctrine undermined its claim that it possessed true, pure, undefiled doctrine to begin with.
Postmodernism also unlocked the door leading back to the premodern notion of obtaining knowledge through direct divine encounter. Personal experience and revelation gained authority – if only to the individual, making the truth even more allusive! Now anyone who had a spiritual experience could knit that into their version of Christianity.
Has there ever been a fundamentally correct way to approach truth? I believe the answer is yes, and additionally that there is a way to approach truth that doesn’t depend on a single era of philosophical thought. Stay with me as we branch into metamodern Christianity.
The Perfection of God’s Word
First, think about this, if God’s Word is perfect shouldn’t it be able to transcend every era of humanity’s reasoning (or even incorporate all of them)? It can’t be tied down to one way of thinking, or by nature it would become subject to us. We would dictate the relationship we want to have with God’s Word and we would have the final say on how it can be approached and understood.
But if we believe that these words came from God, and that they are able to be understood across all time – all of human history – even as humanity matured through eras of reasoning, then we know that philosophy will never outgrow it. The Bible will be able to do more than keep up, it will have the capacity to speak powerfully to whatever philosophical era is current.
I appeal to the person who only feels safe within the confines of a modernistic approach to the Bible (proof texts and systematic theology), that God is bigger and His Word is able to handle philosophical changes. We might not like the change or even understand the change, but change is here, and we have the opportunity to contextualise. Which is so important because what we proclaim, we do in service of the hearer. We can’t do that if we don’t take the time to understand where people are coming from, and expect them to understand the gospel from the angle their grandparents heard it (look at Paul’s example in Acts 17 of contextualising the message).
We are being invited to strive for a higher level of maturity in the way we communicate, so that God’s Word is esteemed through our testimony in the very midst of these times. Here’s another verse of exhortation:
“At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” Hebrews 12:26-27
God’s Word is unshakeable, but whatever reasoning man has contrived around its interpretation is subject to shaking.
In summary, if axiom, proof texting, and systematic theology (modernism) are the only form of theology (and the only handle we have on Scripture), the ground will recede and our voice will be lost in the coming generation. This is my opinion, I invite you to consider the implications as well as the solution through this series.
(For the alternate audience: the postmodern thinker, I encourage a deep groundedness in truth. Truth is not arbitrary, it is an anchor. But while postmoderns dislike hierarchy, and thus have a complicated relationship with authority, even here the Bible meets you without being heavy-handed or dogmatic. Come along and see in the next post).
Philosophy & Symbolism
We’ve been building toward how God’s word can be approached in a way that transcends philosophical eras. Let’s pave the way a bit further by explaining how philosophy (man’s highest reasoning) explains symbolism & objective reality:
“And the phenomenological experience of reality is always bound by social constructions. You can’t ever reach the ‘real’ reality by anything but the use of symbols: if you look at a chair, the moment you see it, you interpret it as a chair – which is a symbol, not an ‘objective reality.’
Even an idea in physics, such as the hydrogen atom, is only accessible to you through the use of socially constructed symbols. No matter how many university credits you get in physics, or if you win a Nobel Prize, you still only ever get to understand the world through symbols that others have taught you. And, again, those symbols are not a direct link to objective reality. It’s just that some symbols turn out to be more useful metaphors for describing the patterns of relations between other symbols. That’s it. You’ve been living the illusion that you’re beyond illusions.” -Hanzi Freinacht (full article here).
If you’re a Christian, and more of a modernist than postmodernist, you probably hate that quote. Yes, a chair is objective in the sense that you see a chair and I see a chair. Everyone can use it as a chair, and its not going to dissolve into a heap of dust overnight. However, in another sense, if you break that chair down to its smallest parts, what we see with our eyes does not fully comprehend the nature of the “chair.” We aren’t thinking about the energies that bind that matter together and give us this temporary product and experience of “chair.”
Before you dismiss the conversation by stating that, “‘God holds all things together (Col 1:17),’ and we don’t need to philosophise the concept of a chair because we accept in faith that God sustains its matter and energies,” consider again!
This point about the symbolic nature of reality is compatible with the Bible, and is necessary to the reformation of our awe of God. We haven’t traditionally discussed the Bible from the lens of objective reality & symbolism because it wasn’t necessitated before now, but philosophy is stating a beautiful thing – and I will demonstrate this further in the coming section. And, while man’s highest reasoning is foolishness compared to God’s (1 Cor. 1:25), God has been prepared to meet us here all along.
Modernist Christianity has lost its voice
We are surrounded by a world more and more concerned with accountability – with reason – reason that is founded on both justice & sustainability. This is part of the shift from postmodernism to metamodernism. In postmodernism we had a free-love relationship with relativity. Now, in metamodernism, relativity is still welcome, but, as I said above, there is a greater demand of integrity from anyone who wants to hold their claim on reality in a way that affects others.
The Christianity of modernism does not hold up to that test. For one thing, people are leaving the institution of the church in droves, and that tells us that something has shifted greatly in the weight the religious institution carries.
Love of Tradition & Seeking to Control Truth
The Bible continues to speak powerfully in this strange new world, but we have to adapt. We have to let go of tradition, once again. After all, God has set a major precedent of testing His people in this way. Both the sincerity of our faith and the hardness of our hearts are tested by how we handle our traditions when they are rightfully challenged (Matt. 22:29). This is a good thing! Tradition is bound to build up, cocooning the truth into oblivion. It is the old wineskin (Matt. 9:17), which is tantamount to a living vine that has petrified into wall paper. Tradition petrifies truth because it wants to control it.
You and I are not called to control truth. Truth is a person. We are called to follow Jesus, and with that we need not carry the cultural baggage of philosophical thought or eras of reason. At the same time, we can contextualise our way of communicating to the age in which we live.
After all, that is what God has done for us, and here is the connection I have been building to:
God, Objective Reality & Symbolism
The Truth of Objective Reality is God – Who is so above us that we cannot and do not comprehend Him. This is something modernist Christians espouse, but we need to apply this in a way that goes beyond the comfort zone of modernism.
To illustrate, we can believe in gravity (Col 1:17), experience it, recite the laws of it, but we cannot fully comprehend it. We did not lay the pillars of the earth on their foundations, causing them to spin on the perfection of that axis in its precise relation to the sun and all other galaxies (Psalm 75:3).
We can read that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), but can anyone write the book that will exhaust the ways in which we are?
Here’s my personal favourite: Jesus’ blood cleanses sin. How did Jesus’s physical blood sprinkle the tabernacle in heaven? We believe that it did, but how? Modernist theology has utterly, zero explanation.
What I’m reaching for is humility. If we are humbled by the fact that God is utterly beyond us, should it offend or even surprise us if He chose to primarily communicate with us through symbols?
Does it shift our sense of security to imagine that even our physical bodies, or the composure of the universe could all be symbols pointing to the Objective Reality of God (who He is, His nature, and the nature of what He has created)?
Do we remember that He created with WORDS (Gen. 1:3). Which are symbols themselves. Or that Psalm 19 states that the creation is speaking (symbolising) day and night, pouring forth speech – even just as they were spoken into existence (Psalm 19:1-4).
Too abstract? Here’s the core.
God is spirit (John 4:24).
Think about that for a moment and answer this question: If God is Spirit, then name one thing in the world that can represent Him, or reveal who He is that is not in symbolic form.
I recently heard this from the Christian astrophysicist, Peter Taylor: Anything material, that has come into existence (i.e. had a beginning) had immaterial origins. This is an axiom of science, not philosophy or religion (interview here).
Spirit means immaterial, but we and our world are material. So, how can we know God or understand the purpose of His creation? He spoke, and continues to speak through symbols (not just symbols that are words, but a greater narrative of symbols housed within those very words) and secondarily, through the meta-symbols of what He created.
Does that make what is created somehow less valid? If the sea for example is a symbol of “the nations” (those without faith), does that fact invalidate all other experiences related to oceanic bodies – such as loving to look at them, or surf their waves or sail across them? Of course not. Those experiences retain value. It just means that God also revealed something about Himself when He created a great big ocean in the world. The ability of God to create something beautiful and epic and also spiritually meaningful, does not invalidate its other meanings, it just grounds them in His person and in His purposefulness. It gives us a hint how big He is…how profoundly wise and foreseeing.
There is so much more to unpack. Come back for the next post and we’ll take on the giant – relativity & absolute truth.