Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Limitations of Scientific Reasoning: An Attempt at a Pre-Modern Discipleship

I want to return to the idea that the goal of the worship leader is to direct people to God first and artistry second. I don’t want to overstate this because it is really not that simple or straightforward. But first I need to explain a little bit about the way that I will be approaching topics in this blog. In my previous entry I started to explain my attempt at a pre-modern way of thinking. When I speak about “modernity,” I am primarily referring to the scientific revolution and its influence on the way those of us in developing countries think. While science has brought us amazing developments for our civilization, it is healthy to have a basic suspicion of these advantages.

Science entails a way of thinking that is very new to the human race. While scientific reasoning may have been around for roughly 500 years, its affect on the consciousness of mass society is comparatively in its adolescence. Scientific reasoning provides us a false sense of sophistication that is capable of blinding us to the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Ours is a naïve worship of the newer, the bigger and better and an impatience for anything antiquated. In contrast, a pre-modern consciousness, especially in terms of doing philosophy and theology, is a very different way of thinking from scientific reasoning.

To rediscover a pre-modern discipleship we will need to release our white-knuckled grip on our questions and ideas, relinquish the illusion of control, and accept that we can only talk about the shades of truths especially when trying to tackle such huge ideas as worship and art. How can anyone possibly exhaust either of these ideas?

One way of explaining this is by considering a group of blind men who were examining an elephant. One of them might grab the trunk and think he has discovered a hose. Another might grab a leg and conceive a tree trunk. Neither man is completely wrong and neither is completely right. It is only those of us in the West, those of us modernists, who are more prone to arrogantly presume that we could ever completely see and know and grasp the whole of the elephant. We can only have so much of an objective view about only so much of the universe. Scientists might be able to develop a map of the human genome, but will they ever know why humans exist in the first place? In doing philosophy and theology we enter a kind of knowing that is much more like the blind men rather than the scientist.

If you take the time to read several of my entries here, you will see me starting into a subject in one entry and then backing up and starting into it again in another. I am attempting to scratch a little away here and a little bit more there. I’ll confess that I have tried to develop a book-length writing project, but my trouble is that the whole format of a book feels very modern to me in the way that the author is intended to conceive an overall idea and to tease it out in two or three hundred some pages. This option of the blog, with all its faults, affords me a very different way of writing. Instead of beginning with a strong notion of what I know and what you, the reader, need to learn, I am attempting to open a discourse with you.

Before I finish this entry (I’ll move onto worship and art on another day) I need to explain to those of you who are already familiar with the modernist/post-modern discussion that I don’t claim to be either. My hope in trying to explore a pre-modern way of thinking is to claim as thoroughly a Christian way of thinking as possible. I’ll borrow from the Matrix film to explain this. While the movie on many levels smacks of postmodernism, it is in many ways a modernist narrative clothed in postmodernist garb. It is highly modernist in the way that it proposes a myth of objectivity. Neo, the hero, is able to completely disconnect from the false world of the matrix and stand completely outside of it in order to see its faults and deceptions.

None of us have this luxury. No matter how much we would like to take our own personal experiences and the ideas in which we live and breathe (those that make up our contemporary society) along with our own delusions and slap them on the dissecting table, we cannot do this. Nevertheless, the work of a Christian attempting to live faithfully is to critique the prevailing ideas of society in as best a manner as he or she can.

I accept that I have both modernist and postmodernist notions swimming around inside my head. However, as a dogmatic Christian, I believe that by the power of the Spirit and through the many edifying agencies of the church, I may participate in an ongoing critique of the prevailing ideas of society and that this will, in time, transform me more and more into the likeness of Christ. In this manner every thought will be taken captive and I will then present my body as a living sacrifice so that my mind will not be conformed to the ideas of the world, and that instead I will be able to discern the will of God.

This is the good old language of sanctification that the church has taught from its beginning. Because my faith rests in the teachings of those who have gone before, those in the historical community of faith, I feel free to not have every idea nailed down and every question answered exhaustively because the ultimate work of truth is God’s and not mine. Flannery O’Conner winsomely stated that since she was Catholic she didn’t have to invent the world every time she put pen to paper. Yet, while it is his work, Jesus invites his disciples to participate in the joy of the labor. And this is my joy in writing to you.

This weekend I attended my ten year college reunion and was privileged to sneak into a ceremony honoring the work and career of Beatrice Batson who taught at Wheaton for thirty three years and has since overseen the development of the Shakespeare Special Collection. In her acceptance address she concluded with a poem by T.S. Eliot that gets at what I am trying to suggest here about the limitations of science. I’ll leave you with it.

Opening Stanza from Choruses from "The Rock"

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O perpetual revolution of configured stars,

O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.


OKC Herbivore said...

you would enjoy what George Lindbeck has to say about pre-modern Biblical Interp. and overall ecclesiology. very honest and not trying to "recover the early church" as if we could. but he offers some thoughts similar to yours.

by the way you're awesome.

OKC Herbivore said...

oh and i think you have hit upon the mobius strip of post modern objectivity, or at least one part of it-that appraisal assumes some sort of objectivity, or a stepping back, and while we all do this in a limited way (i am feeling that Rorty would then say that it is something subjectively objective? epistemologically speaking..) it does require a scientific (testing) appraisal. while science is not made invalid by most postmodern theory, it is at least de=pedestaled as world making in itself.

thus i propose that all world-making, weltanschauung building professions be paid as highly as research scientists-like artists and pastors!

i predict that (alongside Lindbeck's cultural-linguistic theory of doctrine) pre-modernism will be the new post-modernism.

after all, aren't all Christians constantly inundated with Hellenistic and historical Jewish literature from Palestine and Asia Minor circa AD 50-100?

Noah said...


"Rather than entering a period of post-modernity, we are moving into one in which the consequences of modernity are becoming more radicalised and universalised than before. Beyond modernity, I shall claim, we can perceive the contours of a new and different order, which is 'post-modern'; but this is quitedistinct from what is at the moment called by many 'post-modernity'." -Anthony Giddens

This coming from the camp that would rename 'post-modernism' as 'hyper-modernism,' based on origin, a position that I find rather compelling. If indeed this is true..

Is it possible (or even beneficial) to be entirely pre-modern? Not to give too much of a nod to anxiety of influence, it seems that returning to a true pre-modern state is either difficult, impossible, or silly. I suppose neo-pre-modernism (which it seems that you are advocating) would be a different bag: a rejection of the ubiquitous authority of the scientific method is definitely needed. I too think that a neo-pre-modern (post-modern?) awareness is definitely needed in much of modern evangelicalism (west michigan anyone?).

Another tidbit that I find very helpful on this topic: "The shift away from the 'why' and the 'what' to the 'how' implies that the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things ore eternal motions but must be processes, and that the object of science therefore is no longer nature or the universe but the history, the story of coming into being, of nature of life or the universe." - Hannah Arendt