D e c e m b e r   2 0 0 4

Guest Writer

'A New Kind of Christian'
Throwing the book at religion
by Joan-Carrol Banks

very important shift in the cultural paradigm has been accompanied by a vigorous and sometimes violent defense of the old one.

The picture that Brian McLaren gives of today's religious institutions in "A New Kind of Christian" is that of, say, a constitution staggering under way too many amendments to the point where it might be time to scrap the whole thing and start over.

The political activism of fundamentalism, suggests McLaren, is a reactionary self-defense, much like the way Catholicism came down hard on the Galileos and the Martin Luthers of the world in the 1500s – a similar transition point that ushered in the modern era. It ignores postmodern changes that are blurring boundaries between countries and cultures. Because we are now face to face with an unknown era about to give birth, most folks, no matter what side they are on, are terrified.

Intense polarization is the natural by-product. McLaren is a holistic voice calling for a higher position to take in the culture wars, ultimately saying "It's none of your business who does and does not go to hell."

When it comes to fundamentalist attempts to legislate things like the dispersal of contraceptives, pornography, advances in genetic research and abortion choices, among other things, it might be helpful to view them as completely in sync with the ideals of a fading modernist worldview that has been in development since the Age of Reason – that things must be conquered and controlled, put into neat, easily identified little boxes and brought under submission.

We've tried to do it to nature, to other countries, to religion itself, and now – true to its modernist roots – fundamentalism is encroaching on the individual in a way that is bound to ensure its own collapse

Religion in the Middle Ages had a poetic but finite view of "concentric spheres of hierarchy" with absolute ups and downs and standards of comparison, leading to an overall "dance" that produced "harmonics in the heavens." When forced to bend to the dictates of hard scientific data, we traded things in for a vastly more bewildering – and vastly less personal – worldview that encompassed Pascal's terrifying "eternal silence of infinite spaces," leaving us spiritually overwhelmed and rejecting the "natural" authority of kings and popes.

Protestant Reformation was the revolutionary response to the new questions left unanswered by the religious structures of the day. In order to compete with secular scientific discoveries, premodern religion adapted and fell into step, eventually institutionalizing itself and arranging itself into neat new categories, and became more rigidly controlled in the face of a vast, trackless horizon.

Today, the prevailing modernist mission seems to be to categorize and label individuals so that the meaning of their passions and political causes can be easily grasped and consequently easily dismissed or embraced (Catholics, evangelicals, fundamentalists, backsliders, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, homophobes, values-oriented, charismatics, atheists, agnostics).

But the Protestant protest is more reactionary than revolutionary now. Modernism has evolved to provide a kind of shorthand for actual meditative thought, a shortsighted device so essential in a world that assaults us with unceasing demands on our attention, resources and time.

Conservative modernist religious institutions are as much a product of the tumultuous changes that the world has undergone as anything else that came after 1500 – hey, after all, it was a big century! Modern religion, which believers and non-believers alike can often tend to view as stable and unchanging, certainly didn’t develop in a vacuum, untouched by the Renaissance, mechanization, industrialization and market capitalism.

This "modern" paradigm, in the making for 500 years, is now shifting, according to McLaren. Cataclysmic changes have transformed this latest century – changes in travel, technology, communications, access to knowledge and its storage. The discoveries of quantum mechanics (beautifully set forth in the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know?") have profoundly challenged even our very perception of reality, of the "supernatural" and our meaning within it.

And, just like when Galileo challenged the medieval worldview, the old order reacted in self-defense with charges of heresy, but eventually capitulated and reformed. That adolescent challenge has now grown up and become the ruling parent.

Religious thought, says McLaren, adapted to a modernist worldview to the point where a medieval Christian would never even recognize a modern Protestant Christian as being a Christian at all – one who believes a round earth circles the sun, doesn't recognize that kings have a natural right to rule, doesn't believe in the pope, etc. Behind the curve with the rest of the postmodern world, the "old" modernist version of religion is having a natural self-defensive reaction to new postmodernist paradigms – hence, all the attempts to legislate religion (the ultimate modernist expression of a movement, perfectly at home with concepts of colonialism, conquest, corporatism and control).

Like "old" modern science that insisted on a strictly Newtonian universe wherein two subatomic particles could never exist in two different spaces at the same time, the fundamentalist political movement is a defensive Big Bang reaction to change in the modernist paradigm. They are stuck in a view that everything is doctrinally quantifiable, that the difference between what's good and evil is inarguable, and colors of black and white don't come in subtle designer shades of paint chips. In its day, it did a lot of good as a reformation movement, but now that same fruit is beginning to rot into judgement and legalism, rather than fermenting into a new wine that needs new wineskins.

Looking on the bright side, this kind of draconian reaction in the Bush era will pass and those behind it must eventually come to recognize that sin in the world is a natural product of God-given free will. Sin, therefore, is not something that can be completely legislated and controlled without coming into league with God’s arch enemy, the devil himself – who, unlike God, always seeks to coerce and control humans against their will. Just as the medieval worldview had to adjust when evidence that the world was round became insurmountable, so must fundamentalism come to see that the modernist urges to control and colonize do not speak to the spiritual needs that come with the chaos of radical change.

The acquisition of a new paradigm isn't always pretty peaches, of course. The ugly flipside of this struggle can be seen in other areas of postmodernist relativism – for instance, government is actually claiming that torture is sometimes justified under certain circumstances (!), that it's okay to invade another country regardless of their culpability if we've suffered a traumatic event, and there are "sound economic reasons" for stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

However, whether we like it or not, this sort of softening of "real" moral values also goes hand in hand with a decades-old trend that says personal self-fulfillment is more important than making sacrifices to nurture a pregnancy, or making a determined marital commitment to another, for instance. It's important to see how these issues are all part of a larger pattern of self-interest taking precedence over the good of "the other guy" – whether it's a fetus or an Iraqi prisoner – going beyond partisanism into ethical questions of national and personal character.

We cannot, for our own survival, dispense with a "moral" universe altogether. But we might find that the concepts that Christ actually represents – loving one's enemies, self-sacrifice for the greater good, maintaining good relationships, taking care of others less fortunate, keeping peace, doing good works, sharing all you have, and the admission of helplessness and need for supernatural authority in the face of a confusing chaotic world of change – are more revolutionary than ever. In an increasingly corporate-controlled world of greed and exploitation, humanity is crying out for it.

We are in a unique era of transition and, as everyone knows, transitions suck.

I am halfway into McLaren's book and finding it absolutely fascinating and brave as he writes from the perspective of one entrenched and depressed by his own immersion in the old modernist paradigm – a burned-out pastor on the brink of considering a job change. That is, until he meets an extraordinary individual who takes him into a way of approaching the new paradigm shift that is not repressive and reactionary. It's a seminal work that is sure to attract cries of "Heresy!" And it's helping me view all this Republican religious nonsense with a lot more equanimity.

He quotes a strangely prophetic C.S. Lewis from "The Discarded Image":

"It is not impossible that our own Model will die a violent death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts – unprovoked as the nova of 1572. But I think it is more likely to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should. The New Model will not be set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great. It will be true evidence. But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her. Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good cross-examiner can do wonders. He will not indeed elicit falsehoods from an honest witness. But, in relation to the total truth in the witness's mind, the structure of the examination is like a stencil. It determines how much of that total truth will appear and what pattern it will suggest."

Writes McLaren: "What Lewis imagined to be 'not impossible' some generations away – the death of the modern model or worldview – turns out to be happening just a single generation after he wrote."

Anyway, it's a self-effacing, almost chatty read that takes some very heady historical/philosophical concepts and makes them utterly, refreshingly simple. I consider it essential for anybody who is trying to understand the current reactionary religious-political atmosphere.

Find more from Joan-Carrol in our archives.

site design / management / host: ae
© 2001-2005 nwdrizzle.com / all rights reserved.