In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Jared Byas concludes his four-part series exploring the shortcomings of evangelicalism’s ties to the modern mindset and how leaving the modern mindset behind can help us live out a more authentic faith. Join Jared as he explores the following questions:
- Why is it so important that we understand our current context and the impact it has on our reading of the Bible?
- How did fundamentalist evangelicalism get stuck defending modernity instead of finding better ways to be faithful to Jesus?
- Why is inerrancy so important to those who hold to the modern mindset?
- How does confusion between modernity and Christianity fuel the apologetics industry?
- What did Nietzsche mean when he said, “God is dead?”
- What did Derrida mean when he said, “There is nothing outside the text?”
- What did Kierkegaard mean when he said, “Truth is subjectivity?”
- If Christianity isn’t just about absolute truth and believing the right things, what is it about?
- For Christians who are tied to the modern mindset, why is being a relativist such a big deal?
- What might it look like to be a Christian outside of the modern mindset?
- How can moving away from the modern mindset allow us to better live out our faith?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jared Byas you can share.
- “Inerrancy is a product of modern mindset, not some absolute truth about the Bible that we find in the Bible.” @jbyas
- “Modernity and Christianity became so intertwined that we could no longer tell them apart. I would argue that the entire thrust of the apologetics industry is based on this confusion.” @jbyas
- “A life of following Jesus doesn’t need defending, it just needs to be lived.” @jbyas
- “Fundamentalist evangelicalism has gotten stuck defending modernity, instead of finding better ways to be faithful to Jesus in our current context.” @jbyas
- “Defending the central beliefs of Christianity has become so incredibly important, precisely because we have privileged believing certain things. But what if believing certain things isn’t what Christianity is about?” @jbyas
- “Faith is a process, not a result.” @jbyas
- “No matter how many facts we amass, we don’t escape our responsibility to live out those facts. And faith is in the living it out, not in the stockpiling of what we believe.” @jbyas
- “There are so many ways that Christian faith can be expressed. We all have to go on our own journey. Your faith has to be activated by your own path. It can’t be borrowed, just lived out.” @jbyas
- “Risk isn’t something to eradicate, but that risk is what makes love worthwhile. It’s what makes a faith a relationship.” @jbyas
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE
You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
And I’m Jared Byas.
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Welcome, everyone, to today’s episode: Part 4 of “Making of a Modern Mindset.” But first, three quick announcements.
The first one is I wrote a book. It’s called Jonah for Normal People. I did a few episodes on the podcast a couple of seasons ago about Jonah. But let me just share for a minute why this book matters to me. Jonah was particularly meaningful to me during my faith transition when I was a pastor. I must’ve preached six sermons on the book of Jonah during that time and I just kept going back to it and back to it because I related so much to the story of Jonah.
So, of course, in the book I want to present you with the scholarship as we do at The Bible for Normal People, but also, wanted to talk about how this book has helped me in my faith. So, hopefully, it helps you as well. You can pick up a copy on Amazon or just go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/jonah to learn more.
Second…we are moving to our summer schedule. Every year, somebody says, “Where’s your episode?” They kind of freak out because they go Monday morning during the summer and they realize a new episode has not dropped. That’s because we move to every other week in the summer so that you don’t get tired of hearing from us, you know? We like to, we like to keep some mystery in the relationship here. So, we’re moving to our summer schedule.
But have no fear! Because…
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, we have summer school. Summer school is coming. Now, your younger self might’ve been bummed out to hear that, but hang on. Because we have three amazing classes over the summer, we have one class each month, and of course, they’re always pay what you can.
So, the first one of these is coming up in just a couple of weeks. On Thursday, June 23, so mark that in your calendar. Thursday, June 23, Jennifer Garcia Bashaw is teaching a class called “Virgins, Witches, and Hot Wives: The Treatment of Women from Jesus to Evangelicalism.” How can you not love that? So, this is about what did Jesus teach about women and how does that square with how the church has historically treated women?
The other classes, if you wanted to put those on your calendar, would be July 21, where Pete is teaching on the “The Error of Inerrancy,” and August 10, Miguel De La Torre is teaching on Reading the Bible from the Margins.
So sign up or learn more at thebiblefornormalpeople.com/summerschool. But again, the first one of these, June 23, Jennifer Garcia Bashaw. I just have to say that title again, “Virgins, Witches, and Hot Wives: The Treatment of Women from Jesus to Evangelicalism.” So good.
Sign up, thebiblefornormalpeople.com/summerschool.
Now onto the episode.
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So much of that fundamentalist Evangelical framework is decidedly not how it’s always been, and is decidedly not even how the majority of Christians in the world right now would practice their faith. Defending the central beliefs of Christianity has become so incredibly important, precisely because we have privileged believing certain things. But what if believing certain things isn’t what Christianity is about?
Welcome, everyone, to this episode. Today I am bringing part four of the series I’ve been doing called “The Making of the Modern Mindset.” And these don’t necessarily hang together. So, if you haven’t listened to the first three, have no fear. I think you’ll follow along just fine. But if you want to go back, go for it.
Now, one purpose of this series is to recognize how important it is to our faith, that we understand our current context as much as we understand the context of the Bible because our context inevitably impacts how we read our Bible. And for a lot of us, our context was shaped by what we’ve been calling the modern mindset. Before the modern mindset, we had the Middle Ages where knowledge, authority, identity, and ethics came to us mediated through two bureaucratic systems, the church and the state, both divinely ordained as the authority over the known world to translate God’s will to the people. But then, Western culture shifted away from the church as the authority and replaced it with reason, through thinkers that we’ve talked about, like Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, John Locke. In part three, then, we talked about how parts of the church have bought into this modern mindset in some important ways, while also condemning it in other ways. The three ways we talked about where fundamentalist evangelicalism has bought into this modern mindset in unhelpful ways were: searching for certainty in what we know, prioritizing facts over meaning, believing in a static and mechanical world.
So, when we say the modern mindset, we have to remember that we’re not critiquing the use of logic and reason, I’m actually grateful to church eventually did commit to reason as a primary tool.
What I’m really pushing back on is three things. When the church buys into the uncompromising goal, to find the foundation for certainty in what we know, to when that perspective is baptized as the universal truth for all time. And then thirdly, I push back when Christians rail against compromising with culture, and yet don’t see that some of the things they hold as central to the Gospel might actually just be central to the modern project, and might not have much to do with the Gospel at all. We ended our time in the last episode talking about how the idea of an inerrant Bible is the result of fundamentalist evangelicalism buying into this modern mindset.
So then, it’s not that fundamentalist evangelicalism rejects the modern mindset. It’s that they claim an inerrant Bible is the only true foundation for that modern mindset. In some ways, it’s an inerrant Bible that’s the last hope for the modern mindset. True science can only be reasonable if it’s grounded in the certain fact of an infallible God who has spoken infallible words to us in an infallible Bible. And science is a wonderfully helpful endeavor, insofar as it’s built on that infallible foundation, but it becomes a deceived and deceitful stumbling block insofar as it contradicts that infallible foundation.
Okay, let’s back up for a second, because I want to come clean about something that we talked about there the purpose of this series, but I have an ulterior motive in this series. Behind the scenes, my motivation for doing this series was because of the amount of people who have come to me, come to Pete, to tell us that their faith is shifting, or to use the popular phrase deconstructing, and they are truly afraid that it means they can’t be Christians anymore. They were told certain things were central to being Christian, that frankly, just aren’t. And I grew up in the same way and went through the same process. As a fundamentalist evangelical, I grew up being told that true and historic Christianity had to look a particular way. If you don’t have an inerrant Bible, you aren’t a true Christian. If you don’t have a Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory, you aren’t a true Christian. If you don’t have a universally objective moral framework, you aren’t a true Christian. If you don’t have a particular view of sexuality, you weren’t a true Christian. And depending on what denomination or tradition you grew up in, that list is longer or shorter. And these fundamentalist evangelical leaders tried to tell me that it’s always been that way.
Of course, if you need your faith to be the absolute truth and be built on timeless principles, you would have to say that it’s always been that way. But telling someone that your particular way of being a Christian is the only way that anyone has ever been a true Christian can make a person feel really alone, like they’re out on an island when those things begin to shift. So, a big part of what we do at the Bible for Normal People, indirectly, is to help people see that so much of that fundamentalist evangelical framework is decidedly not how it’s always been, and is decidedly not even how the majority of Christians in the world right now would practice their faith. And so, one purpose for this series in particular, then, is to is to relativize the central tenets of fundamentalist evangelicals and to show that inerrancy, for example, is a product of modern mindset, not some absolute truth about the Bible that we find in the Bible.
Now, fortunately, over the last 150 years or so, we have had some incredible thinkers who started to point out the limitations of this modern mindset. Personally, when I started reading these thinkers is when I recognize that my context, this modern mindset, wasn’t universally true or the only way people saw the world. I discovered it was a social construct that helped us in some important ways, but also harmed us in some important ways. And if you want an up to date resource from a much broader sociological perspective on how the 21st-century Western mindset is a particular context, and not the absolute truth of things, I would recommend Harvard Professor Joseph Henrich’s book, The Weirdest People in the World. It’s a sociological, so it’s not going to be about Christianity or the Bible or religion or anything like that. But it is a broader scholarly perspective on making sure that we don’t assume that our perspective is how it’s always been, or how it should be, or anything like that. It puts us in its proper context.
Now, back to these thinkers over the last 150 years. Importantly, they helped me to see how Western Christianity had bought into this modern mindset. So much so that when scientists, philosophers and scholars started questioning the modern mindset, Christians felt very strongly that their faith was being questioned. Modernity and Christianity had become so intertwined that we could no longer tell them apart. I would argue that the entire thrust of apologetics, and the engine of the apologetics industry is based on this confusion.
Most everyone I know who defends Christianity is defending a modernist soaked Christianity, they are most worried about defending the foundation of their certainty. That is, they’re usually defending an inerrant Bible more than anything. As far as I know, a life of following Jesus doesn’t need defending, it just needs to be lived.
So that brings us to today’s installment of “The Making of the Modern Mindset” where I want to bring in three of these brilliant thinkers and introduce you to a couple of their ideas that help show the Western world that the modern mindset had some serious problems. And at least in the case of two of them, also pointed out how the church had gotten it wrong by throwing her lot in with the modern mindset. But instead of just talking about them, in general, I want to organize this episode around three famous quotes. And I want to unpack those three quotes and show why they represent where scholarship has gone over the past 150 years, and how we can leave behind the modern mindset and still be Christian. And to oversimplify again, from part three, we’re going to reduce the modern mindset to these three things, which, I know, shame on me. But that’s what we’re going to do because it makes it neat and clean and it’s helpful and it’s not untrue.
The three things are: we know things objectively and with certainty, we live in a static and mechanical world with principles that never change, and we will live in peace when we discover the facts. These are the three parts of the modern mindset that we’re going to be talking about. We could have picked any number of quotes from thinkers, some of them might have even been better. But I chose these three for two reasons. One, they’re relatively famous. So, you’ve probably heard them at some point. But also, two, these three quotes were picked on all the time in my tradition growing up as examples of how un-Christian we’d become as a culture, so they were sort of the model quotes for how un-Christian we are. Or to flip that on its head in my perspective, the three quotes we’re going to talk about today help explain how fundamentalist evangelicalism has gotten stuck defending modernity, instead of finding better ways to be faithful to Jesus in our current context. So, let’s get started.
“God is dead.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
From the book, The Gay Science, 1882.
Growing up in the early 90s, in Texas, you could go to a local Christian bookstore and find all kinds of clever ways to show off your Christianity. We had orange t-shirts with the Reese’s logo, but instead of a Reese’s, it said Jesus. As if Abercrombie & Fitch shirts weren’t bad enough, at the Christian bookstore, you could get “a bread crumb and fish” shirts that looked like Abercrombie shirts, and you could wear them with your WWJD bracelets. And if your Christian bookstore was worth its salt, sitting right next to the plastic fish icon to put on the back of your car, there would have been dozens of bumper stickers, the moving billboards of evangelism. And if you were to rifle through them, you would probably find one particular bumper sticker. It was a quote from God that said, “Nietzsche is dead.” It was a Christian gotcha joke. You see, in 1882, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had said, “God is dead.” And now Nietzsche is dead, and God is still alive. And God is saying, Nietzsche is dead. You get it? Gotcha.
Now, fast forward 10 years, and I’m studying Nietzsche in a philosophy class at of all places, Liberty University. Let’s just say the philosophy department was a little suspect at Liberty. And I love that because I’m an Enneagram 8. And it was in that class that I learned what Nietzsche really meant over 100 years ago when he said that God was dead. And it isn’t what you think. But before we talk about what he meant, I want you to hear this quote in its larger context, because it really is a beautiful passage. I used to make my students close their eyes as I read it to them. But if you’re driving, please, don’t do that.
“A madman. Have you not heard of that mad men who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace and cried incessantly, ‘I see God, I see God!’ As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, you provoked much laughter. ‘Has he got lost?’ asked one. ‘Did he lose his way like a child?’ asked another. ‘Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage, emigrated?’ Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Wither is God?’ he cried. ‘I will tell you. We have killed him, you and I, all of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How did we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Are we not plunging continually? Backwards, sideward, forward in all directions?
Is there still any up or down? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is the night continually closing in on us? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the grave diggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the Divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead, God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ Here the Mad Men fell silent, and looked again at his listeners. And they too were silent, and stared at him in astonishment. Alas, he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I have come too early,’ he said to them. ‘My time is not yet, this tremendous event is still on its way still wondering, and it has not yet reached the ears of men. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars. And yet, they have done it themselves.’”
As you listen to this passage, does it sound to you like Nietzsche is gloating? Is he excited? Is he proud about the death of God? Absolutely not. Now, sidenote, Nietzsche might be the OG of deconstruction. All these people who think deconstruction is this exciting moment full of hubris and illicit sex acts haven’t clearly never experienced it. I think Nietzsche, actually, in this passage sets the tone. Well, it’s somber, but most importantly, he’s not literally talking about the death of the Christian God. Nietzsche’s main point is lost on fundamentalist evangelicals, maybe because they’re so used to trying hard to take things literally. But Nietzsche is talking about the God of the modern project, the thing that gives us absolute certainty in our knowledge and in our morality, the God who makes sure all of humanity comes to the same conclusions about the most important issues facing our day. The god of modernity, that God is dead, with the world becoming more scientifically literate in Nietzche’s day, with reason and logic becoming more primary, with the development of critical thinking skills, with global travel where we interact with people who think and act so differently than us—these have all made that God untenable. What we have on Earth in archaeology, what we’ve discovered about evolution, physics, how language works, and even just what we’ve experienced in different human cultures have all made this, it’s easy to grasp the absolute truth about reality worldview simply unworkable.
In this parable, Nietzsche is the madman, the messenger of doom, who is telling us that we will have to find a new way to feel grounded in this world, without depending on a perfect other world, represented by this deity or God. Remember, the modern mindset believes in a world with these three important truths: we know things objectively and with certainty, we live in a static and mechanical world with principles that never change, and we will live in peace when we discover all the facts about that static and mechanical world. Nietzsche is saying that world described by those three things doesn’t work and doesn’t exist. Those supposed truths have turned out not to be true. But as you can tell by the end of the passage, he realizes he’s a prophet, he’s ahead of his time, people aren’t going to feel the effects of how we have undermined the modern project for quite some time. It turns out, it would be a couple of 100 years. I think, just now, I would argue, is the culture in the West coming to terms with the implications of what Nietzsche says here. And the way that fundamentalist evangelicalism has come to terms with it is to double down on it, to ridicule Nietzsche, and declare the inerrant Bible as the solution that Nietzsche was maybe too evil to accept.
But for a growing number of Christians in the West, we see the cracks in the modern mindset, we see that the Bible can’t support the weight that’s placed on it. It isn’t able to give us objective and certain knowledge about the world because the idea of inerrancy breaks down when we actually read the Bible for what it is. We’ve had life experiences that show us that maybe we can’t know things with certainty. Maybe Nietzsche was onto something. But because certain Christian traditions have become married to the God of modernity, when Nietzsche says that the God of certainty is dead, when Nietzsche declares that the foundationalist God is no longer tenable in the modern world, they get defensive and attack Nietzsche and anyone else who dares to question the unquestionable.
But there are ways to be Christian outside of the modern mindset, but don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Nietzsche is no friend of Christianity, for sure. So, we can’t look to him to find out how to be Christian outside of the modern mindset, but we can thank him for his contributions of pointing out how married Christianity had become to it.
We’ll talk at the end of this episode about some of the ways at least, that I found to be Christian, outside of this modern mindset, not to say that I’m completely outside of it. But if you want to dig further into understanding how Christianity in the West can be built on something other than foundationalism, which we talked about in the last part, if you want to dip your toes into some basic philosophy, try not to pick too many resources that would be over people’s heads. I would recommend a book that came out in 2001 from Stanley Grenz and John Franke called Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, they will walk you through a little bit more in depth how conservative Christianity in the West bought into this modern way of thinking about knowledge and ways forward that don’t depend on it. But it’s not a practical book. It’s about thinking about knowledge and getting a little bit more into the weeds of this. So, there’s your disclaimer. But for now, for this tour we’re taking through these three quotes, we need to move on to our next exhibit.
“There is nothing outside the text.”
From the book Of Grammatology, 1976.
Perhaps less famous than Nietzsche, but probably just as influential is the philosopher Jacques Derrida. You may not have heard of Derrida, but you have probably heard of one of his most famous concepts—deconstruction. Yes, Derrida is the father of deconstruction, he invents it. So, what does he mean when he says there is nothing outside the text? Some have accused him of meaning that we get to make texts mean whatever we want them to mean since all we have is the text after all, we can interpret it any way we want, reality be damned. But if you have actually read any Derrida, you would know that he reads texts extremely closely. It’s actually in his respect for these different texts, that he’s able to find problems where others haven’t, he actually tells us what it means in a later book, that there is nothing outside the text when he says this. He says, “’There is nothing outside the text’ means nothing else but this, there is nothing outside context.” That’s what he means. What deconstruction is about. And what this phrase is about, actually, is humility.
This entire Making of the Modern Mindset series is me practicing this idea that there’s nothing outside the text. What do I mean? Let’s dig into this a little bit more.
When all these middle-aged white European men were developing their philosophies, you know, the philosophies we talked about in the last part, they believed we live in a static and mechanical world with principles that never change. What Derrida and others have pointed out is that those principles are only principles because of the time and place that those men lived in. It turns out, we don’t live in a static world with principles that never change. We live in an evolving world in a sea of different contexts and different perspectives. And here’s the real kicker. Humans can never swim to shore. We are always swimming in our own contexts. When I read the Bible, I can’t read it in some universally valid way. If I can only ever read it as a 21st-century American, I can only ever read it as a man. That’s my context. And as Derrida says, “There is nothing outside context.” For most of us, this might seem like an obvious reality at this point, but that just shows how postmodern we’ve become if you want to put it that way.
For most of us, it seems self-evident that we can’t transcend our own context. In love matters more, I make the same point using a well-known parable, I say, there’s this ancient story about three blind men on a journey together, and each happens upon an object at almost the same time. One of the blind men bumps up against something that feels broad and round like a tree trunk. And so, he announces to the rest that it’s a tree trunk. The second blind man takes another step and is smacked in the face with something skinny, that has a small tuft at the end, he declares that it’s not a tree trunk, it’s a rope. And the third blind man wanting to settle things once for all, puts his hand out and feel something very hard and broad and tall and flat, he decides it’s a wall. The point of the story is that we’re supposed to be humble about what we know. We’re all a little blind, after all, we may all be experiencing the same thing from a different perspective. But I have a nit to pick with the story as I imagined Derrida would. The punchline of the whole parable assumes that the person telling the story, and we, the people who are hearing the parable, know that it’s an elephant. The whole point is to put ourselves in the position of one of the blind men. And yet at the end, the thrust of the point hinges on us nodding and saying, “Oh, I see the point. That was his leg. That was his tail, the third man found his body. Those guys were limited, but we can see the whole thing.” But what if we are the blind men? We wouldn’t ever know it’s an elephant, because we would only ever be able to experience one part of the whole.
So, what if in real life, none of us knows it’s an elephant. This is one of the points Derrida and his famous contemporary Michel Foucault is trying to make.
But this observation is upsetting to people whose Christianity is tied to giving us universally valid principles. Their version of Christianity is built on selling people the ability to see that it’s an elephant. What good is Christianity if it doesn’t give us that certainty? That’s what they’ll ask. Derrida’s point is that our context and therefore our texts, including the Bible, is never as stable as we think it is. If we look closely enough, if we’re patient enough, we will always find the holes, we’ll find the marks of our context. And that’s not the Bible’s fault. That’s not anyone’s fault. That’s just being human. And it’s only a problem when we ignore the holes and then coerce people into believing that there are no holes. I want to have you listen to one quote from Jack Caputo, who’s one of Derrida students and what he says about deconstruction.
“Deconstruction is not a determinant position. A definite what or worldview at the manifesto or a platform or a set of positions theistic or atheistic, but a how, a way of holding a position of being underway or being on a path. Deconstruction is rather more of a ghost, adding a specter to the spirit whose lead we are trying to follow. It provides an unsettling reminder about how to hold any given position about how not to hold any given position, about how not holding it in too settled away with too much complacency and self-assuredness and about allowing ourselves to be held.
So did you hear the humility there? Deconstruction provides an unsettling reminder about how to hold any given position about, how not to hold any given position, about not holding your position in too settled a way with too much complacency or too much self-assuredness. Just as Nietzsche’s pronouncement that God is dead critiques the modern idea that we can know things with certainty, or to use the Christian phrase, have access to absolute truth. This statement from Derrida critiques the idea that we live in a static and mechanical world with principles that never change. Again, I’ll mention a few practical things about what this looks like for me to be a Christian outside of this context at the end, but if you want to see how the technical concept of deconstruction plays out in a very practical Christian context, I recommend you pick up a copy of John Caputo’s book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Unfortunately, though, we need to move on to our third quote that gets lobbed from Christians who have married the modern mindset to their Christianity.
“Truth is subjectivity.”
From the book Concluding Unscientific Postscripts, 1846.
If you have listened to the podcast for a while, then you know how influential Soren Kierkegaard has been to my thinking over the years. The heat that this quote has gotten over the years is telling because Kierkegaard was, by most accounts, pretty conservative in his Christian faith. Something that neither Nietzsche nor Derrida would really ever be accused of. Fundamentalist evangelical leaders over the years have accused Kierkegaard of saying that truth is subjective, as though Kierkegaard was a relativist. Remember the quote is, “Truth is subjectivity.” So, let’s back up for a minute because you have to understand what a big deal being a relativist is to Christians who are tied to the modern mindset.
It was about the worst thing you could be when I was in high school. And the boogeyman of my upbringing, were these supposed relativists who were going to go around to college campuses trying to convince impressionable youths that anything goes and that, “truth is relative, man.” Presumably, so that we would become immoral heathens who smoked pot or would engage in immoral sexual behavior, like spending time alone with a woman you’re not married to, that kind of thing. So, Kierkegaard was seen as the father of these boogeyman, because he said, “Truth is subjectivity.” But that’s not at all what Kierkegaard meant by it. He was critiquing the third phrase we’ve been using in this episode for the modern mindset that we will live in peace when we discover all the facts. One of the main facets of the modern mindset was the belief that learning facts about the world was the pathway to utopia. If people just understood how the world worked, we would all live in peace. Of course, people started to see the cracks in this line of thinking early on. But for philosophers, WW1 and then WW2 were truly devastating because it was all on display. As much as we had learned and developed medically and technologically and even philosophically, it didn’t lead to utopia. It led to weapons of mass destruction that we used against innocent humans that led to wars on a global scale.
So much for the enlightenment that the Age of Enlightenment promised. But even in the 1800s, we had this Danish Christian, Soren Kierkegaard, warning us that truth is subjectivity. So, what did he mean? But let’s listen to a little more of the context for this short, pithy phrase that truth is subjectivity.
“Here is such a definition of truth and objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness is the truth. The highest truth there is for an existing person. Objectively, he then has only uncertainty, but this is precisely what intensifies the infinite passion of inwardness. The truth is precisely the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty, with the passion of the infinite, with the definition of truth stated above, as a paraphrasing of faith. Without risk, no faith.”
Here is what he is saying: Christians have gotten into our heads. That’s part of the modern project speaking, we’ve gotten into our heads. Defending the central beliefs of Christianity has become so incredibly important, precisely because we have privileged believing certain things. But what if believing certain things isn’t what Christianity is about. And if you can’t imagine thinking about Christianity, without it having at its center, beliefs that we hold in our head about certain things, then you can be assured that you definitely have bought into the modern mindset.
Fundamentalist evangelicalism can’t even hear that without putting it into the category of relativism. If you want the absolute best articulation of how tied fundamentalist evangelicalism is to the modern mindset, look up a book I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times already in this series, but it’s John MacArthur’s book, The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception. It so perfectly represents what happens when those unhelpful parts of modernity get married to Christianity, but in that book, he says this: “The stress in historical evangelicalism is properly placed on the primacy of faith over works. Evangelicals have always resisted the pressure to elevate good works over sound doctrine, insisting that truly good works are the fruit of faith, never a valid substitute for it.”
Did you catch his sleight of hand besides the fact that he says, “evangelicals have always?” Again, that’s a red flag, because it’s assuming that everyone’s always believed the same thing or done at the same way, which just isn’t true. But there’s another sleight of hand here. He says, historically, evangelicals have put faith over works. Then he says, they’ve resisted the pressure to elevate good works over sound doctrine. In other words, in this passage, he is assuming that faith is the same thing as sound doctrine. Why would he put those two as though they’re the same thing? Because for fundamentalist evangelicals, believing the right things, and having faith are the same thing. This is foundational for Christianity built on the modern mindset.
But Kierkegaard resists this. And that’s what this quote is about, “Truth is subjectivity.” He famously says this, which I think is helpful: “Christianity didn’t enter the world to be understood, but to be existed in.” And that is a critical distinction. For me growing up, the point of Christianity was to understand it, to grasp it, to memorize all the facts about it. But for Kierkegaard, the emphasis is on existing in it. In essence, truth is subjectivity means that unless we actually follow Jesus’ example in our life, we do not have faith. In my humble opinion, truth is subjectivity means only what James says in James 2, it says this: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith, but has no deeds?” Now, recognize that the exact opposite of what John MacArthur just said, but, “Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food? If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it’s not accompanied by action is dead. But someone will say you have faith, I have deeds, show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good, even the demons believe that and shudder.”
Another favorite phrase from the Bible that gets used here is Paul in Ephesians 4 when he says to speak the truth in love. From the modern mindset of Christianity, it’s assumed that Paul means we have to tell people what to believe. But if we read closely, like Derrida suggests, we will find that we are shoving our own understanding of truth into this passage. If we look at all of the instances of truth in the Bible, we will come away realizing that it’s a relational term, it’s about being honest, it’s about having integrity.
It’s not at all about sharing things that everyone has to believe to be a Christian. When we speak the truth in love as Paul instructs, the emphasis will always fall on the love, never on the facts spewing.
Lastly, on this point, I want to let Kierkegaard contrast what he means by subjectivity and objectivity. I’m going to quote him here. “Whereas objective thinking, invests everything in the result, and assists all humankind to cheat by copying and reeling off the results and answers, subjective thinking invests everything in the process of becoming, and omits the result. The subjective thinker is continually in the process of becoming. The objective thinker has already arrived.” In other words, thinking objectively is about having the answers. It’s about collecting facts, resting in the answers. Thinking subjectively is about pursuing the questions. Thinking objectively is thinking that if you worked out last year, that you’re going to be strong forever. Subjective thinking is realizing that if you want to be strong, you have to work out every week forever, that faith is a process, not a result. No matter how many facts we amass, we don’t escape our responsibility to live out those facts. And faith is in the living it out, not in the stockpiling of what we believe.
So, there you have it. All three of these thinkers point out for us the limitations of the modern mindset. For Nietzsche, God is dead, which means we cannot know things with the certainty we once thought we could. For Derrida, there is nothing outside the text, which means if we look close enough, we’ll realize that we don’t live in a static and mechanical world with principles that never change, but we are always in already part of a certain context. And for Kierkegaard, truth is subjectivity, which means we must go beyond the facts and live out our faith if we ever want to live in peace.
I want to wrap up our time with some thoughts on what it might look like to be a Christian outside this modern mindset. If you were like me, I was told that there was only one version of Christianity, and that there had only ever been one version, the version that was married to this modern mindset. But I’m here to tell you, that’s decidedly not true. And a lot of, again, what we do here at the podcast, and The Bible for Normal People as a whole, is to help people get exposed to other expressions of faith that aren’t beholden to that fundamentalist evangelical framing of faith. But I have to say that what I’m about to say here is just my opinion, and what this has looked like for me, and for those close to me.
There are so many ways that Christian faith can be expressed. We all have to go on our own journey. As Kierkegaard says, “truth is subjectivity.” Your faith has to be activated by your own path. It can’t be borrowed, just lived out.
So, three quick points about my faith. First, my faith over the last 10 or 15 years, is focused on this world, not another world. My faith growing up was centered on the afterlife, a world up there or down there depending on how good you were. Everything that happened here was just a shadow of this real world, the practice for the big show after we die. Now, my faith is about this world. And when I look at the Bible, it’s clear to me that this is also the focus of the lives and the writers of those in the Bible. Jesus says almost nothing about what happens when we die, or how to help people get to heaven when they die. He says so much more about this life and finding freedom and grace in this life for ourselves and for others. In some ways, my upbringing made this path difficult because I was taught to find wonder and enchantment outside this life in this world. If anything, I was supposed to degrade this life and this world, this was the world of the flesh. And this was the world where nothing good happens. One of my main spiritual practices, then, over the past decade has been to learn to recapture my wonder and enchantment for this world, to mirror Jesus’s incarnation coming down from heaven and finding ways to love the people, the places, and the things right in front of me. To be present in the joy and suffering of this world, not always looking ahead to the future, or to some future world.
Second, my faith has become more about humble action. I no longer believe that we have to have certainty before we act. In fact, I think actions out of a sense of certainty often lack the humility we need to act in love. For me, loving actions are not done to others, but with them. A lot of my Christian faith the past decade has been about learning how to act without certainty, learning that risk isn’t something to eradicate, but that risk is what makes love worthwhile. It’s what makes a faith, a relationship.
In some ways, this can be very difficult. It’s like being in space. How can you get from point A to point B without something to push off of? If you don’t have that grounding, that certain framework, that bedrock…how do you push off on to other things? We have to work new muscles to step out in faith, in a faith that doesn’t rest on being certain that we’re even going in the right direction. I’ve learned simply to decide on what I think is good, and to make decisions based on what I think is the next right thing, not just myself, but in community. That’s wisdom. As Kierkegaard says, “Genuine decision is always eager to change its clothes and get down to the practical matters. Decision gets us on our way. And here, there are no little things. Decision lays its demanding hand on us from start to finish.” So, my faith has become more about conquering all the little things with humility.
And then third, my faith has become about other people. For so long. My faith was about me, I was focused on making sure I believed the right things, that I read the Bible the appropriate amount of time, and at the right time of day. It just if I had my quiet time, it had to be before 6:30 AM or whatever it was, or I wasn’t being a good Christian. It was making sure I was doing everything I needed to do to be right with God. But now, kind of part of my passion for this life is that my faith is about other people. Am I working toward others feeling more love? Am I doing something that is keeping others from feeling loved? This move away from the modern mindset has helped me to see that my faith was about building my fortress of right beliefs instead of leaving that behind to step out in love.
Well, thank you so much for going on this journey with me through the “Making of the Modern Mindset.” I hope it’s been helpful. Until next time, everyone be well.
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