Tag Archives: modernism

Reason: one use of it builds faith–the other creates heresy; the early and medieval church knew the difference


Having looked, in the “theology chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, first at our evangelical problem with Truth, then at the medieval scholastics’ way of understanding and teaching Truth, we now come to the central storyline of medieval theology: its unique attempt to hold faith and reason together.

I start my discussion of this heroic attempt with a brief account of where the early church thought heresy came from (surprisingly: an over-active use of reason) and how early theologians and councils acted to preserve the integrity of the apostolic faith.

The next post will show what medieval thinkers did with this early precedent when it came time to re-explain the mysteries of the faith for new socio-cultural realities.

When I say that medieval thinkers held reason and faith in a delicate balance, I am thinking of their ability to use reasoned understanding and argument not to erase mystery, but to carefully couch and protect it. This was a premodern trait. The modern tendency – let us say, post-Enlightenment – has been to put our trust in what Stanley Grenz called the “omnicompetence” of reason–its supposed ability to fix all humans problems and solve all conundrums. The postmodern tendency, on the other hand, is to point to the man behind the curtain, or the emperor who has no clothes–to assume that anybody who claims to have figured things out via reason is actually making a power grab, disguising baser motives.

I would argue that the postmoderns are now where the nominalists were at the end of the medieval period. They have looked cynically behind the claims that we may know truth, at least partially, via reason, and they have lost faith in our ability to see any truth beside the one each of us makes for ourselves. Conservatives today may even be tempted to identify postmoderns as those who, in the Dantean phrase, have “lost the good of the intellect”—they can no longer access moral truth. But that’s too easy: the fundamental insight of postmodernism is hard to argue with: people do in fact often claim to be following the direct dictates of reason when in fact their motives have little to do with reasoned understanding. (Nor is this even intentional much of the time!)[1]

But when we go back to a brilliant premodern Christian thinker such as the proto-scholastic Augustine of Hippo, we find a different process: Instead of claiming that “reason solves all,” he frequently looks up from an argument he’s just presented (say, on the nature of the Trinity), and he says:  “I didn’t say you had to like it.” Continue reading

Chastened modernism or principled postmodernism–comments inspired by C S Lewis on medieval morality

It occurred to me that this comment and my response, spurred by the post “C S Lewis and ‘medieval morality'” may be worth its own post, as an invitation to others to join the conversation: Continue reading

Star Trek a paean to humanism, says Gene Roddenberry’s former executive assistant

Here‘s an interesting article. Gene Roddenberry’s personal executive assistant from 1974 until his death in 1991, says what we all knew about the Roddenberry and his Star Trek franchise, but fills in the portrait of Roddenberry-as-humanist with some interesting details. His former assistant, herself a member of the American Humanist Association board (a fact buried in the article’s second-last paragraph) describes in the article just how much Roddenberry disliked religion in any form, and how deeply he injected his personal creed into the substance of the Star Trek franchise.

I’ve put a snippet of the article below, but it made me wonder about the many flavors of humanism. The late Stanley Grenz used to make a distinction between the “modernism” of the original Star Trek series and the “postmodernism” of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Here‘s one take on that distinction.) In the original series, the Vulcan Spock, though frequently ribbed for allowing a few cracks to show in his rational exterior, was a powerful, in-control character who got the others out of many a jam through rational deduction. In Next Generation, the android Data, though physically and intellectually powerful, spent many episodes playing the unintentional buffoon and trying to get in touch with what it meant to truly be human–emotions, sense of humor, and all. Continue reading

The woman detective novelist who was one of Karl Barth’s favorite theologians

The Christianity Today history blog has just posted a piece by me on the British mystery author and lay theologian  Dorothy L. Sayers. And yes, the great modern theologian Karl Barth not only enjoyed Sayers’s detective stories, but called her one of the “outstanding British theologians.” He himself translated three of her essays into German.