Christianity and Culture: Is Orthodoxy a “Lost Cause” in America?

The late arch-bishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, said a few years before his earthly demise,

“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

While George’s successor in the Windy City, Blase Cupich, has not been arrested since George’s death in 2015, and it appears, at least for now, that incarceration is not an imminent threat to Cardinal Cupich, still, even if George’s quasi-rhetorical forth-telling has failed to come true, there is a strong and growing sense among traditional Catholics and conservative Evangelicals that indeed all is not well with the soul of America. More recent visionaries like Rod Dreher have written several powerful texts arguing as much, even offering alternative routes to preserving the historical deposit of classical Christian faith.

But why think this is the case? Is the current panic among the faithful warranted in light of the actual conditions? Or are we, perhaps like each passing generation of American Christians, overreacting to troubling but otherwise negligible sociological and political trends?

Unfortunately, I suspect the former is true— that we really are in serious trouble and our panic warranted.1 That is not to say that we should panic, rather that we should find ways to prepare ourselves for the coming crisis. There are three signs of the times which I think indicate this inevitable demise of any kind of publicly-practiced orthodox Christianity in America. Also, it is not just a fading into irrelevance I am talking about, but that orthodox Christians will actually be persecuted concretely, e.g. in the banning of public worship or the incarceration of priests and pastors who defy state-authorized religious and moral teachings. The three signs that point to this demise can be construed as lost (or nearly lost) battles. These are battlefields of culture where, should Orthodoxy not find itself fighting boldly on each, the orthodox themselves will become, or have already become, a conquered people.2Of course, not in the eschatological sense, which is an important point to make.

These three battles are waged in the realm of the senses, the realm of the mind, and in the realm of the heart or emotions. All areas where orthodox Christianity is struggling to hold its ground and win the day. In part one of this series, I look at the lost battle of the senses. However, first I should give some definition of what I mean by “orthodox” Christianity.

What is Orthodox Christianity?

Orthodoxy can be a tricky term. It can be used as if everyone who hears it should know exactly what it means and specifically which dogmas it entails and which teachings it anathematizes. But, so often this is not the case, and Orthodoxy is something that various churches, denominations, and movements wrestle over, each vying to claim it as their own.

For my purposes, however, I will stipulate the following necessary and sufficient conditions for a church community to be considered truly orthodox:

  1. A church is orthodox if its members can recite the propositional claims of the four ecumenical creeds with an authentic belief in the metaphysical and historical realities that ground the truth of each claim.
  2. A church is orthodox if it maintains a hermeneutical approach to the scriptures that is consistent with, albeit not identical to, interpretive approaches of the pre-modern, medieval and reformational eras; this would include an approach that presupposes the divine inspiration of at least the 66 canonical books of the Protestant Bible and the continuity, cohesiveness, and universality of its message, the Gospel.
  3. A church subsequently is orthodox if it professes salvific exclusivity; meaning that it is always and only through Jesus Christ that any individual person regardless of time, place, culture or level of development is saved to eternal life with God. 3 This can occur in a variety of ways, however. For example a 18th-century Muslim peasant women living in Central Asia could be saved having never heard the name of Jesus Christ or the Gospel message, but her salvation would occur through the General Revelation given to her by Christ and her response to that General Revelation. She would not be saved through her Muslim faith and practice, but actually in spite of it.
  4. A church is orthodox if it maintains the traditional teachings of the church on non-negotiable moral issues, e.g. human sexuality, the sanctity of all human life, the nature of marriage.
  5. Finally, an orthodox church retains an identifiable continuity of basic religious practice with the historical, ecumenical Church of Reformation Protestantism, Latin Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Christianity, e.g. congregating together on Sundays, a recognizable ecclesial structure, the practicing of biblical sacraments, corporate prayer and worship, preaching, charitable outreach, etc.

While this is not a comprehensive list, it seems that church communities that meet all of these conditions, regardless of denominational affiliation or even ecumenical tradition, could rightly be called orthodox.4 For a more detailed, educated, and comprehensive account of ecumenical orthodox Christianity, see Thomas Oden’s excellent Classical Christianity: A Systematic Theology.

First Sign: Losing the Battle of the Senses

In his excellent book The Lost History of Christianity, historian Philip Jenkins explains one way in which a religious identity is eliminated from culture: through the dismantling of the religious imagery and sound world that expresses its theological claims and social practices. Jenkins summarizes what happened to Christian art, architecture, and imagery when Christian cultures came under a dominant Islamic political rule:

Under Muslim rule, churches were tightly constrained in their ability to project their physical presence into the landscape, by the public display of icons and images or statuary, by bell ringing or public processions. It was no longer possible to use the liturgy and the spectacular external decorations of church buildings to offer believers a taste of the ultimate.

Jenkins, 215

In other words, Islam, not unlike the aggressive voices of secularism today, developed a program of expunging visible Christianity from the landscape of the nation or region it conquered. Church cupolas were replaced with domed Mosques, iconic imagery demolished and replaced by Arabic script, and spaces of Christian worship and practice pushed to the margins of the city and outlying country side. A contemporary analogy of this might be if one were to take a stroll down “the Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago where churches like the beautiful Fourth Presbyterian Church are dominated by skyscrapers dedicated to commerce, fashion, and trend.5 See the image featured at the top of this blog. Is it any wonder that Fourth Presbyterian’s theology is also dominated by the secular forces that erected the buildings which loom over its steeple?

But, it was not only the visible imagery of Christianity that was suppressed, it was also the soundscape of Christian faith that was precluded from the everyday experience of the average citizen:

Far from dominating and sanctifying the public landscape…Christian structures and rituals were forced into varying degrees of concealment, which grew all the more discreet following waves of riot or violence. Over the centuries, for instance, Nestorians abandoned what had once been their common use of icons, and had few opportunities to use the wooden clappers they employed in place of [church] bells.

Jenkins, 215

Wooden clappers in the place of church bells? Christians today don’t even have that! And, when was the last time you heard an actual church bell ring? In the late Middle Ages is was not long before former Christian cultures where dominated by the minaret and the muezzin, sights and sounds that declared the glory of Allah and the very subservient, even if honored, status of his merely human prophet Issa. Moreover, the two religious expressions were simply not compatible in the same city, since they were fundamentally at odds theologically, “Cities could have a soundscape based on the Muslim muezzin or Christian bells, but not both. Several times a day, the call to prayer sent a straightforward message about who held political power.”6 Jenkins, 216.

In spite of the lack of church bells, the realm of music may indeed be one of the last bastions of defense for orthodox Christianity, at least during the Christmas season and to some degree the rest of the year as radio stations throughout the country air Christian pop music, some of which might even be good enough to act as a counterweight to the secular soundscape that dominants our auditory world.7 Recent Christian adaptation of formerly secular, and often grossly immoral, forms of music like Rap might even be considered indicators of pockets of cultural revival. However, whether Christian popular music can maintain the pace with its worldly rivals has yet to be seen and, in many ways, it has already been found wanting, suggesting a lack of staying power. Its traditional musical predecessors, the Hymns and Gospel, however, are quickly vanishing from our sound world. Even “Amazing Grace” only makes a rare appearance in our auditory soundscape today.8 I have a terrible voice, but I make a point to hum Amazing Grace to my two-year old son every night before bed.

While today’s subjugation of Christian sights and sounds doesn’t takes place through force as it often did in the Middle Ages, it does take place through both law and the more non-coercive elements of culture. However, it is noteworthy that not all subjugation of visible Christianity in Dar-al-Islam was through force either. Much of its subjugation was also through more gradual cultural means or through de jure pronouncements that provided the initial impression of Islamic cultural domination only to over time become de facto realities. This is why it is terribly unfortunate that so many Christians today have abandoned interest in politics and law. Thinking that laws, and the Supreme Court Justices that interpret them, don’t matter in the shaping of the hearts and minds and practices of people living under them is both naive and dangerous. This is especially poignant today after nearly a year of “guidelines” restricting the gathering of church communities. For, in the end, it is the gathering church that is the ultimate “visible sign” of Christ. A church that does not gather cannot act as the embodiment of that greater Truth to which it has been called to represent.

Either way, whether through brute physical force or the more indirect mechanisms of cultural pressure and de jure laws, the careful deconstruction of anything that might remind a population of its Christian roots was one tactic in the overall offensive against the will of those Christian communities still professing orthodox faith, “Progressively reducing the conspicuous display of signs of faith reduced the number of reasons for minority believers to maintain their stubborn dissidence, and encourage conformity.”9 Jenkins, 215.

While traditional Islam today is doubling down in places that had, for a short time, drifted secular in maintaining dominance over the sights and sounds of those lands (see Turkey as a very troubling example), Secularism is also doubling down in its domination over the sensory experiences of most Americans. Apart from gaudy, zirconium-studded jewelry, many Americans today have never experienced any real overt, genuine, and powerful images of Christian piety. Most young people have not participated annually in Corpus Christi processions, heard church bells ringing on a weekly basis, or viewed statuary or painting (of a high quality) representing the transcendent principles or historical legacy of Classical Christianity. Dissident attempts to recapture the religious imagination in the domain of film are few, far between, and often of incredibly poor quality. The last, best hope probably being the cinematization of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, itself ambiguous enough to appeal to all audiences, and Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (a film that was met with considerable cultural blow back). While Jesus films come and go, their phenomenological power and influence is weak compared to the secular imaginary that daily dominates our thought world. Jesus, Mary and Joseph simply cannot compete with Han, Luke, and Leah.

In sum, the average US citizen today will have a daily array of sensory experiences of secular culture that vastly outstrips any encounter with Christian imagery, art, or sound. The shrines of secularity are legion: Sports stadiums, movie theaters, grocery stores, gyms, restaurants and bars, Walmart and Home Depot. Not to mention the political and social propaganda that floods through our screens and into our living rooms (BLM superstars and mask fanatics included) or the alternative mythologies streamed unceasingly to us in the form of Marvel, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.10 I am no expert in pop culture and at 45 I am sure the examples given here are already dated. But, whatever the 2021 versions of each may be, it is those that dominate our visual world and shape our inner one. Further, this phenomena will be most concentrated in our cities, where not only are the senses dominated by secular messages, symbols, and stories, but where nature is absent and everything seen or heard can be readily explained as “the work of human hand” rather than that of an almighty, immaterial Creator. It is the daily interactions with this Christian-less yet utterly concrete culture that wears down the otherwise stalwart defender of orthodoxy.

With the arrival of COVID this slow yet steady process has accelerated as church leaders relinquish the right to congregate at Sunday service or the Mass in order to appease the sensibilities and appetites of those in political power. Thus, the march toward a culture void of Christian presence is inevitable. Certainly Christians may continue to move freely about their world so long as their faith is not recognizably displayed, just as Christians were able to blend into Islamic societies by taking on Arabic names and dressing in Islamic fashion. Perhaps the central Christian image of the cross will also remain widespread in the culture, albeit worn in predominantly bauble-like fashion or as a gaudy adornment on an otherwise secularized body.

However, losing the battle of the senses would still not be a sufficient condition for the loss of Christian orthodoxy. For even if our cityscapes flourished with basilicas, and Sunday mornings resounded with church bells reminding the faithful of their holy obligations, at best we might be like Europe, where much of the same is present yet a genuine and practiced orthodoxy still negligible. Even there, however, is it any wonder that laws are now emerging to limit the extent of Muslim religious expressions in European cities? Our embodied nature feeds off of what we experience sensorially around us, and some of that, much of it perhaps, transmits to the soul. Another word for “soul” in much of modern philosophy and theology is “mind,” and it is in the next post I will look at the battlefield of the mind and how Christianity has lost this battle within the domain of the academy.

A Power Unto Salvation: Part IV – Can The Supernatural Save?

In this series on the human condition I have surveyed two approaches to that condition: Scientism and Semanticism. I argued that science fails to address the human condition at all, while Semanticism addresses it but cannot address it sufficiently. Semanticism cannot really save us from our deepest fears nor fulfill our deepest longings, just as the natural sciences can provide no answers to the “Why” questions of life. In this post I will look at one final approach, Supernaturalism.

Supernaturalism is decisively distinct from Scientism and Semanticism in one fundamental way: metaphysics. Unlike its materialistic antitheses, Supernaturalism assumes or even argues for the actual existence of non-physical beings, especially non-physical agentive beings like God, gods, angels, demons and human souls. There may be other kinds of non-physical beings, perhaps abstract objects like numbers or sets, but leaving those aside it is the supernaturalist who posits the existence of immaterial agents that have causal powers and even moral natures. Moreover, it is through these agencies that human beings can be saved from their finite and otherwise apparently purposeless existence, because these agencies really do interact with the physical and temporal, altering and shaping the course of human history and the lives of people– people who themselves are more than just their bodies. In other words, these agents, or God as the ultimate Agent, are in contact with the spacetime reality which most of us believe we inhabit.1 Philosophers since Descartes have posited thought experiments like the “evil demon” or the “brain in a vat” which although sounding absurd are nevertheless logically possible.

Supernaturalism and the Human Condition

In the previous post I outlined Heidegger’s way of looking at the human condition, which focused on the phenomena of existence. Existence as being “thrown into” the world– not knowing why we are here, not knowing from where we have come or where we are headed. This being in the world, Dasein, unfolds in time, Zeit, and we are left to struggle between the way we feel about the world and what science seems to tell us is true. For the semanticist, philosophy becomes the new apparatus through which we try to communicate our religious and theological impulses, and it is through such communicative acts, preferably in pluralistic societal contexts that we hope to attain some modicum of meaning and peace about our otherwise hopeless state. The usual end result of the semantic approach is a kind of therapeutic culture, where religious language acts as a sort of psychological safety net that can help us to manage through life until we die. In the words of one Christian scholar, it is a world where religion is reduced to “moral therapeutic deism.”2 This now very popular, and very useful term was coined by the Notre Dame philosopher Christian Smith. I would suggest that this is the dominant view today, at least in western and in particular English-speaking cultures.

Another way of looking at the existential crisis of the human condition was Bertrand Russell’s “firm foundation of unyielding despair” which he thought emerged inevitably from a thorough, scientific analysis of the natural world. All stories, according to the adherent of the Russellian worldview, are naturalistic ones and anything that cannot be reduced down to natural entities–subatomic particles and natural causes, e.g. the law of gravity– are at bottom fictions. They are projections of a physical brain onto a physical world. In the end we must fess up to this stark reality and learn to be the captains of our own “souls.” The genuine adherent of Scientism, unlike the semanticist, also sees any kind of religious language or practice as not only meaningless, but potentially harmful to society. The supernatural approach to religion as well as the semantic approach should both be excised from modern society since they muddy the waters of objective truth.

Both of these approaches seem to leave us wanting when it comes to answering the significant questions of life, however. For when it comes to questions of ultimate origins, meaning and purpose, morality and eschatology both Semanticism and Scienticism seem to say the same thing: we are left to ourselves to develop our own answers. There is no outside help, no aid from above. 3Of course, there may be an intermediary for both types of naturalists, one often portrayed in our films, namely the existence of highly evolved and supra-intelligent extra-terrestrials. Some, although a dwindling number, still hold out hope for a “close encounter” of this kind. On both views we must conjure our inner Sinatra and “do it our way.”

Alternatively, the supernaturalist approach presupposes a very different solution: there is outside help and we can know that that help is there based on revelation knowledge. And, in knowing there is a supernatural realm, we might actually attain real answers and real peace about our situation.

Supernaturalism and Traditional Religion

Supernaturalism then is the prerequisite for any traditional religious belief system: Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Mormonism on the one hand or Hinduism, Janism, and classical Buddhism on the other. While each of these systems will cash out the nature of that which is beyond the physically differently, especially between the two sets listed here, all will hold to some kind of non-physical reality. In doing so each system will have something on offer to answer the human existential condition that the other, non-supernaturalistic approaches will not have.

First, each of these traditional religions will have metaphysical commitments. Most of Christianity’s foundational metaphysical commitments, for example, are contained in its early creeds. Second, because of these commitments traditional religions will ground its answers to fundamental questions in the metaphysical realities that underlie their theological statements. For example, morality is grounded not in social conventions but both in the nature of the God who designed the universe and objectively in the design itself. Thus, moral truths can be discerned both by a careful examination of God’s creation and by a direct revelation of His will. To know the latter, however, requires some kind of communication between the supernatural agent and the human creature. Thus, third, each traditional religious system that holds to metaphysical commitments of a supernatural kind will also have a set of oracles, writings and traditions that are considered revelatory or inspired in some special way.

For the Christian worldview, both Protestant and Roman Catholic versions, the only domain of special revelation knowledge4 Meaning that which can be known about the supernatural realm apart from just our experiences of the world around us. is that of the words of the Bible, or Sacred Scripture.5 Some Roman Catholics hold that there are sacred traditions that are equally revelatory to the words of Scripture, but this is a minority view and one dismissed by the Church at Vatican II. The Bible is a special kind of propositional knowledge, a unique communique between God and man that must be evaluated at a higher level than any other communications about reality, even other communications between God and man, e.g. like personal revelations or rational reflection about nature. However, while the existence of a sacred text or set of inspired oral traditions may count as the standard by which other inferences about reality are to be gauged, this does not mean that sacred texts or traditions must be utilized in every instance of human evaluation about reality. One need not go to the book of Leviticus or to Judges to assess the merits of differential calculus or the taxonomies of marine biology.

Nevertheless, on the broad existential questions, traditional religions, their sacred texts, creeds, and practices will inevitably give answers that presume the reality of some supernatural agent that can or already has broken into the physical world. By doing so, this Agent has initiated some process that will saves us from having to construct our own “ultimate” meaning and purpose for life, that provides for us a human-independent standard of moral behavior, and that will actually rescue us from the finitude of bodily existence and potentially bring us into some new kind of existence. If there are such supernatural Beings with such plans and purposes, then it would seem Supernaturalism has quite a leg up on Scientism and Semanticism. However, Supernaturalism has one central weakness, a weakness that has been continually exposed and argued about since at least Descartes. That weakness is this: how do we know that there is such a thing as the supernatural?

Supernaturalism and Religious Epistemology

The apparent death-knell to a supernatural approach to the human condition did not come all at once, rather there was a long, slow atrophying of looking at the world through supernatural lenses. However, in the West many philosophers will trace the history of the rejection of metaphysical knowledge through at least three main figures: Descarte, Hume, and ultimately Kant. After Kant (1724-1804) the notion that we can know anything about the non-physical world becomes an increasingly minority view among the intellectual elite, a view that ultimately trickles down into popular culture, ending in what we label today as our secular society.6This is a very simplistic description of how we have come to be “a secular age.” For a robust treatment of the history of Western culture’s slide from supernaturalism into secularism, see Charles Taylor’s magisterial tome, A Secular Age.

Nevertheless, in spite of that long slide into a strongly secular cultural milieu, the way the culture operates currently is not conclusive evidence against the possibility of metaphysical or even religiously relevant metaphysical knowledge. The question of how we can know that the supernatural realm of the religious exists has been taken up anew since the mid-1960’s by both analytic philosophers of religion in Protestant circles and by Roman Catholic neo-Thomist scholars. Even non-theists have come to admit that serious metaphysics is back on the table in contemporary philosophy.

In the strain of Evangelical philosophy of religion there are at least two viable models to justifying religious, i.e. supernatural, beliefs: the more science-friendly model grounded in forensic evidence and probabilistic inferences to the best explanation and the Reformed epistemological model, which argues religious beliefs as properly basic and thereby warranted unless otherwise defeated. Representatives of each would be philosophers like Richard Swinburne on the one hand, and, of course, Alvin Plantinga on the other. Both have spawned schools of thought on religious epistemology.

Conclusion: Supernaturalism, If True, Is The Only Approach That Can Save Us

Since the supernaturalist approach to the human condition allows for not only individual and immanent purposes but also ultimate purposes, and since it also allows for not just subjective moral values and socially constructed moral obligations, but objectively grounded obligations and values, and because it provides a real solution to the finitude of physical existence, that is to death itself, Supernaturalism is in the end the only approach to the human condition that really could solve our existential crisis. Only Supernaturalism could literally save us from a world where our deepest longings go unfulfilled, our deepest pains go unredeemed, and all our human efforts, projects, and endeavors ultimately go into oblivion. Unlike Heidegger’s failed attempt to solve the crisis of existence by positing some sacralization of the immanent, Supernaturaism has the resources to actually do so because it maintains there is a God who actually can perfect the immanent through His very real power (and gracious willingness).

If Supernaturalism then has any epistemic justification,7 For a concise yet powerful argument that Christian epistemic practices have the same epistemic justification as our sensory perceptions, see William Alston “Religious Experience and Religious Belief” in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, edited by Geivett and Sweetman (New York: Oxford Press, 1992) 295-303. it should be clear that it is the best, existential option for anyone who has thought a minute about the human situation. That Supernaturalism has at least some warrant in virtue of both rational argumentation, e.g. theistic arguments from cosmology, design arguments, or arguments from morality or beauty, and personal experiences, e.g. encounters with the divine, the demonic, etc., should further provide a starting point for those skeptical of this traditional religious approach to the human dilemma.

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

Romans 1:19-20

A Power Unto Salvation?: Part II – Can Science Save?

In this series I am analyzing three broad approaches to understanding and responding to the human condition: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism. In the previous post I defined what I mean by each. In this post I will take a closer look at Scientism, and see how it tries to answer the fundamental questions of human morality, meaning and purpose, i.e. the human condition.

First, What is The Human Condition?

While this foundational question could be addressed several ways, for my purposes here I will draw from perhaps the greatest existentialist philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, who framed the problem of human existence in a profound way. The human condition is for Heidegger, at rock bottom, related to the simple fact that when we think about any kind of beings that exist in the world, one thing we recognize is that only human beings, out of all other beings (e.g. apples, aardvarks, atoms), are capable of asking the question itself, “what is Being?”. Human beings, whatever they may be, and only those beings that are human grapple with the meaning of Being itself (in German Sein), as well as the experience of “Being-there” (Dasein) among other beings. For whatever “Being” is we are at least concretely participatory in it in virtue of our being alive and being conscious. As such we find ourselves like helpless creatures, creatures thrown into the world (Geworfenheit), disposed to it (Befindlichkeit), having various moods (Stimmungen) about it, and, in some very real way, fallen away from it and from our own selves, for we do not properly know what it means to be to begin with.1 One artistic attempt to portray this kind of existentialism is the movie, Being There with the late British actor Peter Sellars. In the film, the gardener, Chance, is thrown out of his simple, edenic circumstances into a modern world that he has no way of understanding or really relating to. He is a mere observer of the variety of beings presented to him. This just is our experience of things, or at least it is in this period of late modernity in which we now reside.

Hence, we find ourselves in the world, having experiences of it, but with this (horrible?) capacity to “step back” and think about our own being in the world, to include the tremendous freedom we possess to interact with the world, i.e. with other beings, and with our own selves (called Projection).2 For more on Heidegger, see Michael Wheeler’s article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/#Que We are therefore both determined, in virtue of our not having chosen to exist, yet we are also existentially free in that we can make choices to act, and in acting become something other than what we are right now. This is both a wondrous, and terrifying, reality. It is wondrous because the fact of it is innately mysterious. It is terrifying, because having abandoned the previous universal hermeneutic of religious belief that explained our existence to us, we now feel incapable of offering any sufficient answer to the emotional and intellectual anxiety existence causes.

The other fundamental aspect of this anxious act of existing, of “being there” in the world, is our experience of it as unfolding. In other words, this existence happens in time.3 Heidegger’s magnum opus was entitled Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). It begins and will, with our own death, ultimately end. Our own death, it is worth noting, is not however part of Dasein itself, since it will not actually be something we experience. We only experience the death of others, those deaths are part of our experience and therefore part of Dasein, our own deaths are not.

Beyond this brief, and profoundly deficient, summary of a Heideggerean view of the human condition, I cannot venture. It is well known that Heidegger is both one of the most obscure philosophers of the 20th century, as well as one of the most difficult to read, even in his native German. In a later post we will look briefly at what Heidegger thought could potentially save man from such a conflicted condition, a potential solution that was, tragically, aligned with the National Socialism of his day. For now, however, this descriptive, albeit vague, presentation of the human condition will serve the main purpose of this post: how do these three approaches to the human condition try to explain or answer both the terrible anxiety, and the mysterious wonder that conscious, self-reflective life presents to our experience? Which approach, in other words, answers the questions of morality, meaning, and purpose that emerge from such experiences and such reflection?4 There are other foundational questions of human existence than these, like identity, authority, and, of course, origins. But, this phrase serves as a metonym of sorts for the questions associated with the human condition.

Heidegger’s description of the human condition in the life of modern man also seems to sync well with the view of a very different kind of philosopher, his contemporary in England, Bertrand Russell, who might have called modern philosophy a philosophy of despair. In a personal letter, Russell once wrote:

What else is there to make life tolerable? We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness. But it is the voice of one drowning; and in a moment the silence returns. The world seems to me quite dreadful; the unhappiness of many people is very great, and I often wonder how they all endure it. To know people well is to know their tragedy: it is usually the central thing about which their lives are built. And I suppose if they did not live most of the time in the things of the moment, they would not be able to go on.

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Betrand Russell, 194.

The human condition, or so it seems, is for both the British logician Russell and the German existentialist Heidegger a rather unpleasant, if not outright cruel affair. For modern man, in the wake of the Enlightenment critique of traditional religious modes of existence and explanation, the obvious question emerges: is there something, some idea or practice or perhaps story, outside of the biblical account of salvation and eternal life, that can save man from such a cruel set of circumstances?

Can Science Save Us?

Leaving behind the ruminations of the German existentialist, and following along with the thought of the British logician, Russell himself speaks to the human condition we are forced to confront, if, as his philosophical atheism suggests, the scientific picture of the world is in fact the true picture of reality:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”

But, was Russell being too negative about what a scientific view of the world could do relative to man’s existential condition, relative to his struggle with his own existence, identity, and purpose? Perhaps, there has been progress in science since Russell’s day (d. 1970) that makes a scientific worldview capable of rescuing us from the foundation of “unyielding despair” Russell thought we must construct our lives upon. Is there a firmer foundation upon which science can construct a universal sense of meaning, morality and purpose for all of (metaphorically speaking) “God’s creatures, great and small?”

Having defined “scientism” in the previous post, there is no need to review in detail what its claims are. The basic idea is that the scientific method alone holds the key to truth, and all other claims that cannot be verified through the scientific process, or in the domain of the natural sciences especially, must be considered dubious, if not just false. Since Scientism “puts Christian claims outside of the ‘plausibility structure’ (what people generally consider reasonable and rational)”5J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, 31. of belief, it reduces any claims to meaning, morality or purpose from a Christian worldview (and any religious worldview) down to purely private expressions about one’s subjective mental states and emotional preferences. Religious claims are spurious at best, if not wicked or delusional.6 Hence Dawkins most rhetorical book is entitled very simply The God Delusion.Thus, according to perhaps the leading advocate of Scientism of our times, Richard Dawkins, the so-called “why” questions7 “Why” questions are another metonym for existential questions, questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “Why do human beings have consciousness?” that cannot be answered by the natural sciences are probably not questions worth answering at all, “The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn’t make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention. Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can.”8Excerpt From: Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-god-delusion/id427263983

Dawkins goes on:

“Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science. Maybe quantum theory is already knocking on the door of the unfathomable. But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?”

Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion”

While other renowned scientists like the late Stephen J. Gould or the cosmologist Paul Davies or the astronomer Sir Martin Reese may make more room for the sociological usefulness of religion than Dawkins, it is safe to say that they are all beholden to some degree to this scientistic approach to reality.9 My point here is to not lump all scientific materialists into the same category as a Dawkins, whose particularly anti-religious views are well known. Others who hold to scientism, may still appreciate the cultural benefits of religious institutions and practices, even if they disbelieve in Christianity’s claims about reality. In short then, for the average advocate of Scientism, those genuine and profound questions of human existence are likely beyond the reach of science and hence without meaning.

However, even if Dawkins ascribes meaninglessness to the “why” questions of human existence, that ascription clearly has not translated into an actual end of “why” questions being asked. Even in the most secular countries today like the United States, Britain, Canada, and Germany, countries where we might expect to see the biggest influence of the natural sciences on culture, it is not as if the quest for morality, meaning, and purpose has been abandoned. From the sexual revolution, drug culture, and civil rights movements of the 1960’s, to the rise of the New Age in the 1980’s and 1990’s, to the cry for Social Justice and racial equality today, the empirical and sociological evidence overwhelmingly suggest that the search for answers to morality, meaning, and purpose has not ceased, and that the desire for the transcendent cannot be satisfactorily answered by putting modern man in the MRI chamber and presenting him with the scan results. This tells him nothing substantive about himself.

But, if science doesn’t try to answer, or if scientists willfully reject even asking, the “why” questions, then it is already de facto the case among those who ascribe to Scientism that the natural sciences cannot speak to our existential condition. Any scientist speaking qua scientist to the existential condition of man would be speaking out of turn. And if Scientism cannot really address the human condition, then it certainly cannot exert any real power over that condition, nor relieve us from it in any real way.10 I suppose there could be some scientistic answers to the human condition. Someone might suggest, as Huxley did in his dystopian novel Brave New World, simply anesthetizing people with regular doses of pleasure-inducing drugs. That would be at least a possible answer to the existential question, one that stops short of simple mass extermination. At most it can help us to extend our knowledge of the condition itself by analyzing the nature of the physical components around us and how they interact. Or perhaps it helps in virtue of leading to medical technologies that extend the existential time we have to reflect on the very same condition. Beyond this, as Dawkins admits, that the Scientistic approach to the human condition remains powerless to save us from it appears certain. We should conclude, as Russell did, that, at bottom, all the Scientistic approach to the world can tell us is that there is nothing much positive to say about existing. Being (Sein) and our experience of our own being (Dasein)11 Or, perhaps more accurately, our realization that we are the only kind of entity, the only existing kind of thing, that allows us to even raise the questions of what Being is or that gives us a concept of Being in general. Again, it’s confusing, but not absurd. are beyond the ken of science.

While it could be the case that the world really is the way the adherent of Scientism says it is, it could also be the case that some other approach is more likely true than the scientistic one. Scientism could simply be false12 In his book Scientism and Secularism, J.P. Moreland demonstrates the self-refuting nature of “strong scientism” starting with the strong scientistic claim “Only what is testable by science can be true.”(51), which is itself a fundamentally unscientific, and therefore untestable, truth claim. Moreland goes on to show how both strong and weak scientism are themselves “enemies” of the entire scientific project, since when properly understood they are both deficient philosophical views., and some other approach could approximate better to the way things really are. An approach that would seem to better address the existential condition, might prima facie be seen as having at least more explanatory power than its scientistic alternative, which itself could be counted as evidence for that approaches truthfulness.

Finally, it could also be the case that some alternative approach contains within it some innate property, some content, which allows it to address the existential “why” questions of human experience, and not only address them, but maybe even sufficiently so by providing actual answers to them. One approach that may provide such an answer is what I am calling “Semanticism,” a view which will see the power to save neither in an exhaustive analysis of the natural world, nor in the causal powers of supermundane agencies, but in the nature and power of language itself.

A Power Unto Salvation?: Science, Semantics, and the Supernatural (Part I: Defining The Views)

“In all religion there is a recollection of the Divine Truth which has been lost; in all religion, there is a longing after the divine light and the divine love; but in all religion also there yawns an abyss of demonic distortion of the Truth, and of man’s effort to escape from God.”

Emil Brunner

In this series I examine three broad approaches to engaging the question of the human condition. Those approaches are Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturlism. After defining each, the question will be asked: “Which of these, if any, has the power to save people from their existential condition?” Each view offers some answer to the problem of human existence, but I will argue only one is sufficient to truly liberate us from our present condition of alienation and oppression.

Introduction: Two Kinds of Naturalism

Since the Enlightenment and the breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis1 The Medieval Synthesis is best represented in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who synthesized the inspired Special Revelation of the Bible and the authoritative teachings of the Church with the best philosophical reflections on general revelation, namely, Aristotle. there have been, at least in the European and especially in the Anglo-Germanic speaking cultures, essentially two posited views on the nature of the human condition: the scientistic materialist view and the semantic existentialist view. The former of these places authority and power in the domain of the natural sciences and the scientific method, the other in the domain of language and human culture.

For most Christians living in English-speaking contexts today, the major battle of ideologies has played out between a very logic-centered, scientistic empiricism and a reason-oriented, metaphysical, and historical Christianity. In the 19th and 20th century this battle was waged between rationalists on both sides: metaphysical naturalists and metaphysical supernaturalists, who used arguments and evidence to both justify and compel belief– either toward atheism or in Christian theism. These engagements developed into robust philosophical debates between the great minds of the previous generation, e.g. Copleston and Russell, and those of today, e.g. William Lane Craig and Graham Oppy. Since the emergence of Christian analytic philosophy in the 1960s with the likes of men like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, this domain of intellectual dispute has informed much of our theological dialogue in the United States, especially in Evangelical Christianity.

Less familiar perhaps to many Evangelical Christians in the United States, however, were the contemporaneous developments occurring in the German and French speaking worlds of existential philosophy. As such, for many Evangelical apologists, the works of men like Sartre and Camus (on the French side), or Heidegger and Jaspers (on the German side) went unnoticed for quite some time. In addition, the Christian, or theistic, interlocutors to these existentialist philosophers have also gone under the radar, or perhaps remain entirely undiscovered, with the exception perhaps of particularly giant names like Karl Barth, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedikt XVI), or the much beloved Francis A. Schaeffer.

In particular, the most impactful group of German existentialists were the founders of Critical Theory, the philosophical grandfather of today’s multitudinous critical theories. This group attempted to develop a third way of looking at the world, one that neither denied the metaphysical naturalism of the scientistic worldview, nor that rejected the symbolic value and meaning of the religious worldview. The main figures in this very German-Jewish secular movement of philosophy were Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Weber.

For critical theorists, the result of accepting metaphysical naturalism (i.e. rejecting philosophical metaphysics), while not rejecting the existential aid of Christian theology, invested this innately Marxist philosophy with a quasi-religious flavor or tone. A flavor or tone that makes it very difficult to discern for many Christians today whether or not its tenets, or the tenets associated with any of its successor theories, are compatible with an actual biblical worldview, a worldview replete with God, gods, angels and demons, and human souls that have actual causal powers, moral natures, and that endure after physical death. This is a quite different kind of naturalism in this sense, and one harder to identify than its overtly anti-religious counterpart.2 For a prime example of scientistic critiques of religion, see almost anything by Richard Dawkins, most especially, The God Delusion.

Before we look at each of these naturalisms individually, and how they attempt to address the human condition, let’s define them a bit more narrowly, and also introduce their metaphysical opponent, Supernaturalism.

The Three Views: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism

Scienticism is best embodied by philosophers like A.J. Ayers who avowed logical positivism (at least early on),3 Ayer went on to say this of his former views “I suppose that most of the defects of it were that nearly all of it was false.” or W.V.O. Quine, who tried to naturalize the philosophical domain of epistemology,4 see Stanford entry on “Naturalism in Epistemology” especially Chapter 2, “Epistemology Naturlized” or scientists like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss today. Since the days of Ayer’s positivists, who considered any claims that could not be verified through scientific means to be meaningless, modified versions of Scientism have been fairly robust and well-defended in the English speaking world. Scientism, in brief, holds that while there are true statements about the world (i.e. the way things really are), the only statements that we can know to be true are ones that can be known via the natural sciences. According to the eminent philosopher of Metaphysics, J.P. Moreland, “In scientism, therefore, science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality….There are no truths that can be known apart from the appropriately certified scientific claims, especially those in the hard or natural sciences [e.g. physics, chemistry, biology].”5 J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, 29.

Thus, when it comes to metaphysical statements about non-physical entities or agents, Scientism says these are at best speculative (weak Scientism), or, more likely than not, they are just false or meaningless (strong Scientism)6 Moreland, 29-30.. When it comes to moral issues, those who hold to Scientism may try to ground moral values or obligations in scientific facts about material reality, even though this has been traditionally seen as an inherently quixotic task, as it is almost universally agreed upon that the fact-value distinction cannot be bridged apart from something other than, or outside of, the scientific statements. In short, you cannot get “an ought from an is.”7 This idea goes back to the Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). As we will see in a later post on the question of meaning and purpose, those who avow Scientism cannot help but be noticeably quiet.

Semanticism, or what I am calling “Semanticism,” might be described as an ideology that rejects the hegemony of science to fully explain the world, but also the hegemony of any religion, most specifically of the Judeo-Christian religion, to do the same, yet that retains core components of both. On the one hand Semanticism holds on to the empirical analysis of the scientific method, while affirming the symbolic and “semantic” world of theology and religion on the other. Semanticism sees power primarily in how language is used and how concepts are employed in human societies. As such the main theories that assume Semanticism are social theories, most predominantly Critical Theory, and its successor theories (e.g. Critical Race Theory, Feminist Studies, Queer Theory, etc.) that try to rationally analyze not the composition of physical objects, natural processes, or the nature of causal relations, as in chemistry or physics, but rather analyze the meaning and value of human artifacts, i.e. of human culture itself. In empirically analyzing forms of culture, Semanticism tries to understand how individuals interact in their own socially constructed environments of communication and meaning. As such, Semanticism puts far more emphasis on human experience and the subjective life of the human person than does Scientism, which tends to reduce the human subject and her experiences down to mere natural, and impersonal, facts (i.e. facts about particles, gravity, and neuro-biological functions).

This semantic approach to the human condition can be summed up in Jürgen Habermas’ comments on Karl Jasper’s theory of the role of modern philosophy:

Jaspers regards the transition to modernity and to postmetaphysical thinking as a profoundly ambivalent process. On the one hand, the Enlightenment frees us from the dogmatism of a faith based on inherited authority [i.e. the Bible and the Church’s teachings]….On the other hand, this philosophical translation of symbolic [religious] meanings courts the danger that the enciphered truth-contents of the great traditions [i.e. Judeo-Christianity] will be entirely forfeited, while the modern sciences reduce the lifeworld to the domain of the objectively knowable and technically controllable.

Jürgen Habermas, “The Conflicts in Belief” in The Liberating Power of Symbols, 37.

What Scientism and Semanticism have in common is that they both share a common view of metaphysics, namely, that beyond the physical world nothing exists. Jaspers and other critical theorists can confidently claim along with Dawkins and Dennett that we all now live in a “postmetaphysical” world. However, as Habermas explains, the costs of accepting a full-blown Scientism is too great for the human creature, and, consequently, the existential content of religion must be salvaged to protect us from science reducing “the lifeworld” down to the merely objective and impersonal, even if we can be happy about being relieved from religious “dogmatism” at the same time.8 And here I think we could say that certain moral dogmas of traditional Christian churches, especially in the area of sexual morality and ethics, are in view for the critical theorists. For more on the deconstruction of religious sexual ethics see Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, where he argues for sexual “free play” and a “libidinal rationality.”

When it comes to morality, therefore, these two kinds of naturalism begin to differ in that those who invest their hope in the semantic power of language and symbols try to ground morality in some universally shared aspects of human culture, as opposed to merely natural facts about the human organism. As we will see, however, this is no less a quixotic, or herculean, task than that of its materialistic cousin.

Regardless, both Scientism and Semanticism are on one side of a philosophical line, while a third view, Supernaturalism, is clearly on the other side of that line.

Supernaturalism is the view that there is a real world of immaterial Being (either God or something like Abstract Objects or both), and real cause-and-effect agency beyond the mere physical world of natural processes or human biological machines. As such Supernaturalism is usually the overarching view of the traditional theist, the view of someone who really believes that the semantic content of their sacred texts actually refers to mind-independent entities: to a God or gods, angels or demons, etc. For the supernaturalist, these are real substances (albeit immaterial ones) that have causal powers, a moral dimension, and some kind or degree of free will. Those who hold to the existence of minds may also be rightly called super-naturalists, or at least metaphysical dualists of some sort.

For Christians of a classical persuasion, Supernaturalism is the correct understanding of and approach to reality. Although it may sound unfashionable or shocking to modern and post-modern ears, the true Christian really does believe that the cosmos is a lot “spookier” than the scientist or semanticist may be willing to grant. Christians who accept the full inspiration of Scripture, for example, really believe that the scriptures contain a special kind of knowledge, a revelation knowledge, part of which confirms our common sense notion of a realm that goes unseen in the normal day to day. As such, the beings the scriptures speak of, this “unseen realm”9 For more on the unseen realm of the Bible, see Michael S. Heiser’s book of the same name, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. referred to in its pages, are to be taken quite seriously, since they themselves are in some sense more real than the physical world itself (or, at least, equally as real).

When it comes to morality, the supernaturalist will have a far wider range of explanatory options than the adherent of scientism or semanticism, and that in virtue of their being an actual Divine Person, and various principles that issue forth from that Person, either directly in the form of commands, e.g. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, or wife, or ox, etc…” or indirectly through natural laws embedded in the creation itself. The same goes for meaning and purpose, as the supernaturalist, whether Christian or Jew or Muslim, will also claim some kind of true story, some universal hermeneutic that explains our position in reality, and that comes replete with an origins story and an eschatological future.

In the next post I will look at Scientism, and ask the question of whether or not it can offer us any sense of hope in light of our existential circumstances.