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, or human souls that have actual causal powers, moral natures, and that will 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 one of these types of naturalism individually, and how they attempt, if at all, 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.

It is at this point, nevertheless that 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.

Critical Race Theory & The Bible: Reversing the Hermeneutical Lens

Imagine for a moment you are a scholar with a deep interest in the early Church Fathers and the Scholastic theologians. More specifically you are deeply engaged with the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the two most influential thinkers in the Church’s history (with Martin Luther a close third), and perhaps the two most influential, non-Greek philosophers in history period (with Hume, Kant and Marx a close third, fourth, and fifth). Miraculously you receive the opportunity to travel back in time, or perhaps to meet in some timeless dimension, and speak to both Augustine and Thomas personally. Obviously, you have one burning question on your mind for both men: “what is it like to wear robes your whole life?”

You flub that first question, obviously due to the anxiety of being in the midst of such giants, or maybe because you are still freaked out about being in a timeless dimension, but your follow-up question is one that has troubled scholars and laymen, pastors and their congregations for centuries: how should we interpret the Bible? Or, perhaps you ask it this way: how do we know that the Bible is divinely inspired and the infallible Word of God? What answer do you think these two geniuses might give?

I am no scholar of the early Church Fathers, nor expert in the medieval theologians, however, I think I can assert with some confidence what both Auggie and Tom would not say. They would not say this: [for Augustine] “Well, first I have to know everything that Plato said, and really understand Plato and his disciples, and then I can go read the sacred Scriptures and figure out what they mean.” Or, for Aquinas, this: “You know, first I have to read everything Aristotle ever wrote; and understand everything that great man said; and agonize over his theories; and then, and only then, can I go read the Bible and decide what is true and what is not, or what is inspired and what is merely the product of human hands.”

Not for a moment would either have said such a thing. Of course, I also do not believe either would have answered in English, but whatever the Latin equivalent of each statement is, the propositional content would still be roughly the same: “we do not study Plato or Aristotle to know that the Bible is true.” Rather, “We know the Bible is true, and then we see what Plato or Aristotle have to say about the world that might also be true, and how it might comport with the Bible.”

In other words, neither Augustine or Aquinas, these “Doctors” as the Catholic church would call them (and Calvin too!), would have ever suggested that in order to properly understand the Special Revelation that is the divinely inspired canon of scripture, one had to first understand the best reflections of a pagan philosopher from general revelation. And most certainly one does not need Plato or Aristotle to know what in the Bible is true, or to know whether the Bible in its entirety is inspired and infallible. Such nonsense and outright blasphemy would never have entered the mind of these great saints. What was clear and indubitable to both was that the Bible was the very content of divine Truth, the Word of God to man, and that the pagan philosopher was but a medium through which that Truth might be expressed in a somewhat more relevant way to a particular culture, in a particular place, in a particular time. Plato and Aristotle were servants to Solomon and Paul, not masters.

However, as depressing as it might be to actual experts in the Church Fathers or the Medieval Scholastics, we no longer live in the culture or time of Augustine or Aquinas. Unlike them, we are all children of Modernity, and Modernity has drastically changed the way we look not only at the Bible, but at philosophy, and human culture itself. Modernity, and its prolonged extension, Post-Modernity, have rearranged our approach not just to the Bible, but to the interpretation of any book or text (even scientific ones).

Philosophical Shifts and Their Hermeneutical Effects

Since the 18th century, and especially due to those three other aforementioned thinkers: Hume, Kant and Marx, ideas about Special Revelation among many in the Church, and in many churches, has been exactly the opposite from those of the Church Fathers or the Scholastics. Instead of supposing biblical Truth as prior to purely rational reflection on man and God, modern theologians have chosen to take the best (or perhaps in Marx’s case just the most influential) philosophical thinking of the day and use it as the interpretive tool by which to gauge the true or false, the inspired or merely human, parts of the Bible. Unlike Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum, this is instead intelligence seeking faith, a methodological approach that does a great bit of picking and choosing along the way.

The prodigious Roman Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, explains this modern approach in light of the modern, or empirical view, of culture:

“The classicist notion of culture was normative: at least de jure there was but one culture that was both universal and permanent; to its norms and ideals might aspire the uncultured, whether they were the young or the people or the natives or the barbarians. Besides the classicist, there also is the empirical notion of culture. It is the set of meanings and values that informs a way of life. It may remain unchanged for ages. It may be in process of slow development or rapid dissolution.”

Bernard Lonergan. “Method in Theology.”

According to Lonergan, then, since the birth of the Modern, culture has been viewed in the empiricist mode, which means, even if a given culture might sustain its values and meanings over extended time, it is nevertheless devoid of anything universal or enduring. Moreover, there is no Culture, there are only cultures. As such, on this view of culture, methodology itself becomes primary for the theologian, “When culture is conceived empirically, theology is known to be an ongoing process, and then one writes on its method.”1Lonergan, Method in Theology. He further explains what this modern method might look like, “A contemporary method would conceive those tasks in the context of modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy, of historicity, collective practicality and coresponsibility.” However, this is very different from how theology is done on the classicist view of culture, “When the classicist notion of culture prevails, theology is conceived as a permanent achievement, and then one discourses on its nature.”

Augustine and Aquinas, unlike theologians today, were working under the classicist understanding of culture. Thus, while Augustine clearly used Platonic and neo-Platonic modes of thought and metaphysical categories to better articulate the truths already found in the inspired Scriptures, and where Aquinas, after the rediscovery of the Philosopher in the 12th century, appropriated Aristotle in order to expound Gospel truths in a more robust and synthetic manner, the trend in the last two hundred years of the Church’s history2 actually one can find this trend much earlier in the sense of intellectual history, perhaps as far back as Spinoza in the mid 17th century. However, it was in the 19th century that Enlightenment critiques really began to sink into the life of the Church, especially in the German and English speaking worlds, has been to turn this methodology on its head— to reverse the heremeneutical lens. On the empiricist view of culture, the one ushered in by the ruminations of thinkers like Hume, Kant3 This is not to say that Kant was an empiricist, but that his views served to facilitate this empiricist understanding of culture, and Marx, it is now the engagement with “modern science, modern scholarship, modern philosophy…” that sets the stage for biblical interpretation.

For several generations now this reversal of the hermeneutical lens has deeply impacted the Protestant churches especially, although Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have not been left unscathed. The practice of taking some current and influential, yet purely immanent theory, about the world as the paradigm through which we understand the Bible, as opposed to taking the Bible and seeing how we might press into service the philosophical theory, has been vogue for quite some time. In fact, so vogue that it is, as Lonergan hints, the default methodology for knowing what is true or false, what is right or wrong within the Christian tradition. We might call this en vogue approach something like “General Revelation Prioritism,” since it makes the Bible just one part of a larger revelatory schema, a schema that itself is in the process of constant change.

Practitioners of “GRP” might appropriately be called “General Revelationists” in that they assume one must adopt extra-biblical thought patterns or paradigms by which to adjudicate the contents of the Bible, rather than the other way round, analyzing the thought patterns and paradigms of the Bible to adjudicate over extra-biblical ones. Again, this approach is not for the purpose of contextualization or elaboration of the scriptural data, an unavoidable act for any pastor or theologian, but for the purpose of actually determining the truth value of biblical propositions4 Any act of interpretation would obviously include things like historical context, grammatical analysis, and, of course, literary genre. However, it is not my purpose here to discuss the analytical tools needed for a proper, original-intent hermeneutical approach. For more on proper contextual interpretation see Michael S. Heiser’s excellent podcast, The Naked Bible at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0Ud2F59K45tT5dujVD0Qzw., or for distinguishing especially inspired and divine parts of the Bible from its less inspired and historically contingent human parts.

There is also no real sense that this trend of hermeneutical reversal will revert back to a previous paradigm, like the one of the Middle Ages, barring some massive global crisis, or maybe some very public manifestations of supernatural (metaphysical) realities. Manifestations of such entities which might shock us out of our empirical malaise, reconfirming the validity of the metaphysics that so belabored the ancient and medieval mind, and reaffirming the classicist view of culture. Thus, it becomes incumbent upon the historically and metaphysically minded Christian to know when certain philosophical or social theories5all social theories are philosophical, even if not all philosophical theories are social have not only been adopted by churches in their approach to Scripture, but also when they have been elevated above the scriptures in such a way as to make them, the theories, the norm by which the data of Scripture must be evaluated. Further, each generation of Christians must be in the position to show why a particular philosophical theory falls short, and in doing so, show why it should not be utilized as an interpretive lens for the special revelation of the sacred texts.

Today, the paradigm through which many are attempting to read the pages of Scripture in order to see which parts remain valid, and which can be relegated to a trash bin of historically situated religious aphorisms, is Critical Race Theory– a theory that itself is born out of another all-encompassing system, namely, Marxism.

What Makes A Universal Hermeneutic Universal?

What is a universal hermeneutic? A universal hermeneutic is basically a worldview, an explanatory framework of the world that acts as a totalizing system of thought, a filter through which all human phenomena are interpreted, and into which we are meant to try and fit not just public history, but also our own personal narratives, each of which is itself one member of the total set of historical, human phenomena. Traditional religions like Christianity or Islam, for example, are totalizing systems in that they seek to explain the most fundamental aspects of human existence through a single, interpretive lens (or narrative). Those fundamental aspects are: origins, meaning or purpose, morality, authority, and eschatology or final destination.

For Christians, passages like Genesis 1 & 3; Romans 1:18-32, or John 1 and Rev 21 make such totalizing claims with regard to origins, meaning, purpose, etc., and all in reference to God and Christ. The Apostle Paul sums up the Christian way of looking at reality when he writes, “He is before all things, and in Him [Christ] all things hold together” (Gal 1:17), or when he proclaims “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:9). However, it is not just traditional religions that perform this role of universal interpretive lens. Philosopher C. Stephan Evans talks about a “global” hermeneutic when referencing the work of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud:

“I call these perspectives global because they are applied to human persons as a whole and they are used to understand huge swathes of human action. I call them hermeneutical because I think their epistemic force is not captured by standard models of empirical science which emphasize prediction and verification or falsification. Such global perspectives differ from scientific hypotheses in that they rarely, if ever, can be confirmed or refuted by specific events.”

“The Revolt Against Accountability to God: A Global Hermeneutic Perspective on Contemporary Moral Philosophy” in Philosophia Christi Vol. 21, No. 2 2019.

Evans argues here that certain systems of thought act as global hermeneutics when they sidestep any critique of the natural sciences regarding their validity, i.e. their correspondence with reality, yet all the while making enormous claims about global humanity and the human condition. In fact, on these systems, the scientific project itself is under the microscope, and therefore cannot make any claims against the hermeneutic.

Agreeing with Evans, I choose however to use the term “universal” instead of global only because universal better encompasses the full sweep of history, i.e. to all trans-historical phenomena that either appear to occur in a stage-like process, or that explain why all people and cultures, regardless of their place in history, acted in certain ways. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud all constructed systems that attempted to provide this kind of trans-temporal, universal explanation. Darwin would be a fourth to add to that list. However, for the purposes of this article, we need to focus on Karl Marx.6 Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution was very compatible with Marx’s economic theories and his dialetic of materialism.

Focusing on Marx then, whose theory will be more relevant to our understanding of contemporary Critical Race Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre makes the following point about Marxist claims:

Only one secular doctrine retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation: Marxism.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity

Here we must pause. For how can Marx claim the kind of explanatory scope and power for his system that he seems to want to claim? On Christianity or Islam, there is at least a transcendental claim, namely, that God has revealed things to man about man that go beyond man’s own speculation. But, this is clearly not the case for Marx (nor for his counterparts Freud and Nietzsche), whose entire theory is grounded in materialism. How does the atheistic Marxist justify the self-referential claim that Marxism acts as a universal, explanatory system for all of human history? After all, isn’t the Marxist system itself, like all other philosophical systems, embedded in that same history? Isn’t Marxism also a product of human minds operating in a particular place in time, and, therefore, open to eventual irrelevancy and falsification like the other philosophical systems that came before it? How can Marxism claim to be the overarching interpretation of its own history, where other theories were not?

It is often said of Marx that he “flipped Hegel on his [Hegel’s] head.” What that means is that Marx claimed that in his own thinking philosophy itself had become conscious or aware of its own foundations. In other words the history of philosophy is not the history of rational human agents thinking great abstract thoughts, thoughts that then bear down on and shape concrete material and social realities; rather, the history of philosophy is the history of concrete realities shaping human thinkers who, for reasons intimately connected to their material and social conditions, then generate great, or apparently great, abstract thoughts. Progress (or teleology), according to Marx, is not in the great synthesizing of abstract ideas, rather, pace Hegel, it occurs in the dialectic of materialism, the transformation of previously conflicting states of material conditions into new states of material conditions. Since man just is an amalgam of material, a new set of material conditions means a new man. Thus, if material conditions are understood, and then altered, so can man be liberated from that which has alienated him from himself. First he can be liberated from toilsome labor, itself a curse of both Capitalist and of Canon (Genesis 3:17-19), and second he can finally be freed from an abstract, yet non-existent view of his own self, from a human “essence” or nature, as defined by religion or abstract philosophy (i.e. Plato). For Marx and his followers there are not “fixed natures” that endure over time, there is only the perpetual dialectic.

It is in this sense that Marx believes he has truly discovered, or created, something new. MacIntyre puts it this way,

“It is this conception of truth that enables Marx both to affirm a historical relativism concerning all philosophies and also to deny that his own philosophy is merely a product of the time, since it is in Marx’s own thought that philosophy has for the first time become conscious of its historical basis in seeking to transform that basis and has therefore passed beyond the limitations of earlier philosophy. ”

Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.”

For Marx then, there can be no changing of “the human heart” until there is a changing of the material conditions surrounding the human body (and mind, whatever that might be). Change the material and social conditions, change the man who lives in them. This is the crux of Marxist thought, and the key to Marxism acting not only as a universal hermeneutic, but also as a direct competitor with classical Christianity, which clearly asserts the very opposite notion: change the human heart, change the material and social conditions in which men live. But, if we have two worldviews competing for the role of universal hermeneutic, then the inevitable question emerges: which one, if any, does the work of interpreting the other?

While classical Marxism has by and large been rejected by contemporary, Western culture, that does not mean that versions of it, i.e. the intellectual great-grandchildren of Marx, have been rejected. One version of Marxist thought that blossomed in the mid 20th-century is Critical Theory, and one version of Critical Theory that is taking on the properties of a universal hermeneutic in the English-speaking world today is Critical Race Theory.

Does Critical Race Theory Operate As A Universal Hermeneutic?

That Critical Race Theory has the potential to act as a universal heremeneutic or totalizing, explanatory system seems at face value plausible. First, recall the four or five domains of human existence any universal hermeneutical system must try and answer: human origins, meaning and purpose, morality, authority, and end state or eschatology.

With the exception of a clear origins story (although there is some evidence for emerging popular-level versions), CRT seems to offer an overarching meaning and purpose for human existence: the human story is one fundamentally about oppression and liberation, of oppressive groups, or hegemonic powers, and their victims. On CRT race becomes the central property determining where one stands, or has historically stood, within the oppressor-oppressed dynamic. All human existence, all meaning, relates to this very Marxist, and even very Darwinian, understanding of life. The dynamic itself is also one that is not foreign to the biblical worldview, a dynamic that C.S. Lewis creatively portrays in The Screwtape Letters, when he has Screwtape explain Hell’s philosophy:

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition’.”

C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.”

The goal on CRT then is the liberation from these oppressive, racist (or sexist) societal structures. Liberation is the key concept in any Critical Theory, and the psychology of always being in the place of having to be liberated from some structure of oppression, or oppressor group, can provide the individual, or community, with an enduring, sacred struggle worth fighting. This struggle, or the being actively involved in it, can also create the framework for certain moral values and obligations to emerge.

With regard to morality, CRT also addresses the age-old question of “How now shall we live?” Moral goodness on a CRT view can have two aspects: first, an intellectual aspect of awakening, i.e. “wokeness,” to one’s own role in the oppressor class–to one’s identity as oppressor. This personal, or corporate, enlightenment can then engender acts of piety, especially of propitiation and satisfaction, in the form of publicly declaring one’s newfound sense of guilt and shame, followed by various symbolic acts of repentance and sacrifice. Whether or not those acts of repentance or sacrifice will actually be accepted, however, is questionable at best. This is something the mayor of Minneapolis appeared to learn first-hand quite recently. Thus, it is yet to be seen whether or not there is room for atonement on CRT, or just propitiation without real satisfaction and ultimate reconciliation.

This second aspect of CRT morality, public moral action, could also be seen as having two facets: first, the willingness to abdicate any advantage (usually material, but not always) in life one may have attained to those in the historically oppressed class or classes, and second, becoming politically active so as to advance, or enforce, the abdication of advantage by those who resist the voluntary handing over of goods to those perceived as historically disadvantaged. This can provide many people who are otherwise immoral (according to any transcendent standard) with a public means to be moral, a means through which to demonstrate their newfound moral superiority over others who can now be labelled as immoral, i.e. the “non-woke.”

As such, there is both an element of intellectual enlightenment here akin to Gnosticism, as ignorant oppressors, for now White people, become aware of themselves as indelibly corrupt vìs-a-vìs their darker skinned counterparts, and an element of concrete, social action in light of this pseudo-spiritual illumination. This illumination, of course, is provided to them by those of the oppressed class (at least in theory), who preside over secret knowledge in virtue of their being oppressed.7 For more on this idea of “Ethnic Gnosticism” see Voddie Bauckham: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ip3nV6S_fYU.

Here again we see the Marxist ideology that underlies CRT, as CRT is able to both claim a status that places it beyond the ken of accepted, epistemic standards of justification, while also making concrete, political action its fundamental moral activity. MacIntyre sums up this dual Marxist impulse of the interconnectedness of special knowledge and political activism, “It is only those who are engaged in changing the world who can hope to see the world rightly.”8 Marxism and Christianity, Applebooks, 63. Indeed on CRT, only CRT activists have the proper standpoint from which to gauge reality.

That also opens up another domain of CRT as it potentially acts as a totalizing system: the role of authority. For the philosophical critical theorists, the goal of social theory was, of course, the perfection of democracy. A “real democracy”9 see James Bohman article “Critical Theory” in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 2: https://nypost.com/2020/06/07/oh-grow-up-mayor-frey-devine/ would entail human beings being in control of the social factors that affect and shape them. Again, as per Marx, if human agents are nothing more than the product of matter and social constructs, then to be able to properly understand and control material and social conditions just is the means by which we can become new kinds of creatures. Ultimately, the “real democracy” the early critical theorists were arguing for was one where the human community itself could effectively play the role of God. Authority is no longer reified and objectified into a metaphysical deity, a benevolent “sky-daddy” who will fulfill our deepest desires. Rather, we must, through the rational analysis of those things that we as human beings produce, figure out what the perfect set of conditions will be, so that we can live in a new creation of our own making.

If this is the case though, then what appears as an inescapable feature of this immanently human attempt to recreate ourselves, is the need for something like a priestly caste, or at least a teaching magisterium that guides the ignorant among us into this undiscovered territory, and that mediates the untapped potential in us all to usher in the new society. Consequently, we see evidence of an emerging authoritative group in CRT, namely, a sort of “star chamber” of gurus who have coined the various terms that impregnate the view with its symbolic content (“white fragility,” “white guilt,” “intersectionality”), and whose work has lead to pragmatic initiatives like diversity training in major corporations, the construction of diversity task forces at universities, or movements like Black Lives Matter. Priests and priestesses like Robin DiAngelo, Peggy MacIntosh, or Ibrahim Kendi come quickly to mind as leaders of the new movement.

Several thinkers like Andrew Sullivan, themselves far from being fundamentalist Christians, have pointed out how CRT, or here core tenets of it, operate as a religion, especially on university campuses where the aforementioned authorial figures are most impactful. Moreover, that other fervent non-Theists like James Lindsay or Peter Boghossian, have become prophetic voices against the threat of CRT, and have even allied with conservative Christians to fight CRT, provides additional evidence that CRT has moved into the realm of operating as a religious worldview, something that would make any classical atheist from Russell to Dawkins rightly shake in their scientistic boots. Even the realm of mathematics does not seem off limits to the interpretive power of CRT, as evidenced by a recent statement of the Mathematical Association of America.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not CRT provides any answer to the question of eschatology, or end state. That it can, like on Marxism, and perhaps even Christianity to a lesser degree, seems obscure. On CRT we are told what the societal problem is, we are told that there is means to solving it, and we are introduced to a group of authoritative figures who can guide us through it, but there is little to no sense of what that solution will look like once we arrive. Like Marxism, the undiscovered country remains shrouded in perpetual mystery until you actually get there to tread the supposedly new ground. MacIntyre states it this way, “but just as Christianity has been much better at describing the state of fallen men than the glories of redeemed men, so Marxism is better at explaining what alienation consists of than in describing the future nature of unalienated men.”10Excerpt From: Alasdair MacIntyre. “Marxism and Christianity.” It is worth noting that MacIntyre wrote this prior to his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Pace MacIntyre, Christianity does give us some vision of the end, even if a highly symbolic one as found in the book of Revelation. However, per MacIntyre, Marxism, and by inference Critical Race Theory, clearly lack anything like an ultimate telos, a serious description of what “liberated man” is supposed to look like once his or her earthly liberation has occurred. Of course, for any true Christian the idea of final liberation, and the final happiness that accompanies final liberation, apart from a real unity with our Creator is already at the core empty. For the Christian man, any notion of a freedom devoid of a real Christ, and a real relationship with a personal God, is just the foundational sin all over again– it is the originating original sin.

In sum, there is good reason to think that CRT does attempt to fill the role of a totalizing system or worldview that acts as a religion in its answering, regardless of how poorly, the questions of, to a lesser degree, human origins and end state; and, to a higher degree, questions of existential meaning and purpose, and moral values and duties. If this is the case, then CRT may indeed become for some, or perhaps for many, a universal hermeneutic by which all other things are evaluated and put into their right place, to include the biblical revelation.

However, the question now emerges of whether or not there is evidence of this being done within the confines of the Church itself? Has there been a capitulation to CRT in the domain of Christian education, or within the walls (or Zoom services) of evangelical churches?

Evidence that CRT is Acting As A New Heremeneutic in the Church

The natural sciences may be the last domain of culture holding out against the new hermeneutic of Critical Race Theory, although as alluded to above, that fortification also shows signs of crumbling. With regard to the Church however, CRT already seems to be for many Protestant churches and seminaries, to include some areas of Catholicism, the go-to paradigm for biblical interpretation, theological construction, and pastoral application. A quick look at something like the missions statement of a Wake Forest School of Divinity, or this recent post by Union Theological Seminary should suffice to justify this claim. However, the orientation of institutes like these should not surprise us, since they have long since accepted the Enlightenment critique of metaphysical knowledge, and the post-modern critique of epistemology.

Not only does the Bible become a merely human book for primarily critical analysis at institutes like these, but also in their embrace of current social theories and post-modern epistemology11 Post-modernism cannot rightly be called an epistemology, since it rejects any and all notions of the entire epistemic endeavor to gain or have knowledge. Post-modernism is essentially an anti-epistemological school of thought in that it rejects any need for beliefs or truth claims to be rationally justified. As such it works on an entirely different Theory of Truth than classical Correspondence Theory., the Bible can become a means to various worldly ends. Thus, the Scriptures no longer present us with a means for “how to go to heaven” but become a user’s manual for how to create heaven on earth. But, even then, the Bible is at best only a marginally useful tool, one that can be readily supplemented, or must be supplemented, by other “sacred” texts like the Koran, the Upanishads, or again, by Marxist doctrines.

What may be new however for these classically liberal institutions is not their already long-standing methodology of deconstructing a historical Gospel proclamation in order to reconstruct a social gospel correlated to the philosophical theories of the day and the existential needs of culture, but the raw material from which they can draw in order to engage in biblical interpretation and theological reconstruction. The Social Gospel of the 1920’s and 30’s was one thing, one theory located in its own time and it its own culture. The Social Justice Gospel is a new thing. After all, institutes that have divested themselves of the ontology of Scripture, i.e. its inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy, and sufficiency, to include any robust version of natural law, will always have a new gospel to preach as speculation on general revelation shifts and moves with the flow of time. Again, for the General Revelationist, the Bible will tell us the truth only when we have first discerned from current social theory what in the Bible is even worthy of consideration. Only then can its wisdom shine, and that only as long as the current social theory maintains its influence.

But, there is even more evidence that CRT is now taking over in places that once would have been considered bastions of historical, orthodox Evangelicalism. Seminaries that have adamantly held on to the classicist view of culture, and the fixity of human nature, now seem susceptible to the influence of CRT. For example, a recent petition signed by over 4000 former students of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) located in La Mirada, CA provides additional support for the claim that even more traditional Protestant schools are drifting from their original, missionary intent, and potentially moving toward a new, universal hermeneutic. Recent chapels held at the same institution seem to suggest that it is through the lens of CRT that we must learn to re-read the text of Scripture, even the Beatitudes themselves.

While it is not clear whether the hermeneutical lens will be reversed at places like Biola, or other evangelical schools, some of which have been explicit in their rejection of CRT, that CRT has the potential to become the accepted mode of biblical interpretation is, I think, quite plausible. Unfortunately, this would not the first time the church has fallen for the speculations of men over the Word of God.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas, indeed, pray for us!

*For more detailed information on Critical Race Theory, see Neil Shenvi-Apologetics here. For an atheist perspective on the dangers of Critical Race Theory, see James Lindsay’s excellent interview with Al Mohler here.

Defending Christian Hope against Its Historical Contenders

In the preface to his 1968 book Marxism and Christianity, then atheist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre1 MacIntyre eventual went on to convert to Roman Catholicism. opens with an incisive statement about the nature of Christian and Marxist beliefs:

“The second point worth remark is the extent to which Christians and Marxists both wish to exempt their own doctrines from the historical relativity which they are all too willing to ascribe to the doctrines of others. They thus fail to formulate adequately the task of discriminating between the truths of which their tradition is a bearer from what are merely defensive or aggressive responses to their social situation. But if they will not do this, then their critics have a duty to try to do it for them.”2MacIntyre. Marxism and Christianity, Apple Books. 8

In this part of the preface MacIntyre points out that both Christianity and Marxism share a fundamental commonality, they both make claims about their own systemic beliefs, their own “doctrines” that place the truth value of those beliefs outside the reach of the relative and contingent nature of historical and cultural conditions. They assert that their beliefs sit on a firm metaphysical (Christianity) or epistemic (Marxism) foundation, while the truth values of beliefs of other world views shift and move as historical currents ebb and flow. Christianity and Marxism make claims that seem to be untouchable by these shifting sands of social history, and act therefore as universal hermeneutical lenses by which all of human history can be properly interpreted, both at the cultural and individual level.

If this is the case, then for every generation of the Church it will be a fundamental task of the Christian apologist to answer the singular question that MacIntrye raises in this descriptive statement, namely, to what extent is Christianity, or more particularly Christian beliefs, the byproduct of cognitive reactions to particular historical and cultural conditions, and to what extent are Christian beliefs separate from or transcendent to those same historical or cultural conditions. In other words, if there are Christian truths, are they merely contingent ones that are valid perhaps only for a moment in time or for a particular culture in a certain place in time, or are they necessary truths that are valid regardless of any given historical or cultural situation. And, if there are such transhistorical truths, how does one discern or “discriminate” which ones are born by the actual Christian tradition, from those that are just beliefs conditioned by historical circumstances, and that can eventually be altered, amended, or even eliminated from the overall deposit of faith as the circumstances themselves change?3 one example of this might be the role of women in ministry vìs-a-vìs the doctrine of the Trinity.

This is a fundamental task for the Christian apologist trying to answer the skeptical voices of her day, whether that skeptical voice come in a rationalistic, modernistic tone, or in a post-modernistic, existential one. But, how we answer the rationalist and how we answer the existentialist will differ, and must differ, if we are going to successfully challenge the current Zeitgeist that seeks to undermine those transhistorical truths of the Christian tradition, as well as adapt our theology to meet its legitimate historical contentions. To answer the first type we must defend the truthfulness of Christian propositional claims, but to answer the latter type we will be required to defend the beauty of its vision.

Responding to Modernist Positivism & The Challenge from Science

For almost two and a half centuries, since perhaps the dawn of the Enlightenment with Rene Descarte, and through the advent of Darwinian Evolution in the late 19th century, Christianity has had to contend with one broad, yet very dominant philosophical view of reality: rationalism. Although other non-Christian intellectual movements were always afoot, e.g. 18th-19th century German Pantheism, rationalism has broadly shaped the course of Western culture, especially in Europe, the UK and the US for some time. More accurately though, it was not just the hegemony of human reason as the sole source of knowledge, but really the theories of empiricism that won the day, beating out its historical competitors, such as pure rationalism and philosophical idealism, to become the guiding light of modern social and political reality. While pure rationalism held that human reason alone, entirely apart from observation, could gain access to universal or necessary truths, and Idealism claimed that human consciousness was more fundamental than the matter it perceived; pure empiricism suggested instead that all knowledge arises out of experience, which means it arises through the senses.

This empiricism then, with the natural sciences operating as its functional arm, eventually culminated in what many philosophers know as “Logical Positivism” a philosophical view that asserted that any truth claim that could not be verified by scientific methods was essentially a meaningless claim. On the historical heals of David Hume’s skepticism and Immanuel Kant’s subsequent epistemic dismantling of metaphysical knowledge, logical positivism was the ultimate outworking of a rationalistic and hyper-empirical framework of knowing. Logical Positivists like A.J. Ayer sought for certainty about truth claims, and determined that only the methods of natural science and mathematical reasoning could deliver that certainty. This view effectively transformed most religious claims, and all kinds of other claims, into ones of a merely private and utterly mystical sort. Ultimately Logical Positivism fell apart as internal critiques mounted and as external critiques about the truth conditions of science itself were levied against it.4 see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

With regard to the challenges that more modest forms of scientific empiricism have made to religious metaphysical and epistemic truth claims, these have been responded to for well over 50 years now. They have been met with robust philosophical and theological answers, and it is these interactions that most Christian apologists today are familiar with.5 A prime example would be debates such as William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll, or Craig vs. the late Christopher Hitchens, or John Lennox vs. Richard Dawkins. As the rise of analytic philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century provided post-WWII Christian scholars with tools to redevelop in a fresh way many of the classical arguments for Christian theism, so now one can find Christian philosophical resources answering the challenges of scientific empiricism with relative ease. The big names in this field are easily recognized by Christians who dabble in theology, philosophy or even biblical studies: Swinburne, Plantinga, Craig, Pruss, Adams, Alston, Stump, Van Inwagen et al., are well known analytical philosophers of religion who have specifically engaged in the defense of either theistic belief broadly, or Christian doctrine more precisely.

This movement has even spawned a more focused inquiry in the area of Christian doctrine called Analytic Theology, where the tools of analytic philosophy of religion are pressed into service to more carefully articulate core Christian doctrines such as the Trinity or the Incarnation.

This scientific empiricism that has challenged and continues to challenge the historical deposit of the Christian faith one could label as Modernistic Positivism. It is modern in that it reflects the core tenets of the early modern period, which emphasized the use of human reason as the main tool for accessing truth about the world. It is positivist in that it seeks through verification principles a positive understanding and description of reality, one that human beings could hopefully take in, grasp, and build off of. Today, there are still well known modernists who despite their atheism or agnosticism on religious or metaphysical claims maintain their belief that there is objective truth that can be accessed by the means of science, and that there are law-like structures that can be discovered by human investigation. Some who have a modernist bent will even suggest that religious systems like Christianity make true claims when it comes to morality, even if its metaphysics is false. They are moral realists in the fullest sense, even if moral values find their grounding in some object other than the divine nature or will.

To this historically conditioned modernist positivist view, it seems now that not only is there a robust and fairly charitable, ongoing dialogue, but that Christianity now even has allied itself with some of modernism’s more rigorous defenders. The reason for this is the unity found in the use of reason as a means to access truth. Reason, for many modernists, is not historically situated, at least not entirely, and while there may not be a “viewpoint from nowhere” in the words of one atheist philosopher,6 This phrase is attributed to NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel there are views of reality that can be shown to be more legitimate than others, more accurate than not, and more true than false. While Christianity may have been reeling in the mid- 20th century to meet the challenge levied against it by modernist positivism, it seems now to have held its own with regard to defending the universal truths that are born by its Great Tradition: e.g. that God exists, that God is Triune, that Jesus is God, that He rose from the dead, etc.

Outstanding areas of debate of course still exist in many realms of inquiry, e.g. the historical Adam and Eve, the reliability of the Gospels, the transmission of the Old Testament manuscripts, and modernist positivists will always raise objections to objective claims about metaphysical and historical truths, especially in their demand for more concrete forms of evidence for those claims. For the modernist positivist, dialogue will still be primarily a matter of discussing evidence and using reason to adjudicate truth values of propositions. But, these demands and this method can at least be met with some measure of force today, even if they are never fully satisfied by the tools of reason alone.

The larger problem that now looms before many Christian apologists however is no longer how to respond to a subsection of Western culture that embraces these increasingly irrelevant 19th and early 20th century philosophical views, but how to respond to what is quickly becoming the dominant philosophical view of our times, a view I will call postmodern existentialism.

Responding to Postmodern Existentialism & The Marxist Challenge

“But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”

Karl Marx

Christian apologists may feel they have been by and large battling men in white lab coats and grizzled logicians in the Russellian tradition the last several decades. Men in this rationalist tradition, and only infrequently women, have pressed Christian defenders, always looking for more evidence and more verification for their claims. Today, however, the tide has shifted yet again, and apologists find themselves confronted with a different face of atheism, one that is far more subtle in its manifestations and far more willing to operate as a replacement for religion than its modernist predecessor.

While the modernist positivist often still believes in progress based on a persistent and rigorous investigation of nature and its laws, the postmodern existentialist differs drastically from the Enlightenment hanger-on in her rejection of the idea that objective truth is attainable. All claims to truth are tainted by human innovation and thought, and therefore the only area of inquiry worth putting to the test is human thought itself. The postmodern existentialist therefore places far less emphasis on putting microbes under microscopic scrutiny and instead puts the social conditions of the biologist herself under scrutiny, in the hopes of finding out why the biologist will make certain conclusions about said microbe and not other ones. On this view, society itself is the lab rat, and everything else, to include philosophy, theology and even the natural sciences, is downstream from culture. On such a view it will matter who examines the nature and effects of the Coronavirus, regardless of whether they have identical academic credentials. But, it will not be their reason that leads them to varying conclusions, it will be other sociological properties that differentiate them.

For the postmodern existentialist then it is the human agent herself that constructs the systems in which she lives and externalizes and reifies (makes real) her own identity and essence. Man is animal for the postmodern existentialist to be sure, but he is an animal of his own making. To engage with this kind of philosophical worldview puts the Christian apologist in a very different epistemic and social arena than when dealing with the aforementioned modernist, since the modernist positivist still has an outward looking view of truth, while the postmodern existentialist finds all truth, even those outside herself, as products of her own thinking. This marks the inward turn from truth as verifiable fact subject to reason, to truth as “lived experience” subject to social and cultural conditions.

At the outset of this essay I suggested that it would be the task of every generation of the Church to have to show how Christian truth claims (at least some of them) are not subject to the shifting sands of cultural development, or mere byproducts of social conditions, but rather are transcendent, universal, timeless, and perhaps even necessary, e.g. the belief that God exists. However, there is a second task that each new generation of the Church will face if MacIntyre’s opening statement is true, namely, Christianity will have to persistently counter the arguments of the other worldview that claims to provide a universal interpretive lens to human history: Marxism.

My goal here is not to retell the history of Marxism, which must be understood in light of Hegel’s phenomenology and his view of the history of philosophy. A history that Marx thought needed to move from the realm of the abstract to the concrete realities of life. Marxist philosophy is philosophy actualized. That is why Marx’s focus was to present history as not a history of abstract ideas like Hegel, but one of economic stages. For Marx, it is the lower rung of material conditions that shapes and molds the human animal, and in shaping and molding the human animal, the very thoughts that that animal has, to include her religious thoughts, are also shaped. Thus, to change the lower rung of material conditions, is to change the constitution of the thinking animal. And, to change the thinking animal is to change the abstract thoughts the animal has, i.e. to change philosophy itself. Change the abstract thoughts and you change the very possibility of thinking about God. And, if as Feuerbach argued, God just is a replacement for the wants and needs left unmet in the individual human animal, and if those wants and needs can be met by the reshaping of the lower rung of material conditions, then you have a means by which thinking about God can itself vanish into oblivion. This is why, “in the course of building a communist society, the Marxist must fight religion because it will inevitably stand in its path.” (MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, Apple Books 102).

As such, Postmodern existentialism is postmodern in that it claims (circularly) that human reason itself is shaped by the same lower level material and social conditions that Marx pointed out. And, because human reason is shaped by things like social location (e.g. poor or wealthy), or material composition (e.g. male or female, black or white) there are therefore multiple competing reasonings. And, if there is no transcendent Principle or Person by which to adjudicate these various human reasonings, then there is no way to really adjudicate which systems developed by different human groups or cultures are superior or inferior. Postmoderism essentially does away with normative claims in this regard. There just are systems of belief, grounded in different cultural ways of reasoning, and that is about all there is to say. This view accepts that history is fundamental, while philosophy and theology are contingent.

But because Marx also offered a practical theory of economics, Marxism becomes analogous to the natural sciences of the modernist. It provides the mechanism through which the postmodern utopian vision can be attained. That vision is conceptually however a Christian one. It is a vision of a Christian eschatology realized apart from the divine person of Christ:

“This belief [that communism is inevitable given the possibilities and resources of human nature] without which Marxism as a political movement would be unintelligible, is a secularized version of a Christian virtue.”

MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, 92

Where the hardcore modernist failed in offering a replacement to religious faith, the postmodern existentialist steps in. After all, the scientific empiricist simply gives an account of material facts, leaving the human person and the human society at a loss to relieve the existential angst that weighs him down. What postmodern existentialism with cultural Marxism as its operational arm does is try to fill the God-shaped hole caused by scientific rationalism (i.e. the Enlightenment project). It is in this sense that postmodernist existentialism is existential. As such the task of the Christian apologist now must be altered to meet this different challenge, for it is not as much about offering evidence for truth claims about Christian doctrines, as offering a vision of the Christian hope behind those claims. Or, as MacIntyre puts it:

“Only one secular doctrine retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation: Marxism.” (12)

Reimarus, Lessing, Strauss, Bauer, Renan and their 20th-century analytical successors like Russell, Ayer, Mackie et. al., may have generated the rational critiques of Christianity and theism respectively, but they did not provide much of an alternative to fill the gap. Deism or a contentless atheism never finds much foothold in the throes of humanity’s masses. For that a religious replacement is always needed, and Marx knew this.

Conclusion

In sum, there are two different paradigms of thought that the Christian must contend with: something like modernist positivism with the natural sciences as its operative arm, and something like postmodern existentialism with social or cultural Marxism as its operative mechanism. To combat the former, Christians have drawn, and quite successfully so, from the reservoir of analytic Philosophy to defend classical Christian truth claims against their scientific despisers. This project has been successful enough that one well-known Christian philosopher has been able to call it a “renaissance of philosophy of religion”7 I attribute this to William Lane Craig who mentions it often in his public debates over the past several decades in the academy. However, to defend Christian truth claims against skeptics who tend to make no attempt at a constructive vision to replace the Christian worldview is qualitatively different from defending it against skeptics who do make an attempt to construct a replacement vision. After all, “both Marxism and Christianity rescue individual lives from the insignificance of finitude…by showing the individual that he has or can have some role in a world-historical drama.”(MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, 110)

What the Christian apologist must do therefore is not just defend its transhistorical propositional claims, but also be in the position to offer the postmodern existentialist, the one who sees cultural Marxism as the best (or only) medium for realizing an essentially Christian vision, a better eschatological view, both of society and of the individual. Again, however, MacIntyre points out a common problem in both of these systems that offer such “transcendent” claims about the human condition, namely, there inability to articulate what the solution to man’s condition ultimately looks like:

“But just as Christianity has been much better at describing the state of fallen men than the glories of redeemed men, so Marxism is better at explaining what alienation consists of than in describing the future nature of unalienated men.” (92)

The Christian and Marxist narratives both give an account of the fundamental problem of human existence: alienation. But for the Christian it is alienation from an actual Creator. For Marx it is alienation from one’s own nature (whatever that may be) and from one’s neighbor. For the Christian alienation from one’s self and from one’s fellow man ends when the alienation from God ends. For Marx, alienation from one’s self and from one’s fellow man ends when labor is eliminated and all people have the same material conditions. On Marxism the “transcendent” historical assertion is made: change the material conditions change the humanity, change the humanity change the human relations, change the human relations instantiate an abstracted heaven on a concrete earth. On Christianity the metaphysically transcendent truth claim is made: change the relation to God change the human person, change the human person change the human relations, change the human relations do the will of God on earth.

To this end, apologists must offer a better articulation of what the end goal of the Christian life is. We must give a better account of what it means to be united in and to Christ, to have a true communion of the saints, and to relish for eternity in the power and glory of the Creator. We must remind and bring to mind that justice will be done, and that all things made right, and good, and harmonious, but only if we subject our own desires for justice to the providence and Lordship of Christ. To do this we must draw from a different arsenal than that of analytic philosophy of religion, we must do imaginative apologetics. We must create a vision of the life that can in part be fulfilled here through the love of Christ working in people, but that will also be ultimately realized apart from our own efforts when Christ Himself does return. Moreover, we must understand the desires of men to have justice and beauty, and respond with examples of each.

Finally, to challenge this new wave of Marxist thought we must fight fire with fire: we must be active in our theologizing, the way Marx argued philosophy must become active. We must step out from the realm of the abstract and demonstrate concretely what the Kingdom of God on earth will look like. Our biblical call to justice must counter in concrete and visible forms those voices who would call for a justice apart from Him Who is just.

Without a positive, imaginative vision of what comes after the Fall and even our own individual salvation, we may well find ourselves overwhelmed once again by the swelling tides of history, and facing yet another dystopian collapse.

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgements are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants….

Hallelujah, for the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”

Revelation 19:1-2; 6-8

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Ethics)

Continuing in this series on four, core domains of Christian Discipleship, I now sketch a brief overview of the third area of philosophical Apologetics, Ethics.

Ethics

The moral argument is perhaps the most concrete and powerful argument for the existence of God. The first five chapters of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is still one of the most common-sense, and forceful defenses of objective moral values and duties ever written. But ethics has not only to do with the source or grounds of moral values and duties, but also with the application of those values and duties, should they actually exist.

As such, ethics is often categorized into two main divisions: Normative Theories, and Applied Ethics. A third, overarching category, Metaethics, is what ultimately will interest us as theological Apologists, since it has to do with the source of morality and the nature of moral discourse. However, both normative ethical systems and applied ethical issues are tightly related to our work as defenders of the truth, and the goodness, of the Christian faith.

Types of Ethical Systems: Cognitive and Non-Cognitive

One way to categorize normative systems of ethics is either as cognitive, meaning that moral statements have actual truth values, or as non-cognitive, meaning that moral statement are, by and large, mere projections or expressions of feelings about a particular state of affairs, i.e. they are neither true, nor false. Let’s look at the non-cognitive systems first.

The most general non-cognitive system of ethics is called Emotivism. In brief, Emotivism is the idea that there are no real moral facts about the world. Emotivism tends to go hand in hand with metaphysical naturalism, or the belief that there are only physical things, since if ultimately only the physical world exists, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how we could derive objective (mind independent) moral values and obligations, i.e. “oughts,” from brute facts about mere “stuff.” After all, what could the random motion and accidental collocation of sub-atomic particles tell us about what we should, or should not do? Of course, this is not to say that all metaphysical naturalists are emotivists. In fact, there is a trend back to moral realism, even among naturalists.

Non-Cognitive: Emotivism

As such, on Emotivism, to make a moral claim about, say torturing baby kittens, is akin to saying nothing more than “Torturing baby kittens…yuck!” On this view I simply feel that torturing animals is wrong, but if I were to formulate the proposition “it is wrong to torture baby kittens” I am not saying anything more than “I just don’t like the feeling I have when I see or think about baby kittens being tortured.” There are other kinds of non-cognitive systems of morality, but all of them reject the idea that a moral statement can be true or false. They just are expressions of emotional distaste, or affirmation.

Cognitive Systems: Teleological, Deontological, and Virtue Based

Cognitive systems, on the other hand, argue that there are truths about moral claims. That something is really either morally right, or morally wrong, and that one can give reasons to support one or the other. Cognitive systems can be categorized into three broad domains: teleological, deontological, and virtue ethical systems.

Teleological systems are ones that see the attainment of a fundamental goal or end as the primary determiner of moral actions. Some teleological systems are: ethical egoism, psychological egoism, and utilitarianism. Of these teleological systems the one that tends to reign supreme in Western culture, and that for roughly two and a half centuries, is utilitarianism, or the idea that whatever actions cause the greatest number of people to enjoy the maximum amount of happiness or pleasure over the longest period of time, are morally good actions. Conversely, any action that precludes the greatest number of people from enjoying the greatest amount or degree of happiness for extended periods of time, is immoral or wrong. Utilitarianism is sometimes known as “Consequentialism,” as moral actions become either good or bad depending on the consequences they produce. For obvious reasons, Christians have always been wary of Consequentialism as a theory of moral action, as it can easily degrade into an “ends justifies the means” kind of thinking. Nonetheless, consequentialist views of ethics have dominated Western democracies’ public life for generations.

Deontological systems, made famous by the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), focus not on an end goal of moral action, but focus on duty or moral obligation. In a sense deontological ethics is about following certain rules, regardless of the outcome, and in following those rules, one acts morally. In contrast to Consequentialism, deontological ethics can almost neglect the outcomes of actions. Thus, if Consequentialism can degrade into a system that allows for what would seem to be evil acts just in case there are good results, deonotolgical ethics can come off as a system that is so duty-bound that it neglects how one’s moral activity might cause great harm. For example, on a very strict deontological system, should Nazis soldiers come to one’s door looking for hidden Jews they intend to haul off to a concentration camp, one would be duty-bound to tell the Nazis where the hapless victims are hidden, since lying is a universal “no-no.” Kant believed that pure reason alone could determine what were the universal moral truths human beings were to live by, and this without recourse to anything like Special Revelation from God. Most today think that this project, however, has failed, since reason alone is not up to the task of determining universal moral obligations. However, there are forms of deontological systems that are still robustly defended in secular culture today, most of which revolve around some kind of contract theory, also known as Social Contractualism.

Virtue Ethical, or character-based, systems of Ethics are as ancient as Aristotle, actually more ancient. In fact, most classical philosophy, even abstract metaphysics and epistemology, was aimed at the ultimate goal of developing the moral character of the individual citizen of the Greek polis. This was known as aretaic, or character, ethics, and to build virtue was part and parcel of living “the good life,” itself the primary focus of all classical philosophy. For the ancient Greeks, the idea of building virtues was more important than either the consequences of actions, or the rules of the nation or culture. Classical virtues like temperance, prudence, courage and justice were to be pursued through the cultivation of certain habits and practice. Of course, in turn, one would expect a city, or nation, to be healthier were it to possess many virtuous citizens, as opposed to few. Also, since obedience to norms and traditions could be considered a virtuous disposition, virtue ethics can incorporate aspects of utilitarianism and deontology into its system. Since the work of C.S. Lewis’ contemporary at Oxford, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Alasdair MacIntyre more recently, Virtue Ethics as a system of Christian ethics has become a popular philosophical position.

Metaethics: Divine Command Theory, Realism, and Biblical Ethics

When it comes to Ethics, there is always the more fundamental question of where do moral values and obligations, if they do exist, come from? The ancient debate of whether moral values are grounded in something like the physical structure of the universe, or a Divine Mind, or whether they are nothing more than cultural conventions that change and shift over time, is still hotly debated today. Do our moral values come from a transcendent moral law giver who has designed the fabric of reality? Or are they derivable from purely natural facts about the world, and the neurological makeup we happen to have through the process of evolution? Or, perhaps most “spooky,” are they instantiations of Platonic forms that exist in an otherwise inaccessible transcendent realm?

As Christian apologists it is clear that option 1 is fundamental to our defense of the Christian faith. That God is the source of all moral values and duties, and that He gives explicit commands about those values and duties, is derived immediately, and with little confusion from the pages of Holy Scripture (see Exodus 20:1-21). However, this is not to say that there aren’t also some values and obligations that are relative to changes in cultural context, or particular situations (take our aforementioned Nazi scenario as an example of moral relativism with regards to lying). Still, that some form of Divine Command Theory is usually required for a proper articulation of Christian ethics, seems to be the case for any defender of Christian orthodoxy. That said, Divine Command Theory need not stand alone, and one of the logical counterparts to supplement any DCT view is, as alluded above, a theory of virtue ethics.

Finally, if Christianity is true, then we should all be moral realists, meaning that if God exists, moral facts and obligations are themselves real. They are not just conventions that emerge out of the minds of men, or their communities, or that shift and change over time without any fixed point. While there is room for things like morally complex or ambiguous situations or conditions, there are nevertheless objective values that accord with the divine nature of God, and that impose moral duties upon us. Thus, to be an anti-realist about morality as a Christian is akin to rejecting fundamental, metaphysical claims about God (e.g. God is triune, the triune God is eternal). After all, if man is the sole source of moral values and duties, then why did Christ have to die? If there are no objective moral values and duties, then whatever morality was in fashion then, or now, would not require such a great sacrifice!

In sum, most serious Christians are moral realists who defend some kind of Divine Command Theory that perhaps also incorporates virtue ethics into its model. C. Stephen Evans has written one of the best defenses of a modified Divine Command Theory in his God and Moral Obligations. Finally, when it comes to applied ethics, it is the role of the New Testament scholar and the local pastor to help elucidate to the Church what are the divine precepts that God expects us to live up to, and how we are empowered by the Spirit to do so. The Bible should be our primary source of moral knowledge, and when it comes to any issue of character, or action, we should be mining its pages for wisdom and truth about what is good, and what is our moral duty in light of that Good. One of the most comprehensive accounts so far with regard to deducing moral guidelines from Scripture and applying them to contemporary ethical cases is Richard B. Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Metaphysics)

This is the last part of a series of posts outlining and defining four fundamental domains of Christian knowledge: Theology, Church History, Spiritual Formation, and Apologetics. We must engage in these disciplines, if we are to develop a robust intellectual and spiritual life, a life fully dedicated to Christ.

This last post on Apologetics has itself turned into a small series, so I am going to break it into several smaller posts, in an attempt to say something more substantive about Apologetics than just “Apologetics is the defense of Christianity using arguments and evidence.” Although it is, in part, just that.

What is Apologetics?

To an audience like this one, Apologetics may be as familiar a term as “doctrine” or “salvation.” However for many Christians, Apologetics is still an unknown or obscure term, a word that suggests we are meant to say “sorry” for something we have either done, or failed to do, but of which we know nothing. For others, Apologetics is at best a futile endeavor, if not an outright detrimental one; an undertaking that never helps the skeptic to believe, and often helps the believer to become skeptical (see here for a recent example).

But, we know better than that. We know that Apologetics is something that everyone does naturally, anytime they seek to defend or clarify the claims and content of the Christian faith, or any faith really. Even Atheists do some kind of apologetics when they defend their views. We also know although the discipline of Apologetics does not cause saving faith, that apologetical arguments and evidences can be effective steps in one’s indvidual journey toward saving faith. Thus, we understand the apologetical project to be one that the human person, any human person really, does naturally when they defend their views by giving reasons for their belief. But, at the same time, we rightly restrain our expectations regarding the power of rational argumentation when it comes to attaining personal knowledge of a personal God. No argument converts the human heart, that operation is reserved for the Great Physician.

In short then, we can define Apologetics very simply: Apologetics is the rational defense of Christian truth claims using arguments and evidence. Apologetics, in this sense, is as much for the head, as our previously discussed discipline, Spiritual Formation, is for the heart, or the emotions. Still, because we also recognize that the head and heart (the “left” and “right” brain) cannot be so neatly divided, we realize that there are different strains of Apologetics that can be pressed into evangelistic use.

Some Apologetics emphasize logical rigor and abstract analytical thought, while others seek to awaken the more aesthetic side of the human person, relying on good art and compelling stories to offer an attractive view of the world. Some authors have gone on to suggest that reason itself is an extension of the human imagination, that “reason is imaginative.” (Andrew Davidson, Imaginative Apologetics, xxv). If this is the case then our apologetical defenses, or offenses, need not rely on logic alone to attract our audience, but can be fully-orbed articulations of a Gospel that speak to the whole person, albeit not at the expense of good reasoning. Apologetics can be supra-reasonable, or “above reason.”

What we need is an apologetical method that cuts deep at the base of the world’s false premises, or as John Milbank puts it:

“We need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots and to expose how they lie within paganism, heterodoxy or else and atheism with no ground in reason and a tendency to deny the ontological reality of reason altogether.” (John Milbank, Imaginative Apologetics, xx).

That said there are two broad categories of Apologetics that most kinds of Apologetical questions fall under: philosophical and historical Apologetics.

Philosophical Apologetics

Philosophical Apologetics is itself a very broad topic, but philosophy as a discipline is indispensable to the life of the Christian disciple, especially in the structuring of Christian thought. That said, this indispensability of philosophy does not mean that philosophy, or even reason, stands above theology, or revelation. Aquinas states it this way:

“This science [sacred theology] can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer. For it accepts its principles not from other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation. Therefore it does not depend upon other sciences as upon the higher, but makes use of them as of the lesser, and as handmaidens” (Summa Theologica, I.5.ii)

As a secondary intellectual discipline, or handmaiden, there can almost be a “philosophy” of any other intellectual discipline. Thus, it is now common to find all kinds of very narrow philosophical disciplines at the academic level: philosophy of science, of art, of religion, of literature, of mind, of history, of sports, etc. However, philosophy more generally has usually been understood to entail the study of four foundational areas of human experience, namely: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic.

But, what do these four core domains of human existence themselves entail? In order of philosophical inquiry, there is often a debate of what comes first, metaphysical inquiry, or epistemological inquiry. For sake of bypassing that discussion, and to keep this post somewhat brief, let’s assume metaphysics is the first order of inquiry. So, what does metaphysics entail?

Metaphysics & Christian Faith

Metaphysics is the most fundamental kind of philosophical knowledge if we are to understand with clarity and coherence the Christian worldview. Metaphysics (literally “after the physics”) is called such because Aristotle, or some compiler of Aristotle, placed his discussion of non-physical realities after his discussion of the natural world. These realities came after the physical things, or “after the physics.” Metaphysics explores two broad areas of human experience: existence and causation. In doing so, metaphysical investigation deals with ontology (what exists), and causality (how things change states or modes of being), to include derivative areas of inquiry like questions about identity, and time.

Metaphysics attempts to determine if there are things like essences, or substances, of both naturally occurring objects (e.g. iron, zinc, leptons), human artifacts (chairs, vases), living things (dogs, you and me), and, if they exist, abstract objects (the number “2”), and even immaterial concrete objects (God or gods, angels, human souls). Metaphysics also tries to understand the chain of causality, or how things that might exist go from one mode of existence to another mode of existence spanning across time. Finally, notions of possibility and necessity, or what are possible states of affairs versus necessary ones, or contingent beings versus necessary Ones, are also explored in the realm of Metaphysics.

Since the rise of Darwinian evolution and post-Newtonian theories in physics however, there has been a dominant paradigm in Western culture, which has sought to reduce all of reality down to only the natural world and its scientifically verifiable properties. From about the second half of the 19th century, to roughly the 1950’s there was a strong push to ditch metaphysics as a serious academic discipline altogether, replacing it with pure science (even though metaphysical reductionism goes further back to the likes of Scottish philosopher, and naturalist, David Hume).

The height of this philosophical trend toward scientific reductionism hit in the 1940’s and 1950’s with the short rise of logical positivism, a philosophical movement that sought to dismiss any question about non-physical realities as inherently meaningless, since they could not be empirically verified, or logically demonstrated. Therefore, religious claims about non-physical realities were also regarded prima facie as unintelligible, in that they could not be positively confirmed or verified through standard scientific methods. Fortunately this theory died a relatively quick death and by the 1960’s and 70’s there was a resurgence of metaphysical work that helped to reinvigorate the philosophy of religion, which, while broader than just Christian Apologetics, is where most of the scholarly work that underlies popular apologetical writing occurs.

Today, there is an abundance of contemporary metaphysical work being done across the Western academic world, and much of it is related to religious claims about reality. Thus, there has been a renaissance of philosophy of religion, and Christian truth claims are once again taken seriously in the philosophy departments in the West (well, at least some of them).

Some top contemporary Metaphysical thinkers of the last 50 or 60 years are: David Lewis (non-theist), David Armstrong (non-theist), W.V.O. Quine (non-theist), Saul Kripke (theist, Jewish), and David Chalmers (non-theist), and L.A. Paul. Paul especially has been working in the area of religious experience as transformative experience.

Among Christians who have contributed to Metaphysics in recent years are well known names like William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Alexander Pruss, Robert Koons, J.P. Moreland, Peter van Inwagen, Elanore Stump, Robert Adams, Brian Leftow, Marilyn McCord Adams, Ed Feser, and Timothy Pickavance.

Thomistic and non-Thomistic Metaphysics

With regard to Christian Metaphysics, there are two main lines of Christian metaphysical though: Thomism (following Thomas Aquinas), and non-Thomistic Analytical Philosophy of Religion. Some famous Thomistic philosophers are Norman Geisler (Evangelical), Ed Feser (Catholic), Peter Geach (Catholic), Elanore Stump, and Robert Koons (Evangelical).

Non-Thomists are scholars like Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, William Lane Craig, Alexander Pruss, Brian Leftow, and Willam Alston. However, much of St. Thomas’ writings and philosophy is appropriated by many Christian philosophers today, even those who do not buy into Thomism wholesale. So there is much overlap among Christian philosophers in this area, as many continue to profit from the works of the great Thomas Aquinas.

Special Areas of Apologetical Interest

Some particularly interesting areas of metaphysics for Christian Apologists are Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Time, and the Philosophy of Science. In particular metaphysical questions about mind-body interaction, the persistence of personal identity over time, God’s relation to time, free will and determinism, and the role and limits of the scientific method, are all very relevant to our theological reasoning, and defense of the Christian faith. Metaphysics, along with Epistemology, are perhaps the most important areas of philosophy for a Christian to understand, as they allow us to best articulate what it is we believe, and why we think it to be true.

In the next post, I will break down the philosophical discipline of Epistemology.