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

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

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

Supernaturalism and the Human Condition

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

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

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

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

Supernaturalism and Traditional Religion

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

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

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

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

Supernaturalism and Religious Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 1:19-20

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

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

Emil Brunner

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

Introduction: Two Kinds of Naturalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Views: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Church History

To continue in this short series of reflections on what makes for a robust program of Christian discipleship and learning, I now turn to a second domain of sacred knowledge: Church History.

A Brief Intro to Narrative and Retrieval Theology

Since the work of the German theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), there has been a movement in both Protestant and Catholic theology to see the Bible predominantly as a narrative, or story. A story that we are expected to “live into” as followers of Christ. Main proponents of this “narrative theology” are men like George Lindbeck and Hans Frei. While this narrative theology can have its pitfalls, it also has several advantages.

On the negative side, narrative theology can fail to take seriously the propositional claims made in Scripture, thus calling into question the necessity of theological doctrine and foundational dogma. On the positive side, narrative theology embraces and illuminates for us the simple fact that most of the Bible is written as a narrative, a story through which we are meant to learn, and from which we are meant to model our behavior. The Christian life is, as one 20th century Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasaar, put it, like a “theological drama.” This theo-drama is a story like many others, albeit a real one in which we are meant to live, and move, and have our being. In the Hebrew manner of speaking, it is the “story of stories!” It is God’s story, and we are His real-life characters.

In addition to this approach to the Bible as story, some 20th-century Catholic theologians, like von Balthasaar, also belonged to a movement called the “nouvelle theologie,” an academic movement that slightly predated Vatican II (1962-65), and which sought to regain the theological framework of the early church fathers, and to renew scholarly interest in the biblical text itself. This movement was also known as “ressourcement” theology, as it sought to creatively recapture the Church’s earliest teachings, in order to recontextualize and apply them to the modern and post-modern culture of the 20th century West. As most of the Catholic theologians in this movement were from France, hence the French terms.

In Evangelical theology however, especially in the last generation, and especially through the works of men like John Webster, Oliver Crisp, and Kevin Vanhoozer, both narrative theology, and ressourcement theology have emerged in a particularly Protestant fashion. The ressourcing of Protestant theology in early church history often goes by the name “Retrieval theology” and it looks to counter much of the modernist and post-modernist influences that infiltrated Protestant thought in the post-Enlightenment and post 1950’s Western church.

Retrieval theology thus serves as a bulwark against current trends in culture that would seek to undo the wisdom and knowledge of the church’s past, to include her stories of great men and women of the church. Retrieval theology in this sense can also defend against the cultural trend toward revisionist history, a trend that sees the past as either barbaric, naive, and unscientific; or as cruel, misogynistic, and exploitative. As such, as theological apologists and Bible-true Christians, we can embrace both the Catholic version of ressourcement theology, with some caveats of course, and also welcome the retrieval theology popular now in much Evangelical, academic theology. By in large these are healthy movements aimed at recapturing much of the Church’s social history and historical thought.

Church History as Retrieving the Past and Living Our Christian Story

These two disciplines of narrative theology and retrieval theology seem to highlight a very basic need in the life of the human person: first, we need to feel a part of a bigger story, and second, we need to feel anchored to our own past, the past of our ancestors. The second need is what we might call a feeling of “legacy.” It is also something the Bible makes very explicit, especially in the Old Testament.

The Bible give us clear illustrations of both being a part of a bigger, theological picture, and also having a spiritual legacy. We see this in the history of Israel, and in the communion of saints. When one reads through 1 Chronicles 1-9, for example, it is clear how God considers and cares deeply about the literal history, the very lineage, of His people. The often overlooked genealogies in the Old Testament, and even Matthew and Luke’s in the New, while perhaps tedious to read, are fundamental to the nature of God’s plan in the world, and to the identity of His people. Thus, we see not only in the Old Testament a literal list of names of those that went before the current generation of Israelites. But we also see the reality of the present communion of the saints (Lk 22:32, 1 Thess 5:11, Jn 17:21, Js 5:16, Heb 11:39-40 ff.,). Here the Bible tells us clearly that all those who are “in Christ” are knit together in Him (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 12:27), and this is not something that death can separate. We are still one body in Christ, even after our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ have gone on to be with Him.

Thus, early Protestants saw the church as existing in two states: the Church Triumphant (those saints already in the presence of God), and the Church Militant (the saints still fighting the good fight of faith in the world). Although we, having direct access to the Father through Christ, do not pray to the saints, it is clear that they still pray for us, and on our behalf (Rev 5:8, 8:3) since they are in Christ, Who is always interceding for us, and we are their brothers and sisters. It is not as if St. Paul has forgotten about us, as if he no longer prays for us as he prayed for the church in Philippi during his lifetime.

This theological and biblical exposition is only to highlight the fact that to remember and tell the stories of the faithful men and women who have gone before us, is to remember the lives and tell the stories of our own family, our real family in fact (Mk 3:31-35, Matt 10:32-39). Thus, when we study Church History, it is not only to understand how theology has developed over time, and how different communities have understood the deposit of our faith, but it is also to engage in family storytelling, in recalling the legacy of God’s people that is also our legacy, and that helps us to know who we are in Christ, and how we fit into His plan of redeeming all of creation.

As such, the study of Church History should facilitate for us a retrieval of theological thinking from the past, which allows us to avoid the chronological snobbery that C.S. Lewis warned us of, as well as reminding us of the great theological drama, the grand, and very real play in which we are intimately involved. Being involved in this “greatest story ever told” reminds us too of the ontological connection we have to all those saints who have preceded us; the brothers and sisters in Christ who in effect act as our spiritual forefathers and mothers.

Some Practical Application of Church History

So, if knowing Church History allows us to not only think along with past generations, but imaginatively enter into a shared story, what are some advantages we might gain from thinking about and living into our Christian heritage?

First, knowing Church History provides us a kind of wisdom that we otherwise could not have. As mentioned above, to avoid chronological snobbery, or the idea that we know better now merely because we are more technologically advanced, we must engage with the thought life of those that thought before us. The great thinkers of the Great Tradition have already tilled much of the intellectual soil with regards to general and special Revelation. Moreover, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, different generations struggle with different kinds of intellectual and spiritual battles. Sometimes thinkers of a previous generation, or even a much older generation, were able to solve certain problems that today we barely recognize, but that are still great cause for concern and crises.

For example, the nature of work is something we often don’t think about in our culture, but work, to include overwork, is a huge cause of spiritual and emotional problems in our 21st century lives. Secularism reduces work down to either “money making” or elevates it to “identity making.” In answer to this false dichotomy, reading something on a theology of work by one of the great Puritan theologians of the 17th century, especially the likes of Richard Baxter, for example, can give us incredible insight into how we should manage our life of work, to include our life of play and leisure. Examples could be easily multiplied.

Of course one of the biggest areas of thought that Christians in the 21st century Western context must recapture is that of philosophy, and understanding the role philosophy, especially metaphysics (the study of what exists), has played in shaping our Christian worldview. In contrast to Marxist ideology, which saw all human thought as subject to, and entirely a product of, changes in socio-economic conditions; and subsequently believed that human thought itself would evolve beyond religion, so long as the right social and economic conditions were achieved; Christian thought, on the other hand, exists in a continuum with the past. It is a way of thinking that looks forward and backward, and is always aimed at synthesizing philosophical knowledge from the past for the present context. In this way, Christian philosophy is one way to think about God’s eternal truth, and articulate that Truth for the present day.

As G.K. Chesterton once quipped, and rightly so, the only true democracy is tradition, since it takes into account the opinions of the dead, as well as the living. It is in this sense that Christians are neither pure conservatives, nor pure progressives. We do not live in the past blindly, never bothering to advance our understanding of God, nor do we rush forward without carefully listening to the voices of our past. Rather, we take all the light of the past, and past tradition, and use it to illumine our path forward.

Second, knowing Church History gives us concrete examples of great men and women of faith, many of whom are much closer to us in time and space than the biblical saints, and who by sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and carrying out the Great Commission, act as true role models of virtue for us and our children. To not know the lives of men like: Boniface, William Tyndale, John Bunyan, David Livingstone, Jim Elliot, and Eric Liddell, or of women like: Perpetua, Catherine of Siena, Marie Durand, Mary Slessor, Corrie ten Boom, or Edith Stein is to live an impoverished life of faith. These are the torchbearers who have carried the flame of faith on to our generation, as we must also carry the flame for the next. From them and from their example we can and should teach our children. Virtue building is a crucial aspect of our life in Christ, and as we subject our will to the Holy Spirit in order to becoming more like Christ, part of that submission can be emulating the lives of these great heroes of the faith.

Eric Liddell – “It’s complete surrender”

Conclusion

In sum, this second domain of Christian knowledge seems more critical to embrace now than in previous generations. Especially as we find our culture split into two secular camps, the modernist and the post-modernist, each of which would label much, if not all, that has come before us as either barbaric, unscientific, and naive (the modernist), or as evil, unjust, and oppressive (the post-modernist). While the Church must accept some of these critiques as legitimate, meaning we must accept our history in its fullness, warts and all; still we must not fall into the trap of these two camps, and make generalizations that are simply not true. We must also embrace the great legacy the Church has left for us. I think we need it, and I believe especially that many young people today need to know they have a past history that goes far beyond just their own personal story, that they have a past that extends all the way back to the day of Pentecost, if not further.

Church History in this sense can supplement greatly our identity in Christ, for not only are we “in Christ” but we are in His body, the Church. But it is not only our identity as members of the Church that matters, for Hebrews 11:39-40 makes an incredible statement about the current existence of those who have served Christ before us, saying that they, the martyrs who have gone before us, are waiting for us so that they can receive their promised perfection! That means that we also have a responsibility to uphold the legacy passed on to us, for as we thrive in Christ, and as we endeavor for Him, so our spiritual forefathers and foremothers benefit from our actions. How or what exactly we affect in the lives of those who are already with the Lord I cannot say, but that the saints and martyrs share in our own life, as we also share in theirs, is clear. We are, after all, one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

I close with the words of St. Augustine on our future life with God and His people:

How beautiful and lovely are the dwellings of Thy house, Almighty God! I burn with longing to behold Thy beauty in Thy bridal-chamber…Oh Jerusalem, the holy city of God, dear bride of Christ, my heart loves thee, my soul has already sighed for thy beauty! … The King of kings is Himself in the midst of thee, and his children are within thy walls. There are they hymning choirs of angels, the fellowship of heavenly citizens. There is the wedding-feast of all who from this sad earthly pilgrimage have reached thy joys. There is the far-seeing choir of the prophets; there the company of the twelve apostles; there the triumphant army of innumerable martyrs and holy confessors. Full and perfect love reigns there, for God is all in all.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Theology

While there are a number of areas of knowledge one can study that may be helpful to learning more about God and His creation, broadly speaking there are four major domains of knowledge we can identify, and that Christians must engage with, should they desire a deeper knowledge and love of God. Moreover, knowledge, both propositional and personal, increases our capacity to fulfill our mission of spreading the Gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation. Without knowledge zeal alone is, as Paul says, catastrophic to saving grace:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:1-4

Thus, as we pursue becoming more well-rounded, deeper thinkers about God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s world, it is helpful to have some method of organizing this spiritual endeavor. The four primary knowledge domains we must entertain in order to achieve our goal of becoming disciplined followers of Christ are: Theology (Systematic and Biblical), Apologetics (Philosophical & Historical), Church History (pre-Reformation & Reformational), and Spiritual Formation (Spiritual Theology and Personal Formation).

Since these are very broad categories, it is right to point out that within each there is an abundance of knowledge subsets one could study. This part of discipleship is akin to wissenschaft in the German sense, knowledge that can become increasingly microcosmic and particular.

For example, one does not just study Biblical Theology by reading the Bible in English over and over. Rather one studies Pauline theology specifically, or Ancient Near Eastern languages like Ugaritic, or Greco-Roman history and philosophy, etc. All of these sub-disciplines become extremely relevant to becoming an expert in the larger domain of Biblical Theology. All of these subsets of knowledge lend to us knowing the Bible better, and knowing the Bible better clearly helps us know its Author better. But this kind of particular knowledge is good insofar as we continually submit our studies to the bigger whole, namely, the person and program of Jesus Christ.

For now however, let’s consider just these four broader domains in order to start focusing our efforts, in particular our personal reading, as we train our minds and hearts for the sake of the Gospel call. In this first of four blog posts we look at the first knowledge area, our primary discipline of Theology.

Augustine: The First Systematic Theologian

Systematic & Biblical Theology

Theology is our primary pursuit. The study of God is what we are essentially about as Christ followers. However, domain one encompasses two kinds of theology, both with their own distinctive approaches to the ultimate goal of knowledge of God. These are Systematic and Biblical theology.

Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology really takes off in the early Middle Ages, with the publication of Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences, written sometime prior to 1160, and which dominated systematic theology until the Protestant Reformation. Before Lombard’s Sentences, St. Augustine was the most influential systematic theologian of the Western Church for its first 900 years, and his theology still impacts us today, and for good reason. After Augustine and Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas was the greatest pre-Reformation systematic theologian in Church History, writing his Summa Theologica in mid-13th century. The earliest systematic theological writings that were particularly Lutheran/Reformational were composed by Philip Melanchton, Luther’s close associate. So before the Reformation, the main systematic theologies that influenced the Church’s doctrine and practice were developed by Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. Melanchton was the first Lutheran systematic theologian after Martin Luther’s “break” with the Roman version of the church.

John Calvin, however, was the first real, complete reformational systematic theologian (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559), and set the stage for some of the best theological writing in the church’s history by 17th century Puritan thinkers such as Francis Turretin, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Stephen Charnock. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Protestant tradition of systematic theology was carried forward in the Americas by men like John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, W.T.G Shedd, Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield.

Finally in the 20th century, there are three German thinkers whose work dominates academic theology, greatly shaping contemporary, western, Protestant religion (for better or worse). These are Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. Other very influential, systematic theologians of the 20th century include:

Reformed Theology: Herman Bavinck, G.C. Berkouwer, Millard Erickson, Louis Berkhof, Abraham Kuyper

Lutheran Theology: Robert Jenson, George Lindbeck

Weslyean/Methodist Theology: Thomas Oden, William Abraham

Anglo-Theology (various denominations): T.F. Torrance, John Webster, Colin Gunton, Sarah Coakley

Roman Catholic: Hans Urs von Balthasaar, Henri du Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), and Bernard Lonergan.

Systematic Theology in principle tries to answer broad, categorical questions related to all aspects of God, His creation, and His revelation. These aspects are often called theological loci, and the traditional loci of a given theological system are usually as follows (and often found in this order):

1) Prolegomena

2) Doctrine of Revelation (General, i.e. Natural Theology, and Special Revelation, i.e. Bibliology)

3) Doctrine of God (Trinity, God’s Attributes, also called Theology Proper)

4) Doctrine of Creation (Nature & Anthropology, Angelology & Demonology)

5) Doctrine of Sin (Hamartiology)

6) Doctrine of Christ (Christology)

7) Doctrine of Salvation (Soteriology)

8) Doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology)

9) Doctrine of Angels & Demons (Angelology)

10) Doctrine of Last Things (Eschatology)

Obviously the order of these categories can shift according to the intention and logic of the theologian. Karl Barth, for example, famously began his 12-volume Church Dogmatics with the Doctrine of “The Word of God.” That itself should raise an important question in the reader’s mind, namely, why?

In sum, however, systematic theology is the attempt to give an orderly account about God and His creation using Scripture, Reason (philosophy and science) and human experience to answer the greatest number of fundamental questions about the Christian faith. This is a very different endeavor however from its theological counterpart: Biblical Theology.

Biblical Theology: What Does The Text Actually Say?

Biblical Theology

Unlike Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology focuses all its efforts on the study of the Bible, or what systematic theologians call Special Revelation. It looks at the Bible, how it was formed (e.g. the canon of Scripture and the composition of individual books or corpuses); how its parts work together (Old and New testaments); how individual books should be studied, scrutinized, and analyzed for their own sake; and how this all should be done without necessarily regarding how a passage, part of a book, or book of the Bible might fit into some broader system or paradigm.

Biblical Theology tries to understand any given part of the Bible, especially particular books, passages of books, or even phrases and individual words in their own immediate context. Thus, biblical theologians focus on very specific things like “Paul’s theology of ministry in the pastoral epistles” or even “the authorship of the pastoral epistles.” Typical biblical theological pursuits are:

  • Lexicography (the study of semantics, grammar, and syntax of the biblical languages)
  • Form criticism & Redaction criticism (controversial areas of Higher Biblical Criticism that are concerned with the origins of biblical books and passages)
  • Textual criticism (i.e. manuscript studies, also called “Lower Criticism”)
  • Critical and expository work of particular books or authors (e.g. commentaries, Pauline studies, Johannine theology, etc.)
  • Comparative historical/literary studies (e.g. Ancient Near Eastern culture, Greco-Roman biography)
  • Hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation, which is a foundational philosophical undertaking that relates to all other biblical studies)

Biblical Theology is often said to have begun with J.P Gabler’s 1787 inaugural address at the German university of Altdorf (see Andreas Köstenberger’s article), where biblical theology was delineated from systematic theology, to include its evolution into Old Testament and New Testament studies.

As Biblical Theology grew into its own discipline, it tended to become increasingly separated from the more abstract work of at least some systematic theologians. To the point that today there is often a call in the Evangelical and Roman Catholic worlds to reconnect the two disciplines. The proper balance of Systematic (also known as Dogmatic) and Biblical Theology safeguards against Christian thought that is too atomistic or fragmented (too biblical), or theology that is too broad and not grounded in the very words of the Bible (too systematic).

John Webster lays out this dilemma:

We may be led to say something like this: Scripture is not simply one of a set of immanently-conceived communicative practices, a “historical” or “natural” entity of which a sufficient description can be given by identifying the natural properties of texts and their agents (whether authorial or interpretative). Nor is Scripture a historical or natural entity upon which we superimpose “religious” evaluations that encourage “spiritual use” or “theological interpretation.” Rather, without in any way denying the natural properties of scriptural texts, we may say that Scripture’s place in the divine economy of redemption and revelation is determinative of its nature. This nature, in turn, directs its reception.

“Biblical Reasoning”, ATR/90:4, pp. 739-740

In spite of this dilemma of balancing these two modes of theological approach, both however are necessary. And, because of advances in linguistic and historical studies (e.g. the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.) Biblical Theology has become incredibly specialized, and the difficulty of one individual being both an expert exegete, and a top-notch systematician, with all the necessary philosophical training, makes it rare to find a scholar today who can do both equally well.

Historically though Biblical Theology has been dominated by German-language scholarship. Names like Bauer (F.C., Bruno, and Walter), Strauss, Wrede, Schweitzer, Wellhausen, Bultmann, von Rad, Noth, and many, many more are synonymous with the biblical interpretive paradigms they helped to create. Paradigms that often go under the title “Higher Biblical Crticism” or HBC. However, many of these great thinkers also tended to bring unwarranted philosophical presuppositions to their discipline, presuppositions that degraded the Bible from a divinely inspired revelation of a transcendent God, to a bible that is merely a production of human intellect and culture (see Webster’s pithy response to this above).

The difference maker for us as theological apologists, especially as we relate to the issue of the reliability and authority of scripture, will often be in discerning what parts of HBC we can accept and put into use for a proper defense of the Gospel, and which ones we must reject based on our necessary metaphysical commitments to a historical, and proclamatory Gospel message.

To know the difference between useful HBC and corrosive HBC, and to accept one side over the other, can result in being either in the scholarly camp of someone like a Bart Ehrman, who has popularized much of the older German HBC in his own works, or someone like a Craig Keener, who knows the same scholarship as Ehrman, but rejects the philosophical conclusions of corrosive HBC that degrades the transcendent nature of the Word of God.

While we should always engage with liberal or skeptical views, some excellent contemporary biblical scholars that we should definitely read are:

Old Testament: John Walton, Daniel I. Block, Tremper Longmann III, Gordon Wenham, Bruce Waltke, Derrick Kindner, Edwin Yamauchi, Nahum Sarna (Jewish), Jacob Milgrom (Jewish), Jeffrey Tigay (Jewish), Brevard Childs, Gerhard von Rad (a bit liberal, but a huge name in 20th century OT studies), Umberto Cassuto, John Goldingay, and, more recently, Michael Heiser.

New Testament: N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener, Karl Rahner (Catholic), Michael Kruger, Andreas Köstenberger, Michael Bird, Peter O’Brien, D.A. Carson, Michael Licona, I. Howard Marshall, Darrell Bock, Ben Witherington III, Jocahim Jeremias, E.P. Sander, James Dunn, Moises Silva, Robert Jewett, and Ramsey Michaels.

Because OT and NT studies are so specialized there are simply too many people in the field to give an adequate list. But the above names are all highly regarded 20-21st century Evangelical scholars (unless otherwise indicated in parentheses). For additional Biblical Theological resources these surveys edited by Tremper Longman III, and D.A. Carson are indispensable for anyone looking to go deeper into the Biblical texts: Old Testament Commentary Survey, and New Testament Commentary Survey. These surveys will also save pastors a great amount of time when looking for commentaries to prepare for their sermons.

Conclusion: In conclusion, the goal of any born-again Christian will be to think theologically about the Bible, understanding it always as God’s Divine Word to man, while also thinking biblically about Theology, making sure that when we teach church doctrines they can be grounded in the text of Scripture. Without thinking theologically, we can get a academic study of the Bible that leaves no room for its divine Author, and without the other we can get a view of god that is very far removed from the God of the Bible, Who was, and Who is, and Who is to come.

I hope this breakdown of theological studies helps in guiding us forward as we look to guide others.

Paganism in Art and Reality

Midsommar: A Haunting Portrayal of Pagan Religion

Midsommar, written and directed by Ari Aster, is likely a movie that no one should really watch, or, at least, should really want to watch. Aster’s particularly disturbing cinematic display tells the story of a group of American anthropology students invited to witness a secret festival in a remote part of Sweden by one of their foreign colleagues, Pelle, a member of the same community that orchestrates the fest. However, what the Americans unexpectedly step into is an reclusive world of neo-paganism, where cultic rituals that, on the surface appearing harmless, if not admirable, ultimately turn out to be utterly bizarre, logically incoherent, and supremely violent.


While Midsommar can be campy at times, it is not a simple slasher flick. It is first off a well-made film, with visual effects that supplement its already grotesque theme (something I will return to shortly). Everything in Midsommar seems to be alive and moving, yet in a most unsettling and chilling manner, not unlike when the Ancient Mariner first looks overboard only to see “slimy things [that] did crawl with legs, upon the slimy sea.” There is a sort of visual “slime” in Midsommar, where things that should not move, move, and things that should not be amassed together, but rather kept distinct, are massed together into some kind of gargantuan mega-organism. However it is this very synthetic act of putting things together that should not be together, which lies at the heart not just of the movie’s artistic form, but of its subject matter, namely pagan nature worship. In so doing the film goes beyond mere Hollywood horror for the sake of entertainment, and tries to explore more subtle sociological, philosophical, and religious themes.

In this sense, Midsommar attempts to dramatically capture what to Christian eyes should be innately repulsive: a vivid portrayal of pagan religion, cultic life, and the worship of the creation over the Creator (Romans 1:18-32). But it is also for this reason that Midsommar may be a movie worth watching, albeit with the right intentions and proper warnings in place. For the point of the film is not to condemn pagan beliefs or practices, but present them in a rather straightforward and non-judgmental way; all the while, of course, looking to thrill the viewer.

Yet, this is not to say that the film praises or glorifies such cultic practices either. Rather, what Aster give us is a serious look at what one might expect if society really did return to more primitive forms of belief, and ancestral tribal traditions. There is a mundane realism about Midsommar, which makes the whole notion of neo-pagan practice seem entirely plausible. Couple this with the very real hyper-relativism of our times and the rise of the spiritual but not religious “nones,” and one might begin to sense that we may not be so far from slipping into our own midsummer nightmare.

In one particularly unsettling scene the film does make commentary on how the average Westerner, raised in a Judeo-Christian culture (typified by a young British couple) might react to one of the more bloody practices of pagan occultism (this scene has to do with sacrificial suicide, and is gut-wrenching to watch). This pivotal scene however, where the malevolence of the cult, which up to now has only been hinted at, suddenly gushes forth in graphic detail, only shows how the typical Modern might plausibly react to religiously condoned brutality. The scene makes not judgement as to whether the couples’ reaction to such treatment of human life, and human bodies, is itself good or evil, right or wrong. It only shows that their sensibilities have been shaped in such a way that they find the gory act repulsive, or as some moral philosophers might say, “Sacrificial suicide, yuk!”

Still, we are left to wonder if the couple even knows why they find this bloodletting so upsetting (actually the scene goes beyond mere suicide, as one of the ‘jumpers’ fails to die on impact, resulting in the need to finish the job). Further, in the very next scene, another of the exchange students, ironically named Christian, after viewing the same ritual suicide, reacts saying that he is “trying to keep an open mind” about the cult’s practices. And so we see the ugly face of post-modernism in Midsommar, as all forms of human practice are democratized and made morally equal, no matter how much blood is shed, or how many spirits invoked. As I will show later, however, this is neither an attitude that is confined to our films, nor to secular culture, but one that now has permeated into the very center of the Church’s institutional space.

Thus, if Aster’s offering in Midsommar captures historical nature worship with any degree of accuracy, then the film can act as a vivid reminder of what it must have been like when early missionaries confronted pagan nature religions on their own turf, and did spiritual battle with their gods. After all, as missionaries like St. Boniface moved into unknown parts of Northern Europe, and the New World, it was these living horrors of pagan cultic life, replete with all its guts and gore, its unhinged sensuality (there is a particular graphic cultic sex scene that is too vivid to recount here), and most of all, its fundamentally flawed beliefs about God and man, that they combated. Would it be the case today that the Church would do the same as our missionary forefathers? Or would we shrink before these made-made images, and their non-existent gods, or perhaps their truly existing demonic masters?

Nature Worship and The Grotesque

At the heart of Midsommar’s vision of contemporary, pagan nature worship is the intermingling of features of beauty (e.g. order, symmetry, light, intricately balanced patterns), with unexpected and sudden instances of ugliness (e.g. disorder, malformation, and death). This intermingling of life and death, tranquility with sudden, shocking violence, is grounded in the underlying ontology of many historical pagan religions, namely monism, or the belief that all things are actually just one thing, and that there exists no real distinctions between physical bodies, or even spiritual ones.

This idea of ontological sameness is depicted in several scenes where one of the lead characters, Dani, experiences parts of her body as one in being with the very earth she is standing on, or the grass she is lying in; as if to say that when it comes to their essences Dani, the human person, and the grass are not in any way really inherently different. They, Dani and the grass, or Dani and the dirt, are literally one thing, not just in being though, but also in value.

On such a view, a view that sees human persons and grass as ontological equals, it should come to no surprise that the cult’s practices result in treating both persons and grass in effectively the same manner, for they just are the same thing. Thus, when the “Harga” cult ultimately selects its ‘human’ sacrifices for the festival’s uniquely destructive closing ceremony (which, mercifully, only occurs every 90 years), it is consistent with their metaphysical beliefs that the bodies of their human offerings literally be made to look like other things found in nature (e.g. plants, animals, etc). I will not go into details here of how this is done, since such images truly are the things of nightmares, at least for those reared in a culture structured by biblical principles and imbued with Christian imagery. But, such images should shock, since they are expressions of that which is deeply disordered.

Ultimately it is only the Christian worldview that allow for an imagery that rightly orders, and rightly categorizes, light and dark, good and evil, because it first rightly orders beings and their properties (John 1, 1 John 1:5, Romans 1:18-32). That right ordering with regard to nature and its creatures hinges ultimately on the Divine Nature, and the image of God in man, the fundamental dogmatic claims that separate nature religion from monotheistic faith, and that finds unique expression only with the coming of the Godman, Jesus Christ. For only God can, hypostatically, unite the pure with the impure, holiness with corruption, divine spirit with mortal flesh, bringing redemption to the one through the Grace of the other.

In contrast pagan culture sees nature, or better yet “mother” nature, as humankind’s ultimate progenitor, and to look only to her for guidance on life just is to wind up with an ambiguous metaphysical and moral understanding, one that opens the door for indecencies and brutalities of various stripes, and that ultimately plunge humanity into total dissolution. Morality plainly cannot be derived from a careful examination of Mother Earth alone, for with sin in the world, the creation itself groans for its own redemption (Romans 8:20-23). Thus, apart from the revelation of God in Christ, we are left only with the example of a creation infected with corruption, and thereby find ourselves lost as to how to discern between good and evil.

It is not without reason therefore that all of the grotesque acts in Midsommar take place under the bright and ever-present midsummer sun, for on monism there is not even a clear distinction between light and dark, day and night. This lack of distinction is, in fact, just what the grotesque is, man’s, or Satan’s, attempt to blend together what God has ordained to be apart, or as Wolfgang Kayser puts it,“Grotesque art can be defined as art whose form and subject matter appear to be a part of, while contradictory to, the natural, social, or personal worlds of which we are a part. Its images most often embody distortions, exaggeration, a fusion of incompatible parts in such a fashion that it confronts us as strange and disordered, as a world turned upside down.” (see The Grotesque in Art and Literature, 2-3). The presentation or embrace of the grotesque is the outworking of false thinking that has drastic consequences for human life, and for human culture.

Thus, while some of the cult’s activities in Midsommar would technically be considered criminal by today’s legal standards, the film indirectly reminds us that today’s standards are those that have been shaped by 1900 years of Christian morality, a morality grounded in the divine nature of the one true God, i.e. in Beauty Itself. Hence, the very making of the film forces us to recall that not only have our current moral and legal standards not always been the case, but that perhaps these standards could once again devolve, allowing us to fall back into actual nature worship, and its consequent cultic practices. One must seriously ask oneself, “Are we really that far off from reaffirming the beliefs and reimplementing the practices of the ancient druids, vikings, or Aztecs?”

Midsommar suggests that possibility is now more plausible than ever. But, in a culture that already celebrates abortion on demand, transgenderism in schools, and radical environmentalism, one might also ask whether a movie like Midsommar should even be necessary to tip us off to the real threat of an emerging paganism. It may even be the case, as some recent and rather glaring incidents suggest, that this paganism has never really gone away, and, even more disconcerting, may now be finding its defenders within the highest echelons of the Church.

Can the Church Be Compliant with Paganism? Pachamama and the Amazon Synod

Moving from the paganism in mimetic form to paganism in reality, recent events in the Catholic Church’s historical center Rome, revolving around some images of an Amazonian deity, Pachamama, have also acted as a jarring wake-up call for some, but certainly not all, that nature worship is alive and well in our time. Of course that such primitive tribal religion is alive and well is not what is controversial. What is controversial is whether or not the Catholic Church was condoning the adoration and worship of Pachamama, the “Andean fertility goddess” by allowing the figures to be housed in the Church of Santa Maria in Trasnpontina during the Amazonian synod.

While the analysis of Pachamama and the placement of several images of her in the side altar of Santa Maria continues to rage, one thing is clear: that Pachamama cannot be associated with the Virgin Mary. As one former Argentinian Bishop has made abundantly clear, “To say that this statue represents the Virgin is a lie. She is not Our Lady of the Amazon because the only Lady of the Amazon is Mary of Nazareth.” Moreover that the cult of Pachamama is one that fundamentally worships and adores the earth through ritual sacrifice and propitiation is easily established, as any quick internet search will confirm. Like the cult portrayed in Aster’s thriller, earth, or The Earth, is at the heart of Pachamama religion. When taken together with other recent displays that elevate the creature over the Creator, as when Greenpeace emblazoned St. Peter’s cupola with the words “Planet Earth First” prior to Donald Trump’s first Vatican visit, it may be time for those loyal to the Lordship of Christ, and convicted by the inspired and infallible Word of God, to take serious heed of what is going on around us, not just in the culture, but inside the walls of the so-called “visible church.” And, if need be, to rise up, just as two young Austrian laymen did, who, in an act reminiscent of Reformational zeal, rightly tossed the demonic images of Pachamam into the Tiber, sparking off a worldwide debate over the nature and perversity of idol worship.

In Midsommar, the fictional American and English visitors who happen upon the Harga cult are simply too secularized to stand up against the vicious, barbaric practices they witness. Having themselves grown up in a culture that has abandoned the truth of Christianity, a culture ruled by the dictatorship of relativism, they lack the necessary beliefs, the spiritual integrity, and moral fortitude to tear down the idols around them, and stop the gruesome and ungodly practices they see. For to do so would require that they know the Gospel, the Good News of the one true God, and His son Jesus Christ. Thank God that in the real world, there are still true missionaries of Christ who are willing to cast down such images, images that have infiltrated into the very heart of the Church’s own sacramental life, images that cannot be endured lest we betray the greatest of all commands, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to have no other gods before Him.