Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Present Culture of "Neo-Romanticism"


For all of its assurance to liberate men free from their self-imposed ignorance, considered largely the result of the influence of traditional Christianity, the Enlightenment failed to provide a final solution for life. In its rational deconstruction of man and of the universe in order to create a cohesive view of specific topics, the Enlightenment was really an agenda for progress apart from the biblical revelation of God. Problematically, by locking God out of the metaphysical world, and arguing instead for a clockwork universe, so-called enlightened thinkers made God a prisoner to his own set of laws. It took Kant to seek the “der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmundigkeit” (“the emergence of man from his self-incurred immaturity”) and to return the metaphysical world to the arena of philosophy and religious discourse. Rococo frivolity was the Enlightenment in denial—a last gasp effort to believe that science and philosophy could replace God and deliver the better life.

Thus, things began to turn slowly to a new vision of things that cultural historians refer to as the period of Romanticism. The nineteenth-century intellectual and cultural movement sought to save the Christian faith and practice that had been had been devalued by the radical theorists of the European Enlightenment. Some men found a lively faith in the Church but most saw the Church as nothing more than a narcotic masking people’s inner pain. Many therefore sought a spiritual path outside organized religion in the way of nature mysticism. In all, as Bernard Reardon has noted, people began again to yearn for the “infinite beyond”—a sentimental longing for the medieval past. Metaphysics had found a place again.

Men of the Romantic age could not tolerate the notion that all knowledge is acquired by reason for this left no room for the ego to explore, actually to create, reality. But indisposed to abandon reason altogether they made room for the human faculty of imagination. Reason ascertains the existence of facts while the imagination discerns the meaning about facts. But the imagination had the upper hand, such that Fichte could say, “All reality is produced purely by the imagination.” The real substance of imagination (for Schleiermacher it is “intuition,” for Freud it is “ego”) is therefore cognitive; but cognitive not only in the empirical sense, but to an even greater extent in the metaphysical meaning. It is through imagination that real knowledge of all things is realized.

Romanticism was thought to indicate the coming end of the enlightened idea of progress and the end of the anti-metaphysical mood in Europe. But unfortunately the new program only served to lead men further away from God. Despite’s Kant’s stress on recovering the numinous realm most men of the period sought the sacred world of salvation in the inner self—the world of feeling and subjectivity. Theirs’ was a search for the infinite in the finite.

The great Romantic poet/painter William Blake captured the Romantic preoccupation with religious introspection.

To see a world in a grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

The obsession with the inner-world of self as a vehicle for recapturing religious sentiment set off a spiritual and psychological evolutionary spiral downward. Just fifteen years after David’s The Battle of the Romans and the Sabines (1799), in which there is not a drop of blood, Francisco Goya eclipsed the austere idealization of the classical past in The Third of May 1808 (1814). The face of the Madrilenos’ martyrs now lying soaked in their own blood spoke for the new attitude in Europe. Belief in the potential of man to advance Europe on the heels of the French Revolution had turned to widespread feeling of helplessness and horror in the face of man’s inhumanity to man.

It is said that gaiety marked the late nineteenth century; indeed, a revived sense of optimism appeared before World War I. Nonetheless, beneath the surface a growing disenchantment continued to gain momentum throughout the West. Though the industrial revolution in both Europe and in America brought scientific and technological progress that made life easier, scores of people were uneasy. The gleeful world of belle epoque (beautiful age) of Paris was more and more suspected as a mere fa├žade hiding people’s quite desperation. The growing loss of hope for the future kicked off a compliment of movements in painting that functioned as a forum for the search for meaning in the face of human forlornness. Ignited by the birth of Romanticism, there was Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Neo-Plasticism, culminating in Cubism around the start of World War I. Unfortunately the story of Modern Art is a quirk of irony. The more men wrestled with the meaning of life the more their center slipped farther into the abyss of meaninglessness.

Very soon after World War 1, Irish poet, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), captured the human concession to hopelessness in The Second Coming.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

By the early twentieth century Munch’s The Scream (1910) became a metaphor for the outlook in the West. Munch had captured man’s greatest fear: not of death but of living. In the end, the bold period of progress promised by the Romantic worldview was not satisfied, just as the promises of progress made by the Enlightenment before it had failed.

Why did Romanticism fail? Why so much despair? The deeper men looked into themselves for meaning and for God, the more they discovered the very ugliness for which Christ died. Having discarded the historical Jesus for an extension of their inner-ego, which they called “God,” they formed a deep pit from which they could not rescue themselves. Forlornness is the unfortunate blow awaiting anyone that dares to gaze into his inner-man without the grace of God.

It has been said many times that the age in which we now live is a continuation of the radical progressives who fueled the Enlightenment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now in the twenty-first century, we are the progenitors of Romanticism and its blending of reason and imagination. The cultural mood of the West is not conditioned by the atheism championed by Candide but by Johan Gottlob Fichte’s quest for the freeing of the cosmic consciousness.

Many Westerners, including theologians and philosophers, speak of an objective world, but only insofar as it serves as the sphere of the ego’s freedom. The real starting point of modern-day liberalism is not the encyclopedists and the philosophes but the members of the Sturm und Drang.

Contrary to popular held belief Europe is not a culture of postmodern thought, if we are to define “postmodern” as a mindset in direct opposition to religion. Rather, the postmodern mind in Europe is increasingly open to the practice of spirituality on a number of different levels. Europe, and following on its heels, America, may be post-Christian, but they are not post-religious. Far from being secular and anti-religion the future world is one in which hyper-religious movements will flourish.

The difference now, so it is said, is that metaphysics is no longer in vogue. But “biblical” metaphysics were not in vogue during the historic period of nineteenth-century Romanticism. The infinite beyond was a cover for the cosmic ego. Postmodern thinkers who claim no interest in metaphysics are merely Romantics who have now decided to come clean. I call them “Neo-Romantics.” Today, most Christian colleges, universities, and Divinity Schools in both America and Europe encourage a form of Christianity that places the radical ego at the center.

Despite the claim that all theological reflection ought to begin with Jesus of Nazareth, I cannot help but think that some theologians make this claim out of their own individual social, political, and cultural awareness. Today, theological ideas are so unpretentiously expressed in familiar language interwoven with the common biblical vernacular, God-speak, and spiritual insights that the agnostic, radical underpinnings of religious viewpoints are ignored.

If in fact the West (and also Africa and Asia), is not post-religious, but post-Christian, then people are hungry for answers of a religious nature. This means that Protestant theology must do better. The Christian theologian must see this hunger as the urgency of the moment and address it biblically: according to the true hope and promise of cultural and social progress that only Jesus can deliver. But one thing will not work: biblical and theological answers that are cut from the same scrap of cloth that is soaked in the despair of the age, whereby the best we can do is to muster “the courage to be.” The need of the hour is for the Church to take its place in the culture; to take a prophetic stand and to call nations to a “lively hope” (1 Pet. 1:3); to faith and obedience; to a life with Jesus that Paul distills as “faith working itself out through love” (Gal. 5:6).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Athiest Thinks Africa Needs God

TimesOnline December 27, 2008

by Matthew Parris...

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.

We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Need for the Biblical World and Life View to Reform African Culture


I have a new article on The Road From Eden that offers a modest vision for the reform of African culture. Obviously, it offers only a part of what is needed. But check out the article at my website. You can link to it just to the right of this post or go to www.roadfromeden.com It is under Culture/Articles. A partial excerpt from the article is below...

Religious pluralism is endemic to African traditional religion (ATR). It animates the social and cultural conditions not only of African religion but also of many cultural forms throughout the continent. More specifically, religious pluralism is having a direct effect on the ways in which Christianity is understood and practiced in most areas of Africa. It is the worldview of religious pluralism that must be challenged in order for biblical Christianity to emerge and take hold of Africa.

This challenge cannot be addressed by a narrow evangelistic model but by a rigorous biblical theology focused on the teaching of the Christian world and life view. With the firm rooting of biblical theology, the Christian worldview can supplant the prevailing pluralistic worldview of ATR. Adding more converts into a system that is systemically pluralistic in its understanding of life is not helpful.

Contrary to the tenants of religious pluralism (all roads lead to God) there is need for a wholesale renaissance in many African’s thinking that can provide fertile soil for the growth of a true understanding of the uniqueness of Christ and of his salvation and transform African life.

What are the particular ramifications of religious pluralism in African nations struggling to define an African expression of Christianity? How can biblical Christianity address the problem of religious pluralism and help bring true and lasting reformation to Africa? I will address these questions under three headings: 1) The problem of African religious pluralism; 2) The five sources of religious pluralism in Africa; 3) The Christian answer for African religious pluralism.