Wednesday, October 6, 2004
Vice-president Dick Cheney delivered a right hook to the chin of John Edwards last night by shining a light on the North Carolinian's abysmal record of attendance in the Senate. His recitation of Edwards' lackluster senate career was devastating. We sat there wondering how America can vote for a guy who's been collecting a paycheck and benefits for almost six years while doing next to nothing to earn it. How, we wondered, can anyone defend such an egregious abuse of tax-payer trust?
All we had to do to find an answer to that question was be one of the dozen or so viewers who watched Keith Olberman on MSNBC tonight. Did Olberman hammer Edwards for failing to fulfill his obligation to do the people's business? Of course not. He spent a large part of his show castigating Cheney for having forgotten that he'd ever met Edwards' before last night's debate. Olberman seemed outraged that Cheney would say this. Cheney must be lying, he hinted. We know they met, we have it on video, Olberman scoffed. True enough but so what? It's possible that there's not a person in this great country of Dick Cheney's age and background who remembers every meeting of every individual in his life, but Olberman couldn't get over his glee in having caught Cheney in a whopper.
Worse, Olberman, having demonstrated a remarkable proclivity for diving into the shallow end of the pool, found himself unable to make his way into deeper waters. He could manage no outrage at all over the fact that Edwards has been essentially AWOL from the Senate since almost the day he was sworn in. The senator's absenteeism is surely what matters, not whether Cheney's memory was correct, yet to such as Keith Olberman, Cheney's lapse negated his entire critique of his opponent's pathetic attendance record. Olberman never once tried to challenge the vice-president on the substance of his allegations. Instead he latched onto an irrelevant mistake and treated it as if it were a felony. No wonder nobody watches.
David Wayne at Jollyblogger challenges his readers with the question "Does the doctrine of 'sola scriptura' have a place in the post-modern world?" The doctrine of sola scriptura (Literally, scripture only) arose out of the Protestant Reformation and affirms that the Bible is the word of God and is our ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice.
The question seems to imply that if we can't conform our theological views to current cultural fashion we might be impelled to discard our theology. For someone who accepts the principle of sola scriptura, this probably seems backwards. It might perhaps better be asked whether post-modernity can find any place to dwell within a scriptural worldview.
Whichever way we frame it, however, the question must be answered in the negative. Whatever one thinks about the Bible, it seems pretty clear that the post-modern mindset is quite incompatible with sola scriptura.
The Bible makes claims to truth. It asserts in the strongest possible way that there is an objective universal truth about God, about man's condition, about morality, and about man's destiny. It tells us of Jesus' assertion that he is the way, the truth, and the life and it insists that Jesus' claim is objectively true.
Post-moderns, however, would find this claim incomprehensible and would tend to ignore it just as they would ignore all exclusive claims and all claims about any absolute truth. Post-modernity seeks to relativize or pragmatize truth, not absolutize it.
In a post-modern culture scripture would be removed from the lofty perch upon which it was ensconced by the Reformers and reduced to the status of secular literature. It could not be permitted to occupy the exalted chair of final arbiter of matters of faith and belief for these would be determined by the consensus in the existential communities in which people find themselves.
Thus one community's truth would not necessarily correspond to that of another and the same would be the case for individuals within the community. Communities of faith might choose to continue to accept the traditional theological significance of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but their decision to do so stands on a cloud. It's purely an emotional choice which is grounded in nothing but an arbitrary preference.
Should the church acquiesce to the post-modern view the whole notion of doctrine would soon be subjectivized and relativized until "truth" morphed into whatever gives the individual or the community a sense of well-being and hope. Truth would be that which grips the imagination of those in the relevant faith community and whatever they agree upon as having some "purchase" upon their commitments.
Faith would be based on nothing more substantial than emotional experience. It would forfeit any objective ground in the scripture, because scripture would be interpreted to mean whatever the reader felt most deeply that it meant. The significance of scripture would be intensely personal. What it means to me would be my truth, it would be true for me. Questions like whether Jesus was in fact divine or did indeed rise from dead would be moot. If you believe he did, then he did, if someone else believes he didn't, then he didn't. Each of us would be an island possessing our own private truth, and there would be no point in asking whether Jesus really was divine or really did rise from the dead. If you believe it strongly then the answer's yes. If you don't the answer's no.
Moreover, even the notion that the Bible is the word of God would come in for revision in the light of deconstructive unmasking of the authors' hidden agendas. Such an analysis would surely conclude that the texts are obvious attempts by the writers to empower males, or some such thing, and that the Church perpetuates this gender oppression by foisting upon the community the myth that these writings were really the very words of God.
The doctrine of sola scriptura, that the Bible alone is the final authority in matters of faith and practice, is antithetical to the post-modern idea that there is no final authority in such matters except the self or the community. The doctrine implicitly denies human autonomy while post-modernity explicitly affirms it.
Post-modernity is not unreceptive to everything about Christian belief, but it is incompatible with the doctrine that the Bible is the ultimate authority in our lives. If we choose to conform to the world then we will have to abandon the Reformation view of the Bible, and if we wish to be conformed to the Bible we will have to reject much about the post-modern view of the world. Perhaps this is just another illustration of what it means to be in the world but not of it.
Sigmund Freud captures the disillusionment of those who in the early years of the twentieth century embraced the liberal view of man as inherently good, a Promethean shaper of a glorious future, an Olympian god:
Sigmund Freud --On Transience
Those earlier humanists who thought man to be the closest thing to divinity in the cosmos were devastated by the horrors of WWI. The same thing happened when the full extent of the holocaust became known after WWII, and it happened again when the crimes of totalitarian communism were exposed in the second half of the last century. Yet the project of deifying man is resurrected every generation. The liberal, humanistic faith that man can be his own deity, that he doesn't need a transcendent God, that he can create heaven on earth all by himself, is as irrepressible as it is manifestly false.