Monday, October 12, 2009

How did we get here?

One of the most intriguing book titles I've heard in years is, "Do Fish Know They're Wet?" Interesting question. The premise of the book is that when you're totally immersed in something, it is often hard to see it.

It's the same for us. It is very hard for us to see our cultural assumptions -- things we all just believe to be true without really thinking about them.

For example, when Martin Luther was roaming the world in the 1500's, there was a shared assumption in most of European society that if the Bible said something, it was true. (In fact, Luther himself raised the ante on this assumption by helping the wider population to know what the Bible said and giving them permission to read it for themselves by translating the Bible into the German language.) Now we may think we believe this today, but do we really act as if it is true?

Two hundred years and a little more after Luther we went through a time historians call the Enlightenment. We use that heady term to describe the shift toward a belief that humans can reason things out -- that our rational intellects are the measure of all things. In Luther's time the study of God -- theology -- was known as the "queen of the sciences." During the Enlightenment, science -- the quest for knowledge based on rational observation and repeated experiments -- became the ultimate way of gaining knowledge. It was a subtle shift at first, and it led to a lot of good things. We owe most of our technological advances to this Enlightenment and what followed. Air travel, computers, automobiles, telephones -- all these are the grandchildren of the Enlightenment. So this change in assumptions has changed our lives beyond measure.

But more than just our travel and our communication has changed. In the early 1800's we began to apply Enlightenment thinking even to the Bible. Instead of accepting that the Bible had authority, we began to try to make sense of it, to figure out how it worked. In scholars' terms, we began to do something to the Bible that we call "higher criticism." It is higher in the sense that we put ourselves above the text to figure it out, treating the Bible as a human document written by human authors limited by their time and place. Not all higher criticism is bad. For example, one huge question in higher criticism is the "synoptic problem" -- the question of how the gospels were composed and which were written first. Why do Matthew, Mark, and Luke share so much material? Which was written first? Which second? It's an interesting way to think, but it does not deal with the question of "how do I know the Jesus that the gospels are telling me about?"

As the 1800's gave way to the 1900's, this way of thinking about the Bible began to filter from the halls of academia down into the general population. Christians -- especially in America -- began to divide into "liberal" (accepting this higher criticism and taking a lower view of the Bible's authority) and "conservative" (rejecting higher criticism and holding to a stronger view of biblical authority) churches. At the extreme, this division has led to fundamentalism, on the one hand, and social activist liberalism on the other. The creation / evolution debate gets fought on much these same lines.

Is something true if the Bible says it is? Our culture, by and large, says no. The Bible may say that I should tithe. That message may be very clear and the Bible may teach it consistently, but most people -- inside the church and outside it -- think that's foolish. Why would I give a tenth of my money away? This is why the average giving in protestant churches stays at about 2% of income -- because most of us don't believe the Bible's advice is worth taking. It's the same in other areas of life. Just because the Bible says something doesn't mean it's true. Our culture has largely walked away from biblical understandings of divorce, adultery, gambling, parenting, gossip, pornography, leisure, work, money, and much more. Today those who believe in the Bible's authority and are willing to act based on the Bible's teaching are a small minority even in most churches.

So by the mid-1900's as a culture we had pretty thoroughly abandoned the view that the Bible was authoritative. At that time we still believed our culture was "Christian" but the foundation of that Christian identity had eroded. When the 1960's rolled around, we were reeling from three decades of self-sacrifice -- first from the Great Depression, then from the Second World War, and finally from the fears of the Cold War in the 1950's. When the 60's hit, the pendulum swung hard away from self sacrifice. As a culture we began to believe instead that if you feel like doing something, you should act on that feeling. Pop slogans like "If it feels good, do it" rested on a much deeper cultural assumption. Truth no longer rested on the best of human reason from a scientific point of view; instead, truth was now whatever I feel like. My own experiences became the filter through which I discern truth. We still nod to science as the accepted authority, but the foundation of our belief in science has eroded as well. Today we decide what we want to believe, how we want to act, and we look for science to back up our actions. This works because we see our politicians and even scientists doing the same thing -- arguing about competing and contradictory theories, pulling in experts to back up their latest political campaign. Look at global warming and the controversy surrounding that as one example.

So in the beginning of the 21st century, we find our selves in a place where the authorities have all been stripped of their power, and I get to make up my mind based on my own inclinations. That sounds like a place of great individual power. However, as a lone individual I may not have the resources to make good decisions. So I look at what others are doing around me and try to figure out if they are right. Have you noticed that news broadcasts spend an inordinate amount of time looking at public opinion polls in the last few years? It's natural. If there is no authority, we want to know what everyone else is doing.

The other danger today is that as an individual, making my decisions without authority sources to guide me, I am vulnerable to persuasion. The marketing industry began growing at the same time as our sense of biblical authority began to diminish. (If you doubt this, research the history of Christmas and when it went from being about Jesus to being about Santa Claus and the pile of presents under the tree. You'll find that the shift took place in the late 1800's and early 1900's -- the same time the idea of higher criticism was filtering down to the common people in America.) There are millions of dollars spent every year to try to get you to think a certain way, buy a certain product, drive a certain car.

Do fish know they're wet? Probably not. But if you throw a cat into the lake, it definitely knows it's wet. Those who know Jesus are not called to accept our cultural assumptions without question. We are called to live in this culture like "strangers and aliens" according to the Bible, whose citizenship is in heaven with God. Those who know Jesus need to do a little hard work to understand the culture in which we live. It is not enough to say, "Well, everybody thinks this is okay, so it must be okay." As Jesus-followers we have to have a better reason for our belief and our action. "I want it to be true" works pretty well on reality TV shows, but it won't keep you close to Jesus when times get hard.


  1. Jeff - Larry and I are following your comments about the authority of the bible with much interest. After his first Alpha, he had a question we thought we might run by you: If folks in your Alpha group come from all different places in their faith walk (questioning, new believer, occasional doubter, etc.), and the opinions they hear in small group are all over the place and not always true to biblical authority, aren't the "newbies" to the faith in danger of taking the "if it fits you comfortably, accept it" attitude about what they learn in group instead of the truth of the Word from the bible? (Wow that was a run-on sentence, I hope it makes sense.) Thanks, Allison And by the way, hope it goes really well for you on Wednesday!

  2. Wow, amazing post! It reminded me of the Faithsearch seminar Central hosted a few years ago (Dr. Don Bierle, where i had many of my science-related questions answered... but then those answers led me on to further questions! Being a "seeker" of Truth is an amazing path to be on, it's sure never boring!!! Thanks for being willing to talk candidly and making yourself available for questions Pastor.