FROM BELLAH’S HABITS OF THE HEART TO SIRE’S HABITS OF THE MIND
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James W. Sire has done it again! His The Universe Next Door (the new edition contains a chapter on Post Modernism) places all Christians, who have not fallen to the postmodern blade, which seeks to destroy True Truth and Objectivity, in his debt. In their place the post modern prophets place multicultural tolerance. We have not heard such a clear call since Charles Malik, a Lebanese diplomat scholar and Eastern Orthodox Christian, spoke at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton College in 1980, sounded a clarion call to engage the mind.
“ The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. This cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. . . .
. . . For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for their own sakes, the Evangelical cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.” (The Two Tasks (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone, 1980), pp. 29-34).
Berger is correct in his analysis that “the essence of liberalism is to be contemporaneous and of the essence of being an intellectual is to know what is contemporaneous. (Peter Berger, “The Liberal As The Fall Guy,” The Center Magazine, vol. 5, no. 4 (July-August 1972, p. 39) Berger analyzes a self-inflicted wound. W.R. Inge must have had postmodern intellectuals in mind when he made his famous remark that he who marries the spirits of an age soon finds himself a widower.
Sire continues the concern of Malik for recovery of the Christian mind.
Chapter One: Perhaps Sire could have briefly traced “Habits of the Mind” at least from the perspective of Augustine’s dichotomy of habits of the mind through Locke, Montesque and Burke, who are his heirs. Charges against Augustine as being an extremist and intolerant are often ill founded. Augustine is stubbornly suspicious of unifying concepts and was in this way on the side of moderation and tolerance. Some of Augustine’s dichotomies pertain to the mind and some pertain to the external world. This dichotomy of the mind includes the subjective, as revealed in his exploration of our consciousness of time, and the objective as expressed in his efforts to establish foundational Christian theology.
Chapter Two: Sire brilliantly uses John Henry Newman’s intellectual contribution to our discussion. Though Dr. Sire does not emphasize Newman’s work, The Idea of The University, he does come to Newman’s influence on The Idea of The University in chapter 11 on the responsibility of the Christian intellectual to engage the mind of the university. Newman’s emphasis was on the priority of theological education in the university curriculum. This very important emphasis is totally rejected in our multicultural, pluralistic educational maze.
Chapters Three to Ten: In these chapters Sire unpacks Newman’s notion of “The Perfection of The Intellect”, primarily in his idea of the university. In the intervening chapters (3 to 10), Sire elucidates “The Perfection of The Intellect” though he could engage his discussion with Amusing Ourselves To Death, which places us in a culture that emphasizes visibility rather than audibility. Thus enters the powerful shaping force of media, with its postmodern theories of communication. This position entails the rejection of linear thinking and rational adjudication in attaining audience satisfaction and acceptance.
Though Dr. Sire’s magistral work is surely on the side of God, our discussion necessitates that we engage the shaping forces of post modern culture. In order to begin such a trek of evaluation, I would propose a sketch of post modern contentless spirituality. Our concern is to expose some of the forces that precipitated the narrative displacement that makes much of his discussion useless to the postmodern mind. Only a critique of the postmodern mind will be adequate.
In the 1960’s-70’s there was an epidemic outbreak of concern for transcendent meditation (TM) and other alternative methods to develop spirituality. Perhaps Dr. Sire and your editorial staff feel this emphasis unnecessary, but any biblically grounded development will also have to encounter the influence, not only, but especially of Generation X and their children, The Unchurched Harry’s. The outbreak of cult and occult phenomena in the 1970’s and 80’s (the greatest outbreak of Eastern religious influence in the West with emphasis on spirituality) places Dr. Sire’s concern in this context, therefore it has enormous implications for this thesis.
Both personal and corporate spirituality, at least with the West, must understand the postmodern influence of the thesis of the social construction reality. This claims that the community of the religious faithful creates reality, contra the authoritative Word of God, i.e., “propositional truth,” as a veiled power demand of religious leaders, and this places the community in a subjective mystical experience mode.
From the Greek civilization forward, we must note the imperfect grasp of biblical dichotomies along with an insufficiently restrained passion for unity. Biblical dichotomies play a significant place in the unfolding of Western civilization. The biblical sense of the overpowering spiritual significance of history did not lead to the deification of history as with Marx and his followers. John Burckhart called Augustine one of the “grand simplificateurs.” This can be explained by theological, not merely psychological or historical explanation. The Bible is God centered (not man, e.g. Seeker Friendly mode) and calls for love of God and love of neighbor. God alone has enabled us to escape “absolute relativism” in relation to the multitudinous realities that are finite and corruptible.
Our postmodern spiritual crisis stems from ruthless rejection of biblical dichotomies, some forms of the disintegration of the dichotomies appears in Existentialism in its most subjective form. In the same milieu of Existential influence was that of Positivism. In these two expressions we see the polarization of faith and reason. The inability to hold faith and reason in balance was dramatized by Hegel and Kierkegaard. Perhaps the most extreme claims made on the behalf of reason was Hegel, while Kierkegaard (partly in reaction to Hegel and the decadent condition of the Danish Lutheran Church) made humanity depend on faith and faith on defiance of reason.
Sire’s great call for biblically grounded spirituality must be seen in the context of the process of disintegration “the center could not hold.” God as the center of the universe was finally denounced in Nietzsche’s Death of God pronouncement.
In both the modern and postmodern worlds the sovereignty of God is rejected. If so, naturally, God cannot be the center of spirituality, only the cosmic alien remains judge of the spiritual dimensions of reality. From Sartre’s Nausea, “anything can happen, anything.” For post moderns despair and the search for community and meaning apart from God has produced a plethora of futile attempts of bridge building between the love of God and the Samaritan connection.
In our postmodern maze, all foundations are swept away. Both morality and science have lost their ontological grounds. From Kant’s moral philosophy to the twentieth century philosophical scene, it is clear that truth and spirituality came to be defined in terms of inspired intuition (Bergson), practical success (Dewey), or personal perspective (Nietzsche, et.al.). With the disappearance of objective norms and values, “Everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky’s characterization of “coming of age” appears in such twentieth century titans as Hitler, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. Our Whitehouse fiasco has shown that everything is permitted. The fracture of “public” and “private” parameters of reality exposes our moral, spiritual maze (e.g. Bill Bennett’s The Death of Outrage.
Biblical dichotomies fade and civilization totters. The maze created of postmodern prophets such as Fish, Lyotard, Derrida, Bernstein, Eco, et.al., leave us in a convictionless community. No wonder the epidemic of literature and seminars concerning our spirituality. But the biblical dichotomies affirm Habits of The Mind must be the ground presented in Habits of The Heart. Long live Sire and may he continue to powerfully declare the Lord of creation and redemption as the unflying center of reality.
In answer to question one: For his expressed purpose the flow is intact. Much that I would add would merely be more specific content of the narrative displacement that he affirms. I mean by this that we need much more content and analysis, not less of Dr. Sire.
Question Two: Sire reveals extensive awareness of the literature under survey but in a larger and more complex work, he would need to confront the massive amount of new age spirituality literature. Post moderns are deeply concerned with spirituality, but not the biblically grounded spirituality, which is dismissed as absolute and defective to the core (World Views in Conflict)!
Question Three: Of course, I cannot articulate the audience who will read, study, and assimilate Dr. Sire’s work, but I will affirm that Christians who fail to become participants in Sire’s spiritual journey will do so at their spiritual peril.
Question Four: Perhaps, at least a brief encounter with postmodern spirituality, which is Spirituality but No Truth about God; for postmodern man all reality is “socially constructed.” There is no rational escape from each “individual” constructing his or her own reality, which is only solipsistic narcissism, i.e., insanity. All are left to live in a “cosmic looney bin”, or the only alternative ground provided only by the biblical narrative!
All the data which I gathered in reading this very important work is only my specific response, not a fundamental criticism. Thanks to Dr. Sire, for many of us, “The Center Can Now Hold!”, “The Center Can Now Hold!”
James D. Strauss
Lincoln Christian Seminary