Jesus After Modernity

In Jesus After Modernity: A 21st-Century Critique of our Modern Concept of Truth and the Truth of the Gospel, author James P. Danaher exposes the truncated notion of truth that the modern mind espouses.

The modern mind conceptualizes truth as objective, certain, and precise. These qualities are so closely associated with truth that ideas that are contradictory, vague, or ambiguous are deemed untrue. But postmodernity has exposed the flaw in this perspective: modernity “gave us a truncated notion of truth that tried to eliminate the human context in which we must always perceive the truth” (19).

Put simply: Objectivity is an illusion. It is impossible to be completely independent from one’s experience. What modern thinkers “imagined to be the objective study of nature was not raw data at all but a phenomenal interpretation of data” (3). That is, our “human experience is a composite of data and the understanding through which we interpret that data” (3).

And the way we interpret data is subject to personal, cultural, and conceptual biases. For example, Aristotle imagined that the world was biological, that is, that the world was a living thing. This was the conceptual framework through which he evaluated data. In contrast, Isaac Newton imagined the world as a machine. This understanding “provided a better model by which to pursue technological progress than did Aristotle’s biological paradigm” (13). But it is not completely objective. It is still filtered through a conceptual framework. Therefore,

if our interest is ecology rather than technological progress, Aristotle’s biological view might be more advantageous. However, we can never decide whether the world is biological or mechanical on some objective criterion apart from our agendas. Since we do not receive these paradigms as data, but rather acquire them from a culture that has selected them for us, we need to be aware of the agendas behind their selection. (13)

Because our understanding is always partial and limited, certainty is impossible. Our experience is always a filtered experience. Indeed, “the Gospel never offers us certainty. Instead,

Jesus says, “follow me” and calls us to a journey. Truth is the end of that journey. It is not a truth that we possess, but a truth that we follow. It is something that draws us unto itself. It is not a truth that we get a hold of, but a truth that gets hold of us. It does not provide assurance that we can be certain of the future but it is what provides direction for that future. (4)

We interpret our God experiences through an imperfect, human perspective. For this reason, faith is not about believing facts, but seeking to better enter Jesus’ perspective. Jesus “brings a perspective to his God experiences that the rest of us lack, and it is this Jesus perspective, rather than objective reality, that those who consider themselves his followers should seek” (18). This best occurs through “an earnest suspicion concerning our perspective” (19).

“Once we reach certainty, there simply is no further place for us to go.” (55) But in order to learn and grow, we must possess a learned ignorance.

In the Gospels, the only ones that are certain about the truth they possess are the Pharisees. They suffer no self-doubt and are certain that they are right in opposing Jesus. By contrast, those that receive Jesus’ message and follow him are those that ask that he help their unbelief and lack of certainty (cf. Mark 9:24; John 14:4-5). (56)

Postmodernity has also exposed the modern obsession with precision to be lacking in regard to the bulk of life’s experiences. Though Plato saw mathematics, particularly geometry, as the ultimate model for knowledge, it falls short in many areas. Descartes also attempted “to establish foundations for human knowledge that were as certain as the truths of mathematics” (41). However, courage, love, wisdom, and justice cannot be understood with the same precise and certain knowledge mathematics seems to offer.

Reality is far more complex than mathematical and mechanical concepts will allow. For example, the mechanical model that dominated the modern age assumed that, like a gear in a machine, causality was singular. “We habitually ask, ‘What was the cause?’ as if there were only one” (51). But the world is more complex that our modern ancestors imagined.

Unlike modern science, today’s science admits that certainty is beyond us and the best we can hope for is probability. Today we understand that the precise certainty that Enlightenment science promised is an illusion. The universe is vastly more complicated than our Enlightenment ancestors had imagined. Our understanding of the world has changed. We now know that matter is not the basic stuffs of the universe, since when we divide the smallest particles still further the result is energy rather than smaller units of matter… We live in a world where multiple causes seem to be behind what becomes our fate, and we are in need of new paradigms far more complex than that of the machine. (57)

While apologists for science advocate it as our savior, the reality is far more drastic.

The promise of modern science was that if we put our trust in its ability to solve our problems, it would eventually be able to perfect the human condition and allow us to take control over our lives. The reality, however, has been very different, and modern science has presented us with a technology that has endangered our very existence in a manner heretofore unprecedented. It has threatened the very biosphere upon which all of human life depends and has introduced weapons of mass destruction. (57)

The modern mind is half-witted. We need both analysis and synthesis.

We can analyze our experience and break it down into ever-smaller parts, or we can join the parts of our experience together into ever-greater wholes. Both modes of thought are within our power. To prefer one to the exclusion of the other is to limit our rational capacity and leaves us half-witted. (75)

Though analysis does not allow for contradictions, synthesis demands it. Philosophers both “know and don’t know” and “must bear the contradiction of being both wise and ignorant” (77). For example, we are both saint and sinner. Likewise, we both know and do not know people we love. This has important consequences for our knowledge of self, others, and God.

Unfortunately, the great sin of religious people is to want to see themselves as righteous and no longer in need of repentance and the forgiveness that follows from it. They cannot bear the contradiction of being both saint and sinner, so they insist that they have found a way to be righteous and no longer in need of repentance and forgiveness. God has forgiven them once and that has made them righteous, but God does not desire us to be righteous in that sense of sinlessness. The righteousness God has for us is that we would become merciful, as he is merciful… God intends us to see ourselves as the contradictions that we are in order that we live more fully in a state of repentance. (81-82)

Danaher invites us to embrace Hegel’s great maxim that “the truth is the whole.”

This means that if we really wanted to understand something, we had to understand it in the context of everything else. When dealing with the whole rather than the parts, we are treating all the respects or parts together and thus we inevitably encounter contradictions, and the truth is often both/and rather than either/or. (83)

Of course, we can eliminate contradictions “by reasoning analytically and dissecting things into lifeless parts” (85). But this is not life nor how life works.

If we wish to think in a way that better mirrors what we actually experience, we need to be willing to defy the laws of analysis and tolerate the contradictions we often encounter when we eave things whole and refuse to analyze life into abstract parts. (85)

What holds true for reality also holds true in Christian experience.

In reality, however, at our deepest core, we are essentially a contradiction. At our deepest core, we discover that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons, but, at the same time, we are also prone to wander in search of a different identity for ourselves. It is not, as we often imagine, that one part of us loves God and another part of us rejects God. That is how we often reason in order to apply the laws of thought and eliminate the contradiction, but it is the same me that is both saint and sinner. (87)

We want Jesus to tell us who is good and who is bad, but instead Jesus tells us that God alone is good. He tells us that we are all sinners, yet we are nevertheless God’s beloved daughters and sons. We, however, have difficulty bearing that contradiction. (100)

The modern mind is half-witted, favoring analysis over synthesis. While purporting to be objective, certain, and precise, it deceives itself in regard to so-called objectivity and overreaches in its attempt to explain the whole of life, instead offering only a truncated notion of truth. Life is full of ambiguities and contradictions. No matter what we do, we cannot “eliminate the human context in which we must always perceive the truth” (19).

Quotes excerpted from Jesus After Modernity: A 21st-Century Critique of our Modern Concept of Truth and the Truth of the Gospel, by James P. Danaher.

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