The Church’s response to the rise of the Enlightenment and the modernist world has been foundationalism. Foundationalism is rooted in scientific rationalism. It has as its central tenant that there are objective core truths behind all we experience and these truths can be ascertained through rational examination of reality by autonomous objective human beings. The goal is to identify these core truths and build all other understandings upon them. These truths are the “foundations” upon which all else stands. However, foundationalism, as it has played out, has resulted in the development of two opposing camps.
One camp joined in with the demythologizing impulses of the modernist world. Scripture and tradition were weighed against scientific rationalism and found wanting. From the eighteenth century forward, and especially in the twentieth century, these theological modernists began to look for the truth “behind” scripture. A common universal experience of the transcendent was postulated for the entire human race. Each culture merely expresses it in different terms. The Bible is a wonderful expression of the transcendent but it is only a piece of the truth. By applying the tools of reason and scientific investigation it was believed that the common foundational truth would be uncovered.
This mindset, of necessity, leads to a type of elitism. Only the “high priests” of the rational scientific approach to scripture can speak authoritatively about the nature of spiritual truths. They are the “anointed ones” to direct the rest of the community in the ways of wisdom and truth. It is unrealistic to expect the masses would have the intellectual resources and sophisticated skills to discern foundational values, so they must be re-socialized into a new understanding. Some theological modernist have proposed radical revisionism but more typically the approach is an incremental effort to infuse ancient concepts and words with different meanings, thus subtly shifting people’s understanding without every directly challenging them.
The parallels between this mindset and the rise of socialism should be quite clear. Socialism has as a central tenant that a small group of elite intellectuals, applying rational and scientific analysis can plan a better economy than is created by a society of disparate individuals freely engaged in exchange. Some nations like Russia and China embraced this ideology and implemented radical reform. In many other places, the strategies have been more incremental and less confrontational.
Even in more capitalist societies like the United States, the trend toward controlling more and more of the decisions people make with massive human organizations developed. During the first half of the twentieth century businesses learned the enormous productivity they could gain by standardizing products and mass producing from one centralized location. The federal government also began to insert itself in various aspects of life using standardized programs with centralized bureaucracies in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Even mainline denominations began to subsume previously independent mission and ministry organizations under one comprehensive umbrella to be managed by a centralized bureaucracy.
Having exhausted the economies of scale from mass standardization, and with the introduction of new technologies, businesses long ago began a transition to mass customization using flatter and more decentralized structures. However, the centralized bureaucratic management mindset has become sacrosanct in government and mainline denominations, where the idea is that an “anointed” elite are needed to “manage” the lives of their constituencies. This, of course, dovetails perfectly with the theological modernist mindset.
Reflecting back on the issues of subsidiarity, this twentieth century transition into centralized bureaucracies has had two consequences. First, it has atrophied the abilities of intermediate organizations and the skills of individuals in addressing their own needs. Second, it has created a dependency mindset so that when a problem emerges, the immediate response is to hold the large bureaucratic institutions responsible. When President Bush first rolled out his faith based initiatives agenda (an agenda that I will be the first to admit has some serious problems) the National Council of Churches cast a wary eye, fearing that it would undermine the role of the federal government as the primary caretakers of the poor!
The mindset of an anointed elite managing government and society has long dominated mainline theological education. Paul Tillich believed that “Socialism is the practice of which Christianity is the religion.” Liberation theology, feminist theology, and a host of other perspectives have largely been various mutations of this thinking. Survey’s consistently show that an easy majority of seminarians matriculating from mainline institutions are at best suspicious of free market enterprise and many are clearly hostile.
What has clearly developed over the last century is a far more individualistic and materialistic society. Theologians assume this to be a direct consequence of the free enterprise system. In fact, I argue that it is the bankrupt theology of a demythologizing elite that is a primary culprit. (I will also argue in the next post that Evangelical theology has been as big a culprit.) People have become more materialistic because, instead of infusing the world with sacred meaning, the sacred has been eradicated. The sense of call and purpose in daily life has been blurred or completely obscured. Rather than bringing the revelation of a transcendent God into a materialistic world, mainline institutions have aided and abetted the rise of materialism. Rather than suffer under the pontifications about the latest social philosophy dressed up in theological mumbo-jumbo, people have left church institutions in search of transcendence elsewhere, often in Gnostic-like philosophies that don’t challenge their materialism.
The errant fusion of materialistic individualism with free market capitalism is not the exclusive work of mainline Christianity. There have long been voices in the Evangelical community who do the same thing. Jim Wallis is one of the most prominent in recent years. I see a heavy does of it in Emergent circles. I recently read N. T. Wright’s “Simply Christian.” I am an N. T. Wright fan but look at this following paragraph published in the book:
And now we have the new global evils: rampant, uncaring, and irresponsible materialism and capitalism on the one hand; raging unthinking religious fundamentalism on the other. As one famous book puts it, we have ‘Jihad versus McWorld.” (Whether there is such a thing as caring capitalism, or for that matter thoughtful fundamentalism, isn’t the point at the moment.) This brings us back to where we were a few minutes ago. It doesn’t take a Ph.D in macroeconomics to know that if the rich are getting richer by the minute, and the poor poorer, there is something badly wrong. (1)
“Whether there is such a thing as caring capitalism?” “Poor are getting poorer by the minute?” With all do respect, what planet is he writing about? Look at the level of prosperity in the world that has emerged over the last quarter of a millennium in the Western world. Lower middle class people live lifestyles today that most of the wealthy could not imagine one hundred years ago. Look at the stunning decline in disease and infant mortality rates coupled with rising life expectancy throughout the world in the Twentieth Century. No famine has occurred in a nation over the past several decades that embraces free markets and rule of law. More people than ever before live in politically free countries. The two most populous poor nations on the planet, India and China, are experiencing staggering economic growth that, while uneven, is expanding farther and farther throughout their respective societies. That bastion of “right-wing economics,” the United Nations, reports enormous and steady growth in the number of people earning more than one dollar a day over the past couple of decades. Their major objective is how to make it happen to more people faster. And all of this happened with the world tripling in population size since the 1920s. The poor are getting poorer???
None of this is to say that world situation is all peaches and cream. I am not saying that there are not serious injustices in the world and issues that need to be addressed. But we are talking about trajectories here, and capitalism, not a band enlightened elitists, has driven these advancements.
I suspect what is behind some of the aversion to free market capitalism by the Evangelical left and Emergent types is the pervasive individualism and materialism in Evangelical circles. These same Evangelicals are usually big supporters of free markets and capitalism. Borrowing from the critique of mainline Protestantism, I suspect that many of the critics have made the same errant fusion of materialistic individualism with capitalism. But the materialistic individualism in Evangelicalism does not spring from capitalism in my estimation. It is to the Evangelical ethos we turn next.
(1) N. T. Wright. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2006. 8.