In Above all Earthly Pow’rs author David Wells provides an informative explanation of our current cultural situation as well as an informative and devastating (yet also instructive and hopeful) evaluation of the current state of the evangelical church. The solution, both to the ills of our culture and the malaise of the church (which has been swallowed by its culture), is the rediscovering of a fully biblically, fully Christ centered view of the world. This is Well’s task – to show the necessity of and build the scaffolding of a Christian world view that is not beholden to Enlightenment philosophy nor accepting of the postmodern reaction to it.
The first two chapters of this book are a description of our modernized Western world, both in its now faded Enlightenment intellectual clothing and in the newly donned postmodern attire. More importantly, Wells invites us to think about how this external world has changed us internally, calling the reader to see just what our world is: “delicious and dangerous”. This is true because the norms of our external world “so easily and unknowingly become our own internalized norms” (pg 23). Wells highlights how the ideology of the Enlightenment worked hand and hand with the modernization of our society to shape the world as we have come to know it. He asserts that the freedom established itself as the centerpiece of Enlightenment ideology – freedom from tradition, freedom from God, freedom from all authority. The rational/reasoning self became entirely autonomous and the only trusted source of meaning and morality. These ideological steps were supported by the modernization process which “created a public environment in which commonplace assumptions about life came to parallel what the Enlightenment thought.” This led to a culture in which God, along with human nature, disappeared and man was thought of as being ‘omnicompetent’. The consequence was a world in which religion was/is a private affair that is entirely therapeutic and anthropocentric, ethics are based on efficiency, rampant is hedonism, there is a pervasive sense of ‘aloneness’, ‘virtue’ has been replaced by ‘values’, an self is autonomous, we have a “bloated estimation of human potential” that has enlarged our governments, and the self help industry is booming.
The confidence so characteristic of the Enlightenment has largely eroded by postmodern thought. Wells makes a very helpful distinction between postmodernism and postmodernity. Postmodernism is an intellectual movement consciously in opposition to Enlightenment thought. It is expressed in academia, art, architecture, etc. Postmodernity is the popular expression of postmodern ideas but without the conscious attack on modernity. At the popular level, postmodern/non-Enlightenment ways of thinking are assumed.
While postmodernism is opposed to Enlightenment rationality, it is, in some ways, the natural conclusion to the Enlightenment project. Wells points out that the autonomous self which was the hallmark of modernism has, in postmodernism, refused “to be fettered by any objective reality outside of itself.” This has inevitably lead to the dead end of nihilism. If there is no objective reality beyond oneself, then there can be no purpose, no meaning unless it is self made. Moreover, the confidence in human progress has equally been shaken. With our technological advances new horrors have emerged, and social ills such as poverty and injustice have endured. With the death of hope of finding anything which is objectively and universally true, metanarratives have also withered and died and all one is left with is one’s own ‘petite’ narrative. What is left when truth has evaporated is preference and taste, which have given rise to an insatiable consumerism. While postmodern philosophers were right in rejecting the humanistic rationality of the Enlightenment, they certainly have pushed this rejection far beyond what is necessary by rejecting reason itself (as if reason were the child of the Enlightenment).
At one level, Christians may applaud the efforts of those philosophers who brought down the Enlightenment system. For one, postmodern philosophers have rightly understood that no one stands outside their context as in impartial observer who can see all things. In one sense this is good because it highlights the need for revelation. If our individual reasons our at least partially bound to our cultural contexts (and biblically speaking, bound by sin), then God’s knowledge of his world and communication of that knowledge are indispensible. Wells writes, “if God’s knowledge of life is exhaustive and true, and if he inspired the biblical Word in order to communicate that truth, then the ‘totalizing’ stories which arise from that Word are not themselves the false absolutes of fallen reason” (83).
Unfortnately, the void left by removing rationality from the center of humanities abiblity to define its world and very existence has not been filled with God’s revelation. So what you are left with is a world that is seen to be moving but have no destination; a world of natural cause and effect, but no purpose; a world that can be descibred with statements about ‘what is’ but not ‘what ought to be’ (88).
In an odd irony, postmodernist society is deeply spiritual, though not religious per se. In part two of this review, I’ll summarize Well’s description of this ‘new spirituality’ and begin with Wells to think about what this means for the Church (though more of that will come in part three).