An Evangelical Who Needs Postmodernism

We postmodernists get accused of making up truth, which is true in a sense, but also misleading.  I can’t speak for all who don the name, but, as a card-carrying member of the club, I can attest to my belief in truth.  Rather, we po-mo folk disdain claims to encapsulate truth in one’s philosophy, ideology, religion, or other sort of worldview, as if neither we nor truth were situated in the constructions of history, as if the facts of reality could appear to us with pure immediacy, not mediated by our prejudices and presuppositions.  We distrust modernity’s grand narratives and their alleged basis in unbiased universal reason.  Evangelical Christian David Barton dubs us a poisonous bunch, but he could really benefit from our patented medicine.

NPR has a story about Barton’s influence on Christian communities, GOP politicians, and Texas schoolbooks.  Seems this evangelical leader has an especially creative reading of U.S. history.  To hear him, you’d think the Constitution had more biblical allusions than a T.S. Eliot poem.  He peddles a grand narrative that the United States was founded on biblical principles and passages, reading the historical documents he’s amassed in that light.  You’d see the truth too if you only reasoned the way he does.  Barton’s on a mission–from God, apparently–to correct the historical distortions of the Left.  The progressives and the secularists, clouded by their unholy biases, can’t see the reality of the nation’s history.  He can because he’s got the facts at his disposal and the right interpretive master key for unlocking the Constitution, the country’s other founding documents, and the bible.

Or so he says.  That historians regularly refute his arguments doesn’t bother him a wink.  With champions like Mike Huckabee and platforms such as the upcoming Republican National Convention, Barton can get his “truth” out through controlled channels.

Embracing the postmodern disposition would help him shed his truth-stifling meta-narrative, but it would also give him firmer grounds to make his case for Christianity’s influence on the founding of the country.  Like Barton and the rest of us, the founding fathers were products of their time.  They were situated in a world that was both deeply Christian and reactionary towards the religion’s trends and traditions.  We’re shaped by the history in which we’re situated.  So were Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and the rest of the gang.  Christianity and reactions against it comprise a big part of U.S. history.  This continues today with the New Atheists responding to the modernist absurdities of biblical literalism and religious fundamentalism.

I pray you: take a swallow of our poison, David Barton.  You may discover it serves your faith.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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41 Responses

  1. Tom Van Dyke says:

    True, but for the wrong reasons. Barton has inaccuracies you can drive a truck through, but the only reason he got as far as he did was because 20th century revisionism made the Founders into deists, which they were not.

    Barton may be finished

    but there are plenty of anti-revisionists* like Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall and Thomas G. West and Kim Ian Parker [respected PhD’s all] who still have a lot to say on this matter. Kyle.


    *The generation after the Founders made them all devout. Then the secularists undid that revisionism and made them all creatures of the Enlightenment. Now that has to be fixed. Call them anti-anti-anti revisionists, then.

    Dr. John Fea of Messiah College is a bit of a pal of mine and he’s been out front on this latest round of Barton. Here’s his take on the Founders.

  2. Rodak says:

    Kyle — As you know, I’ve been reading you for years. I can understand how one can be several kinds of Protestant Christian, or how one can be my kind of “cafeteria Christian”–taking ideas from various sources and traditions–and also be a Post-Modernist. But I’ve yet to understand how one can be a Catholic and a Post-Modernist simultaneously without suffering from cognitive dissonance to a rather alarming degree. It would seem to me that Catholicism offer safe haven to people who have lost their nerve and sought the shelter of what promises to be “a sure thing.” Catholics turn their existential responsibility over to the priesthood and follow rules. They agree to ‘believe” in absurdities, unquestioningly. I know that you do none of these things. So how and why do you call yourself a Catholic?

    • Burt Likko says:

      Rodak, I’m an atheist and I don’t think this is a fair reading of Catholicism.

      As for the absurdities, one sign that you are dealing with a thoughtful and serious Catholic as opposed to a casual one or one who equates their religious doctrines with magic is the readiness of the Catholic’s admission that things like transubstantiation and trinitarianism are “mysteries” that are never going to make rational sense. That doesn’t mean I buy in to these mysteries. It means I respect it when a Catholic is forthright with me about such things being beyond reason, observation, and evidence. But it was my clergy — priests and deacons — who encouraged me to question the mysteries and contemplate them, and one of whom even told me that if I found the mysteries irreconcilable with my understanding of the world, I ought to look for world views other than Catholicism.

      And as Christian denominations go, Catholics are among the most ready to accept that the knowledge given by science about the origin of the universe, evolution, sex, and human nature are compatible with the Bible and that the Bible ought to be seen as an allegory or a mythic depiction of the world rather than as a literal history.

      But more to the point, it is manifestly not the case that Catholics abdicate their existential responsibilities as individuals to their clerics, reducing questions of the moral gravity of their actions to ones of obedience. Catholics, at least those who take their religion both seriously and thoughtfully, are forthright believers in free will, and will insist that they have personal, intentional choices, choices for which they will be held to account before their God in some fashion, and that this accounting will have profound and serious consequences for them even after their deaths. Catholicism, I think even more than the Protestant and Evangelical strains of Christianity I’ve encountered, puts a premium on good deeds as well as good motives and proper faith, and absolution from sins is most assuredly not obtained just by talking to a priest through a screen and reciting the rosary a few times. I’ve never met a (thoughtful) Catholic who suggested that being in the club gets them a get out of jail free card for their moral errors.

      I have a lot of issues with Catholic doctrine. When I left faith behind, it was Catholic faith I walked away from and the motive factor in that decision was my inability to accept the mysteries upon which the faith is predicated. But it’s never even occured to me that Catholicism excludes people of deep thought or intelligence from the ranks of the faithful, nor that Catholicism permits abdication of personal moral responsibility.

      • Rodak says:

        Then what is the role of the priest in the Confession?

        • Burt Likko says:

          I’ll let an actual Catholic field that one, on the degree to which the priest is another human being bound by vows of confidentiality and with a specialized educational and experiential background offering moral guidance, and the degree to which the priest is a stand-in or a vehicle for God to dispense absolution through some sort of spiritual or divine activity, one with which the word “grace” seems to be associated quite frequently and which I confess that as a non-believer I do not wholly understand.

          • When I seriously began to challenge the Catholicism of my upbringing, it was the sacrament of reconciliation that bothered me the most. I thought that it was ludicrous to entrust forgiveness of my sins to a man and not directly to god. It was around that time that I flirted with and gradually embraced evangelical Christianity.

            Of course, I was 11 or 12 at the time, so perhaps my understanding of the in’s and out’s of the Catholic position on reconciliation and penance might not have been as nuanced or informed as, say, almost anyone who knows anything about it.

          • Fnord says:

            As an atheist, confession and reconciliation, priest and all, is one of the sacraments that makes the most sense, not the last.

            It’s not that you’re not entrusting your forgiveness to God. As Burt said, the priest is a stand in and intermediary for God. But why the need for a stand in or intermediary? Why not simply pray for forgiveness and guidance in penance personally?

            Because confession, by definition, involves dealing with situations where you screwed up, and often quite personal areas, and penance (whether it’s formal sacramental penance or simply the universal act of trying to do what you can to make right what your mistakes made wrong) frequently involves something you’d rather not do. Exactly the sort of area where humans have a hard time being objective. It’s not “losing your nerve” to admit that you can’t always think clearly about things that deeply affect you personally, and to ask for assistance and advice from a trusted but disinterested party. Indeed, to deny that would be hubris.

          • Fnord,

            That makes a lot of sense.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      As Burt notes in his excellent comment, you’re misreading Catholicism if you think it demands unquestioning obedience and a safe haven from existential responsibility. The Catholic Church is an authoritative institution, no doubt, but a respect for this authority doesn’t have to mean uncritical deference. I know many devout Catholics who are faithful to magisterial teachings because they’ve thought these teachings through and come to believe, apart from the mere say-so of the authorities, they’re true.

      My postmodern Catholicism may take me out of the mainstream, but it doesn’t push me out of the water. I keep the faith because I believe it to be the truest path to the sacred, this despite its flaws, failings, and sins. I love Catholicism for its incarnational and sacramental approach to the love of God, expressed in its sacraments and liturgies and charities, and in the widely different lives of the saints. The Church is and will always be a work in progress (and sometimes in regress), and while I sometimes wish for a hastier development of doctrine, and worry that the powers that be have taken the wrong road, I remain conscious of the fact that the Church grows very slowly and may yet be in its infancy. I imagine my church, a thousand years from now, will look strikingly similar and strikingly different from what it does today.

      • James Hanley says:

        “My postmodern Catholicism may take me out of the mainstream, but it doesn’t push me out of the water. ”

        Are you in an eddy?

      • Rodak says:

        @ Kyle — I can’t imagine a better answer to my question than the one you’ve given. I don’t know that I buy into it, but it is masterfully presented. It is my understanding, though, that if any person radically questions any Catholic tenet (I’m not sure that I have a good handle on the various categories of “tenet”–dogmas vs. doctrines, or whatever it is–), he will ultimately be expelled into the Outer Darkness. I know that Simone Weil stated as her reason for not being baptized, despite her adoration of Christ, and her yearning toward the Church, was the simple phrase “anathema sit.” She couldn’t accept that. I can’t accept that. Of course you can believe anything you want if you keep your ideas to yourself. But if the hierarchy decides that your thought is dangerous and potentially popular, they will crush you. Where am I (following Simone Weil) wrong? And how does Post-modernism mesh with that?

        • I would need to know more about Catholicism to answer your point, Rodak, but my impression is that the Church officially sees excommunication as a recognition that someone has exiled themselves from the “community” of the Church, not as an expulsion from the Church.

          I’ll grant two concessions, however. First, if I’m right, excommunication as mere recognition of a fait accompli or as a fait qui est en train de s’accomplir does not represent the Church’s historical use of excommunication. Second, I might very well be wrong about what excommunication is in theory. Someone who knows more can correct me.

          • Rodak says:

            “…the Church officially sees excommunication as a recognition that someone has exiled themselves from the “community” of the Church, not as an expulsion from the Church.”

            Blame the victim, eh? That’ll work every time.

            I think Simone Weil probably knew more than you–or me. I think a translation of “anathema sit” answers the question.

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Hell might exist, but it be empty.

            The Church prays for the salvation of all men, of all mankind. Apokatastasis, an idea of “universal reconciliation” to God’s mercy, is a longstanding theology in the Church, at times condemned, but although currently non-normative, is still not heretical.

            The logic is simple: It’s up to God.

            “Eternal damnation remains a possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.” (John Paul II, General Audience of July 28, 1999)


            “It is unfair and incorrect to accuse either Balthasar or Neuhaus of teaching that no one goes to hell. They grant that it is probable that some or even many do go there, but they assert, on the ground that God is capable of bringing any sinner to repentance, that we have a right to hope and pray that all will be saved. The fact that something is highly improbable need not prevent us from hoping and praying that it will happen.

            According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved’ (1 Timothy 2:4)” (CCC §1821). At another point the Catechism declares: “The Church prays that no one should be lost” (CCC §1058).” (Avery Cardinal Dulles, in the First things article above.)

          • “Blame the victim, eh? That’ll work every time.”

            If my interpretation of what excommunication is or means is correct (a pretty good-sized “if,” mind you, given my ignorance of the Church and theology in general), then it’s less blaming the victim than recognizing that the person has banished him- or herself from the community. (That, however, raises a question for me: why not keep the doors open for that person if he or she repents? But even then, I suspect there is some allowance for penitence and voluntary return to the community, at least in theory.)

          • James Hanley says:

            Hell might exist, but it be empty.

            I think that’s what’s referred to as a second-best solution. 😉

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Anathemas, which can be traced to Paul’s letter to the Galatians (1:8), were abolished by the 1983 Code of Canon Law. However, you can still get excommunicated for teaching heresy. Excommunication says nothing about the state of one’s soul; it serves rather a medicinal purpose–prompting the one excommunicated to repent. The hierarchy takes its brand seriously. When representatives of the Church publicly say things contrary to the faith, it will sometimes step in the clarify and clear up the confusion. Sometimes that means telling a rep of the church, “Look, you’ve taken a path away from the deposit of faith and risked leading others astray. You’ve refused to change your ways, so we have to make it clear that you don’t represent us or the faith entrusted to us. ” You don’t see this done that often, however. Go to any conservative Catholic blog and you’re sure to run across complaints about Cath0lic theologians teaching at Catholic institutions promoting heretical ideas.

          • Rodak says:

            Yes. I guess that perhaps Hans Kung would be a good example of that. Not excommunicated, but prohibited from teaching theology as a Church representative.

            I still have a problem reconciling this with Post-modernism, though.

      • Rodak says:

        @Fnord — it’s not the idea of talking things out that is objectionable–certainly that is healthy. But that can be done with a trusted family member, friend, or professional psychologist. What is objectionable is the concept that the clergy can effect absolution on behalf of God. This is where one has turned over existential responsibility. If amends are needed, they must be identified and addressed–not “forgiven” by going through a set of motions in a setting far removed from the locus of the problem(s).

        • Fnord says:

          My reply specifically focused on “role of the priest in the Confession.” If your objection is being “‘forgiven’ by going through a set of motions in a setting far removed from the locus of the problem,” I would submit that that doesn’t require the presence of clergy.

          • Rodak says:

            @ Fnord — I was describing confession in the presence of clergy in the lines to which you refer. The priest presumably was not at the scene of the crime and has no personal involvement in it. The perp needs to forgive himself, in order to accept God’s forgiveness, following his repentance. Why is there a priest–who has nothing to do with any of it–thrown into the mix between the sinner and his God?

          • Fnord says:

            You say that talking it out is healthy. But you object to something about the presence of the priest. Could you elaborate?

  3. Rodak says:

    Moreover, if I wanted to be truly cynical about your response, I could suggest that it boils down to an assertion that the Catholics put on a better show, present more engaging theater, than do the Protestants–which is quite true. Consider that the Protestants chose to go that comparatively austere route for a reason. I suggest that the reason was a valid one.

    • Rodak says:

      @Tom Van Dyke — but we’re not talking about damnation here; we’re talking about expulsion from the congregation and the concommitant withholding of the sacraments. And this on the basis of what an individual has come to believe–ideas, products of the intellect, or perhaps of direct revelation…

      • Tom Van Dyke says:

        That’s not how it works. It has to do with preaching theological lies to others, not personal belief. You could hardly expect any church [except the UUs I guess] to be all Barney with that.

        • Rodak says:

          @ Tom — Your use of the word “lies” exposes the truth of the situation. Anything that contradicts orthodoxy is ipso facto a lie. If that “lie” is expressed, it becomes subversive to orthodoxy and must be suppressed. This is all well and good, if that’s how people choose to live. But I can’t see how it is compatible with Post-modern philosophy (or any other.)

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Not suppressed so much as separated from the Church. Out of communion with the church. The Roman Church is not a democracy.

            Don’t get hung up on the words so much. “Lie” was subjective, from the Church’s POV. Many modern excommunications are clergy or associated laymen teaching doctrines incompatible with the teachings of the Church. But you’d be surprised how much non-normative ‘dissent’ is permitted in the Church without ex-communication. As they say, on whatever subject you can think of, there are seven feet of shelf space devoted to it in the Vatican library.

            The Pope just doesn’t wing it.

            As for post-modernism, quite right. The Church opposes what Benedict calls “the dictatorship of relativism.” This is not synonymous with dissent, it’s synonymous with the abandonment of the search for truth.

  4. Rodak says:

    That said, Tom, what your comment suggests is that you actually believe is that excommunication almost surely results in damnation, even though the Church — Pilate-like –washes its hands of that damnation by praying for a lost cause.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Not atall, Mr. Rodak. And what I believe, or what the Church might say, is irrelevant. It’s all up to God.

      You seem to want to argue with somebody, but that wouldn’t be me. I was hoping you’d take all this as good news.

  5. Rodak says:

    @ Pierre — But that’s nonesense. The person is excommunicated precisely because he has refused to voluntarily withdraw himself from the Church. In most cases, he is a would-be reformer.

    • Well, it might be nonsense. Much of it depends on whether my suspicion of what the Church means on excommunication is true in the first place. At any rate, my goal is primarily to state (or discover) first and foremost what excommunication is, and my second goal is to do it with the least amount of effort of research on my part.

      As for “most cases,” I suppose that’s something that could be counted. I suspect Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther might agree (I’m not sure if they were all excommunicated, but they advanced their views perhaps under the threat of excommunication).

  6. Rodak says:

    A “good” Catholic, in other words, doesn’t need to think about anything–if he has a question, he can just look up the correct answer. Of course a good Catholic will deny that this is the case. But when one tries to discuss the situation with somebody like Tom, the truth of what I’m saying immediately comes out. You can’t have it both ways.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      I don’t think there’s much point in continuing, bro. You’re kind of like Billy Bob in The Apostle more than anything, just begging for a thrashing.


      • Rodak says:

        You have no answers, huh, Tom? Well, we knew that up front, didn’t we? Name calling is the last resort, isn’t it? Carry on.

  7. Rodak says:

    “As for post-modernism, quite right. The Church opposes what Benedict calls “the dictatorship of relativism.” This is not synonymous with dissent, it’s synonymous with the abandonment of the search for truth.”

    @Tom — I somehow missed this, and the whole comment which this concludes. My bad. It would have changed (or eliminated the need for) most of my subsequent ranting, since it is back on topic.
    That said, I don’t know that Post-modernism is an abandonment of the search for truth. To my mind, it is more an attempt (a work-in-progress) to redefine the meaning of “truth.” What is “true” is not patent, even if one stipulates that an absolute and objective Truth exists. It is still unknowable in its entirety and must be accepted on faith. To say instead, “let’s just talk about what can know for certain,” is not quite the same thing as relativism, which says “let’s just talk about what will work in this situation.”

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      OK, Mr. Rodak, I won’t give up on you then, although the Protestant/Ole Testament approach of Robert Duvall beating the stuffing out of you is probably still what’s really needed here.

      I kid, I kid. Good movie.

      What is “true” is not patent, even if one stipulates that an absolute and objective Truth exists. It is still unknowable in its entirety and must be accepted on faith.

      This is where philosophy comes in. Can Aristotle discern truth without the Bible, using only what he calls “right reason?”

      Of course. God reveals himself through nature, to our reason, through our reason. Aquinas calls this “general” revelation. [The Bible, etc., is “special” revelation.] According to the late medievals Suarez and Grotius, God doesn’t even need to exist for there to be truth, for there to be a “natural law.”

      Many of the Roman Church’s social positions, [abortion, sexuality, Just War, Just Wage, etc.] come from reason and experience, not the Bible. As for all the afterlife stuff, yeah, that’s the Faith Dept., but Roman Catholicism doesn’t throw it all into an undifferentiated stew. Faith and reason work together, each in their own sphere.

      If post-modernism has a quarrel with the pope, it’s really with Aquinas and his pal Aristotle.

      As for excommunication, keep an open mind. 😉

      New Orleans, 1962: “After ten years of tumult, the Catholic schools were going to integrate, but not without one last battle between Rummel and the segregationists. State Senator E.W. Gravolet threatened to cut off state support to Catholic schools. Leander Perez, the political boss of Plaquemine Parish, called for the withholding of financial support from the Church.

      With growing opposition, Rummel and Archbishop-Coadjutor John P. Cody sent out letters to the most vocal opponents warning them of excommunication, Most of those who received warnings ceased their activities. However, Leander Perez, Jackson G. Ricau, secretary of Citizens Council of South Louisiana, and Mrs. B.J. Gaillot, Jr., president of Save Our Nation, Inc., became even more vocal in their opposition to Archbishop Rummel.

      On April 16, 1962, Rummel excommunicated all three for continuing “to hinder his orders or provoke the devoted people of this venerable archdiocese to disobedience or rebellion in the matter of opening our schools to all Catholic children.”

      They were barred from the Mass and sacraments as well as Catholic burial. The following day, on April 17th, Rummel emerged from his home for a meeting with a group of Catholic pilgrims, and was confronted by Mrs. Gaillot who knelt in front of him and declared “I am not apologizing for anything I have done in the past . . . Satan is interfering with my efforts to talk to you.” The pilgrims surrounded her and dragged her away from Rummel.

      Such a scene indicates “the ordeal that the Catholic Church has faced in cracking segregation in Southern parochial schools.” Most Catholics in the area seemed to lend little support to Perez, Gaillot and Ricau while the excommunicants seemed stunned by the action.

      With this battle won, Archbishop Rummel’s Catholic schools desegregated in the fall of 1962. Ricau and Perez were eventually reinstated into the Church following public retractions. ”

  8. Rodak says:

    Mind you, I find the Evangelical fundies more objectionable than Catholic fundamentalist, in most ways. But only something akin to The Society of Friends even comes close to biblical Christianity (it wasn’t “Christianity” then, of course) to my mind.