“Postmodernist Mush”

This week I’ve been teaching a class on ministry with young adults at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI. As part of this, I did a quick review of contemporary worldviews, especially postmodernism. I skipped the standard over-simplifications, and did some explication of one of the leading postmodernist philosophers, Jean-François Lyotard.

I happened to recall an internet discussion where Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong accused me of spouting forth “postmodernist mush” in the sermon wherein I told my church about my journey of faith.

Postmodernism is defined by Lyotard as skepticism of metanarratives–I happen to accept a metanarrative, one Seventh-day Adventists refer to as the “Great Controversy,” which provides the framework for understanding Creation, the fall of Satan and of man, the sending of a Savior, his life, death, resurrection and high priestly ministry, his return in glory, and his ultimate eradication of evil and inauguration of an eternal kingdom in which all shall be in union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Postmodernism is generally understood to suggest that you can’t really know what is truth–I believe that Sacred Scripture is a reliable source of Truth, which must stand over against all human institutions and beliefs.

Armstrong says my problem was I never accepted apologetics. That’s incorrect. Apologetics is simply a defense of the faith, an explanation. My sermon was an exercise in apologetics. I did not accept the rationalistic, forensic style of apologetics that has its roots in the Reformed tradition and that has crept into Catholicism through converts from the fundamentalist Presbyterian Church in America. I did not accept the eisegetical method whereby they anachronistically attempt to read Catholic teaching back into the Bible, denying the Catholic church’s own teaching that the development of doctrine explains why Catholic teachings are not to be found in the Bible.

Pace Armstrong, I did give reasons in that sermon why I left Adventism in the first place, but as this sermon was preached to an Adventist audience, I gave shorthand references to historic controversies which members in the audience would recognize. Armstrong does not understand the cryptic references to Brinsmead, Ford, etc. But that was enough reference for the audience. These were Australian theologians who taught a version of justification by faith which they used to critique Adventist teachings on Christ’s high priestly ministry.

Armstrong charges I didn’t present reasons why I became a Catholic. Of course I did. I spelled out the questions that I asked in the light of the ELCA’s abandonment of Scripture, Christian tradition, and Christian morality:

Where to find a clear sense of Christian morality? Where to find a Church that was consistent through the ages? Where to find a Church that spoke with authority?

Those are the questions that led me to resign from the Lutheran ministry at the end of 1992 and enter the Catholic Church.

But there was more to it than that.

I was also hurting. I had a very difficult time as a young, inexperienced pastor. In my first church I was thrown into an old conflict that I didn’t have the skills to handle. In my second church, I followed a pastor who had molested a young girl, and I had to repair the damage done to the church. I felt alone—and I found that my best support during this time, and during the hospitalization of my children and wife, came from Catholic friends, especially some who called themselves “Franciscan.” They lived out a true Christian spirit of love and simplicity modeled on the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. They prayed with me and taught me to pray. So I was attracted not just by the Catholic Church’s claim to authority, but by the beauty and love of many of its members, and by its rich traditions of prayer and spirituality.

That seems pretty clear–I was attracted by its authority, its history, its traditions of prayer and spirituality, and the Christian spirit of its members. Those seem to me to be the standard reasons why Protestants become Catholic.

I then noted that my trust in that authority crumbled. If you accept Catholic authority, you will accept the teachings that she asserts on her own authority, without Scriptural foundation. If you question her authority, then you abandon those teachings which have no other foundation. That is simple logic.

Many Catholic teachings have no other foundation than the Church’s claim to teach with authority: purgatory, Marian dogmas, saints, indulgences, the papacy, etc. These are not Bible doctrines.

And Catholicism has never claimed that they were. It has always upheld the authority of Tradition over against the Protestant claim that Scripture alone is to be the norm of all teaching and practice. That some apologists now try to read late developments into Scripture does not make them Scriptural.

The sexual abuse crisis has shown that the teaching of Trent still stands: Catholicism is a closed system of self-justification, which rests on its own authority. The clericalist, hierarchical system at its heart accepts no external criticism, whether it come from the laity or from Scripture. Consider the recent statement of Bishop Anthony Fisher, the organizer of the recent Catholic Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, who denounced a lay woman’s story of her daughter’s rape by a priest and subsequent suicide as “dwelling crankily … on old wounds.” He doesn’t get it. He can’t get it. He’s set apart. He’s experienced an ontological change that makes him metaphysically different from a lay person. He has an indelible character. Her comments can only bounce off that armor. And it’s the armor in which the whole structure is surrounded–the armor of pride, arrogance, hubris. Neither the pleas of a suffering mother nor the clear teachings of Scripture can make a dent in it. It is a structure of sin (to use Catholic terminology).

So I had plenty of reasons to leave; I gave some, I suggested others. But they are there. And they thus constitute an apologetic.

Now Dave says he had a different approach to becoming Catholic. He says he studied all the arguments for and against every doctrine. “I could no more convert to another belief-system without having abundant reasons for doing so than water could cease to be wet.” I don’t discount that. But that wasn’t my path to Catholicism, nor is it the path of most people. I embraced Catholicism because I was seduced; I accepted her claims to authority. I drank deeply of that cup. Having accepted her authority, I affirmed her as mater et magister. I listened to her own reasons, given throughout her history, and I accepted them because I was in love. I grew gradually to embrace her teachings more and more fully, moving from a more liberal Catholicism to a more conservative approach (but not the neo-fundamentalism of the Presbyterian converts). I loved John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But when I began to have doubts in her authority, when her golden cup dropped from my hand, and I gripped more firmly God’s Word, this all had to come crashing down.

At that time, I chose not to enter into a debate. I still choose not to do so. Because I still do not accept that form of apologetic. I had been posting many articles expressing my doubts before I took the step, and I posted more after the fact–those blog posts I compiled here. These articles aren’t exhaustive, but they document some of the questions I considered. Call them what you will–but I think it a stretch to call them “postmodernist mush.”

3 thoughts on ““Postmodernist Mush”

  1. As you point out, Adventists LOVE their systems. And, in the spirit of the modern creationist movement and Josh McDowell-style apologetics, evidentialism is the only game in town for us. We Adventists like to think that there are concrete, logically infallible, irrefutable reasons for every single one of our beliefs, and even if we personally don’t know these reasons, we believe in the existence of some old Adventist scholar pouring over some musty tome in the back of a library somewhere who does.

    And we also have a sacred canon of arguments and evidences, don’t we?

    Woe be unto you if you can’t submit to this culture!

  2. I believe the term “seduced” is quite accurate to describe many of the so-called protestant conversions to Catholicism. That certainly was my experience. Many of us left our Protestant pulpits after becoming disillusioned with what we saw and experienced in our churches. Everything from internal conflicts and dysfunction at the local level to the larger politics and doctrinal disagreements at the denominational levels – we longed for something “solid” that enabled us to “question” what was taking place in our ministries. In seeking something more solid we turned to EWTN and the Coming Home Network with the promises of this solidity through the Catholic Church – as if this “conversion” would give us the answers to the issues that plagued us in our Protestant congregations.

    I was one of those who “crossed the Tiber”. What I discovered was a system that was the same as or worse than I had experienced in my Protestant denomination. The control, infighting, jealousy, political wrangling on the local and diocesan levels, not to mention the division between “left and right”, along with the controversies that follow any organizational system, was more intense than I had experienced in my protestant denomination. I felt as though I had jumped from the “frying pan into the fire”.

    This was only compounded by the isolation that an “ex” protestant clergy-member experiences at the hands of the local church and the larger diocese political structure. I was asked repeatedly “why” I left, “why would I even want to be a Catholic” and met accusations that “surely you must have acted in a way that ousted you from your denomination.” I only sought to follow Jesus Christ and believed the way to do this was in becoming Catholic as all the claims were made that “true fulfillment” would be found in the “true Church”.

    In seeking fellowship with former protestant clergy I attended the 2006 gathering of the Coming Home Network’s Deep in History conference that focused upon the Reformation in England. There was a lot of discussion debunking the “revisionist propaganda” that Protestants had utilized to move the Church of England away from Catholicism. The “Catholic martyrs” were presented as victims of an evil intent and the Protestants were the persecutors and were “evil” in their intent to move the Church of England away from the Catholic fold. I remember sitting there dumbfounded. If I wanted to convert Protestants from a church to the Catholic Church – would I want to present a “new twist” on the English Reformation by painting the Protestants as evil and the Catholics only with pure intentions and being mistreated? I thought to myself – is this the whole picture of what really took place? Why the extremes to paint one group as “good” and the other as “bad” – why can’t we attempt to see that both sides were at fault and there was a lot of political intrigue at play that led to the English Reformation? Why paint everything as “black and white”? Why the “revision” of the “revision”?

    What tipped me back and prompted me to leave the Catholic Church were the “voices” speaking for Catholic apologetics. After reading Scott Hahn’s and Dave Armstrong’s books and experiencing them in public lectures and through the blogosphere I began to look at my own motives for leaving Protestantism. By asking “beyond all the surface reasons (claims of Catholic apologetics), why would I leave”? I concluded that many of us Protestant clergy who left their denominations and became Catholic, more often than not, were deeply sincere individuals who questioned their experiences in their denominations and local churches, experienced “burnout” (more often than not unconscious) and would have left the ministry – by converting to Catholicism they had a “reason to leave” and no longer be “clergy”. After all adjustment to being “non-clergy” is a major issue for those who leave ministry. Catholicism and “becoming part of something historic with authority, made them feel “okay” to leave their churches and to find a new “home”.

    But what was the new home? Catholicism – something not any different than what I left – only more intense – more politically motivated – more structured – more divided – more conflicted – with less commitment by the laity and a lack of understanding by the “average” parishioner for what they actually believed and “why” they believed as they do. “Because I said so” has never been a good answer for me whenever I asked “why” – which is what I heard from those in authority within the Church.

    Turning to the Catholic apologists what I realized they did do was they converted to Catholicism but they did not de-convert from their fundamentalism. Their beliefs changed but their attitudes and approaches did not. Rather than being “Bible Thumpers” they became “Canon Law – Catechism Thumpers” substituting one belief in authority for another – one that gave no substance and a lot of ‘a-priori” arguments for their beliefs with an obnoxious flare for being provocative (in a typical fundamentalist attitudinal approach). Authority is what drives this attitude and “of course I am right and you are wrong” and “let’s have a pseudo-discussion” where I get to prove you wrong – because I am never wrong” because I will get “in your face” an intimidate you has never set well with those of us who are not so disposed in personality. It was their arguments in using the scriptures that turned me away from Catholicism utilizing any trick in the book to prove their case for their a-priori beliefs. I’m sure they are well intentioned, but do they really realize how much fundamentalist attitudes and approaches turn people away from their arguments? I never dreamed I would encounter Catholic Fundamentalists – but I did!

    Thank Bill Cork’s blogs for helping me along the way. I appreciate his approach, his sensitivity and knowledge to “stay out of the fray” of the “fightin’ fundies” in the Catholic Church. I’m so much happier being home again – with Christ as my Lord and Savior – on Him will I trust for my salvation and not any system or human organization.

  3. Well for the record Convert here to the Catholic Faith. There is a lot to respond too but let me take this:

    “He doesn’t get it. He can’t get it. He’s set apart. He’s experienced an ontological change that makes him metaphysically different from a lay person. He has an indelible character. Her comments can only bounce off that armor. And it’s the armor in which the whole structure is surrounded–the armor of pride, arrogance, hubris. Neither the pleas of a suffering mother nor the clear teachings of Scripture can make a dent in it. It is a structure of sin (to use Catholic terminology).”

    Let me say neither you nor I am a expert on this Bishop from Australia. We don’t know his background and we don’t know his past works or statements. PErhaps the arrogance and hubris here is not exactly on him.

    I have been watching WYD and the pre build up to WYD woth some interest. The first thing you notice is just anti the Church and anti FAITH period the Australian Press is. It just gets sublime. However they gradually had to come around this week.

    As to the sexual abuse controversy let me say that his remark was poorly said and it was aimed at the media. It came in reaction no doubt to a huge show on Australian television the night before that too say the least was not wel balanced. That show comes on the weeks and weeks of trying to put the sex abuse scandal into every facet of reporting.

    I hate to remind people but this was WORLD YOUTH DAY. His remarks were ill said but he wanted to get the attention back on the youth where it belonged or at least give them some portion of time. That has little to do with the formal structures of the Church. The World’s Catholic Youth and the countless millions praying for them are not a prop for media stories or should I say excessive media stories on one topic

    Quite frankly some of us that are LAY Catholics( please again notice LAY) are getting tired of having the media use cetain events that we need just to forward an agenda.

    Should he have said it better . Yeah. But there comes a time when valid criticism and holding peoples feet to the fire go into just agenda driven Christian Bashing. I am just a poor Catholic layman and I have no “indelible character” but in frustration and in the heat of the moment I have said something quite similar to the Bishop.

    For instance when I talk about morality “I hear about sex abuse scandal”

    When I talk about immigration reform and Christian teaching I hear “Oh and what about the sex abuse Scandal”

    When I talk about the role of faith in the public square atheiest and enemies of the faith will go well what about the sex abuse scandal

    etc etc.

    At some point ones has to figure out being the role of the useful idiot is not helping.

    In our frustration we say things in a bad way. That coours to me and I think it is safe to say it happens to Bishop or Priest or Layperson

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