“Above All Earthly Pow’rs” by David Wells – A Review by John Beeson (Part 4)
What does Christ look like in postmodern world?
Review #4: Chapters 4-6
“Tourists; that’s what we are becoming
Tourists, we move through life, flitting from idea to idea, from novelty to novelty, from new person to new person
Never settling, always moving…”
Mark Greene, “Tourists.”
It doesn’t take a sociologist to recognize that the religious currency of our time is spirituality. Spirituality is safe because it makes no truth claims. No truth claims are possible since spirituality begins with the self, not with God. Truth is spiritual experience. We gobble up experience: video games, television shows, travel, blogs, concerts, unsated by the paltry nourishment they offer. Like children at a carnival we take large mouthfuls of cotton candy, always expecting the next bite of spun sugar to satisfy.
This spirituality stands in stark contrast to religious institutions. Where religious institutions are seen as rigid and dead, the self is seen as fresh and enlivening. The self is not only the pilgrim, but the Mecca. The self twists in on itself; reifying its own existence it bows before itself: worshiper and worshiped.
Wells contrasts the upward moving love of modern spirituality with the true love that is found in Christianity. He says:
The movement of Eros spirituality is upward. Its essence, its drive, is the sinner finding God. The movement of Agape, by contrast, is downward. It is all about God finding the sinner. Eros spirituality is the kind of spirituality which arises from human nature and it builds on the presumption that it can forge its own salvation…Agape is the intrusion of eternity into the fabric of life coming, not from below, but from above. Eros is human love. Agape is divine love.
By stating it thusly, Wells has boldly pitted the Reformed versus the Arminian tradition. This is a bold move, but a deft one. Underneath what Wells is saying is that the turn of evangelicalism to Arminianism in the 20th Century has led to this type of Eros-driven Christianity. Wells doesn’t come out and say it, but it is clear that he has Arminianism in mind as he talks about this type of Christianity that is fertile ground for neo-Gnosticism and neo-Paganism. It is Arminianism’s elevation of autonomy in its theological system which allowed for this type of shift of understanding regarding how we relate to God.
Fundamental to such a flawed understanding is the elimination of sin from our vocabulary, and particularly, the notion of original sin. According to Barna, only 17% of Americans define sin in relation to God. For the postmodern, Wells asserts, sin is just a gap between humanity and God. Like ancient emanationism (though Wells doesn’t say as much), this type of modern Christianity sees no absolute barrier between God and humanity. The gap between us can be closed by upward movement. God is like man in kind. Hence the natural progression of Arminianism to its more sinister modern cousin, Open Theology, is natural. In Open Theology God, like any person, is bound by freedom and a horizon of knowledge that cannot extend past the present.
Wells is unrelenting in his critique on such Christianity. There is no room for synergism between God’s grace and human movement toward God, he asserts. In the Bible we meet a startling God. God is loving and holy, yes, but God is also wrathful and alienated from human beings. His holiness and purity separates him from sinful humans. In the Bible it is clear that we are not separated from God not by degree but by kind.
Yet the Incarnation stands as the beacon of hope for us: the God who was alienated from us chose to alienate his own son for the sake of our reconciliation. That act of humiliation, or more specifically, the one who walked that path of humiliation is in fact exalted by that act and stands now at the center of history as the man, the way, the truth, and the life. The alienated becomes the reconciler. This center is what gives Christianity its fundamental coherence and provides the grand narrative in a day and age where grand narratives are eschewed.
Christian hope, therefore, is not the therapeutic, psychological cotton candy doled out today, but rather hearty nourishment based on a spiritual reality. Hope is connected with the trust that God’s kingdom already penetrates this age and that God is working redemptively here and now. It is our responsibility as the church to serve up such hearty nourishment: food that will sustain and not leave the world wanting. We must give the world the one everlasting food: the body of Jesus Christ