God, Revelation & Authority Vol. 1, Chapters 6-8

Posted: January 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

Chapters 6-8 of Carl F.H. Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority Volume 1 deals with the counterculture of the 1960’s and early 1970’s as well as the “The Jesus People” Movement and the rise of the secular left in mainstream America.  It would be easy to dismiss these chapters as dated but that would be a mistake for, in many ways, we have are on the far side of the same movement once again.  For example, the postmodern movement resulting in radical moral relativism on campuses and the Emergent Church movement possessed a worldview that overlapped with the counterculture at several important points and the new atheists hold an incredible amount of influence over contemporary academia.

The hippie movement of the ’60’s presented a strong challenge to the absolute claims of science and technology to bring us peace, prosperity and happiness. 

Henry wrote of the counterculture, ” It insists that the modern blind trust in the scientific enterprise is leading not to “an emerging technocratic paradise” but, as Roszak phrases it, to “Samuel Beckett’s two sad tramps waiting forever under that wilted tree for their lives to begin” (ibid., p. xiv)—that is, to fast-approaching technocratic domination and totalitarian dehumanization of man. Whether that wilted tree speaks of technological genius in the service of atomic devastation, ecological pollution of the earth, computerized intelligence, or simply in a more general way of the scientific depersonalization of everything human, counterculture youth has forsaken “that wilted tree” and is hopefully pitching its nomadic tent by rivers of new life.

Henry insists that evangelical Christianity has long shared the critique that wealth or technological progress can save us in any way.  Yet, the faith differed from the counterculture in its pessimistic view of human nature.  The counterculture hoped that if we made a romantic turn inward that we would discover our true selves, which they believed was essentially good.  Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, argues that our “true selves” our sinful and that only a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit can save us. 

The counterculture thus created a rival myth to scientism.  True Christianity challenges both myths and, as such, needs those who will faithfully proclaim it.  Henry hoped that the “Jesus People,” or better known derisively as “Jesus Freaks” would rise to the challenge.

The Jesus People were essentially hippies who had lost hope in the romantic utopia promised by counterculture leaders like Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary.  Unlike mainstream western Christianity, the Jesus People refused to buy into the myth that material prosperity and technological progress would bring salvation.  Thus, they rejected both myths that were sweeping over America in the late ’60’s and ’70’s. 

The Jesus People also largely rejected sectarianism and passionately engaged the culture from both the political left and right.  The potential for the movement was great.  Yet, Henry rightly worried that the Jesus Freaks may have been nothing more than a fad fed as much by cultural rebellion and unfortunately he was correct.  One of the failures of the Jesus Movement was that it largely ignored theology, apologetics and careful Biblical interpretation in favor of experience only.  Historically, such a quest for spiritual emotional highs leads to burnout, heresy or disappointment.   

In contrast to the counterculture, the myth of the wholly autonomous secular being wedded to naturalist explanations marched on as the ’60’s and ’70’s saw university campuses take hard turns left.  What is the result? Henry writes,

The secular outlook postulates man’s being and destiny solely in view of finite forces, the interrelatedness of all cosmic processes, and the relativity of all historical events. It affirms that nature alone has produced man. This carries with it a special understanding of man’s place in the tangible world and bears upon all the central elements of human existence. All that man does and achieves is shadowed by transience and relativity. Within this context of existence his station and role and all his sociohistorical institutions are conditioned by his social environment, which alone shapes and sharpens his capacities. Nothing traditional is sacrosanct. The supposed ultimate givenness of all past patterns—even the family—is open to challenge by experimental alternatives. No objectively given order of reality seems wholly impervious to his manipulation; technology has enabled him to rearrange his once apparently uncontrollable environment to serve his own interests and desires. All convictions and creeds are considered to be culture-bound, all commitments of truth and morality tentative. The very possibility of human progress on an empirico-scientific basis is held to require the human revaluation of all standards and structures; change alone is the way into a hopeful future. Secularism sponsors a new self-consciousness which divorces man from a dependent relationship with God. In a world without objective reason and purpose, man needs autonomous freedom to create and re-create his own meaning and security. Man is viewed as a creature competent without gods to cope with all problems through social rather than supernatural resources, and all his powers and choices are contingently grounded.

This replacement of biblical theism by naturalistic scientism entails a colossal alteration of cultural mood; it is, in fact, one of the most radical restructurings of convictional perspective in the history of human thought. Secular man has disengaged himself from what he considers the mammoth myth of revealed religion and the Bible. He has evicted the God of creation and repudiates an eternally given order of meaning and worth for creaturely reality, setting all existence, life, truth and value in a context that is exhaustively conditional and provisional. No longer does Yahweh the sovereign Lord create life and define truth and the good; reality is redefined without any sacred dimension whatever. Radical secularity thus moves far beyond Darwin’s halting accommodation of the biblical Adam in physical respects to evolutionary naturalism, and refers not simply the human body but the entirety of existence to non-teleological considerations. Whereas Darwin, as Gilkey notes, enlarged the “antiteleological view of nature to cover the question of the origin of man’s form and thus to include all of our relevant environment, and ourselves, within the blind mechanism of nature” (Naming the Whirlwind, p. 40, n.4), the contemporary view exempts nothing whatever from impersonal processes and events as their definitive referent. God the Creator, the incarnate Logos, the atonement and resurrection of Jesus, the Word of God and inspired Scripture, and a future divine judgment, are all dismissed as pious fictions; there is no gospel truth whatever. Secular naturalism recognizes that this denial of any revelational referent not only exposes man and the world to wide reaches of chance and change, but that it actually deluges reality with comprehensive contingency, total transiency, radical relativity and absolute autonomy.

The rise of secularism has powerfully impacted theology.  Henry cogently argues that evolutionary thought has inadvertently produced a belief in radical temporality.  In other words, everything changes so that time is elevated to a state of such power that even God is subject to it.  Hence, process theology which teaches that God too is evolving or, lately, its cousin “open theology,” which argues that God does not know the future has established a toe hold even among conservative Christian circles.

Such a high view of temporality feeds our belief that we are autonomous (i.e., radically free of any and all constraints and able to define ourselves).  We see such autonomy as a bedrock principle of modern philosophy and psychology.  The result is that we live for the now because there is no real meaning beyond it and do everything in our power to forget that life is short and death inevitable.  Henry writes,  “He [modern persons] declines both to ponder the sure prospect of death and to resign himself to be the cipher that current theory computes him to be. He shares the almost universal refusal to look upon old age and personal nonbeing with equanimity. Unsuccessful as is the attempt, he tries nonetheless to anesthetize awareness of the inescapability of death, and when he buries his loved ones he even camouflages death’s reality with the niceties of funereal trappings. Despite the threat of nonbeing he celebrates his own existence and searches for inviolable individual security; he seeks a singular meaning for his life, and settles for nothing less than a sense of lasting personal significance and worth.”

Yet, scientism and romanticism both take a leap of faith and in our heart-of-hearts we all know it.  We all see in the marvelous creation around us that there is more to life than “particles bouncing.” Theologians call the ability for all people to believe in God outside of special revelation like Scripture “general revelation” and it haunts all those who deny the truth.

Henry ends chapter 8 as follows:

The secular conception of reality does not account for the totality of secular man’s experience. In fact, it does not adequately account for any of his experience. The revelation of God pervades all man’s thoughts, motives and deeds, all his comings and goings, as indispensable to his humanity. Not a judgment, not a decision, not an action takes place without reference to the horizon of ultimate claims upon man’s life. Secular man does not miss out on general revelation, but he misses out on the joy of God and the goal of life.
It is our job as faithful evangelical Christians to proclaim the truth of God’s special revelation to both those who embrace the sterile “intellectualism” of scientism and the warm but empty romanticism.  Yet, too often those who are called to proclaim the truth water it down and, with that, we turn to chapter 9 tomorrow.

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