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The Gospel Coalition Slams the New Copernican Thesis

This past week I had the opportunity to sit for an hour with Dr. Randal Roberts, president of Western Seminary. I have suggested that the Pacific-Northwest is the cultural epicenter of the new Copernican ethos. So to discuss my book, The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church, with a leader who is preparing the next generation of church leaders on the cultural front line was an honor. During our conversation, he referenced Trevin Wax’s two-part critique of my book on the Gospel Coalition’s blog. Some how I had missed seeing this thorough and thoughtful critique of my book.

Trevin’s assessment of my book is generally negative. No author is pleased with a negative review, but as these reviews sets a high mark for fairness and detail, they deserve a thoughtful response.

I suspect that over coffee Trevin Wax and I would find that we have far more in common than not. That said, we might very well have some real disagreements. This is not off-putting, but an opportunity. I am of the conviction that genuine disagreement is an achievement. It takes work to disagree well.

What is also true is that I might be wrong. Reality, especially spiritual reality, is more complex than I can adequately grasp. One can always learn more from someone when they disagree with you. So this is an opportunity for me to learn from Trevin.

And finally, it is probable that I did not communicate adequately what I intended to say. There is always a hermeneutic gap between the writer and the reader. I may be at fault here as well. This book was a juggling act in trying to reach two divergent audiences with different sensibilities: frustrated boomer evangelical pastors and unaffiliated skeptical millennials, some of whom may well identify as ex-evangelicals. Clarity for one of these audiences almost immediately raises concerns in the other. Quoting an exemplar in one of their worlds is a red flag to the other. Quoting from John Piper and Rachel Held Evans get very different reactions by these two communities. Trevin is right that I tended to lean toward referencing authors who would appeal to the religiously unaffiliated. I judged that they might be more open to my argument. His negative review tends to prove this point. On the other hand I’m too old, traditional, white, male, and conservative to be interviewed by the likes of my friend, Science Mike. The Liturgist podcast crowd also views me with some suspicion, as I do not have a personal devolution of faith narrative. I am the son of missionaries and have never lost my love of Jesus.

So with these caveats in mind, let me respond in Christian friendship and hopefully not defensively to Trevin’s critique.

My greatest concern is how he frames my book. His initial frame will color all his subsequent analysis. We know from social science research that frames rule: when the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts bounce off and the frame stays. In this sense, how one frames the debate, dictates the debate.

Trevin suggests that I adopt a “complimentary Christian” posture, meaning that I believe that the church should accommodate itself to millennial values in order to be “relevant to millennials.” Wax expands about my book, “It celebrates longings without exposing lies and thus fails to bring the fullness of the gospel’s challenge to our generation.” Such accommodation to culture is a characteristic tendency of theological liberalism in the spirit of Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Similar attitudes are often seen in those who advocate for the emergent church. As an old school traditionalist in the spirit of C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard, I’m not interested in becoming liberal. My aim is to return to the pre-Enlightenment ancients.

Evangelical theologian Ron Sider asked me prior to the book’s publication, “Why should the church accommodate itself to millennial values?” My answer is that we shouldn’t just because they are millennial values. Rather we should because they expose our present accommodation to culture and thereby serve as a prophetic voice to the church and help us become more like Jesus. The new Copernican sensibility that I describe is both post-Enlightenment and post-secular.

The major foil in my book is the kind of thinking that emerged from the Enlightenment. In this Trevin has rightly highlighted the main issue when he asks, “Was the church wrong to thoughtlessly adopt the Enlightenment frame so heavily?” I believe the church was wrong at this point. There are other evangelicals who think that the Enlightenment pairs nicely with their theological frame. Those who have been most critical of my book have consciously doubled down on their support for the Enlightenment. This was Dr. Peter Jones’ perspective when he called my book, “insidiously dangerous.”

Two thinkers play a pivotal role in my thinking on this point: missiologist Lesslie Newbigin and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist. To adequately critique the Enlightenment is a big subject and treating it here with a broad brush is apt to lead to misunderstanding. Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age, is 900 pages long and McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary, is 500 pages. There is extensive summarizing here.

It is surprising that Trevin doesn’t pick up on my reliance on Newbigin, as he is a strong supporter. He wrote a blog, “Here’s Why I Keep Returning to Lesslie Newbigin.” When Newbigin returned from India, he was appalled that the church in the West has been in the words of Trevin, “coopted by the ‘myth of progress.’” Newbigin later describes this as the “Cartesian program” or simply “the Enlightenment.” Trevin doesn’t make this connection or else he disagrees with Newbigin and me on this point. Newbigin writes, “The churches of Europe and their cultural offshoots in the Americas had largely come to a kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment, and there did not seem to be any contradiction in the combination of modern education, medicine, and technology with the proclamation of the gospel.” All I am doing here is agreeing with Newbigin and pointing out that many young people are intuitively making the same point.

My aim is not to “go liberal” but to expose the church’s current accommodation to the spirit of the age by calling it back to a pre-Enlightenment spirituality in order to equip it for a post-Enlightenment ministry. I share this burden with Bishop Newbigin. Nor am I suggesting that antithesis did not exist before the Enlightenment. I have just finished reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Trevin gets a bit snarky at this point. He needs to acquaint himself to McGilchrist’s critique of the Enlightenment, if he didn’t get it from Newbigin.

To this end, I argue that millennials have adopted a better conceptual operating system, a post-Enlightenment perspective, even while they are often running the wrong software. It is noteworthy, that Trevin omits Newbigin’s Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship from his suggested books of Newbigin in his blog post. This is where I start with Newbigin.

This then is supplemented by the work of neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist. He points out the way that the brain is supposed to work, how it has been distorted since the Enlightenment, and how this has come to harm our perception of the world. Trevin totally ignores this aspect of my analysis. McGilchrist writes, “The left hemisphere’s attack on religion was already well under way by the time of the Reformation, and was taken further by the Enlightenment.... The Western Church has, in my view, been active in undermining itself.” Let me be quick to say that I am not saying that we do not need the left brain or reason, only that it cannot be the starting point. When one starts with the left-brain, thinking stays in the left-brain, and consequently distorts reality—the proverbial “hall of mirrors.” McGilchrist writes, “I believe that the relationship between the hemispheres is not equal, and that while both contribute to our knowledge of the world [read both/and], which therefore needs to be synthesized, one hemisphere, the right hemisphere, has precedence, in that it underwrites the knowledge that the other comes to have, and is alone able to synthesis what both know into a usable whole.” For a quick overview of McGilchrist’s thesis, you might usefully watch this video. My critique of the church’s accommodation to the Enlightenment is based on the perspective of global missions and brain science.

So my goal is not accommodating uncritically to a millennial mindset, but listening to their prophetic critique of the church’s past and present accommodation to culture, namely an Enlightenment, a left-brain way of processing reality. Millennials are right, this is not the way the brain is supposed to work. Nor am I opposed to challenging the closed-minded identity politics found on many college campuses. Millennials do not get it always right. In my analysis of the “Evolving Faith” conference, which I attended, I criticized it for being open on faith and closed on politics. The criticism of Trump in that context was as strident as any religious fundamentalist. I disliked this inconsistency.

Consider these two quotes. A left-brain-biased evangelical will find them very difficult to square.

“Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” — Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love

“If it should turn out that music leads to language, rather than language to music, it helps us understand for the first time the otherwise baffling historical fact that poetry evolved before prose.” — Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary

I am not surprised that the Reformed-oriented evangelicalism of the Gospel Coalition finds my analysis a bridge too far. Their commitment to this left-brained frame has a 400-year legacy and is bolstered by a view that it is evidence of spiritual faithfulness to Christ.

Trevin focuses his attack of my book on the cultural frame shift between dwellers and explorers. Father Thomas Halik, Czech philosopher priest and 2014 Templeton Prize winner, stated in the New York Times, “I think the crucial difference in the church today is not between so-called believers and nonbelievers, but between dwellers and seekers.” Dwellers are those who are happy where they are, who feel they have found the truth, while seekers are still looking for answers. More than anything, this is a shift not in having or not having convictions, but the attitude one has towards one’s convictions. It is not, as Trevin rightfully acknowledges, an acceptance of relativism, but of the limits of all human knowing.

It is also simply my translation of Charles Taylor, who Trevin likes, who uses the terms “spin” and “take.” Like Taylor I am interested in “contesting the ‘spin of closure which is hegemonic in the Academy.” In this I follow closely the thinking of Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith. He writes, “A lot of contemporary apologetics, bent on ‘defending the faith’ against the charges of the new atheists, seems to offer a transcendent ‘spin’ as the alternative to immanent ‘spin.’ What might a Christian apologetics look like that offers a transcendent ‘take’ on our experience, even at points recognizing the force and persuasive power of an immanent ‘take’?” “Spin” and “take” I find confusing, so I shifted my language in the book to “open” and “closed.” It’s obviously still confusing to some readers.

In a pluralistic world where people are inevitably operating within different frames, I argue that reason works best within a given frame, but imagination must start the conversation between frames. I am not arguing for an either/or relationship between reason and the imagination, but rather a both/and relationship, where the conversation starts with the imagination. This is clearly in the spirit of C.S. Lewis, who argues “reason is the organ of truth and the imagination the organ of meaning.” The imagination establishes the conditions for truth, namely its frame. The imagination is not subjectivism, but simply another mode of processing the truth of reality. In this regard, see the work of Houston Baptist University apologetics professor Dr. Holly Ordway’s Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith. There is always a place for reason, but it is rarely when one is dealing with differences between conceptual frames. Evidence doesn’t demand a verdict unless it is first meaningful. This is the context for my gentle criticism of my friend, Tim Keller.

So my advocacy for an open transcendent perspective is not the absence of conviction, but humility in conviction. Certainly there is a place for preaching and proclamation. But to be effective in today’s world, and especially among millennials, it will need to be nuanced in its tone. It is not that the lyrics need to change, but the music will. Pope Francis has successfully demonstrated this (though this is not an example that will have much traction with the Gospel Coalition types). Nor does a both/and perspective mitigate against antithesis as Trevin implies. When the only tool is a hammer, the world is seen as a nail. So too those committed to an Enlightenment perspective see everything in either/or categories. For me, the Trinity is the theological rebuke to this way of thinking. For new Copernicans faith and doubt are two sides of all belief, both/and. You hear this in novelist Julian Barnes, “I do not believe in God, but I miss him.” For most young people life lived in the trenches has the character of this kind of messy fusion of categories. Reality for them is not black and white, easily reduced to a syllogism, which is generally only possible in abstractions. I’ve tried to both appreciate and speak into such views.

Two final points. Millennials do not like to be stereotyped (actually no one does). So that the categories I describe as reflecting new Copernican values are in the Weberian sense merely “ideal types.” I anticipated this criticism. I write in the book, “German sociologist Max Weber developed the conceptual tool of the ideal type. He recognized that no scientific system is ever capable of reproducing the complexity of reality. One has to generalize and in some sense develop an abstraction. ‘An ideal type is a concept constructed by a social scientist to capture the principal features of some social phenomena.’ The key to developing an ideal type is to immerse oneself in historical reality and derive the types from that analysis. At their best, an ideal type should be neither too specific nor too general. They are a heuristic device, a teaching tool to examine a slice of historical reality.” Nonetheless, Trevin wants to make a big point of the academic necessity of making generalizations, as a way to diminish the usefulness of my analysis. This is disingenuous. Obviously, not every millennial will hold to all of these values, but the spirit of these values seems to hold true. I have spoken enough and to widely diverse audiences to have confidence in these generalizations. I mention six. There could be more and some are clearly more important that others. Many have found this useful in understanding this large and influential demographic cohort. The comments of millennial readers of the book on Amazon are encouraging in this light.

Millennials have been unfairly beat up in the general press—speaking of negative stereotypes. Perhaps my affirmation goes too far. Millennials make mistakes and are generally confused and confounded. But in my analysis they are more conceptually Trinitarian, incarnational, relational, communal, and aspirational in spirit than most cohorts. This is a baseline perspective worth celebrating.

Trevin is to be commended for reading the book before reviewing it. In today’s world such honesty cannot always be assumed. He seeks to be very fair. He holds his snark to a minimum. My main objection is that he miss frames the book as advocating “relevance to the millennials.” He is right that the survival of the church depends on something more than this.

“Looking the part of the fool” is a problem if this foolishness is itself a cultural accommodation to a philosophical framework that distorts the gospel. Let’s be fools for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. My aim is to hold ground between Tim Keller and Rob Bell. To reach those who resonate with the questions Rob is asking, but who do not want to wander off the orthodox reservation. If I appeal too much to the spiritually frustrated and homeless millennial at the expense of the boomer pastor, it is out of love for my people. The fault is mine. Religious nones need an onramp back to mere Christianity. This might mean that evangelical insiders will continue to view the message as “insidiously dangerous.” I can take heart that Copernicus’ message in his day was viewed in exactly the same way.

And pietistic clichés about “Millennials are not the future of your church; disciples are the future of your church,” only serve to minimize the seriousness of the trouble of passing on the faith once received to the next generation. No company thinks it is possible to survive without reaching millennials. The church shouldn’t be so cavalier to think otherwise. God’s church will prevail, but this is not a promise that the American evangelical church will survive. My book serves as a gentle warning.

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