We live in an extraordinary time. Future historians will split this era into "before" and "after." Our "endings" and "beginnings" used to be incremental, now they’re exponential. And in their headlong rush, history forces goodbyes to all the things already gone by.

Nothing has "gone by" more than the clash between Christian "conservatives" and "liberals." The current news regarding their cultural war is irrelevant—one of the illusions of our time. And here is why:

Though each group fervently believes the other has "missed it"—though each group believes they are history’s "chosen ones"—though each group plots the destruction of the other ("in the name of love and compassion," of course), both groups have been firmly rejected by the postmodern world.

The unchurched masses, for example, are not impressed by "hypocrisy in religious poses." They are not moved by "money and power in pious garbs." And they are not affected by "empty pieties within worn-out traditions." Their disinterest has turned menacingly toward even a dislike of the church. The more rebellious ones, for example, insist that "faith in God is not only out of date, but (even) dangerous."1

No wonder Christianity is now called a "subculture."2 No wonder it looks more and more like an old "pink Cadillac with huge tail fins."3 And, no wonder rock groups sing, "Theologians don’t know nothing about my soul."4

And the upshot of these disaffections? . . .

We live in an age of theological anarchy—a virtual vacuum of any truth.

"The Emperor Wears No Clothes"

Certainly, both conservatives and liberals rightly celebrate their previous destinies. Liberals, for example, expanded civilization with universal rights in opposition to slavery, democracy in rejection of monarchy, freedom of the individual in place of herd mentality, and investigative science in resistance to superstition.

Surely, we are grateful!

Yet, the harm liberals have done now outweighs the good. For finally, they have reduced life—not expanded it. Their doctrinal formulas, restricted definitions, rigged rhetoric, and narrow science demand claim to "all truth." Yet, even their most "profound" revelations remain "in-house"—mere agreements among themselves.

So, in their world of pigeonholed priorities, narrow analysis proceeds from the narrow analyst. In their world of fragmented expertise, "people in similar but specialized fields . . . find it hard to communicate."5 And, in their Tower of Babel disciplines, truth gets shattered into countless pieces—partial truths, narrow truths, shallow truths—seldom encompassing truths.

It’s no surprise, then, these modern sages also restrict themselves more to "thinking" than "doing"—inaction than action, contemplation than improvisation, teaching than modeling, labeling than experiencing. . . .

Yet, their "thinking" remains law! Their politically correct "thought-police" allow only "acceptable" worldviews and disallow "unacceptable" worldviews. Though liberals profess "freedom for all," their coldly closed ideas and harsh intolerance demand the very conventions that rob others of their freedom:

It is impossible, this much is clear, to exaggerate the heroic self-inflation of academic literary and cultural criticism.6

Of course, the church hasn’t escaped their criticism. The modern world—with its philosophy of liberalism—came into existence as an "anti-religion" movement. The "Enlightenment," we should remember, stood brutally against all nonrational—even transrational—claims. Again, "One enormously precious baby was tossed with tons of unpleasant bathwater."7

Ever since, liberals have remained suspicious of "transrational" (beyond-the-logic-of-the-mind) religion. Many, in fact, reject any religion. As a result, much of the liberal movement abandoned its interior life—its transrational or spiritual life—to the conservatives. Liberal churches, of course, sincerely embrace their own gospel. Yet, that gospel often reduces "the huge mysteries of God to the respectability of club rules."8

Assuming that God is bigger than we say He is—that His manifest power and presence are more than myth—that our own leading role with the Lord of History is more than poetry—then the liberal attack on conservatives seems pathological, even suicidal. For the more they succeed in destroying the conservatives, the more they destroy themselves.

Yes, liberals are still in charge of our schools and our liberal politics, and they remain the planet’s dominant force (though relatively few in number). But their game is up. History has rejected liberalism. The world now challenges its . . .

. . . internal self-contradictions, its failed political agenda, the harsh intolerance of the politically correct thought-police, its claim to be superior in a world where nothing is supposed to be superior . . . (In short, liberalism has) spectacularly failed the test.9

Like the old fairy tale, this emperor "wears no clothes."

A Box Within a Box Within a Box

What about conservatives? After all, 70 percent of the world’s population is conservative.10 And, in a way, that’s good. When liberals abandoned "interior" faith in preference for "exterior" facts—when they turned away from "vertical" dialogue to "horizontal" debate—somebody had to protect society from the anarchy of the mind.

This protection, this preservation, has always proven the "backbone" of society—the substructure, the cohesion, the unifying factor. It represents, after all, our collective memory, the history of our experience, the proven benefits of our knowing, the "time capsule" of our glory.

It has always been the "destiny" of the conservative church.

Yet—like liberalism—we’ve been harmed by this great tradition. All the protection and preservation in the world can’t make up for the misuse of tradition. Conservatism easily sets up a chain of events where we gradually credit the power of God to doctrine itself. In other words, we slowly imprison ourselves within our own realities.

No doctrine escapes the soiled hands of man’s interpretation. So questionable doctrines are always backed up by questionable decrees. And questionable decrees are always propped up by "grim and meaningless" clichés:11

The uncritical use of tradition . . . is essentially an archaic or dogmatic traditionalism that is determined simply by rigid formulas and ingroup prejudices.12

Still, doctrine—good or bad—"must be protected." So, we must fortify it against all threats. And those threats include any revelation larger than our understanding of it—any creativity cut loose from "acceptable" moorings—and any prophetic voice challenging existing "realities."

Such "protection," of course, creates closed minds. And closed minds invite ignorance.

Ignorance, then, easily opens to the manipulation of others: Prepackaged evangelism with cookie-cutter salvations win more souls by man than by God’s Spirit. Of course, the goal is quantity, not quality. And these souls are won more by fear than by joy, more by sin than by grace. Manipulating clergy are, in reality, life insurance salesmen, promoting their benefits package.

Conservatives, with their uncritical traditions, have missed both the intentions of the first century and the interests of the twenty-first century. Hidebound, doctrinal rulers can’t hear as deeply as God speaks. They can’t move as quickly as God moves. And they can’t repent as rapidly as God demands.

The credibility of the conservative church has been lost somewhere in a box within a box within a box. . . .

"So Yesterday"

Am I being unfair to either conservatives or liberals? Have I overstated the case? Should I even apologize?

After all, everyone reports revelation in his or her own way. And, whatever the revelation, it reveals a portion of truth—and that truth should be honored. Further, there will always be conservatives and liberals. More important, they will always "perform crucial functions . . . they are the necessary foundation stones for further development."13

Yet, something is wrong.

Current history refuses both traditions. Conservatism and liberalism may be the "foundation stones," but they are not the "further development." The tools that achieved results in our era are not attaining results in the next era. The "progress" and "improvements" of modern culture have not found a path into postmodern culture.


In rare moments, history outstrips our understanding, and the past becomes almost useless as a compass for the future. Today, for example, we confront "a pervasive and often painful uncertainty about how hearing God’s voice actually works."14

So, in this vacuum of paradigms we invent paradigms—postmodernism, the "cultural creatives," "evolutionary psychology," and on and on—all of which have failed in their vision for our time. Of course, "newly awakened" emerging leaders usually choose postmodernism for their "poster boy." But the narcissism of postmodernists—"You do your thing, I’ll do mine"—has proven a great destroyer of Truth. Truth, after all, places an unwelcome demand on them, so they must strenuously "deconstruct" it.

And don’t forget, "Nobody tells us what to do."

A Compromised "Legitimacy"

Yet, in humility, what should we do?

We should begin by seeing the "big picture." If we can see where we are and see its risks, we’ve already solved most of our problems.

Seeing the "big picture" includes seeing this: "Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization."15 In other words, "The chief role of religion is that of legitimating the socially constructed world."16 And, in the end, we always compromise that "legitimacy."

Here’s an example:

Most would say a successful culture simply needs more love and compassion. But lots of "love and compassion" was the very problem of the Nazis. The Nazis loved their God, their families, their race, their culture. Yet, their "love" led to unbelievable death and destruction. Need we be reminded that "religion" has waged more war than any other pretense in history?

So we must finally recognize the fallibility of every tradition. We must finally recognize that man’s truth is only partial truth. And, yes, each must recognize his or her own fallibility, as well. Few Christians, for example, can consistently discern the difference between "flesh" and "spirit." For the fantasies of our religion

make (us) feel good because they are in harmony with (our) opinions, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions about the nature of reality.17

Again, I call on emerging church leaders to avoid using tricks, formulas, and gimmickry—to avoid mimicking the distortions and inventions of culture—to avoid confusing intellectual sophistication or the hierarchical positions of power and prestige with mature spirituality. . . .

. . . for the thin crust of our reality is too weak to support the status quo.

Of course, emerging leaders also need a good dose of humility. Both conservatives and liberals need to reconsider the notion that their doctrines, rituals, symbols, styles, ideas, or philosophies are the only mediators to God’s Presence. And, both conservatives and liberals need to relax their grip on narrow and shallow zealotry.

Like Ezekiel, who was driven into exile, yet knew God’s presence in a strange land, emerging church leaders have also become a religious remnant and must seek God’s presence in an equally "strange land." And, like Ezekiel’s followers, who later returned from exile, yet knew no identity as a national cult, we, too, must create new communities that transcend their identity with contemporary cults.

After all, we’re being reintroduced to God.

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt


1. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., "The End of Faith—Secularism with the Gloves Off," http://www.albertmohler.com/2004/08/18/the-end-of-faith-secularism-with-the-gloves-off/

2. Mark Driscoll, quoted in Sarah Means, "Postmodern church targets Generation X in Seattle," Thunderstruck, August 12, 1998 http://www.thunderstruck.org/holysmoke/marshill.htm

3. Leonard Sweet, Post-modern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century World (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman: 2000) p.2.

4. Dick Staub, "Theologians Don’t Know Nothing," Culture Watch, September 3, 2004 http://dickstaub.com/culturewatch.php?record_ id=737

5. Joseph D’Agnese, "Scientific Method Man" WIRED 09/2004 pp.112-121.

6. Frank Lentricchia, quoted in Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala, 2000) p. 4.

7. Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala, 2000) p. 81, 82.

8. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003) p. 1860.

9. Wilber, pp. 79, 80, 124, 125.

10. Wilber, p. 134.

11. C. S. Lewis, quoted in "The ‘Authentic’ C. S. Lewis" Culturewatch, May 28, 2004 http://dickstaub.com/culturewatch.php? record_id=686

12. Thomas C. Oden, Systematic Theology: The Living God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 338.

13. Wilber, p. 118.

14. Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999) p. 25.

15. William Irwin Thompson, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981) p. 103.

16. Grenz and Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology In A Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 76.

17. Thompson, p. 92.

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