One morning I was watching TV with my 2-year-old daughter. A skit in a children’s show taught, “Science always saves the day!” That is scientism in a nutshell. Science is elevated to the role of Savior. Remember our “Star Trek” hero Mr. Spock? He was a science officer.
Modernism has a strong faith in the ability of science and technology to save the day. As in “Star Trek,” science is seen as the means to solve all the world’s evils. By means of the scientific method, we can gain the right knowledge and understanding of how something works and why things go wrong and come up with solutions for it.
We have applied the scientific method to all areas of study. In literary studies, for instance, interpreting a work of literature has turned into a science [in the late 1960s]. To properly analyze a text, we must read it in a detached and objective manner. We must leave our own values behind, and we cannot judge the text’s values as right or wrong. Like scientists, literary scholars should not make ethical judgments but merely seek to discover and present the facts. These days, however, we acknowledge that we cannot leave our values behind even if we want to. And ethical considerations are now OK in literary studies.
This pressure to be scientific invaded theological studies too. The 19th century theologian Charles Hodge, for example, taught, “The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his storehouse of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches is the same as that which the natural philosopher [i.e. scientist] adopts to ascertain what nature teaches” (Systematic Theology, Scribner’s, 1871, Vol. 1, p. 10). This is more than simply an analogy or illustration. “The theologian,” for Hodge, “must be guided by the same rules in the collection of facts, as govern the man of science” (p. 11). Hodge did not even stop to question if it was appropriate to apply a scientific approach to Scripture in the first place.
Another example is Campus Crusade’s famous tract The Four Spiritual Laws, which presents four laws that apply toward being “born again.” In the tract Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade, writes, “Just as there are physical laws that govern the physical universe, so there are spiritual laws which govern your relationship with God” (Campus Crusade for Christ, 1965). Thus there is even a science to salvation.
But Jesus says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). For Jesus, being “born again” is not an exact science; the Holy Spirit is as unpredictable as the wind. The Four Spiritual Laws, in effect, turned the Spirit’s saving work into a scientific formula for sinners to use.
Now science has done a lot of good throughout the centuries. On the whole, advancements in science have improved our lives. Just look at the contributions of medical science. But science has also given us the atomic bomb. Ultimately science cannot save humanity from its ills. Only Christ is our Savior.
We have defined modernism as a project that uses reason (rationalism) and knowledge (scientism) as the paths to human emancipation or freedom. But this freedom is always defined as individual freedom. In modernism the individual reigns supreme. Everything tends to revolve around the individual. Individual rights and freedoms are at the forefront of our justice, political, and economic systems. Modernism champions the individual’s right to think, believe, and act freely.
Modernism believes that any individual can find absolute truth by using reason and the scientific method. There is no need for any outside authority, like the church, to tell you what is right or wrong. You, the individual, can determine right or wrong for and by yourself. Ironically, this is partially the root of postmodernity’s relativism. Since each of us can decide for ourselves what is true, when we disagree it soon becomes natural to say, “That’s true for you but not for me.”
North American Christianity is also guilty of individualism. By and large, evangelicals have emphasized individual salvation and holiness. Even when we think about the church community, we almost always think of it only in terms of how it can meet the individual believer’s spiritual needs. This, along with a consumer culture, easily leads to spiritual selfishness – the individual focuses on “what a church can do for me” and rarely on “what I can do for the church community.”
Recently someone told me that her faith is a private matter between her and God. Therefore she didn’t feel it was important to regularly attend a local church. She has an individualistic faith. Although the Bible speaks of a personal relationship with God, it also very clearly speaks of the communal nature of our spirituality and lives. God created us male and female; he created us as social beings. And we image God, obey him, and worship him corporately. A personal faith is not an individualistic faith.
The “Star Trek” TV series was reborn in the 1990s as “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The new show contains many similarities to the old “Star Trek,” but there are major differences too. The differences signal a shift to a postmodern worldview. For example, the “Next Generation” science officer is Data, an android with superhuman intellect and strength but incapable of feeling emotions. But unlike Spock, Data sees his inability to feel as a weakness. Data is a postmodern Pinocchio who wants to be a human being.
Postmodernism is a reaction against many of modernism’s idols. Christians ought to join postmodernists in the movement’s valid critiques of modernity. But we also need to beware of postmodernism’s own breed of idols. For example, in rejecting rationalism, postmodernism tends to lean toward irrationalism; in reacting against individualism, it tends toward tribalism.
We need to identify and reject idols wherever they are found, in both modernism and postmodernism. Christians should not identify one movement as better than another because both “isms” are rooted in worldviews that oppose the biblical worldview. But we also need to acknowledge the truths found in postmodernism and modernism. For, as Christian philosopher Arthur Holmes puts it, all truth is God’s truth.
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