A very good article here. It is primarily about the ascendency of the hermeneutic of suspicion in contemporary (meaning mainly post-modern and feminist) theology, but usefully beds that into the state of society itself. US theology and society are in its sights, and rightly so, but the rest of the world is far from immune: Dan Brown is popular over here, too, as are more academic manifestations of the idea that knowledge is a function of power, not of truth. We’re slightly less obsessed with conspiracy theories as yet, though. Slightly.
The juxtaposition of this default attitude of suspicion with theology is apposite, because it really started there, back in the nineteenth century, with the higher critical assumption that the whole picture of religion painted in the Bible was a pack of lies, commencing with the belief that King Josiah manufactured the book of Deuteronomy and engineered its “discovery” for his own political ends. Since then, theories have come and gone and skeptical historico-critical scholarship has morphed into a postmodern denial that truth can be found at all. But Josiah is still conspiring away in the background.
The description of the spirit of the age outlined in the linked article helps explain an awful lot to those of us brought up in an older, slightly less paranoid, age. For example, lurking not far below The Da Vinci Code is the Bauer hypothesis, hatched in the 1930s, which suggests that there never was an orthodox version of Christianity from which heresies departed, but that there was from the start a plethora of contradictory movements based on a purely human Jesus, or a mythical one, on which Constantine forced an orthodox (and much less fun) position, as well as an orthodox set of Scriptures, in the fourth century.
Now this theory was severely challenged even before it was translated into English in 1971. Since then, it has been comprehensively dismantled by many critics. Yet is now increasingly popularised by figures like Bart Ehrman (see the story here or here). Indeed, not only is the rewritten history widely assumed to be gospel truth (!) by the general public, but the hypothesis is still the ruling paradigm in academic New Testament scholarship (so it’s no wonder Joe Public accepts it on authority). I’ve long wondered why some very dubious theological theories prove so impervious to facts (like the documentary hypothesis in the light of new archaeology and ANE studies), but the article suggests why: modern scholars have a worldview in which suspicion of all truth and authority is the central tenet. For many, it is simply impossible to imagine an early Church developing apart from ecclesiastical, or political, or misogynist, conspiracies.
This insight casts light on other issues relevant to this blog, too. I’ve drawn attention in the series on modern theistic evolution to the odd fact that in the nineteenth century you could hold varying positions without it causing a culture war. Asa Gray remained a friend of Darwin whilst categorically denying his unguided view of evolution. Benjamin Warfield accepted Darwinian theory with reservations particularly referring to design, and held an exceedingly high view of Scripture (as I said in the piece on him, he was largely responsible for the modern form of the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy). But now, mention “creation” and the chances are Jerry Coyne will accuse you of a plot to drag society back to the middle ages. Mention “design” and he’ll be joined by Ken Miller trying to out your secret conspiracy for a Taliban-style theocracy. And mention evolution … well, that supposed godless conspiracy against the Bible has been raised even here recently, with most of our contributors as paid-up members of the inner circle.
As far as I can tell, the change is likely to have started with the attempts of secular scientists like Huxley to divorce science and religion for their own reasons. Their historically deficient case is laid out in the books by John William Draper and the writer Andrew Dickson White. This wasn’t a conspiracy, though – the attempt was quite open, just like that of the New Atheists now, the latter’s rather comic implosion demonstrating that worldwide conspiracies would never work. Yet the nineteenth century attempt to separate science and faith was pretty successful, as its analysis formed the framework for the suspicious attitude of the emerging Fundamentalist movement towards science in general and evolution in particular. After that, Flood Geology, Intelligent Design, BioLogos and NSCE were more or less inevitable belligerents in a war more damaging to American life than Vietnam.
The conspiracy suspicion motif probably explains some of the things that concern me about my own particular interest, too. As I’ve frequently said, the prevalent theology of “free nature” that underpins much theistic evolution and, notably, the BioLogos project appears incoherent and heterodox to me. I’ve been mystified by my total inability to draw out its holders to discuss it openly on BioLogos for nearly two years, and also by the unwillingness of people there to join in critiquing it, even partially.
But maybe that’s because to its largely American readership, the problem is perceived differently from the way I see it. I see a process of theologising amongst academics trickling down to popular TE writers, and affecting some, and probably not even a majority, of both influential people and foot-soldiers interested in science and faith. A bad thing, in my view. To me, opposing a strong case for a more biblical theology might well make many ordinary people examine what they’ve taken for granted, perhaps, and demonstrate the inconsistency of those actually committed to that theology. Perhaps, optimistically, it might help point TE back towards the orthodox theology of those like Gray in Darwin’s time. Even more optimistically, that might indirectly help undermine the reign of the materialist paradigm in the natural sciences. But mostly it’s just trying to speak truth, as I find it, for people to weigh.
But maybe those I write for don’t see it that way: perhaps they see me as a secret member of a Conservative Evangelical movement (no doubt including YEC Southern Baptists, tub-thumping Fundamentalists and obscurantists of every water). Oh, I left out the scheming Calvinists, of course. What’s more, they perhaps see me as trying to undermine what I wrongly see as their secret conspiracy of closet atheist scientists, and therefore doubly dangerous in my paranoia… Because nobody is actually in a conspiracy – they just think everyone else is, and that they themselves are truly autonomous individuals. Autonomy is, in fact, the actual secret heart of postmodernism, in direct line from the Promethean ideals of Renissance humanism and the Enlightenment: to try to create your own truth is the ultimate autonomy, as well as being the sin of Adam and Eve.
The trouble with suspicion is that it gets everywhere and destroys everything. Paranoia and autonomy are twin sisters. And suspicion is the direct opposite of trust. And trust is just another word for faith.