Starting from Cane Ridge VII

A Change of Foundational Thinking

So, from the fall of 1989 through the end of my schooling at Ozark, significant changes were occurring, changes which involved a major restructuring of my worldview as well as major changes in my theological understanding. These changes were mutually reinforcing of one another. A change in theology would entail a revision of my worldview, and vice versa. In time, I moved from a naive modernism, to something of a chosen anti-modernism, to eventual postmodernist understandings, and beyond postmodernism to Tradition and orthodoxy.

As most gen-x Americans, I was raised and educated in a world which believed that man was the measure of all things, and that human reason, flush with the success of the moon missions, and other technological advances, could pretty much figure out the world and change it. Though elsewhere in the world, the modernist worldview had been called into question, and deconstruction had already begun to make inroads, in the U. S., the proverbial “man on the street” was still mostly modernist.

And as I tried to live into the renewal of faith that had begun when I was in high school, I was confronted quite directly with the modernist attacks on Christian faith. To assist me in standing firm in my faith, my youth leaders provided me with apologetic resources that took these attacks head-on and showed their internal contradictions or simple falsity. This continued at Ozark, where I had entire classes devoted to these matters. It was at Ozark that this naive modernist mindset which I’d pretty much grown up with turned into a more self-chosen anti-modernism. By anti-modernism I do not mean anti-intellectualism (though it can be, and often is, that), but rather a mindset that mostly unconsciously accepts the tenets of modernism (the centrality of human experience, the authority of reason, the belief in objectivity, etc.) but uses these same presuppositions to undercut the attacks of modernism on faith. Anti-modernism essentially shows the dead-ends of modernist criticisms, but fails to appreciate the impasses of modernist first principles. And in that failure, anti-modernism is consumed by its own devices.

As quickly and as easily as I took on the anti-modernist mode of thought, I as quickly came to see its emptiness. It defined itself over against modernism, and without modernism it had nothing else to say. Of course, much of this came to me unconsciously, but with the study we were doing in Kyle’s group, this eventually came to my conscious wrestlings and made for further rifts with my heritage churches and with the school.

But the move into and out of modernism through anti-modernism continued on with its trajectory, so that within a few years of graduating from Ozark, I was firmly in agreement with many of the tenets of what is now called postmodernism. Given my faith background and the work we did in Kyle’s group I began to see that postmodernism, though not inherently friendly to faith, could itself be exploited for the purposes of faith. And I remained in this mindset for some seven or eight years, though I did not come to consciously understand it for what it was until roughly the autumn of 1994 (three years after I graduated from Ozark).

These broad worldviewish moves resulted in some concrete changes of belief. I began to question the very “Restoration Plea” which was a center piece of the life of my churches. As I’ve noted previously, this plea asserts that the beliefs and practices of the New Testament Church need to be restored into the life of the churches today. Now, of course, I still believe this—but not in the way it was taught me.

My churches taught that the beliefs and practices of the New Testament Church (up to the death of the Apostle John) became, in time, corrupted, buried and transformed under layers and layers of human tradition. It was our job, as Restoration Movement Christians, to return to the New Testament, have done with all these later accretions, and believe and live the simple and pure faith of the New Testament. Of course, we did not ask how it was that Everyman could lay aside all prejudices, all preconceptions, and understand the New Testament in precisely the way the original authors intended. We just assumed Everyman could.

Soon, it became clear to me in my hermeneutics class that to accomplish the Restoration Plea would take a particular hermeneutic; namely, the historico-grammatical method. One could not accomplish the Plea with an allegorical or tropological reading. Furthermore, even using the same hermeneutic, there were going to be important questions that could not be answered: is it permissible to use instruments in worship, or is it forbidden? All of these things begged the question of first principles. We only get the same conclusion if we come to the text with the same presuppositions. So it was not true that Everyman could utilize a simple and unsophisticated reading of the text and come to the same conclusions as his neighbor.

Not only that, but the use of the hermeneutic was inconsistently applied, based on the presuppositions which oriented the hermeneutic. Case in point: baptism versus the Lord’s Supper. We restorationists believed that God’s salvation was applied to the person in the act of immersion in water. We used Scripture to show that it was an essential part of the process of salvation that one be immersed. On the other hand, we did not believe that the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper was anything more than bread or wine or that Jesus was any more present to us then and there than at any other time. The Lord’s Supper was merely a memorial meal. We used our hermeneutic to show the texts on baptism were intended to be taken at face value. The texts on the Lord’s Supper, which would give an understanding that the bread and wine are the Body and Blood of our Lord, were taken as merely metaphorical, allegorical and not to be taken literally.

I remember that the import of 1 Corinthians 10-11 and the Lord’s Supper came home to me, in concert with my growing understanding of the liturgy, as I sat quietly during the distribution of the communion elements at one of the churches I served in Mound City. I had just given the meditation and prayed, and we all sat quietly in contemplation and prayer. At that moment I knew that the bread and wine had to be more than just water and flour and pressed grapes. Christ, himself, was offering himself to us, to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood. In a move then-unusual for me, as well as for our small congregation of stone-faced farming families, I slid out of my chair and knelt on the floor. I did not then have any understanding about the sacraments, the necessity of apostolic succession, or whether anyone could make these tiny slivers of cracker bread and thimbles full of grape juice into the Body and Blood of Christ. I just knew that if I interpreted the Scriptures on the Lord’s Supper in the same way I did the Scriptures on baptism, that something deeply mysterious and holy was going on. I wanted to acknowledge that.

I’ll not run through a catalog of the changes in my beliefs that happened over time. Nor is it necessary here to trace my philosophical and theological developments out of anti-modernism and into, then back out of, postmodernism. That all will become evident in time as my pilgrimage from Cane Ridge to Antioch takes shape. But suffice it to say, from two simple events at the beginning of my next-to-last year at Ozark—seeing the movie Dead Poets Society, and taking part over the course of two years in the study group with my friends—my mind and heart were being shaped in ways that ensured I could not stay where I was. I would need to move on and follow the longings that were developing within me for a tangible connection to the historic Church and its sacramental, liturgical life.

One thought on “Starting from Cane Ridge VII

  1. Clifton,

    This is tremendous! Perhaps a ‘reduction’ of the series into a work to be distributed for publication? You could call it something like: “Against the anti-modernists”. 🙂 Seriously, this is over-the-top insightful and introspective.

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