Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Super/Natural: A Response to Berger

I appreciated Peter Berger's mention of my new book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, over at his blog at The American Interest (HT: to my friend, Harry Lew). The context or foil is Rudolf Bultmann's oft-cited (and much maligned) claim that underwrote the project of demythologization: “It is impossible to use electric light and radio, to call upon modern medicine in case of illness, and at the same time to believe in the world of spirits and miracles of the New Testament." It was just this sort of dichotomy that also underwrote the misguided "secularization thesis" (R.I.P.). But as Berger goes on to note, this claim has been "massively falsified":
The world today is full of millions of electricity- and radio-users who have no difficulty believing in spirits and miracles—and not only in the less-developed regions of the planet. To be sure, there is a sort of official secular worldview, supposedly based on science, that is propagated by the educational system, the media and (to some extent) the law. But huge numbers of people are capable of, as it were, holding two worldviews in tandem: Yes, much or even most of the time, reality is a closed system of causal relations. I go to my doctor, assuming that he will diagnose and treat me as “a case” in such a system. But I make very different assumptions when I also pray to a God who is not bound by this system, and who can intervene in it either directly (“miraculously”) or indirectly (via the actions of my doctor). In other words, Bultmann flunks as an amateur sociologist or psychologist of modern man. Given this fact, what he actually proposes is that we should find the mythological worldview “impossible”—which is a very different matter.
Berger sees Pentecostalism as the most blatant counter-evidence to Bultmann's thesis. As he rightly observes,
For quite a few years now I have been fascinated by and studied the worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism, whose worldview precisely fits Bultmann’s definition of mythology. My interest has been that of a sociologist of contemporary religion. Pentecostalism has no personal or theological appeal to me. But more and more I have come to see that Pentecostalism, broadly speaking, is becoming the norm rather than the exception of world Christianity. The demographic center of Christianity is shifting to the Global South (Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia). In contrast with the Global North (Europe and North America, where indeed many Christians live in a “demythologized” world), Christianity in the Global South is characterized by a massive supernaturalism. One could say that more and more Christians in the world today are becoming “Pentecostalized”, way beyond the churches that explicitly define themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic. What is also happening is that this type of religion is becoming more sophisticated intellectually, as an inevitable consequence of social and educational mobility.

I'm encouraged that Berger sees a growing theological and intellectual maturation in global pentecostalism. He cites the work of my friend, Veli-Matti Kaerkkaeinen, but should have also noted the important work of my dear friend, Amos Yong. And I was encouraged that he sees Thinking in Tongues as further evidence of these trends:
The other book is Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, by James Smith, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan, another significant Evangelical center. Smith makes an argument, both erudite and feisty, which directly challenges the “naturalist” (precisely “demythologized”) assumptions of contemporary philosophy.
My only addendum would be a slight caution: Berger is right that I challenge naturalisms of various stripes. But from the context of his discussion, one might thereby conclude that I argue for a "supernaturalism," whereas in fact the argument in the book (particularly in chapter 4) is also a critique of supernaturalism--or more specifically, what I describe as "interventionist supernaturalism." My point is that implicit in pentecostal spirituality is an ontology that eschews both naturalism and its contrary, supernaturalism, offering instead an "enchanted naturalism," a sense that nature is en-Spirited. In other words, implicit in pentecostal spirituality is an ontology that challenges the nature/supernature distinction. (Thus I suggest there are some surprising resonances with la nouvelle théologie.) Perhaps one could say that within a consistent pentecostal worldview, the cosmos is not "interrupted" by supernature; rather, nature is always already "porous" (following Charles Taylors' account of enchantment in A Secular Age, p. 35).

The upshot is still consistent with Berger's claim and concerns, but I think it offers a more nuanced account that avoids letting pentecostal spirituality seem merely like ressentiment vis-a-vis naturalism.