Constructivism, deconstructionism, structuralism, poststructuralism, modernity, modernism, postmodernism, postmodernity, etc. are useful methodologies that help our understanding of human nature and the way they situate themselves in the world. Habermas, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty are some of the familiar names who dominate these fields of knowledge. While studying some of these experts in the book Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory, edited by Anthony Elliott and Bryan S. Turner, I realized two things, perhaps a shared experience that shaped these men: Marxism and World War I. This paper will not delve into the intersection of these two narratives except to make a simple observation.
“The war to end all wars,” originally idealistic, now used sardonically, was a very dark time in human history. Most wars until then were fought on a local level, tribe against tribe, nothing of the sort that involved multiple nations fighting each other under the banner of alliances. In an ideal sense, that war, as heinous as it was, exposed human depravity in unthinkable ways that it was inconceivable to imagine something much worse.
Marxism, on the other hand, predated the great wars and appeared on the scene when no other competing views of human development, structure and functioning (social theory) existed , or at least was not in vogue. Karl Marx in the early 19th century was successful in capturing our collective imagination to frame and map our shared experiences at the time. When the “war to end all wars” failed to end wars, it was no surprise then that the thinkers following it were forced to rethink their ideas about human nature. This is, my opinion, what has led to the interdisciplinary art and science of social theory.
Fast forward to today. James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College has done a great job of introducing some of these postmodern thinkers to the project of discipleship and new ways of thinking about apologetics, albeit in subtle forms. However, his avant-garde ideas about human flourishing and behavior are not without its critics.1 Nevertheless, he brings fresh perspective to the conversation that can no longer be ignored.
Evangelicalism has been a strong force for Christianity since the Reformation, and deservedly so. Its adherents helped us focus our attention to the primacy of God’s mission (Missio Dei), the Gospel, which literally means “good news.” This focus has lost its meaning in recent days and we as followers of Jesus must seek relevant ways to once again partner with God in his mission to save souls. For far too long we have imbibed in the notion that all our actions are a result of a process of deliberations in our minds, choosing the best options for the eventual outcome in our behaviors. This is wrong headed. This is where Smith is helpful as he directs our attention to social theorists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu who claim that there is another way of knowing and behavior is not primarily located in or generated from the mind.
The claim that our behavior originates from other than our minds is unpopular. But there appears to be inchoate, tacit order to our actions that we can say it literally resides in the very core of our bodies. Karen Rouggly wrote a pithy reflective blog explaining this phenomenon.2 It’s important that Evangelicals warm up to the idea that we are not simply “brains on a stick” because it just might be the missing ingredient to our sanctification.
Here is something to consider. Devoted followers of Christ seek to be like him. We read books, pray, attend conferences and conventions to better understand why we behave the way we do. If all we do is focus on the mind’s ability to go through a process of deliberation to arrive deductively at a conclusion that forces our action toward righteousness, then we are deluded. If right behavior is contingent upon right belief then we ought to expect greater sanctification in our personal lives than we have already experienced. The fact that this is not the case tells us there is another method we have not considered.
Perhaps we ought to consider Smith’s project in his book Imagining the Kingdomwhere he talks about a process of “deformation” and looking at the “Christian perception of the world” by borrowing concepts from Merleau-Ponty such as “practognosia,” a know-how that is absorbed through our bodies; or Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus”3 that is an inculcation that works deeply in pre-reflexive ways to the glory of God. Since all truth is God’s truth, Evangelicals should not be afraid but press forward with courage to use tools like social theory to usher in the next revival.
We are not anywhere close to another world war, God forbid, but we must not take these ideas for granted. No one wants to go through terrible human suffering just to get us to adjust our thinking.