Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Orthodoxy and premodern and postmodern thinking

Bishop Seraphim Sigrist recently posted some notes for a paper he read on Christianity and Society in the Christianity and Society discussion forum, and has now posted a report on the retreat where he read the paper. The retreat was held at a Coptic centre, and his report is illustrated with some Coptic ikons of the desert saints and led to some interesting discussion in which Bishop Seraphim referred to a piece written by William Dalrymple on the role of miracles among Coptic Christians, and especially among the monks of the desert today.

I think this piece by Dalrymple is from his book From the Holy Mountain, in which he compares Near and Middle Eastern Christianity today with what it was like shortly before the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.

What it brings out most clearly are some of the characteristics of the premodern worldview. Compared with Western Christianity Orthodoxy is generally premodern, but in Coptic monks this can be seen in a particularly pure form.

What is interesting is to compare this approach to miracles to that of Western Fundamentalism, because the latter is clearly imbued with moderniity, and even modernism. The Western Fundamentalist approach to miracles seems to be that miracles are important because they are thought to prove some doctrinal or ideological point. Miracles have been taken up into a system of rational argumentation, and this approach is characteristic of the modern worldview. Read almost any theological discussion in Usenet newsgroups, for example alt.religion.christian and you will see that even when Christian fundamentalists are arguing with atheists, both presuppose the same modernist worldview.

I became acutely aware of this in discussions with some Calvinistic Baptists in Durban some thirty years ago. It was apparent that to them the resurrection of Christ was an important “fact”, because it was in the Bible. But it did not seem to be a significant fact. It was merely a kind of adjunct to the importance of the Bible and so another matter for rational argument and prooftexting. If one said to them “Christ is risen and the angels rejoice, Christ is risen and Hell was angered for it was mocked” they saw no cause for rejoicing but went scurrying to find proof texts to show that such rejoicing was unseemly and that it wasn’t so.

Compare this view with that of the Coptic monks, for whom rational argument occupies a much lower place in the scale of priorities. Miracles are not there to “prove” anything about anything, they are just there to enjoy the commuinion of saints and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

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7 thoughts on “Orthodoxy and premodern and postmodern thinking

  1. Anonymous on said:

    It might be interesting also to look at how Charismatics and Pentecostals approach miracles. I suspect that many of the Charismatics, at least, would have a more similar understanding, based on the Biblical sense of things.

  2. Steve Hayes on said:

    In my somewhat limited experience, it is somewhere in between. African Pentecostals and charismatics, especially Zionists, tend towards the premodern point of view, while the “word of faith” propserity churches emanating from the USA lean towards modernity.

  3. Larry Kamphausen on said:

    My experience is limited as well, but what I know of most American charismatics (and to some degree pentecostals) there is a closer affinity with modernist POV than the pre-modern at least as discussed in this post.
    I see it as kind of a mixture for I think it would be true that miracles are not a form of proof, but there is a technical approach to meracles that approaches scientific patterns of behavior. This makes me think of these practices as a quasi magical and thus gnostic POV.

  4. Steve Hayes on said:

    About 20 years ago I spoke to the Anglican bishop of Singapore, Dr Moses Tay. At that time there had been some controversy about the Archbishop of York who had said he did not believe in miracles (and York minister was struck by lightning shortly before he was consecrated). Bishop Tay said that the Archbishop, and other Western theologians, insulted the faith of thousands of Asian Christians, for whom miracles were an everyday experience.

    Many Anglicans in Singapore were charismatic, and their approach did seem more akin to that of the Coptic monks than to some American Pentecostals. Perhaps it has something to do with Chritainity being a minority religion as well.

  5. Jonathan on said:

    Regarding miracles: in premodern Christianity it seems to me they ‘prove’ things, though the context is arguably different from the way someone in this era in the West would employ them. A miracle performed by St. Martin of Tours for the pagans is employed to ‘prove’ the superiority of Christ over the pagan gods; St. Athanasius asks us in De Incarnatio if any of the miraculous impacts of Christ’s incarnation- the philosophizing of the barbarians, the turning to peace of the violent, etc- could have been caused by anything else. Miracles are evidence (though no enlightened Westerner in the post-enlightnment scrubbed clean world would admit such evidence in all probability), but they are evidence that is immanent and immediate to the person being convinced, or nearly so.

  6. Steve Hayes on said:

    Perhaps one needs to qualify “proof” by “rational”.

    A classic example, it seems to me, is Aaron’s rod, which “proves” that YHWH is superior to the gods of Egypt, and that His emissary has a more authentic message.

    A post-Enlightenment Western missionary would probably build a school to teach that sticks don’t turn into snakes.

    So yes, I think you are right. It is immanent and personal. To the premodern mind, miracles do not prove abstract rational propositions, but are evidence of God’s concern for people involved in the events.

  7. Louis on said:

    I actually believe that there is a substantial difference in the premodern and say pentecostal experience. The difference is often that the excitement in the latter is more akin to the excitement of entertainment than anything else (having seen and experienced these things as a child, and also seen the misuse following from that). I agree with CS Lewis’ assesment that one should not look for miracles, as these are found in the ganglions of history, at times of difficulty, persecution and suffering. Advertising miracles as some (not all)charismatics/pentecostals do makes a mockery of the suffering of God’s people in other lands / times. I also say that, as my own life has been miraculously preserved (don’t ask me for details) – and ephoria/excitement are not the adjectives I would use.

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