The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) caused an uproar this summer when it published Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11, by David Ray Griffin under the Westminster John Knox Press imprint. Being in an elected leadership position of the PCUSA, I decided I would read the book and see what it was about. I expected I might right a review but something happened on my way through this book.
As I read this book, I kept thinking to myself “this feels familiar.” By the time I finished the book that feeling was even stronger. It wasn’t the specific content I was reacting to. It was something about the mindset of the book. I have sense identified why this book feels familiar to me but before I go there I need to give considerable background.
David Ray Griffin is one of a network of writers who belongs to the 9/11 Truth Movement. His book has ten chapters divided into two sections. In the first part of the book, Griffin makes his case for understanding the events of 9/11 as a “false flag” operation by the Bush Administration. A false flag operation is where one entity stages an attack by its enemy and then uses that as pretext for executing aggressive action in support of some pre-existing agenda. Among other things, Griffin believes al-Qaeda had nothing to do with the events and did not pilot the commandeered planes. He believes the Bush administration planted demolition like explosives to bring down the buildings after the planes hit. The entire event was staged by Neoconservative masterminds as false flag operation to initiate their plan to build an imperial American empire.
In the second part of the book, Griffin lays out his process theology perspective. Central to his theology is the rejection of an omnipotent God. God works persuasively to bring about his ends in the world but he is not truly in control of events in the universe. Griffin moves on to talk about the demonic in the world and how we all participate in the creation of the divine and the demonic. Rome is the model of demonic global imperialism. Toward the end of the book he makes his case that the United States is a demonic global empire on a much grander scale. He observes that:
There is no reason to expect a world with an American “uni” [unipolar leadership role] to be much if any better than a world with a German, a Chinese, a Japanese, or a Russian “uni.” (176)
In the next paragraph, he goes on to place Third World poverty directly at the feet of the United States blaming the United States for 180 million deaths each decade due to poverty related causes. Thus, the US is far more evil than anything the Soviets or the Nazi’s ever aspired two.
The second half of the book held little surprise for me. Process theology has been around for several decades. The myopic Marxist/Neo-Marxist critique of the US held little surprise for me either. Mainline seminaries are some of the last bastions of this ideology and Griffin's presentation is the same tired propaganda commonly espoused by people from such institutions. What I found novel was Griffin’s linking of this radical left critique with such a wild eyed conspiracy theory. Yet more intriguing is the publication of the book by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, the publishing house of a mainline denomination, and believing that the publication of this book is an exercise of bold and cutting edge leadership.
I am not going to provide endless documentation countering the ludicrous allegations made in Griffin’s book. As Edward Feser pointed out in an article yesterday:
If the aim of the conspirators was to motivate the American people to go to war, why wouldn't the crashing of airplanes into the World Trade Center suffice? What was the point of secretly placing explosives throughout the towers - no small task - and thereby risking exposure? If the government was really willing and able to orchestrate such a massive conspiracy here at home, why couldn't or wouldn't it also carry out the far easier task of planting evidence of WMD in faraway Iraq? If the cell phone calls made from the hijacked planes were faked, how did the government find people capable of so perfectly mimicking the voices of the victims, and how did they acquire the detailed knowledge of their personal lives that would enable the hoaxers to deceive so many of the victims' loved ones and friends? If it was really a cruise missile that hit the Pentagon, why do so many eyewitnesses report having seen an airplane crashing into it? If it was also really a missile, and not an airplane, that crashed in Pennsylvania, then why did eyewitnesses report seeing an airplane in that case too? And what really happened to the airplanes in question and their passengers? If even a third rate burglary like the one committed at the Watergate hotel couldn't be kept secret, why hasn't someone, anyone involved in this massive plot, or with knowledge of those who were involved, come forward to reveal what he knows? And so on and on.
Feser goes on to say:
Everything that happened that day has a ready explanation in terms of bin Ladenist aggression together with two implacable forces of nature: government incompetence and the laws of physics. (Check out the recent book Debunking 9/11 Myths, or this useful website, if you really have any doubts.)
In addition to the sites linked, there are countless other websites and books you can access if the details are of interest to you. My bigger question is where did this surreal state of affairs come from? I think there are at least two dynamics driving these developments.
Where Did This Come From?
Enlightenment on Steroids
The first of my two dynamics comes from the Feser article I referenced above. I call it, “the Enlightenment on steroids.” As Feser writes in his article
The core of the Enlightenment narrative - you might call it the "official story" - is that the Western world languished for centuries in a superstitious and authoritarian darkness, in thrall to a corrupt and power-hungry Church which stifled free inquiry. Then came Science, whose brave practitioners "spoke truth to power," liberating us from the dead hand of ecclesiastical authority and exposing the falsity of its outmoded dogmas. Ever since, all has been progress, freedom, smiles and good cheer.
As Feser points out, this narrative is a fabrication. The “Dark Ages” weren’t dark at all but rather a time of tremendous growth and learning. The Enlightenment narrative was designed to discredit authority and common sense. Autonomous reason was to take their place. Yes, there were some notable cases of authorities holding to utterly erroneous conceptions on issues that are distant and abstract from our daily existence. The movement of planets or the functioning of particles not visible to the human eye would be just two examples. But almost all change as it touches on the matters of day to day life have come to us through evolving paradigms, each one being rooted in the one before it. They were evolutions not revolutions. It has not come from unrestrained free thinkers set free from the bondage of past thinking. Scientific historian Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated this is true for discoveries in the physical sciences as well.
The consequence of this Enlightenment narrative is that a hermeneutic of suspicion pervades all that is examined in our time. The seer and the prophet are the exalted sages of the age. However, these sages are informed by rationalism instead of being informed by revelation. In religious circles this has translated into seers using their superior autonomous perceptive abilities to pierce the veil that blinds the great unwashed. This hermeneutic of suspicion manifests itself in many shapes and ranges across the whole spectrum of political and theological persuasions.
The most extreme form of this hermeneutic of suspicion grounded in autonomous reason is the conspiracy theory. The seer objectively distances himself or herself from authority and conventional wisdom. Doing so, they are able to see what no one else is able to see, except maybe for a few other elite seers. Descending from Sinai, they reveal to the common masses the hidden reality behind their existence. Pretty heady stuff!
Thomas Kuhn certainly had his deficiencies as a philosopher, but he was a good historian of science, and his famous description of "normal science" - on which ordinary scientific practice is in fact very conservative, with scientists working within and developing a general theoretical picture of the world that they have inherited from their teachers and rarely think to challenge - is surely correct. Indeed, it has to be correct, since it is really just not possible to treat authority, tradition, and common sense as if they were in general and in principle likely to be wrong. For in forming our beliefs we must always start somewhere, and have nowhere else to start except the general picture of the world we have inherited from our parents, society, and people who due to special experience or study have more knowledge of a subject matter than we do. Of course, we can and do often criticize some particular part of this picture, but the very criteria we appeal to in order to do so typically derive from other parts of it. What we cannot coherently do is question the inherited picture as a whole, or regard it as if there were a general presumption against it.
Even the conspiracy theorists must ultimately point to the same types of sources (ex. interviews, government documents, physical evidence, logic, etc.) as the conspirators, and veracity must be taken on faith. What is the consequence of this “Enlightenment on steroids?”
Authority, tradition, and common sense come to be regarded as something to be constantly unmasked and undercut rather than consulted as necessary, though fallible, sources of wisdom. Indeed, they come to be regarded as something positively hateful and oppressive, from which we must always feel alienated. (Feser)
Scratch most claims to “speaking prophetically” and “speaking truth to power” in mainline Christian circles these days and more often than not what you find are Enlightenment schooled “prophets” placing their autonomous conclusions above both the community and common sense. The conspiracy theorist is merely exhibiting this in the extreme.
The “Enlightenment on Steroids” factor helps explain the environment in which a book like Griffin’s emerges. But why here and now? I began this piece noting that I had a persistent feeling of familiarity while reading this book. As I have reflected on this feeling a small epiphany occurred.
Years ago, while in college and in graduate school, I did considerable reading on social and religious movements. One area I focused on was the Church-Sect Typology from the sociology of religion. It was first introduced by Max Weber almost a century ago and has been modified several times over the last century. It became a central part of my graduate thesis. The typology offers an interpretation to the seemingly endless process in our culture of religious splinter groups emerging to restore the “true” faith, going through a process of cultural accommodation and then giving rise to new splinter groups. But it is not the typology itself that I have in mind.
While doing background reading on the Church-Sect Typology, I read about the rise of Evangelicalism in the late nineteenth century as it rose to prominence in the early years of the twentieth century. It was during this time that Modernist/Liberal theology began to make headway on the American scene and make its presence felt. The early decades saw rapid urbanization, massive immigration, a global war, the rise and fall of Prohibition, women’s suffrage, the Red Scare, increased mobility via the automobile, and economic collapse, to name just a few changes. The disorienting rate and degree of change combined with the rise of Modernist theology put Evangelicalism on its heels. The symbolic humiliation of fundamentalism at the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 and the inability of conservatives to protect what they maintained were the fundamental tenets of the faith in the Presbyterian Church created considerable disillusionment.
The descent into marginality from positions of cultural power and prestige creates what social scientists call cognitive dissonance: holding two conflicting realities to be true at the same time. In this case, Evangelicals subscribed to one reality as normative yet the culture, ecclesiastical institutions, and everything around them were reflecting a picture that was to the contrary. It is an untenable position that can not be sustained. It presses people experiencing it to find a resolution. For some, the answer was to become part of the new establishment. Some became reclusive and inward focused. Others formed militant groups with a “fight to the death” agenda to regain lost power and influence. All of these are classic responses to cognitive dissonance.
But more to the point for this discussion was the emergence of conspiracy theories. In the wider culture, fear of Bolshevism and the Red Scare emerged at the end of World War I. The Ku Klux Klan reached its zenith in the mid-1920s as a “civic” organization to combat a host of “conspiracies” allegedly perpetrated by African-Americans, Jews and Catholics. Dispensational theology began to have a profound influence on conservative Christianity with its vision of a world sinking into chaos and the faithful being rescued from impending doom. A major piece of this theology was dissection of the Bible for clues about the “conspirator of conspirators,” the anti-Christ, about his reign and about evidence that his reign was present or very near. By the 1930s, with economic collapse and the rise of FDR federalism, conservative Christianity became a hotbed for conspiratorial perspectives that echo down to this day in the wildly popular Left Behind books and movies.
What replaced the old Evangelicalism from the 1930s until the late into the twentieth century was mainline Christianity (Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Christian Church, American Baptist, Lutheran, etc.) grounded in liberal foundationalism. Liberal foundationalism has had at its heart the belief that there is some experience of the transcendent common to all humanity. This commonality is buried underneath the differing layers of culture built by human beings through the millennia. If we can all just be tolerant and accepting of each other we can penetrate the thick veils that separate us. People are good at the core and that virtue will blossom if oppressive cultural restrictions are removed.
The primary obstacle in this narrative has been orthodox Christianity with its dogmatic insistence on the nature of God and the person of Jesus Christ. These stand in the way of dialog. Therefore, from their “enlightened” state of being at the end of the second millennium, liberal Christianity undertook the deconstruction of orthodox Christianity. By removing the exclusive doctrinal boundaries they believed they were creating an environment where universal transcendence could emerge, denominational differences would be resolved and world harmony would ensue. From at least as early as the 1960s on, this narrative has been wedded to a Marxist/Neo-Marxist analysis of world.
The reality is that the mainline perspective reached its zenith in the late 1960s when it began a slow steady decline to the point where it has become one shrinking voice in the midst of the ascendancy of other voices. At the same time, political liberalism has been on the wane and the two have been very closely linked. A very telling event was in 1998 when President Bill Clinton, seemingly a natural ally to the mainline crowd, took religious leaders with him on a diplomatic mission to China. He took a Roman Catholic archbishop, a rabbi and two leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals. No one from the mainline denominations or the National Council of Churches was invited even after lobbying for inclusion.
The elections over the last decade have elected a president and congress that many liberal mainliners see as anathema to the agenda they have championed over the years. We have seen the emergence of a virulent form of Islam that has no interest in the liberal foundationalist take on the world. In the midst of this, there has been internal denominational turmoil and acceleration in the rate of membership decline. The world of liberal foundationalists is coming apart. They are becoming increasingly marginalized. Just like the Evangelicals of the late 1920s and 1930s the cognitive dissonance is at a fever pitch.
The feeling that felt so familiar to me about Griffin’s book was the feeling I got from reading the perspectives of Evangelicals in their descent from prominence in another era. There is the denial of basic realities combined with the construction of the most convoluted conspiracies to retain the validity of an old paradigm and explain why others aren’t seeing “the truth.” I take Griffin’s book, and the enthusiastic publication of it by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, as evidence that the liberal foundationalism of the Modernist era is “flaming out” but by no means dead.
This “flame out” should not be viewed as a triumph of, or for, conservative/orthodox Christianity. Conservative Christianity has its foundational baggage it is wrestling with as well. Neither should the success of conservative politics in this decade be viewed as the long term trajectory for the future. It is merely to say that the hegemony of liberal foundationalism within American Christianity is facing the setting sun. That is what I took from Griffin’s book and the events surrounding its publication.