A commenter recently asked me to clarify the stakes of a comment-thread debate, and ultimately all I could say was that I was advancing a consistent position, but it seemed to me that my interlocutors were constantly moving the goalposts so that my critique would not fully apply. This was emblematic of my interactions with confessional theologians at that time, particularly Barthians. They would agree that traditional articulations of (for instance) transcendence were problematic, but that only meant that we had to find the good transcendence! Often Karl Barth was held to be the source of the “good version,” which was so radically distinct from the pre-Barthian version as to be invulnerable to any conventional line of attack. It was almost a parody of Dan Barber’s critique of the quest for “good versions” — but with no attempt to articulate the concrete difference between the good and bad versions. If I did not concede that they indeed had a better version of what I was critiquing, the conversation would veer toward a consideration of how we could never truly have a conversation in the first place due to our incompatible axiomatic commitments. The whole thing became tiring, presumably from both ends — most of that traditional theology crowd does not show up in comment threads anymore (though comments are very inactive generally speaking).
Prior to the resort to incommensurable values, the exchange reminded me of a conversation I had with a Nazarene youth pastor. This was a “cool” youth pastor, someone I had gone to college with, someone who listened to Radiohead. I had just read Blue Like Jazz at my mom’s recommendation, and I shared that it made me viscerally angry, because it seemed to be nothing but an attempt to rationalize remaining affiliated with something that was hurting the author and other people around him. When pressed, I suggested that the youth pastor was doing the same thing. His objective function was to make young people feel just comfortable enough being affiliated with the church that they would maintain that affiliation through young adulthood and ultimately raise their children in the church — an institution that, I consistently argued, would hurt them as it had hurt me (and honestly, had hurt everyone in that room).
I was arguing, in short, that he had an ethical obligation to quit his job and abandon the institution he had chosen to serve, but he kept insisting that we were not in fundamental disagreement and could hash the issue out over a couple beers (because, yes, he was that kind of hipster Christian). At that point, simple disagreement would have been a relief — in fact, anger and outrage would have been a relief. After all, I was telling him his life’s calling was destructive and dangerous. In this situation, if he had veered toward a meta-conversation about how we come from such different starting points that we can’t even really have a conversation, it would have felt dishonest and even passive-aggressive. It would have been a coded way of saying that because I’m not a Christian, because I’m not saved, because I’m lost and mired down in the false wisdom of this world, I can’t understand the goodness they experience, or why it’s important to maintain the connection to the church even with all its faults.
The Radically Orthodox are more honest in their presentation, when they talk of secular philosophy as representing “fallen reason,” as a form of malign nihilism. Of course, their God is able to turn evil to good, and the same holds for the conceptual ingenuity of the nihilists. You can have all that is best in those philosophers you love, all that is compatible with Christ — and the theologian is offering you that opportunity. You can have your social critique, to the exact extent that it does not threaten the foundations of Christian dogma. You can have your quest for justice, which turns out to point toward a revamped version of Christendom.
You really can have it all! All the wisdom of this world, all the kingdoms of the world they will give you, if you will bow down and worship…. And if you won’t? Then you must have misunderstood, or be beyond saving. The resort to incommensurable axioms is a euphemism, a fake — because they can’t admit that you genuinely have a principled position of your own. They can’t do you the courtesy of directly disagreeing. At this point, one wishes for the straightforwardness of Satan, who responded to Jesus’ rejection of his offer by arranging to have him killed. The prince of this world did not realize that it can often be worse to kill them with kindness.