Friday, July 12, 2013

So apparently I'm postmodern (and why labels aren't everything)

If you've been following my blog in pretty much any capacity of late, you know that I just won't shut up about the nature of truth, the role of doctrine, the evolution of my perspective on the Bible as the word of God and Jesus as the Word of God, et cetera. Lately my suspicions have been confirmed--what I have been advocating so strongly for is a distinctly postmodern view of Christianity and truth. Myron Bradley Penner, in the introduction to his book The End of Apologetics, gives a good definition; he sees
postmodernity as a kind of self-reflexive condition that emerges as modernity becomes conscious or aware of itself as makes little sense to think of the postmodern ethos as characterized by a set of theses or adherence to philosophical doctrines and positions. Postmodernity is a condition, or a set of attitudes, dispositions, and practices, that is aware of itself as modern and aware that modernity's claims to rational superiority are deeply problematic.
The massive post I just finished a few days ago is all about moving from a strictly propositional, heavy, doctrine-oriented definition of "faith" to one rooted in the heart, or (using Greek to escape the overly emotional connotations) the καρδια. It questions whether truth itself is primarily propositional and natively suited to expression by words and rational discourse and pushes a role of scripture that is more about finding Jesus the Truth than finding inerrant "Biblical" truth about God.

Compare that with this article by Scot McKnight about the postmodernism of the emerging church movement, which says:
The third kind of emerging postmodernity attracts all the attention. Some have chosen to minister as postmoderns. That is, they embrace the idea that we cannot know absolute truth, or, at least, that we cannot know truth absolutely. They speak of the end of metanarratives and the importance of social location in shaping one's view of truth. They frequently express nervousness about propositional truth. LeRon Shults, formerly a professor of theology at Bethel Theological Seminary, writes:
From a theological perspective, this fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces all finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction from another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping, as all the great theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin have insisted, and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry.
Though I would probably try to express it in less dense language, I pretty much agree with these sentiments, in the sense that we should rejoice that it's a testament to the grandness and majesty of the Truth that we can't know Him absolutely as we can know a doctrinal system. The comments on language are also echoed by posts I've written recently on language and how, though it is the best tool we have for communication, it is an imperfect one at best whose limitations become evident when speaking of God.

What really amuses me is that I cited that same Christianity Today article in one of my very first posts over three years ago when I didn't know who Scot McKnight is, only I was critiquing the emerging church and especially postmodernism. Normally I intensely dislike line-by-line rebuttals of peoples' writing (as if they're never allowed to be the slightest bit right), but my twenty-year-old self is in no position to defend himself and I'm quite willing to be hard on him. Let's do this.
Several things of this description of the emerging church distinctly worry me. Foremost is the movement's embracing of postmodernism, a pervasive system of thought whose central message is (correct me if I'm wrong) that scientific, rational attempts to figure the universe out have failed and that there is no one objective reality or truth, only everyone's own perception of it.
Sure, I'll correct you. Of course scientific-esque, rationalistic attempts to fully, objectively describe "the universe" or some part of the nature of God have failed. This is because what they tend to come down to is an attempt to place yourself, epistemologically, in the position of God as the one who has perfect knowledge, which amounts to a denial of your finite creature-ness.  Jesus really was God and was uniquely entitled to use truth in this way (that is, tell everyone, "Your theology is wrong and I'll tell you why because I know the truth" and be totally correct), but by and large He didn't because He Himself was the Truth He was communicating to people (John 14:6). As I recently put it, this kind of beating people over the head with truth entails "assuming that we ourselves are infallible because we possess an infallible gospel", or are in communion with an infallible source.
Postmodernists put everything under skepticism (even, hopefully, postmodernism itself) and are leery of any truths that claim to be objective, or universal.
Well, yes. I've changed the title of my blog a few times since writing that and it now incorporates the seeming contradiction "faithful skeptic", reflecting my willingness to question anything, including my own epistemology. The conflict over "absolute truth" is probably the biggest point of friction between postmodern types and evangelicals, who see it as an attempt to undermine the very validity of the "gospel". Of course I believe absolute truth exists, most especially in the person of Jesus Christ. And it's fine to try to communicate this truth (even in propositional form) or to claim to know it. But if Jesus is the Truth, then truth is not essentially propositional (that is, directly expressible through words and graspable through logic) in nature. You could say these things aren't truth's "native language". And while our words can describe truth to a high degree of accuracy, they always (except in technical fields) involve simplification, like projecting a three-dimensional scene onto a two-dimensional screen.

An example might help show what I mean. The (to understate) ongoing conversation between Calvinists and Arminians is a tense one because each "camp" has, beneath its respective five points about how predestination and salvation work, a very different position on his God works in and through His people. To the Calvinist, people are so fallen and tainted by sin that they are incapable in themselves of doing or willing any good, so their salvation and sanctification are wholly the gracious work of the God who chose them before the foundation of the world through faith alone (which is itself a gift from God by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit). The Calvinist embraces verses like Ephesians 2:1-10, which reads, in part:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
 (The Calvinist is sure to point out that Paul is saying that faith itself is a gift from God, so that we have absolutely nothing in our walk with God that we can boastfully claim as "our own") To the Arminian, people are not passive spectators but, again by God's grace, active participants in God's work in them who are (by prevenient grace) able to freely respond to and "go along with" Him even as His Spirit does the real work. They point to Philippians 2:12-13:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
To the Arminian, Calvinism makes God out to be an all-controlling dictator and ignores the role we are assigned in our spiritual life; to the Calvinist, Arminianism portrays God as an ineffectual softie whose plans are easily thwarted by human will and makes humans out to be their own functional saviors by the power of their own choices. To all of this, I respond that even before I try to draw any conclusions of my own about God's providence (which I have done very extensively), I question whether the two camps are as diametrically opposed as they seem. Could it be that the Calvinist and the Arminian both have the same intuitive, nonverbal sense of "what is really going on" when God works in us (which is independent of their perception of it), but then interpret or describe it in sharply different ways according to their chosen theological systems, both of which fail to fully describe the reality? Is this view--that something has a life and truth of its own apart from what we can say about it--more or less "objective" than the absolutist paradigm under which theology is usually pursued?
At least to me, there seems to be a bit of a problem with attempting to combine postmodernism and Christianity. While postmodernism denies that we can know any truly universal truth, Christianity emphatically declares that we can know the truth--and not just that we can intellectually grasp the truth, but that we can truly know the Truth, the Way, and the Life. The person of God--father, spirit, and son-- is the ultimate foundation of Christianity from which our beliefs and actions should descend. If, as postmodernists, we begin questioning and tampering with this essential truth, can the results really be called Christianity?
You fool! You are just starting to "get" that there is more to the truth than intellectual facts, and you think that postmodernism is opposed to that? No, no, keep going! But remember that since it's possible to "know" a friend without having them completely pinned down and figured out (so you could, for instance, make all their decisions for them), how much less can we expect to ever know God the way He knows us? And that's a good thing!

This has been a nice reminder for me of why I don't like to use labels: because they can easily go from descriptions to reductionistic definitions, whether you're applying them to yourself or to someone else. I made the first mistake in my thinking about MBTI types, as I was prevented from seeing myself as an INFJ because I "knew" that I was a "thinker". For an example of the second way, consider Matthew 9:11, when the Pharisees ask about Jesus, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" To which He responds, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." Those people the Pharisees thought they could write off and stuff into the dismissive label "sinners"--they are the ones Jesus came to call, the ones who get to be part of what He is doing; "the first will be last and the last will be first." (Of course, we can easily make the same mistake when thinking about the Pharisees themselves, allowing us to become much more like them than like Jesus and never notice)

Don't fear labels. (This is actually a direct application of words not being the "native language" of truth) If your walk with God takes you through territory demarcated as "postmodernist", "emergent", or anywhere else you've been taught angels fear to tread, keep walking.


In keeping with Penner's description of postmodernism as a condition by which modernism becomes aware of its own assumptions and limitations, I think it's a fallacy to divide moderns and postmoderns into two separate "camps" and pit one against the other. Postmodernism doesn't deny modernism, it seeks to move past its naivete and take a look below the surface of its assumptions. I would then expect to see degrees of this growing awareness in people, and thus a smooth spectrum between pure "modernism" (which no one truly lives by) and fully self-aware (postmodern) modernism.

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