I have recently been dialoguing with Bob Robinson about postmodern philosophy and the church world, and as a result of our conversation, I thought it helpful to expand on a couple of thoughts. I have always appreciated the thoughtfulness of our exchanges and the fruit it has born in my thinking. This post is a result of our discussion, but it rests on what I see as a general sense of things in the emergent church, or schools of thought that approve of much of pomo philosophy.
In our discussion about the possible role of pomo philosophy, I have made some pretty straight-forward and blanket statements.
For example, pomo philosophy argues that community is deeply formative-gives us our ethics, metaphysics, and human nature-and that kind of deep formation does not jive with Christianity.
I still wholeheartedly believe, especially given the distinction between understanding pomo culture and assenting to pomo philosophy, that there is no room for pomo philosophy in the Christian worldview.
Bob then countered, wondering if I wasn’t brushing Postmodernism aside too quickly without giving it fair play:
I think it is would actually be more intellectual if Christians did not simply write off pomo as wrong-headed and wash their hands of it all. In doing so, these Christian thinkers would miss the important lesson to be learned: Christianity has always been about "community," we are actually mandated to created such communities to "make disciples...baptizing them...and teaching them."
So, I think Christian thinkers, if they want to intellectually deal with postmodernity, need to have a more nuanced strategy than just simply creating what may be a false dichotomy--"there is no room for pomo philosophy in the Christian worldview."
As I respond, I want to emphasize that this is not intended to “lambaste” Bob. What he has expressed is part of a much larger whole in the evangelical world today, and that is what I want to address. I want to talk about two issues: Pomo philosophy and community, and what the intelligent thing is for the Christian to do in such situations.
Postmodern Philosophy and Community
The statement that is made often as a defense of the usefulness of Postmodernism is, “the importance of community has been recovered.” That, as is so often asserted, is not a Postmodern view. A more accurate representation of a Postmodern view of community is something like, “our communities and cultures are formative.” Now we need to define terms.
What the typical evangelical means by “community is important” is far from novel, wholly in line with all good Christian theology for 2000 years, and completely biblical. We are the body of Christ, should behave that way toward one another and the outside world, and represent Christ to the culture at large. It means we assimilate the Gospel that was communicated long ago into our present-day lives. We don’t need Postmodernism or any of its philosophical baggage to re-learn that lesson.
The evangelical, orthodox Christian view of community is one thing; the Postmodern view of community is entirely different.
When I say, “community is formative,” there is a world of difference between “important” and “formative.” “Formative” in this context means that our communities and cultures actually form, or create, our views on all the important things: ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, religion, etc. We do not-and for many pomo thinkers it is impossible to-receive useful information about these issues from outside our communities. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, for an American to receive any useful (or salvific) information about the first century Jew, Jesus.
Recognizing that there are literally dozens of other issues like this one, I want to reassert and restate one of my original proposals: “community is formative” is inconsistent with “community is important.” One is a Postmodern view, the other is an orthodox Christian view. The two cannot meet without seriously damaging the content and intent of one or the other.
Which brings me to my second point.
What is the intellectual thing to do?
Fundamentally the answer is that the Christian should strive to understand a philosophy, theology, or cultural trend on its own terms, treat it charitably, take it seriously, and asses it on its own terms. When Christian thinkers and writers conflate “important” with “formative,” they are not treating pomo philosophy on its own terms and taking it seriously. For instance, if we really took Rorty seriously, truth would be “what our colleagues let us get away with.” Clearly not a view Christ would take. If we took Derrida seriously, there “is no text.” Then there is no communicable Gospel. It seems to me there is no common ground on those two points.
Being taken with popular, and thus incomplete, treatments of Postmodern philosophy may get some “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd, but we need to ask a difficult question-is Postmodernism a useful gift or a Trojan Horse?