Friday, August 26, 2005

What is a Christian to do?

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?


Catez said...

Nicely summarised Phil. I've featured this post at BlogWatch.

Bob Robinson said...


I agree with you a lot here! There is a difference between "important" and "formative."

Before I start, I want to make something clear: There is also a difference between advocating a postmodern philosophy (saying, “Oh, so that’s the way things are, so that must be a good thing…let’s keep it up and do even more of this!"), and learning from postmodern philosophy and even agreeing with it where pomo philosophy observes reality correctly (saying, “Oh, so that’s the way things are, so what are we going to do about it? Is this state of things a good thing or a bad thing?").

The questions that come to mind from reading your post are these:
Is "formation" really something that does not happen in Christian communities? Is the postmodern principle that communities “form us” really not true? Is there nothing we can learn from this?

I can go to 20 different Christian churches within five miles from where I live, and each of these local communities will have a different formative milieu.

Each individual church community has different ideas (sometimes subtle, sometimes very evident) about ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, religion, etc. (to use your categories). Each church’s spiritual formation of their congregants is based on that local community’s “formative” ideologies. One church’s ethics says that they must stop abortion, another church’s ethics says they must stop poverty; One church’s metaphysics says that reality is mainly spiritual and unseen, another church’s metaphysics says that there is not a physical/spiritual dualism; One church’s epistemology says we must not use reason but just rely on the Spirit in order to know, another church’s epistemology says we must rely on our human faculties to observe and study in order to know; One church’s religion says we must worship through Word and Sacrament, another church’s religion says we must worship through song and ecstatic experience.

Don’t you see that what postmodern philosophy is teaching (notice, I’m not saying “advocating”—that is a different animal) is beneficial for our understanding of how church communities function?

The next set of questions, once we realize that local communities are indeed formative, are, “Is this a good thing?”, “Should we promote this, should we stop this, or should we add to this the (postmodern) cultural idea of 'Think globally, act locally?'” etc. etc.

The point I’m making is this: Intellectual Christian engagement with postmodern philosophy should say, “Hmmm… I do indeed agree with this particular postmodern observation that this is happening in our culture. Now what is the Christian response to this? Should we critically embrace the secular postmodern response to this, or is there a more Christian way to respond?”
Or, we might decide (as you seem to advocate) to say, “Hmmm… postmodern philosophy is not correct in it's understanding of reality here... this is not what we see happening in our culture. We need to call that out as not true of reality.” That's a legitimate response as well.

The tact that many Christians are taking (you seem to be one) is to simply skip the first engagement as not possible a priori (since the presumption is that any observation that has postmodern roots is necessarily wrong since postmodernity has nothing in common with Christianity), and move straight to the second engagement too quickly.

To paraphrase your words, being taken with popular, and thus incomplete, treatments of Postmodern philosophy (as is often the case in modernistic Christian apologetics) may get some “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd (especially those who want to see postmodernity as the next big evil thing coming down the road at the church), but we need to ask a difficult question-is Postmodernism a useful gift or a Trojan Horse? My point is that it is both—a gift in that postmodern philosophy is observing reality in new and useful ways; a Trojan Horse if we, in the church, uncritically accept all the implications and conclusions that secular postmodern philosophers like Rorty and Derrida arrive at instead of thinking through to Christian implications and conclusions.

Brian B said...

It seems that Bob and Phil are not quite using the same sense of 'formative' here. Phil construed 'formative' such that a community's formative influence on a person makes it basically "impossible to receive useful information about these issues [epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc.] from outside our communities." One consequence is that "it is difficult, if not impossible, for an American to receive any useful (or salvific) information about the first century Jew, Jesus."

In (apparent) contrast, Bob construed 'formative' to mean "Each individual church community has different ideas," but surely that is a construal perfectly consistent with it being possible to receive useful information about the Big Questions from outside the individual church community.

In other words, the kind of "formation" talked about by (some) postmodern thinkers goes far beyond mere influence or sway or persuasion or "having different ideas;" formation on their account amounts rather to something more like determination or absolute constraint or impassible limit.

Certaintly church communities stress different ideas, and such focus will influence how members of that community form character. But this is no postmodern revelation - we've known this at least as far back as Plato (e.g. his reformation of the education system in The Republic) and Aristotle (e.g. his emphasis on the importance of upbringing, education, culture and community in forming good character and habit, as evidenced in his Ethics). What's distinctive to pomo is the much stronger view that community is pretty much all there is when it comes to character formation - that there is no way to "get outside" one's cultural milieu, to transcend one's immediate influences toward some external, objective, culture-independent Truth. That's the sense of "formative" Phil seems to be talking about - and the sense widely (and in my view, correctly) ascribed to pomo thought. And, of course, that's a sense that seems inimical to a Christian orthodoxy that explicitly affirms an external, objective, culture-independent set of Truths.

It seems right, to me, to understand that the pomo emphasis upon the effects of community upon a person's formation should be taken seriously by Christians; but we should reject their conclusion that these effects are inviolable or untrascendable or, worse yet, determinative of reality and truth themselves.

Brian B

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks, Brian, for seeking to clarify.

You point out that there are what many are now calling "hard postmodernists" and "soft postmodernists." Perhaps Phil is reacting against hard postmodernists, with their radical conclusion that all there is to our formation is local community. I stand with Phil there.

But there are only a few radical hard postmodernists. Even the postmodernity that is trickling into mainstream culture is not a hard pomo; it is a soft pomo--a postmodernity that values the local and yet wants to learn from the larger picture of other local communities.

A soft postmodernist Christian says that our local community's effects upon a person's formation cannot be taken lightly, it is a fact of reality. But I would contend that there is a trascendant formative force (God himself) that, if we yield to His Spirit, will create a unity of these local communities. This unity, in fact, would be an incredible witness of the reality of the transcendant God we worship, for it would prove to a postmodern world that local community is NOT all there is.

However, in a fallen world, postmodernity is rightly observing that, even in local Christian communities, the local community is in fact the major formative power in people's lives and not the transcendant God as much as we would expect.

This is also true on a wider cultural plane--when we compare the values of suburban churches in America to that of churches outside the West, we see huge differences in their formative milieus. I see postmodern philosophy being an aid to my understanding of this that I see this, I can ask what we as Christians should do about it.

A Christian does not need to be a "hard postmodernist" and come to the same secular, radical conclusions that they come to. A Christian can learn from and even embrace what postmodern philosophy is teaching us, and our Christian Worldview can direct us toward better conclusions.

Brian B said...

Bob - definitely a helpful set of comments. Given what you say - that "soft postmodernity" asserts the reality and accessibility of a transcendent formative force (God) beyond the (albeit heavy) formative influence of "the local" - there may not be much distance between us after all. I think Phil has written elsewhere about the often ambiguous and suggestive conflation of "hard" and "soft" postmodernism that afflicts many of the most prominent Christian pomo thinkers' works (e.g. McClaren). Moreover, it is not always easy to discern whether this ambiguity is purposeful or merely the result of a genuine confusion on their part about either their own commitments, or the commitments of postmodernity. In other words, from what I can gather, many of these authors have difficulty clearly drawing the line, and thus lead their readers (and perhaps themselves) into error and/or confusion.

Perhaps the following comment is a mere semantic quibble, but I believe it is more important than that: I think [to quote your characterization] that "a postmodernity that values the local and yet wants to learn from the larger picture of other local communities," is not a postmodernity at all. It might be a bit like saying "a politically right-wing conservatism that values smaller government and yet wants to double the budget for federal entitlement programs." Not much of a conservatism - or at least, a highly unhelpful usage of the term "conservatism." Likewise, a postmodernism that accepts the reality and relevance of a single, unified metanarrative is not much of a postmodernism - or at least, it's a highly unhelpful usage of the term "postmodern." Again, maybe that's just semantics (though I doubt it), but the emphasis upon the local - eschewing the "real" postmodern philosophical foundation of the rejection of metanarratives and the acceptance of anti-realism with respect to truth, which in their view is what makes the emphasis upon the local necessary to begin with - is not something distinctively postmodern. Calling oneself a "postmodern Christian" because of stronger views about the effects of community seems, at best, an easily avoidable confusion of terms; moreover, as Phil has pointed out elsewhere, some of the prominent leaders of this pomo movement among Christians seem to accept something closer to "hard" pomo, or at least fail to clearly distinguish their views from it.

Take care!
Brian B

Bob Robinson said...

I think that the "foundation" (if we can use that term!) of postmodernism is not incredulity of the metanarrative (though that is a major outgrowth of the true center of postmodernity). I think it is the idea that each of us is "situated" in a time and a place, and that we are limited in our understanding of reality by the very limits of linguistics. The main thing in postmodernity seems to be that all thoughts and words are contaminated because they are limited by their situatedness, so much so that all thoughts are more or less untrue, and any attempts at building metanarratives are therefore untrue. Postmoderns do not believe that any one community's language or vocabulary provides a better take on reality than another's.

Thus Rorty's claim that since postmodernity is the "linguistic turn" it is misguided to try to get language right in any way, Derrida's claims that all we can know are things passed to us linguistically (everything is constructed in our individual cultures' languages) and Lyotard's incredulity of the metanarrative.

The Christian worldview, however, says that God does speak in language that is true and clear and in a grand metanarrative that reaches from outside of all cultures and reaches across all cultures (a story that makes sense of all reality).

But the Christian worldview also says that humanity is indeed situated--we are finite, between the "already and the not yet," created "a little lower than the angels." Any attempt to have successful dialogue is very difficult due to the limits of human language (there has been a plurality of language ever since Babel, and we are attempting to understand a text from another culture and that pre-dates us by 2,000 years). We Christians work from a Creation-Fall-Redemption Worldview that takes seriously the effects of the Fall--our cognitive abilities are indeed distorted, so we must have an incredulity about how truth is linguistically communicated.

So, in many ways, what postmodernity is stressing is already there in our Bibles!

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-Thanks again for your thoughts, and I appreciate the chance it gives me to keep on thinking through these issues. The last thing you said was, “So, in many ways, what postmodernity is stressing is already there in our Bibles!”

That has been, in fact, one of my points recently. But my conclusion has been vastly different from what is apparently yours, and is certainly the conclusion of most leading Emergent authors. I conclude that we can then throw away Postmodernism, because a close and detailed look at it reveals two crucial facts: the core of pomo philosophy is a “non starter” as far as Christian orthodoxy is concerned-it is diametrically opposed to the way Jesus saw the world, and secondly, if there is anything good to be taken from a pomo point of view, we are able to find those ideas in good orthodox Christian theology and therefore we do not need pomo to tell us these things.

I can hear some responding with something like, “but that is throwing the baby out with the bathwater!” I would respond simply that there is no baby to throw out. And if there is anything that closely resembles a baby in the bathwater of Postmodernism, it is a borrowed baby-borrowed from Christian orthodoxy.

You also argued that incredulity toward metanarrative is not one of the foundations (and yes-we can use that word) of Postmodern philosophy. It is not only one of the crucial bits to its foundation, it is often given as its primary definition. No matter how fuzzy the term “postmodernism” has become in the hands of popular authors, it has a core, and incredulity toward metanrratives is an important part of it.

Nathan said...

With all this discussion of hard vs soft postmodernism, I think there must be some examination of the more pragmatic use of postmodernism by the pomo/emergent church to redefine theology and ecclesiology. In many instances, there is not careful reflection on postmodernism's tenets with the focus of understanding the full impact it will have on the church. Rather, many emergent church practitioners seem to adopt pomo thinking in a kind of fuzzy or ambiguous way. They like the critique it offers of their previous faith communities, and their respective failings, and sign-on. There might be some areas of pomo thinking that are well understood, but it appears that there is much that is not. Thus we are left wrestling with the big-picture (almost a metanarrative on its own!) philosophical implications of postmodernism, as well as the local ad-hoc and incomplete expressions of it. Its well and good to debate the former, as above, but we have to keep an ear inclined toward the latter to know if there is any connection between our arguments and the reality on the ground.

Leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether or not we can be formed by anything other than our local communities - whether we can be influenced from the outside - I think we have to examine the emergent church's understanding of "formation" in community. In this area (and this is what I find most disturbing), formation is what the church does but it is not limited to people. It expands to include theology, ecclesiology and praxis. In essence, each local expression of the church feels empowered to intentionally reshape orthodox Christianity according to the whims of their community. The very nature and person of God is open to revision on the local level! Thus, as the pomo-emergent church enterprise continues to grow and morph, I think unity between these (inreasingly) diverse local communities will become ever more an impossibility. This is not a matter of politics or moral emphases, which can vary from church to church or town to town, but of the very core of the Christian faith.

Of course, what strikes me as the real problem of this part of the emergent enterprise is exactly who, or what, is determining the values & beliefs of those individual members who will make up the church community? What baggage is being brought into the church that would have been checked by orthodoxy in the past? Culturally, and thus worldly, shaped politics, ethics/morals and values could be informing this "formation" far more than the Word or the Spirit.

Bob Robinson said...

Great comments.

Phil, Yes, I agree that incredulity toward metanrratives is a core part of postmodernism...

I was trying to get to the core of why that is. It has to do with our situatedness and the fact that our situatedness is linguistically limited. The reason for postmodernity has a a hallmark the incredulity toward metanrratives is that postmodernity recognizes that each of us are influenced my our station in life (our situatedness in time, place, socio-economic order, education, etc) and that each of our communities have different "languages" for understanding life. When one community decides it has a "metanarrative" that explains life that must encompass every other communities, tensions arise, wars are fought, etc.

Now, the Christian metanarrative is different--it arises not from within an individual community, but from outside all communities--from God Himself, invading our situatedness in the person of Jesus Christ!

Bob Robinson said...


If you think that there is no need for postmodern philosophy (since "we are able to find those ideas in good orthodox Christian theology"), do you feel the same way about modern philosophy or Plato or Aristotle or Hegel or Aquinas or Descartes or Kierkegaard? Since anything of value they offer is already in good orthodox Christian theology as well?

It seems to me that this would be the only consistent stand to have. However, I notice that you have a lot of links to philosophers, so my guess is that you are not against philosophy per se, just a certain type of philosophy.

I agree with the fact that we, as Christians, do not "start" with any philosophy, allowing them to set the Christian thinker's agenda (as Plantiga urges us). But that is different than being in conversation with philosophy.

Bob Robinson said...


I think that what you say is an honest critique of the emergent church. Many are not taking the time and the hard work of really studying postmodern philosophy, they are taking what they like from what they hear in more popular publications and applying them without the proper discernment.

Postmodern means, to them, "experiential, candles, leaving contradictions and doubts unchallenged because it's okay to be relativists, allowing for many interpretations of the Bible (thus diluting its authority), etc., etc.

This kind of fuzziness frustrates me as well. I'm working very hard on trying to continue my studies at a more scholarly level so that I will not fall into this trap. And what I'm reading from some of the people I've mentioned before and others (wow-you've GOT to read some stuff from Kevin Vanhoozer!) is much more encouraging than what you've obviously experienced!

Bob Robinson said...

I've started my series on "Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity" over at my blog.

I'd be interested in hearing where on the "Spectrum of Responses" you'd place yourself!


Tim Van Tongeren said...

I would like to further explore the difference between postmodern *philosophers* and postmodern *Christians*, like Brian B. originally investigated. I know that most of the people here are on the same page, but I think there is some value in going down this road. Thanks for humoring me.

One of the concepts that has been evident in my limited studies of postmodern philosophy is related to the distinction made here between "important" and "formative". When postmodern philosophers say "formative", they generally talk about constructionism and mean there is no Truth; communities create reality based on their unique experiences. The conclusion of this premise is that each community will have different realities. These cultural differences are oftentimes mutually exclusive. The postmodern philosopher then concludes that neither community is right or wrong - they are just different.

In the discussion on this blog, this flavor of postmodernism has been labelled as "hard" postmodernism. (The microculture inside this blog has informally agreed to construct two different flavors of postmodernism - talk about self-reference!) One of my concerns is that the emergent church is using different terms than the larger society in which we live. The emergent church movement seems to have cribbed these words from the philosophical community. Then, some people in the emergent church movement use the terms in a "soft" manner and others in a "hard" manner, further complicating the manner.

One concern with this ambiguity is it is difficult to determine which flavor the emergent Christian intends to convey. Another concern is that the philosophical community generally only uses these terms in the "hard" sense, which truly is, as it seems most of the people in this discussion would agree, at odds with Christianity. So, then finally, it is concerning that people who only know the academic ("hard") definitions of these words see the Christian church using the terms and truly misunderstand what is being taught. There are people who believe that postmodern Christianity means that there are many ways to God (or even embracing other religions.)

Phil Steiger said...

All-It is awsome to see so much thought and consideration put into your comments and interaction-I am privledged to have this going on in this site! I apologize for my delay in re-entering the fray. I had a busy week and then took a "sabbatical" from e-mail & internet for the weekend.

I think you identify an important distinction. Postmodernism has raised our awareness of our situatedness, but that reality is completely different for Christian than for the pomo. We are to be formed by God's metanarrative, and not be resigned to being hopelessly captured by our local narratives.

Your distinction between the philosophy and the praxis resulting from pomo might be a way into Bob's distinction between "hard" and "soft" pomo. Most emergent pastors, in my experience, want to practice a kind of pomo church, but don't have a grasp on pomo philosophy.

Thanks again for your thoughts, and I will definitely get over to your series on the issue.

I most certaily believe philosophy has a role-a crucial role-to play in these discussions. I have 1 & 1/2 graduate degrees in philosophy, lecture in philosophy, and take in about as much as I can given my schedule. And that is exactly why I don't like Pomo philosophy.

Of those you listed, many of them hit on important issues well, and in a way that can be useful for the Church. Kierk. lambasted nominal Christianity, Kant stressed the inherent moral freedom and responsibility of humanity, Plato and Aristotle continue to shape our conceptions of virtue, justice, dualism, and so forth.

You are correct to guess that my critique of Pomo is not a critique of philosophy in general, but of Pomo qua Pomo.

By the way, I am interested in reading Vanhoozer-where do you think would be a good place to start?

Bob Robinson said...

On Vanhoozer--
See Scot McKnight's mini-review
on Vanhoozer's The Drama of Scripture.

A new and important book on postmodernity has a very insightful chapter by Vanhoozer in it. I'm reading Christianity and the Postmodern Turn as part of my research for my current blog series.

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-Thanks for the book recommendation. I look forward to reading more of your series in the future.

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