There has been an experiment in book blooging going on at A New Kind of Conversation. It has been fun and interesting to watch it develop and grow, and I hope its format will prompt other book styled blogs in the future.
I have been watching and reading closely (for the most part) the emergent and postmodern themes with great interest and a recent post on Postmodernism and Apologetics has caught my eye in several ways. So you may have to forgive the tongue-in-cheek title to the post, but it is intended with respect to the work done on the blog.
Myron Penner titles his post “Postmodern Apologetics?” and lays out his argument for how apologetics ought to morph given the realities of our new pomo world. First I want to note that I agree with much of the focus and tone of the post. His emphasis on apologetics being about people and not arguments will receive no criticism from me, and his view that Paul and the apostles relied on the power of the Holy Spirit more than their native reasoning capacities will receive the same assent. What I do want to note, though, are ideas that seem ubiquitous in emergent writing on modernity vs. postmoderninty. The fundamental problems with the emergent critique and subsequently with their conclusions are: false dichotomies (what Carson calls “wretched antitheses”), straw men, and “being hoisted by their own petards.” The best way to go at this is to reply to a few sections of the post.
Søren Kierkegaard is the first modern thinker to perceive the deep-seated disparity between the modern scientific paradigm and biblical Christianity, and he subsequently argues vigorously that Christianity cannot be assimilated to modern science and philosophy as modern apologists wish.
I am not intimately familiar with all the standard apologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, but I am not sure of whom he speaks. The apologists I am familiar with, many of whom can be easily recognized as carrying the evidentialist or classical flags of modern apologetics, do not wish the assimilation of the faith to science. There is a fundamental difference between using the tools provided by modernism and science and wishing your faith’s assimilation to them.
Do any of the emergent writers wish the assimilation of their faith to Postmodernism? Do they want to use the alleged tools provided by postmodern critique, and would they balk at the notion that their usage of those tools entails their assimilation to a fundamentally thin philosophy? The answer to both issues is more than likely “yes.” And if so, you cannot have it both ways: if you can use tools from your toolbox without being assimilated, another thinker can do the same.
From the Christian point of view, the truth about Christianity cannot be found in modern-styled objectivity. Not only does the essence of Christianity concern the desperate need of humans and God’s gracious (and personal) response to our need, but it also starts with the assumption that human being (including human reason) is unable to save itself. Christian truth presumes to master us, rather than to be mastered by us. In this case, whenever I try to establish the fundamental reasonability of Christianity in modern terms I remove its fundamental “offense” to reason and transform Christianity into something domestic, with nothing other than a cognitive claim on my life.
It may be true that the truth about Christianity cannot be found in modern-styled objectivity, but that is a heavily loaded sentence. What does “found in” mean? Does it mean “completely encompassed by”? If so, then he is probably right, and again, I don’t know of any serious apologist who would disagree. Does it mean modern-style objectivity “cannot capture any significant truth”? Given the rest of the essay, I doubt this is what he means, but if it is close, I think it is false. “God exists” is not only a proposition that carries existential weight (per postmodern apologetics), but it is a proposition that conveys a truth statement about the way the universe actually is regardless of any existential assent. It is objective (objectively true or false).
I do agree that there have been threads of apologetic teaching and training (maybe substantial threads) in the American church that have assumed a kind of “cognitive-alone” approach to belief, and he is right that that needs to be corrected.
Christianity, however, is a way of being, or what Kierkegaard calls an “actuality”—a way of living with and before God—and not just a cognitive event involving intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It involves the acts of God Himself in response to our condition as sinful persons and requires our being saved from this condition of brokenness and sinfulness through a total response that can only be described in theological categories like sin, repentance, and salvation the necessarily relate to the subjectivity of human being. These personal categories cannot be assimilated into the objective discourse of modern science and point to subjective realities that are more appropriately dealt with in sermons.
Until that last sentence, hear a hearty “amen.” But that last sentence seems to assume things about contemporary apologetics that do not seem to me to be true. First, I am not sure that the implied equation between “science” and modern apologetics is fair. Using “science” in the place of “apologetics” communicates falsehoods about the goals and means of modern apologetics and attempts to communicate things about apologetics that are not the case.
It is true that the personal nature of belief and spiritual experience cannot be assimilated into “science,” but it is not true that it cannot be adequately handled by modern apologetics. I have cut my apologetic teeth on some of the grandest alleged perpetrators of modern apologetics, and I have always been reminded in their writings and their lectures that people and their real lives are at the core of what they do.
Even more Penner:
I also want briefly to mention one other important problem with using modern (objective and universal) apologetic arguments to defend Christianity, though there are others as well. Modern objectivity refuses to acknowledge the ethical dimensions of arguments, and treats them abstractly and a-contextually, and ignores the personal and social dimension of reason.
Again, I think this is an unfair equating of “science” and “apologetics.” Some of the best known modern apologists have argued for God’s existence and His moral ordering of the human existence using the undeniable ethical realities of our lives. As an entire branch of theology and philosophy of religion, Natural Law, is often used as a tool with which to engage the ethical structure of life.
I can’t stop quoting!
Arguments never mean anything until they are used by persons in a social context to do something, and one may use a perfectly valid argument with all true premises to do something unethical (like, for example, belittle or domineer someone). A modern, objective approach to apologetic arguments also inclines Christian apologists to overlook the fact that their arguments may be used to support an oppressive and socially unjust form of Christianity, and therefore to that degree fail to justify actual Christianity.
I want to address two things in this excerpt. First, arguments do mean something before they are “lived out.” As above, an argument for the proposition “God exists” carries value that transcends any and all existential reaction. What I think Penner intends to convey is that those arguments do not take root in our lives and belief systems until we are ready to pattern our lives after them. And with that kind of assertion I can readily agree.
Secondly, in response to the argument that modern apologetic approaches can lead to oppressive forms of Christianity, the best response is, “so what?” Literally anything can be used as a justification for oppression, including the rampant “political correctness” foisted on all of us and propped up by postmodern sensibilities. Should we then reject those sensibilities for exactly the same reason? That argument against modern apologetics proves nothing.
Give yourself five extra-credit points if you are still with me:
But what if we modeled our apologetic heroes after apostles and not analytic philosophers? What if we made love, and not modern rationality, the hallmark of our defense of Christianity, and took kerygma, not logic, as the form of our apologetic discourse?
This is a clear example of a false dichotomy. Modern rationality does not necessarily exclude love, and kerygma does not trump logic.
Penner concludes his post by outlining a positive approach to what he envisions as a good postmodern apologetic. It is late and any further thoughts on his post will need to wait.