Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A New Kind of Reaction

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.

Penner writes:

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.

Penner continues:

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.

Penner writes:

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.

6 comments:

Bob Robinson said...

Phil,

I mostly agree with you comments. In writing a short essay like Penner’s it is not so easy to include the nuances and the caveats that you so wisely provide here. He is painting with that “broad brush.” It would be good to hear his interactions with the Morelands, Geislers, or Craigs of Classical Apologetics and maybe some with those in the Rational Presuppositional Apologetic camp (people like Carl Henry and Francis Schaeffer). He seems to be more interacting with the "pop apologetics" of American evangelicalism (which is a more Evidential Apologetics—Josh McDowell kind of stuff). And he seems to be advocating a more Experiential Apologetic (Kierkegaard is mentioned quite a bit).

Here’s are a few "newer reactions" to your "New Kind of Reaction".

[[“There is a fundamental difference between using the tools provided by modernism and science and wishing your faith’s assimilation to them.”]]

Agreed. It was Martin Luther who first distinguished between a magisterial and a ministerial role for Reason. What postmoderns/emergents are reacting against is a magisterial role for Reason, in which Reason stands over and above the gospel, acting as judge so as to legitimate the gospel (we would affirm Luther that this is inappropriate). The ministerial role of Reason, however, makes it the “handmaid of theology.” Reason is merely one of the tools we have at our disposal to understand our faith. Postmoderns would perhaps go one step further and say that they are skeptical of Reason in that it has been used so much for evil purposes (just like any other thing can be), and we must never accept a "reasonable argument" simply because it seems rationally sound. Modernity has had a tendency to place Reason in such a magisterial position as the final arbiter of truth, and the results have been disasterous.

Now about "assimilation": Just as there is a danger of Christianity becoming syncretistic with postmodern philosophy, we have indeed seen a syncretism of Christianity (to one degree to another) with modern philosophy. Even though we would never “wish” to assimilate modernism into the faith, it has happened. Why else is there an insistence in popular Christian apologetics on Cartesian Foundationalism (with “valid deductive arguments”)? Why is there insistence that we can “objectively” understand “Truth” and that our articulation of it can accurately correspond with Reality? Why is there an insistence that we cannot have “contradictions” in argument? These are modern, scientific claims. If we have unknowingly allowed Reason to slip into a magisterial role here and there, then people like Penner need to call it out for what it is.

[[“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.”]]

I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with this statement. The only reason I know that God exists is that it is lived out. I am not capable of making the statement “God exists” out of thin air, it must be proved to me by the invasion of God into my existence. This was done by Jesus in the incarnation; this was done by my encounter with him in the community of faith; this was done as I experience him in my being through His Spirit. The statement “God exists” carries no value if it is not incarnate in living it out. At least that has been my experience. Nobody has been able to argue me into believing that God exists—I had to experience Him for myself.

[[“This is a clear example of a false dichotomy. Modern rationality does not necessarily exclude love, and kerygma does not trump logic.”]]

In fairness to Penner, I think that it’s not fair to accuse him of a false dichotomy, for he clearly says, “Paul never tires of pointing out that apostles and prophets, unlike modern philosophers, do not predicate their authority on clever arguments, logical coherence, rhetorical brilliance, or anything like the modern conception of human reason, but on the divine source of their message. It is not so much that the apostle cannot or even will not engage in rhetorical brilliance or philosophical and logical argumentation—as St. Paul is certainly capable and often does; it is rather that the apostle does not base the authority of his or her message on his or her own intellectual resources.” That is not a false dichotomy; that is a hierarchy of authority—with the priority given to love.
Francis Schaeffer called love the “final apologetic.” Penner is in line with that.

In pointing out disagreements, it always sounds like one is in the opposing corner (as you said above--you agree with a lot of what Penner writes). If I really disagreed with the whole of your post, this comment would go on for pages. I wanted to restate that, overall, I agree with your caveats of what Penner says, especially in the defense of the classical apologists of modernity.

...now I want to know how I get those 5 extra-credit points for reading that entire HUGE post!!

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-

Thanks again for your thoughts, and the 5-extra credit points are in the mail…

You mentioned a time or two that I might have been a little heavy-handed with some of my criticisms, especially given the truncated format of the blog post, and I want to be sensitive to that kind of charge and avoid setting up straw-men myself. Thus, I was careful with any specific charge of “false dichotomy” until the very end of my post. Penner did not really create any kind of dichotomy until the last quote I commented on. It might just be the case that he is holding to a magisterial/ministerial distinction as you wisely mentioned, but if so, why the dichotomous language? He leaves the reader with the sense that the Gospel is about kerygma and not logic, it is about love and not reason.

Ultimately, my critique along these lines is broader than just his post. I find dichotomous language in much of the emergent writings I encounter, and it is totally unnecessary. I think the emergent community would find itself in a great deal more agreement with mainstream evangelicalism (and I mean that in a good way-I am sure some emergents wear the disagreements as a badge of courage) than they imagine if they were more careful with their philosophical methodology.

You noted: Postmoderns would perhaps go one step further and say that they are skeptical of Reason in that it has been used so much for evil purposes (just like any other thing can be), and we must never accept a "reasonable argument" simply because it seems rationally sound.

Again, the argument that modern reason has lead to evils is not only tenuous, it proves nothing at all. Chipotle burritos often lead to indigestion, but that does not make the burritos bad, and it certainly does not prove that all burritos should be avoided. It is kind of like arguing that paper-cuts have lead to serious infections in the past, so I am very skeptical of paper and the industries that foist it upon us all. I might be deeply skeptical of the postmodern atmosphere on many university campuses because of the myopic sense of intellectual importance and general sense of academic thuggery it engenders. If I thus were to dismiss Postmodernism out of hand because of the political correctness of a few (maybe many) Ethnic Studies “professors,” how might that go over with the emergent crowd?

And if you don’t want to accept an argument simply because it is rationally sound, what other criteria would you use? And keep in mind that as a Christian you need to hold to the uniqueness of Christ in such a way as to be able to exclude false messiahs-in other words, personal experience is not enough.

You also wrote: Why else is there an insistence in popular Christian apologetics on Cartesian Foundationalism (with “valid deductive arguments”)? Why is there insistence that we can “objectively” understand “Truth” and that our articulation of it can accurately correspond with Reality? Why is there an insistence that we cannot have “contradictions” in argument? These are modern, scientific claims.

We have talked briefly about Cartesian Foundationalism in the past. It should be noted that the Cartesian version is not the only one out there, and its contenders actually have the ears of most Christian apologists. Most contemporary Christian philosophers are not Cartesian Foundationalist, so that is a bit of a red herring.

And why the demands you listed? (I insist on each and every one of them.) There are several reasons, beginning with that is how God structured his revelation of himself: the Bible teaches those things either directly or indirectly. Secondly, those demands are not Modern, they are Aristotelian and Platonic-quite pre-modern, actually. If we as Christians allow in contradictions as a valid way of speaking, then the beliefs “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is not God” are equivalent and we have just given up the farm.

You also noted: The statement “God exists” carries no value if it is not incarnate in living it out.

I think we might be talking past each other here. I imagine you believe this statement is true no matter how it impacts any particular person’s life, and as such, it has “value.” I would agree that a belief like that does not make real personal impact until a person’s life is changed.

I find it thrilling to interact with you-thanks! Come to think of it, these have been a couple of long comments as well, so I will send an extra 5 points…

Bob Robinson said...

First, what many see in emergent rhetoric as "false dichotomies" are actually a rhetorical device called the via negativa.

Scot McKnight, an outsider to the "emerging church," and one of the best critics of the ec because he seems to best understand it, has explained the via negativa in this blog post. Among other things, Scot says, "In essence, the via negativa is to describe something (say the Emergent movement) by saying what is not (say, not traditional Evangelicalism)...the via negativa’s negatives are not always opposites or complete alternatives. If someone asks me what kind of a theology I espouse and I say, “Well, I’m not Calvinist or Arminian or Lutheran or Baptist…” that does not mean that I think everything about any of those positions is completely wrong. In fact, I like lots of things in each of these systems. The via negativa approach sets out alternatives, draws a line in the sand, but in so doing it recognizes that this rhetoric is just as much rhetoric as it is substance...I’m wondering if Jesus’ statement “if you do not hate your parents” is not an early precursor of the via negativa. We all know that Jesus wasn’t urging hatred, but comparative love."

Bob Robinson said...

Second,
Your point is well taken that we should not argue from the negative.

But the facts are the facts: Mankind's modernistic reliance on "objectivity" to be the ultimate arbitrator of "truth" has not given us the greatest results: the 20th Century was the most violent in history--filled with oppressive regimes all claiming that their power was based on an objectively and scientifically based ideology.

Look at the holocausts of the 40's and 50's. Germany was the pinnacle of reasoned ideology, the ultimate enlightement civilization. The gas chambers were a scientifically sound and reasoned way to bring the solution to those genetically deficient Jews. America was the bastion of scientific progress. Scientific objectivity and reasoned argument brought about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These events showed the deficiency of objective rational thought and gave rise to postmodernity. These events made philosophers begin to question the entire enlightment ideology of "objectivity."

Bob Robinson said...

Third (do you like how I split it up this time?),
We are indeed talking past each other on the "God Exists" proposition.

What I'm trying to say is this:
I can only know that God exists if he makes himself known to me. The truth is only truth when it is known to be so. Jesus was the "truth." Why? Because he was there with the people, making God known to them.

The proposition that God exists cannot come into existence without it becoming known. It cannot become known until it is revealed to me. It cannot be revealed to me until God makes it known to me.

Propositions are true (God does indeed exist), but how do I know that? Propositions spring from real-life encounters -- through story, through experience. Not the other way around.

Brian B said...

Bob said:
"Look at the holocausts of the 40's and 50's. Germany was the pinnacle of reasoned ideology, the ultimate enlightement civilization. The gas chambers were a scientifically sound and reasoned way to bring the solution to those genetically deficient Jews. America was the bastion of scientific progress. Scientific objectivity and reasoned argument brought about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Actually, it was mathematics that brought about both the gas chambers and the nuclear bombings. Some of the top German scientists, for instance, who perpetrated some of the most vile, inhuman acts against their fellow humans, explicitly relied on a view according to which various mathematical truths can be used accurately to describe reality. It was that employment of mathematics - and theoretical physics, along with some of its realist commitments at the time - that directly resulted in the making of weapons and their use against millions of humans.

Therefore...?

But seriously, it wasn't "scientific objectivity" or "reasoned argument" that brought about the travesties of the 20th century, but rather the employment of false premises in valid arguments, or sound arguments whose presuppositions were in radical conflict with obvious moral truths. The use of argumentation or objectivity was not the problem - no more than their use of mathematics and physics are to blame. They are means to ends. The conclusions of valid arguments preserve only as much truth as is in the premises; garbage in, garbage out. It would be like becoming a Luddite because "technology" has been horribly abused. Or, it would be like wishing humans did not have free moral agency because it is sometimes (even often) employed to perpetrate great evil. "Mankind's possession of freedom hasn't had the greatest results: oh that we could rid humans of such freedom!" I don't see how that's a reasonable response - it seems to blame the wrong thing. After all, Mother Teresa employed "reasoned argument" in deciding to devote her life to helping people - was she wrong to do this? Did we just "get lucky" that her use of argument and objectivity led her to do good? Or, as I suggest, is that the wrong way to look at the matter?