Friday, July 29, 2005

Metanarratives, Postmodernism and Christianity

Ever have one of those moments in which you think something like, “Wow-so 2+2=4!” It is one of those moments of epiphany in which you wonder how you never saw that before. I had one of those reading an article in the latest Philosophia Christi by Brendan Sweetman entitled, “Lyotard, Postmodernism, and Religion.”

His fundamental point was quite straightforward and one that I am a little embarrassed at not putting together myself a long time ago. But I guess this is why we read things written by people much smarter than we! The question is whether there is a place for religion, specifically Christianity, within a Postmodern philosophical construct. Sweetman’s answer is, “no.” The reason, the argument of his paper, constituted my own private epiphany:

1.Postmodernism in its most fundamental and essential form is incredulity toward metanarratives.
2.Christianity is a metanarrative.
3.Therefore, there is no place for Christianity within a Postmodern philosophical construct.

I have to say I agree, and that I have always agreed. When evangelicals play with Postmodernism they are literally adopting philosophical tenants that are contradictory with their own Christianity. The two schools of thought cannot be assented to at the same time taking the central claims of each seriously and without equivocation.

There are two ways of getting around the above argument. First, deny the first premise. I think that fails in large part because it is the founding principle of postmodern thought and has influenced all its developments since Lyotard. Anything that now passes as postmodern-pragmatism, language-games, ethically significant cultures, deconstruction-all stem from the basic premise, “incredulity toward metanarrative.”

The second, and probably more popular route would be to deny the second premise. The best way to deny that Christianity is a metanarrative might be (as the article points out) to create a strong bifurcation between faith and reason, assert that Christianity is only a matter of faith, and that metanarratives are exclusively matters of reason. But this denial misconstrues the Biblical notion of faith, turns it into something it was never intended to be (ONLY “blind faith”), and fails to take seriously the metaphysical, epistemological and ethical claims of the Christian faith.

Christianity is clearly a metanarrative-a narrative for the ages.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Emergent and Truth: Why Believe in Truth?

Over the past several months I have enjoyed some of the back-and-forth I have been able to have with Public Theologian on this site. Most of all, PT has remained civil and thoughtful in disagreement, and for the most part, we have been able to discuss controversial issues with each other without resorting to flaming. PT commented on my last post, and in response, I decided that an entire post of my own was appropriate. PT’s views expressed in the latest comment highlights, I think, one of the most significant divides in Christendom. Forget Orthodox vs. Catholic-I am talking about a certain kind of fideism vs. a belief in objective truth and the use of reason; a theology that swallows language games whole and a theology that requires transcultural communication of truth.

I will comment on some of the highlights from PT’s latest thoughts, but this post is as much a reaction to what I am reading on the web and in articles and books as any single person’s comment.

I too believe in the reliability of the scriptures, but I do so as a matter of faith, not as matter of reason.

These kinds of sentiments cause me to wonder what kind of hard and fast distinction people have between “faith” and “reason.” Doubtless there are differences in the two means of knowing, but the mistake occurs when people make them mutually exclusive. For instance, I believe astronauts landed on the moon. How do I know that to be the case? It is only because of my trust (faith) in historical record and my reliance on authorities in the field. Those reasons for my belief are reasonable and not a matter of blind faith (the kind of faith I think PT advocates). My faith in historical record actually makes my belief that people landed on the moon more reasonable than the contrary belief. In fact, we consider those who disagree with the historical record to be unreasonable.

Despite pious sentiments to the contrary, faith is not opposed to reason.

My disagreement with those who want to advocate objectivity is that they have no theory which will stand to scrutiny either in language or physics whereby to make such absolute statements.

This is simply not true. Linguistics is by no means a homogenous field of study, and there are certainly those who believe that language is a “game” or a kind of metaphysical trap we cannot get out of, but they are far from the standard. Early in theological and philosophical thought, language was seen as signs pointing to referents. Augustine made the point that language is pointless unless it points (forgive the pun). And he was right. If PT is right that the realities of language cannot admit any kind of objectivity (if it doesn’t really point anywhere significant), then I literally don’t know what PT is saying. Maybe it is some kind of grunt or special mantra those in his linguistic community utter, but it makes absolutely no sense to me.

And though I am not an expert on the latest theory in physics, it is my understanding that a common mistake made by many is taking something like Relativity Theory or Chaos Theory and misapplying them ethically or ontologically. It would be like arguing, “We live in a free country, so I am free to club baby seals with aborted fetuses and you can’t stop me!” And I may be wrong, but I am not sure Rodger Penrose or Frank J. Tipler would agree with PT.

Why isn't it enough to simply say that we share a language game with most people in our environment and that probably 99% of our utterances, verbal or written, are intelligible based upon that shared framework, but that at certain points our experiences differ and agreement cannot be reached on the other 1%? What is wrong with that?

Well, several things. The primary problem with that is that there has been no acceptable definition of what a “culture” or a “social environment” really is. If we are going to limit truth and truth-communicating utterances to cultures or environments, then is it absolutely necessary to adequately define those terms. Unfortunately, no one has been able to do that. Very serious attempts have been made, but they all fall prey to the same kind of simple but devastating critique: we all belong to many of those cultures. So which is actually formative, or important? Which one forms our sense of ethics or language, and what if it is more than one? Very literally, no two people share 99% of their “cultures” with each other.

Secondly, do any of us share 99% of our language game with an ancient Hebrew or a Jew at the peak of the Roman Empire? I dare say not. So how is it we are able to communicate with Scripture-specifically, what ability does the Bible have to communicate the Gospel to us today?

Thirdly, reducing truth-communication to probabilities guarantees the inconsequential nature of your communications. Which leads me to the heart of our disagreement.

There is a lot of fear mongering about what will happen to the world if we can't spell truth with a capital T but no decent evidence as to why it is necessary that we should….Why is it so important for you to be able to assert a universally valid, universally applicable language and logic?

First, it is important because it is true. And while that may sound tautological, it is merely me assenting to the facts of reality. Saying that logic is “universally valid” is not an argument I make; it is a fact of life not all that different from gravity. To say that there isn’t any evidence why we should believe that is just utterly silly.

Second, it isn’t fear mongering; it is trying to teach Christians how to think well. Relativisms based upon the supposed triumph of language games are not much more than self-defeating goofiness. There are sociological lessons to be learned about the facts of how people communicate, but the classic blunder of applying the description of language games to a prescription about reality is committed far too often. If Christians want to think well, they will know the profound and worldview-changing consequences of descriptions versus prescriptions.

Thirdly, and this point has been glossed over so many times it have become almost to slippery to state: if we cannot believe in “T”ruth or some kind of universally applicable realities (accurately communicated through language), than we simply cannot assert that Christianity is true and all other religions are false. This point cannot be made too often, and yet a growing chunk of our evangelical culture today asserts contradictory theses without really grasping the actual consequences. We cannot assert, “Christ is Lord,” not believe in universally valid truth, and believe the simple meaning of Scripture all at the same time.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Outreach To South Africa


It was cool to get this in a newsletter yesterday. It is the blog of a pair of new missionaries our church has been supporting this year.

The Value of a Holistic Education

This article in Christian History struck a chord with me, “Elementary School: Medieval to Modern.” It is a brief notation on the educational philosophy of Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670).

One section reads:

But he believed that education, though not in itself redemptive, could complement the gospel by fostering international restoration, unity, and peace. People have long understood that one potential benefit of a liberal education is the tolerance and generosity of spirit it can instill in its students. Rising above Europe's fractiousness, Comenius taught a strongly Christ-centered version of this old ideal.

In working to establish Dayspring for Christian Studies, I have run across both a prejudice against the use of any kind of general education, as well as a great appreciation for a well-rounded worldview curriculum. Dayspring’s mission is to engage the University with a Christian worldview. In large part, we do that by providing general core classes to students taught by faithful and studious Christians. A lot of people haven’t understood why we don’t just offer a bunch of Bible classes.

Too many ministers and Christians believe that to be well trained as a Christian means to have four years of evangelism and missions classes. Now, don’t get me wrong: those educational systems serve their purposes and have their role, but it likely isn’t the role of producing people who are well equipped to faithfully live in and exegete well their culture.

I think Comenius had it right. A good grounding in a broad range of topics and studies better prepares Christians to engage our world.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Emergent and Truth II: Can We Be Certain?

The Emergent and Postmodern penchant for uncertainty and our cultural captivity misses a couple of very important points when it comes to human beings as knowers. It is certainly true that we all see the world through lenses, and that our cultures often provide lenses for us that we know not of. But that then does not make it true that we are unalterably bound by our cultures, that language is a kind of game we cannot escape, that we cannot find any kind of epistemic objectivity, or that our belief system as Christians is a muddle of Western and Greek cultures more than is it a genuine representation of Christ and the Apostles.

So can we genuinely know things with any kind of objectivity or are we insurmountably bound by our communities? A good place to begin thinking about this would be the distinction between psychological objectivity and what we might call rational objectivity. Psychological objectivity describes a knower who is outside of or above any particular bias about an issue. While psychological objectivity may be rare or seem to be an impossible mental state, it really does exist. You are totally objective about the present temperature in Singapore. So it exists in any person’s catalogue of knowledge, but it may be trivial in many instances. A second note about psychological objectivity is that it is a good thing in several ways. We adhere to beliefs like the value of family and the good of voting in a democratic society through our cultural lenses. But we are not wrong on either count, and it would be a vice, for instance, to constantly regard your family with an affectionate disconnection.

Psychological objectivity appears to be the only kind of objectivity Emergent authors and pomos are willing to admit. But there is another that makes all the difference. The second form, rational objectivity, is simply the state of having good reasons for believing something, or, having good epistemic access to a thing itself. It is crucial to note the relationship between psychological and rational objectivity:

Being psychologically committed to a belief does not exclude rational objectivity,
Rational objectivity is probably the more important of the two, and it is an entirely possible epistemic state.

If either one of those propositions were false (as some Emergent and all pomo authors claim), then we are in a pickle indeed. If bias made rational objectivity impossible, math teachers would not be a reliable source of mathematical instruction (they would be too biased). You can multiply the examples ad infinitum, leading to utter absurdity.

The best kind of example within a Christian context would be some apologetic matter such as the historical reliability of the Scriptures. I am psychologically committed to their historical reliability, but I have good reasons behind that belief. I do not believe the proposition, “the Christian Scriptures are reliable,” because I dreamt it or because a squirrel once spelled it out in nuts on my back porch. Those would obviously be bad reasons for believing anything, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know the difference between good and bad reasons.

Many Emergents believe they are doing us all a service by rejecting “Modern” or “Enlightenment” views of things and picking up on a much more Postmodern view of things. Exactly the opposite is true in too many cases to count.

Friday, July 15, 2005

A Great New Blog

Dr. Groothuis is a Philosophy professor at Denver Seminary, and of much less importance, a former professor of mine. (I hereby take full responsibility for all philosophical flops in ETC.) His new blog is The Constructive Curmudgeon. He has a way with words you don't find many places. As a teaser, this is from his latest visit to a booksellers convention:

Yet, by the grace of God (which also held back the "cleansing of the temple"), four things made it bearable....(4) I brought my TV-B-Gone with me. This is a universal television remote control device that turns off most televisions. I have been learning the esoteric skill of temporary television termination for several months now, but this surfeit of screens made it possible to break my personal record for TV kills in one day: thirteen terminations (eleven at the convention and two at restaurant before that). I was able to hit four of the God-knows how-many screens showing "Angel Wars"—a partial victory, but one I savor. One must use this blessed device discretely, since one doesn’t want to be caught zapping the great Idol of our age. The downside is that you have to usually watch the screen for up to a minute to properly aim the device. (It cycles through possible frequencies in sixty-nine seconds).

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Emergent and the Role of Truth

Much is being said recently about the Emergent movement and the concept of truth, and I am not quite sure what to make of all of it. What I am gaining a better appreciation for, though, is that their needs to be more clear philosophical thinking brought into the discussion. Many emergent bloggers note that people seem to be speaking past each other on this topic and therefore not understanding each other, and that is certainly true. And while there are plenty of Emergent leaders affirming the importance of truth, there are also several “iffy” things being asserted about truth by plenty of other emergents. By no means would it be proper to claim guilt by association, but it would behoove us all to engage in some directed discussion.

There are, for example, a lot of broad and sweeping statements out there about capital “T” Truth as opposed to our articulation of truth. What that may mean, if we are to be precise, is that many emergents are affirming an absolute, or objective sense of truth, but denying a significant epistemological grasp of Truth. It is common for emergent writers to emphasize our “cultural captivity” and point out that we cannot assert anything without it being a result of our cultural influences. Is this a form of relativism, specifically epistemological relativism? It certainly borders on it, and if it is not (as many emergents state), then there needs to be some clarification on the usefulness and role of Truth if we cannot have an adequate epistemological grasp of it. In other words, if emergents want to hold to a deep role for our cultural captivity and the reality of metaphysical truth all at the same time, a significant relationship between the two needs to be clarified. Otherwise, metaphysical truth becomes irrelevant. I do not believe one can claim we are bound by our cultures in this kind of way and then simply assert the reality of metaphysical truth without clarifying what they mean by both assertions.

And this is exactly what I have worried about in the past. I am concerned that emergent thought is too comfortable with pomo philosophy without fully comprehending its consequences. As an example of its consequences, Richard Rorty, a pomo philosopher, has clearly seen and wholeheartedly adhered to epistemological and cultural relativism and the consequential irrelevance of metaphysical truth. He in fact labels his view “antirepresentationalism”: the point is not that metaphysical truth does not exist, the point is that we cannot and do not reflect it, and therefore it is utterly unpragmatic and thus irrelevant. So what naturally follows is that we cannot judge between right and wrong, and in a Christian context, we cannot judge between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. “Christ died for your sins” is then neither true nor false in an objective sense. In fact, “Christ died” suffers the same fate. Not a position a Christian should be in.

In my next couple of posts I will be responding to some of what I am seeing out there on the blogosphere when it comes to the Emergent movement, truth, and epistemological relativism. I think a good place to begin will be to address the issue of certainty and being “bound” by our cultures (a connection between objective truth and our grasp of it). Hopefully we can all bring a little clarification and direction to the discussion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Eugene Peterson: Spirituality for the Wrong Reasons

I ran across this great interview with Eugene Peterson in Christianity Today, and I think it is worth the time to read and reflect upon. Thanks to Steve at Out In The Sticks for the link!

In the interview, Peterson reflects on the “daliyness” of Christian spirituality and the hollowness of relevance. As Steve points out in his post, it is interesting that the editor of The Message decries relevance so quickly. A couple of snippets:

I have a friend who is an expert at this sort of thing. He's always saying, "You've got to identify people's felt needs. Then you construct a program to meet the felt needs." It's pretty easy to manipulate people. We're so used to being manipulated by the image industry, the publicity industry, and the politicians that we hardly know we're being manipulated.

This impatience to leave the methods of Jesus in order to get the work of Jesus done is what destroys spirituality, because we're using a non-biblical, non-Jesus way to do what Jesus did. That's why spirituality is in such a mess as it is today….

How do we meet the need? Do we do it in Jesus' way or do we do it the Wal-Mart way?

And then the quote in Steve’s post is great:

I think relevance is a crock. I don't think people care a whole lot about what kind of music you have or how you shape the service. They want a place where God is taken seriously, where they're taken seriously, where there is no manipulation of their emotions or their consumer needs.

Why did we get captured by this advertising, publicity mindset? I think it's destroying our church.

Os Guinness has made the point well that relevance is not only an idol that diverts our attention from God, but it is a fickle idol as well. As soon as we catch up with the latest cultural wave, the leading edge has passed us by and we are left looking old.

In the balance between communicating the Gospel to a culture in ways it can understand and holding to the everlasting principles of the faith, there is a wrong way to go. If we were to err in one direction or the other, there is an error with more inherent danger than the other. And too often, it is the direction a lot of evangelicals take in their insatiable pursuit for relevance.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Flaming and Civility: Virtual vs. the Real World

So I received a comment yesterday:

“you’re a moron.”

That is all it said, and it was, of course, anonymous. It is buried somewhere in my old posts and I have not been able to find it, so I can’t even tell if I really was a moron or not.

This kind of thing always causes me to reflect a bit on the means of blogging and electronic communication in general. There is a powerful sense of disconnection and depersonalization that comes with the virtual world, and I wonder if anonymity has a kind of vice inducing power over a lot of people.

Anonymity, for one thing, makes us bold when we would otherwise be more thoughtful and measured with our remarks. In a public, face-to-face conversation, few people would consider that comment an appropriate way to behave. But once all accountability is removed, then deep motivations and twisted character traits are revealed.

I think what I worry about more and more is that the depersonalization of the virtual world is creeping into our face-to-face interactions. I worry that people deem that kind of crass, infantile and base behavior appropriate when they encounter something or someone with which they disagree or simply don’t understand. I guess any daytime talk show may serve as evidence for this concern.

I am finishing a book I hope to review soon, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, in which the author, Richard Mouw, makes the case for civility as a kind of public virtue for the Christian. One of the goals of the book is to convince individuals that civility is the best way of interacting with your fellow human being, and is certainly a powerful way of communicating the Gospel with a world that doesn’t know Christ. Although I disagree with some of his thoughts, I believe the basic thrust of the book is vital: civil interaction with your fellow human being is a kind of a virtue, and the sort of conversation displayed by my flamer is actually a character flaw-a vice.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Dayspring Center for Christian Studies

Dayspring Center for Christian Studies is still on track for launcing this fall. We bought some ad space on a local radio station, KGFT100.7, and I have been talking to local youth pastors and Christian schools about students looking for college credit. Very exciting!

As some of you know, I transitioned jobs this spring and that has put a small kink in my blogging habits. But I am still hoping to stay in the swing of things as I find my new rhythm.

And just in case you are interested in looking at Dayspring, all our information is on the web page including registration.

Every Thought Captive in the News

blog, blog, blog

This is the second time ETC has made it into the local paper. The last time was a bit of interaction with the emergent community in Colorado Springs, and here it is the lead thought on a good article on religious blogging.

The author, Paul Asay, is becoming a friend, and has done a really good job of getting some thoughful responses from several of the bigger evangelical blogs.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Is There Something Missing In This Declaration Against Poverty?

If you follow religion and politics closely, you are sure to be aware of the Sojourners organization. Recently they organized a delegation to the G8 Summit in order to help deal with the issue of world poverty. A noble goal indeed. But we are not judged only in accordance with the nobility of our goals. Here is part of the text of their declaration contained in a news piece:

We also applaud momentum being built by grass roots campaigns around the world who are addressing these issues and pledge to mobilize our energies, in partnership with faith leaders from the Global South, to realize common goals emerging from these campaigns and the Millennium Development Goals:

Debt – The recent agreement on 100% debt cancellation for eighteen of the world’s poorest countries represents a major step forward that should now be expanded to include all multilateral creditors and more impoverished and heavily indebted nations.

Aid – The moral scandal of extreme poverty requires that the wealthy nations do much more to assist the poorest countries in fighting poverty, hunger and disease through a dramatic improvement in the quantity and quality of aid. We are also united in the call for good governance and an end to the corruption that undermines all nations and people. Conditions attached to aid and debt cancellation must not be used to reinforce existing patterns of inequality that undermine pro-poor policies of local governments.

Trade – The structural inequities and power imbalances in trade rules that tilt toward the rich nations at the expense of impoverished nations must be reformed so that people can earn a sustainable income and the private sector can generate jobs and wealth for the common good. Rich countries must reform their subsidies to prevent the dumping of produce on world markets and strengthen special and differential treatment for poor countries so that they are able to protect vulnerable producers and develop new industries.

Though there is a bit of emphasis on what I consider to be the primay goal in dealing with world poverty-the governmental structure of nations-it is subusmed within the perceived responsibility of rich nations. Rich nations can give aid all day long (and have been for decades), but if toatlitarian regims are not eliminated, will that aid make it to the people who need it the most? History tells us "no."

I applaud the efforts and intentions of Sojourners, but I wonder if their political philosophy has created a blind spot in their declaration.