Postmodernism’s approach to truth leaves me a bit cold but I’ve been struggling to understand the paradigm. I found Robert C. Greer’s book, Mapping Postmodernism: A Survey of Christian Options, helpful. Greer presents a spectrum of options ranging from completion rejection of postmodern concepts to virtual acceptance. He agrees that there is an epistemological shift occurring and that Christians need to understand it, respond to it, and adapt their methodology and, to some degree, their message to deal with it. I can identify with the need to adapt methodology but I am uneasy with any suggestion that we should fiddle with the message.
Greer says Christians should comprehend what he calls “the dark side of absolute truth.” Individuals and communities can’t come to absolute truth; they only pass on their perceptions of truth. As a result, when individuals or movements believe they have come to the knowledge of absolute truth, they reject anyone and everyone who disagrees with them. (Note the many divisions within the Church of Christ and Protestantism in general!) Triumphalism, as Greer calls it, eliminate the possibility of Christian unity because those who think they have a corner on the truth will not, to use Restoration Movement terminology, fellowship with those who disagree.
For Greer and other theologians, Christian unity (ecumenism) is important because division hampers the spread of the gospel. Competing truth claims leave the lost confused and more certain that no one can know the absolute truth. If Christians can’t agree, then perhaps the different varieties of Christianity offer no more than Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism, Wicca, or any number of other “isms” or heathen belief systems.
Greer offers a solution to the problem which he says is not grounded in the old “modern” paradigm. He calls the “modern” paradigm cogito because it is based in Cartesian logic. Postmodern thought rejects both deductive and inductive reasoning as flawed and rooted in the idea that one can come to absolute knowledge about a thing. Approaching Scripture as if it were a storehouse of dogma defeats the purpose of taking the gospel to a lost world. The old way of reasoning assumes that if everyone accepted certain definitions, they would by applying reason come to complete and total agreement on doctrine and practice. Since that has not happened, there must, he says, be a new approach.
First, Greer suggests that individual believers and Christian communities must give up the idea that their doctrinal system is the absolute and final understanding of the biblical message. His solution: rather than seeing systematic theology as the epitome of absolute truth, Christians must come to realize that absolute truth rests on a Person not propositions. In other words, absolute truth is found only in Jesus who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life….”
Um, that sounds vaguely familiar!
Second, Greer suggests that individual believers and Christian communities must take a two-tiered approach if they are to communicate effectively with each other and come to unity. He writes, “A two-tiered system is necessary to divide those articles that establish the parameters of orthodoxy (e.g., the doctrine of the Trinity, the hypostatic union) from those articles that merely distinguish the particularities of differing ecclesial bodies within the parameters of orthodoxy (e.g., the mode of baptism, the question of eternal security). At the root, Greer is calling for the church to unite on the essentia. What he does not realize, however, is that some of us would build a different list of essentials than he does.
The idea of seeking unity on the essentials, however, is certainly not a new idea. It dates back to Augustine: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love.” If I’m not mistaken, that sounds familiar too.
Third, Greer suggests that individual believers and Christian communities must recognize that faith and knowledge are inextricably linked but one cannot be sure which comes first. He states that the Holy Spirit and the Word are also linked, but says one cannot be certain which comes first. He argues that the Holy Spirit must aid understanding but so does the Word. He stops short of the historic doctrine of illumination, but he comes very close to it. An examination of Greer’s spiritual journey leads me to wonder if he hasn’t absorbed sufficient Calvinism to color his perspective. Since most of the theologians discussing postmodern concepts arise out of theological liberalism or Calvinistic evangelicalism, there are going to be some major issues with those who reject Calvin.
Fifth, Greer suggests that individual believers and Christian communities should return to the ancient creeds as expressions of faith. Greer believes the Holy Spirit guides the church into truth. Thus, the church is ever changing in its structure, methodology, and doctrinal understanding. He states that the Holy Spirit shapes the message for each culture (contextualism?) resulting in the plurality of “faces” the church assumes in each culture.
In my view, this thrusts everything into the realm of the subjective. Of course, that is what Postmodernism does. It questions the validity of objectivity. In Greer’s view, then, everything but Jesus rests on subjectivity.
I think it is interesting that Greer’s suggestions, at least in part, sound like what the Restoration Movement has preached but failed to practice for years. Truth rests in a person. Unity can be found by emphasizing that which is essential.
Alexander Campbell believed that the Holy Spirit worked through the Word for justification and sanctification. In essence, he believed the Word of God was self-authenticating. Perhaps his call to give up divisive creeds and systems of theology and let the Bible speak for itself can resonate in the hearts of our contemporaries. Maybe we need to “preach Jesus” more than we need to “preach baptism,” as important as that is. Maybe there is a need to use biblical language and seek to understand the biblical worldview.
Oh, I forgot, Alexander Campbell was the first to “wed Enlightenment thinking (cogito) to evangelical Christianity.”