Friday, August 20, 2004


What goes around comes around

As I concluded Robert C. Greer's book, Mapping Postmodernism, I was struck by how much the "modernist"/"postmodernist" debate sounds like philosophical gibberish. Clothe it in whatever wording you choose, it is essentially the same argument philosophers have had since Plato and Aristotle. There is, as quoheleth says, "Nothing new under the sun."

Why would I say this? Well, quite frankly a major form of postmodernism is called antirealism. It states there is nothing real. Reality is what the mind makes it. Therefore, since all of us are different and see things differently there can be no absolutes whatsoever. Another form this takes is that while there may be something there after all, the human mind can only perceive some of what is. Therefore, perception becomes truth for you but it may not be for someone else. We are thrown back to relativism.

Modernists, we are told (and we're not talking about the Modernists of Classical Liberalism), are foundationalists and believe that something is and we can know it. Such knowledge may be imperfect and partial, but it can be studied, investigated, and the information derived is useful.

If I am not mistaken, and I am not a philosopher or even much of a theologian, Immanuel Kant distinguished between the noumenal and the phenomenal. The noumenal was the thing (ding an sich) and the phenomenal is what we perceived. There may well be an aluminum can, but we cannot know the actual can. We perceive the phenomena given off by the can. We can investigate the phenomena, experiment upon the thing and consider the changing phenomena, and test the phenomena until we can make use of the thing. Still, we cannot truly know the thing in and of itself.

Going farther back into history, the church was troubled by the debate over the nominal and the real. This was much the same argument but it preceded Kant by many years.

Plato's concepts focused on the real and the ideal. According to Plato, everything we see, touch, feel or experience in this world is but a poor copy of the actual object located in the ideal realm. Plato illustrated his ideas in his classic on "the cave."

It is the same old argument floating around. Today's version is subtly nuanced in order to fit a world where coping has become increasingly difficult due to the interaction of various cultures and worldviews. So many have come across as always right having truth sewn up and neatly packaged. Those who think they have it all often act in unloving, judgmental, and condemning ways rejecting anyone who disagrees with them. Legalistic, toxic churches have done more damage to the truth of biblical Christianity than one can imagine. Rather than offering loving acceptance followed by patient and persuasive teaching, too many Christians expect total agreement with every assertion.

It is no wonder that so many heathens (and I use that word in a non-pejorative sense) reject the faith. Their honest questions and doubts were rejected out of hand and they were told to "measure up" without giving them an opportunity to seek out the truth. That must change before the church will get much of a hearing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Alexander Campbell

Postmodernism and Restoration

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.”

Monday, August 16, 2004

The famous Roman Coliseum, where many Christians died for their faith.

Back to the future?

Toleration is one consistent postmodern refrain. Postmoderns insist that since one cannot know or discern absolute truth, it is not possible to pass judgment on competing truth claims. They also assert that "truth" is comprehended through culture. In other words, Western culture shapes one's perception of what is and what is true. Therefore, according to postmodernism, Christianity's concept of god (not capitalized on purpose) may be just that -- a Western construct. Other equally valid interpretations of god arise in other cultures. The god of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam are equally valid given the culture in which those ideas arise. Given these ideas, it is politically incorrect for Christians to see their faith as exclusively true.

Early Christianity found itself in a similar situation. Confronted with Roman pluralism, Christians found themselves in conflict with Roman pluralism. Rome's religious policy required recognizing all gods as equally valid. When Roman armies subdued Rome's enemies, Rome assimilated the gods of the defeated enemy into the Pantheon. Rome recognized those gods as the gods of a specific people. Rome recognized Jehovah as "the god of the Jews" and thus assimilated Judaism into the Pantheism. Rome pronounced unrecognized religions as religio illicita (illegal religions) and prohibited their observance.

Rome persecuted first and second century Christians for various reasons: (1) Christianity was new. (2) Christianity seemed unpatriotic. (3) Christianity was secretive. (4) Christianity practiced unsavory rituals (according to rumors). (5) Christianity insisted it was the only true faith and it was universal. Christianity's claim to exclusivity earned it Rome's venom and recognition as an illegal religion.

Rome tolerated Christianity as long as it appeared to be a sect of Judaism. Persecution began after separation from Judaism. Most church historians recognize that Roman persecution did not begin until AD 64. Roman emperors continued persecution almost unabated until the Edict of Milan and the rise of Constantine. Although the intensity of persecution varied according to emperor and region, Christians died by the thousands because of their insistence that their faith was absolutely true. Roman tolerance extended only as far as individuals and Christian communities were willing to privatize their faith and comply with Roman requirements including recognizing the emperor as a god. While some Christians complied, many more refused to bow before Caesar's bust seeing it as idolatry of the worst form. Christians continued their testimony in obedience to Jesus' commission in direct opposition to Roman policy.

Isn't it strange how history tends to repeat? Christians find themselves in a culture much like that of Corinth and ancient Rome. Postmodernism's loud voices call for tolerance, the abandonment of moral absolutes, and the privatization of faith. Believe what you will, say the Postmodernists, but what is true for you may not be true for me. Sounds pretty much like Rome to me!