Postmodern Christian Theology

januar 10, 2009 at 12:45 am 15 kommentarer

Sometimes I hand in a paper that I am actually satisfied with. Last term I wrote a paper entitled “Transcending Epistemology: Towards a Postmodern Theology”. As I know some of you may be interested in the subject, I have decided to post the paper in full. Though it’s a rather short paper, it may seem to be a bit of a reading. For those of you who don’t feel as enthusiastic about reading such stuff I fully understand 😉

Introduction

“The philosophical quest for unfailing presuppositions is not Christian; it is outright paganism[1]. This outburst from Carl Raschke is typical for the shift in theology that has taken place throughout the 20th century. The Cartesian Cogito has fallen from its privileged position in the face of social sciences and new linguistic research. Western Christian theology has faced the same crisis due to its extensive dependence on Enlightenment discourse.

This paper will set the stage for the crisis of modernism and offer alternatives that go beyond the epistemological understanding of Western Christianity. The basis for our new understanding is seeing God as a subject revealing himself to human beings within human categories. This is the foundation of Christian truth, a truth that transcends the limited understanding of modernist theology.

The story of the Cogito

When Descartes proposed the Cogito as the secure foundation of knowledge, he led Western civilization into the modern era of optimism regarding human abilities in acquiring secure knowledge. Natural science based its conclusions on simple correspondence theory, claiming a straightforward identification of reality with humanly acquired knowledge. This scientific understanding of reality formed the framework within which modernist systematic theologians such as Charles Hodge operated: “If natural science be concerned with the facts and laws of nature, theology is concerned with the facts and principles of the Bible”[2]. Biblical truth was seen as propositional, simply telling facts about the nature of God and the world.

What Descartes was for modernism, Nietzsche was for postmodernism. In his famous parable, The Madman, the Madman was not claiming responsibility for killing God, but prophesied the inevitable outcome of what the philosophical establishment had done implicitly and unknowingly[3]. Enlightenment Christianity had erroneously maintained that the infinite God can be comprehended by finite human reasoning. Such a claim, however, is blasphemy and idolatry, because it rejects the qualitative difference between Creator and created humans. What Nietzsche did not realize was that his proclamation was not directed towards Christianity per se, but towards the Cartesian paradigm, two systems which at that time were inextricably bound together. His proclamation of the death of God can be seen as the first expression of postmodernism, the rejection of the Cartesian Cogito. Nietzsche’s prophecy about the Enlightenment project led him to nihilism as the only alternative path. Popular postmodern thought has likewise tended to embrace radical relativism as a philosophical thought, but adherents are not ready to draw the logical conclusions (nihilism) that inevitably follow with such a view. Thus they end up in rational inconsistency.

Realism/Anti-realism Discourse

Few theologians have been ready to reject that it is possible to acquire knowledge about God in any way. But rejecting anti-realism only brings us to another epistemological question about reality: How – and to what extent – does our understanding reflect true reality? Alister McGrath tries to find a way in between the extremes: “to reject foundationalism is not to reject realism[4]. Thus it is entirely possible to maintain a realist position without descending into the fallacies of the modernist era. But what is the relationship between the real Real and the human comprehension of it?

Postmodern philosophers have maintained the “ultimate inaccessibility”[5] of objective reality by placing meaning in language rather than in objective reality. Both Wittgenstein and Derrida pointed to the way language not only reflects reality, but creates meaning. For Wittgenstein this happened in socially constructed language games. They were closed systems of language usage that a community shared. Meaningful communication is therefore meaningful if it is coherent with the language game within which it is expressed. Derrida went further by arguing that language precedes thought. An individual’s language is acquired from the social surroundings, but as a participant in the community he also contributes to the development of language structures. This inter-relationship between individual and community, which results in the formation of linguistic communities, leads into coherence theory replacing correspondence theory. Vanhoozer has described this postmodern notion well: “Post-modernity, in short, cuts meta-narratives down to size and sees them for what they are: mere narratives.”[6]

From a Christian theological viewpoint the gap between objective reality and human understanding makes such merely linguistic explanations unsatisfactory. If meaning is merely a human construct – either socially or individually – it is basically arbitrary. This is where we find McGrath’s critique of George Lindbeck’s postliberalism, namely that he replaces realism with pragmatism and coherentism.[7] McGrath sees linguistic analysis as closely bound to the anti-realist position. For him, the only solution is a revised realism that accounts for the fallacies of modernism (what he calls “naïve correspondence theories of truth”[8]).

Revelation as Divine Communication

Having rejected foundationalism because of its naïve identification of reality with human knowledge, and having rejected postmodern linguistic theory because of its lack of absolutes, we are left with what seems to be a dead end.

Our failure, though, is that our starting point is the knowing human subject. We then build on human existence and reflect on how we can overcome the gap that exists between objective reality (God) and our subjective knowledge. This is where we face the wall. As finite humans we are not in a position to give normative truth claims about the objective world. On the other hand, if we hold that truth is subjective (via language), we end up creating God in our own image. But what epistemology is incapable of, theology has done. Greer argues that McGrath mistakenly categorized Lindbeck as an anti-realist, and shows how Lindbeck goes beyond the categories of realism and anti-realism. This is due to the fact that Lindbeck argued that God is himself a communicator, not merely a passive phenomenon for humans to comprehend. Language systems are therefore not closed systems that depend on humans alone, for language is also the medium of Gods revelation. Thus the infinite God is a guarantor for the objective truthfulness of subjectively known truth. God speaks![9]

The incarnation is an important framework for understanding truth. By bringing together transcendence and immanence in Jesus Christ, God showed his true nature within time and space. He limited himself to human categories of understanding and used language to communicate with his followers. Furthermore, the Bible is using language as the means of communication to humans. The miracle of crossing the gap between transcendence and immanence is continuously going on by God’s dwelling within believers by his Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the finite can contain the infinite. It means, however, that constructs of God within cultures are not arbitrary reflections of the divine, but to some extent mirror the real truth about God.

Just as one cannot exhaustively describe a picture by means of propositional statements, in the same way God cannot be fully contained in any human description of him. Coming back to our introductory quotation of Raschke, it is “outright paganism” to limit God to such propositional categories. For this reason we see disagreements about Christian doctrines, and we see different emphases between cultures. The incarnation helps us to understand how a cultural expression of Christianity can be both truly Christian and truly contextual. “Truly” should not be understood extensively, for we are still operating within human categories. However, a contextual theology can be true in its finiteness in the sense that it is a reflection of the true nature of God. The reality of the incarnation allows us to maintain particular representations of God based on finite cultural understanding, which in turn also is an affirmation of a pluralist understanding of Christianity. Revelation is always revelation into a context. Because human knowledge about God is bound to a context, perceptions of God are by definition subjective.

Epistemology or Soteriology?

Epistemology was the foundation of Christian theology in the modernist understanding. But this is a deviation from Christianity, a syncretistic view coming from modernist philosophy. Our goal is not to secure modernist knowledge about God in the sense of correspondence theory, but to know God as a person. The simple question of how much it is necessary to know about God misses the point of what theology is about. In the end we are not judged on the basis our comprehension of God but on the basis of our personal relationship with him. Concerning salvation and knowledge, Raschke puts it rather bluntly: “to conflate the former with the latter is a heresy in itself. It is Gnosticism.[10] We therefore need to revise our notion of salvation. Christian salvation is based on a restoration of community between two subjects, the Trinitarian God and the created human. This transforms the theological task drastically. Whereas modernist theology was propositional, postmodern theology is relational. Whereas modernist theology understood revelation as epistemology, postmodern theology understands revelation as communication. Whereas modernist theology searches for an absolute in the human self, postmodern theology finds the absolute in God revealed.

Conclusion

We have seen how modernist Christian theology has serious shortcomings. Postmodernism helps us correct some of the misconceptions inherent in modernism. At the same time postmodern Christian theology is in danger of falling into the extreme of anti-realism. But seeing God as a subject, who reveals himself by means of human language, helps us to see subjectively acquired truth as a reliable reflection of objective reality. Only the incarnational nature of revelation makes room for such an understanding.

Thus revelation is not propositional, but is one subject (God) speaking to another subject (human). The purpose is different from revealing knowledge about God. Truth is God revealing himself as a person, not as a concept or proposition to be grasped. Thus our view of true Christian knowledge should be corrected in areas where postmodern insights have pointed out modernist shortcomings.


[1] Raschke (2004), p.113, his emphasis.

[2] Hodge, cited in Grenz (1993), p.66.

[3] See the discussion of The Madman in Raschke (2004), p.42-43.

[4] McGrath (2002), p.37 (his emphasis).

[5] Greer (2003), p.139.

[6] Vanhoozer (2003), p.10 (his emphasis).

[7] McGrath (2002), p.52. For his general critique of Lindbeck see p.39-54.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Greer (2003), p.156. Instead Greer categorizes Lindbeck as ‘post-foundational middle-distance realist’.

[10] Raschke (2004), p127 (his emphasis).

 

Greer, Robert C., Mapping Postmodernism: A Survey of Christian Options, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Grenz, Stanley, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century, Illinois: IVP, 1993.

McGrath, Alister, A Scientific Theology: Reality ( vol. 2), UK: T&T Clark, 2002.

Raschke, Carl, The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity: A Report on Knowledge (of God), in Kevin Vanhoozer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p.3-25.

 

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Fars legetøj Hvordan man ikke skal klodse en bil op :D

15 kommentarer Add your own

  • 1. Mikael Kongensholm  |  januar 13, 2009 kl. 11:46 am

    Nice work, Søren! I tend to agree, but that’s not a surprise. 😉
    I’m looking forward to reading Raschkes book!

    Svar
  • 2. Søren Dalsgaard  |  januar 14, 2009 kl. 1:15 am

    Absolutely no surprises 😉

    Svar
  • 3. Mikael Kongensholm  |  januar 14, 2009 kl. 1:51 pm

    Any plans on writing a more extended paper on the same subject?

    Svar
  • 4. Søren Dalsgaard  |  januar 15, 2009 kl. 12:19 pm

    Hmm … don’t think so. It would require that I do it in a course where the topic is relevant, and then I think it would require much more extensive study, which time does not allow in most courses (considering what other work we are expected to do).

    Svar
  • 5. David  |  maj 6, 2009 kl. 3:08 pm

    Wow, Søren, I just came across this and it looks really good. I have not read it thoroughly but I skimmed through it and I will read it more carefully later on.

    Svar
  • 6. Fast Senkrecht von oben  |  maj 13, 2009 kl. 5:59 pm

    Moin, Moin!

    Äh have not read the paper, but was thinking of you today when I read about postmodern hermeneutics and how the reader makes much of the interpretation.
    So I thought to drop in an see what you have posted a while ago. In a few minutes I will go to my covenant seminar (6-8pm) and afterwards try to ride the 9km to my “homebase” as fast as possible, because at 8pm we have volleyball or soccer there. Today I prefer volleyball. Lets check out the … 🙂

    So far
    will write more some other day

    a German friend, who will buy a coke now, because the German Fanta does not have the brillant taste as Kenyan has.
    Greetings to Charlotte.

    Svar
  • 7. Søren Dalsgaard  |  maj 14, 2009 kl. 10:15 am

    Ach, mein deutscher Freund! Wo bist du mein ganzes Leben gewesen 🙂
    So good to hear from you. Actually talked to Larry about you yesterday. He is the same talkative, nice guy as he’s always been.
    Btw, is “moin” a German way of greeting? They use it in Denmark in southern Jutland, but I never realized the German influence.

    Svar
  • […] I’m have sympathy for his intention, but, as I have written elsewhere on this weblog,  he and Nietzsche fail to distinguish culture from Christianity. What Descartes was for modernism, Nietzsche wasa for postmodernism. In his famous parable, The Madman, the Madman was not claiming responsibility for killing God, but prophesied the inevitable outcome of what the philosophical establishment had done implicitly and unknowingly. Enlightenment Christianity had erroneously maintained that the infinite God can be comprehended by finite human reasoning. Such a claim, however, is blasphemy and idolatry, because it rejects the qualitative difference between Creator and created humans. What Nietzsche did not realize was that his proclamation was not directed towards Christianity per se, but towards the Cartesian paradigm, two systems which at that time were inextricably bound together (Postmodern Christian Theology). […]

    Svar
  • 9. Fast senkrecht von oben  |  juni 4, 2009 kl. 12:59 pm

    Moin, Moin!

    Is used majorly in North Germany, to say Hi and not just in the Morning, but during the whole day. Wikipedia has some ethymological insights, the best probably:
    Moin comes from “moi’n dag” “moin=guten(good)” “dag=Tag(day)” also “Guten Tag”, which then lost the Tag and just said “Guten or Moin” ist nen friesischer Dialekt.

    Svar
  • 10. Søren Dalsgaard  |  juni 8, 2009 kl. 8:32 am

    Wow, thanks for that insight. I’ll tell my friends from southern Jutland 🙂

    Svar
  • 11. hypocritical4u  |  november 3, 2009 kl. 10:27 pm

    Discourse requires subjectivity acknowledging itself as such, rather than as something more. I recommend the following post: http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/objective-vs-subjective-a-matter-of-biblical-hyperbole/

    Svar
  • 12. Side True Fulfillment  |  januar 30, 2013 kl. 1:14 pm

    Seriously. That was a good read. I will twitter this
    internet page for later. I like your style.

    Svar
  • 13. http://jenniferlost518.xanga.com/weblog/  |  april 25, 2013 kl. 8:06 am

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    Svar
  • 14. plan seo  |  maj 11, 2013 kl. 6:36 am

    I feel your annoyance. I never had any luck with this kind
    of thing, either. So relieved to know I am not by myself!

    Svar
  • 15. Vanessa  |  maj 29, 2013 kl. 8:48 pm

    At this time it seems like WordPress is the preferred blogging platform available right now.
    (from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re using on your blog?

    Svar

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