Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Postmodern Morass: Where are my Crayons?

Ordinary Time

A pastor of a local church has recently caused quite a stir with public proclamations of his relativism. I discovered this when I stumbled upon the blog of another local church planter who quit writing about his mission work in favor of being a full-time watch blogger.

One the one hand, the first pastor argues since all religions are human articulations of a (potentially) universal "God experience," to say that explicit faith in Jesus is the only way to "God" is to deny the validity of someone else's "God experience."

On the other, we have an "inerrant" Bible insisting that Jesus is the only way to God.

I think, generally speaking, that folks who hold the first position consider themselves faithful interpreters of that bit in John because they will maintain that Jesus is indeed the only way to God, but explicit faith in Jesus is not the only way to access the benefits of what God has done through Jesus. And, after all, isn't Christian exclusivism just a way of arguing that my own personal "God experience" is legitimate, and that someone else's "God experience" is not?

Ah, the wonders of foundationalism.

Both sides of the argument are based on two imaginary concepts that I don't think are real: a universal "God experience," and an inerrant Bible. But you knew that, right?

That doesn't mean that I don't think I've had some experience of the Christian god, but I don't go about constantly seeking to consider and judge the tradition in terms of whether it matches up with "my experience." I also have no problem questioning, doubting or outright disregarding someone else's experience or their interpretation thereof. I know it sounds a bit rude, but I think my experiences and my own interpretation of them are quite suspect, so it would be silly to insist on granting some kind of epistemological priority to somebody else's, just to be polite.

And the other thing... I think it's pretty amazing. See, when I have been asked, "do you believe the Bible is inerrant," I actually hear, "Do you believe that the Bible is [contrived post-Enlightenment foundationalist concept]?" And I think, no, I don't believe the Bible can be understood and entirely encapsulated in terms of some contrived invention of modernity. "Oh, then do you believe that the Bible [insert opposite of contrived post-Enlightenment foundationalist concept]?" And I think, well of course, not. I just happen to think that it's the wrong question to be asking.

N.B.: I'm thinking out loud here. This is not a formal essay. If you want me to take any of this further, or some bit of it just don't make no earthly sense, do let me know. But do be polite...


Unknown said...


Why are you so leery of subscribing to a universal "God experience?" Does not tradition and orthodoxy guide us to a universal "God experience" so that when we claim our own experience is of God, we can base it on the tradition that we hold to. Has not the Christian tradition guided the faith to an universal experience of embracing God as Triune?

It seems that the Christian faith understands God as Triune, so that claiming my own "God experience" as orthodox would necessitate it being revealed from the Triune God. If I do not experience God as Triune, then I am not sharing in the universal “God experience” that has been revealed as the tradition teaches.

What is the purpose of orthodoxy if not to guide us to a universal understanding?

JHearne said...

It may just be me but I find the first several paragraphs very difficult to understand. It may be a problem with my reading, but I can't determine what is in the voice of the pastor and what is in your voice.

I have a suspicion that I would understand you much better if we were talking about it. Alas, states separate us.

Kyle said...

Yeah, stupid states.

Joshua, I disagree with every opinion articulated in the first 4 paragraphs of this post. :0)

Danny, I wouldn't describe the purpose of the Christian tradition to bring us to a "universal God experience," but rather a restored relationship with the triune God through Christ. It's a reality that I may or may not "feel" anything about at any particular time. It's a reality, a true condition, that isn't always going to have much to do with my felt "experience."

I don't think the language or intention of the Bible is to get us talking about having "experiences."

When you say "experience," I hear it as "something I feel to be true - someone's own emotionally affective, kind-of intuitive sense of the way things are. It's a bit new age-y and feel-good for me.

Marshall Scott said...

I have often spoken of something like a "universal God experience" when looking at ascetical writings from a variety of faith traditions. From what I have read, mystics of a variety of traditions offer much the same initial sensory description of their experience: darkness leading to brightness, a sense of embrace and communion, awe and peace. Now, they're interpretations of the experience vary significantly; but the initial sensory language is much the same. I often say the mystics have it most accurately, and the rest of us are wrestling with how to talk about this within the limitations of language and culture.

Perhaps that's not how many others speak of a "God experience" that is somehow "universal;" but that's what has been of interest to me.

Anonymous said...

Here is my side of the discussion on this issue that Kyle and I had over at Face book. There will be added comments at the end.

[Facebook Conversation]
You Said,
[quote]And the other thing... I think it's pretty amazing. See, when I have been asked, "do you believe the Bible is inerrant," I actually hear, "Do you believe that the Bible is [contrived post-Enlightenment foundationalist concept]?" And I think, no, I don't believe the Bible can be understood and entirely encapsulated in terms of some contrived invention of modernity. "Oh, then do you believe that the Bible [insert opposite of contrived post-Enlightenment foundationalist concept]?" And I think, well of course, not. I just happen to think that it's the wrong question to be asking.[/quote]

I have been rather ungenerous in my interpretation of what many people say, so this is my attempt to repent. :) I have a question as to what the above means... the second option that you posit [the opposite of the contrived post-enlightenment concept] what exactly would that be? Granted I disagree with pusing the idea of inerrancy into a Foundationalist package; I do not therefore deny that scripture is without error. I want to attempt to give some of my reasons why in a list of affirmations and then hope to clear up things a little in a list of denials.
Affirmations on my part:
1. I take scripture to be my starting point for thinking about God and the world, since scripture is the basis for its own authority it cannot be verified or shown to be false according to some other standars (i.e. human reason).
2. The "foundation" for this authority flows from its source, which is the Triune God.
3. If God cannot lie, make a mistake, then scripture as far as it is interpreted correctly when taken according to the literary sense (note: not literal as in some Fundy Southern Baptist Churches) cannot be in error.
4. This does not exclude the error of the interpretor.
5. I believe that the intepretor of scripture should come to the text with hermneutical humility acknowledging the fact that he does not live in the same world as the author.
6. This does not however make truthful interpretations impossible because the interpretor on Theological grounds lives in a world of common human experience and as a Christian lives under the same Covenant God. We have things in common with the Old and New Testament saints because of God's Gracious Covenant with us.
8. Any doctrine of Scripture must take full account of the Covenantal doctrine of scripture.
9. From this it follows that any position that reduces scripture to simply "propositional statements is to be rejected. Scripture makes both propositional and non-propositional statements and they must be dealt with on their own terms. This is specifically telling in an author like Carl F. Henry.

This is not a full fledged sketch of my view of scripture but a few "talking points", I did not post directly on the blog for two reasons:1) I have sounded rather rude in the past and wanted to run this by you and 2) I wanted to make sure that you thought it was blog worthy. :)

Concerning #3 above I am well aware that this can be easy to misunderstand. There can be errors attributed to characters in the narratives of scripture. For instance in the book of Job, while not strictly a narrative [has elements of both narrative and poetry] has Job's friends say and give erroneous advice. It is only when God is speaking or when scripture appears to be making an affirmative statement about Salvation, God, the world, or anyother topic. I look forward to discussion.

In Christ,
Blake[End Facebook Conversation]

1.1 As a "Conservative" Evangelical I must agree with what Kyle had to say. While I do not believe that the postmodern metanarrative [irony of ironies] is true, I do believe that it has helped clear up much of the haze of Rationalism and the Radical Empiricism of the 18-20th centuries. So Kudos to Kyle for making this point frequently on this fine blog.

1.2 In the dicussion Kyle and I had I did not clearly stat what I meant by Covenant. I did not mean that Covenant is a doctrine like that enshrined in the Westminster confession, though it can be that. What I meant to say was that a doctrine of scripture must take into full account the covenantal structure of revealtion. If this is not done then theology will fall into a radical fundamentalism which focuses so much on propositional truth that it becomes captured by the prevailing rationalist philosophy, or it will fall prey to a liberalism that does much the same thing by capitualating to culture. There is an incipient Platonism to much Evangelical and Liberal Theology which as at root of the Scylla of Fundamentalism and the Charbydus of Liberalism as Michael Horton has shown in his book "Covenant and Eschatology.
It only takes one a few moments to look at much traditional Christian theology to see that it traded the world of history for the world of stable ideas.

1.3 The early church father, Irenaeus appealed to the drama of redemption in his refutation of the gnostic heretics as did many other Church fathers, but this way of doing theology became obscured with the Greek waters that flowed into Christianity (I do not believe the greek influence has not been all bad). The Aristotelian synthesis of St. Thomas and the debates that began before and after him show that Christian theology became obsessed with the world of static metaphysics separated from the world of potential. While I would not say that History was completely shunned for metaphysics in this period it was defintely down played. While this was the case in this period the Bible was still regarded as History, its narrative told Christians the way things happened. There was no separation of event and Testimony, as Hans Frei notes well in his "The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative

1.4 After this period we get the reaction, the Reformation with Luther's nailing of the 95 theses and the theological debate that flowed out of this period. There was a full recovery of the Covenantal structure of holy scripture in this period, it only takes one to read Calvin's Institutes or Luther's "How Should Christians Regard Moses" to see this. History was restored and there was no severing of Testimony and History, because Scripture was considered Authorotative for much the same reasons I gave above.

1.5 Skip forward a bit to the Enlightenment which is the era in which Tradition of every type was questioned. Scripture was no longer to be considered the sovereign over which man's reason must bow, nor was it believed any longer that when rightly understood scripture will not conflict with reason, which was Aquinas' view {Chesterton's biography of Aquinas goes into great detail about this}. The sovereignty of reason was now put forward as a priori authorotative, God and scripture no longer put Man in the dock, to use C.S. Lewis' often quoted phrase, but now God was in Dock. In this period Historical reality and Testimony (scripture) was separated first by Baruch Spinoza who was one of the first to straight jacket revelation in the apriori assumptions of Metaphysical Naturalism.

1.6 Theology after Spinoza and the enlightenment found itself unsure of itself. Historical Criticism replaced the Grammatico Historical Method and biblical theology replaced the anologia Fidei or biblical typology which united all of scripture. Modern theologians had to compensate for the separation of faith from history so theories started to be developed that would uphold the much truncated faith of the Church.

1.7 To Be Continued….

Kyle said...

Again, it sounds good to me, Blake. I think it would be cool if you wrote a couple of paragraphs on "the covenantal structure of revelation." I think I get what you mean in terms of God working through one kind of life agreement after another with various biblical characters, but pretend you're teaching Bible 101 in a local Sunday School class and indulge us. :0)

I'd also like to note that (have I said it enough?) postmodernism as such is more a critique of the modern tradition and the realization that certain ways of thinking, like foundationalism, have exhausted themselves. Like Lyotard says, it's incredulity toward metanarratives, rather than being its own.

I wouldn't consider myself "anti-foundations," but the issue for me is, do I think there is a set of "first principles" that can be "objectively" ascertained through human reason (whether you involve some kind of natural revelation or not) that will let me reason out the truth of the Christian faith. Of course my answer is a resounding no. But I certainly believe that the "foundation" of our theologizing is the biblical revelation, which is grounded(!) in the person of the Triune God.

Is this still making sense to anyone?

Welcome back, Fr. Marshall. That's a good point, and deals with a different angle than I was thinking of - I think it's one thing to say that certain sensory and intuitive experiences seem to be "universal" in ascetic religious practices, and another to insist that there is a universal "reality" that is directly behind the sensory experiences of all these people.

The former is an observation, the latter is a dogma, and it's the latter that I read in the aforementioned pastor, and was challenging.

Thanks, guys.

Anonymous said...

The Covenantal Structure: A thumb Nail Sketch.


You asked me to sketch this out a little, and I will. I would actually like to write something on this, but for now here is a sketch.

2.1 What do I mean by the covenantal structure of revelation?

2.1.1 First I mean that we must see the bible as a drama of God and man.

2.1.2 Second, this excludes viewing God in purely static metaphysical terms. While I am not against conceptualizing (that is purely what it is) a coherent view of God to present to the non-believer we still must start with Biblical Revelation and then work out a metaphysical afterwards.

2.1.3 How does this look in practice. First, we must remember that anytime God is revealed in scripture he is portrayed in-relationship-with-man. Biblical revelation never speculates on the nature of God, in order to speculate.

2.1.4 God always reveals himself in Covenant. It can be argued that there is a covenant with Adam before the fall, then there is the covenant with Noah, and etc. So within the Old and New Covenants we have multiple other covenants in the OT. This is significant for understanding the Old and New Testaments, because it is not possible adequately understand any of the books without a view to the whole. One cannot understand the Psalmists cry for God's faithfulness without understanding that that faithfulness is grounded in the Promise to Abraham, and further back to Eve ("through your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed", and "Your offspring will crush the serpents head"). Further more we cannot understand the prophets in anyway without understanding that they constantly hark back to the Deuteronomic Covenant what this does for the consensus dating of Deut to the reign of Josiah I do not know, but it is clear on a close reading of the Prophets that they are there to inforce the lawsuits recounted at the end of Deuteronomy (If you do x, then I will bless you, If you do y then you will be cursed. Read Merdith Kline, or Geehardus Vos "Biblical Theology, Covenant and Eschatology by Michael Horton, or "A House for My Name" by Peter Leithart). This is, I am sure, common knowledge to everyone who reads this blog, but what is interesting is how it influences our doctrine of God.

I will try to flesh this out much more later, but right now I do not have the time, so maybe I will be able to work on it over the next few weeks.

In Christ,

Anonymous said...

Concerning foundationalism

I forgot to comment on this from your post (kyle's). As I said before I agree with the postmodern critique of modernity, especially in the realms of Science and Philosophy.

I do not believe the attempt of many foundationalist can succeed, not because they are wrong in the sense of trying to find a foundation, but that their foundations are wrong. As you said before to base our view of the world, as Descartes did, upon a few a prioris of reason is tenuous because we get caught in building castles in the air of our mind, which would require an infinite knowledge on our part to be true.

I would argue that Revelation is the foundation for any knowledge to be possible. The person who reasons to truth without revelation is working off of stolen property.