Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age – a review

June 26, 2016

Review of
Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age,
by John Fletcher
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2013.

The Christian church in North America today, including the evangelical church, is rather embarrassed about doing evangelism. In part this is due to fact that the history of the Christian church is littered with obviously immoral approaches to evangelism, from which we want to distance ourselves. But, as John Fletcher points out in the conclusion to his book, perhaps there is a more telling and current reason for our embarrassment about evangelism. We have accommodated to contemporary liberal pluralism, and thus do our utmost to be “pleasingly tolerant, faithful-but-non-fanatic” (p. 309), as per the portrait found in American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (2010). “Indeed, so great is the desire to ‘leave everybody else alone,’ so painful the self-inflicted wounds of awkward/offensive/presumptive evangelism, that most self-identified evangelicals rarely evangelize at all, at least not with any frequency” (p. 305). And yet, as Fletcher reminds us, evangelicals should engage in outreach. That is part of what it means to be an evangelical, as Fletcher points out in an early chapter, which provides a helpful analysis of what it means to be an evangelical (Ch. 2). Indeed, Fletcher frequently expresses his admiration for evangelical evangelism, even though he is an outsider.

This raises the question as to why a Professor of Theatre at Louisiana State University, and “a liberal, gay, ex-Southern Baptist, United Methodist” (p. 5), would write a careful analysis of evangelical approaches to evangelism. Fletcher interprets evangelism as a kind of theatrical performance, an “activist performance,” which he uses as an umbrella word to describe a host of other popular and scholarly terms that each touch on some aspect of the kind of performance that he studies – political theater, theater for social change, street theater, people’s theater, community-engaged theatre, theatre of the oppressed, or applied theatre/drama (Ch. 1, p. 18). I found trying to understand evangelism from this perspective to be not only refreshing but also illuminating in that it serves to highlight aspects of evangelism that are easily missed by those immersed in the evangelical mindset.

Fletcher also dares to suggest that progressive left activists have something to learn from evangelicals and their approaches to evangelism (pp. 311-13). Evangelicals are committed to inviting others to a better way, a better worldview, and they engage in evangelism because they believe that their message is in the other’s best interests. Evangelicals, while respecting the deep convictions of others, are willing to challenge them with their own convictions. Some evangelistic approaches also stress the need to understand their target audiences. Worldview assumptions need to be understood to be challenged. “Evangelicalism’s conversionist orientation – imperfectly realized as it may be – offers a reminder that democratically minded activism must always include an element of attraction and empathy with the enemy” (p. 312). Fletcher concludes Chapter 2 with this generous comment: “In a time of cynicism and diminished hopes, in a time of partisan polarization, in a time of desperation and apathy, I am envious of evangelicals’ faith in activism” (p. 45).

The bulk of Preaching to Convert is devoted to a careful analysis of various approaches to evangelism as practiced by evangelicals, who are described by Fletcher as “a heterogeneous collection of communities and individuals who unit in constantly seeking out, innovating, defining, theorizing, criticizing, reacting to, refining, combining, experimenting with, discarding, and realizing this ever-expanding, ever-deepening repertoire of techniques for changing the hearts, minds, and souls of those around them” (p. 309). Chapter 3 examines personal evangelism as proclamation – the “soul-winning” tradition of door-to-door evangelism, the “Four Spiritual Laws” presentation innovated by Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ, and the stop-strangers-on-the-street dialogic evangelism promoted by Ray Comfort in his “Way of the Master.”

In Chapter 4, Fletcher examines a number of evangelicals who have become critical of interpersonal evangelism that limits itself to proclamation. Indeed, multiple congregations across the United States have taken up the “Confessions of a Sinful Church” strategy, where they publicly apologize for “ugly evangelism” (pp. 124-8). Instead of confrontational approaches to evangelism, some evangelicals advocate approaches that involve friendship, careful listening, countering anti-Christian presuppositions, and apologetics. Chapter 4 takes up Jim Henderson’s “Ordinary Attempts,” Greg Koukl’s conversational apologetics, and Greg Stier’s “ideavirus” approach. Each of these approaches draw from the work of Francis Schaeffer who counseled evangelists to spend time trying to understand the worldviews of non-Christians before they tried to persuade them of Christian Truth.

In the third section of the book Fletcher studies two large-scale, more traditionally “theatrical” evangelical performance forms. Chapter 5 focuses on the community/church-based staging of “hell houses” and judgement houses” as a way of reaching the unconverted. Chapter 6 examines the Creation Museum, a multi-million-dollar combination of science museum and discovery-fun-center based around a strictly young-earth creationist viewpoint. Often considered to be exemplars of evangelical backwardness and anti-intellectualism, Fletcher suggests they are best understood as community based productions that accomplish vital work for the producing communities in terms of reinforcing their beliefs, even as they strive to reach the unconverted.

Chapter 7 examines the way in which mega-churches have used seeker-sensitive worship services to attract new members. The chapter begins with an intriguing question raised in a video produced by Richard Reising’s company, Artistry Labs: “What if Starbucks Marketed like the Church? A Parable” (p. 221). Chapter 8 is somewhat of an odd fit for this book, and Fletcher concedes this point to some extent. The focus of Chapter 8 is on organizations like Exodus International, which are dedicated to helping homosexuals find healing. Here the focus is not on changing someone else, but on individual conversion. In this chapter Fletcher analyzes the controversies surrounding the effectiveness of gay cures, and the resulting spectrum of positions on LGBT people within evangelicalism.

I found Fletcher’s survey of each of these evangelical performances to be thorough and often insightful, uncovering the assumptions underlying each approach and doing some good comparative analysis. Indeed, his careful analysis belies his status as an outsider. This is in part due to his background as “a preacher’s kid in the Southern Baptist Church” and his knowing “from firsthand experience what it is to evangelize” (pp. 12-13). Fletcher is also not afraid to use the works of evangelical scholarship, though he is careful to note and account for interpretive slants that might exist. Interestingly, he draws attention to a “comparable warping in many ostensibly ‘neutral’ works on religion, works that can sometimes dwell more on the author’s distance from faith than on the beliefs and believers being studied” (p. 12). This is very definitely not a weakness of Fletcher’s own analysis. Though he engages in criticism, I found his criticisms to be on the whole fair, and meeting his aim of “critical generosity” (p. 36). At times he quite deliberately defends evangelicals and evangelistic methods against unfair criticisms. It is only in his chapter on homosexuality that his language occasionally becomes a little strident.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a good overview of evangelical practices of outreach. Though a book of scholarship, it is very readable, and further, fascinating for anyone interested in evangelical approaches to evangelism.


Truth in a Pluralistic World

November 21, 2015

The notion of truth is under siege today. In my 35 years of teaching philosophy at secular colleges and universities, there is perhaps no other topic that sparks as much debate as the question of the existence of truth. Any time I dare to suggest that there just might be such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”, I invariably encounter a battery of standard objections, outright disbelief, and even indignation. It is as though I had suggested that the earth is flat!

Students are not alone in rejecting the idea of truth. Most everyone today thinks of truth as subjective and relative. In other words, truth is thought to reside in me or in society, and it varies with individuals or societies. The idea of “absolute truth” which is the same for all, and which is independent of what you or I, or a society, believes, is thought to be absurd. It is all a matter of opinion. And, “my opinion is as good as yours”! How many an argument or debate concludes with the words, “Well, it’s true for me”? And there is nothing more to be said after that.

Some Contributing Factors
Why is the notion of relative truth so popular today? There are a number of reasons. Truth, it is thought, judges, polarizes and divides. People who hold to absolute truth are thought to be dogmatic and intolerant. What we need instead is open-mindedness, and this is thought to exclude any affirmations of truth. “Critical thinking” is the current buzzword in education. The resulting skeptical mindset again makes it difficult to believe in truth. One of the central functions of education is to cultivate the intellectual virtue of tolerance, and tolerance is thought to mean that one refuses to judge the beliefs of others. The democratic ideal has led us to believe that truth too is determined by popular vote. Or, in keeping with the democratic ideal of equality, we have come to believe that my belief must be as good as yours – all beliefs are equally valid.

Some time ago, a student of mine, very piously proclaimed that she didn’t have a right to tell anyone what to believe. What she also meant to say was that I as a teacher also didn’t have a right to tell her what to believe. Another student wrote, “What is truth to one person may not be truth to another.”

We live in what is often referred to as the postmodern era. Postmodernism, at its core, is a reaction to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had a strong faith in objective science and universal reason as the only means to discover truth. And truth should be the same for everyone. But today, even science is under attack. It is now generally acknowledged that no person can be as objective as was assumed when modern science first emerged during the Enlightenment. Postmodernists also maintain that “reason” is not the same for everyone. All thinking is shaped by the history, the social and economic background, and even the psychology of the thinker. Some, like Walter Anderson, who has written a book with the colourful title, Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be, go so far as to suggest that we construct our own realities, and that we therefore live in our own unique worlds which each of us describes in his or her own unique language (see sidebar quote below). The result – there is no objective reality and there can be no such a thing as common, absolute truth.

It should come as no surprise that in this relativistic postmodern climate, any claims to religious truth are met with a good deal of skepticism. And any suggestion that Christianity might have a corner on the truth is thought to be sheer nonsense.

Some Problems with Postmodern Relativism
But postmodernists who carry their views to an extreme like Anderson, invariably contradict themselves. They are forced to concede that we can communicate with others who disagree with us, which would suggest that our languages are not quite as different as they assume. They also seem unable to avoid talking about their postmodern viewpoint as better than that of “old-fashioned” modernism. But, better in terms of what? Better presupposes a best! Maybe there is truth with a capital “T” after all!

The private worlds of extreme postmodernists also tend not to remain entirely private. My neighbour and I simply are not living in two completely different worlds. And that is why we can talk to each other! And that is also why I could teach at a Lithuanian college, as I had the privilege of doing a few years ago, and the students were quite capable of understanding the philosophical ideas I was trying to convey.

Human constructions of reality also seem to be subject to certain constraints – I simply can’t create a reality in which I don’t get a bump on my forehead when I run into a concrete wall. It seems that the notion of an objectively “given” reality is inescapable. Indeed, there is some justification for questioning the motivation behind the very idea of constructing one’s own reality – it smacks of human pride. The “real” world has an amazing way of humiliating postmodernist artificial constructions of reality.

We also seem to find it difficult not to talk about objective and universal truth in some sense. If all truth is relative, there really is no point in arguing with someone. We should simply listen to each other, and at most, be amused at the variety of positions that we hold. But we find it hard to do so. The reason for this is that we care about truth – and about error. If truth is relative to the individual, there would also be no point in searching for solutions to the problems that we face. Deep down inside, all of us are a little afraid that what we believe to be true just might not really be true, and thus the search for “real” truth continues.

Truth and the Search for Truth
I would suggest that the all-pervasive relativism of today rests on a fundamental confusion – a failure to distinguish between truth, and our search for the truth. It is obvious that our search for truth is subjective and relative. We often find that we have to change our minds about what we believe and even about what we have claimed to know. But this in no way suggests that truth itself is relative. Indeed, we change our minds precisely because we realize that we haven’t got the truth.

There is the famous Persian story of some blind men, each describing an elephant from his limited perspective. This story is often used to illustrate the subjectivity and relativity of truth. But we forget that the story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers who are not blind and who can therefore see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant. The story only makes sense if there is a real elephant out there, which someone can see and describe more fully. Partial truth only makes sense in the light of some notion of full truth. The recognition of error presupposes Truth with a capital “T”.

Many years ago, I was teaching an evening philosophy course which a number of adults from the community were auditing for interest sake. One of my students was a physician, an agnostic with whom I had already enjoyed many an argument. In this particular class, I was once again defending the notion of Truth with a capital “T”. And then this physician spoke up: “But your notion of Truth sounds suspiciously like your notion of God.” He was right of course, though I hadn’t made any reference to God in the discussion thus far.

In order to make sense of the passionate search for truth that characterizes us as human beings, it seems that we are driven to talk about God’s all-encompassing view of truth, which will ultimately judge our limited and partial understandings of truth. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I believe in God! It is only in God’s light that I am able to see any light in this often dark and confusing world.

Religious Truth
What about religious truth? It is especially here where the arguments for subjectivity and relative truth would seem to be most appropriate. After all, there are many religions, each claiming to be the truth. But the fact that people differ, does not prove that they ought to differ. There was a time when there were conflicting opinions with regard to the shape of the earth. Some people thought that it was flat and some people thought it was round. But we all know that the flat-earthers got it wrong!

Clearly, differences of opinion with regard to religious matters seem to be more difficult to resolve. This is because religious questions have to do with the heart of our belief systems, and therefore they are more complex than scientific questions. Also, so much is at stake with religious questions, and thus we have more difficulty approaching these questions in an open manner.

But despite the seeming difficulties in coming to agreement on religious questions, there is still a correct answer to these questions, an answer which exists independently of what anyone believes. We may in fact only be able to settle the question in a conclusive manner at the end of time. Christians maintain that there will come a time when every person will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:11). Until then we have to live with a bit of ambiguity and try as best as we know how to get as close to the right answer as we can.

Exclusive Truth Claims
No doubt there will be some readers who will find the point I have made in the last paragraph quite unpalatable. Some may have agreed with my argument up until the last paragraph. But to talk of Jesus Christ as the only Lord – surely that is being terribly presumptuous. Indeed, it is Christianity’s claim to exclusive truth that is a stumbling block for many.

I quite agree that it seems rather arrogant for Jesus to say, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But what if what he says is true? Surely it is equally presumptuous to arbitrarily preclude this possibility. You might argue that it is not arbitrary. Other religions make similar claims to exclusive truth, and they can’t all be right. Again, I agree that if several religions each claim to be the only truth they can’t all be right. Remember the flat-earthers! Only one can justifiably make such a claim. But one of them might just be right.

Here I would remind us that making exclusive claims is inescapable. The nature of truth is simply such that we cannot help but make exclusive truth claims. If I think that I have got it right, then, if you disagree with me, I must think that you have got it wrong. Here it might be argued that a more eclectic and non-exclusive approach to religion is more generous and more tolerant. But, to claim that truth is found in all religions is still to make an exclusive claim – namely, that those who disagree with this are wrong. The eclectic and inclusive approach to religious claims is in fact very ungenerous and intolerant with regard to religions that make exclusive truth claims. We simply can’t run away from the problem. We have to face the question as to which claim to exclusive truth is in fact right.

No, it is not Christ’s exclusive claims to truth that is the problem. The real problem exists in the way in which finite and fallible human beings relate to claims like the one made by Jesus Christ. Christians need to take the words of their own Scriptures to heart: “For we know in part and prophesy in part… Now we see but a poor reflection” (I Corinthians 13:9, 12). As Christians we need to be more humble in our proclamation of the truth. After all, we can’t really take credit for the truth that we have found in Christ. And we don’t understand it as fully as we might. There is still much to learn!

On the other hand, for those who are still wondering what to make of religious truth, I would remind them that it is foolish to rule out Christ’s claims arbitrarily because they are exclusive. Instead, a more open approach to the matter is to take these claims seriously and to investigate as carefully and honestly as you can whether Jesus’ claims might in fact be true.

Some sidebar quotes:
Walter Anderson illustrates the different views of truth by telling the joke of three umpires having a beer after a baseball game. One says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ’em the way they are” (the Enlightenment view of truth which assumes there is a real world out there). Another responds, “There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ’em the way I see ’em” (the subjective view of truth). The third says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin’ until I call ’em” (the postmodernist denial of truth and reality). (Walter Anderson, Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be)

“No seeing can be called serious which is without any clue. Wandering about in a twilight where all cats are grey is not seeking truth.” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

“The absolutely true, meaning what no further experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge.” (William James)

“If God held in his right hand the pure Truth, and in his left, the perpetual striving for Truth, and said to me, “Choose,” I would respond, “Give me the left, despite the danger of error; the pure Truth is for Thee alone.” (Lessing)

“An important part of our own commitment to one particular tradition or faith standpoint will be our desire to share this outlook with others, to testify to its truth, to express the universal intent attaching to it by exposing others to it, engaging in the humble task of persuasion not in order to suppress or curb the holding of other points of view, but in order that others might be free to consider ours and to explore the possibilities inherent within it as an account of the truth….[T]he condition under which such testimony or witness must be engaged in is a willingness to consider the views held by others, not because we are not confident in the truthfulness of our own perspectives, but precisely because we are, and because we are also more committed to truth than to our own accounts of it” (Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking).

(This article was first published in Encounter: A Mennonite Brethren Herald Special, Feb. 21, 1997, pp.14-18, and is here slightly revised.)

Review Article on James K.A. Smith’s, Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

April 22, 2015

(Published in The Evangelical Quarterly, Vol.87, No. 2, 2015, pp.169-75)

Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood by James K.A. Smith
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 186 pp. pbk.$19.99
ISBN 978-0-8010-3973-7

It is important to see how the sub-title of this book answers the question asked in the main title. Smith provides the link in his Preface: “My thesis is that Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort, precisely because of the biblical understanding of creation and creaturehood” (12). So one purpose of Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is to counter the deep suspicions about relativism held by many Christians.

But there is another agenda underlying this book. Already in the Preface, Smith suggests that “this book has a constructive project of advancing a ‘Christian pragmatism’ and exploring the implications of that for theology and ministry” (12). Indeed, in the final chapter of the book where Smith provides an exposition of the George Lindbeck’s postliberal understanding of religion and doctrine, Smith describes what seems to be a quite different agenda of his book. “[M]y engagement with pragmatism could be seen as a more explicitly philosophical path to a similar account of the relationship between practice and theory, worship and doctrine” (152). This book therefore also needs to be seen as providing a philosophical framework for Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, expressed in his books, Desiring the Kingdom (2009), and Imagining the Kingdom (2013) (cf.152, n3).

Despite its Christian orientation, much of this book focuses on an exposition of philosophers who are not Christian. Like its predecessor, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (2006), the book under review belongs to “The Church and Postmodern Culture” series which Smith himself edits. The explicit purpose of this series is to draw lessons from postmodern writers for the church. Both books makes much of following Augustine’s spirit of “looting the Egyptians” – “stealing philosophical insights from the pagans and putting them to service in worship of the Triune God” (11).

Most of Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is devoted to an exposition of three pragmatist philosophers. In Chapter 2, Smith analyses Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “meaning as use.” Smith argues that meaning and truth are more a matter of “know-how” which precedes knowing-that, and which is always found in the context of community (60). Chapter 3 explores Richard Rorty’s project “to get philosophy to own up to its –and to our – contingency and historicity” (78). Smith enjoys teasing out the meaning of Rorty’s controversial claim that truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying (84). Smith agrees with Rorty because ultimately epistemology comes down to “the ethnography of a particular people” (85). Robert Brandom, reviewed in Chapter 4, provides a critical extension of Wittgenstein’s and Rorty’s ideas, by focusing on “conceptual pragmatism” or “rationalist pragmatism” (121). For Brandom, reasoning and justification are fundamentally social practices, which in turn provide a context for some accountability (130, 145). It should be noted that each of these chapters (as well as chapter 1) includes an analysis of a film to help students picture the issues under discussion (13).

In the final chapter, Smith is more explicit in working out the implications of the previous three chapters for Christian theology. He does this by exploring the ideas of George Lindbeck’s landmark book, The Nature of Doctrine (1984). Here Lindbeck articulates “a ‘postliberal’ understanding of religion and doctrine that is fundamentally pragmatist in its account of theological meaning while at the same time fundamentally missional in its understanding of the church’s task of proclamation in a post-Christian culture” (152). It is communal religious practices, not doctrines or personal experiences, which are primary in Lindbeck’s interpretation of religion (159). The book concludes with a fascinating account of the implications of Christian pragmatism for apologetics. Smith maintains that “postliberal apologetics is invitational, not demonstrational” (175).

Interestingly, Smith admits that the apologetic strategy of Christian pragmatism is quite similar to that of Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology (174). I find this interesting because Smith is very critical of Plantinga in the beginning of the book (25-9). Perhaps Smith’s Christian pragmatism isn’t quite as different and radical as he thinks. But on the whole, Smith’s account of Christian pragmatism, based on his exposition of the four writers examined in his book, is clear and illuminating, though somewhat repetitious.

I raise two further evaluative points. The first has to do with Smith’s and Lindbeck’s emphasis on religion (and Christianity) as being “a matter more of initiation than of information, a matter of know-how before it ever becomes a matter of know-that” (159). This point is made repeatedly in the book and is of course in keeping with Smith’s earlier books. But, I have serious doubts about giving know-how the priority Smith gives it. I also question whether knowing-how always precedes knowing-that. We are not only doers but also thinkers, and sometimes thinking precedes doing. Jesus obviously considered knowing-that important because he spent much of his time teaching, and he also warned against false doctrines. A careful study of Paul’s epistles reveals constant attention to doctrine. Indeed, in most of Paul’s epistles an exposition of theological content precedes practical application. A biblical approach, I believe, requires a balance between doctrine and practice.

Secondly, I would call into question Smith’s basic strategy of “stealing philosophical insights from the pagans.” Smith advocates a review of these “pagan” philosophers as “an exercise in self-examination prompting us to remember and retrieve core convictions of Christian orthodoxy” that “we have effectively forgotten in modernity” (32, 36). But surely a better way for Christians to retrieve their core convictions is to start with the Scriptures. I worry about “bringing Rorty to church because he has something to teach us” (32). I would rather bring the church and its message to Rorty. He is after all an atheist, and thus it comes as no surprise that Smith is forced at times to suggest that Rorty’s atheism is incidental to his pragmatism (104, 100, n 25). But maybe his atheism is a logical outworking of his initial pragmatist premises. There is a danger in starting with “pagan” philosophers. As Alvin Plantinga has reminded us, we need to have more courage as Christian philosophers to set our own agendas and to develop our thinking on the basis of Christian resources. I suspect Smith would agree with Plantinga on this, so perhaps Smith needs to write another book which argues for Christian pragmatism from a specifically biblical perspective.

I shift now to a second major thrust of Smith’s book – the themes highlighted in the title and sub-title of the book. Who’s afraid of relativism? I have already alluded to Smith’s answer to this question. According to Smith, Christians shouldn’t be as afraid of relativism as they tend to be. Indeed, according to Smith, a Christian understanding of human nature entails a kind of relativism. Smith’s appreciation of the pragmatism of Wittgenstein, Rorty and Brandom is in part based on the fact that they give us “a scrupulous philosophical account of the contingency, dependency, and sociality that characterizes human creaturehood” (36). Indeed, they give us “an account of knowledge and truth that remembers and re-appreciates the implications of a biblical doctrine of creation” (36). Later in the book Smith argues that our claims to knowledge and truth are always “relative” in some special sense, namely, “related to something or Someone, relative to, say, a context or a community” (179). I am largely in agreement with all this, though it should be noted that the word “relative” in the above quotation has a slightly different meaning than “relativism” as traditionally understood. The Scriptures are very clear about our status as created and social beings. And I agree that our claims to knowledge and truth are therefore in some special sense relative.

But, Smith doesn’t stop here. Indeed he seems intent on defending relativism as traditionally understood in terms of denying objective reality, absolute truth, objective values, and universal reason (15). Chapter 1 begins with a bold critique of Christian writers who have objected to postmodern relativism and anti-realism. J.P. Moreland, D.A. Carson, and Joseph Ratzinger are chastised for their “reactionary dismissals” of relativism (16). Christian Smith’s attack against social constructionism and his defense of moral realism also come under criticism (19-25). Even Alvin Plantinga is criticized for unfairly attacking postmodernists as anti-realists (25-9).

To help us understand Smith’s sympathies with relativism we need to return once again to his analysis of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom, now focusing on the issue of relativism/realism. Throughout these chapters, we find Smith challenging correspondence and representational models of truth and knowledge, which are assumed by realists and by those who believe in absolute truth. Wittgenstein argues that “meaning – even ostensive or referentialist meaning – is ultimately dependant upon the conventions of a community of practice” (47). Hence his notion of “language-games” which highlights the practical context in which our speech makes sense (46). For Wittgenstein correspondence is ultimately conventional, by which he means that the connection between words and the world is contingent and a matter of agreement between language users (52). A central thrust of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) is to counter some bad habits in the history of philosophy, namely thinking that knowledge has to mirror reality (74). “So rather than looking to ground truth as correspondence, we do better to see truth as ‘warranted assertability’ – truth as ‘what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with saying’” (84). Indeed, truth is more “a matter of ‘what is good for us to believe’ rather than the metaphysical acrobatics of ‘contact with reality’” (84). Brandom too stresses the social dimension of rationality and justification (119). Brandom admits that our “folk” vocabulary about the world tends to be stated in representational terms, but he is trying to articulate “an account in nonrepresentational terms of what is expressed by the use of explicitly representational vocabulary” (142-3).

The statements in the above paragraph sound very relativistic and also seem to reject realism. However, there is another strand of thought in these writers and here things become rather confusing. At times Smith points out that Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom want to say that there is more to knowledge and truth than social construction, that there is an outside world out there that pushes back on our constructions of knowledge and truth. I will limit myself here to Rorty by way of illustration. We are told that Rorty clearly affirms that “we all inhabit a shared world that pushes back on us – the shared environment with which we ‘cope’” (88). But then, a few pages earlier, Smith states that Rorty wants “to disabuse us” of thinking that language “represents” the world, “hooks onto” the world, or “corresponds to” the world (85). But surely this statement contradicts the previous one. Of course Smith and Rorty will reply that I am locked into a representational/correspondence paradigm which is precisely what they want to get rid of (26, 74-85). But I would counter that you cannot debunk the notions of representation or correspondence without ending up with full-blown relativism, a relativism where “anything goes” (100). We must also never forget that language which is embedded in “communities of practice” can be misguided, and the only way in which to account for such errors is by making reference to something beyond social constructions of knowledge and truth.

In his exposition of Rorty, Smith makes an interesting concession that begins to address the fundamental problem I have identified in Smith’s defense of pragmatic relativism. Smith concedes that the idea of our living in a shared world that pushes back on our claims to knowledge and truth “is (at best) nascent and understated” in Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (88, n15). Yes, indeed! And this is also a problem running throughout Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism? The focus is on describing the human dimension of making claims to knowledge and truth. And parallel to this, there is a tendency to understate talk about the existence of a reality independent of the knower. Indeed, at times there is outright denial, as for example, when Smith describes Rorty as not taking recourse to magical appeals to “the way things are” (89). But without such appeals, I believe we are indeed lost in a sea of relativistic human constructions of knowledge and truth. Of course, the problem here is that there are difficulties in giving an account of this extra-linguistic reality and the way in which our language corresponds to this reality. Indeed, this is the point that Smith and his pragmatists highlight ad-nauseum. They therefore focus on describing the human dimension of knowing and truth-claiming, and I will concede that they do a fairly good job of this. But if this description is not balanced with an equal emphasis on the existence of a reality independent of the human knower, we have a very incomplete analysis of knowledge and truth.

I would suggest that an underlying problem in these accounts of knowledge and truth is that they fail to distinguish clearly between the human search for and articulation of truth, and Truth itself. I am quite prepared to admit that the human search for knowledge and truth is “relative” to some degree. But this claim needs to be separated from the notion of Truth as an absolute ideal, as something we are striving for. We need a concept or an ideal of absolute truth to remind us of the relativity of our own claims to truth. As William James puts it, “The ‘absolutely’ true, meaning what no further experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge” (Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI, 1907). That comes pretty close to what Paul says about our only knowing in part, but there will come a day when we will know fully (I Cor. 13: 5,7).

The above distinction between the human search for truth and Absolute Truth helps to put into perspective what Smith and his pragmatist philosophers do with regard to truth. Smith argues that he hasn’t run into too many postmodern theorists “who actually go around saying “there isn’t any such thing as truth” (27). Instead, “it would be better to say that they offer us deflationary accounts of truth. They explain truth in terms other than our (realist) habits incline us to” (27). In the final chapter, Smith once again explains his approach: “a pragmatist account of meaning and knowledge does not preclude referential claims; it just accounts for those claims differently” (166). Brandom is cited as giving us a refined way of making sense of this. Brandom suggests that “the representational dimension of propositional contents should be understood in terms of their social articulation” (142). But what is really going on here? Representation and truth are being located within the language of the community.

Now I agree that there is something right about this. At a very practical level, truth claims need to be seen as “commodities traded in a community of practice,” to quote Rorty (85). In other words, there is something to be said for Smith and his pragmatists locating truth within the realm of the human search for truth. But if this is all that we have to say about truth, then we are indeed left with full-blown relativism. In order to escape relativism, we have to introduce the notion of correspondence with reality. We also need to introduce another dimension of truth – an ideal of Absolute Truth toward which we are all striving in the midst of our feeble attempts to give truthful accounts of the world we live in. I would suggest that Smith and his pragmatists are doing much more than giving us “deflationary accounts” of truth. Ultimately, they are undermining the very notion of truth.

Perhaps a few more comments about absolute truth are in order. Already in Chapter 1 Smith objects to those who are critical of relativism by introducing the notion of absolute truth (16). He expresses concerns about those who offer as an antidote to relativism “claims to ‘absolute’ truth” (16). Indeed, he suggests that we should be just as afraid of “absolutism” as we are about relativism. At one point he even suggests that “claims to ‘absolute” truth might be almost diabolical” (115). Again in the Epilogue, Smith argues that “it borders on idolatrous hubris for humans to claim absolute truth” (180). Indeed, he draws a comparison between attempts “to pretend to the Absolute” and the fall of Adam and Eve (180). But Smith is guilty of the same “frequent and sloppy use” of “claims to absolute truth” as he accuses those opposed to his position (29). Christian philosophers who appeal to absolute truth as an antidote to relativism are not saying that humans can reach absolute truth. They are not attempting “to pretend to the Absolute,” whatever that might mean. All they are saying is that we need an ideal of absolute truth to act as a regulative principle which then explains how we are often mistaken in the claims that we make. I would further suggest that it is social constructivists who exemplify the sin of Adam and Eve. Instead of listening to God, the source and foundation of all Truth, they feel that they themselves can create truth.

I want to point to another disturbing feature of Smith’s treatment of relativism which comes to the fore particularly in Chapter 1, where he lists a number of Christians opposed to relativism and social constructivism and anti-realism – everyone from youth pastors to university presidents to Christian scholars (15-29). The language Smith uses here is often strident and sarcastic. He chastises Christians for their “reactionary dismissals and caricatured fear-mongering” of the “monster” of relativism (16). Sadly, Smith himself can’t seem to avoid caricaturing when he describes Christian critics of “postmodern relativism” as only being able to utter the words “with a dripping sneer” (16). He even compares the “Rorty scare” to “the red menace,” which gives rise to “philosophical McCarthyism” (17). He critiques Christian Smith’s “rather naive invocation of the need to recover a ‘referentialist’ account of language” when he “seems blithely unaware of the force and features of the pragmatist critique of reference and representation” (25). That sounds like an ad-hominem argument to me. One nearly gets the impression that James K.A. Smith is the only enlightened Christian philosopher around. Indeed, Smith takes great pride in being “the keeper of lost causes” and of having “a habit of affirming what other Christians despise” (11). I would like to see a little more intellectual humility here. And I would remind Smith that sarcasm and caricaturing do not reveal a Christ-like spirit.

Who’s afraid of relativism? It all depends – to use a phrase that Smith is fond of (15, 179). If by “relativism” we mean that the search for knowledge and truth must take into account our contingency, our creaturehood, and our being part of a community, then I agree, we should not be afraid of relativism, though I think it better not to use the word “relativism” to describe these aspects of human nature and its relation to epistemology. After all, we are finite, fallible and sinful people, and so our search for truth bears the marks of relativism. But if we try to give an account of epistemology “without recourse to magical appeals to ‘the way things are’,” as does Smith (89), then I believe we should be very afraid of relativism. Knowledge and truth are not just social constructions. Indeed, the sin of Adam and Eve was precisely to think that they could create truth. Individuals can be mistaken. Communities of practice too can err, a problem that Smith fails to acknowledge. To focus primarily on human dimension of knowing, as does this book is very misleading. More, it is dangerous. I cannot recommend this book to the Christian students for whom it is written.

A Philosopher Examines Peter Enns

January 3, 2015

The Bible Tells Me So …: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It, by Peter Enns
New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014. 267 pages, cloth.

I resonate with Peter Enns’ personal story which he reviews briefly in Chapter 1 of this book. For a long time I believed in the inerrancy of Scripture. But increasingly, I found this standard evangelical doctrine dying the death of a thousand qualifications. Like Enns, I couldn’t simply ignore the questions I was facing (p.19). But unlike Enns, I come out rather differently at the end.

The book under review can be seen as a popular summary of Enns’ earlier and controversial book, Incarnation and Inspiration (2005). I was intrigued with its thesis. The bible, like Jesus, must be interpreted as having both divine and human origins. Over the years I have become more willing to admit that the bible was written by fallible human beings. And yet, I also want to say that the bible is inspired by God.

In The Bible Tells Me So, Enns maintains that the bible is primarily a record of “ancient journeys of faith,” and these journeys then become “models for us on our own journeys” (pp.24, 77). My worry here is that this description of the bible is very human centered. Where is God in this description? And what about revelation? I want to say that the bible is both human and divinely inspired. Without an equal emphasis on the divine we are simply left with the feeble spiritual gropings of human beings who create their own gods.

The first big issue of the book concerns Israel’s invasion of Canaan (ch. 2). Enns explains why this chapter is “so dreadfully long” (p.66). It is because the Canaanite genocide is a key problem for “sincere readers of the bible” and “contemporary atheists” (p.67). But sincere readers of the bible don’t need an exhaustive description of Israel’s barbarous conquering of Canaan. Or, is Enns mainly concerned about gaining credibility with contemporary atheists?

Enns gives another reason for his preoccupation with Israel’s extermination of the Canaanites. He uses this story to drive home a key point for understanding many other parts of the Old Testament: “the ancient Israelites’ tribal mentality about themselves, their world and their God is reflected in what they wrote” (p.67). The chapter concludes with Enns’ solution to the embarrassment we feel about God telling the Israelites to kill the Canaanites: “Canaanite genocide is … not a historical account of something about God” (p.70). “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites” (p.54). According to Enns, the Israelites only believed that God told them to do so. Note again how human centered all this is.

“God likes stories” – the heading of chapter 3. But stories of the past are always told for a purpose – “to persuade, motivate, and inspire” (p.76). They are built on “imperfect memories,” and there is a good deal of “creating” and “inventing” going on to accomplish this purpose, with little concern about the original story being true (p.75). But, recounting past events cannot provide encouragement to people living in the present if the past events never happened. Enns also falls prey to the either-or fallacy. He assumes that Israel’s stories of the deep past cannot be written with both purposes in mind – to record the past, and to help us to cope with the present (p. 112). Further, there are limits to creative license, and Enns needs to pay more attention to defining these limits. If we allow too much creative license, we will end up with the entire Old Testament as fiction.

Enns reminds us repeatedly that we must not impose modern criteria of historiography on ancient texts. “Getting the past ‘right’ in a modern sense wasn’t high priority” for biblical writers, according to Enns (p.79). This doesn’t mean that biblical writers were “trying to pull a fast one” or that they were being “sloppy.” Such accusations arise out of “modern thinking relying on modern rules of history writing” (p.94). But where is the evidence for these claims? I would suggest that ancient biblical writers were concerned about historical accuracy. Enns also assumes that we moderns are more “enlightened” than the ancients, and therefore we have more rigorous rules for history writing. This is post-Enlightenment nonsense.

We move on to the story of Jesus, the focus of chapters 5 and 6. Enns goes out of his way to highlight how “utterly new and unexpected” the story of Jesus was (p.194). “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED on Good Friday and raised from the dead on the third day, on Easter Sunday” (p.196). It nearly sounds as though we are here finally dealing with real history. But Enns focuses instead on how difficult it would have been for a first-century Jewish audience, shaped by its ancient story, to accept an executed and resurrected messiah (p.196).

So what do the New Testament writers do to overcome this problem? They reinterpret the Old Testament writings so that they point to a messiah who suffered, died, and was raised from the dead. Jesus himself engaged “in a bit of creative biblical interpretation” to make the Old Testament point to himself (p. 169). The Gospel writers too “do some creative reading” of the Old Testament (p. 205). Paul too had “to rethink and transform his tradition and his scripture” (p. 225). But there are limits to the creative reading and transformation of the scripture. Maybe, just maybe, the Old Testament does in fact point to Jesus. Here again, Enns fails to make room for genuine revelation and prophecy.

We are still left with the question as to whether Jesus was actually crucified and resurrected. I expect the crucifixion is an historical event for Enns – hence the capital letters in the quote noted earlier. But what about the resurrection? Enns tends to skirt the question of the historicity of Jesus in the concluding chapters. To get his views on this question, we have to go to an earlier chapter (ch. 3). Here we are again told that if we read the bible as a book that has to get history “right”, then “the gospels become a crippling problem” (p.89). Why? Because the Gospel writers give us very different portraits of Jesus, each one offering his own perspective. Most scholars, we are told, think that Matthew “created” some of the scenes surrounding Jesus’ birth to “shape” his story (p.83). Enns also suggests that trying to create a harmony of the four gospels so as to yield one true and coherent story is a mistake (p.85). Instead, Christians get at the real Jesus by “faith” (p.85).

There you have it. The story of Jesus too is a record of subjective experiences, and is accepted on faith. What is so misleading is that in the final chapters Enns gives the impression that he is treating the story of Jesus as history. Even in his earlier treatment, he contradicts his rejection of harmonizing the gospels by suggesting that Matthew, Mark, and Luke “are likely following the flow of history more than John” (p. 80). Really! I thought any attempt to read the gospels as a way to get history right was a mistake (p. 89). You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Peter Enns.

Enns reminds us repeatedly to read the bible on its own terms. “[Y]ou can’t just make the bible mean whatever you feel like making it mean. You have to stick with what the text says”(p.168). I agree. Unfortunately, Enns does not follow his own advice. Indeed, at one point he says, “we’re all free to put the pieces together as we think best” (p.86). So, each to his own! A truly post-modern and relativistic approach to the bible! If you don’t like the gospel according to Peter Enns, create your own.

Enns sums up and gives us some practical advice in the final chapter. We need to accept the bible for what it is “with wrinkles, complexities, unexpected maneuvers, and downright strangeness” (p.232). “This Bible is worth reading and paying attention to, because this is the Bible God uses … to point its readers to a deeper trust in him” (p.232). “The Bible is God’s Word” (p.236). Some good advice. And, I like the God-centredness here – finally! Unfortunately, much of Enns’ earlier analysis undermines the possibility of accepting the bible as God’s word. I therefore cannot recommend his book.

(This review was published in the Christian Courier, March 9, 2015. A longer review was published in the Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. 88, #2, 2016/17, pp. 63-7.)

A Philosopher Examines Marcus Borg

September 27, 2012

 Review of

Borg, Marcus J.  The Heart of Christianity:  Rediscovering a Life of Faith

HarperSanFrancisco, 2003

 Why write a review of The Heart of Christianity when this book is already over a decade old?  I read this book because I wanted to come to a better understanding of Borg and the Jesus Seminar, a prominent group of scholars who have been searching for the historical Jesus (cf. xiii).  This book provides a good introduction to the theoretical and practical expression of this scholarship.  Further, the thinking of some of my good friends has been shaped significantly by this scholarship, and so again I felt I owed it to them to try to understand where they are coming from.  Friendship does have obligations!

The title of this book sounds promising.  It is always good to try to define the essence of something.  So I commend Marcus Borg for trying to define the heart of Christianity.  Borg also writes with clarity and passion – not something usually associated with scholars.  And who can object to an attempt to rediscover a life of faith?  Indeed, I found Part Two of the book, in which Borg is re-imagining the Christian life, to be inspiring and challenging in many places. But, nagging questions remain.  What is the foundation of these more practical exhortations?  Is the story of Borg’s historical Jesus – much abbreviated from that found in the gospel accounts – sufficient to support his account of the life of faith?

Early on in the book, Borg confidently asserts that we are undergoing a paradigm shift with regard to Christianity.  There is an earlier vision of Christianity, which “views the Bible as the unique revelation of God, emphasizes its literal meaning, and sees the Christian life as centered in believing now for the sake of salvation later… Typically, it has also seen Christianity as the only true religion” (xii).  Then Borg introduces us to an “emerging paradigm” that has been developing for over a hundred years and is “the product of Christianity’s encounter with the modern and postmodern world, including science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism and cultural diversity” (xii).

Here it is important to note that when Borg talks about an earlier paradigm of Christianity, he is really talking about post-Enlightenment Christianity.  He informs us that the earlier paradigm likes to think of itself as “traditional” Christianity, but its central characteristics have developed since the Enlightenment (2,11).  However, I don’t think Borg is entirely consistent in making this distinction between traditional Christianity and post-Enlightenment Christianity.  Many of the things he finds objectionable in post-Enlightenment Christianity apply equally to pre-modern Christianity.  For example, Borg maintains that it is only in the last few centuries that the “literal factuality” of the biblical texts has been emphasized (56).  Not so, as I will illustrate later. So Borg is really critiquing both traditional Christianity and what he sees as a distorted form of Christianity that emerged after the Enlightenment.  Borg’s own emergent paradigm is in some ways in line with current postmodern critiques of the Enlightenment. But, as we will see, he also draws on Enlightenment critiques of traditional Christianity, when it suits his purposes.  So Borg’s emergent paradigm of Christianity is being offered as even more enlightened than post-Enlightenment Christianity.

Borg admits that the earlier paradigm still remains a major voice within North American Christianity, and is affirmed by fundamentalist, most conservative-evangelical, and many Pentecostal Christians (6).  On the other hand, the emerging paradigm has only quite recently become “a major grass-roots movement within mainline denominations” (xii).  It is “widely shared among theological and biblical scholars and increasingly among laity and clergy within mainline denominations” (13). But again and again in this book, there is a confident assertion that it is this expression of Christianity which is emerging out of the darkness, as it were, and which will in the end win the day.

Borg’s book is in line with many other books whose titles are revealing:  A New Kind of Christian, by Brian McLaren (2001); A New Christianity for a New World, by Bishop John Shelby Spong (2001); The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle (2008); A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren (2010); and finally another recent book by Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity (2012).  These many confident calls for newness and change deserve our attention. What is this emerging paradigm of Christianity?  Why the need for a radical rediscovery of the Christian faith?  And are the confident assertions of the need for, and the inevitably of, change and newness justified?  This review will focus on Borg as one representative of this movement.  I am a philosopher, and so my focus will be on the philosophical assumptions underlying Borg’s revisioning of the Christian faith.

What then, according to Borg, are some of the fundamental problems with the earlier paradigm and its links with traditional Christianity?  For one, the earlier form of Christianity has a distorted view of God (Ch. 4).  God is viewed as transcendent, a God “out there,” a supernatural “personlike being,” who occasionally intervenes in this world (65).  Borg prefers a God who is more intimately related to the world, and so he imagines God “as an encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is” (66).  Instead of “supernatural theism” he prefers “panentheism,” a term coined by Karen Armstrong to highlight the all-encompassing presence of the Spirit of God.  Now Borg is forced to admit that traditional Christianity has emphasized both the transcendence and the immanence of God, and also that Paul describes God as one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (66).  However, a little later Borg suggests that “supernatural theism in its modern form emphasizes only the transcendence of God” (69).  But this contradicts his earlier claim.  Traditional and orthodox Christianity has always emphasized both the transcendence and the personal presence of God.  So why this call for a new conception of God?  Borg informs us that “for many people supernatural theism is no longer compelling and persuasive” (69).  But is this a good reason for change?  Is truth determined by a majority vote?  There is a deeper issue underlying Borg’s objection to supernatural theism. Supernatural theism leads to an interventionist God.  Panentheism, by contrast rejects the language of “divine intervention” (67).  The real issue here has to do with the possibility of miracles.

Already in Chapter 1, the topic of miracles is introduced and “the miraculous” is identified as “central to the truth of Christianity” (9).  The earlier paradigm of Christianity interprets the Bible literally, we are told, and to a large extent this is “a literalism of the spectacular” (9).  By contrast, the emerging paradigm interprets the Bible as metaphorical (13).  “It is not bothered by the possibility that the stories of Jesus’ birth and resurrection are metaphorical rather than literally factual accounts (12-13).  I want to suggest that it is this rejection of the possibility of miracles in the name of science that is at the heart of the objections that Borg and his fellow scholars have with regard to traditional and the earlier version of Christianity. It is because of their rejection of miracles that they are led to discount the literal truth of much of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life.  The miracle stories for them are only add-ons, invented by subsequent followers of Jesus to explain their devotion to him.

But what is so impossible about miracles?  Of course one expects scientific materialists to reject the possibility of miracles. And one can understand why skeptics like to appeal to David Hume’s classic 18th. century argument against the possibility of miracles. But unfortunately, David Hume’s argument begs the question.  It assumes that miracles are impossible because scientific laws are unbreakable.  But you can only know if scientific laws are unbreakable if you know that miracles are impossible.   Hume is arguing in a circle.  Here I would recommend C.S. Lewis’s little book, Miracles, for a readable refutation of Hume’s objections to miracles.

Scientific materialists too beg the question.  They assume that the material world is all there is, and thus God cannot exist, let alone break into this material world in order to do a miracle.  Now what is interesting here is that Borg is not a materialist.  His emerging paradigm clearly affirms the reality of God.  But as we have already seen, Borg’s God is very different from that of traditional Christianity.  Instead of “supernatural theism” which allows for a God who can do miracles, Borg adopts “panentheism” which imagines God as an all-encompassing Spirit who does not intervene in this world.  But the description of this all-encompassing Spirit is left rather vague.  Indeed, Borg’s panentheism looks suspiciously like pantheism, which in turn is very much like scientific materialism.  Clearly on this account miracles are impossible.  But this again begs the question.  Why accept Borg’s arbitrarily defined God who cannot do miracles?

Borg goes on to say that he rejects the language of ‘divine intervention’, because of the “insurmountable difficulties” surrounding interventionism (67).  But what are these insurmountable difficulties?   Borg talks about not being able to provide “the explanatory mechanism for God’s relation to the world” (67).  Fair enough!  But is this a definitive objection to miracles?  Is reality determined by what we as human beings with our finite minds can comprehend?  Enough to believe that there is a God who created all things, including the laws of nature, and who therefore can choose to suspend these laws on occasion in order to do the miraculous.  Borg’s God is too small. In orthodox Christianity, God is both transcendent and immanent, and if so then God can intervene in this world, miracles are possible, and Jesus birth and resurrection can be taken literally, as was affirmed again and again in the early church.

Another area of conflict between early and emerging Christianity has to do with Christian exclusivism.  “The earlier way of being Christian was (and is) confident that Christianity is the ‘only way’ (3).  This position is undergoing change according to Borg, and the emerging form of Christianity typically rejects the idea that “[m]y religion is the only true religion” (3).  Indeed, emergent Christianity finds exclusivism and the rejection of other religions as “inadequate” or “unacceptable” (16).  Borg expands on this theme in the final chapter of The Heart of Christianity (Ch. 11).  Borg confesses that he can no longer believe the Christianity of his childhood that maintained that Christ is the only way to salvation (207).  “Indeed, if I thought I had to believe that Christianity was the only way, I could not be a Christian” (221).

A central reason for rejecting such exclusivism is the phenemonon of religious pluralism.  Borg, reflecting the thinking of many Westerners today, considers religious pluralism a new phenomenon – “We have never been here before” (209).  Absolutism too is seen as a product of modernism, a response of the Christian West to the threat of the emergence of secularism in the seventeenth century (212).  While there might be some truth to the claim that Western Christians are a little more aware of the world’s religious diversity, to suggest that we are facing a unique situation that calls for a radical rethinking of Christian faith is problematic for a number of reasons.  As Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished philosopher of religion of our time, has noted, Western Christians and Jews have known all along that there are other religions and that not nearly everyone shares their religion.  The ancient Israelites were clearly aware of the Canaanite religion, and Moses and other prophets warned against being misled by a foreign faith (cf. Deut. 18:14).  Jesus in the New Testament was very much aware of competing religions, and it is in this context that he made his claims to being the only way, the truth and the life (John 14:6; cf. Borg, 221).  Paul’s missionary journeys took him to very cosmopolitan cities within the Roman empire which were in fact religiously pluralistic.  The early Christians and the Christian martyrs were well aware of the fact that not everyone believed as they did.  So religious pluralism is not a new problem that Christians are facing.  And what needs to be emphasized is that it is within a context of religious pluralism that the Jewish prophets, Jesus, Paul and the church fathers affirmed the doctrine of exclusive truth.  Absolutism is simply not a product of modernity as Borg maintains (212).  And Borg is also wrong in suggesting that there are “relatively few” passages in the bible that uphold the notion of exclusive truth (221).  This notion runs throughout the Bible.

But how can Christians make exclusive claims to truth in the face of religious pluralism?  It is this question that is seen as the burning issue of Borg and many theologians, religious studies scholars, and philosophers of religion today. Indeed, Borg maintains that knowing about other religions and the people of other religions “have made it impossible” to believe in Christian exclusivism (220).  But, what is the problem?  Why should the fact of pluralism call into question the idea that there might be such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”?  All of us in our everyday lives encounter differences of opinion and yet we see no problem in claiming that some opinions that differ from our own are simply false. And if we are honest, we would admit that just because we think that opinions that differ from our own are false does not automatically make us irrational, intolerant or arrogant.  I would suggest that human beings are by nature epistemic absolutizers.  And there is nothing inherently wrong with this.  We need to assume that we have the truth in order to get on with the practical business of living.  I fail to see why claims in the area of religion should be any different.

I would further suggest that those who object to absolute truth claims invariably contradict themselves.  Borg himself objects to early versions of Christianity.  Yes, there are times where he tries to be careful not to say that one way is right and the other is wrong (18).  But the overall thrust of the book is that early Christianity is “anti-intellectual,” outdated, and wrong (15).  Emergent Christianity is where it is at.  Any truly enlightened Christian will climb on board. So one way is right, and the other way is wrong.  Indeed, any objections to exclusivism end up being exclusive in their own right.  Hear again what Alvin Plantinga says of the charge of arrogance often made against exclusivists: “The charges of arrogance are a philosophical tar baby:  Get close enough to them to use them against the exclusivists and you are likely to find them stuck fast to yourself” (“A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”).

Borg goes on to provide an account of the similarities and differences between religions, and to a large extent I agree with his analysis (215-19).  He then gives his own “testimony” as to why he adheres to a religious tradition and more specifically why he is a Christian (222-5).  “We need a path.  We are lost without one.  Community and tradition articulate, embody, and nurture a path…. Religious community and tradition put us in touch with the wisdom and beauty of the past.  They are communities of memory.”  And why specifically a Christian community and tradition?  Because for Borg, this is familiar.  It is his home.  “Its worship nourishes me; its hymns move me; its scripture and theology engage my imagination and thought; its practices shape me.” This is an inspiring account of why Borg is a Christian!  And then he once again addresses the issue of pluralism and exclusivism, arguing that “we do not need to feel that our home is superior to every other home in order to love it” (224).  The problem here is that most people, most of the time, do feel that their home is superior to every other home, that is if they are honest. Borg gives us a moving account of why he is a Christian.  What he fails to realize is that it there is nothing in his account which is incompatible with a humble exclusivism.  Indeed, some honest introspection would reveal that deep down inside Borg is a humble exclusivist. We all only see through a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12).

I move on to another issue addressed in Chapter 3, where Borg boldly states that “the Bible is at the heart of Christianity” (47).  “To be a Christian means to be in a primary continuing conversation with the Bible as a foundation for our identity and vision.  If this conversation ceases or becomes haphazard, then we cease to be Christian” (47).  These are bold claims.  Indeed, I can’t quarrel with these assertions. But, we must be careful not to be fooled by traditional sounding language.  In fact Borg’s understanding of the Bible is very different from that of traditional Christianity.  Borg is worried about the biblical literalism and the emphasis on biblical infallibility, historical factuality and moral and doctrinal absolutes that characterize traditional Christianity (43). He offers us instead an understanding of the Bible that is “historical,” “metaphorical,” and “sacramental” (44). Here again we must pay careful attention to the way in which Borg uses certain words.  When he talks about the Bible as historical he does not mean that the Bible is giving us factual history.  Instead, he sees the Bible as “the product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement” (45).  The Bible simply tells us how our spiritual ancestors understood and experienced God. The Bible is not “absolute truth” or “God’s revealed truth,” but “relative and culturally conditioned” (45).  And then this blunt statement: “As such, it is a human product, not a divine product” (45).

Strangely, Borg goes on to say that he is not denying that the Bible is “inspired by God” (46).  I find it very difficult to reconcile this statement with his earlier claim that the Bible is not a divine product.  This sounds contradictory.  Borg is also guilty of caricaturing the traditional Christian position as to the status of the Bible.  While he occasionally admits that some traditional Christians hold to a soft kind of literalism (8-9), in the main he characterizes them as adopting a hard kind of literalism where every word of the bible is to be taken literally. I don’t believe this is a fair characterization of most Christians, as it is rather obvious that the language of the Bible is multifaceted, sometimes literal, and sometimes metaphorical.  Again, Borg at times admits this (49), but then goes right on to maintain that “much” of the language of the Bible is metaphorical.  How much?  He also goes on to dismiss the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection as not literal, but metaphorical.  Why?  At bottom, his reason for such dismissal rests on his rejection of the possibility of miracles, a point I have already dealt with.

There are in fact very good reasons to believe that the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection should be taken literally.  Luke’s gospel is the result of careful investigation of reports that were handed down to him by the first eye-witnesses of Jesus (Lk. 1:1-4).  John stresses that the gospel being proclaimed was based on that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched” (I John 1:1).  Paul highlights the factual nature of the tradition he is passing on, and specifically underscores the Jesus’ physical appearance to many after his resurrection (I Cor. 15:1-8).  And Peter reminds his readers that the good news didn’t involve “cleverly invented stories” but was instead based on eye-witness accounts of Jesus (II Peter 1:16).

Borg maintains that an emphasis on the literal-factual interpretation of the Bible is a modern phenomenon, a reaction to the Enlightenment (12, 56).  This is plainly false.  The early church clearly interpreted the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection as literal and factual.  Of course, they also understood that are parts of the Bible that are metaphorical.  Some of the language of the Bible is poetic in nature, and for that reason should not be taken literally. So we need to take great care in distinguishing between poetic and literal language in the Bible.  We need clear criteria to make this distinction.  And we need to avoid Borg-like generalizations to the effect that “much” of the language of the Bible is “obviously metaphorical” (49).  Indeed, exactly the opposite is true.  Much of the language of the Bible is historical in nature, and the gospels accounts and Acts are clearly meant to be taken literally.  Unfortunately, Borg does not, in this book, spell out the criteria he uses to discredit the literal-factual nature of much of the Bible. But he does identify himself as “a historical Jesus scholar” (xiii).   This is not the place to evaluate the criteria used by scholars of the Jesus Seminar to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic sayings of Jesus.  Various scholars have identified significant problems in the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar, and their work is today rejected by many prominent theologians.

There is one more problem with Borg’s treatment of the Bible.  Borg maintains not only that much of the language is metaphorical, but that metaphorical language can be true (49-50).  Again, there is something to be said for the claim that truth can be conveyed by metaphor.  Poetry can convey profound truth.  A novel can give us a truthful depiction of reality. Indeed, I find Borg’s analysis of some of the deeper meanings conveyed by the stories of creation, and Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection to be quite illuminating.  But, and this is a big BUT, there is nothing incompatible with claiming that these stories are factually true and that they also convey deeper meanings. Indeed, Borg is simply mistaken when he suggests that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the stories distracts from their meaning (53).  An Easter sermon that proclaims the historical veracity of Jesus’ resurrection can be, and in evangelical circles, most often is combined with an affirmation that Jesus lives and wants to be Lord even today – Borg’s own interpretation of the meaning of the Easter stories (54).  Indeed, the Christian hope of resurrection after death is dependant on taking literally Jesus own resurrection from the dead, as Paul argues so eloquently in I Cor. 15:12.  Paul goes on: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (v. 14).  Metaphors simply cannot provide the comfort and hope that Christians need at funerals.

One final evaluative point.  Again and again I find the language Borg uses to be very misleading.  For example, early in the book Borg maintains that in his emerging paradigm he “strongly affirms the reality of God, the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the importance of a relationship with God as known in Jesus, and our need (and the world’s need) for transformation” (17).  But, Borg has radically altered the traditional understanding of each of these themes (17).  Let me focus here on one of these – the centrality of Jesus (Ch. 5).  Borg argues that Christianity finds the primary revelation of God in a person, namely Jesus, the Word made flesh (80).  He declares the following as the central meaning of the incarnation: “Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life” (80).  He even declares Jesus as more important than the Bible in disclosing who God is (81). This sounds so orthodox! I can agree with all of this.

But in the next section we discover that Borg is using orthodox language in a very unorthodox way.  We are informed that the traditional way of interpreting all of this “no longer works for millions of people, both within and outside of the church” (82).  To interpret Jesus as literally performing miracles, being born of a virgin, and rising from the dead, and claiming to be the only way of salvation is “not only unpersuasive, but a barrier to being Christian” (81-2).  Here again, we discover that truth is to be determined by popular vote, including the vote of those outside the church! And again Borg gives us a metaphorical interpretation of the life Jesus.  We need to distinguish between a “pre-Easter Jesus,”  an itinerant and wise teacher, and a “post-Easter Jesus,” a Jesus still in the grave, but who is reinvented by the disciples and given supernatural powers.  We are told that to emphasize the divinity of Jesus in fact undermines the utterly remarkable human being that he was” (83).  This needs some argument!  And again we are told that a literal reading of Jesus is a distraction and a stumbling block to understanding the true metaphorical meaning of his life, works, and words (86).  I have already argued that this is a false claim.  And once again we are reminded that “a strong majority of mainline scholars” do not believe that Jesus speaks of himself as the Messiah, the Son of God or the Light of the world (86, cf. 92).  But note, not everyone, even among mainline scholars, agrees with Borg and company. Indeed, there are eminent scholars who disagree with Borg and the Jesus seminar, and who find the distinction between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus to be based on arbitrary criteria.  But what is perhaps more disturbing is way in which Borg and company use conventional language and then rob it of its conventional meaning.  This is at best misleading, and at worst outright deception.

Running throughout the book is a contrast between two paradigms of Christianity, an early and an emerging vision of the Christian tradition and the Christian life.  Early in the book, Borg informs us that the emerging paradigm “is widely shared among theological and biblical scholars and increasingly among laity and clergy within mainline denominations” (13).  Borg and other scholars advocating the emerging paradigm at times are very confident that the emerging paradigm is correct one and that it will eventually win out (see esp. Phyllis Tickle).  This is presumptuous.  Yes, at times Borg tries to bridge the differences between the two paradigms (16-18).  In good postmodern fashion, he informs us that “there is no single right way of understanding Christianity and no single right way of being Christian” (17).  Sadly, this is contradicted in the very next sentence when Borg informs us that “there are some wrong ways of being Christian,” one obvious example being a group like the Ku Klux Klan (17).  I quite agree!  But, you can’t have it both ways!  And the overall thrust of Borg’s book is that his emerging paradigm is the right way to understand Christianity and the Christian life. I believe that he has got it wrong.

What we have here is not the gospel of the New Testament, or the gospel of the early apostles, but a gospel according to Marcus Borg.  While his book attempts to define “the heart of Christianity” he has in fact ripped the heart of out of Christianity, and there is nothing left but a story of a good man, part fictional, and part historical.  While such stories can be inspirational, they are hardly the stuff one would live for or die for.  And Borg’s gospel simply will not sustain the practical challenges of living the Christian life which he so passionately tries to articulate in Part Two of his book.  But to argue this point would require another essay!

Question-focused Christian Faith

May 14, 2012

There has been a growing emphasis on questions in our churches today.  “Question-shaped faith,” is the title of a provocative piece in a recent issue of the Canadian Mennonite.[i]  Troy Watson, the author, is pastor of a St. Catharines church tellingly named “Quest Christian Community.”  “Questioning one’s beliefs is also at the heart” of a recently established innovative church which meets at a downtown Kitchener hotel, says Brad Watson, pastor of the Nexus Centre.[ii]  A video series used in some churches is suggestively entitled “Living the Questions.”

This emphasis on questioning would seem to be closely associated with a postmodern approach to the Christian faith.  Troy Watson’s article is part of a regular column in the Canadian Mennonite, entitled “Life in the Postmodern Shift.”  Brian McLaren is one of the primary leaders of the postmodern shift in the evangelical Christian church today. The title of one of his recent books is significant:  A New Kind of Christianity:  Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith.[iii]

Clearly there is something healthy about this emphasis on questions.  The Christian faith does raise some questions that beg for answers.  The church should be a place where young people and adults can ask the questions they are facing with regard to their faith.  Without questions, the Christian faith is in danger of becoming stagnant and even dogmatic. Questioning helps us to avoid tunnel vision. We need to grow, and for that to happen we need to keep asking questions.  Asking open questions is also a key to leading engaging bible studies.[iv]  Over the many years that I have taught adult Sunday School, I find myself spending more time preparing the right questions that will stimulate good discussion and learning.  Of course, as a philosopher I love questions and critical thinking, and I like to think I have something to contribute to the church because I am a philosopher.

But, and this is a big But, there are also dangers inherent in the current emphasis on questions.  We need, first of all, to distinguish between genuine questioning and questioning for the sake of questioning.  Genuine questions and doubts needed to be treated seriously in the church. Indeed, we need to create an atmosphere in the church where our young people are allowed and even encouraged to raise the questions they are struggling with.  But questioning can become frivolous.  In my teaching career I have encountered students who ask questions simply because they find this entertaining.  Sometimes I cannot help but think their real motive is to impress everyone with their intelligence.  Questioning can become an end in itself.  This is what Paul has in mind when he describes some people as “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (II Tim 3:8).  Of course it is no accident that the emphasis on questioning is associated with postmodernism, which tends to have problems with the very idea of truth. Healthy questioning has a goal in mind – to find answers, to find truth, and to be more obedient to the truth of the gospel message.

We also need to remember that we can only ask questions if there first is something about which to ask questions.  Questioning is parasitic on something else – on the existence of a body of beliefs that are already given. Questioning presupposes a tradition already present that can be questioned.  You just can’t start with questions.  Believing comes before questioning.  Here an important question comes to the fore.  What is our attitude to the belief-traditions which we inherit? All too often I find questioners assuming a stance of superiority over tradition. Traditional beliefs are looked on with disdain.   The bible has a lot to say about the danger of pride.  All of us struggle with pride, but I think it is a special temptation of those of us who have benefited from a good education.  This is the problem Paul addresses in the first few chapters of his first letter to the Corinthian church when he talks about destroying the supposed wisdom of the wise, and the supposed intelligence of the intelligent.  Paul isn’t advocating anti-intellectualism here, because he himself was a scholar, and he goes on to talk about a genuine type of wisdom (I Cor. 2:6).  As Paul Gooch has argued, what Paul is really concerned about is the conceit of human knowledge.[v]  This also applies to the arrogance often surrounding the treatment of traditional beliefs as inferior simply because they are traditional.  Healthy questioning treats traditional beliefs with respect.  This surely is part of the meaning of the frequent Scriptural exhortation to honor our parents.  Honoring our parents includes honoring the beliefs they hold.  This does not entail that we should never question the beliefs of the previous generation.  But when we do, we should always do so with an attitude of indebtedness to the generations before us.

It is no accident that the postmodern emphasis on questioning likes to stress what is new.  The titles of some of Brian McLaren’s books are telling: A New Kind of Christian (2001), and A New Kind of Christianity (2010).  If the central focus is on questioning the beliefs one has inherited, then of course “truth” can only be found in that which is new.  Here again, we need to be careful not to overreact against the new.  The world is changing, and so the good news of the gospel must constantly be reapplied to the newly emerging context within which we live. But we need to be careful not to become too preoccupied with that which is new.  Just as we need to guard against the idol of traditionalism, so we must guard against the idol of newness.  We need a balance.  McLaren in fact expresses a better balance in an article he has written, entitled “A New Kind of Old Christian.”[vi]  Yes, indeed!  But why then focus on newness once again by giving his more recent book the title, A New Kind of Christianity?  Of course this is good marketing, but faithful Christians are more concerned about faithful representations of the gospel, even in the titles they choose for their books.  Our model here should be Jesus who at one point describes the good teacher as one who “is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasurers as well as old” (Matt. 13:52).

There is another worry that I have about our current preoccupation with questioning in the church.  Questions always arise out of a certain context. Questioning is not a neutral activity.  Questions arise because the person raising the questions has been sufficiently influenced by another set of beliefs to prompt this person to call into question the beliefs he/she formerly held. And sadly, in such questioning, this agenda-driven context is all too often not made transparent.  The ten questions that Brian McLaren addresses in his more recent book are not only calling into question the long-standing answers that have been given in the history of the orthodox Christianity. They also arise from a “new” theology that stands apart from traditional Christian beliefs. To his credit, McLaren has been fairly open about the post-modern agenda that drives his questioning.

Not so in the video series referred to earlier, “Living the Questions,” being used in some churches in their Sunday school program.  The title of the series is problematic for a number of reasons.  It gives the impression of an open and invigorating exploration of the Christian faith.  But it is not long into the series when one discovers that some basic Christian doctrines are being called into question – the resurrection, the virgin birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, and the Trinity.   The main participants in the video series are scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar, and their sympathizers, and it is their agenda that is being promoted with all the boldness that typically accompanies the academy. And we are also informed that the consensus of scholarly opinion is moving in their direction.  Indeed, one is given the strong impression that anyone holding traditional views is simply naïve.  How arrogant!  Scholarship is significantly divided on the questions being raised in this video series.  There are many well-established theologians with first-rate scholarly qualifications who strongly disagree with the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.  At the very least the video series should acknowledge this.  An open-minded presentation of the issues would present scholarly evidence on both sides of the issues being raised.  A question also needs to be raised as to why any church with an orthodox confession of faith would use such an agenda-driven video series as part of its Sunday school curriculum. One final problem with the title of the series.  It doesn’t say, “Living with Questions.”  Instead, “Living the Questions.”  The problem here is that questions cannot in themselves provide a foundation for living.  We can only live on the basis of answers, however tentative these might be.

Here another problem arises.  The questioning pose has a humble air about it.  It is people who claim to have “answers” that are seen as arrogant and dogmatic.  Clearly there is a danger of arrogance and dogmatism in claiming to have answers.  But this danger also applies to those singing the praises of questioning, as I have already shown.  It is high time that we recognize that there is such a thing as liberal fundamentalism, with all the negative associations typically built into the notion of fundamentalism.  And to stigmatize those who are honest enough to claim to have answers is to be involved in unfair caricaturing.  The apostle Paul, for example, in his classic description of love, goes on to remind us that we only see through a glass darkly, we only know in part (I Cor. 13:12).  That sounds pretty humble to me, and it can describe those who claim to have answers.  Indeed, I would suggest this is the position of most theologians who adhere to traditional theological beliefs.

It is therefore disingenuous for Brian McLaren to give the impression that he is taking the high ground when he claims, in an introductory chapter of his more recent book on ten questions that are transforming the faith, that his aim is only to provide “some provisional, preliminary, incomplete, but promising responses that I’ve cobbled together or gleaned from others on the journey” (p.22).  Oh how humble this sounds! But there is more!  “Responses, please remember, are not answers:  the latter seek to end conversation while the former seek to stimulate more of it” (p.22).  Really!  A fair portrayal of the history of theology will reveal that providing answers in theology most often has gone hand in hand with stimulating conversations and ongoing revisions to theology.  But there is even more to McLaren’s tirade against answers:  “Remember, our goal is not debate and division yielding hate or a new state, but rather questioning that leads to conversation and friendship on the new quest” (p.23).  This is caricaturing and posturing at its worst.  Debate does not necessarily lead to hate.  There are many theologians who disagree strongly with the answers other theologians hold, but who are still the best of friends. Questioning simply does not have a purchase on conversation and friendship.  And it is simply hypocritical to reject “answers” when McLaren’s caricaturing and posturing is very much rooted in an assumed answer – a postmodern theological position.

I also have concerns about Troy Watson’s analysis of the reasons why religious institutions discourage questioning.  They do so, Watson argues, as a means of control.  He quotes Noam Chomsky who describes such control as limiting the spectrum of acceptable opinion but then allowing for lively debate within that spectrum.  We also discourage questioning, Watson argues, because of fear and the desire to keep the peace.  Now there is some truth to this analysis.  The only problem is that these reasons for discouraging questions apply to all institutions, including the academy.  Our universities too limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion and then only allow for lively debate within that narrow spectrum.  I also find this to be an accurate description of the musings of liberal theologians, the Jesus Seminar, and postmodernists.  We need more integrity in assessing the reasons why all of us are a little protective of the beliefs that we hold.

I conclude with an historical note and want to suggest that our contemporary preoccupation with postmodern questioning is really a very “modern” phenomenon.  There is more continuity between postmodernism and modernism than most people realize!  French philosopher, Rene Descartes, is generally seen as the father of modern philosophy.   Descartes should also be seen as the father of the questioning fad in the church today.  Descartes begins his famous Meditations (1641), by acknowledging that from his earliest years, he has accepted many false opinions as true. This prompts him to resolve “that if I wished to have any firm and constant knowledge in the sciences, I would have to undertake, once and for all, to set aside all the opinions which I had previously accepted among my beliefs and start again from the very beginning. … I will therefore make a serious and unimpeded effort to destroy generally all my former opinions” (translated by Laurence J. Lafleur).  After systematically doubting all his beliefs, Descartes discovers one truth that is absolutely certain, his famous “I think, therefore I am.”

Descartes’ approach has been subject to much serious criticism in the history of philosophy. Unfortunately for Descartes, his one certain truth is not quite as certain as he thought it was.  And if his one certainty is dubious, then Descartes is left drowning in a sea of uncertainty, a possibility he himself describes in the second meditation. Indeed, there are problems with the very goal of absolute certainty that drove Descartes’ methodological doubt.  It is also impossible to question or doubt everything.  You simply can’t start from scratch. There are a number of assumptions Descartes makes that remain unquestioned.  There is also a strong individualism that pervades Descartes’ approach.

What is the alternative?  We need to recognize the importance of the community in coming to know, including the community of past generations.  We need to acknowledge that we can only question if we have first been given something to question.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us, “The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.” Questioning and critical thinking is dependent on our first being initiated into a particular tradition of thought.  A conservative posture is therefore the appropriate response to tradition. We should cherish the beliefs that we have inherited from previous generations. This does not preclude critical thinking and questioning.  As fallible and sinful creatures, we always need to be open to re-evaluating what we believe.  But this should done carefully, assessing beliefs and assumptions one by one, not by a wholesale rejection of everything we believe.  Our epistemological stance should be one of committed openness.  We should be honest and admit the “answers” that we tentatively hold at the present time.  At the same time, we should be open to critically evaluating these answers, always with a view to discovering more complete answers and coming closer to the truth.  We also need to be patient, realizing that we will only know fully and completely in the eschaton, when we will see Jesus face to face.

[i] “Question-shaped faith,” by Troy Watson.  Canadian Mennonite, Feb. 6, 2012, p.13.

[ii]  “A different kind of Sunday service,” by Liz Monteiro, Waterloo Region Record, Nov. 19, 2010, p. D7.

[iii] Published by HarperOne, 2010.

[iv] See a description of a recent seminar for pastors, chaplains and congregational leaders of the Mennonite Church, Eastern Canada, “Catching the spark … Carrying the light:  Facilitating Dynamic Bible Study,” in the Canadian Mennonite, Feb. 20, 2012, p. 16.

[v] See Paul Gooch, Partial Knowledge:  Philosophical Studies in Paul. University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

[vi] Leadership, Winter, 2005, 26(1).

A Critical Review of James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic, 2006)

April 8, 2012

(Published in The Evangelical Quarterly,  83.4, 2011, 347-351)

This book is part of a series, “The Church and Postmodern Culture,” that James Smith himself edits.  The series is intended to allow “high-level work in postmodern theory to serve the church’s practice” (p.9).  Smith describes the books in this series “as French lessons for the church” (p. 10). It is difficult to miss the positive spin given to postmodernism in these statements describing the series, and in the very title of Smith’s own contribution to this series.  Indeed, efforts at accommodating postmodernism seem to be rather widespread among Christian philosophers and theologians. The reader of this review should be forewarned – I have some grave misgivings about such accommodation.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? has its origins in lectures Smith gave to the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in the summer of 2003. These origins help to explain why the book is in fact a very readable introduction to postmodernism.  Three chapters of this book are devoted to examining a central idea in the thinking of each of the three postmodern thinkers highlighted in the title of the book. All too often, these central ideas have been treated like bumper sticker slogans by Christians, Smith maintains (p.22).  The ideas are taken out of context and thus misinterpreted.  Smith’s aim is to “demythologize” postmodernism and to show that each of these central ideas “have a deep affinity with central Christian claims” (p.22).

Chapter 2 deals with Derrida’s famous claim, “There is nothing outside the text,” made in one of his first books, published in 1967.  In making this claim, Derrida is centrally concerned with naïve attempts to get “behind or “past” texts.  Such attempts are futile, Derrida argues because all our experience is always already an interpretation (p. 39).  The world itself too “is a kind of text requiring interpretation” (p.38).  “[W]hen Derrida says there is nothing outside the text, he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language (p. 39).  We simply can’t ever get past texts and interpretations to things “simply as they are” (p. 42).  Given this emphasis on interpretation, we can see why Derrida has been a motivating force behind the preoccupation with hermeneutics in the church today.

Smith tries to answer Christian critics who are concerned about the subjectivism implicit in Derrida’s “prison” of interpretation.  Derrida seems to deny that there is an objective world out there.  Smith however argues that Derrida is not advocating “a kind of linguistic idealism” (p. 42).  But, it is difficult to see how this can be reconciled with such radical claims as “there is nothing outside the text,” or with Smith’s suggestion that the world itself is an interpretation.  I believe Smith tends to confuse some key concepts in trying to reconcile Derrida’s claim with a Christian worldview.  I quite agree that as human beings we are stuck with interpretations of reality.  But is there a reality beyond our interpretations?  What is needed here is a clear distinction between the human search for knowledge and truth, and truth itself.  Smith is particularly fuzzy in his uses of the notion of objectivity.  True, as human beings, we can never approach reality in an objective manner.  But is there an objective world out there?  Yes.  Is truth an objective ideal?  Yes.  Any failure to give a resounding affirmative answer to these questions is to yield to postmodern subjectivism, which is fundamentally at variance with a Christian worldview.  But listen to Smith:  “There is no uninterpreted reality, no brute facts passively sitting there to be simply and purely seen.” (p. 54).   This is fundamentally wrongheaded.  There is a world out there, and there would still be one even if there were no human interpreters of this world. I have no quarrel, however, with the next sentence: “Rather we see the world always already through the lens of an interpretive framework governed by ultimate beliefs” (p. 54).  Yes indeed.  But here we are talking about the human search for knowledge and truth.  And we must never confuse this search with the object of our search.  God has created a real world out there for humans to discover.  To suggest that there is nothing outside of the text is to lock us all in the prisons of human interpretation.

Chapter 3 deals with Jean-François Lyotard’s claim that postmodernism is “incredulity towards metanarratives.”  This again would seem to go counter to orthodox Christianity, which surely is a metanarrative par excellence.  Not so, argues Smith.  Lyotard is not objecting to big stories – grand, epic narratives that tell an overarching tale about the world (p. 64).  Instead, for Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomena: “they are stories that not only tell a grand story … but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason” (p. 65). Metanarratives according to Lyotard  are “false appeals to universal, rational, scientific criteria – as though they were divorced from any particular myth or narrative” (p. 68).  The problem here is that we as human beings cannot ever get outside of our own narrative.  Scientists too function under the rubric of a narrative that cannot itself be legitimated by science. Thus, for the postmodernist “every scientist is a believer,” according to Smith  (p. 68).

As Smith notes, all this is very much in keeping with the presuppositionalism of Reformed epistemology (p.69).  All knowing begins with faith.  The problem with Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives (and also with presuppositionalism) is that if you push these insights too far you end up with what is known in philosophy as “the incommensurability of belief systems.”  Each of us thinks within the framework of his/her own narrative, paradigm or presuppositional framework, and thus we simply cannot communicate with one another.  This extreme position flies in the face of ordinary experience.  We can communicate with others despite our differing narratives, paradigms or presuppositional frameworks.  Further, Christians maintain that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore are to some degree similar with regard to their epistemic capacities.  We also have access to the same general revelation.  This point is often expressed theologically in terms of the notions of “natural law” or “common grace.”  Obviously, those who reject a Christian view of human nature and reality will interpret this commonness differently to some degree.  But some kind of an appeal to a common reality, and some degree of commonness in evaluating beliefs, seems to be inescapable for all human knowers.  Therefore Lyotard, and Smith, and the postmoderns, are fundamentally mistaken.  They are overreacting to the rational/scientific paradigm.

Smith is quite right that the postmodern argument that all knowing is faith-based opens up some space for Christian witness in a postmodern world (p. 73).  We too have a story to tell (p. 76).  But Christians want to do more than just tell one story among a plurality of stories that are ultimately considered to be equally valid, given Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives. Christians also want to say that ours is the best story, indeed the true story.  And in order to do that we need to do some “modernist” apologetics which appeals to “universal reason,” all of which suggests that we need to be careful not to cozy up too closely to Lyotard and the French postmodernists.

Michel Foucault and his claim that “power is knowledge” is the focus of Chapter 4.  Foucault’s history of prisons, published in 1975, isn’t really about prisons, but about the way in which society as a whole reflects a prison (p. 85).  Foucault uses Nietzsche’s metaphor of archaeological digging to describe what he is doing with regard to our knowledge claims.  In Smith’s words,  “he digs beneath the surface of what goes around as objective truth to show the machinations of power at work below the surface” (p. 86).  Foucault’s genealogy “intends to show that modernity’s claims to scientific objectivity or moral truth are fruits of a poisoned tree of power relations” (p. 87).

Smith’s treatment of Foucault is rather confusing.  While at times he interprets Foucault as not wanting to identify knowledge and power (p. 85), there are a number of places where it is rather difficult not to see them as identical (pp. 85, 87,96, 100).  There is also confusion as to how to evaluate power.  At times Foucault is interpreted as saying we should not evaluate power, while at other times power is in fact evaluated as bad (pp. 91, 87).  Indeed, Smith admits that Foucault’s analysis of power is open to two very different interpretations (pp.95-99).  Interestingly, Smith prefers to interpret Foucault as a closet liberal and thus deeply modern (97-9).  If so, one wonders why he is treated at all in a book on postmodernism!  Given this interpretation, Smith challenges Foucault’s negative assessment of power, together with the implicit appeal to an Enlightenment notion of the autonomous self (p. 101).

What cannot be denied is that for Foucault there are always some networks of power underlying knowledge claims, and that these networks are indeed very powerful (p. 85).  Here a basic question emerges which Smith tends to skirt.  What does the “reduction” of knowledge to power entail for epistemology (cf. pp. 85, 96)?  The fundamental problem with power interpretations of knowledge is that they are self-refuting.  If all claims to knowledge are merely (or even mainly) expressions of power, then Foucault’s own analysis of knowledge is just another expression of power.  So, why bother listening to him?

Now I concur with Smith that Foucault has something to teach us about the many kinds of disciplinary mechanisms in our society that form individuals into the kinds of people that the power-brokers want, e.g. consumers or sexual animals (pp. 103-5).  But I worry when Smith, in a section entitled, “Taking Foucault to Church,” suggests that we need to “stand him on his head” (p. 103).  What Smith proposes is that we apply Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary mechanisms to the church. We need to be engaged in “counterformation by counterdisciplines” (p. 105-7).  But what does this really look like?  How much power can and should the church exert in making disciples?  Surely the church needs to be sensitive to the problem of exerting too much power over individuals.  It simply will not do to distinguish good discipline from bad discipline by its goal or end, as Smith attempts to do (p. 102).  Even if discipline and formation is directed toward forming individuals to worship God, if the disciplinary practices used are excessive, it is wrong.  The end does not justify the means.  Smith’s attempt at drawing some lessons from Foucault for the church are therefore fundamentally misguided.

The final chapter is devoted to a description of a postmodern or emergent church that expresses the ideals of Radical Orthodoxy.  What Smith seeks to achieve here is a “meshing” of the central claims of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault with the insights from the Christian theological tradition (p. 116).  What is puzzling here is that Smith objects to the “correlationist” tendencies he finds in both emerging and evangelical churches (pp. 123-4).  In other words, he is objecting to the tendency of churches to try to correlate what they are thinking and doing with the findings of the secular sciences, thereby trying to make Christianity intelligible or rational to a given culture. The problem here is that this is precisely what Smith is doing with regard to postmodernism.  His is also an apologetic of sorts – he is trying to show that Christian theology “meshes” with the claims of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault.  “Meshing” and “correlation” are synonyms, and if Smith objects to the latter, he should also object to the former.

I also have problems with the very idea of a “postmodern church.”  There is only one catholic church, at the head of which is Jesus Christ.  Smith would agree with this and indeed appeals to George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic, which he sees as addressing catholic (with a small “c”) Christians (p. 133).  But, why then the repeated references to the notion of a postmodern church?  Is it because it sounds new and novel and avant- garde (p. 109)?  Smith would no doubt claim that I am being unfair to him here, because in his final chapter he is arguing for a recovery of tradition.  Unfortunately, the relation between the new and the old remains fuzzy.  I agree that a fundamental challenge for the church today is to be the church in today’s postmodern culture.  But this does not require that the church itself be postmodern, or that it should adopt postmodern ideas.  This is a form of academic worldliness that Jesus and Paul condemned.

What has Paris to do with Jerusalem? (p.10).  Much less than Smith avows.  I quite agree that the church might be able to learn something from the French postmodernists.  But before we do so we need to engage in a careful and critical analysis of postmodernism.  Sadly, Smith himself engages in bumper-sticker sloganeering in his all-consuming desire to draw French lessons for the church.

Truth in Walsh/Keesmaat, “Colossians Remixed”

April 21, 2011

Letter to Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat,

on their treatment of truth

in Colossians Remixed (InterVarsity Press, 2004)

This is written as a personal letter to Brian and Sylvia, based on a letter I actually sent to them shortly after their book came out.  In part I take this approach because I know Brian, and have dialogued with him on occasion.  Also, I think it is important for us as scholars to model critical and loving dialogue.  This letter will focus primarily on Part II of  Colossians Remixed, where the authors deal with the topic of truth. 

 Dear Brian and Sylvia:

Brian, I know that you have been wrestling with the epistemological implications of post-modernism for quite some time.  In 1995 you wrote Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be, co-authored with J. Richard Middleton (IVP).  I studied this book carefully and benefited enormously from your treatment of  “biblical faith in a postmodern age,” a phrase you used as the subtitle of this book.  I found myself in essential agreement with your critique of modernism.  You want to affirm the insights of post-modernism while avoiding the relativism that often follows such an affirmation.  Again early in Colossians Remixed you explicitly say that you are not relativists (p.48).  But, it seems to me that you have not quite overcome the relativism that invariably seems to accompany post-modernism.  You use an imaginary critic to raise some possible criticisms of your treatment, but because you are in “control” of the dialogue (a power regime?),  I felt that you silenced your critic too soon.  So I want to push his/her criticisms a little further.

Why do I believe you are still relativists?  At times you explicitly reject absolutes (p.34; cf. p. 200).  You seem to be in agreement with Phillip Kenneson’s article, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing Too” (p. 128).  Further, even though you say that you are not relativists, you really don’t spend a lot of time showing how you are not relativists.  I felt that each time you seemed to be showing why you are not relativists you tended to skirt the central issue involved.  For example, while Chapter 7 is titled, “What is Truth?” you skirted the problem of the status of truth by moving to the topic of incarnating the truth.  I agree that truth needs to be embodied in a person.  But that is not a definition of truth. On page 130 you explicitly reject a definition of truth as correspondence between ideas and reality.  But, why can’t truth be defined as correspondence with reality, and be embodied in a person at the same time?  You seem to fall prey to the either-or fallacy in this passage, as you do elsewhere.  For example, on page 119 you suggest that we should be committed to Jesus Christ, not to rationality.  Why can’t one be committed to both? 

Back to the importance of incarnating the truth.  I agree that Christ was the incarnate word of God (p. 130).  I agree that the Christian community is called to incarnate the truth of Jesus Christ.  But, if you place all the emphasis on Christians incarnating the truth, and if we as human beings are always situated, finite, and fallible, then you are still stuck with relativism.

On page 127 you agree with Richard Rorty when he suggests that there are no external criteria by which final vocabularies can be evaluated.  You then provide some criteria by which to evaluate “any” worldview.  That sounds pretty universal to me.  However, you then go on to make the criteria of such evaluation internal to the worldview itself.  Not only is this inconsistent, but the latter claim commits you to full-blown relativism.  We need criteria that anyone can use to evaluate his/her and other’s worldviews. 

I want to return to your claim in page 130 where you say that “from a biblical perspective, truth is not a correspondence between ideas and facts.  Truth is embodied in a person.”  Where do you get the idea that the Bible does not affirm the correspondence theory of truth?  You need to prove this.  I think a good case can be made that from a biblical perspective, truth is viewed as correspondence between human ideas and objective reality.  Jesus warned his disciples not to be misled by people who would claim that they are the Messiah, or by false prophets (Matt.24).  Error and falsity surely must be measured in terms of what is objectively true.  Jesus also talked about knowing how to interpret the appearance of the sky but not being able to interpret the signs of the times (Matt. 16).   “Get it right,” Jesus is saying.  Indeed, Jesus repeatedly uses the expression, “I tell you the truth” (e.g. John 10:1, 7).  “Speaking the truth” is different from Jesus claiming, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  John is described as testifying to the truth, but Jesus qualifies this by saying that human testimony alone is not sufficient to establish truth (John 5:33).  Paul talks about suppressing the truth by wickedness (Rom. 1:18).  He urges us to think about “whatever is true” (Phil. 4:8).  Again and again Paul is concerned with sound doctrine, urging Christians not to pay attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth (e.g. Titus 1:9, 14).  I find these and many other passages suggesting, at least implicitly, that truth is correspondence between what we say and objective reality.

This is not at all to reject your notion of an embodied, relational epistemology of love (p. 129).  I agree that these are additional descriptions of the meaning of truth as found in the bible.  But, these don’t preclude the notion of truth as correspondence between our ideas and reality, which I believe must in some way be the basis of these other descriptions.  I agree that all too often appeals to the truth of the gospel have served as a means for the church to evade its responsibility to live faithfully before the world (p. 128).  But, this isn’t necessarily the case.  It is possible both to affirm truth with a capital “T” and to embody the truth by living faithfully before the world.  Faithful Christian disciples affirm and practice both.

I would also suggest that you are over-reacting to the notion of absolute truth (pp.34, 157, 162, 200).  I think I know what you are really after – you want to get rid of humans mistaking their claims as absolute.  So do I.  But the psychological fact remains that no-one can escape absolutizing what they say.  As Wm. James puts it, we all absolutize like infallible little popes.  This is part of the human condition. Further, we still need an ideal, or a heuristic principle of Truth with a capital “T”.  To reject the absoluteness of the human grasp of truth is not the same as saying that there are no absolutes.  In the end I also think you contradict yourself.  On page 170, you correctly identify a contradiction in the postmodern imagination.  A statement of postmodernism cannot be made without sounding absolutistic.  With regard to ethics, you clearly advocate one way of life as good and the other as bad.  Two themes running throughout your book are a rejection of oppressive empire and consumerism.  I appreciate the way that you develop these themes and agree with you.  But are you not proposing that oppressive empires and consumerism are wrong, really wrong, and when you do this are you not affirming “absolutes”? 

I can hear you, Brian and Sylvia, objecting to my critique by saying that I am still suffering from a modernist hangover, or that I am still a foundationalist, or that I suffer from Cartesian anxiety (p.117).  My reply to this is that I am not at all a Cartesian foundationalist.  I am not looking for an absolutely certain starting point.  I admit that we cannot reach absolute Truth.  I acknowledge my own uncertainty and doubt.  I agree entirely with your critique of foundationalism and modernism.  But I think you are over-reacting.  Your critique does not entail that we need to dismiss modernism entirely.  Here is where I believe that you again succumb to the either-or fallacy.  I believe the insights of modernism and postmodernism can be reconciled, and indeed, need to be reconciled.  So how can this be done?

It seems to me that you need to distinguish more sharply between the human search for truth, and Truth as an ideal.  Here I include a section of my book In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges  (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, pp. 212-214).

            Emphasis on the particularity of human reason is not without its own pitfalls, however.  It does away with the notion of truth and the search for a common truth.  What postmodernists reacting to the Enlightenment fail to realize is that without the notion of truth, they have in fact undermined their own critique of the Enlightenment.    Why listen to postmodernists if they are merely one voice among many other relative voices?  Postmodernists further invariably contradict themselves!  They seem unable to avoid talking about their post-modern viewpoint as better than that of old-fashioned modernism.  Better in terms of what?  It seems difficult not to talk about objective and universal truth in some sense. 

            It is here where I see the need to arrive at a more thorough reconciliation of the epistemological insights of modernism and postmodernism.  Yes, there are limitations inherent in our search for truth and we need to be honest about these limitations.  However, I in no way want to do away with the notion that human beings must, and invariably do, attempt to transcend these limitations in their search for universal truth.  Without balancing the emphasis on limitations with an equal emphasis on the need to try to transcend these limitations, we end up with epistemological relativism.  While the human search for truth may be relative, we still need a notion of Truth with a capital “T” (see Figure #1:  Ladder of Truth – as found on p. 214 of my In Defense of Religious Schools and Colleges, and on p. 69 of my The Ethics of Evangelism)                                

        Here it might be helpful to return to [Thomas] Nagel [1986].  Although we cannot get a view from nowhere, according to Nagel, there is within each of us an impulse to transcend our particular personal point of view.  This occurs because we recognize that it is merely a point of view, a perspective, and not simply an account of the way things really are.  “The recognition that this is so,” he writes, “creates pressure on the imagination to recast our picture of the world so that it is no longer the view from here” (1986, 70).  In other words, each of us is aware of the possibility that our particular perspective might be wrong, and so we aspire to “the view from nowhere,” to a view uncontaminated by any perspectival factors.

            This aspiration which drove the Enlightenment is admirable, but what we cannot do is transcend our particularity in any absolute manner, and it is here where we need to listen to what the postmodernists have to say.  For Nagel, this quest for self-transcendence is bound up with a realist account of human knowledge, that is, an account in which “the universe and most of what goes on in it are completely independent of our thoughts” (92).  Without this approach of “critical realism” (i.e. a critical search for truth about objective reality) we remain stuck in the quagmire of relativism or scepticism.

William James captures the heart of my diagram when he says that the absolutely true is “that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will someday converge” (1968, p. 170).  I concede that we as human beings are stuck with temporary truths.  But, we still need a goal of absolute truth. 

Where does this absolute truth reside?  In God.  Why the need for Truth with a capital “T”?  Why the need for James’ notion of “the absolutely true” as an ideal vanishing point?  Here are some suggestions:

            a.  Epistemological need:  This is the only way we can do justice to the realization that our particular perspective might be wrong, and that we aspire to “the view from nowhere,” a view uncontaminated by any perspectival factors.

            b.  Logical need:  Why do we argue with one another?  We do so to correct error.  And how do we recognize error?  We can only do so in relation to some ideal that is not in error.

            c.  Psychological need:  We cannot avoid treating our temporary truths as though they were, for the time being, absolute truths.  We treat our convictions as functional absolutes.  At the same time, we feel the need for an ideal of absolute truth.

            d.  Proselytizing need:  We are by nature proselytizing animals.  In writing your book, you were trying to persuade the reader that your point of view was in fact true.  Indeed, you end the book with a plea to readers never to give up their tenacity for truth (p. 233). 

            e.  Theological need:  Contrary to what you say on p.130, I believe the bible teaches that truth is somehow correspondence between ideas and the way things really are.  The omniscient God is an absolute reference point.  God speaks.  God spoke creation into being.  He calls us to adjust our lives to the way in which he created all things. 

Can I prove the existence of this Truth with a capital “T”?  No.  Here I think you will agree with me.  Ultimately this is an item of faith, but not blind faith.  I have just given several reasons why we need the notion.   And even post-modernists acknowledge this need in their “weaker” moments.

Enough for now.  As you can see, I have read your book carefully.  And again, I want to say that I found your work very inspiring.  The above criticisms are offered in love and in our common pursuit of a more complete truth.

Blessings on you both,


Curriculum After Babel

January 5, 2011
 (Published in Agenda for Educational Change, edited by John  Shortt & Trevor Cooling.  Leicester:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1997, pp.165-80)[i] 

There would seem to be two Babels, an ancient and a post-modern one.  In Genesis 11:1 we read that “the whole world had one language and a common speech.”  But after Babel, the LORD confused the language of the whole world and scattered the people over the face of the whole earth.  Hence the “problem” of linguistic diversity and all that that entails.  Attempts have been made to return to pre-Babel times.  Postmodernists like to describe modernism in terms of another attempt to devise a universal language and a universal rationality. But we are experiencing another confusion of tongues, and various philosophers have invoked the image of Babel to describe postmodernism with its emphasis on multiple narratives and multiple forms of rationality (Stout, 1988, pp.1-2).

            In the first section of this paper, I want to argue that the postmodern Babel lends credence to the idea of a uniquely Christian curriculum.  But how does one describe the way in which a Christian worldview shapes the curriculum?  And can one affirm the uniqueness of a Christian curriculum and yet allow for commonness with curricula based on other worldviews?   After addressing these issues, some implications will be drawn for education in both Christian and state-maintained common schools.

Defense of the Possibility of a Christian Curriculum

            There are some who have objected to the very possibility of a uniquely Christian curriculum (Hirst, 1974, p.77).[ii]  However, such opposition to the very possibility of a Christian curriculum seems strangely antiquated in the light of more recent developments in philosophy.  Since the ground-breaking work of Thomas Kuhn (1962/1970), it is generally recognized that observation is theory-laden. The doctrine of “immaculate perception” which was at the heart of the traditional conception of science is now regarded as fundamentally flawed (Leahy 1990, 140).

            This, and other more recent epistemological developments, would suggest that rationality, knowledge, the justification of our beliefs, and by implication, the curriculum, are, to some degree, shaped by presuppositions and worldviews, by historical, social, and even psychological conditions.[iii]  The idea of a universal and neutral rationality is now recognized to be itself an expression of a particular narrative, an Enlightenment narrative.  All this is at the core of postmodernism, and all of this would suggest that the idea of a uniquely Christian curriculum is not at all far-fetched.

The Problem of Relativism

            There is, however, a danger inherent in the above justification of the possibility of a Christian curriculum. An appeal to postmodernism raises the spectre of epistemological relativism.  While all postmodernists stress that our access to “objective” reality is always mediated by our own particular perspectives, worldviews, or conceptual constructions, some go much further, suggesting that reality is a purely human construct. Thus, any “truth” we claim for our cherished positions becomes problematic and is often radically relativized.[iv]

             But postmodernists who carry their views to such an extreme invariably contradict themselves!  They are forced to concede that we can communicate, despite our conceptual differences. They also seem unable to avoid talking about their postmodern viewpoint as better than that of old-fashioned modernism.  But better in terms of what?  Better presupposes a best!

            The private worlds of extreme postmodernists also tend not to remain entirely private.  Human constructions of reality seem to be subject to certain constraints, suggesting the inescapability of the notion of an objectively “given” reality.  And we also seem to find it difficult not to talk about objective and universal truth in some sense.[v]  

            It would thus seem that we need to retain some elements modernism.  We therefore need to find some way to reconcile the epistemological insights of modernism and postmodernism, avoiding the extremes in either position (Toulmin, 1990, p.175).[vi]  Clearly our beliefs are to some extent human constructions, but this is not to say that they are just that (Clark & Gaede, 1987, p.82). Hence many writers have adopted a form of “critical realism” as a compromise position.  Clearly our knowledge is always partial and particular, but it is not just that. There is a non-relative goal to our search for truth, and there are criteria by which to assess the adequacy of our human constructions in relation to this goal, although this is admittedly a complex process.[vii] 

            William James, the American pragmatist, prophetically captures this reconciliation between modernist and postmodernist themes when he describes the absolutely true as “that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will someday converge” ([1948]1968, p.170).  For the orthodox Christian the aim of temporary truths is to produce human constructions of knowledge that conform to the ideal of God’s truth (Clark & Gaede, 1987, p.84). 

The “Foundations” of a Christian Curriculum

            It is time to move on more specifically to a consideration of a Christian curriculum.   In what follows, my indebtedness to what has come to be known as Reformed Epistemology will be apparent.[viii]  I want to deal with some of the key issues that have arisen in contemporary discussions of a Christian curriculum, responding in particular to a lively recent exchange on this topic in Spectrum (Allen, 1993; Velten, 1994; Smith, 1995).

            It would seem self-evident that for the Christian, the sacred writings of the Old and New Testaments should play a “foundational” role in the development of a uniquely Christian curriculum.  Here it should be noted that there are some Christians who seem to deny this, claiming that the Scriptures are only concerned with salvation and spiritual matters.[ix]

            Clearly, the Bible is first and foremost a book of religion and not a textbook in history or science.  But as Smith observes, although the Bible does provide the answer on how to be saved, it also contains a great deal of information on how Christians are to interact with the world once they are saved (1995, p.11).  Further, the scope of redemption is not limited to persons, but includes the whole of the cosmos (Romans 8:18-25; Colossians 1:19-20).  The above objection to Scripture as a “foundation” to a Christian curriculum rests on a sharp divide between spiritual and earthly/cultural matters, an unfortunate legacy from American Fundamentalism which most evangelicals today reject (Buss, 1994).

            It is important, though, to recognize that the Bible is not the only “foundation” for a Christian curriculum.[x]  In addition to God’s special revelation, there is what theologians refer to as “general revelation” – God’s revelation in nature (Romans 1:20; Psalm 19:1-4).  Indeed, general revelation is the more immediate and normal source of much of our knowledge, even for Christians, a point stressed by Catholic theologians, but one to which evangelical and Reformed theologians have not always paid sufficient attention (Curtis, 1994, p.94).  It needs to be stressed, though, that for the Christian this general revelation is still God’s revelation.

            Here it might be well to draw attention to a problem that arises in special and general revelation being the “foundations” of a Christian curriculum.  Reformed epistemologists, very much in keeping with some emphases in postmodernism, stress that we must not forget the human interpretative dimension in understanding both God’s special and general revelation.  It must not be assumed that Christians can read the Bible in a neutral or positivistic manner which bypasses all problems of interpretation.  Hermeneutical problems also arise in the reading of God’s general revelation.  Christians come to the Scriptures and also to the world around them with presuppositions and biases, and these can lead to distortions and even errors in interpretation.  Hence there is a constant need for critical discernment and re-evaluation of one’s reading of the Scriptures and nature.

            It is not possible here to explore the complex relation between special and general revelation, except to note that these need to be kept in balance in developing a Christian curriculum (Curtis, 1994, p.100; cf. Wolterstorff, 1984, ch.13).  And it needs to be stressed that because God is the Source, Guide and Goal of all that is (Rom. 11:36), there must be a unity to all knowledge and truth.  All truth is God’s truth (Holmes, 1977).  Hence there must ultimately be coherence between the conclusions drawn from special and general revelation.

Deducing Curricular Implications from the Scriptures

            The Bible occupies a central position for the evangelical Christian.  Given what is often seen as the Christian scholars mandate –  taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), it would seem that it should be possible to “deduce” a uniquely Christian curriculum from biblical presuppositions.  It is this implication that has prompted perhaps the strongest objections to the Reformed perspective on curriculum.  Christian scholars often find it difficult to provide concrete examples of conclusions that follow from biblical presuppositions for their discipline.  Indeed, to cite just one example, neither Planck’s quantum theory, nor its denial could be derived from the Scriptures.[xi]

            Indeed, many of the claims of the sciences cannot be directly deduced from the Bible.  And therefore there is some justification for giving the label “pious rationalism” to the suggestion that it is possible (in every case) to get a “direct derivation” of curricular content from the Bible (Velten, 1994, pp.63-4).

            But if we are to make anything of the idea of a Christian curriculum, biblical perspectives and presuppositions must have some sort of influence on the curriculum.   But how is this influence to be described?   I want to review various models that have been proposed to help us understand how the Bible serves to delimit and inspire Christian curriculum.

            Allen introduces a commonly used analogy: “Our Christian beliefs should act, not so much as a pump pushing fuel into an engine, but more as a filter, letting through what is clean and keeping out what is impure” (Allen, 1993, p.19).  The filter analogy highlights an important scholastic emphasis that our beliefs in geology or psychology must not contradict any revealed doctrine of truth (Clouser, 1991, p.95).  But the negative function of filtering out what is impure can ultimately be restated positively.  Every exclusion entails an inclusion.  Thus Allen too makes certain deductions, e.g. a Christian anthropology entails the inclusion of physical education in the curriculum, and the doctrine of creation entails respect for diversity (Allen, 1993, pp.21, 23).  The Bible therefore doesn’t only work as a filter, but also as a motor and impulse (Velten, 1994, p.66).

            Some writers prefer to talk about a Christian “worldview” which changes our ways of looking at the world and hence shapes a curriculum.  Smith, for example, suggests that “worldviews are primarily lenses with which we look at the world” (1995, p.21).  For example, the Bible serves to open our eyes to creation and its normative structure, thus encouraging us to look for norms governing the political, economic, aesthetic and other spheres of life (Wolterstorff, 1980, Ch.2).

            Various writers introduce the notion of presuppositions – basic theoretical assumptions at the core of our belief system, that are often held unconsciously and that shape the rest of our thinking (Clouser, 1991, pp.101-7).  Wolterstorff describes these presuppositions in terms of “control beliefs”  which lead us both to reject certain sorts of theories which are inconsistent with these control beliefs, and to devise theories which are consistent with them (1984, pp.67-8).  Sometimes these presuppositions merely act as a general guide to developing curriculum.  But sometimes they entail specific truths for curricular content. 

            Here it is important to see that the influence of Christian presuppositions will be mediated at various levels.  The following diagram of a belief system serves to illustrate how presuppositions lead to philosophical theories, which in turn lead to scientific theories, which in turn finally lead to specific claims (see Figure #1).[xii]  All beliefs, however far removed from the centre of one’s belief system, are influenced by one’s presuppositions, though clearly those beliefs closer to the centre of one’s belief system, e.g. those related to one’s view of human nature, will be more significantly shaped by one’s presuppositions. This explains why the influence of Christian presuppositions is more apparent in some subject areas than in others.

            It should also be noted that influence does not only move from the centre outward.  Sometimes our experiences cause us to revise our theories and even our presuppositions.  As pointed out earlier, there needs to be a dynamic interplay between the conclusions Christians draw from general revelation and those drawn from God’s special revelation.  Christian presuppositions do not only influence science, but science sometimes causes Christians to correct their fallible interpretations of Scripture (Wolterstorff, 1984, p.94).



 Lessons from a Shakespearean Analogy

            Tom Wright, in a discussion of the nature of Biblical authority, has provided us with a very helpful analogy (1992, p.140).  He posits a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act has been lost. “The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement with the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged.  Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own.”  Instead, it is felt to be better  “to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.”

            David Smith, in an illuminating commentary on this analogy, applies it specifically to the area of Christian curriculum construction (1995, pp.22-4).  This analogy wonderfully highlights the need for creativity on the part of Christians in working out the implications of the biblical story in all spheres of life, including the academic sphere and the development of curriculum.

            Tom Wright’s analogy further underlines the importance of the actors immersing themselves in the first four acts and in the language and culture of Shakespeare.  The development of a Christian curriculum similarly requires a careful reading of God’s special revelation, which plays a foundational role in such development. 

            While each of the actors will no doubt have to study the first four acts on their own, they will finally have to get together in order to discuss the best way in which to work out the fifth act as a group.  Christian scholarship too should be conducted within the context of a community, allowing others to critique proposed suggestions as to what a Christian curriculum should look like (Walsh & Middleton, 1984, pp.159-61).

            Tom Wright’s analogy warns about the dangers of freezing the play into one form.  Smith highlights this point, arguing that it is impossible to arrive at a final, correct version of a Christian curriculum.  The first four acts should not be seen as a code, or a blueprint, “entailing one and only one set of practices,” or leading to “a static picture of reality.”  The analogy “allows for different (yet perhaps equally faithful) performances for different audiences and in different theatres, thus making room for the fact that the same principles will have different practical outworkings in different educational contexts” (Smith, 1995, pp.22-3).

            In seeking to be faithful performers in the area of education, Christians will not always get it right.  Though God is the author of the first four acts of the play, the Christian’s understanding of it is always incomplete.  The fact of human sin further leads Christians to resist and distort the truth.  There is the further danger of the actors being steeped more in contemporary ways of thinking and seeing than in the original characteristics of the play and its author (Smith 1995 p.23). 

            But there are public criteria by which to assess the appropriateness of the fifth act in relation to the first four acts.  Some things are simply required by the earlier acts and are not open to variation, as Smith points out (1995, p.24). Even in the creative applications of the first four acts, “there will be a rightness, a fittingness, about certain actions and speeches, about certain final moves in the drama” (Wright, 1992, p.141).  Then of course with regard to curriculum there is also the fittingness with God’s revelation in nature.  And a final more general criterion of faithfulness to the Christian narrative, is a life of faithfulness, a life of responsible action (Wolterstorff, 1980). 

            The analogy finally serves to remind Christians that every attempt to develop a Christian curriculum is in the end a human construction, at least in part.  Smith therefore reminds Christians not to credit human ideas to God or to claim his authority for the fruit of human invention (p.22).  And therefore also, any attempts to work out the implications of special revelation for curriculum must be offered tentatively and must be open to correction. This calls for critical thinking and constant reevaluation of suggested offerings of Christian thinking in various disciplines.  Humility and open-mindedness on the part of Christian scholars is essential.  But there is a goal – faithfulness to the original creator of the play!

 Transformationalism, Uniqueness and Commoness

            Much of my argument thus far has been stressing the uniqueness of a Christian curriculum.  Such thinking can easily lead to an extreme position in which communication with others starting with a different worldview or with different presuppositions is deemed to be impossible.[xiii]

            This extreme position flies in the face of ordinary experience.  Christians do communicate with others despite their differing presuppositions.  Further, Christians maintain that all human beings are created in the image of God and have access to the same general revelation.  This point is often expressed theologically in terms of the notions of “natural law” or “common grace.”  Obviously, those who reject a Christian view of human nature and reality will interpret this commonness differently, but as was argued earlier, some kind of an appeal to a common reality leading to some degree of commoness in beliefs seems to be inescapable for all human knowers.

            I would suggest that here again we need to try to maintain a balance between an emphasis on the uniqueness of Christian thinking with the rather obvious fact that Christians do, to some extent, agree with those holding other worldviews.  I suggest that it is possible to affirm, at one and the same time, that one’s belief system is unique, and that it shares truths with other belief systems (Smith 1995, p.21, n47; cf. Wolterstorff, 1984, p.83).

            Here a picture might be useful (see Figure #2).[xiv]  Imagine a series of ellipses, each representing a different worldview or belief system, but all overlapping to some degree.  Each ellipse is unique, and yet there is some common ground.   The common ground represented by the area of overlap of these ellipses will be interpreted and justified in very different ways in each particular belief system.  But what this common ground allows for is a pragmatic consensus to develop in a pluralistic world after Babel.

            Here it is important to recognize that this common ground should not be seen as a neutral autonomous sphere – a error inherent in liberalism and sometimes made by Christians in discussions on faith-learning integration.  We must further be careful not to see convergence as a criterion of truth or as a sign of intellectual respectability (I Corinthians 2:15-16; Plantinga, 1984).  Interpretation of experience is inescapable and the interpretative dimension of knowledge does not have a different epistemological status than so-called “facts” with which all agree.



            An approach which tries to do justice to the need for a balance between an emphasis on the uniqueness of a Christian curriculum and an emphasis on the common ground which Christians share with those starting with different presuppositions is sometimes referred to as “transformationalism.”  The transformationalist works from within disciplines as presently constituted, seeking to transform them, where necessary, so as to come closer to a biblically inspired understanding of that discipline (Nelson, 1987; Shortt, 1991, Ch.5).  Cooling labels this a “work-with” strategy, emphasizing the importance of Christians working with other scholars with differing worldviews, while trying to achieve a creative interplay between theological reflection and scientific/cultural analysis (Cooling, 1994, ch.10; 1995, p.156).

            There is of course always the danger that in seeking to work cooperatively with those who do not share their own presuppositions, Christians will dilute or even betray their own distinctively Christian perspective to the discipline in question. Transformation of disciplines is only possible if Christians have something new to contribute (cf. II Cor. 5:17).  Hence it is imperative that Christian scholars do two things at the same time, keeping these two activities in balance:  working within their respective disciplines together with other scholars, whatever their worldviews, and immersing themselves in God’s special revelation which will help them to gain a uniquely Christian perspective to the discipline in question.

            One other danger of a stress on the uniqueness of Christian truth is that it can lead to isolationism and even to a proud distancing from those who haven’t got the full truth. This is wrong, and betrays the incarnational emphasis of the gospel, as Velten correctly stresses (1994, p.66-7).  Just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so Christian academics too are called to identify with the academic world.  God calls Christians to be servants, both in the citadels and in the grimy houses of our civilization. 

            And how do Christians relate to others adhering to different worldviews and belief systems?  There needs to be dialogue in which each remains true to their own presuppositions, and seeks to understand the presuppositions of the other.  The Christian can approach the other with a genuine attitude of wanting to learn from the other.  Truth in other belief systems needs to be affirmed (cf. II Thess. 5:21).  Such affirmation can further serve to invigorate the Christian’s own understanding of truth. 

            Genuine dialogue, however, does not preclude criticism.  Unfortunately, this point very often not acknowledged in today’s postmodern climate.  Given that most disciplines today are governed by presuppositions which are at variance with Christian presuppositions, Christians will need to expose and critique these. But this must be done humbly and lovingly.  A defensive posture and confrontational critique might in fact be a betrayal of the spirit of Christ who taught us to love even one’s enemies.  Clearly I am  here introducing ethical considerations.  But epistemology must not be divorced from ethics, a point stressed by the Anabaptists and their peace emphasis.  The ethical and the personal might in fact have a priority over the epistemological (cf. Yoder, 1992).

Conclusion and Some Practical Implications

            I have tried to show that a Christian curriculum is possible.  Indeed, developing a Christian curriculum is both a necessary and urgent task if Christians are to do justice to recent developments in the theory of knowledge.  This does not entail subjectivism or relativism as there is an objectively “given” reality against which all interpretations rub.  Differing human interpretations of truth also do not preclude the overlapping of these particular interpretations.  I have also argued that the Bible has a key role to play in shaping curriculum for Christians.  But this is not meant to imply a simplistic model of how that happens.

            Christian schools are therefore justified in developing a uniquely Christian curriculum.  A religiously neutral curriculum is impossible.  Thus, within a Christian school, the entire curriculum will be coloured by Christian presuppositions, and Christian education will be seen as taking place in all subjects. This will further serve to combat the unfortunate fragmentation inherent in today’s widespread disciplinary approach to curriculum.  However, there is still a place for courses which focus particularly on gaining an understanding of Christian presuppositions and a Christian worldview.[xv]

            By extrapolation, other religious traditions are justified in designing curricula in keeping with their own religious presuppositions.  The argument of this chapter would therefore seem to point in the direction of a plurality of schools.  Of course, many other factors come into play before one can draw such a conclusion.  Clearly, state-maintained common schools would seem to be in a unique position to facilitate dialogue with various religious traditions, something that can and should take place within religious schools as well.  How common schools can do justice to the inescapable religious particularity of curricula is of course another issue.  I would suggest this as a main agenda item for future discussion about common schools and religion.[xvi] 


 Allen, R.T.  1993.  “Christian Thinking about Education.” Spectrum 25(1):17-24.

 Buss, Dietrich G.  1994.  “Educating Toward a Christian Worldview:  Some Historical Perspectives.”  Faculty Dialogue 21, Spring-Summer, 63-89.

Clarke, Robert A. & Gaede, S.D.  1987. “Knowing Together: Reflections on a Holistic Sociology of  Knowledge.”  In Heie & Wolfe, 1987, 55-86.

Clouser, Roy A. 1991.  The Myth of Religious Neutrality:  An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories.  Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press.

Cooling, Trevor. 1994. A Christian Vision for State Education: Reflections on Theology and Education. London:  SPCK.

 —————.  1995.  “A Reply to Elmer Thiessen and Arthur Jones.”  Spectrum 27(2):153-64.

 Curtis, Edward M. 1994.  “Some Biblical Contributions to a Philosophy of Education.”  Faculty Dialogue 21:91-110.

Heie, Harold & David L. Wolfe, eds. 1987. The Reality of Christian Learning: Strategies for Faith-Discipline Integration.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Christian University Press.

Helm, Paul, ed. 1987.  Objective Knowledge:  A Christian Perspective. Leicester:  Inter-Varsity Press.

Hirst, Paul. 1974. Moral Education in a Secular Society. London:  University of London Press. 

 ————. 1993.  “Education, Knowledge and Practices.”  In Beyond Liberal Education, ed. R. Barrow & P. White, 184-99. London: Routledge.

Holmes, Arthur. 1977.  All Truth is God’s Truth. (reprint edition, 1983)  Downers Grove, Ill.:  InterVarsity Press.

 James, William. [1948]1968. Essays in Pragmatism. New York:Hafner.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962/1970.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago:  University of             Chicago Press.

 ———–.  1977.  “Objectivity, Value Judgment and Theory Choice.”  In The Essential Tension, ed. Thomas Kuhn, 320-339. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

 Leahy, Michael. 1990.  “Indoctrination, Evangelization, Catechesis and Religious Education.” British Journal of Religious Education 12(3):137-44.

MacIntyre, Alastair. 1988. Whose Justice? Which Rationality?  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Middleton, J. Richard, & Walsh, Brian J. 1995.  Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be:  Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age.  Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press.

Nelson, Ronald R.  1987.  “Faith-Discipline Integration: Compatibilist, Reconstructionalist, and Transformationalist Strategies.”  In Heie & Wolfe, 1987, 317-339.

 Perks, Stephen C. 1992.  The Christian Philosophy of Education Explained.  Whitby, Avant Books.

 Plantinga, Alvin.  1984.  “Advice to Christian Philosophers.”  Faith and Philosophy 1(3):253-271.

 Quine, W.V. 1953. From a Logical Point of View.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shortt, John. 1991.  “Reformed Epistemology and Education.”  Ph.D. thesis.  University of London Institute of Education.

Smith, David.  1995.  “Christian Thinking in Education Reconsidered.”  Spectrum 27(1): Spring, 9-24.

Stout, Jeffrey. 1988.  Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discourses.  Boston: Beacon Press.

Thiessen, Elmer John.  1985.  “A Defense of a Distinctively Christian Curriculum.”  Religious Education 80(1):37-50.

 ——————-. 1995.  “Review Article on A Christian Vision for State Education.” (by Trevor Cooling, London: SPCK, 1994) Spectrum 27(2):145-52.

Toulmin, Stephen.  1990.  Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  New York: Free Press.

Velten, Dieter. 1994.  “Christian Thinking in Education.” Spectrum 26(1):59-70.

Walsh, Brian J. & Middleton J. Richard.  1984.  The Transforming Vision:  Shaping a Christian World View.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press.

Wolters, Albert M. 1985.  Creation Regained:  Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Wolterstorff,  Nicholas. 1980.  Educating for Responsible Action.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

 —————-. 1984.  Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (2nd. ed.)  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Wright, N.T.  1992.  The New Testament and the People of God. London:  SPCK.

Yoder, John Howard. 1992.  “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel:   Particularity, Pluralism and Validation.”  Faith and Philosophy 9(3):285-300.

 Young, Michael F.D.,ed. 1971.  Knowledge and Control:  New Directions for the Sociology of Education.  London:  Collier-MacMillan.


[i].  I am grateful for the helpful comments that were made when first presenting a draft this chapter at the “With Heart and Mind” Conference, held in Regina, Saskatchewan, May 14-17, 1995.  My thanks also to the independent reader and to the editors of this volume for their many helpful suggestions and careful editing of earlier drafts of this chapter.

[ii].  For a response to Hirst, see Thiessen, 1985.  It should be noted that Hirst now expresses some dissatisfaction with the idea of a universal, secular rationality, thereby acknowledging at least the second Babel (1993).

[iii]. See, for example, Clark & Gaede, 1987;  Young, 1971; MacIntyre, 1988; Clouser, 1991; Middleton & Walsh, 1995.

[iv].  Hence the title of a recent book on postmodernism by Middleton and Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be (1995). 

 [v].  For a defense of objective knowledge from a Christian point of view, see Helm (1987).

[vi]. Jeffrey Stout also attempts such a reconciliation with regards to ethics in Ethics After Babel (1988).

 [vii].  Various writers, including postmodernists, have identified such criteria as the ability to interpret and encompass all empirical data, consistency, breadth, simplicity, fruitfulness and pragmatic considerations (Kuhn, 1977; Walsh & Middleton, 1984, pp.36-9; Cooling, 1994, pp.79-85).

[viii].  Reformed Epistemology can be traced back to John Calvin and other leaders of the sixteenth century reformation.  Key figures in its development are Abraham Kuyper in the nineteenth century, and some contemporary American philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. See Shortt (1991) for a recent account of this approach to epistemology and its educational implications.

[ix].  Velten, for example, characterizes the Bible as primarily theological in nature, and this leads him to draw the rather extreme conclusion that “there are no biblically-deduced subject-area contents” (1994, pp.60-4, 69-70). 

[x].  This is an unfortunate error that is at times made by those adhering to a Reformed Epistemology, for example, Van Til, who holds that education should be “based exclusively upon the Bible” (Quoted in Shortt, 1991, p.70).

[xi].  See for example, Wolterstorff, 1984, p.59; Heie & Wolfe, 1987, pp.vii; Nelson, 1987, p.328, ftn.#6.

[xii].        This diagram is inspired by Quine’s important essay, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1953, pp.20-46; see esp. Section #6).   Shortt addresses the issue of varying degrees of influence of Christian presuppositions by introducing the notion of a “hierarchy of perspectives” (1991, p. 70).

 [xiii].  For example, Stephen Perks argues that Christians and humanists “can never agree fundamentally on the interpretation of the facts of reality at any point if they are consistent with their presuppositions.  For the Christian and the humanist, therefore, there can be no common ground” (Perks, 1992, p.28 – my emphasis). 

[xiv].  I have borrowed this from a presentation made by Trevor Cooling who also argues for overlapping belief systems (1994, p.115).

[xv].  For two excellent resources on this, see Wolters (1985) and Walsh/Middleton (1984).

[xvi].  For a defense of state education based on an epistemological framework similar to the one outlined in this chapter, see Cooling (1994).  See Thiessen (1995) for a criticism of this defense, and Cooling (1995) for a response.

A review essay of Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” (Jossey-Bass, 2001)

December 17, 2010

We need a new kind of Christian and a new kind of church for the new postmodern world that we are living in.  So says Brian McLaren in his widely-reviewed book A New Kind of Christian.  See Books and Culture (Jan/Feb 2002; May/June 2002) for three reviews and a response by McLaren entitled, “Faithfully Dangerous.”  Such a bold claim deserves attention, and it would seem that McLaren is getting a lot of attention among evangelicals.  An appearance in Toronto in 2002, co-sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, drew a crowd of about 200, an estimated half of whom were pastors.  What do we make of the claims of this latest evangelical guru? And what do we make of the current preoccupation with postmodernism among many evangelical scholars and leaders?

The central thrust of McLaren’s book is taken from the apostle Paul’s declaration – “to the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews” (I Cor. 9:20).  In contemporary lingo this reads, “to postmoderns we as Christians, and the Christian church, need to become postmodern.”  But what does postmodernism mean?  Here we are instructed by one of the central characters of the book, Neo, an ex-pastor, now a high-school teacher, who has acquired a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science and so should know what he is talking about.  Fundamentally, postmodernism is a reaction to modernity which grew out of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on rationality, science, objectivity, and truth, and which gave birth to modern technology and the emphasis on technique.  While Neo gets the essence of the modernity right, in a careful analysis early on in the book, he fails to follow through on a careful analysis about the nature of postmodernity.  This, together with the fact that he loads the notion of postmodernity with a whole lot of extra baggage which has little or nothing at all to do with postmodernity, contributes further to what one reviewer has described as an ongoing kind of promiscuity surrounding the term.  More on this extra baggage later.

There are several problems with the central thrust of the book.  Mclaren seems to be very sure about what it means to be living in a postmodern world.  While he admits that we have yet to realize the full implications of postmodernism, he, like most postmodernists, pontificates about postmodernism, which in fact is a very unpostmodern thing to do.  You see, postmodernists reject the ideals of rationality and objectivity that characterized the modern world.  There is no real world out there, nor is there truth about this real world.  Instead, reality is artificially constructed, dependent on whatever interpretation we want to impose on it.  So perhaps McLaren’s postmodern world is merely a construction of his own mind, another relativistic portrayal of the world.  As such, it can be easily dismissed as just one man’s subjective interpretation. 

Given that postmodernism is only in its infancy, as McLaren admits, there is of course a good deal of speculation involved in portraying this new world for which we need a new kind of Christian.  Thus it behooves us to view his recommendations with some caution. This speculative dimension of McLaren’s analysis has the further unfortunate effect of giving those who have been “enlightened” about the emerging new world a lot of power over the unenlightened.  Thus we as average church goers need a guru to help us navigate this new world that we are living in.  And so we need to devour McLaren’s books, attend his seminars, and bow down to this new authority.  But, what if he has got it all wrong?   And, more importantly, what if postmodernism is fundamentally wrongheaded?

Of course, by suggesting that McLaren’s characterization of postmodernism and/or postmodernism itself might be wrong, I am using a very pre-postmodern term – I am one of these unenlightened people who still thinks in a binary fashion – right-wrong, true-false.  Unfortunately, once you give up these binary categories, anything goes.  Well, not really – it is the position held by those with the most power which will win – hence the sad spectacle on our university campuses where the search for truth has been replaced with a struggle for power.  Sadly, it would seem that we are moving in this direction in evangelical churches, with enlightened postmodern pastors forcing their visions for the church onto their benighted parishioners.  Whatever happened to Peter’s reminder to pastors not to lord it over the flock (I Peter 5:3)?  Whatever happened to Paul’s reminder that we should honour the old and that the old should perhaps mentor the young (Eph.6:2; Titus 2:4)?  And, whatever happened to Paul’s reminder that we only know in part (I Cor. 13:9)?  Perhaps there is still a need for the modern notion of truth to which we should humbly bow.  Indeed, McLaren himself cannot avoid appealing to this old-fashioned notion of truth –  he has got it right, and traditional evangelicalism has got it wrong.  Postmodernists and relativists like McLaren, invariably contradict themselves.

McLaren advocates change.  We need a “new” kind of Christian.  Interestingly, McLaren has raised some concerns about the title of his early book and its emphasis on newness (Leadership, Winter 2005).  But one wonders how sincere this confession is given the title of his more recent work, Everything Must Change (Thomas Nelson, 2007).  And now, hot off the press, a new book, entitled, A New Kind of Christianity:  Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (Harperone, 2010).   Clearly McLaren is still preoccupied with change, and newness, and transforming the faith, and adapting to the postmodern world that we are living in. 

Here of course McLaren is very much reflecting modern liberalism with its faith in the inevitability of progress.  Note that he is here reflecting “modern” liberalism, again a very unpostmodern thing to do.  Modern liberalism says that change is good.  The new is necessarily better than the old.  But these assumptions are simply false.  Change can be for the worse.  The new can be inferior to the old.  In a society that is degenerating change represents decay.  The old was better than the new.  Of course there is a danger in hanging on to the old.  Jesus warned us of the dangers of traditionalism.  But there are equal dangers in “changism,” to coin a new term that is desperately needed in our day to highlight the silliness of worshipping all that is new and avant-garde.

A comparison that McLaren himself makes might be instructive here.  He suggests that his project is the same as that of the Reformers who adapted the gospel to the post-medieval world.  This is revisionist history-making at its worst.  What the Reformers were about was the correction of departures from authentic Christianity.   Christianity had changed for the worse.  The Reformation involved a return to the old rather than an accommodation to the new world.

But there is a more fundamental problem with Mclaren’s analysis.  He is assuming that Christians and the church need to adapt to the new postmodern world that we are living in, indeed, we need to become postmodern.  Of course, there is something right about this – to the Jew we need to identify with the Jew to some extent, as Paul stated.  But we must be careful not to misinterpret what this passage in I Corinthians is saying.  Paul, in fact, is careful to qualify what it means to become like a Jew or a Gentile in seeking to win them for Christ (see brackets in I Cor. 9, vss 20 & 21). One thing this passage is not saying is that we need to become worldly in order to win the worldly, and yet that is how McLaren seems to be interpreting and applying this passage.  There are necessarily limits in this matter of Christians adapting themselves to the world they live in when communicating the gospel.  Indeed, there comes a point when the Christian must lovingly and yet boldly tell the Jew that he or she has got it wrong.  So, another perhaps more appropriate way to describe our witness to the world is terms of loving confrontation rather than adaptation.  There are in fact significant problems with postmodern thought and the postmodern way of life, and so the challenge of today’s Christian is not to become a postmodern Christian, as McLaren maintains, but to understand postmodernism and then to confront postmodern non-Christians with the truth of the gospel.

This is not to suggest that I disagree entirely with what McLaren says.  I believe that he has some important things to say to evangelical Christians today (and here I will be reviewing some of the other themes dealt with in this book). Unfortunately, because of McLaren’s preoccupation with, and selling out to postmodernism and that which is new and different, even these positive contributions become distorted.  For example, I agree that very often evangelicals’ approach to Scripture has been too literalistic and legalistic.  I agree with McLaren that the authority of Scripture finally rests in the God behind Scripture.  But the latter emphasis, and McLaren’s own postmodernist emphasis on the subjectivity of interpretation, finally undermines the authority of Scripture.  God did reveal himself.  God does speak.  There are authoritative and universally applicable commandments found in the Scripture.  And so we need to listen to His Word, and not just to our own subjective interpretation of this Word.  Yes, the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth as McLaren reminds us, but the Holy Spirit will not speak on his own but will remind us of what Jesus said and did (John 16:12-13).  Holy Spirit talk, all too often, unfortunately, masks subjectivist and egoistic and postmodernist leanings.

I agree with McLaren that there is a danger of taking a mechanistic (hence modern) approach to having personal quiet times of meditation on God’s word and prayer.  But surely there is a place for spiritual disciplines, as Richard Foster has so effectively reminded us.  Of course the term “disciplines” has a modernist ring to it, but perhaps some modernist emphases were good!   Interestingly, McLaren suggests that postmodern spirituality will reintroduce some of the medieval forms of spirituality.  Why this return to something pre-modern?   I further agree with McLaren that we are all on a spiritual journey and we must be more careful not to think that we have arrived, at least on this side of eternity.  But our spiritual journeys must finally be guided by God’s Word, or else we will soon be swimming in a sea of subjectivity.

I agree that evangelicals have been too preoccupied with personal sin and have generally failed to address the problems inherent in the many forms of structural evil in the world today.  But we must be careful not to discount the importance of personal sin. Surely, we can emphasize both personal and structural evil.  And, let’s not forget that God’s written word is really quite specific and clear on quite a few matters of personal sin, unless of course we give in to a postmodernist, narrativist, subjectivist approach to interpretating Scripture.  We can’t just reject ethical absolutes because they seem so law-like, ah yes, so modernist.       

I agree with McLaren that we need a more sympathetic approach to dealing with other religions.  Surely the doctrine of common grace allows us to affirm partial truth in other religions.  But, we must be careful not to give in to postmodern relativism which would demand of Christians that they give up entirely in making exclusive claims to truth.  Although he tries to avoid these dangers, I’m not sure McLaren successfully navigates these difficult waters. I also agree that we as evangelicals are at times too preoccupied with technique in evangelism – another modernist emphasis.  But even relational (postmodern) evangelism can be abused, as McLaren himself recognizes.

I agree with McLaren that the church today needs to become more relational, more of a community.  But even here we must be careful not to overemphasize the human dimension of the church – Christ is still the head of the church.  We must also be careful not to assume that the community is a determiner of truth, as so many postmodernists claim.

I return to the title of McLaren’s book and to my underlying concern.  Do we really need a new kind of Christian for this postmodern world that we are living in?  Indeed I am uncomfortable with the very language being used.  Ought there even to be different kinds of Christians, let alone new kinds of Christians?  Might it be better to talk instead about a need to return to being a more authentic kind of Christian.  Of course we need Christians who are able to understand and witness to the faith in our postmodern world.  But this doesn’t require a different kind of Christian? What it does require is what authentic Christians have always been –  faithful reflections of Jesus Christ, and adept at relating to the contemporary world just as Jesus was adept at relating to his world.

Yes, we as Christians need to be relevant to our time. But we must be very careful to ensure that the demands of relevancy do not lead to a reconstruction of the Christian gospel itself.  Jesus said that “every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matt. 13:52).  Mclaren’s overall project, I would suggest, is fundamentally wrongheaded because of his overemphasis on the new and his failure to hold on to the old.