Evangelicals and Postmoderns Together (Part 1 of 3)

[This began as an essay for a class at Trinity International University on worldviews and Christian thought. It now runs more than triple the length of the original — because the internet, unlike my professor, has no page limit. This post is the first of three, and is certainly the most academic, nuanced, boring and wordy. I highly recommend skipping to the second or third post.]

Millard Erickson’s book Postmodernizing the Faith reviews the attempts by six Evangelicals to respond to postmodernity. After introducing the concept of postmodernism, Erickson summarizes three negative and three positive perspectives, at length, and criticizes each before presenting his own preliminary answer. He also encourages Evangelicals to listen to attempts at synthesis with critical but open ears.

The book is intricate — almost irreducibly complex — but regardless I will attempt to briefly summarize each summary before evaluating some aspects of the overall dilemma of a postmodern Evangelical theology (Part 2) and concluding with some anecdotal observations and future study direction (Part 3). 

My summaries sequentially grow in length; I attribute this to my own writing incompetence and lack of focus, and to the content itself becoming more abstract and less accessible as Erickson continues.

Author Meta-Summaries

David Wells: “Just Say ‘No!’” Wells, a historian by trade, begins with the argument that somewhere between the middle of the eighteenth and middle of the nineteenth centuries lies a great historical divide. Before this divide was the Age of the West and after the divide lies Our Time.

The word modern means two different things: modernity was an intellectual movement that began with the Enlightenment, and these people fit all of reality within the mindset of natural reason; additionally, modernity is a sociological situation involving many factors. Interestingly, the intellectual half is irrelevant compared to the societal half, because ideas are not what really count.

“What shapes the modern world is not powerful minds but powerful forces, not philosophy but urbanization, capitalism, and technology. As the older quest for truth has collapsed, intellectual life has increasingly becomes little more than a gloss on the processes of modernization. Intellectuals merely serve as mirrors, reflecting what is taking place within society. They are post-modern in the sense that they are often disillusioned with the emptiness of the old Enlightenment ideals, but they are entirely modern in that they reflect the values of the impersonal processes of modernization” (27).

Intellectual modernity began with the Enlightenment and died near the end of the nineteenth century; around that same time, sociological modernity began (26-27). So, this all muddles the relationship between modernity and postmodernity, which is much more complex than historians and philosophers would like to admit. The word modernization refers to the transitional phase, and modernity is the result after that transition has happened; the same is true of secularization, after which one can observe secularity.

The transition from pre-modern to modern was accompanied by secularization, as “the restructuring of thought and life to accommodate the absence or irrelevance of God” (31). Modernization has divided life into a private and a public sphere, and to minimize antagonisms in the public sphere, religion is moved in the private. As a result, most people, if not religious, learn values from systems like the economy, the political government, universities that generate and disseminate knowledge, and mass media.

After this historical context, Wells argues that in response Evangelicals have mistakenly abandoned confessionalism and resort to teaching love and obedience, which abrogates the formal core of Christianity (34). The formal core of Christianity is to believe the Apostle’s teachings; this is what is has always been and this is how the faith is described in scripture.  Wells is basically calling for a return to truth– not just to content of truth, but to the idea of truth itself (36). Evangelicals ought to “Just Say No!” to postmodernism.

Thomas Oden: “Back to the Future.” Oden describes modernity as

  1. the time elapsed from 1789 to 1989 and as
  2. a combination of self-actualized freedom, moral relativism and naturalistic reductionism, autonomous individualism and narcissistic hedonism (47, 49). 

These are the ideas that: humans should strive for freedom based on self-actualization, or “finding yourself”; morality is not a fixed code to be discovered but a set of values that are neither right nor wrong; all things can be reduced to natural explanations, including human behavior; the individual is greater than the collective and has claim to sovereignty of themselves; an idol is made of one’s sensuality, body and immediate pleasures, meanwhile all values are subservient to making oneself happy.

Each of these modern strands are hidden killers. Oden examines in great detail how each of these tendencies has led to “friendlessness, disaffection, divorce, drug abuse, and the despairing substitution of sexual experimentation for intimacy,” among other effects (51). But we haven’t seen this effect until long after modernity began. The postmodern phase is therefore not actually post-modern, but ultra-modern, a “terminally fragmenting” form of the same period as modernity (50). Modernity has reached its death throes, seen in what philosophers call postmodernity.

What will come after postmodernity for Evangelicals? Oden believes the answer is

“classical orthodox Christianity. By that he means the consensual core of beliefs that has been held by a majority of the church throughout the span of its historical existence, embodied in such documents as the ecumentical creeds of the early centuries. It is this body of material, long over-look or ignored by mainline Christianity, that will prove to be a vital source of postmodern [meaning after ultramodernism] orthodoxy” (54).

Oden is also recommending a new voice for the Scriptures, which have unfortunately been subjected to critical assault; the critical assault has carried many modern assumptions; these criticisms will die as modernity dies (55, 56). The problem with modern theology is that it has “bought into the whole mentality of modernity, and thus suffers all the shortcomings that it posses” (57).

Christianity ought to be the true post-moderns by rejecting the modern emphasis on only objective historical events and returning to paleo-orthodoxy, a term coined Oden uses to mean the replacement of historical event emphasis with an emphasis on the early century creeds and writings (57).

Francis Schaeffer: “Escape to Reason.” A movement started in the nineteenth century whose product was not seen until the twentieth century, as “later modernism” (64). There was a whole set of assumptions then, which happened to accord nicely with Christianity, that are different from the assumptions of later modernism. Among these assumptions is the idea of absolutes in morality and in physicality. Around 1890 in Europe and around 1935 in the U.S., this changed, and society began to slip below the “line of despair.”

The Line of Despair is a contrast between two types of thinking:

“living above the line of despair, philosophers had attempted to develop a worldview, an effort to interpret the whole of reality from within one’s own experience”

“All this changed below the line of despair. Now Kierkegaard and those who followed him abandoned the idea of being able to draw a circle that would include everything. Now if rationalistic humanity wants to deal with the real things of life, such as purpose, significance, and the reality of love, it must be done by a nonrational leap of faith.”

Postmodernism is “the loss of logical antithesis, thoroughgoing relativism, and the loss of metanarrative” (64), or the natural products of living below the line of despair. The postmodern perspective cannot be lived in the world (69), but the Christian persepective can (70-76). A real, living human just cannot consistently live below the line of despair; they can claim to do so intellectually, but to also do so physically and socially would lead one to suicide. 

This forms a great tension within the non-Christian perspective, where their beliefs oppose their world, but they live closely enough to their world that they settle on inconsistency. How can Christians deal with such inconsistent people?

Rather than convincing non- Christians to adopt Christian presuppositions (as many attempt), Schaeffer tries to push them towards consistency, to remove the brakes holding them from living the logical conclusions of postmodernity (78). This may have very dangerous results (again, suicide), but is the solution to evangelism and leading them to Christian presuppositions.

Having considered three negative responses to synthesizing Evangelical theology with postmodernity, Erickson turns to three positive responses to synthesis.

Stanley Grenz: “To Boldly Go Where No Evangelical Has Gone Before.” Grenz defines postmodernism not as time period so much as a broad cultural phenomenon. Postmoderns reject the modern mindset, but under the conditions of modernism. First, what is modern?

Descartes and Newton both contributed to the modern mindset, their ideas founding the view that “human reason is the means of discovering the systematic truth present in the orderly word” (84), the human reason half coming from Descartes and the orderly word from Newton. For these moderns and those who would come after, knowledge is certain, objective, and inherently good.

This all started to crumble in time. Nietzsche was an early attack, but it didn’t really pick up until deconstruction, which was a response to structuralism. Structuralists said that since life is meaningless, societies try to make documents and texts that give it some meaning. Deconstructists replied, twenty years later, that even those texts are meaningless because readers always read-in their own meaning to the texts, so the meaningless life cannot really be encapsulated in a meaningful text, since even “meaningful” is up for interpretation! The world “is only an arena of one person’s interpretation against another’s” (86), and as Foucault argued, people in power are often the ones putting forward interpretations (which advance their power and violence).

Grenz thinks that Evangelicals are moderns. Even though Evangelicalism really formed in the fundamentalist movement in the 1910s and 20s, which was a pushback against modernity, Evangelicalism is based on the same modern mindset of certain, objective and inherently good knowledge. (I would add that the anti-modernity of fundamentalists was in response to the results of modernity, namely evolution, not against modernity itself). But since our society is moving past modernism, Evangelicals need to find a way to present the gospel in postmodern terms (89). But is this possible? And more importantly, how will this be done and how will Evangelicalism and postmodernism have to be altered?

Grenz thinks that Evangelicals cannot accept postmodernity’s skepticism; they must retain the correspondence theory of truth. They also must retain the metanarrative of redemption (creation-fall-redemption-consummation).

But, Grenz does think that the scientific method isn’t the only pathway to truth; some things remain outside of reason (91). Also, keep in mind that Evangelicals believe in original sin; a natural subdoctrine of original sin is that all aspects of humanity are fallen, including the mind. Can humans be rational if blinded by sin? Even more, Grenz rejects the inherent goodness of knowledge since, though knowledge of science has increased dramatically in the past century, so has the destructive application of that science against other humans also increased in the past century. We learned a lot about atoms. We used the atomic bomb. Knowledge itself is not good, people must apply knowledge in a good way.

So what does a postmodern Evangelical theology look like?

  1. “[it] begins with a shift in the basis of the definition of evangelicalism from primarily a theological system to a type of spirituality, focused on the experience of the new birth.
  2. Second, the locus of theology is revisioned. Rather than a summarization of the doctrinal teachings of the Bible, it is reflection on the beliefs of the community.
  3. There is also to be a revisioning of the sources of theology. For Grenz’s theological methodology calls for the employment of three sources: the Bible, the tradition of the church, and the culture. The latter is to supply the though-forms for the expression of the message…
  4. Finally, the nature of biblical authority is to be revisioned. Traditionally evangelicalism has moved from the idea of revelation to the doctrine that the Bible is an inspired preservation of that revelation and is therefore authoritative. But, says Grenz, ‘the assertion of the inspiration of Scripture cannot function as the theological premise from which bibliology emerges, nor as the focal point of our understanding of the relation between the Spirit and Scripture.’… ‘because believers in every age hear in them the voice of the Spirit as they seek to struggle with the issues they face in their unique and ever-changing contexts'” (92-93).

An Evangelical postmodern theology should be communal rather than individual; without altogether rejecting the Biblical emphasis on individual salvation, this brand of theology would emphasize that the individual is always part of a culture, which influences their ideas. The individual (non-community-member) dispassionate theologian does not exist.

This should be mysterious rather than rational; there are some dimensions of reality the rational scientific method does not touch. If one tries to use rationalism to understand these untouchable things, they will reduce theology to a “cool, calculating dissecting of God, listing his attributes in the form of timeless propositions” (95).

An Evangelical postmodern theology should be bodily rather than dualistic; for hundreds of years the Enlightenment modernists emphasized the soul/mind over the body, which has leaked into theology. Grenz thinks that postmoderns, who reject such a distinction, are closer to the perspective of the Biblical writers. There must be an integration of “the many dimensions of the human person into a single whole, including a new concern for the place of emotion and intuition in our lives” (96).

Finally, this synthesis must enrich the spirit rather than just the mind; knowledge is a good, but not a good in and of itself. In other  words, knowledge has instrumental but not intrinsic value. So, theologians can never settle for lists of propositions; they must have a “right heart” or the “right head” is dead, because beliefs shape conduct (97).

J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh: “Theology is Stranger Than It Used to Be.”, Middleton and Walsh had written an earlier book and were about to publish a very revised second edition, but their editor recommended an altogether new book. This new book forms the basis of Erickson’s summary.

Modernity is a combination of naturalism, belief in a progress that lies always ahead, belief that progress will be achieved through scientific advancement, and a rejection of ecclesiastical authority (104). These were problematic because in the end humanity did not achieve the progress that modernity promised; two World Wars and the Great Depression made this clear. Because society no longer believes in the progress feature of modernity, postmodernity has begun. 

What is real? Moderns thought that if one carefully guarded the objectivity of their methodology, they could find truth (105), meaning that the idea in their head corresponds to an actual thing in the world, independently of the thoughts in the thinker’s head. MIddleton and Walsh introduce this great metaphor to describe perspectives using three umpires for foil; the umpire represents a person, the ball/strike represents reality, and their phrase represents how they view reality:

The first umpire (“There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ’em the way they are”) is the naive realist, assuming that his or her judgments correctly reflect the reality that they claim to describe.

The second umpire (“There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ’em as I see ’em”) is a perspectival realist (or perhaps a critical realist).

The third umpire (“There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin‘ until I call ’em”) is a radical perspectivalist. Many postmodern thinkers, according to Middleton and Walsh, are represented by this third umpire. They doubt whether there is anything “real” beyond our judgments (105-106).

The problem that postmoderns raise over and over is that the first umpire thinks he has access to “reality” apart from his perspective. But nobody has that access. People can never “get outside our knowledge to know reality in some direct fashion. It is always mediated to us by our linguistic and conceptual constructions” (106). Can the socially conditioned person  claim to know morality if they can’t even know truth? What if the system of morality they follow is actually just Western morality, or American morality, or Illinois morality, or Conservative morality? How, if there is more than one morality, and they happen to already be privy to one, can they objectively decide?

Postmoderns like Derrida have deconstructed these arbitrary social constructs. Deconstruction “tries to help people see that what seems so natural to them is actually cultural in origin. It attempts to dismantle the totalizing visions that have been used to disenfranchise minorities and open the door for justice” (108). The deconstructionists also do this to the very concept of self, arguing that the self always expressed itself in violence, and is socially constructed.

Middleton and Walsh often alternate between “late modern” and “postmodern” because we are in a period “of cultural transition, where genuinely novel features coexist side by side with continued, even heightened, central features of the older period and philosophy” (111).

Their synthesis begins by acknowledging that metanarratives are not themselves good or bad, but can be used for good for bad. The Biblical metanarrative does not justify oppression against various groups, like some accuse of it, but instead demonstrates concern for the oppressed (112). (This is a difficult statement to defend.) (They defend it.)

The ultimate solution to all this pedantic counterpointing and posturing comes on page 119, where Middleton and Walsh are quoted as saying “Far from being a closed book about a story that has ended, the Bible authorizes our faithful enactment of the Author’s purposes precisely in order to continue the story across the pages of history,” meaning that the Christian life is an improvised scene, acted out after the intermission (Acts 28), and believers need only stay faithful to the earlier script (everything before Acts 28) so that the scene appears continuous together with it. We also have access to the author of the story, who left us the Spirit (120). A faithfully Evangelical and postmodern thinker lives a narrative life continuous with the narrative of scripture.

B. Keith Putt: “De/con/structive Evangelicalism.” In Putt, Erickson finds a scholar who has not written much, and Erickson’s summary depends mostly on unpublished papers, Putt’s dissertation, a one chapter entry in a textbook, and such. Yet Erickson does piece together something, and from it should obviously follow that Putt has completely accepted the premises of deconstruction; the interesting fact is how he remains an Evangelical.

Moderns want certainty; from the time of Plato onward, men searched for a foundation upon which to build all knowledge. They have sought to

“undertake an epistemological archaeology, and ‘dig’ back through the layers until one can discover a bedrock of first principles (archai) upon which the edifice of learning rests. Only if such a beginning can be located can there be any hope for establishing objective and certain truth.”

Even though Plato and others were premodern, they had in common with moderns this search, this foundationalism.

Modern thinking is a “quest for certainty” while postmodern thinking is a “stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable ” (128, 130, underline courtesy of Putt), which is a very positive framing of the perspective that since humans cannot have certainty, they should not desire it. Postmoderns abandon the search for a totalizing systemization of truth.

Much of the rest of Putt’s argument is based on his reading of John Caputo, another postmodern, Christian (but not Evangelical) philosopher. So Caputo must be summarized before Putt can answer.

Caputo begins with Derrida, saying that Derrida “is not affirming subjectivity, but epistemological humility” (though, note, this may not actually be what Derrida was saying). So, while they may seem like similar mindsets, there is a difference between saying that one cannot know truth because it’s really difficult and saying that one cannot know truth because there is no truth at all. Simple thus far, but after this, it gets messy.

For the longest time, Caputo thinks, people have turned to metaphysics or ontotheology to try to find their bearings. They point to something external to all of this, usually God or some type of highly-abstracted ethical system, and use that as a reference point for morality, truth, meaning, and such (133). They think that if you abandoned this external reference point, then you could have no morality, truth, meaning and such. But Caputo says that, actually, you can have those things without it. Here is how:

Truth must be “recognized as an effect, not something dropping into the play of textuality from some transcendental beyond.” One can avoid both absolute truth and nihilistic dread because “deconstruction gives us the desire to keep the debate open” [not sure how this follows] (134). We also need community [I’m very unsure of how the points on pages 134-135 follow each other; I am trying to summarize Erickson, who summarizes Putt, who summarizes Caputo, who at times summarizes Derrida. Maybe a meta-meta-meta-summary is exponentially more difficult than a meta-summary]. There is some fine distinction between the Greek ideal of the Body and the Sanskrit word for Flesh, and the Latin obligare for obligation comes into play, [this all gets muddy and I’m convinced I have now found a passage so far beyond my accessibility that the words are meaningless to me].

All of that aside, Putt’s theology of theopassion beings. Readers cannot enter the text of Scripture without their preconceptions; there is no “objective” starting point. This should be a common refrain by now. Putt makes the point, in more clarity here than others have managed, that though God has divinely inspired the scriptures, this inspiration “does not void their also

  1. being historical texts developing within certain contexts,
  2. being transmitted through tradition, and
  3. having to be read and interpreted by each new generation” (136).

But Putt wouldn’t say that you can’t have truth. You just can’t claim the one true interpretative structure of scripture. We should always be suspicious and question the presuppositions of interpreters. So there is an element of subjectivity

Now, sure, the scriptures are subjectivized, but they still don’t have an infinite number of meanings; the sentence “God created the heavens and the Earth” cannot legitimately be taken to indicate an interpretation something along the lines of “David’s affair with Bathsheba was legitimate only insofar as Bathsheba consented to the affair.” (This is my attempt at an example of Putt’s argument, not his). The text does limit itself.

But in addition to the text itself limiting an infinite number of interpretations, there is another factor that caps the number. Biblical interpretation is always done within communities, or by people influenced by their community.” This is how relativism and subjectivism are overcome, then: by submitting one’s interpretation to interaction with other members of the community” (138). The Spirit helps communities out.

Putt emphasizes the suffering (passion) of God (theo), or theopassionism, meaning that he largely agrees with “free will theism” or “the openness of God” theology (this can be a topic for later research) (140). Here he ties in Caputo. Caputo outright rejects incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection (?!?!?!?!?!?), so his theology obviously needs adjusting by Putt. Putt’s God (stylized with an X through the o) “is clearly not the timeless, impassible, immutable God” (141) characterized by modern Christians. Putt’s God can be affected by the events of history, since God cannot suffer or love “in some Eternal Now” outside of time as humans understand it.

There are, I will admit, myriad issues with the contradiction between Christ’s deity and the doctrine that God never changes. God obviously changed form in some way, at least a bit, in becoming Christ. How can this be resolved? By asserting that God actually does change, which is most true on the Cross of all places, where Christ becomes “the ultimate expression of nonbeing.” Also explored is the dilemma of God forgiving something by paying for the debt. Putt pivots back to Caputo, who argues that “forgiveness cannot be established upon a foundation of revenge and repayment. To forgive is to take a loss.” This amounts to a rejection of penal substitution as the theologian’s primary soteriology. All of this argument is constructed without reference to scripture, depending instead on just “the biblical view” (143). I am now sure how Putt’s theopassionate God is more defensible to the points of postmodernity than the immutable God of modernity.

End of Part 1.

Part 2 coming soon.


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