Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Postmodern Apologetics

Culture is organic, it changes throughout history as we continually react to and discern the concepts and ideals passed down to us. It is, in fact, our responsibility and every generation’s responsibility to look at what we’ve been taught—what’s been passed down to us—and discern what we should pass down again to the generations after us and what should be left behind. This task of passing down and leaving behind philosophies and ideals is a necessary but strenuous task. We must carefully and critically consider the state of our culture and its dominant philosophies. As Christians we must take this responsibility especially seriously realizing that we are not simply passing down correct thinking but we are indeed passing down the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must consider how the gospel should be communicated to our culture well enough to translate it into the language of our culture. Therefore apologetics are not simply arguing the validity of our faith; rather, it is entering into an ancient conversation about the world and God’s interaction with it. Apologetics starts with a question: what is my culture thinking and how will the gospel make the best sense in that context?

As reluctant as many are to admit it, we are living in a postmodern culture. Many in the Church are ignorant to this apparent shift in thinking and many of those who are not ignorant are defiantly opposed and are fighting against the current so hard and so fast that they haven’t rested long enough and haven’t dropped their sword long enough to consider that postmodernism might not be as evil as they think and might actually offer a better way of thinking of God and the gospel than the one they’ve adopted. Of the few who have considered the possibility most have discovered that Christianity and Postmodernism can co-exist and the gospel can still be the gospel in this postmodern Christianity.

Why do so many Christians feel threatened by postmodern philosophy? What are we so worried about? What we’ve failed to realize I that our modern way of thinking has not always been the “right” way of thinking. Our commitment to reason and science is actually relatively new dating back to the enlightenment when reason took the throne of truth. And we’ve also failed to realize that our version of reason is not the only option and is also relatively new. We start with the assumption—the presupposition—that there is an objective and universal truth out there that everyone shares. We assume that every rational person will come to the same conclusions simply based on universal reason despite differences in culture and social context. Truth, we believe, must be objective and cannot be subjective otherwise it isn’t truth it’s an “opinion.” All of these assumptions spawn from an obsessive commitment to and a religious faith in science.

But what if science is not as objective as we think it is? The great medieval astronomer Galileo was the first to contest the theory that Planets revolved of “crystalline spheres.” His observations were made by looking through a new and highly unreliable invention called a telescope. Even Galileo himself admitted that the telescope would produce “optical illusions” that were difficult at best to differentiate from the actual observations. When he noticed moons rotating around the planet Jupiter and that they were not disrupting or crashing into the crystalline sphere he concluded that there couldn’t be any crystalline sphere. Because of his trust in his telescope, he was confident in his conclusions but his opponents were not. “As the mathematician asks Galileo in Bertolt Brecht’s dramatization of the story, ‘But has it occurred to you that an eyeglass through which one sees such phenomena might not be a too reliable eyeglass?’”[1] Galileo’s observations were not accepted until the consensus agreed upon the reliability of his method. And is this not how any science works? Any seemingly objective scientific conclusion is dependant upon consensus and interpretation. If my method of proving something is not trusted by my peers and authorities, then it will not be considered proven. In the end when we believe we are searching for objectivity we are using subjective methods. We have decided that our formulas are trustworthy and therefore we trust that our conclusions are objective. What if we are looking through a unreliable eyeglass? “It is not impossible to make good arguments for Galileo’s position. Galileo himself made some, and, given subsequent developments, we are in a position to make even more. But those arguments cannot appeal to a single decisive experiment or discovery that, in isolation, settles the question.”[2]

The insight of Derrida sheds more light on this subject in his discussion of how to interpret the meaning of a text. He wrote “there is nothing outside the text.”[3] Now, before anything else we should address how this statement has been widely misunderstood for it has indeed been misunderstood. Derrida has been inaccurately interpreted to say that there is really nothing out there that is of any substance besides the text themselves. He has come across as what we might call a “linguistic idealist (someone who thinks there are only words, not things),” arguing that the text isn’t referring to some reality outside its pages at all but is referring to essentially nothing because the words of the text are the only thing that is real.[4] We come to this conclusion only when we take Derrida’s statement out of context. In Derrida’s work Grammatology, he is dealing in response to the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau “which addresses a topic that deeply interests Derrida.” Rousseau saw language and the text as a sort of buffer that separates us from reality. In reading a text we are reaching in vain for a “pure, unmediated experience” or our existence as it really is. Thus, Rousseau assumes that there is point where you are no longer interpreting anything but you are in fact seeing things as they really are. “But was there ever a time without interpretation? Will there ever be a time when we don’t interpret...? Enter Derrida.”[5]

Derrida doesn’t buy the presupposition that we can ever swim past the text like a curtain to some pure reality. He suggests that “there is nothing outside the text,” which is really to say that there is no reading that does not involve interpretation. “Texts that require interpretation are not things that are inserted between me and the world; rather, the world is a kind of text requiring interpretation.”[6] In the end we can never really get past our experience of things. In science there is never a point where I can observe objective reality, for in the end I am merely trusting my experience and, thus, my interpretation of an formula and its solution. Our scientific conclusions, therefore, are dependent on a consensus. Like in Galileo’s case; if I am the only one who trusts my eyeglass then my conclusions are pointless.

How then, if it’s all about interpretation of experience, can I talk about the gospel as being true? It’s merely an interpretation and so there must be others and it must not be “true.” This threat comes from our insistence of using “objectivity” and “truth” interchangeably. But what if something doesn’t have to be objective in order to still be true? Just because something is an interpretation doesn’t mean it can’t be a true interpretation. For example, when I entered the room in which I am typing I sat down on a chair by a desk. I went through the process of interpretation so quickly that I didn’t realize that I, at some point, interpreted this so-called “chair” as such. I walked in and sat in the chair, all the while trusting my interpretation without a shadow of a doubt, and began to type. Now, the chair is not beyond my interpretation of it. I could have interpreted it to be my computer (and this paper would have taken much longer to produce) or my desk. Even in this crass example of judging things according to their function we can all agree that my interpretation was true, it was accurate. This is indeed a chair, though that conclusion was dependent upon my interpretation and any future labeling will involve the same interpretation, and I am sitting in it, thus it is serving what I have interpreted to be as the best function of a chair. The truth, even about something as simple as calling a chair a chair, is dependent upon interpretation. “What we see is shaped by what we already know, by other things we see, and by what we expect.”[7] This is frightening because now we have to change our method. We can no longer argue from the standpoint of objectivity. We must now begin from the even playing ground of interpretation arguing that our interpretation of truth is the true one, just as my interpretation of the chair was a true one, evidenced in my sitting in it among other factors.

Another thing we’ve failed to realize about our way of thinking against postmodernism is that we have placed reason and rational on the throne of truth as the “sole guarantor and deliverer of truth.”[8] Helpful to our discussion will be an understanding of what Lyotard meant in his famous statement that; “Postmodern [is] incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is “suspicion and disbelief in ‘big stories.’”[9] What are big stories? If the Christian faith is one of those stories (because it is best understood as a narrative) then we have reason to wish to jettison Lyotard’s conclusion, but once again we must look at context. What Lyotard is after is not the stories or even the scope of the story. His reservation is not against a story such as the Christian story simply because it makes claims about the world, how the world really works, what it was meant to look like, and what it will look like in the end. Lyotard is after how we argue for this story, how we tell our story. “For Lyotard, Metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories… that also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the stories claim by an appeal to universal reason.”[10] A metanarratives, then, is the story told by science. For example if you look at the account of the Creation in Scripture versus that of what I’ll call the story of science there is a much different approach. In the Biblical narrative there is no intrinsic appeal to reason. The story teller starts with the presupposition that there is a God and then goes on to explain that this God created the world, and it only tells how God did it insofar as it says “God said let there be… and there was.”[11] Never does the author claim any sort of rational high ground and systematically explain why any rational human being will come to this conclusion (they simply didn’t think this way which helps argue Lyotard’s point that this is a distinctly modern phenomenon). Yet this is precisely the method of the story of science. Science collects “data” and “facts” and argues, using formulas and equations, why their point makes reasonable and rational sense, thus why any rational person should arrive at the same conclusion. Thus kerygma and proclamation, for Lyotard, are the only ways to tell the story. This view is actually helpful for Christians since our Scripture is kerygmatic in nature and appeals to revelation rather than reason. Science is not excused from being “grounded in a narrative.”[12] Science, as we already established, is not objective and it depends on everyone buying into the same narrative, particularly the modern narrative, where reason is king and scientific formulas are the law. If we don’t agree in the trustworthiness of the formula, don’t experience or interpret the “data” in the same way, if we haven’t committed to the same narrative then science doesn’t prove anything. In the end science proclaims that it is the best and this proclamation is accepted not on the basis of reason alone but as a story of how reason works—as a metanarrative. “The method’s of Science do not prove a uniquely rational and objective way of discovering truth.”[13]

If I were to ascribe to a different narrative which might, for instance, commit to the notion that this thing we call reason isn’t reasonable. If I were to examine, for example, the equation: 2+2=4 and I decide that the results were unreliable because the formula was imperfect and I disagree with you, you might call me crazy or ignorant. This brings us to the mysterious Foucault. Foucault would suggest that our decisions about what is rational and who is insane are based on “a network of power relationships.”[14] Because of who or what we have placed in power we have created our reality of what is normal, sane, rational, reasonable, etc. In fact our whole basis of knowledge is based on this. “Our judgments about how to classify properly rest on our assumptions about the separation between the objective world and subjective observers…”[15] Whoever we put into power has, by our giving them those powers, authority to create reality not just react to it. Somewhere down the line we allowed something or someone to decide for us that reality could be experienced objectively and that became our reality. Thus mouths were shut. Science replaced religion as the new religion of the new regime of power. We can see now that it’s not just that we have assumed that we could get beyond interpreting (which Derrida competed against) and it’s not just that we have assumed a narrative of reason (as we argued with Lyotard) but it is also that we have allowed our social construct, our web of influence to shape us into its own image. Christians fear this Foucaultian relativism because it advocates that there is no real true or good statement. But in this Foucault has no basis upon which to make his claims. As William C. Placher argues;

“When reason becomes the accomplice of repression, Foucault argues, it is time to challenge the claims of reason, time to show how the very definitions of what is rational grow out of interests in the powerful. But the nature of his project raises obvious questions. Foucault attacks the very idea of standards of ‘good’ and ‘true’ because they can serve to support systems of repression. But the moral force of his attack depends on our recognition that such repression is a bad thing. That in turn seems to require some standard by which we can judge that freedom is better than repression—really better, objectively better—just the kind of judgment Foucault set out to undermine”[16]

By inference we get a very negative view of power; that power is “repressive and oppressive.”[17] It is possible that, uniquely from most postmodern thinkers, the Church has embraced Foucault as a way to combat Him. He has led us to distrust all the powers over us. We have began seeing ourselves as individuals rather than as a community so as not to be accused of being influenced and to show Foucault that we are not shaped by our authorities, no one tells us what to do. In this we have accepted Foucault’s negative view. We have detached ourselves in masses from denominations out of distrust of having someone else tell us what to do. “Can we who claim to be disciples…be opposed to discipline and formation?”[18] Isn’t the Christian project essentially about a people being conformed (or recovered) into the image of God—the image of Christ? So how can we adopt such a negative and pessimistic view of authority? Instead we should as community come together and allow ourselves to become part of the narrative and allow ourselves to be shaped and molded by the narrative and by the sacraments—continually being shaped by the reign of God over us—and what the sacraments do to us in conforming us to Christ’s image.

The Christian Apologist must, for a culture dominated by suspicion of the modern project, embrace postmodern methods. Learning from Derrida we must resist the temptation to argue a truth that is objective and beyond interpretation. Instead, we must argue that ours is the best possible and most true way to live and approach the world. The Gospel doesn’t need to be objective to prove itself as good news, and we should present it as such. Too often we get so caught up in rationally proving the gospel that we don’t give people the chance to “taste and see that the LORD is good.”[19]

From Lyotard and Foucault we must resist the temptation to place reason on the throne and instead allow ourselves to be shaped by the narrative. The Apologist has the freedom, in this, to go back to the gospel as a proclamation of revelation, inviting others to join is in acting out the story of God’s redeeming and everlasting love for the world. The apologist needs not argue and prove Christianity as his or her primary goal, rather he or she must invite. Apologetics is an invitation not an argument. We invite people into our story because we know that it is the best way to live and truly be alive.

Postmodernism is not our enemy. It must be thoroughly and critically considered. When we take the time to do this—when we examine, with charity, the philosophies with which we are very uncomfortable we will find that the gospel’s truth transcends all of our boundaries of reason and science. Apologetics is, now, no longer just from Christians to non-Christians as defense of faith. It is a reaffirmation of faith for Christians who don’t understand what the gospel is really about. Apologetics is the task of presenting the faith in every context. If a Christian is convinced that their faith only works within the context of enlightenment and modern thinking then the apologists job is to shatter that misconception.

In a world closed behind the walls of rationality and reason, desperate for the fresh air of story and revelation, let us be the conduit for bringing life-giving breath. May we be the voice of truth and beauty in the language of our culture—the proclamation of the Kingdom of God in a crippled world.



[1] William C. Placher, Unapologetic Theology () 41.

[2] Ibid

[3] James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism () 21.

[4] Ibid 35.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid 39.

[7] Placher 27.

[8] Smith 62.

[9] Ibid 63.

[10] Ibid 65.

[11] Genesis 1

[12] Smith, 66.

[13] Placher 51.

[14] Smith, 85.

[15] Placher 93.

[16] Ibid 94.

[17] Smith, 101.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Psalm 34:8

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