Christianity in a Postmodern Context

J.R. Rozko / Box # 889

Question 9: Write a description (either from your own experience or from imagination) that fills in box 3 below. Modern Postmodern 1 3 2

Liberal Conservative

Anglo-American Postmodernity (PH 530) Dr. Nancy Murphy Fuller Theological Seminary – Winter ’06

Rozko 1 Introduction Truth is stranger than it used to be. This is a title from a book by J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh. The very fact that someone could choose a title like this for a book clearly exhibits the shift in the West of the macro-culture1 from a modern one to a postmodern one. In modernity, truth could never be thought of as strange, it was just the truth, plain and simple, black and white. However, various strands of postmodern philosophy have given scientists and theologians alike pause in terms of how they approach their fields and how they conceive of truth. In modernity, Christianity was bifurcated into two main groups, conservatives and liberals. Conservatives have tended to emphasize personal devotion to prayer and Bible study and featured a gospel which entails something of a here/there sort of dualism whereby salvation is seen primarily as securing ones place in Heaven by confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior. Discipleship then is reduced to managing sin in ones life and finding various ways in which to serve and evangelize. Liberals, on the other hand, have tended to emphasize personal devotion to acts of civic duty and social justice. The gospel for them entails more of a now/then sort of dualism whereby salvation is best understood as creating the best possible society (Heaven?) here on earth. Discipleship for liberals then is more focused on addressing societal and social sin and going about the task of lobbying for legislation that makes for a more just society. The question at hand is, “Must these remain the only options for Christians as we move into an increasingly postmodern culture?”


I use “macro-culture” here because not all the various sub-cultures in the West can appropriately be described as postmodern.

Rozko 2 What I will aim to do in this paper is to highlight some of the more major shifts in terms of postmodern philosophical thought, namely, those of epistemology, linguistic theory, and metaphysics. Then, I will draw correlations between these fields and that of Christian theology. Finally, I will offer some thoughts as to what the implications for Christianity and the church in postmodernity might be. What I hope to show is that these philosophical shifts, inasmuch as they free us from some of the trappings of modernity and offer alternative ways of thinking and seeing, have the potential to help Christians, of both liberal and conservative persuasions, find a new way to dialogue and co-exist. From Foundationalism to Communal Discernment In beginning to discuss the postmodern shift with regard to epistemology, it is first necessary to understand its modern history. Epistemology in the modern period grew out of a system known as foundationalism. “Foundationalism is a theory about knowledge… Some historians trace foundationalism all the way back to Plato, but more commonly it is identified with modern philosophy, beginning with Rene Descartes.”2 Simply understood, Descartes aimed to strip away all that which he claimed to believe until he came to a fact which was indisputable and universally applicable. The result was his famous, cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” Then, based on this foundation, Descartes proceeded to add items of belief that could be logically derived from this foundation such as his idea of God, and the notion of formal reality. However, certain philosophers have noted serious problems with a foundationalist approach to epistemology. “Foundationalist philosophers have pursued two broad strategies in seeking categories of beliefs suited to serve as justification for the rest of


Nancey Murphy. Anglo-American Postmodernity, 9. (hereafter – AAP)

Rozko 3 knowledge.”3 Empiricists seek to advance foundationalist knowledge based on sensedata, trusting that which we sense and perceive as reliable and therefore counting as knowledge. The problem comes when two people attempt to speak about the same things, but convey different sense-data, different experiences. If we do not have agreement about what is being perceived, then it would seem that we can make no objective claim to knowledge. The other strategy was a rationalist one. Rather than trusting in senses and experience to provide knowledge, this strategy emphasized reason and logic. This was the strategy which Descartes seemed to employ. However, “Descartes’s strategy has been rejected by most philosophers simply because, in the passage of time, it has turned out that what is indubitable in one intellectual context is all too questionable in another…”4 In the modern period, theologians adopted (whether critically or uncritically remains a point of debate) this foundationalist system and operated out of it as they went about their task. As in philosophy, the result was two camps of people, one which sought to build on a foundation of experience (liberals) and another who sought to build on a foundation of Scripture (conservatives). These groups face the same criticisms and critiques as their philosophical counterparts. Liberals have to figure out what to do with people experiencing the same thing in different ways, or not at all. And conservatives have to address the issue of not all people deducing the same things from their logical and reasonable reading and interpretation of Scripture. This brief synopsis of

3 4

Nancey Murphy. Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, 90. (hereafter – BLF) BLF, 91.

Rozko 4 foundationalism and its criticisms must suffice as we focus more specifically on what has followed. Alasdair MacIntyre has been most influential in developing an alternative theory of epistemology. According to MacIntyre, a tradition always begins with some contingent historical starting point, an authority of some sort, usually a text or set of texts. A tradition is a historically extended, socially embodied argument about how to best interpret and apply the formative text(s).5 So, rather that beginning with a foundation on which everything else rests, MacIntyre suggests a community based approach to interpreting and reinterpreting a central authority in light of new insights into that central authority as well as taking into consideration present context. “Consequently, experience is just as necessary a contributor to theology as the formative texts, and the opposition between Scripture and experience as sources of theology dissolves.”6 It is not difficult to see, then, the great potential this approach to epistemology, and therefore theology, has for reuniting members of the same body of Christ who see themselves as divided over the issues of Scripture and experience. Inasmuch as Christians are willing to release their mental grip on foundationalism as the best way to go about theology, there emerges a great hope of an expression of the Christian faith in our postmodern context that was lost through the period of modernity. Most notably, MacIntyre’s epistemological theory affords liberal and conservative Christians alike the opportunity to reclaim something central to the identity of the people of God which was lost in modernity, namely communal discernment. Through the whole of Scripture we see the people of God relying on one another to discern the voice and will
5 6

BLF, 103. BLF, 106.

Rozko 5 of God for them as a people. The individualism which characterized modernity resulted in the loss of this art. Perhaps our postmodern context will help us reclaim it. From Referentialism to World-Shaping Linguistic Participation Theological liberals and conservatives have also tended to adopt modern linguistic theories.7 While “conservatives emphasize the factual nature of religious language,” and have therefore sided with a propositional approach to language, liberals tend to speak “in terms of the aptness or adequacy of religious language,” and have therefore adopted an expressivist philosophy of language.8 The first group sees language as a way to make truth claims about objective realities. The second sees language as merely that which expresses personal feelings, attitudes, or opinions. As with foundationalism, these modern philosophies of language have unfortunately served to divide Christians unnecessarily. Ludwig Wittgenstein, although he did most of his work in the early 20th century, has been a major influence on postmodern shifts in linguistic theory. His central theme may be understood as the idea that language and life are intertwined and inform one another. Life is lived through language and language informs and shapes life.9 I take his point here to be that the language we use actually helps to both create the reality in which we live as well as describe the way we can express that reality. Furthermore, propositionalism and expressivism are both marked by an individualistic approach to language. For conservatives, since language conveys objective reality, neither context nor community enters into the equation. Likewise, since
It also may be the case that, opposed to adopting these theories of language, the philosophy of them merely uncovered what was already implicit in the tradition (as Murphy notes in AAP, 37). 8 BLF, 36-37. 9 Class notes, Anglo-American Postmodernity; Fuller Theological Seminary, Winter ’06, Dr, Nancey Murphy.

Rozko 6 liberals see language simply as that which describes ones personal feelings or emotions, context and community may matter, but only for that individual. Wittgenstein’s ideas about language and its uses move us beyond both these approaches. As he understood it, grammar/language cannot be truly understood apart from practices and practices happen neither in a vacuum devoid of context nor apart from community. Hence, both the role of context and community come to bear on how our language is formed and thereafter, how our language forms us. As with MacIntyre’s epistemological theory, Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory provides liberal and conservative Christians with a fresh alternative for understanding and using religious language. To understand language as both a tool we use to express things as well as a means through which we understand and actually help create reality is to abandon the false dichotomy created by modern linguistic theories. It is also to reclaim the unique role of the Church in shaping disciples. Rodney Clapp notes, “It is the community called ‘church’ that teaches people the language and culture that enables them to know Jesus as Lord. And it is the church in the fullness of its life – not primarily its arguments – that drawn others to consider the Christian faith.”10 A postmodern philosophy of language, I believe, will be a participatory one. Christians will once again take very seriously biblical literacy and learning the language of our faith. Because of the reciprocal nature of language described above, we can hope that postmodern Christians will be more intentional about the language we use. Perhaps by employing a postmodern understanding of language, conservative and liberal Christians will be able to wed the languages of Scripture and experience in such a way


Rodney Clapp. Border Crossings: Christian Trespasses on Popular Culture and Public Affairs, 29.

Rozko 7 that we will be able to dream together about the future of the mission of the Church in the world and so begin to shape the world through our language. From Metaphysical Atomistic-Reductionism to Embodying a Metanarrative The easiest way to explain metaphysics as understood in modernity is through the expression, “the whole is exactly equal to the sum of its parts.” Therefore, just as chemistry can be reduced to and understood through physics, so too can communities be reduced to and understood through individuals. It is clear to see then that the individualism which characterized both foundationalist epistemology as well as linguistic theories finds expression in metaphysics as well. However, the reductionist assumption of the modern scientific worldview has turned out to be false in some instances and thus false as a worldview. There are aspects of the nature of behavior of an entity at, say the biological level that can be explained in terms of chemistry, but there are also aspects of its behavior that can be described and accounted for only in terms of higher-level processes, for example, at the level of ecology… In place of a metaphysical view passed on atomism and reductionism, we need to begin explicating a worldview that is holistic in the sense that it recognizes that whole systems and their parts mutually condition one another.11 I would like to suggest that the carryover of metaphysical atomistic-reductionism to theology can be most clearly seen in how both liberals and conservatives approach the task of theology in general. Each group has what has been called a “systematic” approach to theology; liberal and conservative theologians alike, though differing in their approaches based on their leanings toward either a Scriptural or experiential foundation as well as an expressivist or propositional linguistic theory, have, nevertheless, gone about their theological task in the similar manner of producing volumes of systematic theology which pick the Bible apart topically. As with their philosophical counterparts, liberal and conservative theologians have operated under the notion that, indeed, the

BLF, 143-144.

Rozko 8 whole of the Christian faith is best understood by reducing it to and explaining it by its parts. With the contributions of philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others as a vital backdrop, I believe theologians like Hans Frei, James McClendon, Stanley Hauerwas, etc., who espouse a more narrative approach to theology, provide the best option for a way forward. Why is seeing theology narratively so important? Because, “…the God Christians worship is a God who does not shun history and contingency. Ours is a peculiar, electing God believed to have chosen a particular people and finally to have worked most decisively through a particular man.”12 Our God is the author of an unfinished story. As opposed to interpreting the Bible through the lenses of our present context as systematic theologians tend to do, narrative theologians seek to interpret our present context in light of the narrative of Scripture. Another way of framing it would be to note that narrative theologians, rather than beginning with contemporary issues and concerns and then scouring the Bible to see what advice or knowledge it offers, instead endeavor to understand Scripture holistically as a dramatic event of God’s interaction with His people and the world. To go about theology in this manner, follows the postmodern shifts in terms of metaphysics in that it is neither atomistic nor reductionistic. It is not atomistic by virtue of the fact that it seeks to understand the canon of Scripture holistically as opposed to segregating it into testaments, books, chapters, or verses. Further, it is non-reductive in that it takes into account the influence of both biblical and present contexts as well as the role of community in interpretation. To engage in the enterprise of Christian theology in

Clapp, 38.

Rozko 9 this manner is, in my opinion, quite a bit harder and more complicated than utilizing a systematic approach, but I find it to be more faithful to the character and nature of God as well as more promising for uniting and equipping the body of Christ for its mission in the world. To make a grand leap, what narrative theology does in terms of uniting conservative and liberal Christians is to give us a basis for asking new questions to which we can find common answers. In modernity, liberals and conservatives divided when they sought to answer questions like, “On what foundation does our religious expression rest?” In postmodernity, perhaps we will be better served by asking, “Of what story am I a part?”13 Metaphorically, what I think narrative theology does for Christians in postmodernity is to take away the Gestalt picture14 that liberals and conservatives constantly fight over and replace it with, not a new image to be seen, but with a story to be lived. Conclusion The question at the beginning of this paper was whether or not traditional liberalism and conservativism need remain the only options for Christians as we enter an increasingly postmodern culture. I hope to have made the case that this is not so. I believe there is emerging both a post-liberalism and a post-conservativism that may yet be able to be identified together. Discipleship in this new (postmodern?) expression of Christianity will be a happy marriage between the current notions and practices of


Part of a quotation from Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue.


(old lady looking left and down or young lady looking up, to the left and away)

Rozko 10 conservatives and liberals – not a mere joining of the two, but a reinterpretation of each based on new ways of doing theology, using religious language, and understanding knowledge. Nothing can be surer than the fact that as our culture becomes increasingly postmodern, how the Christian faith is expressed in and through the Church will shift as well. What is not so certain is what this Christian shift will entail, what it will look like, and if it will move us closer to or further away from God’s vision for His people and the world. I must conclude that inasmuch as liberal and conservative Christians can find ways to unite themselves through the avenues of communal discernment, linguistic participation that aims at shaping the world, and embodying a Christocentric (and therefore cruciform) metanarrative, we will be on a good track to a united post-liberalism and post-conservativism. I hope by now it is clear that in my opinion the great desire of Christians should not be for a “postmodern” expression of the Christian faith or for “postmodern” churches. To so desire would be to make the same mistake as our modern parents. Rather, our great desire should be to, as the apostle Paul advised, “Test everything. Hold on to the good.”15 We need to critically assess the offerings of our postmodern culture and ask if they might in fact help us to live out the vision Jesus gave to the apostles – a vision of making disciples of all nations by announcing the gospel of God’s salvation through Jesus and embodying the unique Kingdom and reign of God as a covenant community.


1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NRSV)

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