June 01, 2007

False Dichotomies of the Emerging Church

I am published!

I was recently notified that my comment on a blog post by Myron B. Penner titled "Postmodern Apologetics" had made its way into a book being compiled from the various materials on that same website. The site's name, which will probably be the book title as well, is "A New Kind of Conversation." It is (or was) devoted to topics of concern to the Emerging Church Movement.

The short description of that movement might be "postmodernity meets Christianity." In my mind the movement roughly falls into two broad camps. One includes those who have refashioned Christianity to suit the tastes of the postmodern culture. The other is those who are attempting to contextualize the Gospel for a postmodern people. Perhaps it is simply the latest flavor of liberal versus conservative Christianity, though the liberalism in the Emerging Church is cleverly veiled behind a dense linguistic fog that is often difficult to penetrate. And I believe they prefer it that way, as to come right out and plainly state one's beliefs and disbeliefs would express the kind of dogma that they are very keen to reject.

The article to which I responded invoked my criticism in that it seemed to advocate throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In this case, the abuses of secular modernism suggested that we should rethink our ideas about propositional and objective truth claims. In its place would come telling our "story" and living it out among the unchurched. I found this and other ideas in the essay to be false dichotomies, and I said as much.

Here, then, is my response in full:

False Dichotomies

While this article offers some valid critiques of modernity, I think it does not affirm what is, in fact, biblical underlying certain ideas that have been abused by secular modernists. Many authors have offered similar critiques of modernity and classical apologetics without seeing the need or prudence of questioning its very foundations. I think that Penner's conclusions rest on a number of false dichotomies.

1) Modernity vs. postmodernity

Penner seems to be suggesting that thinking objectively and rationally means thinking without bias and presuppositions. I believe there is some equivocation on the word "objective" here. There is a difference between thinking that there is objective truth and thinking that you know it objectively (i.e., without bias or error). Postmoderns are right to question presuppositions and human fallibility, but we lose all tools of discourse if we go beyond this to conclude that no one, then, has any better-reasoned belief than another or that truth itself is a vapor. It does seem warranted to conclude that we ought to be humble regarding our fallibility, more introspective toward in our suppositions, and more rigorous in our application of reason. Penner says he "greatly values the insights of analytic philosophy and admires its rigor." But if these things get us nowhere, then what is to value; and if they do have merit, then let's use them to their fullest advantage.

2) Authority of revelation vs. reason

The problem with secular modernity was that they did not accept revelation at all. But Christian "modernists" accept it as objective truth and apply it as the foundation, frame, and fence for rational discourse. St. Paul rightly warns against vain philosophy according to human tradition, but when philosophy is grounded in those truths revealed by the Author of reason, then we are privileged to taste the "mind of Christ." And if we reject reason in relation to biblical revelation, then the very words of God become nothing but unprocessed photons striking the retina.

3) Science vs. Christianity

There seems to be a driving need to segregate the world of empirical science from the world of "faith." I think this is a response to the imagined hostility of the one to the other. However, we are now living in an age where we have the best scientific reasons ever to believe in a loving and intimate creator. The problem is not that there is no good reason to believe that science is compatible with the God of the Bible; the problem is that science has been secularized and its very definition has been changed to exclude the supernatural from consideration. Secular scientists are now more concerned with getting a certain kind of answer than with getting the right answer. The field of science has a deeply Christian legacy, and there has been a recent resurgence in Christian scholarship. There is no sense in abandoning a healthy ship.

4) Kerygmatic vs. rational and objective approaches (or, Cognitive claims vs. subjective "actuality")

But is the "kerygma" which we should share grounded in truth? When we tell our "story" is it an objectively true story, and if not, why is there any reason or passion for sharing it? If it is not based on objective truth, then we are simply peddling an interesting story and we are ascribing a mystical value to it that has no more weight than a Dr. Phil book. Our story can be both true in the objective sense, and efficacious in a subjective sense. Indeed, it has "actuality" because of the power in the truth that it contains. And when we tell that story, we are offering a series of cognitive claims. Even if a story were metaphor (like the parables), the very meaning of those metaphors is a matter of rational proposition.

5) Arguments and reason vs. love and empathy

To say that our beliefs are objectively true and advocating for them is not to say that you cannot give personal expression to these truths. In fact, those truths are the very things that impel us to love our neighbors (and enemies) and to meet them at the point of their need. How would we know how we ought to love them if not for the very things which apologists seek to defend, since one man's love (according to his own fancies) is another man's coddling?

It is true that you may win an argument but lose a soul, but every good apologist should know this. And for those who don't, the answer is not to surrender our claims to truth and the reasons for them; the answer is to refine our tactics, character, and wisdom. As Peter says, we should be ready to give a defense, but we should do this with gentleness and respect. And we should know when a good intellectual response is called for and when an outstretched hand and a willing ear are in order.

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At 6/02/2007 9:19 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

That's pretty neat. Congratulations! You've become immortal.

At 6/02/2007 10:14 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks! But I suspect the balance of this book will run counter to my own views. For this reason, my inclusion does not constitute an endorsement. However, I am impressed that they have allowed dissenting voices, and this may result in a book that is a more sober introduction to EC thinking.

At 6/06/2007 10:35 PM, Blogger SLW said...

Congrats on the well-deserved publication. Of course, I think all the discussions on this site are worthy of that. You and your commentors are remarkably eloquent and thought provoking.


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