Some Important Talking Points on “Postmodernism” (III)

[First, the obligatory disclaimer. Doubtless some readers more acquainted with philosophy than I am will dispute some of what is written below, and feel that some important issues have been left untouched or seriously inadequately explained. Nevertheless, what I'm trying to do here is promote more healthy conversation among Evangelicals about "postmodernism." One has to start somewhere, even if that place is deficient in some ways.]

Picking up from Part II, the third thing I’d like to do in this series of posts is borrow Greer’s outline of four basic epistemological positions (two Realist ones and two Anti-Realist ones) in the debate over “postmodernism”. I’m sure that these positions do not exhaust the options, and again, I am willing to listen to criticisms or additions from those more educated in philosophy than myself. I use Greer’s book (and others written on a more popular level) as a starting point, not as the final word.
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Foundational Realism–The epistemological position known as “Foundational Realism” is probably the most popular one held by conservative Protestants today. Greer’s example is Francis Schaeffer, who did probably more than anyone else in the 1970s and early 1980s to culturally awaken conservative Christians. The term “postmodernism” not having been developed at the time, Schaeffer argued against what he called “existentialism” (or sometimes an extreme form of “modernism”), which has many features in common with postmodernism. In his extended analysis of the decline of Modern thought, Schaeffer constantly tried to push the non-Christian back to positions of radical doubt about the very foundations of his worldview, and then offered as the solution to the mess of radical doubt the notion that Christianity is the absolute bedrock foundation upon which to build a coherent epistemology and life. It has been a number of years since I read Schaeffer, but this description of his project by Greer seems to me to be accurate. And significantly, according to Greer, this means that Schaeffer attempted to solve the problems of Modernism by using the tools of Modernism, which, rather than applying them to typically Modernist man-centered objects he instead applied them to a different object: the Christian revelation. For instance, heavily emphasizing the propositional content of the Bible, Schaeffer heavily emphasized the inerrancy of Scripture in order to be able to derive an absolutely unquestionable foundation upon which to build an epistemological superstructure. (pp. 72-81)

Having already argued that the cogito methodology is responsible for producing both theological conservatism and theological liberalism (pp. 35-44), Greer then goes on to examine the Evangelical fascination with the doctrine of inerrancy, which Evangelicalism combines with an essentially scientific-rationalistic style of apologetics (another indication of capitulation to modernism). He suggests, via George Lindbeck, that inerrancy as it is commonly known and defended in Protestant Evangelicalism does not truly uphold the authority of Scripture but instead weakens it by reducing the Christian faith to what the human mind can “independently” verify (via “scientific proofs” such as archaeology, geology, and history). The classic Christian motto fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) is turned on its head, replaced by a paradigm which in the name of “defending the faith” actually subjects Christianity to Modernity by advocating a position of intellectus quaerens fidem. As an attempt to respond to Modernism by using Modernism’s own tools against itself, this way of thinking about the Bible and the Christian faith thus gives away the store to an anti-Christian paradigm. This is another front on which Greer’s earlier point that theological conservatism is the flipside of theological liberalism, and that both derive their fundamental principles from the Cartesian project of radical doubt, may be seen to be essentially correct.

More could be said here (such as introducing the Van Tilian presuppositionalist and “Reformed Epistemology” types of apologetics), but let me stop for now with this. I appreciate what Greer says about the relationship of the typical Evangelical inerrancy position to Modernism but whether Greer does or not, I myself affirm biblical inerrancy. Because I am trying to reject Modernism’s pathetic standards of “rationality” and its reductionistic demands for “objective proof” of every item of belief I do not believe it is necessary to answer every conceivable skeptical accusation under the sun against the veracity of the Bible. I cannot see the sense in trying to defeat Modernism by simply portraying Christianity as the true form of Modernism. But at the same time I do not see how adopting a biblical errancy position would help the Christian faith. Ironically, I would rather err on the side of caution when it comes to the issue of biblical inerrancy.

So I reject scientific-rationalistic accounts of the mechanism of biblical inerrancy (obsessions with mechanism and the power they bring the individual over the world being distinctly Modern phenomena), and I also reject the shrill demand of unbelieving modernists that every last clause of Holy Writ be defended with volumes upon volumes of “harmonizing” work or be seen to be outmoded superstitition and mere errant human philosophizing. Christians have no burden to make sure that our Scripture-based principles agree with “the assured results of Modern investigation”, and in this light I find it a terrible irony that many “conservative” Protestants are fully prepared to use this Cogito-inspired methodology to defend their doctrines, and yet at the same time do not see how easy is the transition from the theological “conservatism” result of the method to the theological “liberalism” (and perhaps even the “postmodernism”!) result of the method which they so greatly fear. In my judgment it would be far better to defend the inerrancy of Scripture with the tools of presuppositionalist apologetics than with the tools of evidentialist apologetics. But further explanation on this point will have to wait. For now we must move to the next position in Greer’s lineup.

Post-Foundational Realism: According to Greer, this is an epistemological position which attempts to move past the foundationalist obsession with the Cartesian cogito while at the same time keeping the realist emphasis on the reality of extra-mental Universals. In other words, this position is an attempt to conceive of Truth in a non-foundationalist way, but not in a way that reduces reality outside of the human mind to mere arbitrary human mental conventions. Greer’s example of this system is Karl Barth. Barth’s name is often excoriated among conservative Protestants precisely for the reason that via his system of “neoorthodoxy” he is thought to be a liberal (notice the either / or dichotomization again).

Having been raised in a conservative home, Barth’s college education occurred in a truly liberal environment (Germany was awash with liberalism at this time period, as men like J.Gresham Machen had also discovered). But Barth broke with liberalism in his 1918 book Der Romerbrief (a commentary on the book of Romans), in which he argued that Christian theology must transcend purely human and historical and rational factors and get at “the spirit of the Bible” and “not the right human thoughts about God…but the right divine thoughts about men.” (cited by Greer, pp. 98-99). According to Greer, Barth combined the emphasis of Higher Criticism on biblical errancy with the emphasis of traditional Christian theology on biblical inspiration just enough so that he could move beyond the intellectually-stifling confines of the Cartesian cogito method. At the same time, however, he refused to fully accept the conclusions of Higher Criticism, noting that if he was ever forced to choose between them and biblical inspiration he would choose the latter “without hesitation”.

Significantly, Barth began his dogmatics with the Holy Trinity–God’s self-disclosure to man–rather than with human rational analysis of issues typically called “prolegomena.” For Barth, unbelievers are exposed to God via the Word of God in Scripture (which is existentially self-authenticating) and preaching grounded upon it. God and not man speaks first and sets the tone of all theological discussion. The inspiration and veracity of Scripture cannot be “independently” confirmed, as theologies and apologetics based upon Cartesian-type epistemologies believe. Greer compares Barth’s position on the self-authentication of Scripture to Calvin’s, and notes that

In the Cogito, we begin with radical doubt and inductively reason our way to God. We are the subject and God is the object. In Barth’s system, God takes the first step. He is the subject and we are the object. He is the initiator who opens our minds to know him and then enables us to know him through a self-authenticating Scripture wherein the Son reveals the Father by means of the Holy Spirit. (pg. 103)

The system of theology so characterized tends toward an emphasis on personal encounter and intuitive factors (which is why it is often thought of as being “liberal” in distinction to a fundamentally rationalistic “conservative” position), but at the same time it retains a commitment to Realism by requiring there to be real ontological reference points for human knowledge (in this case, the self-speaking Trinity and the self-authenticating Bible). The foundationalist project of absolutely indubitable, autonomous intellectual knowledge is totally rejected (in both its conservative and liberal forms), and instead a more “dynamic” view of God’s relations with man is held. This leads to something that to the naive “conservative” mind must certainly look like what it glosses as “postmodernism”–namely, the insistence that (as Greer summarizes the basically Barthian trajectory) “no single theological system [within Christianity] is normative for the Christian faith and that, as a result, a plurality of theological systems is not only necessary but also advantageous.” (pg. 121) What prevents this position from actually being “postmodern” is its Realist insistence on real ontological reference points for human knowledge; what distinguishes this position from foundationalist ones is its rejection of the methodology of radical doubt and the solution to it that is posed by the method of the inductive autonomy of the human mind.

This is a great deal to think about, so I will stop this post here and cover Greer’s two examples of Anti-Realist positions in another post.

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