From Darwin to tomorrow

In our final chapter we step into the 20th century, and the major worldviews continue to pile up on the page.  Process Theology was the application of Darwin's evolutionary thought to theories about God.  Influenced by Alfred North Whitehead, process theologians thought (and still think today) that reality flows in a continuum of development (as frames of a motion picture).  Every bit of reality is totally dependent on every other bit of reality.  God is in evolution with his world.  He is all the God there is today, but he will be even more God tomorrow.

In some of the mainline Protestant traditions, these contributions from Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, Norman Pittinger and others have been extremely influential.  In you're seeking a union between Darwinian scientific thought and faith, here's the wedding to attend.

Why does our culture believe that "truth" is personal and subjective?  Why is faith to be kept private, Sunday separated from Monday and the "religious" from the "real world"?  Why does our society believe that sincerity in our beliefs + tolerance of others = acceptable spirituality?

Our entire survey of Western thought has been a means to this end, a preparation for this conversation.  Let's learn in brief why our neighbors believe our beliefs are just ours, irrelevant to them.  And how to help them follow Jesus in a "postmodern" world which isn't changing any time soon.

The first "postmoderns"

First we must remember Friedrich Nietzsche, the "patron saint of postmodern philosophy."  According to this critic of the Christian faith, the world is composed of fragments, each one individual.  We construct concepts which rob reality of its diversity and individuality (such as forming the concept "leaf" for leaves, an idea which can never do justice to the diversity of leaves).  These concepts or laws are actually illusions or convenient fictions.

"Truth" is solely a function of the language we employ and exists only within specific linguistic contexts.  It is a function of the internal workings of language itself.  The authority structure of the Church, whether centered on the Bible or the Church's teachings, is therefore unfounded and irrelevant.

Nietzsche's hermeneutical insights parallel Friedrich Schleiermacher's earlier theological assertions.  According to this "father of theological liberalism," biblical texts are not systematic theological treatises but reflections of the minds and contexts of their authors.  The interpreter must move behind the text to its author's mind.  The work of theology is therefore to "abstract entirely from the specific content of the particular Christian experiences."

And so an entirely different epistemological foundation began to be laid by Nietzsche and Schleiermacher, one which rejected the objective building blocks of the modern world for a knowledge base centered in subjectivity.  In their view, truth is not absolute and objective but relative and individual.  Recent philosophers of language would soon finish this foundation and build a new house on it.

Finishing the new foundation

According to Wilhelm Dilthey, hermeneutics functions in a circle.  We comprehend language by understanding its words, yet these words derive their meaning only within their holistic context.  Objectivity in interpretation cannot be achieved, and should not be desired.

Hans-Georg Gadamer agreed that the interpreter must "fuse the horizons."  Meaning emerges only as the text and interpreter engage in dialogue, a "hermeneutical conversation."  Because each reader will conduct his or her own conversation with the text, objective meaning is obviously impossible.

Ludwig Wittgenstein rejected his earlier language philosophy (built on a scientific, mathematical, positivistic hermeneutic) for a view of language as "game."  Social rules determine the use of words and their meaning.  Language is a social phenomenon which derives its meaning from social interaction.  Since each "player" works from personal and subjective rules, there can be no objective authority within any speech act.

The "structuralists" further developed the social nature of language.  According to Ferdinand de Saussure, language is like a work of music in which we focus on the whole work, not the individual performers of the musicians.  As social constructs, texts are developed to provide structures of meaning in a meaningless existence.  These structures form the foundation for hermeneutical theory and practice.

The movement known as "deconstructionism" moved even further toward subjectivity: meaning cannot be inherent in a text or speech act, but emerges only as the interpreter enters into dialogue with the author.  One significant role of the contemporary interpreter is to deconstruct the modern epistemological structures with their mythical claims to objective authority.

In the last century, language philosophers have largely discarded the hermeneutical foundations which undergirded speech and faith since the time of Christ.  Claims to objective truth and absolute authority have been dismissed, whether their source is the Church, the Scriptures, or interpreted experience.  In their place we have seen the construction of a foundation and building called "postmodern."  The implications of this project for Scriptural authority are historic and monumental.

The "postmodern" movement which has resulted from such foundational shifts is still evolving and ill-defined.  However, three names stand above the rest in stature and significance: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty.

Michel Foucault: unmasking motives

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was the most significant bridge figure from Nietzsche to the postmodern world.  His ideas relative to hermeneutics can be grouped in three categories.

First, his epistemology rejected the Enlightenment claim to objective knowledge.  With Nietzsche, we must focus on the individual and the specific.  Therefore, language cannot express universal truth but only the personal experience of its user and/or interpreter.

Second, his anthropology: humans use language to express and to gain power.  With Nietzsche, the basic human drive is the 'will to power.'  To name something is to exercise power over it.  We seek knowledge for the power it gives us.  The goal of hermeneutics shouldtherefore be to unmask those power drives which created the text before us.

Third, his historiography: we create history to make or preserve those mythical worldviews which enhance our power and status.  There is no objective "world" behind our historical recording of its events; we choose which events to report and the interpretation we give them based on our ambition for power.  "Truth" is the fictional fabrication of those who claim it.  The result for language should therefore be to introduce discontinuity into the reader's life, jarring him or her into admitting that life is chaotic and subjective.

Jacques Derrida: deconstructing "reality"

Jacques Derrida critiques the Enlightenment ontology with the approach known as "deconstructionism."  While Foucault's epistemology leads to his view of language, Derrida's ontology serves as the foundation for both his epistemology and his hermeneutics.

According to Derrida, there is no fixed or universal reality.  Not only can we make no objective claims to knowledge, given the subjective nature of the interpretive process; there is no independent reality to describe.  No "world" exists, only your world and my world.  "Onto-theology," the attempt to articulate ontological descriptions of reality, must be abandoned.

We "create" our own world by speaking of it.  Language possesses no fixed meaning and is not connected to a fixed reality.  Our words do not carry meaning ("logocentrism"); rather, they create it.

For instance, the device on which I am typing these words is either a word-processor, a fancy typewriter, or a strange box which makes annoying clicks, depending entirely on whether I, my grandfather, or my preschool friend is describing it.  We cannot get beyond the words to the "reality," for the words create that reality for us.

As a result, the work of interpretation has as its goal the deconstruction of logocentrism.  We must admit the absence of transcendent reality and focus only upon the text itself as it speaks to us personally.  We must deconstruct our view of language which posits an objective world beyond our words.  As we live with the anxiety produced by the absence of transcendent truth we come to terms with life as it truly is.  And as we deal with the text separate from its author's intention or any claims to represent objective truth, we reconstruct our own world.

Language is therefore the door to whatever meaning is possible for us.

Richard Rorty: building pragmatic community

Richard Rorty, one of America's most popular philosophers, completes the postmodern foundation by demonstrating its pragmatic usefulness for our daily lives.  While Foucault and Derrida develop their language theory on the basis of their epistemologies, Rorty bases both his epistemology and his pragmatic program on his view of language.

Rorty agrees with Foucault and Derrida that language is a matter of human convention, not the mirror of an objective reality.  All language is derived from and dependent upon its context, and is thus subjective and relative.  Rorty's contribution to postmodernism is his extension of this foundational conviction to its larger pragmatic consequences.

Because no foundational truths or "first principles" exist apart from our linguistic creation of them, we must develop our personal ways of coping with reality as we see it.  "Truth" for us is what works for us.  Language is therefore to be judged by its pragmatic value, not its supposed representation of objective reality.  Language is a tool for interpreting and coping with life.

Four results for language follow.  First, language is equally valuable and useful regardless of its field of use.  Science is no more objective than ethics, for instance.  No one genre of speech act possesses meaning of greater value than another.

Second, language and the life it creates and interprets is best viewed in narrative context.  No speech act stands alone.  Every context is temporal and contingent.

Third, language functions best as the creator of community.  As we tolerate and affirm other speech acts and the realities they create, we foster a larger sense of acceptance.  As we share common linguistic experience, we forge a common life.  Given that no objective reality stands outside our linguistic interpretation of our own experience, such community is our best hope for belonging and meaning.

Fourth, this pragmatic language theory possesses the capacity to lead us to a kind of postmodern utopia.  Once we have banished our power-driven, manipulative attempts to require and enforce one particular view of reality and truth, we will be free to live in a society built on tolerance and mutuality.  Such a postmodern hope offers an enticing, accessible, and nonjudgmental alternative to the Christian eschatology built upon our acceptance or rejection of a single Way, Truth, and Life.

To sum up, the postmodern worldview is built upon three foundation stones.  First, the ontological and epistemological belief that no reality exists independent of the linguistic interpretation of our personal experiences.  Second, the linguistic belief that we literally create our own worlds by the speech we employ to describe and interpret these experiences.  And third, the pragmatic belief that such language acts, when affirmed as mutually acceptable and equally valuable, forge a community of tolerance and shared, created purpose.

An apologetic for biblical authority             

How shall evangelicals respond to this alternative worldview and its threat to objective biblical authority?  Is it possible to defend today Paul's absolute claim that "all Scripture is inspired by God"?  What follows is a brief sketch of such an apologetic, approaching an engagement with postmodernism along both philosophical and pragmatic lines.

First, a philosophical response.  Unfortunately, one approach to postmodernism among evangelicals is to accept its foundational beliefs and attempt to build a Christian structure upon them.  This results in an intensely subjective faith which possesses no intrinsic or objective merit for others.  Fortunately, there are other ways.

I suggest that the postmodern rejection of objective truth contains within itself the fissures which may lead to its collapse.  In brief, if no objective truth exists, how can I accept this assertion as objectively true?  According to postmoderns, no statement possesses independent and objective truth.  And yet the preceding statement is held to be independently and objectively true.  This seems a bit like the ancient skeptics (ca. 500 BC) who claimed, "There is no such thing as certainty and we're sure of it."

A second philosophical critique of postmodernism centers in its rejection of objective ethics.  Since all ethics are purely pragmatic and contextual, no ethical position can be judged or rejected by those outside its culture.  If this be so, then how are we to view events such as the Holocaust?  Within the interpretive culture of the Third Reich, Auschwitz and Dachau were pragmatically necessary and purposeful.  And yet they stand as the quintessential rejection of the tolerance and inclusion so valued by postmoderns.  The postmodern must choose between his insistence on inclusion and his rejection of intolerance.  Logically, he cannot have both.

The postmodern rejection of objective biblical authority thus rests upon illogical and mutually contradictory foundational principles.  This "apagogic" apologetic (defending one's position by exposing the weaknesses of its opponents) may prove effective with the postmodern who values logical consistency.

If, however, our postmodern friend simply shrugs her shoulders and says, "So what"? we can turn to a pragmatic response.  Here the postmodern rejection of modernity is in our favor.  The chief obstacle to faith posed by modernity was its insistence on empirical proof and scientific verification.  The postmodern rejects such a materialist worldview, insisting that all truth claims are equally (though relatively) valid.  The result is a renewed interest in spirituality unprecedented in our century.  While this contemporary spirituality is unfortunately embracing of all alternatives, at least Christianity can function as one of these options.

How can we make an appeal for biblical authority in such a marketplace of spiritual competitors?  By reversing the "modern" strategy.  In modernity we told our culture, "Christianity is true; it is therefore relevant and attractive."  We invited nonbelievers to accept the faith on the basis of its biblical, objective merits.  "The Bible says" was all the authority our truth claims required.

In the postmodern culture we must use exactly the opposite strategy: our faith must be attractive; then it may be relevant; then it might be true (at least for its followers).  If we can show the postmodern seeker for spiritual meaning that Christianity is attractive, interesting, and appealing, he will likely be willing to explore its relevance for his life.  When he sees its relevance for us, he may decide to try it for himself.  And when it "works," he will decide that it is true for him.  He will then affirm the authority of the Scriptures, not in order to come to faith but because he has.

Conclusion: remembering our future

Can such an approach be effective?  If we jettison our "truth first" approach to biblical authority and begin by appealing to our culture on the basis of attractive relevance, will we abandon our Scriptural heritage?  No--we will return to it.

We live in a postmodern, post-denominational, post-Christian culture.  The first Christians lived in a pre-modern, pre-denominational, pre-Christian world.  They had no hope of taking the gospel to the "ends of the earth" by beginning their appeal to the Gentiles with biblical authority.  The larger Greek world shared the postmodern skepticism of any absolute truth claim, let alone those made on the basis of Hebrew scriptures or a Jewish carpenter's teachings.  And so the apostolic Christians build their evangelistic efforts on personal relevance and practical ministry.  The result was the beginning of the most powerful, popular, and far-reaching religious movement in history.

I am convinced that we are now living in a culture more like that of the apostolic Christians than any we have seen since their day.  They had no buildings or institutions to which they could invite a skeptical world, and so they went to that world with the gospel.  They had no objective authority base from which to work, so they demonstrated the authority of the Scriptures by their attractive, personal relevance.  We now live in a day when nonbelievers will not come to our buildings to listen to our appeals on the basis of Scriptural authority.  But when we show them the pragmatic value of biblical truth in our lives, ministries, and community, we will gain a hearing.

Postmodernity offers us a compelling opportunity to "remember our future."  To remember the biblical strategies upon which the Christian movement was founded, and to rebuild our ministries on their foundation.  To move into our postmodern future on the basis of our premodern heritage.

Every postmodern person I have met wants the same thing: a faith which is practical, loving, and hopeful.  The tragedy is that our churches do not always offer them this biblical truth in a way which is attractive and relevant.  The good news is that we can.