life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

on philosophy and postmodernism....

Well, again, it has been a while since I posted. Life has been, as normal, in the fast lane for the past number of weeks, leaving little time to think, much less write a post for my blog. But, excessive guilt has won out. And I've been saving up, so grab your beverage of choice and get ready for the plunge.

I just finished reading a book by the late Stan Grenz, a theology and ethics professor who suddenly passed away last year of a massive heart attack at a relatively young age (in his 50s, like me -- makes one think). Called A Primer on Post-Modernism, I found it a fascinating read, though certainly not light at all. He begins by surveying Enlightenment Philosophy that provided the foundations for the modern view of the world, including the holes and weak spots in the presuppositions that supported it. He looks at pre-Nietzschean philosophers whose observations began to pull down those foundations. He surveys Nietzsche's strong critique of modernism and the Enlightenment, which in effect pushed the button that exploded the foundations of modernism and laid the groundwork for the post-modern world view(s). Then Grenz surveys the three chief philosophical spokespeople for the post-modern approach to life.

To Grenz' credit, who comes at the task from a post-Evangelical Christian viewpoint, he does a fairly good job of describing each philosopher's thoughts without critiquing them from Grenz' viewpoint until the last chapter. So in that way, it is a good survey of the path of philosophy leading to current postmodern views (though several of the philosophers would object to there being any "path" to it). Plus, Grenz identifies ways of looking at things from a postmodern viewpoint which would be beneficial to people of Christian faith. If you want to wade into the current Suture Zone in which we are living I would highly recommend it. Just don't expect to breeze through it, especially if you have no background in modern philosophy.

I've had a number of "aha" moments while reading this book. Here's a list of those points, some of which I may elaborate on in future posts:

First of all, I am astonished at the power of philosophy to affect how people think in the regular world. We often consider philosophers as dusty relics (even current ones) who inhabit the ivory towers of universities speaking in unintelligible gibberish about useless, or certainly impractical, ideas. True? Not so. I was floored by the ideas I hear commonly on the tongues of even marginally educated people that seem to have originated with Nietzsche. Philosophy has a grossly underestimated impact on society. I don't know why I'm surprised by that, but I am.

Second, I am also astonished that language and literary theory are at the heart of the post-modern enterprise. In many ways, science has been abandoned by post-modernists as simply another, perhaps useful at times, but wholly inadequate epistemology when one considers the world. The exception to this (though Grenz doesn't cover this in his book) is the post-modern philosophers who have adopted an acceptance of scientific assumptions for the sake of having a what they see as a pragmatic view of the world (Searle, et al).

My third observation, though not a surprise, is how well some pieces of classic Christianity align with some of the post-modern rejections of the modern view. It was almost as if we Christians abandoned (or forgot?) what we are really all about when we encountered the modern world and world view. To a large extent, though, Christianity has always tried to adapt to the culture and world view in which it finds itself. I've often made the point in the past that to the rationalist of the 17th/18th century, God was a rationalist. To the empiricist, God was an empiricist. To the existentialist, God was.... irrelevant? Anyway, I think you get my point. But there are criticisms of the Enlightenment enterprise made by post-modern philosophers that should resonate strongly with Christians who have some understanding of their ancient roots. One example: the place of community (as opposed to the Enlightenment elevation of the individual as center).

My fourth observation is that the greatest threat Christianity faces is the wholesale rejection of meta-story by postmodern philosophers. But that leads to a critical question. On what basis can we claim, as Christians, that the overarching story of mankind is God's redemptive story as represented in our sacred texts? Is this simply one assumption, among many available, as the world scratches around for something other than quicksand or illusion to stand on?

Finally, and this doesn't exhaust my observations on the points raised in this book, it is quite obvious to me that postmodernism is a reaction to the categories established by the Enlightenment. Though I don't know of any other way to see the world except through the lenses we've inherited, even by reacting to them, it seems to me that the very fact that we are reacting to the modern world view as we deconstruct it, that modern viewpoint is in large part defining where we end up. A friend in ministry once said about those in my denomination, "We know what we don't believe, we just don't know what we do believe." That is as true, from my perspective, of those who have rebelled against my denominational heritage as it is of the dyed in the wool fundamentalists who have perpetuated its doctrinal "purity". For example, my grandparents didn't believe in dancing. Those in my generation don't believe in not believing in dancing. The argument with the previous generation/mindset/worldview largely determines and limits the path that one can take in reacting against it.

What if no one is asking the best questions? What are the best questions?

One last thing.... Grenz points out in his final chapter, almost an epilogue reflection on postmodernism and the implications for Christianity, that although our perceptions of everything may be invalid, they are not all necessarily equally invalid. My friend Marshall has pointed this out about science. If one eats something known to be poisonous to humans, they will suffer the consequences -- sickness, death, etc, no matter the literary categories we attribute to the experience, to life, or whatever. They will no longer respond to us in the same way they did (if at all) prior to ingesting the poison. Some of us are going to be hanging around burying or cremating or otherwise noting the cessation of mortal existence for that person. Though Foucault rails against history as being invalid (if you don't know who he is, read Grenz' book), JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963, dying the same day that C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley did. Who assassinated JFK, the precise cause of Lewis' death or the effective legacy of any of the three are open to argument, perception and clouded validity. But all three stopped breathing the same day. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech that irrevocably set the path for Civil Rights reform. Even the lost "a" in Neal Armstrong's communication from the lunar surface (or wherever he was, if you believe it was a hoax), has been rediscovered in the NASA recording. And maybe when I went to Costco last night, they really were out of something that was there only a week ago that I was going to get someone as a Christmas present. And maybe over 20 years ago, sitting in my 100-year-old kitchen by myself praying, and suddenly finding myself no longer in the kitchen but somewhere else in the very real presence of Someone else, maybe that wasn't the product of an overactive imagination? I don't know why it hasn't happened to other people. I don't even know why it happened to me. I wasn't looking for it. What makes this "figment" any more invalid than any other perception of the world?

Who knows? Maybe even this guy Jesus actually lived and spoke and died, and, yes, even rose again, all to reestablish relationship with people. And maybe, in spite of the way that his followers have screwed up the message and the focus and the meaning of his story so badly over the millennia, maybe, just maybe, God is still trying to use the story to connect with us, and through us to make the world a better place.

Now, I certainly haven't worked through all of this. I have more questions than I have answers. I figure the rest of my life will surface even more questions and quite probably even fewer answers. But I am intrigued by the Story. Life for humanity is a story of shared (and broken and strained and dysfunctional and enduring and infinitesimally complex) relationships with others, with our environment, with ourselves. Is it all a grand, yet irrelevant, tale, or a series of disconnected tales that have absolutely no common relevance? Is everything meaningless as pointed out by the writer of Ecclesiates? I hope not.

I hope not.

Grace and peace (and two Excedrin if you have a headache like me now),



Blogger Shane Coffman said...

Thanks, I prefer straight asprin, though.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Marshall said...

I agree, Owen, that the greatest threat to traditional Chrisitianity is the resistance to meta-story. And I think your question is profound about how we can know that the Biblical meta-narrative is reliable.

Myself, I have come to regard the Bible very differently than in the past. (Warning to Owen and sensitive Christian readers: the following may make waves! It is not pro- or anti- Christian, just an honest assessment of my current thoughts on subjects you raise, Owen.)

I currently imagine something like the following:

There was a slave uprising whose success was so incredibly unlikely - including the seeming assistance of a series of major geological events - that the newly freed race came to see their tribal god as the God of all creation (witness his power!) and themselves as his chosen people. A powerful, charismatic leader, Moses arose and established laws for the new nation. Subsequently, a mythology emerged, in which prior mythology was reimagined in light of the exodus; this new mythology served as a lens through which, too, subsequent history was intepreted.

As we enter the world of the new testament, we enter a story of a chosen nation divided. The problem? - God's seeming distance vs. his "promises." The Essenes curried favor by withdrawing from sinful society. The Pharisees by seeking to obey the Law in full detail. Etc. Into this hotbed of dissapointment and expection - befuddlement - comes Jesus, a charismatic and authoritative prophet. Again, an unlikely series of events occurs - so unlikely that once again it seems to have cosmic significance. Once again, prior mythology is reimagined in light of new experience, and subsequent history is cast in a new light.

What I see is a record of a superstitious people who once got unimaginably lucky, developed a worldview to account for that fortune, then suffered when their worldview later proved inadequate. Then I see a second wave of something similar, a confluence of amazing but natural events that seemed to answer questions and provided a renewed sense of chosenness. The result is, I think, a mixture of fact and fiction - subjective history.

Now, this is a reading of the Bible that is consistent, for me, with the available evidence. I would add, however, that I retain a sense of the sacred. I still may feel , from time to time, something like a "presence," but I have no reason to believe that feeling equals Jesus. The "Jesus" experience, I have come to think, is provincial, one manifestation of a spirituality more widely shared than by Christians.

Once last provocative anecdote: I have a friend we'll call Alan. I have been encouraging him to pick himself up and get to a 12-Step meeting. I gave him some literature, and bought him a burger and fries a couple weeks ago. We talked openly. I told him bluntly I had no right to judge him, but that he needed to mature. I offered to help him with his broken down truck, but said I would not carry his backpack (metaphors). He was surprised to learn that night that I didn't tell him to call upon the Lord. He asked if I didn't believe any longer, and I acknowledged that, no, I don't. "I think the Bible is mythology," I said simply.

Well, Alan dropped by the other night and thanked me in tears for being a "true Christian." What do you make of that?

12:15 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Actually, Marshall, it gives me a big smile.

While I do not want to totally throw out "what a person believes" as irrelevant to faith, I do want to categorically state that the modern emphasis on intellectual assent to certain dogmas as critical to a person's standing before and relationship with God is WAY out of balance to its place in that relationship. Falling prey to the modern notion that "what I think" is the sum of "who I am" is as much a risk for professing Christians as it is for an atheist or agnostic. There is much more in play in the human story than just what I happen to intellectually "believe" on any given day, no matter where I am in my life journey.

My friend, there is more of God in you than you think. (I believe you will understand that I mean that on several levels, right? ;-) )

Grace and peace,


12:36 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

And that I mean it respectfully, too.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

The only Grenz I've read so far was Sexual Ethics, which was good, but like you described A Primer, not something you breeze through. I was so bummed to find out he had died - he even taught in Vancouver! I honestly think I may have spent an evening with him once but not realized who he was. I was at a soup kitchen downtown for a shift, and then me, an old highschool teacher, my mom, and this prof from Regent went walking and talking down by the waterfront, but I was just a freshman on Christmas break. He looked, in my memory, like the pictures of Grenz on his homepage. I never caught his name. There's one photo somewhere - in one of a hundred photo boxes my mom has.

Man, reading that you'd think he was Bono or someone.

I've always intended to read more of his stuff, but until I get out of school, what I read is not necessarily something I get to choose (not that I don't like the school material).

2:43 AM  

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