Delights and Dangers of
Navigating Postmodern Currents, Part 1,
Stephen Shields briefly described three strands of postmodern
thought and suggests to those polarized by the postmodern turn how
conflict resolution principles can be helpfully applied to move
discussions forward in fruitful directions. In Part 2,
Stephen explores the limits of language and paradigm to encompass the
fullness of God’s reality and suggests that our fullest knowledge of God
only comes when we open ourselves up to experience Him. When we
have a more robust experience of God, ironically, we are able to explain
Him with greater balance, relevance and accuracy. In Part 3, Stephen
explores more lessons from postmodernity and also details some lessons from
Lessons from the Church
So while we have suggested that evangelicalism may be addicted to
propositionalizing, it is another thing entirely to deny the legitimacy of
the proposition. Many writers have been so effusive in their praise of the
postmodern agenda that words are practically relegated to the realm of the
meaningless. It is most certainly true that words are only
logical symbols. But that fact does not therefore void them of significant
semantic content. If it did - as a host of Christian authors have pointed
out - then postmodernists’ assertions of the inadequacy of words would
itself be a self-contradiction. If words are thoroughly inadequate to the
task, postmodernists cannot marshal them to defeat the barbarians of
modernity, It is one thing to say language is impotent to convey fully the
depth and profundity of God’s love for those who’ve rebelled against
Him. It is quite another thing entirely to assert that language cannot
express “Jesus loves me.” We can say that statement is meaningful
while agreeing that our understanding of the statement is not complete. To
exhaustively understand just the word “man,” for example, with
complete comprehension would require one to be God! And would it not be
tragic in the extreme if God gave us the most profound desire to
communicate with Him and others and then provided us with completely
insufficient tools to use to fulfill our desire: our minds and language.
One of the most radical and foundational concepts of Christianity is
God has spoken.
He has given us information that we simply would not have otherwise. He
has revealed Himself to us. He has given us some truth. There is, to
borrow biochemist Michael
Behe's phrase, an “irreducible complexity” to Christianity that, if denied,
voids Christianity of any unique value and divine revelation of any
Scripture itself hints at a core set of truths. Jesus speaks of it. He
tells his disciples,
All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the
Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all
things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
John 14:25,26 (emphasis mine and so in every biblical passage)
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But
when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all
truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he
hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory
to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that
belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take
from what is mine and make it known to you.
Jesus prays to His Father,
…I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.
Of these words we would do well to remember
For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me
commanded me what to say and how to say it.
In his prayer Jesus continued,
Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.
Similarly, in his second letter to Timothy the apostle Paul's counsels
What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching,
with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was
entrusted to you - guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives
2 Timothy 1:13,14
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many
witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach
2 Timothy 2:2
In his second letter to the church at Thessalonica Paul writes,
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we
passed on to you, whether by mouth or by letter.
2 Thessalonians 2:15
Indeed salvation itself comes through belief in the truth
…God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the
Spirit and through belief in the truth.
2 Thessalonians 2:13b
Again Paul advises
[The elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it
has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine
and refute those who oppose it.
Timothy is to exercise great care with the truth with which he has been
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman
who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word
2 Timothy 2:15
Here we see not only the assumption of a core set of Christian truths
but also the Apostle’s expectation that Timothy will continue to pass
those truths to others and that Timothy’s auditors will do the same.
But just as we’ve earlier indicated that limiting our relationship
with God to mere information denies us the greater understanding
that comes from experiencing God, so also we see that the truths
mentioned in these passages are not encapsulated in a set of sterile,
interlocking, propositions. They are rather highly relationalized: The
transfer of these doctrines occurs in the context of relationships, both
horizontal and vertical.
So Paul writes that the “pattern of sound teaching” is to be kept
“with faith and love in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:13). Orthodoxy is
maintained in the midst of a vibrant, passionate, and living vertical
relationship with Jesus Christ.
Moreover, these truths speak directly to our horizontal
relationships. Reading the way Paul actually uses the word “doctrine”
gives one a different impression than is today connoted by the term. Note
that after Paul writes
You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.
that he then launches into
Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self
controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.
Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent…
...they can train the younger women to love their husbands and
encourage the young men to be self-controlled…
teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything
and then Paul summarizes
These, then, are the things you should teach.
Titus 2 (various)
“Doctrine” - as the term is used here - contains an intrinsically
But the terms of “doctrine” and “teaching” connote not only
relationship but also are infrangibly connected with the notion of obedience.
Note what Paul writes to his followers in Rome,
But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you
wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were
entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to
Paul’s concept of “doctrine” or “teaching” breaks down the
heart-mind dichotomy that we are so fond of in the West. Recall our
earlier disapproval of information divorced from experience. Similarly,
the Western heart-mind differentiation is shown by the biblical data to be
artificial. Note that Paul writes that his readers obeyed the teaching ek
kardias,” from the heart” or, as the NIV, “wholeheartedly.”
Teaching is something to be obeyed.
Paul’s verbiage above is reminiscent of Jesus’ post-resurrection
remonstrance of the disciples on the way to Emmaus recorded in Luke 24.
Recall Jesus asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk
along” (Luke 24:17b,). The disciples went on to detail for their
inquirer “the things about Jesus the Nazarene” who
" was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all
The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to
death, and they crucified him;
but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem
Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took
In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb
early this morning
but didn't find his body. They came and told us that they had seen
a vision of angels, who said he was alive.
Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as
the women had said, but him they did not see”
These disciples seemed genuinely confused. They spoke as if they just
simply didn’t get it. But the Lord saw it a bit differently:
And He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart
to believe all that the prophets have spoken!
Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his
Jesus held them morally culpable for what to all intents and
purposes appeared to be merely a cognitive misunderstanding on the
part of his disciples. He speaks of their current state of confusion as if
it were the result of wrong choices. In Western heart-mind terms,
Jesus presents the understanding of their minds as being
inextricably tied up with the commitments and decisions of their
So we must conclude: Insight itself comes from our choices, our
obedience, and the integrity and health of both our horizontal and
vertical relationships. It is not just from deeper study or reflection.
So while we acknowledge that our relationship with truth, as Paul
speaks of it, connotes more - much more - than our
recognition of the mere accuracy of factual propositions - again - we also
simultaneously maintain it is not therefore less.
We must never allow the realization of the limitations of man’s
paradigmatic powers and symbol systems to in any way diminish the fact
or the reliability of divinely revealed truth. God has spoken because
of our inadequate knowledge and wisdom. Yet because He has spoken,
the church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy
3:15). We must never be hesitant to confidently assert that we know
because God has told us. That he has told us makes the knowledge more
certain. It is ironic that Christians are sometimes accused of hubris
because they claim certainty when, in fact, it is their humility that
leads them to trust what God says more than what they are able to
independently affirm. It is a theocentric epistemology versus an
anthropocentric epistemology. A man-based theory of knowledge must be
saddled with a forever tentativeness: Man is limited in both his knowledge
and intelligence. Certainty about God is only available when God reveals;
but once He reveals, it is certain.
A Christianity so postmodernized that the fact or reliability of divine
revelation is called into question can no longer can be called
Christianity. It is something else.
The Other Strands - Paradigms as a Tool of Oppression
Lessons for and from the Church
Foucault wants us to understand that knowledge is oppression. That the
one who claims to know is really only asserting his desire to exercise
control over the auditor, or to advance his agenda in a way that bends the
listener’s paradigm to his will.
Recently I was facilitating an introductory workshop on theology and
wished to illustrate our natural tendency to be narcissistic. I confessed
that when I was traveling on my company’s expense account, using my
corporate American Express card, driving a Lincoln Continental rental car,
wearing a suit, staying in the concierge floor of the hotel, and visiting
a fine restaurant, it was easy for me to buy into the deception that I was
somehow living a higher quality of life than my waiter. But it was during
the course of that same class I realized the depth of my own desire to
impress. Only once when traveling for USA TODAY
have I received a complimentary upgrade to a Lincoln Continental. -
usually my rental car is smaller. Even in the midst of warning others
against the vice of self-aggrandizement, I manipulated my words in a
self-absorbed act of impression management. I displayed a desire to adjust
my auditors’ paradigm in a way that artificially inflated their
impression of me. The same mechanism is at work when I’m jogging and
speed up when I see a fellow runner so that he or she might not be aware
of my generally far more modest pace.
So surely there is a great deal of truth in Foucault’s suggestion
that words are a powerful tool that are used time after time to craft an
impression, to impose an agenda, to exercise control over others. The
penetrating and soul-searching analysis of our words that a serious
reading of Foucault demands can serve the church. Foucault’s error is
not in his estimation of language’s ability to oppressively impose
mindsets; his mistake is presupposing such negative manipulation is
intrinsic to language itself.
As a symbol system, language is amoral; it is but a tool. The speaker
determines the goal. Words are shifting paradigms in an attempt to
manipulate or are influencing mindsets in a desire to serve or enlighten.
If language systems only served a Machiavellian will to power, then that
charge could also be leveled against Foucault’s efforts to enlighten!
Foucault robs his reader of the diagnostic criterion that enables accurate
discernment of any discourse’s intended effect: the intention of the
speaker. Certainly Foucault would protest any interpretation of his words
against his own intention.
The Other Strands: Discernment in Community
Lessons for and from the Church
Despairing of man’s ability to discern or communicate truth, Richard
Rorty emphasizes the practical: the community must determine its own truth
and values. Meaning is found through community dialogue and interaction.
This contrasts starkly with the rampant modernity-inspired
individualistic thought one sees across a variety of disciplines for the
last 200 years. American individualism, reflected and encouraged by
democracy, tends to emphasize the ability of the individual to discern
truth. Modernity laid this foundation with its emphasis on the vast
ability of the independent mind. Kant, for example, characterized the
enlightenment as the “emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy.”
He continues, “Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without
the guidance of another. It is self-imposed when it depends on a
deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it
without external guidance.” One can easily argue that the earliest
expressions of this newfound freedom from external authorities helped
empower Luther and others in effecting the Protestant Reformation.
Mentioning the Reformation is relevant in this connection because that
same principle - that I can determine what is true and I needn’t be
bound by my tradition, my teachers, or my community - has contributed to
the current fragmented state of Evangelicalism and - one could argue - the
even more fully variegated panoply of theological positions within
Protestantism. Furthermore, this religious individualism can be seen as a
basis for the current consumer mentality in many religionists. If this
church isn’t meeting my needs, I’ll simply shop until I find one that
There is much, then, to commend Rorty’s emphasis on community
in determining truth in distinction from the modern emphasis on strictly
individual discernment. While, in contrast to Rorty, the biblical authors
never doubt the existence of a category of a foundational truth, as we’ve
noted above, they nevertheless similarly contend that it is in community
that individuals come to apprehend truth. Core truths are passed on in the
context of relationship.
Note Paul’s charge to his protégé in his 2nd letter to
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become
convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them.
2 Timothy 3:14
(NASB, emphasis mine).
What is instructive here - in contrast to the modern emphasis on the
independence of one’s own mind - is that way Paul conjoins Timothy’s knowledge
of his teachers with the content of their teaching. The
knowledge transfer is inextricably tied to the relationship that is its
context. This echoes Jesus comment
A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been
fully trained, will be like his teacher
Just as there is no distinction between the teacher’s content and
character; there is similarly no arelational transfer of knowledge. Just
as dividing ourselves from an experience of God causes us to misunderstand
Him, as we implied in Part 2,
so also Christian discipleship that is collapsed into the mere transfer of
naked information divorced from its relational context is similarly
impotent. This, of course, has profound implications for how churches
train their leaders and for how Christians disciples.
So we must affirm with Rorty that there is a richness to discussion in
Further, just as the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom can’t be
arbitrarily divided from relationship in community, so also the way in
which we dialogue about disputed matters of theology, ethics, etc must be
done in a relationally honoring way. I’ve already mentioned Senge’s
concept of “balancing advocacy with inquiry.” When I balance advocacy
with inquiry I hold my position somewhat loosely. I believe my position,
but I remain humble enough to realize that you might have information or
analysis that could move me to change my position. In respect to
you, I hold complete certainty in abeyance for a moment. I don’t believe
I have the corner on truth in all areas. It is the necessary application
of Paul’s advice to the Philippians to theological discourse:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of
mind let each of you regard one another as more important than
It implies irenic, humble discussion.
However, those who follow Rorty go too far if they limit the validity
of truth arrived at in the context of community to only that community.
The subjective process by which truth is discerned does not thereby
invalidate that same truth’s objectivity. This is similar to the point
that the subjective experience of truth does not vitiate its
objective fact. The subjectivity and objectivity of truths are two
sides of the same coin and are both equally necessary to the process of
truth acquisition. An example might help to illustrate:
If you are bored with this article, but for some reason feel compelled
to continue reading it, then time will seem to move slowly as you meander
through its mind-crushing obscurity to the bitter end. If - however - you
are finding this material intellectually stimulating as you think of
implication after implication, then the time may seem to go by faster. But
whether time seems to pass by quickly or slowly for you, for every second
while you are reading your quartz watch still vibrates 32768 times. The
subjective experience of truth does not invalidate its objective nature.
So we find that the limits of language and paradigm do not mean that
language and mindsets lack actual meaning. Language and the mind are
adequate to the task of communicating and understanding something about
We conclude that while language can oppress, language is not inherently
And while some truth is best discerned in community, truth loses
neither its universal appeal nor its objective character. Neither
objectivity nor subjectivity trump the other. Similarly, when one is
denied the other suffers.
Put positively and more biblically: Motivated by His love, God has
spoken to us and we hear Him best when we listen to Him being mindful
of both His presence in the moment and His faithfulness to us in the past.
And we understand Him best when we experience Him in community and explore
Him in the context of our everyday relationships.
…His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and
godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His
own glory and excellence.
2 Peter 1:3b,4a (NASB)
To be continued next month:
Some final considerations for assessing
the impact of postmodernity.
Shields is a Technology Manager with USA
TODAY and the former Pastor for Cedar Ridge Communities at Cedar
Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, MD. He lives with his
wife Bethany and three daughters - Michaela Siobhan, Skye Teresa,
and Alia Noelle - in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. He graduated
from Grace Theological Seminary
with an M. Div. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
and his website is http://www.shieldsplace.org.