of Part I
Delights and Dangers of Navigating the Postmodern Currents, Part I,
Stephen Shields briefly described three strands of
postmodern thought: the use of language and paradigms to frame
reality, the way that paradigms can be manipulated to oppress and
the critical role of communities in creating paradigms. Some
Christian leaders have tended to view the postmodern turn as
requiring a substantial re-engineering of Christian thought. Others
view postmodernism as a pretension that "sets itself up against
the knowledge of God" (2 Corinthians 10:5). Stephen suggests
that traditionalists and revisionists have much to learn from each
other and that a proper response to postmodernity goes beyond a mere
thumbs up or a thumbs down. He suggests how conflict resolution
principles can be applied to aid disputants to move the discussion
forward in an irenic fashion that benefits all.
for the Church
are those whose infectious excitement over everything postmodern is
limited to this: To understand postmodernity is to become Jew to Jew
and Greek to Greek (1 Corinthians 9, NIV). Itís the enthusiasm of
those who have been entranced by the compelling beauty of Jesus,
those whose gratitude to God moves them, as Haddon Robinson has
said, to do "everything short of sinning for the gospel of
Christ." Postmodernism must be understood because we are trying
to reach postmoderns. Without a doubt, that is a worthy - even a
compelling - motive. But I would respectfully suggest that the
churchís interest in postmodernism must be even more fully orbed.
churchís careful and thorough attention to the task of engaging
postmodernity should be motivated not only by a love for the
postmoderns for whom Jesus died but also by a teachable humility
that seeks to learn what she can from her critics.
following comments are meant to be suggestive.
the postmodern strand of thought dealing with the limitations of
language and the mindís ability to accurately conceptualize
reality. We will spend most of our time here since its arguable that
this strand is the basis for the other two that we will consider.
emphasizes the symbolic nature of language. As I write this Iím
flying to Dallas, TX. But this thing Iím sitting in, this
airplane, is not intrinsically "airplane." In Dutch itís
called "vliegmachine;" in Esperanto itís called "aeroplano."
"Airplane" is just the English symbol with which Iím
familiar that represents this thing Iím depending on to get
me safely to Dallas.
symbolism of language is even more richly textured than this simple
one-to-one correspondence between an individual word and a concept.
For example, if you and I were talking on the telephone and I said,
"Well, listen, Iím really glad you called," if you were
from Southern Virginia - as I am - you would understand that Iím
really saying, "Well, Iím now ready to complete this
conversation so kindly begin your final pleasantries." Not only
are my words individually symbolic but the way that
I put them together is of itself symbolic in a way that
transcends the mere individual words. And - of course - thereís
the much referenced fact that the Eskimos have so very many words
for snow. Their richer symbol system implies a deeper (pardon the
pun!) understanding of the reality of snow and also implies that our
grasp of reality is limited by the breadth of our symbol system. We
cannot say, then, that itís mere sophistry if Derrida were to
suggest that the understanding of snow of a Southern American who
grew up in the South is limited not only by the relative paucity of
the white stuff in Danville, VA but also by the poverty of the
distinct set of linguistic symbols pertaining to snow which he
employs? If I began to live with the Eskimos, I would lack words to
describe the experience and would similarly be limited in my
comprehension of the subtleties and nuances of snow by that
the paradigm. Paradigms are useful mental constructs. Their very
utility is one of the reasons we resist changing our
paradigms. But they are also limiting. Kuhn coined the term in
discussing Galileoís assertion that the earth orbited the Sun.
This contradicted the ascendant Ptolemaic model which explained all
the available data in a self-consistent way that presupposed the
earth as the center of the solar system and the universe. Kuhnís
point is that scientific revolution - and the advance of scientific
knowledge - occurs when old paradigms are challenged and new ones
critics of Christianity claim that the severe limits of language and
paradigm make nonsense any propositional statements about God or
eternalities. Language and the human mind are simply inadequate to
the task in the face of the Infinite.
the biblicist would certainly demur on this point, he must
nevertheless acknowledge that the concept of paradigm is reminiscent
of a much older concept formulated over 19 centuries ago by the
Apostle Paul. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the apostle
not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind
Christian is thusly challenged to constantly engage in what
Peter Senge in his wonderful
The Fifth Discipline calls "balancing advocacy
with inquiry." We take positions (advocacy) because of
the absolute utilitarian necessity of sometimes taking action
on matters about which we do not always have complete
we remain humble enough to be open to correction should a paradigm
correction be suggested after we inquire for the reasons held
by those who disagree (inquiry).
respectfully suggest that the import of Paulís words is that a
relationship with the Transcendent requires constant paradigmatic
adjustment! And the most endearing characteristic of someone who has
thought deeply and reflectively about the limits of human language
and paradigm is a teachable humility.
sadly, it is this humility that one simply does not sense in so much
Christian theology, in so many Sunday morning messages, and in a
plethora of Christian books. It is this lack of humility - this
conveyed absolute certainty - in so many particulars of the panoply
of Christian expression that may justify the postmodernity-inspired
accusation that Christian theology has been inordinately influenced
by the modern agenda. Intrinsic to modernity is the desire to
organize and explicate all particulars. Manís mind is considered
capable of explaining and classifying all that can be known.
I heard a popular Christian apologist - a man for whom I have
enormous respect - fielding questions from a college audience. After
someone asked how it was possible that Jesus - as God - could die,
he declared that the answer was an easy one and went on to give a
standard response delineating Jesusí human and divine natures. As
I was listening to this, I had to laugh. In my opinion, evacuating
the death of the Divine Son of its mystery by such a formulaic
response is reflective of a modern arbitrary certainty and
hypercategorization. Postmodernity advocates - even celebrates -
cognitive dissonance, which is nothing more than the analytical term
for mystery. It is comfortable with leaving certain particulars
unexplained. There are times when we should do the same.
man is severely limited in his ability to comprehend Him Who is
infinite. And lacking all data of the Divine, it should come as no
shock that there would be divine antinomies - apparent
contradictions. We should not be surprised when our investigations
of the One Who created all things are stopped by the limits of our
human minds. Modernity, on the other hand, inspires us to arbitrarily
fill in the gaps.
have a friend who has 9 children. Once one of his daughters
disobeyed him and he decided that it was time to begin spanking her.
(I trust that if you personally object to corporal punishment youíll
not miss my larger point!) He began to do so. Immediately he
stopped. When he saw that she was terrorized - not scared, not
merely afraid, but confusedly horrified - he stopped at once. She
had no idea what was going on. This little girl was terrorized
because she knew two things to be true: 1) Daddy loves me; and 2)
Daddy is hurting me. And in her little world it was simply
inconceivable that these two facts could co-exist. They comprised an
antinomy. Of course, in her fatherís mind his love and his
discipline were entirely consistent. But consider: if such a
difference divides the understanding of man and daughter - separated
by scant decades - imagine the chasm between the comprehension of
the One Who lives forever and the understanding of mere man. We
should not be surprised and alarmed when we canít reconcile all
known facts about the One who is infinite.
our modernity-influenced minds manufacture contorted theories that
account for all the data, irrespective of the mental gymnastics our
Ptolemaic constructs require. Or - worse - we increase our
passionate rhetoric to supplement inadequate argumentation.
rather respectfully suggest we do better to listen to our postmodern
critics and display a willingness to live with data we cannot
entirely reconcile. We must be comfortable with cognitive dissonance
or - more to the point -to be able to embrace mystery. The mystery
itself implies that we are dealing with the Other and not a mere
anthropomorphic construction of our hopeful religious desires. That
mystery should lead us to worship.
itself suggests data beyond our knowing. In Deuteronomy we read,
"The secret things belong to the Lord our God" (29:29a,
The New King James Version).
suggestion - however - should not be taken as an interdiction of our
natural desire to explore divine mysteries, for "to search out
a matter is the glory of kings" (Proverbs 25:2b). But when Godís
greatness is revealed by our inability to put all the pieces
together "it is the glory of God to conceal a matter"
while we can and must simultaneously explore and accept Godís
mysteries, we mustnít artificially explain every nook and cranny
of Godís mysteries lest we seem to make Him entirely explicable
and our formulation of him a mere human construct. Who could worship
such a God?
must acknowledge to our postmodern critics that in many ways weíve
lost a sense of Godís transcendence. We must agree that so many of
our predictable Sunday morning services seem like business seminars
rather than encounters with the Ineffable. We must confess that weíve
been addicted to the propositional, to the left-brain, to the
logical and sequential. In these ways weíve bought into the modern
agenda. Iíll never forget hearing a seminary professor declare,
"We do not train you to be pastors; we train you how to answer
Bible questions." There is more to Christianity than this.
is the appeal of the modern agenda to the Christian? At least part
of its seduction is that if my Christianity is entirely a set
of propositions, I can remain in control; I can put God in a box. In
this way I retain independence because Iíve mastered God theoretically.
of course - will have nothing of it; He shall not be mastered; He
shall break out of the box. But when we so constrain God in our
minds, when we lose a sense of awe at His greatness and mystery,
we inevitably become imbalanced even when we do propositionalize. We
strain proposition so that it covers every exigency and every piece
of data and even our propositionalizing is diminished in its
accuracy and effectiveness.
that a failure to experience God limits our ability to
explain him has recently come from a number of interesting
work of neurologist Antonio
Damasio (Descartes Error) is suggestive of how a lack of
appreciation of Godís transcendence and mystery inhibits
evangelicalsí ability to even propositionalize about God with
consistent balance, relevance, and possibly even accuracy.
experiences that cannot be analyzed down to proposition (the purview
of the whatís popularly called "the left brain") can
only be ascertained by the emotions (or the "right
brain"). My one year old Skye understands little of my
interactions with her, but she readily grasps with her emotions
whether she perceives my activity to be good (a hug) or bad (Daddy
says, "No, Skye, donít touch that!").
when it comes to our comprehension of God, in many respects we are
like children in our understanding. Because of the limitations of
our mental capacity, and because of Godís infinity, it is
impossible to contain our proper experience of him within the bounds
of mere proposition.
himself explores the limits of his language in striving to express
the magnificent love of God when he prays that the Ephesian
Christians "may be able to comprehend with all the saints what
is the width and length and depth and height - to know the love of
Christ" (Ephesians 3:18,19a, NASB).
this abounding love, in his next phrase Paul plainly asserts the
inadequacy of language - yes, even the human mind - to contain this
love when he writes that it "passes knowledge" (3:19). We
see another assertion of this inability of manís mind to fully
comprehend God when Paul writes of the "peace of God, which
surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7, NASB). We can
only detail so many aspects of our Father; we can only intuit the
fullness of His Majesty.
inadequacy of our words fill our hearts with the need to praise, to
sing, to paint, to dance.
the fullness of our understanding of God cannot come from what we
can analyze alone. Our analysis brings our knowledge up to a point -
then it is our intuition (or heart or "right brain" or
that part of us that knows what it cannot quite put into words) that
completes our understanding.
Damasio has discovered that those whose brains have been damaged in
areas that feel emotion so that they are emotionally
"flat" are similarly incapable of thinking properly in
areas historically considered separate from emotions. This damage,
then, is in the part of the brain that responds to external stimuli;
it is in one portion of the mind that experiences.
patients are articulate, perform well on standardized intelligence
tests, even do well on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality
Inventory - a standard instrument used to predict neurotic
pathological behaviors. Yet they cannot keep spouses, cannot keep
jobs, and in example after example Damasio illustrates how those who
do not seem to feel emotion are incapable of prioritizing what is
and is not important. They are constantly becoming lost in
relatively unimportant tasks, such as filing or organizing their
desk, to the detriment of much more pressing matters.
one argue that Evangelicalism has exercised a similar preoccupation
with relatively unimportant matters when larger issues are at stake?
Is it possible that our depreciation of Godís transcendent
qualities - our failure to let ourselves be lost in his wonder, in
His greatness, in His love - could it be that what we do not
experience of God similarly influences us to misprioritize, to miss
the big picture, to get lost in the details of His truth? Our
relative inability - I know Iím making broad generalities here -
but our relative inability to join as one in passionate worship of
our Beautiful Savior has divided us from one another in areas such
as ecclesiology, baptism, the details of salvation by grace through
faith, etc. Iím not saying that these are unimportant issues
unworthy of healthy debate. But when we agree on such things as
Jesusí divinity, salvation by grace through faith, the
resurrection, etc., - even more - when we share in the experience
of Godís love and grace, is it not a scandal that we allow
lesser matters to separate us? Iím suggesting that our
unwillingness to abandon ourselves to Godís relentless wooing -
just like as a bride gives all of herself to her husband - inhibits
us - just like Damasioís patients - from being able to properly
and appropriately propositionalize. And Iím suggesting that when
we donít connect with God with our "right brain" we tend
to over-propositionalize Him in a way consistent with modernityís
agenda of making man the arbiter of all truth.
feel the need to dot every theological i and cross every
propositional t. Our arguments sound strained; our voices
rise in insecure polemic because weíve erected a theological house
of cards. The editors of Mars Hill Review have likened postmodernityís
rebuke of the church with the Babylonianís captivity of Israel.
And so we should consider: could God be using the postmodern agenda
to correct an imbalance in evangelicalism brought on by modernity?
Is God calling us back to a deeper appreciation of all that He is?
And when we do this, is it possible our theology will become more
accurate and our lives more balanced?
be continued next month: Lessons "from" the church.
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
and his website is http://www.shieldsplace.org.