Theology in Postmodern Perspective

Originally prepared for a discussion among faculty, I have used this handout as a point of discussion in several of my graduate classes.  It is a “bare bones” introduction to how Christian theology and postmodern perspectives might intersect or complement each other. It is intended as a discussion starter for my classes; it is not a definitve statement of belief.

 

Postrationalism—or, Perspectivalism (or perhaps some weak version of “critical realism”). Knowledge is a matter of perspective—we always see the world through some grid. It is always “seeing as” rather than “seeing objectively” as if we are neutral observers. This entails a strong sense of fallibilism which means that even our most cherished beliefs might be subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation. Perspectivalism does not mean that “anything goes” but rather that knowledge is a process, a movement toward the Truth through dialogue with community, interaction with the cosmos, experiential connection, and hearing the voice of God. Our perspectives sharpen each other as we move toward a fuller embrace of the Truth (God).

 

Postfoundationalism, or Ad Hoc Apologetics. Knowledge is not built on indubitable rational foundations. Paul Ricoeur reformulated the “wager” where the quest for knowledge is grounded in faith (mythos) rather than in radical doubt (logos).  Apologetics, then, becomes a process of sorting out the experiential, performative, rational, historic and interdisciplinary dimensions of life in relation to faith.  The believer possesses a sense of doubt mingled with his or her decision of faith; doubt is never totally eliminated. Reason becomes the servant rather than the master of faith. Faith still has its reasons (including “reasons of the heart”), and is thus reasonable, but the nature of that reason is not defined by modern epistemological constraints or limited by modern rationalism nor absolutely rooted in some universal rationality. Rather, faith is hearing the word of God, but it is no mere cognitive decision but also the existential reality of the heart shaped by the work of the Spirit of God.

 

Postpropositionalism, or Scripture as Call.  The language of Scripture privileges the vocative rather than the descriptive function. Words are not merely signs for things but a call from the Other. Scripture is a call from God to participate in this redemptive drama. This prioritizes the relational over predication within Scripture. It prioritizes the personal over propositional reality. The function of Scripture is to make us wise unto wholeness (salvation)—sapiential rather than primarily or fundamentally propositional.

 

Postindividualism, or Relational Community. The nature of humanity is not individual-in-isolation or individual-in-autonomy, but individual-in-relation or “being-in-relation.” Trinitarian theology, as a reflection of the communal nature of God (relational ontology), is a primary mode of thinking alongside of postmodernity. It prioritizes the community over the individual, and that identity is found in community rather than in mere personal piety. God redeems a people and communes as a community with his redeemed community.

 

      Postdoctrinalism, or Praxis.  The Christian faith is not so much defined in terms of its core beliefs as it is characterized by the story it performs–practicing the kingdom of God in the created though fallen world.  It is not the doctrinal affirmations that define Christianity but how the drama is enacted.  Truth is being and doing rather than propositional affirmations.  Truth is fundamentally performative; it is lived.  Truth is evidenced in the pratice of the kingdom.  Praxis in community precedes maturation of faith and knowledge–communal practices shape faith and knowledge. Doctrine functions as dramatic direction for our participation in the story.

 

      The Point: The most significant theological contribution of postmodernism is that we recognize that we are not God—we do not see the world as God sees the world; we do not have a vantage point from which to see as God sees.  We see as fallible, fallen creatures. Consequently, we are pilgrims on a journey to Truth but we never inhabit the Truth in its fullness as we journey.  The truth is that we are not the Truth.  We have access to Truth, but we only know it as truth through the lens of our fallible fallenness. Such a postmodern perspective calls for humility over pride–a need for both hermeneutical humility and the practice of mercy as a theological virtue.

 

I would suggest that the value that these points my have in Christian theology is not because they are postmodern.  Rather, it seems that postmodernity has, at least in some points, actually embraced something of the substance of Christian theology. We can celebrate the intersection of postmodernity and theology at these points while at the same time critique the negative dimensions of postmodernism.



6 Responses to “Theology in Postmodern Perspective”

  1.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Absolutely wonderful!

    From my perspective that is walking on the razor’s edge from your perspective it might be an eight lane freeway.

    Now what I would say, is if you put lipstick on a pig what do you have. Joke

    john mark did you make this word up.
    sapiental.
    Do you remember I don’t get out much.

    salvation)—sapiential rather than primarily or fundamentally propositional.

    Blessings rich in California

  2. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Sapiential, unfortunately, is not my creation. Its use in theological circles is not uncommon, but its origin is actually the Pastorals. Timothy was told that the Scriptures would make him “wise unto salvation”–a wisdom that embodies the story of God in life.

  3.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Postdoctrinalism, or Praxis. The Christian faith is not so much defined in terms of its core beliefs as it is characterized by the story it performs–practicing the kingdom of God in the created though fallen world. It is not the doctrinal affirmations that define Christianity but how the drama is enacted. Truth is being and doing rather than propositional affirmations. Truth is fundamentally performative; it is lived. Truth is evidenced in the pratice of the kingdom. Praxis in community precedes maturation of faith and knowledge–communal practices shape faith and knowledge. Doctrine functions as dramatic direction for our participation in the story.

    who is of the faith of Christ
    3:26 This was37 also to demonstrate38 his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just39 and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.40

  4.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    That’s it and now I can articulate what I’m trying to say.
    Praxis:

    ROM.Rom 3:26 for the shewing forth of His righteousness in the present time, for His being righteous, and declaring him righteous who is of the faith of Jesus.

    GAL.2:19 For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God. 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ,59 and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So60 the life I now live in the body,61 I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God,62 who loved me and gave himself for me. 2:21 I do not set aside63 God’s grace, because if righteousness64 could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing!65

  5.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    And now I’m trying to find that lipstick.
    Thank you John Mark again
    blessings my brother Rich in California

  6. Profile photo of Jim Holway  Jim Holway Says:

    For what it is worth: In Spanish, “sapiencial” is used to refer to the Wisdom books of the Old Testament.

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