Sunday, October 07, 2007

[THO] Sacred Epistemology?

I'm getting much closer to having my research topic refined, I'm confident enough that I ordered a slew of books on topic. The refining is important because it will determine how I read those books. Should be fun though as most of the books are out of the Emerging Church. As I've been reflecting on the engagement of the Emergent church with postmodernity, and also on the response of the evangelical stalwarts like Carson and MacArthur, I'm wondering if we haven't mistaken our epistemology as sacred?

It is interesting that in the modernist revisions of Christianity there is an emphasis on faith being something reasonable. The modern church presents a primarily propositional gospel message, assent to these truth claims and you are in. But that sort of understanding does not get very far in postmodernity. In the postmodern mind those truth claims are also a created reality so they need to be brought into the matrix of community forming. The postmodern mind also doesn't expect faith to be reasonable, but rather uses a different criteria of authenticity.

Authenticity is different than truth. The way truth is used assumes that there is an unmediated communication of said truth and that there is a faithful encapsulation of that truth in the form of doctrine or dogma. But here is where most of the mainline evangelicals mess it up, they assume that to think anything else less about truth is less of a committment to truth, by that I mean what is truly true. It is not truth that is rejected, it is how we arrive at and appropriate truth that is at stake in the postmodern turn.

Here is where the disconnect of lived experience and creedal affirmation comes in. The great proponents of propositional truth have claimed to live according to truth, but really there are two types of truth operative: the truth we say we believe and the lives we truly live. What we live is what we really believe, no matter what we say we believe. So if you say it is wrong to steal, but you enjoy pirating videos, well the truth that is operative in you is not a simple proposition against theft, but rather a complex belief about degrees of theft and possibly a belief about what constitutes an apparently victemless crime. Now when you try and navigate to the true truth this gets messy. Which is why the need for a new category: authenticity.

Authenticity is a way of affirming a lived truth. To be real or authentic is to be in touch with the greyness of our lives. It is to recognize that each of us is embedded in systems and ideologies that are not helping the world, our community or even our selves. So you now have a generation that want to keep it real. This scares the crap out of those who are staunch defenders of the truth, not the least because this authenticity is messy and doesn't care about the old categories of truth that were so important to the modern revision of Christianity.

But here is the opportunity, and if you have been here a while you know that I see postmodernity as an incredible opportunity. In the past, when the lived life comes into focus we've fallen to systems of personal holiness to help us navigate the greyness of society. I think in the past these have been very beneficial to the church, although not always. But such efforts are based on propositional thinking and readings of the scriptures. This has to shift slightly for the postmodern setting.

Postmodernity is not only a call to authenticity, it is a recognition that the myth of progress has failed us. The world is screwed up and we are implicated strongly in the actions that have led us to this place. So those same passions for holiness can be used to call for deeper committment to an authenticity that leans into common good. Here is the opportunity we have to craft a hope filled generation. See the postmodern mind is concerned with truth, but it is just less picky how it arrives there. That is an incredible opportunity.


knsheppard said...

I see authenticity slightly different. To me it's come to prominence because of cultural and political changes made most explicit in the last 50 years, and centres around recent emphasis on identity. Does it stand in as a replacement for the modernist's truth? I'm not so sure. Nor do I see all postmoderns jettisoning a primary place for reasonableness either - think A. MacIntyre.

One of Freedom said...

I don't see it as a replacement of modernist truth, but rather a seperate epistemology. Where I encounter talk of authenticity is in those places where truth is seen as a less than helpful term. Actually the term I hear more often is 'real', as in that person is being real. I'm not convinced that our epistemological tools are all tha radically different, but how we view them is. So while the modernist has a great deal of confidence in their epistemological tools, the postmodernist uses the tool of cynicism as a starting point.

I wasn't careful enough with my second paragraph. Reason is still part of the epistemology in postmodernity, but it is this cynicism that nuances reason in a different way. So I agree that it isn't jettisoned. What I was trying to get at was that the postmodern mind doesn't purely and abstractly reason its way to God, it isn't convinced through reasonable arguments, but rather they are convinced by percieving what they consider to be real. This is summed up in a sense of "show me, don't tell me" that comes out of the frustration of hearing one thing and seeing another.

Hank said...

We have a young teenager who has been coming to our church for about a year now. I see in her a definite postmodernist mind. My wife is definitely a modernist, and I am somewhere in between.

How do we communicate with her? How do we get past some of the objections to Christianity that she offers (which I believe may be more of defense against faith than real obstacles)?

One of Freedom said...

Hank, I think that is part of the frustration the modernist has with postmodernity. The modernist sees it as a dialogue problem, if I can just get the right message I can overcome the obstacles. I suspect your suspicion is correct - she is holding out for that authenticity. But be careful of the quick leap that the right experience will bring her in, it isn't about some majic combination but rather it is about cultivating the ways she is already awakened to authenticity. Encourage her to encounter God through the various senses that are already awakening. That is what the modern mind doesn't do well. It doesn't adapt to other ways of encounter. The encounter with the divine is primarily seen through reason, but for the postmodern reason is viewed with a bit of cynicism. It is not completely jettisoned, but most postmoderns are open to a variety of praxii for encounter. This is that opportunity I see and I think that is what the emerging church does well - it doesn't build up a polemics against alternative views, but rather looks for the good in a plurality of alternatives.

But then again this is pretty crass knowing that you are talking about a real situation with a real person you love. As a pastor I'd say pray, pray and then pray. As a pastor conversant with postmodernity I'd say encourage as you pray, even encourage what you are not completely comfortable with, just be there with her in the journey. BTW I'll pray too Hank.

bless you.