Posted by: Alex | July 3, 2012

Renewing the Center: The Post-Modern Ethos and Theological Method

Getting into week two with campers and the camp schedule is in full swing which means I’m working basically 8am-10pm most days of the week.  Its a crazy, busy, hectic life, but its also great fun and immensely rewarding.  Finding time to read and write in the midst of it all is a tad bit difficult, but we are still making progress!

Today we are shifting gears a bit.  We have finished the historical section of Grenz’s Renewing the Center and are now getting into the main theological argument.  Grenz wants to argue that the shift in philosophy to post-modernism provides new opportunities for evangelical theology to continue to reform and move away from its fundamentalist phase and back toward something akin to the synthesis of classical evangelicalism in terms of emphasizing both the experience of faith and engagement with the culture of the day.

Before launching into a description of what such a theology might look like, Grenz wants to give a philosophical description of post-modernism and then discuss some ways in which post-modernism will impact theological method.  In his description of post-modernism, Grenz emphasizes two things:  first, the rejection of “meta-narratives” and second, the demise of “foundationalism.”  By “meta-narrative” Grenz means a systematic “myth” or story that organizes the way a society understands the world and its place in it.  So for instance, the meta-narrative of modernism is commonly understood as the narrative of the progress of human knowledge and technology to explain and control the natural world.  Post-modernism, Grenz believes, involves the total rejection of such narratives:

The post-modern condition is not merely marked by the loss of the particular myths of modernity.  Rather, the postmodern ethos entails the end of the appeal to any central legitimating myth whatsoever.  Not only have all the reigning metanarratives lost their credibility, the idea of a grand narrative is itself no longer credible.”  (181)

Grenz goes on toe describe the effect of this move by post-modernism:

Nevertheless, narratives still function in the postmodern world.  But the narratives postmoderns tell are “local” rather than universal.  Postmoderns continue to construct models (or “paradigms”) to illumine their experience.  And because they perceive life itself as a drama or narrative lived out within a socially constructed world, they engage in the process of fabricating stories that can define personal identity and give purpose and shape to social existence.  In this process, however, postmoderns remain dispossessed of the modernist illusion.  They realize that rather than representing reality all such models are “useful fictions.”  (182)

The result is the proliferation of local and even personal narratives which are considered “true” for a particular individual or community and are celebrated as marks of diversity in postmodernism.  Grenz sees great opportunity here for evangelical theology, which he sees as fundamentally local because of the structure of evangelical communities and the evangelical experience (189).

The second major feature of post-modernism as Grenz understands it is the demise of “foundationalism.”  By foundationalism, Grenz means an epistemological project aimed at discovering first a bedrock, certain “foundation” for all other knowledge and then constructing a system of belief from that foundation.  The most famous example of this in the history of philosophy is Descartes’ project, which begins with the bedrock foundation of the Cogito:  I think, therefore I am.  From this certain starting point, the acknowledgement of our own existence as a thinking being, Descartes then sets out to build a system of knowledge including proof of an external world, the existence of other people, and God.  Grenz understands post-modernism to entail the demise of this kind of project and its replacement with projects aimed at discovering systems of knowledge which, though not endowed with the kind of certainty that comes from such a foundational starting point, are secured by “coherence” or a robust notion of “pragmatism.”  The major consequence of this movement by post-moderns is that knowledge becomes in many ways connected to language and its function in various contexts.  This in many ways reinforces the “local” nature of narratives noted above:  if knowledge is rooted in contextual, linguistic understandings based on the coherence of certain ideas or their functionality in particular contexts, then knowledge will effectively be localized.  What this means for theology is that theology must also be “contextualized” or local,  theology must seek to operate in a way that is fluid and appropriate for its particular context or local situation.

The most immediate problem that I see for Grenz is that Grenz’s description of post-modernism as the rejection of meta-narratives is itself a meta-narrative.  In other words, it seems to me that Grenz’s portrayal of post-modernism is one of the rejection of a particular meta-narrative for another.  The post-modern meta-narrative is one that sees the modern project as misguided and arrogant and believes that society must reject endeavors at definitively discovering objective truth and instead embrace a multitude of diverse viewpoints and local “useful fictions.”  I think this portrayal of post-modernism is a problem for Grenz because his project goes beyond the post-modern rejection of the modern meta-narrative and attempts to construct a new meta-narrative for the Christian (and specifically evangelical) community while simultaneously maintaining that the concept of meta-narratives has lost its credibility.  Grenz does not end with the claim that theology must be local and contextualized.  He wants to be “prescriptive” (211), describing what a Christian, and specifically, what an evangelical theology look like in the post-modern ethos.  To be prescriptive, he claims, theology must be apologetic (213).  The problem for Grenz as I see it is that it is unclear how one can be “apologetic” and “prescriptive,” aiming to describe what the Church should believe and defend such belief, without crafting a meta-narrative with universal claims.

This is further complicated by some major considerations Grenz makes.  Grenz concludes chapter six of the book by arguing that any properly Christian theology must include three elements:  it must be Trinitarian, it must arise from the life of the community, and it must be oriented toward the eschatological, redemptive work of God.  This gives us a glimpse of the meta-narrative Grenz would construct in his prescriptive project, but it also seems to act as a sort of foundation for his theological project.  Grenz in fact describes all three of these elements as in some sense “basic” or “foundational” (220, 222, 224).  Thus, it seems to me that while Grenz finds the post-modern ethos very useful as a critical tool of other theological projects, his own project is still in many ways a meta-narrative which utilizes some form of foundationalism and thus does not exhibit the post-modern ethos he claims Christianity must utilize in the present age.

To be fair, it should be said that Grenz is certainly post-modern in a certain sense, which is that he has rejected the modern meta-narrative.  He also uses much post-modern terminology, discussing language games, contextualization, local “styles” of theology, the coherence and pragmatism of truth claims, etc.  However, since Grenz is attempting to construct a prescriptive and apologetic theology for evangelicalism, he is inherently going beyond what he understands to be the post-modern ethos of rejecting all meta-narratives and embracing a diversity of local stories by attempting to construct a new meta-narrative of his own.  While I find the content of his theological project in many ways compelling or at the very least intriguing, I’m not sure his argument for the project is adequate.  Grenz never, to my reading, provides us a way out of the localized post-modern ethos that would allow a new meta-narrative like the one he proposes to be formed.  Without that grounding, I’m not sure his project can ultimately succeed even if its content is very compelling.

To be clear about what my critique is here, let me summarize it.  I find many things about Grenz’s theological project compelling and interesting.  I think his three essential elements are all crucial pieces of Christian theology.  I think there is something to be said for the claim that evangelical theology is in some respects by its very nature grounded in the localized experience of God at work in an individual or community.  In all these ways I find myself in agreement with Grenz.  Where I am frustrated with Grenz is his attempt to claim the mantle of “post-modern” for these claims while simultaneously understanding post-modernism as the rejection of meta-narratives and the demise of foundationalism.  What it seems to me that Grenz is actually doing is rejecting a particular set of meta-narratives and a particular foundation while embracing a new meta-narrative relying on a new set of foundational concerns.  The reason I find this frustrating is that I think by basing his argument on such gestures toward post-modernism Grenz is opening himself up to two dangers:  first, he is in danger of being inconsistent; second, he is danger of not having adequate grounding for his theological project because he does not provide a way to move from the localized stories of post-modernism to a meta-narrative such as the one he is constructing.

What do you think?  Is Grenz consistent?  Do you agree with him that theology must be local and contextual?  What do you make of his three essential elements to Christian theology?

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Responses

  1. Always remember that the left-brained “theological” letter that now mis-informs and creates the Christian “world”-view always kills the Living Divine Reality.
    Meanwhile of course there is now more “theology” being written and studied than in any time in human history. And yet the entire humanly created ‘world” is becoming more and more psychotically insane every day.
    Indeed the leading vectors of this now universal insanity/psychosisare all of the usual right-wing religionists or ALL of those associated with the recent Manhatten Declaration/Manifesto.
    Do you really think that if Jesus happened to reappear in the USA that he would have anything to do with any of these benighted self-righteous ghouls?


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