POSTMODERNITY


Ran across this helpful quote from Walter R. Thorson of the Dept of Chemistry at the University of Alberta. He brought Polanyi’s thinking  to bear on Hebrews 11:1: Good stuff.

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11: 1). Familiar as this verse is, we tend to let it roll smoothly off our tongues rather than think carefully about what it says, which at first seems either very surprising or else nonsensical. To retranslate: “Faith brings to substantial, actual realization things that are at first only hoped for; it creates a clear and convincing focus on things we cannot yet see.”

The first half of the sentence sounds perilously close to the view of some five year-olds that “if you believe in something hard enough it will come true,” and the second half sounds like “if you believe in something long enough, after awhile you will be quite sure about it.” We laugh at this-because we all know just how silly we should be to trust such naive maxims. Cheer up; the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is no five year-old. Yet I never really felt intellectually satisfied about this text until Michael Polanyi showed me what it really means by describing just how this principle functions as the dynamic element in scientific discovery (oddly enough, he never seems to have referred explicitly to this remarkably appropriate text.)

To make it clearer for all us academics, here is a third, technical rendering: “the indwelling of a true theory by persons responsibly committed to it leads functionally to the eventual manifestation and confirmation of realities which at first are only vaguely intimated, or but poorly perceived.” If you read Personal Knowledge, you will find a thoroughly fascinating account of precisely this remarkable phenomenon. I referred in an earlier talk to the story of the Copernican revolution, which illustrates the principle very well. For those who were committed to it, the Copernican hypothesis provided an integrating vision of the heavens; it was only within the framework of such commitment that previously unanticipated elements could be brought into clear focus, and the relevant activities conceived and sustained, which ultimately brought the truth of that vision to its full manifestation. For more than 150 years until Newton’s laws of motion were discovered-it could not be said convincingly that the factual evidence confirmed the Copernican, and refuted the Ptolemaic, view. Yet during that long period faith in the validity of the Copernican hypothesis sustained a chain of labors which finally vindicated it.

The point, of course-one to which the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is very sensitive-is that manifesting a hidden truth in hostile or indifferent circumstances is a laborious, time-consuming, and costly business, and one will not be able to sustain the effort required, unless he really is committed to a serious belief that the reality in question exists. In my own career as a theoretician I have experienced the validity of this principle in several specific problems, where belief in the existence of a certain type of solution to a physical or mathematical problem provoked imaginative responses or new insights, and sustained long periods of laborious and often fruitless search until at length one line of work ended in success. I am sure many others of you have also had similar experiences.

Of course, our Scripture text about faith takes it for granted that what is being believed in is true. It is certainly not saying (as the five-year-old does) that faith as such produces results, but that it is faith which sustains fruitful activities, when it is directed toward valid objects-and, without such faith, even a true theory remains barren and ineffectual. Again, it is partly for this reason that we must entertain of any serious theory that it is potentially true. In science, as in religion, I hope there is none among us who really believes that “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive;'” as C.S. Lewis acutely said, “If that were true, and were known to be true, who would ever start out upon a journey?”

It would be very fascinating if we had time to think a bit about spiritual and intellectual hope. According to our text, “things hoped for” are antecedent to faith, and perhaps we could infer they are in some manner stimulants to faith.

“Hope” in the New Testament does not mean wishful thinking, but a strong sense of anticipation of unheralded and certainly unspecifiable possibilities. Spiritual hope is not ultimately directed toward a seen object (“hope that is seen is not hope”); it is properly and ultimately hope in God.

It’s struck me recently that many of Derrrida’s critiques of modernity dovetail very nicely with what I (mis)understand regarding Van Til’s thought. It’s a bit funny, if you think about it: the most conservative opponents of (the prevalent bumper sticker misunderstanding in IMO) postmodern epistemology are actually in substantial agreement with its arguments against modernity. I know its more of a Russia/US against Germany sorta thing, than a US/Britain type of alliance, but it still seems significant.

Anyway, I ran across this really thought provoking comment from Peter Leithart.

Based on a student’s questioning, I’m wondering whether “presuppositionalism” is the best term to describe what Vantillians are after. We don’t, after all, come up with some kind of set of axioms or theological idea “prior” to receiving revelation. We can talk about making the Triune God our “starting point” as much as we want, but faith in the Triune God is not in fact the “starting point” of our thinking (in either a chronological or logical sense). I like Frame’s revisionist view that “presuppositions” are really “basic commitments,” but that still seems to individualistic to me. I’d rather think of how we can ecclesiologize Van Til: Instead of saying that “all our thinking is grounded in the presupposition of the Triune God of Scripture,” we might say “as Christians we think and act from within the Church, which is the body of Christ and the community of worshipers of the Triune God.” This moves Van Til in the direction of postliberals and postmoderns, but that’s not a bad move in this case I think.

He suggests that Van Til’s articulation regarding ‘presuppositions’ does not conform to our thinking/formation/commitment as we actually experience it. This makes me think of Einstein’s criticism of Euclidian geometry, which was an abstract (and helpful) vision of reality that was formulated independent of experience. Geometry needs to conform to what bodies actually do when in motion.

Similarly, perhaps the tacit individualism of Van Til’s evangelicalism needs to be abandoned for the radical communality of humanity as we actually find his existence/formation/commitments, always and everywhere- as God actually created us. This move would take ‘Presupostionalism’ in both a more Derridian and Catholic direction.

Hmmmm.

EDIT:

Almost immediately upon hitting ‘post’ I thought of the old master’s little pamphlet Why I believe in God

In it he explains that he believes in God because as a little child his mother placed him on her knee and told him who he was,  the nature of the world, and who it was that created both.

I wonder why (or whether- since I’ve not read all that he wrote) community as family found such a prominent place in his testimony, but community as historically continuing church formed such a small part in his systematic thought.

UPDATED: 5/31

I spent a few minutes this weekend thinking about why Evangelicalism needs to be rooted in the ancient catholicism of the undivided church, if she is to offer a true alternative to the American vision of the good life.

These are pretty off the cuff. I’ve been told they are overly dichotomous. Perhaps this is true, but they’re a start.

It seems to me that contrary to common Modern/Evangelical assumptions and in agreement with our ancient faith…

* God is not simply or primarily saving individuals; he is saving a people.

* Christ did not establish a belief system called Christianity; he established the church.

* The church is not a voluntary association of individuals who meet as an aid to our personal growth; we are the body of Christ- the entity for which God is putting all things under Christ’s feet.

* The church is not a religious club, which is made up of good American citizens; she is an alternative polis, and we are resident aliens in the midst of America.

* Our lives are not free to be lived in terms of personal advancement; our lives are to be lived for the advancement of the kingdom.

* Our lives (including the ‘private’ parts) are not our business, only; our lives are the business of the church.

* The bishop is not an expensive rubberstamping ‘British monarch’ like hold over from another time; the bishop is the head of the church under Christ.

* It is not possible to exercise reason apart from faith; all reasoning begins in faith.

*Human beings are not first and foremost an Aristotelian ‘Thinking Thing;’ human beings are first and foremost an Augustinian ‘Loving Thing’

* Most of life is not ‘thought through;’ most of life is ‘desired through.’

* Christian formation/education isn’t primarily or only about learning propositions; it is a matter of imagination regarding the nature of ‘the good life,’ and comes primarily through the heart.

* The formation of the desires is not primarily accomplished through the head; it is primarily accomplished through the senses and the body.

* These formative liturgies are not optional or narrowly ‘religious;’ we are being shaped by either Christian or worldly liturgies.

* We are not really combating the flesh, world and the Devil if we are just offering more information; we equip the church fully when we provide competing comprehensive formation, which is first and foremost at the level of vision/desire.

* It’s not simply what we distinctly think that determines who we are; it is also what we distinctly desire, and this is determined by our worship- Lex orandi, lex credendi.

* Our vision of human flourishing cannot be identical to that proclaimed by other nation’s secular liturgies (including America’s); our vision of human flourishing must be formed by the liturgies of God’s people in accordance with the distinctives of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

* We don’t find those liturgies in accommodation to the liturgies of the world or the imagination of our modernity soaked hearts; we receive them from those who have gone before us.

* It is not wise to look around at how the unbelieving world ‘does it’ before we understand and squeeze every drop from the inheritance that is ours; it is reasonable to assume that the Body with whom Christ promised his Spirit would reside has as much insight as the world.

* Mere traditionalism is not the aim; we grow and build only after understanding and appreciating what is ours as the church- not lusting after the leeks of the world.

* We do not believe in the gospel because we first have confidence in the Bible; we count the bible as authoritative because we believe in the Gospel.

* It is not possible to ‘simply read’ scripture; every reading is an interpretation- either good or bad.

* It is not possible to interpret apart from the formation of a community; it is the case that if the church hasn’t formed our interpretation, the world has done so by default.

* The writings of the Christian Canon are not God’s final word; the writings of the Christian Canon declare Jesus Christ to be God’s final word.

* It is not the case that we ‘believe in’ propositional doctrine; it is the case that we believe in the God to whom propositional doctrine strains to point us.

* Human beings are not angels trapped in bodies; human beings are bodies.

* True worship does not take place between our ears, only; true biblical worship must include our bodies, too.

* Historically, the church has not gathered as the church on Sundays to simply praise God, which is all that is implied in the English word ‘worship’; she has met as the church for what has traditionally been called The Eucharist, the Mass, The Liturgy, The Divine Service.

* It is not true that we can do alone or at home, what is done when the church gathers as the church on Sunday mornings to offer service; it is true that communion around a common loaf and cup requires a community.

* As a distinct people we should not be surprised that our language, practices and stories are not immediately understandable to visiting non-Christians; believers ought to be instructed in the unique language, practices and stories that come from centuries of existing in this age as the people of King Jesus.

* Hospitality from a host culture does not require that the host population pretend that they speak, dress and eat just as they do in the visitor’s homeland; it is the case that if the visited culture is indistinguishable from one’s own, then there is no point in leaving home to begin with.

* Sunday morning should not be a lecture with singing; Sunday morning is a meeting with God in which we gather before him, are reconciled to him, receive his word, judgment and blessing and then sit as his friends, at his table.

* The service is not either from God to man, or from man to God; the service is both from God to man and from man to God.

* The service is not something God does in the abstract or we do by ourselves; Christ leads our worship, and in Christ, God both ministers to us and we offer to God all that we have and are.

* The focal point of this great exchange is not our subjective hearts; the focal point of this great exchange is the Body and Blood of Christ, wherein God gives us what is beyond us and we then offer back to him, his own gifts.

* The sacraments are not God’s flannel graph; the sacraments are mysteries and effective memorials.

* A biblical Memorial is not first and foremost about the memory of the people who offer it; a memorial, biblically considered, is presented in order to remind God.

* A strong sacramentalism and belief that one hears God’s voice through his minister Extra Nos is not a Roman innovation; that one should confidently hear God’s voice in the Preaching of the Word, Sacraments and Absolution of his minister is just plain vanilla Christianity and affirmed by the magisterial reformers.

* Reality is not accurately describable in materialistic terms; there is more in heaven and earth than is imagined in Scientism’s philosophy.

* Reality is not two-storied- with God and heaven ‘up there’ and we ‘down here’; God and his heavenly entourage of angels and saints surround us.

* Success is not measured in terms of the end; success is measured in terms of the journey.

* The cross is not simply the beginning or the end; the cross is the shape that all our attempts to reach a designated end must take.

* God did not create a flat, bare ‘ping pong table’ like creation- though it would have been much less prodigal; Christ did create taste buds, peacock feathers and round bottoms.

* Efficiency, speed and effectiveness are not Christ like models of success or operation; faithful, incarnational and foolishly wasteful and ineffective (by the world’s standards) practices often are.

* It is not a good thing that a church envision, operate or measure its life in terms that would make sense to the average modern American; it is a good thing that the church’s life draws on an ancient culture that is removed (and so immune from) the compromises of the current Spirit of the Age, and the gospel that says true divinity and true humanity look like that bleeding fellow who’s dying for the good of his murders.

Dear Rachael, Bekah, Hannah, Omi, Tommy and Esther.

I’m afraid that the last letter took the ‘Christian Thing’ off the table for many people.

Did you spot the repulsive bit?

No?

See it there….where I admitted that being part of Christ’s body includes us in the programs of Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan and the Borg. People are averse to being part of these sorts of things, you know.

Didn’t see where I admitted to such a thing?

Well, you’re right. I’d like to think I didn’t, but some will argue that I did right there– where I warned you that different dogmas create different worlds. I also warned you that these worlds are at war with each other. If one is true then the other is not. I encouraged you to protect the vision of ‘You, the World and Everything’ that comes from looking at reality through the lens of the crucified and risen Jesus.

So there it is- I assumed our worldview to be true, and I (with eyes wide open) recognized that it will dissolve the worlds of those who don’t share in it. In the minds of many I’ve advocated violence. I’ve sought to lift myself and mine up on the necks of everyone else.

You don’t see it? Well, I’d like to say that I don’t either, but…. I’m afraid there is a sense in which I do, at least potentially.

Now I think the people who immediately saw ‘Bluto’ when I wrote ‘Truth’ are wrong, but understandably so. Apart from a ‘Jesus Shaped’ view of the world, history has shown them to be right, but from a ‘Jesus Shaped’ view of the reality, they are living in a dream world- a nightmare, really.

It’s tempting to write about how Postmodernists (that’s what these suspicious folks are called) get it wrong, but the most important thing for you to see is how they get it right.

They get very nervous when people talk about truth- not the ‘that’s good for you, but not for me’ sorta truth. They’re alright with that. They get suspicious of what someone called ‘true truth’- the sort that applies to everyone, whether they like it or not.

Though many in the church simply mock at the charges, it seems to me that Postmodern opposition is a very serious intellectual challenge to our faith. Just between y’all and me, I think they have us by the ‘you know whats,’ but…

…this is the case only because what we present as the ‘Christian Thing’ is really something horribly more familiar. It an Anti-Christian thing.

These critics help us see where we have lost our way, traded in our story for one of the world’s stories, allowed out dogma to become the world’s doctrine… and all without every knowing it.

It seems that we constantly end up with idolatrous visions of ‘You, the World and Everything Else,’ clothed in Christian apparel. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers come true. Be very afraid!

We owe our postmodern friends a big ‘Thank you!’ They simply ask that we put our money where our mouth is and be who our story claims that we are, and when we don’t, they aren’t willing to let us off the hook. They know too much of bloody history to do that.

Let me explain. (more…)