Posts Tagged 'new atheism'

Postmodern Apologetics in a Post-Postmodern Time?

So yesterday a friend writes on my Facebook wall, “Mike, is there is place for post-modern apologetics in post-post-modern times? The issue has been weighing on me for some time now.”

And since my reply would probably be too long to write on his wall, I thought I’d share it here.

“Really? That’s what’s been keeping you up at night? I guess I’ve been thinking more about the national health care debate and whether or not Threadless is going to bring back my favorite t-shirt designs, but different strokes I guess.”

Pet RockBut seriously, that’s a good question. And honestly, the word ‘apologetics’ has rubbed me the wrong way since my undergrad days – it sounds very sterile, very militant, very…propositional. And we all know that for the certifiably postmodern, ‘proposition’ is a four-letter word. If you can ‘prove’ it, I don’t wanna believe it! Okay, but that said, I’m assuming you don’t mean ‘apologetics’ in a highly-concentrated form; you simply mean the credible and persuasive means through which we might gain a ‘proper confidence’ to embark on the life of faith – yes?

But probably, at least partially, you do mean ‘apologetics,’ and how the term fell out of favor when more ‘postmodern’ approaches to finding and sharing faith began to proliferate, and now you’re wondering if those approaches now stick out like a 1970s Pet Rock or 1990s Gigapet in the wake of What’s Come After Postmodernism, if indeed anything has. Giga Pet

So my first question to you (feel free to reply in the Comments) is, what do you mean by ‘postmodern apologetics’? I think of approaches outlined in Brian McLaren‘s Finding Faith or George Hunter‘s The Celtic Way of Evangelism or Doug Pagitt‘s Church Reimagined or Rick Richardson‘s Reimagining Evangelism (yes, one of the ‘Pet Rock’ elements of the pomo epoch might be the frequent employment of ‘reimagining’ everything. At least my wife seems to think so.) or Jim Henderson‘s Evangelism Without Additives or Spencer Burke‘s Making Sense of Church. In these books – and the lives and communities they seem to attest to – ‘apologetics’ is more like creating a sweet and savory aroma of the divine, inculcating a Godward hunger. It emphasizes a multi-layered approach, the power of narrative, the authority of the community of faith and of the subversive Holy Spirit, of belonging before believing, and of faith experiments to try and validate certain spiritual notions as true (or not) in the seeker’s own life. The postmodern approach sees the Gospel as a grace-filled, centered-set journey toward Jesus, not a bounded set who’s in/who’s out delineation based on saying the right prayers or believing the right things. And faith is seen as personal, but never private – having social, political, and ecological consequences as we learn to live well together in God’s good earth. Is this what you think of as pomo-apologetics?

Fire DancersMy second question is, if the postmodern turn is in some way over, what has come after it? I’m not convinced that the above is passé, though I will acknowledge some cultural shifts since those heady days of the 1990s when Christians began discussing things that rocked the art, architecture, and literary worlds of the 1970s. I think the pop cultural advent of the New Atheists phenomenon shows us that there might be a more resilient/resurgent strata of our population who rely on science, ‘pure reason,’ and reductive thinking than we thought – they’re not likely to make metaphysical leaps of faith based on such ‘squishy’ ethos like ‘belonging’ and ‘faith experiments.’ Secondly, our increasingly cozy global village and the collaboration/voyeurism engendered by social networking has shown us that a pure pluralism or pure relativism, as advocated by some postmodern purveyors, is untenable – even in the world of ideas. Some ideas – and some forms of faith – are simply healthier (better) than others. (It’s worth noting that neither of these phenomena are un-accountable for in pure postmodern philosophy, but they do grate against some of the ways the philosophy has trickled down into both pop culture and/or the ’emerging church’ conversation.)

In light of these shifts, I’ve heard two credible proposals for what might be Coming After Postmodernity. They are…

Critical Realism

I first encountered this term around 2001 when a guest professor was in a religion class trying to debunk open theism, claiming it was too ‘postmodern,’ that we needed critical realism or a post-postmodern take on reality. I wasn’t too convinced, as his version of critical realism seemed to strangely validate modern (or even pre-modern) epistemological ideas, and static Greek/rationalist ideas about God. Thankfully, though, his wasn’t the last I’d heard of critical realism – others, like Andrew Perriman, have made good use of critical realism in reconstructing a narrative shape to the Christian story from Scripture and history, proposing provocative ways we can live today in the wake of that story. I have seen Andrew and others faithfully live out a version of Wikipedia’s definition of critical realism as “The theory that some of our sense-data (for example, those of primary qualities) can and do accurately represent external objects, properties, and events, while other of our sense-data (for example, those of secondary qualities and perceptual illusions) do not accurately represent any external objects, properties, and events” – giving proper place to both objectivity and subjectivity in our spiritual journeys.

Integral Theory

The other major contender I’ve noticed for postmodernity’s usurper is Integral theory, most popularized by philosopher, map-maker and master synthesizer Ken Wilber. Integral theory is an attempt to make sense of commonly recognized stages of human development – biological development, cognitive development, moral development – as well as normal/extra-ordinary stages of spiritual development as recognized by everyone from Christians (like ‘sanctification’ – or purgation, illumination, union) to Zen practitioners (y’know, satori and enlightenment and all that jazz). The map-making can become almost freakishly dense until you get the hang of it, much to the ire of some right-brained people – there are Levels, Lines, Quadrants, States, and Stages – to name a few. This simplified diagram depicts how Integral-ness maps reality in a nutshell.

Integral Map

Two of the other important ideas in Integral theory are that everything is a Holon – a whole/part. So an atom is both its own entity, but is part of a molecule, which is its own entity and part of an organ, all the way up to humans, families, communities, nations, psychographic groupings, planets, solar systems, dimensions, the noosphere, etc…  The other major contribution of this line of thought is that integration implies that everything belongs. It’s not simply that a human being progresses from pre-conventional moral development to conventional or post-conventional development, but that we transcend and include each stage, integrating the best (and even the shadow-side) of each previous stage into ourselves. But it isn’t a ‘flat’ egalitarian values system – Holons form a ‘nested Holarchy’ wherein we’re moving somewhere. Integral Christianity is just now blossoming. There are growing ranks of integral Christian thinkers and practitioners, including John Sylvest, Corey deVos, Zach Lind, Carl McColman, Cynthia Bourgeault, Michael Dowd, Rich VincentBruce Sanguin and Chris Dierkes – but most certainly not including Stuart Davis. 🙂

Clear as mud?

To recap: You asked me: “Is there is place for post-modern apologetics in post-post-modern times?”

And I’m asking you:

  • What does ‘postmodern apologetics’ mean to you?
  • What, in your estimation, has displaced postmodernity? Is it critical realism? Integral theory? Something else?
  • And finally, what might a critical realist or integral approach to faith (and attracting others to a life of faith) look like?

Please – everyone weigh in, not just my one friend. I might do a follow-up post looking more at these questions.

Update: Andrew Jones has some oldie-but-relevant posts pertaining to the enigma of pomo apologetics, in his dialogue with Mr. Born Again himself – see a recap here.

PS: Do you Twitter? Let’s follow each other! I’m @zoecarnate

What Christopher Hitchens & I Have In Common

I’ll give you a hint…it’s three-letters and vitally important – almost obsessive – for both of us.

No, not GOD silly…ROM!

That’s riiiight…I’m not the only one on a journey to whole-life fitness this year; the nu-atheist and journalist extraordinaire is also trying out the four-minute exercise machine this year as a part of his self-improvement odyssey. And like me, he’s writing about it. Unlike me, he’s writing about it in Vanity Fair. Take a gander:

Christopher Hitchens“I have often thought that when I do die it will be of sheer boredom, and the awful thing about growing older is that you begin to notice how every day consists of more and more subtracted from less and less. All right then, that rules out joining an exercise club. The sheer time spent getting there and back is bad enough, without the warm-ups and other horrors, and the encouraging chats with trainers and fellow members and all the rest of it. (I used to try to deduct the cost of a Washington, D.C., club membership from my taxes, on the journalistic basis that so many of the other members were faced with indictment, but even so the zest for regular attendance soon left me.)

Then I started to hear about the rom. This device—the initials stand for “Range of Motion”—was the perfect “no excuses” invention for slothful mammals. It promised to give you a workout in just four minutes. No: it was better than that. It insisted that you never give it more than four minutes. The catch was that it cost well over $14,000, but, hey, remember that great slogan for Stella Artois beer—“Reassuringly expensive”—and think of all the club subscriptions and travel time you will save over a lifetime (if you can pardon that expression). In return for the outlay, you receive a silver-and-black Harley-Davidson of a machine that acts as a standing reproach to your sloth and flab. I got one and put it in my office, so that I can’t get from the door to my desk, or from my desk to the drinks cabinet, or from either to the bathroom and shower, without having to pass the glinting rom. Lazy as I am, I am simply unable to persuade myself that I can’t part with four minutes every day. Also, I need to make that money back.

The thing is constructed and balanced around a heavy steel wheel that is moved by a series of chains. The hardest way to move the wheel is with your feet, on the rear pedals. The second hardest way is with your arms, using the metal oars at the front. At first I thought that there must be some snake oil involved, but I have since met several good trainers who use the machine mainly or exclusively at their gyms. At the worst, you get your heart rate right up and break a decent sweat. At the best, you lose weight in the bargain. As a compromise, you can look thinner without getting any lighter. This is because—wouldn’t you know it?—muscle weighs more than fat. In fact, the rom people warn you that you may gain a few pounds in the first few months of use. The best I can say is that, even though I had just given up smoking, I didn’t add any poundage to my 190 starting weight. And, which is the second best to shedding for real, I did start to receive a few kind remarks on how I looked thinner. I’ll take what I can get. (And I wish I knew, and maybe someone can tell me, why my scales almost always show me about a fifth of a pound heavier after my shower than before.)”

The whole piece is worth checking out here.

After it was penned, one commenter quipped: “Should Christopher Hitchens’s hectic schedule make it impossible for him to utilize the ROM machine for the four minutes required each day, please consider my offer to take the lightly used machine off of his hands. How about $7,000 and a couple cartons of his favorite cigarettes? Really, call me.”

It’s nice to know that if the Hitch-meister & I were stuck in an elevator together, we’d have something contructive to talk about. You know, instead of…that other three-letter word.

Coming soon: Results from ROM benchmarking!

If God Disappears

Today, many people are succumbing to waves of negative circumstances and the accompanying and crushing hopelessness that follows. Sometimes it may seem as if God has totally checked out. Has God disappeared? What if God disappears? Can God disappear? Those are very big questions. They are the questions that loom large on the horizons of many people’s skies in this atmosphere of harsh individualism. “Is God gone?” is a very serious question being asked by many, many sincere people today. It’s a question that can find a catalyst in a million different real-time life scenarios; it can be asked in a number of different ways; it can take on hundreds of different forms. The question, regardless of the manner asked or the form taken, often results in a crippled or totally discarded faith. That’s unfortunate, if not straight up counterproductive. Where else will we look for answers or meaning to life’s most potent circumstances or events?

I’ve known David Sanford for a couple of years now. Not like “BFF” or anything, but we’ve worked together both on business and creatively. And David Sanford is a living paradox. On the one hand, he seems like a voice from another era. He takes things like sin, heart attitudes, and a decision to give one’s life to Jesus seriously – in tones that sometimes seem more like Billy than Brian. And yet, he also describes himself as a ‘new kind of Christian,’ and has the love to back it up. Perhaps this is why indie Christian voices like Dan Kimball and Sally Morganthaler and Jim Palmer rave about If God Disappears, even as sports luminaries Paul Byrd and Pat Williams also weigh in acclamations. What Sanford touches on touches all of us – finding God, losing God, and What Happens Next. https://i1.wp.com/files.tyndale.com/thpdata/images--covers/500%20h/978-1-4143-1617-8.jpg

If God Disappears might not appeal to wizened New Atheist-reading philosopher-wannabes, but then again, it doesn’t have to. It clears a broader path, touching on stories of faith – both encouraging stories and ‘faith wreckers,’ as Sanford calls them – that reach the other 95% of the human population. In true narrative fashion, David tells story after another of friends, family, co-workers and loved ones who have lost faith in God amid the weariness of life, for all sorts of reasons…and how, in some cases, they rediscover God afresh. What I appreciate about this book is that Sanford doesn’t force his stories to resolve – when they do, they do, but he’s not afraid to leave a story hanging. What he seems most interested in exploring is the subtle ways in which we can all lose faith, seeing loss of faith along a continuum, not just the ‘true believer’ and the ‘atheist.’ At times, we all live our lives like we’re agnostic, but Sanford encourages us to move beyond this ground, in some surprising ways (see page 91 for instance).

Sometimes the vehicle of faith breaks down on the road toward God. David Sanford offers a troubleshooter’s manual and a toolkit for repair, and finally fuel for the journey.


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    My Writings: Varied and Sundry Pieces Online

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    Review: Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola, from Next-Wave

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