January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
May 23, 2014
I used to be quite interested in contemporary Christian apologetics (and by “contemporary” I mean something like “modernist”). That is, until I realized that the foundationalism necessary to undergird the enterprise actually tends to undermine the Christian faith it intends to uphold. For example, in the ongoing arguments between evolution and creationism (including the other middle options of theistic evolution and intelligent design), the authority of the Christian faith and especially the scriptures which are its fount are put to the test within the independent court of reason and science and checked to see if they can stand up within the secular realm of “facts,” or if the Christian narrative ought simply to be relegated, as it has often been, to the realm of value. By submitting to the court of secular reason, fulfilling the sensed obligation to “prove” the Christian faith via the means common to secular rationality—in a laudable but misguided effort to speak on “public” terms—Christians unwittingly deny the authority of their own narrative and its fount, the Scriptures, by working to prove its truthfulness by the rules of someone else’s game.
This sort of move is common within contemporary apologetics. Contemporary apologists, in their captivity to culture, feel obligated to argue this way. In fact, they seem to suggest that arguing otherwise is to do something unchristian. Arguing in this manner is just supposed to be the obvious method.
In another move common to contemporary apologetics, it seems that a new article has been added to the Creed quite recently, just within the last century or so. To be a Christian these days seems to require belief in Absolute or Objective Truth. It has become something of a Fourth Article—Creator, Redeemer, Holy Spirit, Absolute Truth. Enthusiastic religious zeal for Absolute or Objective Truth is now standard for being a Christian.
Both of these situations are bad.
Here’s why. Like I noted above, Christians have submitted to the rules of someone else’s game. This amounts to cultural captivity and unfaithfulness to our own authentic story and way of life. In an effort to speak (and legitimate themselves) publicly, Christians have taken up the language of secular discourse. Christianity is submitted to the secular courts to see if it holds up reasonably. But the secular courts have no place for theology. The authorities there are science and reason. Secular rationality is the first word, and perhaps theology can have something to say later, but only if it measures up. Rational arguments in the secular realm follow a certain logic. You might have heard the argument rehearsed, one which is common in contemporary Christian apologetics, that the statement “all truth is relative” is logically false. The statement commits the self-referential fallacy—that is, as an argument, it cannot hold up to its own internal logic. Thus, it is argued, if the statement is indeed logically false, then it logically follows that truth most certainly exists. And such truth is taken to have an objective existence, since it has been proven to exist via logic and is not merely asserted. Christians then take advantage of this to argue that Christianity is the truth over and against any and all other options (like other religions, or none). The point for Christians is that so much of the argument rests here—truth exists first. Once this is established, then we go on to make a claim regarding exactly what that truth is.
Truth in this sense amounts to nothing more than a mere idea. It becomes part of a series of words in a sentence, a referent everyone apparently “knows” as if it were just obvious to everyone who is good and well intentioned and can follow the clear logic of the rationality that produced the argument. Truth obviously exists, seemingly transcendentally. Whether truth is so obvious is debatable, but plenty of others have had something to say about that, so I won’t address it here.
The next move for Christians tends to be, after starting with this philosophical position, to smuggle some theology in through the backdoor. Christianity is claimed to be the truth. God himself turns out to be the objective or absolute guarantor of such truth because he is made equivalent with truth itself (more on this below). And since God is obviously the God of the Bible, Christianity tells the truthful story of reality. It’s the same tired old Platonizing move that we have witnessed over and over again in the history of Christianity. Like the unmoved mover who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, the God of the Bible happens to be defined exactly the same way. Or rather, whoever the God of Philosophy ends up being, the subsequent claim made by Christians is that the God of the Bible is exactly the God of Philosophy. In fact, it is argued, that God of the Bible HAS to be the God the philosophers came up with. Why? Because this God is the best, constituted by the greatest possible qualities. Throw in a little niceness and goodness—that latter also being a Platonic quality—and we’ve pretty much got the God of the Bible, or so Christians argue…many of them anyway. Few would disagree in the present (except it seems, in academia), but within the Christian tradition, we would find someone like Luther among those vehemently protesting this picture.
Next in the process, is to turn to John 14:6 where Jesus, God in the flesh, refers to himself as the “way, the truth, and the life.” Here Christians are simply building on the now necessary presupposition that truth exists. Since Jesus used the word “truth” here, Christians make the illegitimate jump that Jesus is the Absolute or Objective Truth, and further, it is argued that in fact he was talking about exactly what we are talking about. That is, when he said “truth” he must have clearly been making reference to our late modern concerns about Absolute or Objective truth and shoring up the foundations of our faith against the threats of secular society and other religions. So we’ve gone from the logical position that truth exists to the indubitable fact that Jesus = Objective/Absolute Truth (another reason to say that God = Absolute/Objective truth, because Jesus is indeed God [no need for the distinction between Father and Son]).
In this all too common move performed regularly by many contemporary Christians who desire to secure the legitimacy of Christianity in the public sphere, especially many apologists, Jesus’s identity is undone. He is no longer a person who can make a claim on us, no longer someone to whom we can relate, no longer someone in whom we place our faith and trust. Rather Jesus has become an idea. Jesus is the truth. Jesus is truth. That’s not quite like saying God is love. The Bible says that, so we’re called to figure out what that means by looking to the Scriptures to tell us about love as a revelation of God’s being. But that Jesus is truth is already predefined for contemporary Christians. Apologists have already told us that Jesus is the truth in the sense of the concept of Absolute truth; he is the equivalent of the idea. What exactly that means is unclear. However it is that a person can be an idea, even if that person is somehow “special” like Jesus, we seem to suffering the loss of something significant, namely personhood.
I cannot relate to ideas in a personal manner. They make no claim on me. I can think about and ponder and talk about ideas. I can write about them. I can even say that ideas have consequences in the sense that they have logical conclusions. Ideas in this sense become objects which are interesting to me, something I can study or about which I can debate. I can even have ideas about persons.
Furthermore, and to speak negatively for a moment, I cannot say I believe ideas. That would be like saying I have a belief. At best, to the extent that beliefs are often expressed as propositions or ideas, beliefs have me. I’m captive to them in a certain way. My beliefs, whether they are constituted by good ideas or not, grasp me. I came to “have” them in the same way I come to have cold or a headache (this is Stanley Fish’s argument—and he’s borrowing from another philosopher). That is to say, I’m captive to them, made subject by them, and my identity is constituted according to them. But beliefs might be about ideas, and they might also be about persons. Belief in Jesus is not belief in an idea. It’s trust in a person (even if the basis of that belief about the person Jesus is something like “He is trustworthy”). This is the way the Scriptures speak. “Lord I believe, please help my unbelief” (Mark 9.24). That prayer is not directed toward an idea, but a person. And it’s not about an idea, it’s about a person. In fact, it embodies belief and trust through performing an action.
What benefit do we receive if we treat Jesus as an idea? I’m not sure contemporary apologists have asked this question. That’s probably because they don’t know that they often reduce Jesus to an idea. What’s an idea going to do for me? What promises can it make? Jesus on the other hand, as a person, has done much for me and he’s also made me significant promises. And he continues to do so. And he comes along regularly through his word and makes claims on me. He speaks to me in preaching, confronts me, challenges me, comforts me, and transforms me, making me new through his word which kills and makes alive again, raising a new creature and fighting the battle with the old Adam.
Jesus the idea, well, he might seem like a good idea. After all, who doesn’t like Jesus? But Jesus the idea is reduced to a disembodied, culturally captive, and ultimately limp concept that does nothing for us except help us think we can play with the big boys, hack it in the wider culture, demand attention and speak publicly because we’ve measured up the hegemonic discourse of the public sphere. “Jesus is the truth; listen to us,” we say, or you’ll go to hell. To other Christians we say you’re not really a follower of Jesus until you treat him like an idea, until you subscribe to the new Creed with the additional Article, all the while taking away the opportunity to actually follow someone. Jesus is a bad idea. That’s because he’s not an idea at all. He’s a person, who came in the flesh for me and you and lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit now and forever. He’s Lord, not an idea.
 For some helpful resources, those who want to dig deeper might be interested in: Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Obejectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1983); John R. Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009); Franke, “Christian Faith and Postmodern Theory: Theology and the Nonfoundationalist Turn,” in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn, ed. Myron B. Penner (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 105–121; Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 3–54; Myron B. Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013); Philip D. Kenneson, “There’s No Such Thing as Absolute Truth and It’s a Good Thing Too,” in Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. Timothy R. Philips and Dennis L. Ockholm (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 155–170; Andreas Köstenberger, Whatever Happened to Truth? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005); Leslie Newbign, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); William Placher, Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox, 1989); James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014); J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997); Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).
 Or perhaps of familiarity to readers of this blog, many continental thinkers, who take issue with such a conception of God following Heidegger’s well known rejection of onto-theology. For a brief, but compelling connection between Heidegger, Luther, and Paul, see Timothy Stanley, “Heidegger on Luther on Paul,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 46, (Spring, 2007): 41-45.
 Stanley Fish, “Beliefs about Belief,” in The Trouble with Principle (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1999), 279–84.