Saturday, January 16, 2010

Moving Past Postmodernism

As I consider my life, there are a great number of uncertainties, especially at the present moment. I don’t know where I will be after my graduation, although I feel it is more and more likely that I will stick around, if not Nairobi, at least Africa for a few years. I’m not exactly sure what I will be doing or who I will be working for. However, one thing I am fairly sure of is that I enjoy doing theology. Ever since I have been about 14 I have said that I will be a theologian: not pastor or professor, but a theologian. Um I have since discovered that that is a bit difficult, similar to being a practicing philosopher, which does not generally constitute a livable position (although I remember looking for pizza in the phonebook with my friend Ted at Wheaton, and right before pizza there was one entry for philosopher, not sure how well that worked for him…).

I went into my Contemporary Theology class 95% sure I was going to go drop it after that period, since taking 20 hours is crazy and my life as I have embellished it following my academic void of only 12 hours last term is completely unsustainable. However, as I sat in the first class and listened to our professor talk about theological method and learning how to present our theology, and think about the prospect of getting back into primary sources again, I couldn’t resist. And so far its been pretty awesome. We read Schleiermacher for class on Tuesday, and then for Friday we discussed the first section of Barth’s groundbreaking 1919 Commentary on Romans. I’ve read it before, but it brings back memories of amazing classes at Wheaton such as Doctrine of Scripture and Global Theology, where I really started to learn how to carefully read and critique theology.

One of the things I hope to do with my life is to take the context we are in and provide careful theological reflection to address the pertinent issues that I see in the world today. I feel that so much theology I have learned and see theologians doing, especially in the West, are merely rehashing the old debates that we have been engaged in for the last 500 years. I really appreciate a lot of Reformed theology, and that framework forms the foundation for a lot of my theology, but I don’t want to spend my live refighting those battles over and over. Calvin wrote for a particular time and place, and while he remains one of the very best theologians of all time, and I have a high respect for history, we need to move past the 16th century…

To give a very rough history of intellectual movements over the last few hundred years, the Enlightenment demolished the place of the church and tradition as the unquestionable authority and set up reason in its place. Modernity took reason, applied it to every imaginable subject, tried to bring mankind into a whole new era of perfection, did make a lot of progress, but didn’t change the fundament nature of man. WWI basically showed where that project ended up. Much of postmodern thought questioned the whole premise of modernity, and noticed that we are actually very limited, and can’t achieve perfection, and even the things we think we know are only from our perspective. This concept can be rather discouraging, and so a lot of people have decided that there is no truth and nothing actually matters at all.

I think postmodernism gets a lot of things right, and corrects most of the particularly egregious elements of modernity. Just look at the mess that resulted from the mix of modernity and missions… However, it is always easier to deconstruct than to construct. I can tear apart theological systems, sermons, etc., much easier than I can propose an alternative one. What must be done now is to take the positive insights of postmodernism and construct a new paradigm that will allow for forward movement. According to the Wikipedia article on Post-postmodernism:

Since the late 1990s there has been a widespread feeling both in popular culture and in academia that postmodernism "has gone out of fashion."[11] However, there have been few formal attempts to define and name the epoch succeeding postmodernism, and none of the proposed designations has yet become part of mainstream usage.

One of the things I hope to do with my life is to not only observe but be an active formulator of the next age of philosophy. I think the best theology is done along with and in response to philosophy, and that these two disciplines are ultimately inseparable. Theology must take into account the current intellectual, political and social context and produce reflections that establish how Christianity is to be lived today. This is what Vanhoozer and N.T. Wright are doing, just to name two, but there will need to be a new generation that takes up what they have done and continues. Some of the concerns that theology is facing now are massive issues such as justice, poverty, the nature of the church, the nature of interpretation, a reassessment of truth, and seen more clearly from the perspective of much of the third world questions such as witchcraft and the nature of sustainable development. Quite a daunting task…


Andrew in America said...

um, I am a huge fan of what you're saying here. We really really do need to move past the same old arguments that we've been fighting over for years and years. And even though I kind of like postmodernism, I feel like the parts I like are the most recent ones, or the ones that have more positive point of view than, say, Sartre (like Jean Luc Marion, or Gadamer, if he even counts as postmodernist). But it's not like I really understand postmodernism anyway.

Anyway I think it's awesome that you want to be a part of forming new ideas and new movements in theology--it's something I'd be interested in but not something I'd really be DOING (like, i'm probably not gonna go to grad school for philosophy). Anyway I'm glad you're sticking with that class and I hope it's awesome. And if you do stay in Africa, there's more time to think about visiting someday!

Okay Sure said...

I don't really know what you're talking about, but I read it, so that's gotta count for something

Angel said...

Nice post, Brucie. I think Julie's comment is actually way relevant. In our post-postmodern age, theology has to be brought down to the people's level. I can see you being a famous blogger who writes deep theology in easy-to-read ways. I think future theologians will probably have a greater influence on the internet, or at least as equally great an influence, as past theologians have had through books and articles. I would encourage you to check out some blog-writing resources and start putting some of your thoughts out there, whether on this blog or a new blog. (And granted, this is all filtered through my new semi-profession of blogging and internet marketing, so take it with a grain of salt. The internet might break next year and throw all of my ideas out the window, hah). Anyway, I've found helpful with writing and design techniques for blogs. A lot of his posts focus more on blogging for business or monetary gain, which maybe isn't relevant to you (but then again could be since you're right - theologians don't make much money. But authors and bloggers sometimes do.) At any rate, you could at least see it as you want people to be moved to thought and/or action by your writing, so that is your replacement for the business/monetary ideas presented at this site. And some of my favorite Christian laymen's theology blogs:
There are tons more out there, but these are a few that I think do a great job of presenting deep ideas in easy-to-read formats. So I actually usually read their posts, versus just skimming or skipping altogether.

David said...

Thanks all of you for your comments. And Julie, I totally count reading it as something. Thanks!