Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Postmodern believing -- Transforming Christian Theology , ch. 5

Transforming Theology Project

Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Postmodern Believing
Chapter 5

With the idea of postmodernism/postmodernity having been introduced in the previous chapter, Clayton and Fuller move on to look at the way we believe in this new postmodern age. He notes that, except for conservative evangelicals, most Christians have difficulty expressing what they believe – an observation that has been well documented by Martha Grace Reese in her series of books on evangelism (Unbinding the Gospel, Chalice Press, 2007). There are a number of reasons why this maybe true, including a privatization of religion in recent years.

But if Mainline Protestants have difficulty articulating their beliefs, there are those who do not. Clayton calls this the “three last gasps of late modernity.” One primary “gasp” is scientism. He doesn’t mean science as science, but the ideology that assumes that science/rationalism provides us with all necessary and important information about life and the world. It is a reductionist perspective that insists that only that which is empirically provable has value. Of course, this leaves little room for discussions about meaning and beauty. Another option, is to embrace not modernity, but to retreat to a premodern world. Here we can preserve the truth claims of the faith and of scripture without having to face the critics from modernity. Clayton writes that “it’s easy to be a Christian if you adjust your beliefs about history, science, and culture to first century standards. But it’s hardly an incarnational approach, since it doesn’t engage the world that actually surrounds us” (p. 35). And finally, there is Fundamentalism. That might not make sense, but Fundamentalism is an expression of modernity. That is it defines faith in terms of rational propositions, which are universal and can be applied in any and all contexts. None of these options, however, serve us well if we seek to be present in the world that actually exists at this time and place.

So, what is the option for us? Postmodern belief, according to Clayton starts with the premise that “doubt is not sin.” He tells the story of being a counselor for Billy Graham events – and their responsibility was to get converts, and to make it clear that this confession settles everything – and thus there is no reason for and no room for doubt. Over time, Clayton, like most of us, discovers that our confessions of faith don’t settle everything. All number of questions emerge that unsettle us – and thus we have one of two choices, we can despair of our doubts and likely lose faith or we can embrace our doubts and grow.

If it’s not a sin to have doubts, then there is room for a “thinking faith.” If everything is decided and there is no room for debate (or doubts) then there is little reason to think. Of course, there are those who believe that any faith profession is tantamount to not thinking. But there is another way, one that stands between scientific reductionism and belief with doubts. This way, the postmodern way involves being faithful even while wrestling with the questions of life. We can act and reflect on our faith at the same time. And, by acknowledging our doubts, rather than seeing our doubts increase, we often see their severity decrease. By acknowledging our doubts we give ourselves room to listen to others who struggle with doubt.

On one hand, postmodern believing involves recognizing and dealing with the reality of doubt. On the other hand, postmodern believing reverses the traditional way of being a person of faith. The way that Clayton had heard the message, we must first believe, and then we can behave, and thus we can belong to the community. That is, to put it in biblical terms, we can follow this instruction of Paul:
If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom. 10:9, NIV).

It’s that simple. Unfortunately, we soon learn that the number of propositions that must be affirmed to get to that place is long. And then you’re expected to behave appropriately, and if you don’t, well you don’t belong. The post modern way is different. Rather than starting with belief and ending with belonging, it starts with belonging and moves to words belief. Clayton writes:

I don’t perfectly understand all the details of Jesus’ Way, and I know that I don’t perfectly follow what I do understand. But for cultural, historical, and personal reasons, it is the way that I have seen God. There is no other way that is a live option for me, and dispensing with the attempt to seek and to know God through Christ is somehow just not a live option (p. 40).
Or, to quote Martin Luther – as Clayton does – “Here I stand, I can do no other.” With belonging coming first, and not being dependent either on right belief or practice for that matter, one can grow and learn along the way.

Clayton points to a conversation he had with a Presbyterian Pastor while doing graduate work at Yale. He told the pastor he wasn’t sure that he could join, because he had doubts about his faith. He had even worked out “philosophical critiques of those few short sentences in the Presbyterian hymnal.” The pastor replied that one needn’t get all the details correct up front. The important thing is going with others who are also on the Way, struggling to clarify their beliefs together. He notes that this advice turned out to be correct (p. 41).

Once we understand that we belong before we believe correctly or act correctly, we put ourselves in a position to grow and we will want to behave in a way that is appropriate to followers of Jesus. But, we start with the premise that we belong by grace. Interestingly, while behavior comes second, believing our understanding really comes last – as a result of life in the community. This is the way it is with postmodernity. Things aren’t all settled, but there is room to grow – and to think.

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