DA Carson and the Emergent Movement, Part 4

In this fourth part of discussing DA Carson’s new book on the Emergent movement, I will consider a chapter on “Personal Reflections on PM’s contribution and challenges” (PM=Postmodernism).

He begins with Premodern epistemology (reducing the postmodernity to an epistemology, which has its own problems, especially when it comes to explaining the Emergent Movement as a part of that PM). Essentially, God is the Knower and all human knowing is coming to terms with God’s All-Knowingness and Knowledge. He adds a few comments on absolutism which, in my mind, are on target, even if a little tinged with polemical heatedness.

Then he gives six elements of modern epistemology, which are so typical of the discussion, beginning (as he and gobs of others do) with Descartes. It begins with “I” instead of God; it was foundationalist and axiomatic in that it believed we could find axioms on which we could construct large edifices of truth; it was self-consciously and programmatically methodological; certainty was objectively attainable; truth was ahistorical (not just located in space and time) and universal (all, using the same methods, etc., could come to the same truth); naturalism grew out of this epistemology.

PM’s challenges to modernism are for each of the above six: the “I” is located in time and space and so different and this leads to pluralism and diversity, etc; it is suspicious of foundationalism and is at times anti-foundationalist; there are many methods that can be applied and that will lead to different “truths”; “objective” knowledge is neither desirable nor attainable; there is therefore no ahistorical universal truth; philosophical materialism is on the decline (which is why religious voices are heard more often in the public square or at universities).

Next, he details correlatives and entailments, which are syncretism, secularization, biblical illiteracy, ill-defined spirituality, globalization; the entailments are that objective morality is questioned, evangelism is seen as obnoxious, feeling is given more appeal, personal narrative is more important than meta-narrative, and even the hard sciences are under threat.

The strengths of postmodern epistemology: it exposes the weaknesses of modernism, it is open to non-methodical forms of knowing, it is sensitive to cultural diversity, and it recognizes the finitude in all human knowing.

Weaknesses are that it tends toward a manipulative set of antitheses (either we can know certainly or we have only a perspective and he uses “hard” and “soft” PM here appropriately), it fails to see that a great deal of communication does take place – and here he has an extensive discussion about Kuhn and constructionism, it fails to provide an adequate basis for morality and leads to absurdity, and then he points to the combination of absurdity and arrogance.

For proposals out of this morass of postmodernist crashing into the shoals of uncertainties, DA Carson points to the fusion of horizons of understanding that takes place when a person listens to the text/voice of an Other (here I wish DA Carson would appeal to Alan Jacobs’s brilliant Theology of Reading); the hermeneutical spiral that leads us closer and closer to the Other’s voice and word; the asymptotic approach of Karl Popper, or the curved line that gets closer and closer but never quite touches the line; and then he sketches a few other approaches to epistemology that are serious challenges to PM.

Somehow the logic of the rest of this chapter escaped me. He begins with “other approaches” and then we find he is talking now about his “measured responses,” which begins with some others – like Ricoeur and speech-act theorists; then we find a second response which is that PM is methodologically atheistic because it begins with the “I”and it won’t go away until God becomes the starting point. Amen, DA. I couldn’t agree more that all our knowing is a subset of God’s knowledge and that we are to find God’s knowledge.

#1: The major question I have is this: What sort of postmodernism is at work among the various leaders of the Emergent movement? Are they all the same? Do they differ? And, if so, what differences does it make? One might ask this: Are the Emergent leaders “guilty” of the “weaknesses” and how? I don’t expect anyone to sit down and blog out an answer to these questions, but these are the questions that must be at work: and not just with Brian McLaren. Are the Emergent folks “strong” or “soft” postmodernists?

#2: I am surprised DA Carson does not deal with PM epistemology in terms of “Subject” and “Object” and that “knowing” is something in the “Subject” and that it is a “linguistic turn” of granting meaning to something by the Subject. The entire issue for PM epistemology, so far as I read it [and I’,m not an expert on this], is that “meaning is made by the reader/Subject” and there are meanings and there are meanings. Has DA Carson been fair to postmodernist epistemology?

#3: Another question to be asked: Has DA Carson resorted to some strong antitheses to make his points about PM epistemology? I’m not sure he has, but at times the discussion smacks of over-generalization.

#4: Knowing that the Subject and the Object is critical, we are driven to ask this question: Is not all knowledge “constructed” by the Subject and therefore chastened? We must face this question: Granted that we think the Bible is God’s Word and the Truth, is our “knowledge” of that Word “truth” or is it an approximation to that Truth? Is not the Subject inevitably entailed in all knowing?

#5: Do the Emergent leaders think knowledge begins with “I” or with “God”?

By the way, a nice little introduction to the sorts of varieties among the Emergent leaders can be found at the following website.

Source: http://www.worshipleader.com/feature_o.htm

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  • I’m curious. What do you think of Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology? Do you find that to be an adequate solution to the problems of foundationalism?

  • Daniel,I’m not conversant with Alvin Plantinga’s theory here; I long ago read his book on Evil etc and thought his theory that there was nothing inherently incompatible between a good God making a world in which Evil could appear quite convincing.And my role in this whole debate is more one of inquirer and reporter. There were things being said, and now the the book is out, it is time to put the whole response on the table for all to see and discuss. That is what I am doing. I’m hoping it will benefit the Emergents and those who have questions.

  • Anonymous

    Scot,Thank you so much for taking this on. Your writing is very accessible, and it looks like you have a gift for organizing, synthesizing and developing those great questions. Not to mention your evident good heart- oh well, I mentioned it anyway…I think many of those in the US who would identify themselves as “emerg-ing/ent” began going in that direction because of difficulties with actual on-the-ground attempts, as good Evangelicals, at trying to convey the “gospel” to real people in today’s world. McLaren is just one example, as you have read in the WLMag article. Hence the concern for the “missional” nature of the church, which I see as leading to discussions around aspects of ecclesiology, leading back another layer to soteriology. There are hints of renewed interest in the Trinity; I think rethinking Christology is a fearsome matter for most Evangelicals, but some few have gone there- notably NT Wright (who identifies as an Evangelical). If there is any sort of “system” to developing emerg-ing/ent theology, it is one which has arisen from very practical concerns.My own journey began several years ago with asking one question: “What actually is the good news?” before I knew of any such thing as an “emerg-ing/ant” church. I came to a conclusion that surprised me- it includes the “typical Evangelical message” but is ever so much larger, and I think is more worthy of the God revealed in the Bible. I think this is what many people have been doing independently, and then find others who are asking the same questions. People are willing to listen to different, previously “forbidden” voices, e.g. Eastern Orthodox theology, which has terrific insights that appear to be more adequate to address reality as we bump into it than what we have been offered as definitive “Biblical answers”. I’m not EO, but I sure see why some folks go that way. In this sense, emergent is not so much a protest as it is the trying of many different keys to find out which ones actually open doors.God keep you as you keep laying these things out on the table. Your graciousness is such a blessing to the church. Wish I could take your classes.Dana Amesin N. CA

  • Dana,Your comments are an encouragement to this effort. Thanks.I sense you are right on what “gets the Emergent folks going”: it is about mission, it is about reaching out. Therefore, when you speak about what the gospel is, I too sense that is the right direction. My writing project, which should be done in a month or so but not in print until about December, is A Weekend called Grace, and it is all about the gospel and how to define it. What I say there is along the lines you are suggesting — much bigger and more glorious.Blesssings on you.

  • Scot,Thanks for helping us understand Carson’s book. I find it helpful to have a “map” of a book in my head while I am reading it. You have provided that map.I am excited to see that you are blogging and I am sure that the Church will be blessed by your wisdom. Blessings on you and your family.

  • Scot,I have a question for you–Does Carson lump all Emerg -ing/ent people in the “Hard” PM camp?This may be why I felt that, when I was listening to the Cedarville Lectures (upon which this book is based), I felt that Carson was tearing down straw men.I know that McLaren, for one, actually writes in The Church on the Other Side, “Many Christian critiques of postmodernism would be improved, I think, by learning a bit more from their subject…Let me point out two common misunderstandings.”MYTH #1: Postmoderns don’t believe in absolute truth…”…this is what I think they really mean: ‘Well, of course there is absolute truth out there. I don’t doubt that. I just doubt your ability, or my own for that matter, to apprehend that truth and comprehend it and remember it and encode it in language and communicate it to others and have them understand it in any absolutely accurate way.'”In other words, what postmodern people tend to reject is not absolute truth, but absolute knowledge.”-p. 166This line of thinking comes, I think, from Stan Grenz and other intellectuals within the Emerging discussion. There may be others that would disagree with McLaren about this, but here is that “dominant voice” of EC saying something along the line of a soft PM. No?

  • Bob,This is a great question, and surely one that will help the conversation go forward instead of seeing people hurl rocks over walls at one another.No, DA Carson clearly doesn’t think all Emergents are Hard postmodernists. He can’t, for obvious reasons, always spell out this: “Now I’m speaking of the hard guys and here I’m speaking to the soft approach…” And I think we can trust DA Carson to make it clear if he thinks this is only about hard or soft approaches. Having said that, I’m not always sure — but I’m persuaded also that he knows there is diversity and he is addressing what he perceives to be serious issues at the heart of the Emergent project.The issue, as I will make more clear in my last blog on this issue, is that DA Carson decided to make his entire response to be about epistemology, which is surely at the heart of the Emerging leaders’ convictions. But, the Emergent movement is more than epistemology. It would not be unfair to DA Carson, I think, to say that his book could be called “Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Epistemology.”McLaren knows the difference between absolute truth and our knowledge of that truth which is not absolute; the issue DA Carson would like him to spell out is how that difference between soft and hard makes a difference for a Christian in the 21st Century.