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.
#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.