From the Onto-Theologic to the Theo-Poetic

The last couple days at the gym, I’ve listened again the podcast episodes from the 2007 Emergent Theological Philosophical Conversation with Jack Caputo and Richard Kearney, particularly the first session, and I’ve been reminded again at what a wonderful three days that was.  It’s still astounding to listen to Jack and Richard spend an hour or so walking us through two and half millennia of philosophy, philosopher by philosopher.

But listening also reminds what I love so much about the postmodern turn, at least as a theologian.  I titled that opening session, “Who Is This Metaphysical God, and Where Did He Go?”  Of course, I didn’t know exactly where Jack and Richard would go with my questions, but they went just where I hoped.  They talked quite specifically about how the Christian Neoplatonists really wrested the Story of God from its Hebrew orgins and squished it into a Hellenistic schema.

This occured to me because I just wrote my 13th column with Sean McDowell (son of Josh).  He and I co-write a column for the Journal of Student Ministries called “Sparks” in which we debate everything from truth to intelligent design.  Our next column, in the Nov/Dec issue, will be on the topic of apologetics.  As you can imagine, we come out on totally different ends of the spectrum, especially being that he and his dad have both staked their careers on modern apologetics.

But his challenges got me to thinking again about my antipathy for modern apologetics, and why I am enamoured of the postmodern posture toward truth.  And that, in turn, drove me back to the Caputo/Kearney podcasts.

There are some real gems that they both drop over the first couple of hours of conversation, but the overriding theme is this: In the ontological-metaphysical scheme, God is required to fit into the pre-existing conditions of rational, philosophical argument.  In other words, reason and logic precede God.

The postmodern, however, puts God first.  God is not the Cause of himself, as Descartes would have us believe, but instead the Uncaused Causer, as Aquinas argued.  God operates by a different rationality, or at least a superior rationality, than philosophy.  Or maybe even a non-rationality.

In any case, what Caputo and Kearney pushed us toward was theo-poetic language of God.  A God who is and who will be.  A God who is known in The Possible.  It’s a wonderful couple hours, and I highly commend it to you if you’re wondering about what the postmodern turn means for theology.

  • http://www.kilnfolk.org Ian Eastman

    I just listened to these podcasts about two weeks ago and found them very enriching. I’m interested in following this conversation some more. Can anyone suggest which books by Caputo or Kearney would be a good starting place?

  • http://ochuk.wordpress.com/ Adam

    Tony,

    I don’t think the task of “modern apologetics” is to make God fit into some existing pattern of rationality. I think many apologists have pointed to the fact of rationality being an evidence of God’s existence. For example, the laws of logic are understood and universal and necessary truths. To deny them is to assert them. You could have no meaningful language without them. We were created by God with the capacity to understand them. Our minds are not locked behind Kant’s wall of categories, they pre-formed with rational capacity that can give us knowledge. Aquinas believed as much and engaged in the project of apologetics. CS Lewis, Gordon Clark, Ronald Nash, and parts of Plantinga have argued this way in the modern period, but that does not make them “moderns.” It makes them Christians.

    What do you think?

  • http://ochuk.wordpress.com/ Adam

    Here is my comment again with the typos fixed

    Tony,

    I don’t think the task of “modern apologetics” is to make God fit into some existing pattern of rationality. I think many apologists have pointed to the fact of rationality itself as being an evidence of God’s existence. For example, the laws of logic are understood as universal and necessary truths. To deny them is to assert them. You could have no meaningful language without them. We were created by God with the capacity to understand them. Our minds are not locked behind Kant’s wall of categories; they are pre-formed with rational capacities that can give us knowledge. Aquinas believed as much and engaged in the project of apologetics. CS Lewis, Gordon Clark, Ronald Nash, and parts of Plantinga have argued this way in the modern period, but that does not make them “moderns.” It makes them Christians.

    What do you think?

  • Rick

    “In the ontological-metaphysical scheme, God is required to fit into the pre-existing conditions of rational, philosophical argument. In other words, reason and logic precede God.”

    Is it possible that God framed these “pre-existing” conditions in our minds in order for us to better think about Him?

  • http://trippfuller.com/ pomopirate

    Caputo was also on the coolest podcast in the world.
    http://trippfuller.com/?p=202

  • Annie

    if you can’t “get” the gospel, how do you know that its original (and I assume pristine) hebraic form is better than the “hellenistic schema” into which it was squished?

    Less facetiously, what is the payoff of denigrating early Greek theology?

  • http://www.friartucksfleetingthoughts.blogspot.com Friar_Tuck

    I think I agree with you.

    Although, in my world both kinds of apologetics are a part of how I communicate my faith.

  • http://emmens.co.uk Tobit

    I have returned to the 2007 Emergent Theological (strike-through) Philosophical Conversation with Jack Caputo and Richard Kearney several times and each time build on the last.
    I just love Jack Cuputo’s phrase ‘logically incoherent’ in relation to Descartes (etc.) assertion that God is the cause of himself. As Jack says, to cause oneself means to give yourself something you don’t have. It would be like assisting at your own birth – bringing yourself into existence. It just cant be done.

    thanks for reminding me of the series, it might just be time to listen to them again!

  • tony arens

    Could someone give me a couple of sections/verses in the gospel that I supposedly “don’t get”? – Seriously, because I’m very confused here.

    Am I so naive to think that I do “get it” and that I know how it applies to my life? Is it possible that when you add philosophy to the recipe that the gospel becomes unnecessarily complex?

    Might the thoughts regarding philosophy in 1 Corinthians and Colossians 2 apply here?

  • http://groansfromwithin.blogspot.com/ Kurt

    Tony,

    I agree with the goodness that is coming out of the postmodern turn in theology. Thanks to the Emergent podcast, I listened to the Theo/Phil Conversation twice through a few months back. I was very interested in where philosophy was taking the concepts of truth, so much that I wrote a seminary paper called, “Postmodern Biblical Authority” (to read the section on deconstruction: http://groansfromwithin.blogspot.com/2008/08/demon-of-deconstruction.html) (I attend Mennonite Brethren Bib. Seminary [Mark Baker (from another podcast) is a Prof of mine!]).

    I find myself resonating with Caputo quite a bit. For the paper, I read 2 books that have greatly helped me understand the heavier philosophical stuff that Emergent has been talking about (Whose Afraid of Postmodernism, Smith and What Would Jesus Deconstruct, Caputo). I like where Caputo takes his understanding of deconstruction especially when it comes to justice and to the surprise of the ‘other.’ I didn’t necessarily agree with his outcomes in the area of homosexuality (he seemed to think that theo-poetics allows for us to reinterpret this issue for our time to the point where this type of adultery can be viewed as acceptable). Other than that, the book was GREAT! Thanks for pointing me in a philosophical direction that will continue to guide much of my theological reflection.

  • http://listento.jaketolbert.com JakeT

    True dat, Tony. I’ve never understood this insistence on logic as a means to understand God, mostly b/c he necessarily defines himself as incomprehensible a/o illogical.

    So why should we allow logic to define God or expect it to do a good job describing him when God shoots logic the bird when naming himself (ie. “who are you?” “I am”)?

  • Scott K

    Tony,

    I sympathize and agree with what you’re saying. I’m curious, how do you see this relating to things you’ve said in other contexts that elevate the concept of “phronesis,” practical reason? If this onto-theologic form of reason is “dead” (along with the God of metaphysics?), how do we simultaneously value this other form of reason, which, as far as I can tell, also has a kind of deductive shape? Any thoughts?

    Scott

  • Rick

    Tony Arens:

    I think you’ve got something there!

  • Dan

    I’m with Annie. I think it’s a bit interesting how on the one hand, you keep insisting that we can never ‘get’ (formulate, understand, explain), what ‘the gospel’ is in any kind of definitive way, that isn’t bound in some way by our cultural language framework (and I actually agree, I think, for the most part.) Yet you are able to wax nostalgic for the good ol’ days of the Hebrew origins of the story of God, before it got all messed up by nasty Greek thought.

    If it’s OK to reforumulate the gospel (whatever it is) in contemporary postmodern categories, why was it not OK for Hellenistic early Christians to reformulate the story of God in their own framework? What is so pristine and pure about the Hebrew origin? More to the point, what makes us think we can accurately “get” the original Hebrew concept of God, since we interpret the Hebrew Scriptures through our own lenses?

    Conversely, if we can indeed get to a certain amount of understanding of what the Hebraic conception of the story of God is, why is it then so impossible to approach understanding “the gospel”?

  • Tim

    Hey Tony, this is Tim from New Orleans. I listened to those talks again a couple of weeks ago (probably my third or fourth), while cleaning the house. Good material man. There is alot to think about here. Look forward to the Conference with Caputo next April at Syracuse. Thanks again for coming by New Orleans on the CBRS.

    Tim


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