A Mess of Thoughts On Modernity, Christianity, and Presuppositionalism

Another blog post based on Facebook comments – no editing has been done here, so I’ll correct things piecemeal.

(1) Epistemology, or, more generally, knowing, is made the key ‘thing’, as it were – or, more precisely, between right and wrong ways of knowing. Knowledge tends to be (almost without fail) reduced to various forms of propositionalism and the right/wrong way to know them. Without the right presuppositions, one simply cannot know things. That’s a broad and sloppy sketch.

(2) The forms of knowing articulated by presuppositonalism fail to take seriously the critiques of knowledge leveled against it by the ‘modernity’, in particular Kant, who insisted that we cannot know from a position outside ourselves, ie objectively. There is no universal perspective, no non-contingent knowledge. This was something taken up by Wittgenstein in the context of language, and the it’s the same basic idea – knowledge is always something had in a particular context (this is Hegelian as well), at a particular time. Knowledge is contingent, not universal, timeless, etc – and these critiques are simply brushed aside. Similar differences can be seen in the disputes between continental and analytic philosophy/metaphysics. Are truths universal (analytic), or contingent/historicist (continental)?

I admire Van Til’s boldness but other than that see very little to be gained, past perhaps an initial ‘shock’ causing one to rethink just exactly how one knows. But this goes back to the modern critiques of knowledge – philosophy of the last 300 years or so has taught us that the ‘foundations of knowledge’ are far less important than were once thought. So to the insistence of the presuppositionalist that one cannot ‘account’ for various items of knowledge, I (along with the rest of the modern world) say, so what? While questions of warrant and justification do have a place in philosophy, they certainly don’t have the dominant place that they did throughout much of the history of philosophy. This makes epistemic methods like presuppositionalism much less powerful/attractive.

I doubt very much that any real analogy can be made between how we know and how God knows, for the very simple reason that God is uncreated, whereas we are created. As all our experience is with the created, we can’t really speculate on the uncreated, especially on something as specific as knowing.

It can be fairly difficult to really talk about postmodernism because it’s not really a school or movement. Most of the time postmodernism means relativism, deconstructionism, Rorty, Derrida, and seems to be more of a reaction to aspects of modernism and analytic philosophy. The major emphases is on things like contingency, non-universal truths, and the collapse of the metanarrative (that’s probably the biggest one). So in the sense that topics like contingency, metanarrative, the denial of absolute, universal categories for truth are important topics, I say it’s a good thing – postmodernism really called into question things like the universal perspective (there is one way that the world is) and brought into sharp relief the dynamic and contingent nature of the world, which is great. But in terms of the more fanciful ideas, like the lack of meaning in the world, nothing outside the text, its all interpretation (and these are fairly rough representations for brevitys sake), postmodernism has really hit a failure of nerve:

‘There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony,552 or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida.553 So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’

And in terms of wider culture, I don’t think pomo has been terribly helpful:

‘Fear of kitsch led to the routinisation of modernism. By posing as a modernist, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity. But the result is cliché of another kind. This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise that some call ‘postmodernism’ but which might be better described as ‘pre-emptive kitsch’.

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Note on Barth’s Failure

I’ve noticed a common refrain in those who oppose Barth – it usually falls under one of two categories (which are actually fairly close to each other):

1. Barth capitulated completely to modernity.

2. Barth was a prisoner of modernity and limited modern thinking.

I’ve worked with (2) before, and I’ll quote myself briefly:

‘Barth was a prisoner of his early limited 20th century modern Western thinking…at worst, he had a somewhat unorthodox view of the gospel as a result of of philosophical European upbringing.’

‘This irritates me greatly. There is a vast difference between being a prisoner of X, and thinking that X is a legitimate thing with which and against which one can work. Barth did the latter – he was a modern, who realized that the church couldn’t simply go back to before the modern era had begun, and couldn’t continue to say the same things in the same way as it always had.’ (https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/barth-rant/)

Now, regarding Barth’s rejection of classical theism under orders from Modernity (according to the most recent version of this story) – this is just wrong. A great deal of Barth’s thought as right in line with classical theism (as an aside, ‘classical theism’ is a bit of a fuzzy term – it tends to mean ‘Thomism’ nowadays but generally is seen as the main consensus of Christian thought from Chalcedon forward). A lot of the classical categories are modified by Barth (impassibility, for example) and some are rejected more strongly.

What’s at issue here is exactly why Barth rejected what he did. The recent article at FT asserts that it was modernity that caused Barth to reject the classical tradition (which, as I’ve claimed, he didn’t reject out of hand). What led Barth to reject/modify what he did wasn’t the voice of modernity – though modern categories did, in fact, inform his thinking (just as our own culturual categories inform our thinking). Barth did what he did because of profoundly theological convictions. There’s been a lot said on this topic the last couple of days so I won’t rehash it – but Barth’s conclusions are informed by theological concerns, not by a capitulation to modernism. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand Barth completely.

Here’s a roundup of some of the responses:

http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2014/05/in-defense-of-modernity-response-to.html

http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/barths-failure/

http://theologyoutofbounds.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/karl-barths-failure-modernity-and-the-capacity-for-god/

Barth Rant

A post in a Facebook group:

‘Barth was a prisoner of his early limited 20th century modern Western thinking…at worst, he had a somewhat unorthodox view of the gospel as a result of of philosophical European upbringing.’

This irritates me greatly. There is a vast difference between being a prisoner of X, and thinking that X is a legitimate thing with which and against which one can work. Barth did the latter – he was a modern, who realized that the church couldn’t simply go back to before the modern era had begun, and couldn’t continue to say the same things in the same way as it always had.

This, to me, is a huge problem. The idea that orthodox theology is purely about retrieval, purely about going back to the past. I find it quite ludicrous, honestly. I just got back from a run so maybe it’s the adrenaline, but this is just ridiculous to suppose that anything new or modern, or anyone who takes something new and modern seriously, is a prisoner of modernity.

God always has something new to teach us – and just as often as not, this involves not a retrieval but a move forward, often into the unknown. To suppose that the faith once and for all delivered means that there is never anything new to learn or never a new way of saying an old truth or (God forbid) a whole new truth to learn seems to me to be a bad case of head-in-sand syndrome.

This does not mean that the church sacrifices old truth for the sake of relevance – but the church must be prepared to receive new things from God, and to not freeze what God has given into all that God will ever give.