A Review of
Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:
Understanding a Movement and Its Implications
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 250 pp.
Carson describes the fourth chapter of his book as “a simplification and updating of a couple chapters” from his book, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996). Some who read it, however, will wonder how anything so complex can be a “simplification” of anything! This is certainly the most demanding and philosophically oriented chapter in the book and will be the one most likely skipped by those who undertake to read Carson.
The chapter is entitled, “Personal Reflections on Postmodernism’s Contribution and Challenges.” If some are asking, “What does this have to do with the Emerging Church?”, the answer is: everything. As I stated before, at the heart of the emergent conversation is the belief that the influence of postmodernism (see Part Three for an overview) requires that the church re-think and re-configure the way it relates to the broader culture. The “old” ways of thinking and evangelizing and “doing” church simply will not work in a postmodern world. Much of emergent, then, is a “conversation” among professing evangelicals on how the church can most effectively relate to and communicate with a world that disdains moral absolutism, epistemological certainty, cultural elitism, and theological dogmatism.
Carson’s treatment of postmodernism is excellent, and I encourage you to read it carefully. However, for the purposes of this series of review articles, I am going to pass over this chapter rather quickly and refer you back to Part Three in which I provide a summary overview of the primary emphases in postmodern thinking. There are, however, several points Carson makes that call for brief comment.
The chapter begins with a survey of developments in epistemology: the discipline that addresses the issue of human knowing and thinking and the grounds on which we are confident we have sure and certain knowledge (if we can have it at all). He briefly describes “Premodern Epistemology”, a “notoriously loose catchall category for what is common in Judeo-Christian epistemology before the Enlightenment” (88). This is followed by a discussion of “Modern Epistemology,” again a label commonly applied to “the epistemology of the Western world from about the beginning of the seventeenth century until a few decades ago” (92). Of the six elements in modern epistemology that Carson identifies, two in particular are especially relevant.
Modern epistemology celebrated “certainty” as something desirable. This doesn’t mean that its advocates claimed to be exhaustively right in all they know. “But few doubted that human beings could know things truly (objective knowledge was attainable) and that this was a good thing (such knowledge was desirable)” (94). A second distinctive of modernist epistemology is what has been called “ahistorical universality”, or the idea that what is true is universally true, regardless of the culture or historical period or language of the knower.
Both of these distinctives are resisted, if not entirely rejected, by most forms of postmodern philosophy. The latter insists that “epistemological certainty is undesirable because, apart from being intrinsically monofocal and therefore boring, it breeds absolutism that manipulates people and controls them, trampling on the splendid diversity of creeds and cultures and races that constitute humankind. Let the diversity flourish – but let none of the disparate voices claim to be ‘true.’ Or better yet, let them all claim to be true, but none in an exclusive or objective sense” (97).
Carson is especially helpful in identifying what is entailed by postmodern thinking. He mentions five things, four of which I’ll note. First, objective morality is the initial casualty. Personal morality, which is to say, beliefs about what is “right” and “wrong,” is a social construction that expresses the values of the community in which it emerges but cannot be arbitrarily imposed on other communities who operate by a different, and perhaps conflicting, set of ethical rules. In other words, what may be ethically “right” for me could as easily be ethically “wrong” for someone in a different culture. Right and wrong, should we choose to retain such terms, are reduced to what is expedient, practical, and helpful, but do not correspond to some supposed universal moral law to which all humans are equally beholden.
Second, evangelism “is often viewed in the broad culture as intrinsically obnoxious” (101), because “it cannot avoid giving the impression that Christians think they have something superior” (101). Under the new definition of “tolerance”, evangelization is fundamentally “intolerant” in that it is based on the belief that one view is true and all others are false.
Third, if people do embrace Christianity it is likely to be for reasons other than “reason”. That is to say, “feeling, aesthetics, personal relationships, mysticism, unexplained leaps, coincidences, and a panoply of other subjective perceptions are commonly viewed as being as determinative for what a person believes, what people think they ‘know’” (102) as apologetic argument and logical evidence.
Fourth, postmodern folk are suspicious of metanarrative or the “big story” that seeks to explain and account for all of life or that claims to be “true” for everyone. People today are more drawn to “local” or “personal” narratives in which they relate their own journey and how, as a result, they view things in the world.
Carson then turns to identify some strengths of postmodern epistemology. Briefly, he points to the exposure of modernist arrogance and its often unwarranted optimism concerning what we can know and accomplish based on that knowledge. Postmodernism has also alerted us to “the intuitive leaps of imagination that sometimes play a huge role even in science. It has encouraged us to think a little more about the role of metaphor, the countless ways personal experience shape our judgment, the impress of culture on our thought forms, and the way these and other factors interact with one another” (103). In addition, postmodernism has insisted that we be more sensitive to the diversity of cultures and that we reject the easy assumption that “my” or “our” culture is necessarily superior to all others, “a common assumption behind colonialism” (103). As Carson notes, “insofar as postmodernism fosters a more humble listening and more respectful efforts to understand, even if one finally disagrees, it has surely been a good thing” (103).
Perhaps most important of all, Carson notes how postmodernism “has insistently demanded that the implications of finitude in all claims of human knowing be recognized” (104). We are not omniscient! Worse still, we are more than flawed and finite knowers, we are sinful and depraved knowers. The question to ask, then, is this:
“Once we have acknowledged the unavoidable finiteness of all human knowers, the cultural diversity of the human race, the diversity of factors that go into human knowing, and even the evil that lurks in the human breast and easily perverts claims of knowledge into totalitarian control and lust for power – once we have acknowledged these things, is there any way left for us to talk about knowing what is true or objectively real?” (104).
What Carson calls “hard postmodernism” answers that question by saying No. “Soft postmodernism” would say Yes.
For all its insights and helpful suggestions, there are serious flaws with postmodern epistemology. Carson lists four, but I will comment on only two of them.
Carson rightly points out that “many postmoderns channel the discussion into a manipulative antithesis” (104). The antithesis is this: either we can know something absolutely and exhaustively, or we can at best know it partially with no means of testing to see if it actually corresponds with reality. Since everyone admits that the former is impossible it has the effect of driving everyone to a postmodern approach to truth. Everyone is compelled to embrace a radical “perspectivalism,” according to which human knowledge “is never more than the perspective of some finite individual or group, without any means of grasping any perspective’s relative importance, since none of us can compare our perspective with ultimate reality. After all, other human beings look at the same thing from another perspective: Who is to say which perspective is closer to the reality of the whole, if no one has access to a vision of the whole?” (105.
This antithesis in effect says that either you are God and thus omniscient, or you are forever consigned to knowing nothing objective for sure. But, as Carson rightly asks, “may there not be legitimate ways of talking about finite being actually knowing something objectively?” (105). In other words, if omniscience or exhaustive and perfect knowledge is the standard, then all human knowing is necessarily perspectival. But must we concede to this either/or antithesis? No. One of the things Carson does in this chapter, which I will leave for you to discover on your own, is to argue that whereas all knowledge is necessarily finite and to a certain extent the fruit of a particular and personal “perspective,” “we human beings can in measure approach the truth in some objective sense” (105-06).
A second weakness of postmodern epistemology on which Carson focuses is the trend toward “constructionism” in the hard sciences, in which “the conclusions of science are not so much the result of reason working its way through evidence as the result of social forces” (107). Carson has much to say in response to this, but I’ll cite only one statement:
“The hard postmoderns, the strongest constructivists, are deeply inconsistent. They keep insisting that all scientific knowledge (and all other knowledge too, for that matter) is the product of social construction, but apparently they exclude their own knowledge of this analysis from a similar charge [emphasis mine]. In other words, they are convinced that their sociological analysis is the truth. If in fact, however, their sociological analysis of scientific epistemology is itself a social construction that may or may not correspond to reality, then it may be that scientific knowledge is not in reality nothing more than social construction” (109).
I must apologize. I said I would only briefly touch on matters in the fourth chapter of Carson’s book and I got a bit carried away! Still, this is an important chapter that those who follow the philosophical discussion cannot afford to neglect. In the fifth installment of this extended review I will take up Carson’s “critique” of Emergent’s “critique” of postmodernism.