Posts Tagged With: Jesus

Non-Contradictions

You may have come across the “law of non-contradiction” in your religious readings. It appears frequently in apologetic writings that seek to defend certain religious doctrines. It is a simple rule that goes like this:

A concept or rule cannot be true and false at the same time.

Technically, it looks like this:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Now there are truck loads of articles and books addressing this rule, but all I’m really concerned about is how it is used by church apologists to make an argument. This rule was key for me as I developed my theology in college. I was a modernist who rejected all forms of postmodern thinking.

Ravi Zacharias

One of the main illustrations that made the law of non-contradiction clear to me was a story told my one of the heroes from my college years, Ravi Zacharias. It is often repeated in churches, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes; and is one that I have used frequently.

After Zacharias had finished a lecture, a professor of philosophy challenged him on a significant point. Zacharias had pressed the law of non-contradiction. Putting it in simpler terms for his audience, he said that the law might be called an either…or system. Christian theology uses this system. For example,

Either Paul is an Apostle or he is not.

Either Jesus is the Son of God or he is not.

Either Christianity is true or it is not.

You see the rule here:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Paul cannot be an apostle and not an apostle.

Etc.

The irritated professor went to dinner with Zacharias and one other school administrator to talk things over. The philosophy professor insisted that the either…or system is exclusively a western philosophical idea while eastern philosophy uses more of an both…and system of logic. So…

A can be both B and not B at the same time.

Thus…

Paul can be both an apostle and not an apostle.

Jesus can be both the Son of God and not the Son of God.

Zacharias opposed this view with a simple statement: “So you are telling me that it’s either the both…and system or nothing else, is that right?”

The philosopher puzzled over this: “The either…or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?”

Zacharias added, “You know, even those in India look both ways before we cross the street, because they know ‘It’s either me or the bus, not both of us!'”

The main point is that the either…or system–the law of non-contradiction–is something that even Easterners use in their thinking. This is a very important distinction and has helped me a great deal over the years. It also tended to lock me in a modernist way of thinking, and I think it has done the same to several of my contemporaries.

What I erroneously took away from that illustration was that all legitimate ideas come from either…or thinking; the both…and system of thought is worthless and even deceptive. That worked for me for a while, but I started having some pretty big problems with it when I went to seminary. In my biblical and theological studies I found that you must employ the both…and system to make things work. Otherwise, those who champion the non-contradiction rule will actually contradict themselves!

Jesus is both God and man.

The church is both currently redeemed and not yet redeemed.

God is both a single person and not a single person.

A strict either…or approach would have to deny these principles, even though these concepts are central to historic church doctrines. To be sure, there are many who try to reconcile these doctrines with an either…or system; and it seems to me that the harder we try, the further we separate ourselves from the teachings of the text.

Ultimately, I think we need to learn to use both systems where appropriate (see what I did there?). It seems to me that the “either…or” system promotes a more mechanical and objective style of thinking while the “both…and” system is much more organic and subjective. There will always be a tension between the two of them, but they are both helpful.

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Categories: Biblical Studies, Philosophy, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christmas: God became Meat

The title of this post is somewhat offensive.  It’s supposed to be.  The incarnation is simultaneously profane and profound.  Christmas is the time Christians remember that God the Son took on human flesh.  Well, that sounds nice and sterile, doesn’t it?  As we say here in the South: “That’ll preach!”  It is an interesting phrase; but these days it does not have the pathos it used to.  The idea of God becoming a human being was sheer blasphemy to the first century Jew.  The English term flesh is rather benign, and so when Christians hear that God took on human flesh there is often a ho-hum attitude.

But in my classes I take a different approach to the incarnation.  I ask students if they have ever eaten “chili con carne,” asking them what that is exactly.  Of course, it is chili with meat.  Then the follow-up question: “Then what do you think the incarnation might be?”  Of course, it refers to God becoming flesh.  A deity became meat, bone, sinews, organs.  It is a kind of mnemonic device students can use to remember the term and its definition.  But I always get strange looks and questions about this.  It seems profane to put the incarnation this way, and I am aware that the English word meat is not a perfect equivalent to the Latin caro/carn- (though the Spanish carne and English meat are pretty close).  Yet I believe it is important to help people recognize the original offense of the incarnation.

From the pages of the Bible we learn that God is not a man.  He is not made of flesh and blood.  He has no need of sleep.  He does not puzzle over things.  He does not need education or advice.  He does not have fear or dread.  He does not need nourishment.  The epitome of the word almighty, God is simply untouchable.  He is infinite.

Theologically, the Christian Church would say that God is wholly other.  He is perpetual.  He is omnipresent, omnipresent, and omniscient.  But perhaps most importantly, God is holy.  He has nothing to do with sin.  If and when he makes his appearance, no one can look at him directly and live.  Even angels cover their faces in his presence.

The birth of Christ actually put limits on the unlimited.  The God of all creation (specifically the second member of the Trinity) was born to a teenage girl in a cave-like stable.  Ultimate royalty, the holy God was wrapped in poor swaddling clothes.  Wrapped snugly, keeping his arms from flailing about, held in a mother’s embrace, being rocked when he cried, the creator of the world became a human.  Not just a human, but the most vulnerable child in need of, well…everything!  A completely independent God had become utterly dependent.  God had become flesh, organs, a starving stomach, weepy eyes, rooting mouth, and on occasion would produce a foul odor!  This scandal is not easy to accept to those who had held so strongly to Old Testament theology.  If we are honest, it may not be easy for us to accept either.

Categories: Christmas, Theology | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Redeeming Christmas

Christmas tree

Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Around A.D. 336, the Christian Church made December 25 the official date to celebrate the birth of Christ. Some of the images and rituals popular in Christmas celebrations today, have their origins in ancient pagan celebrations.  The Christian Church could have rejected these images but instead redeemed them, pointing them to Christ instead of false gods.  The Biblical authors had no problem with such methods.  In Psalm 29, David described a storm rolling over Lebanon striking down trees with lightning.  Canaanites thought Baal was behind such power, but David corrected this notion, claiming YHWH was behind it all.  Pagans were right to acknowledge a deity who brought the storm, but their adoration was misdirected!  David took the religious enthusiasm fomented by the image of a storm and directed praise toward the Lord.  He used an image that was common to his Canaanite neighbors and corrected the theology behind it.

Likewise, in the New Testament, Paul recognized the religiosity of his audience by noting the pagan idols they worshipped and paid special attention to the writing on one particular altar (Acts 17:23).  Paul used the altar devoted to “the unknown god”  to preach the good news to his listeners!  They had religious momentum, yet Paul sought to correct their misconceptions about religion and direct their devotion to the true God.

So when I remember Christ in December of each year, I enjoy putting up my Christmas lights and admiring their beauty during some of the longest nights of the year, because they remind me of Christ–the light of the world who shines in the darkness.  When I decorate my Christmas tree, I think about how it stays green and vibrant while the  other trees of the woods look dead.  Christ similarly makes believers alive in a world spiritually lifeless in sin.  The gifts under that tree remind me of how Christ was a gift from the Father to the world.  The Yule log in the hearth should keep a home warm through the night until the daylight shines once again, just as Christ’s Spirit in our hearts will keep us until the dawn of the second advent.  Just as God has redeemed our lives and corrected our theology, some of the traditions of Christmas which had pagan roots long ago are now symbols that point to the true God.

Categories: Biblical Studies, Christmas | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks–Comments from a Former Fundamentalist

When I returned from the SBL annual meeting a few weeks ago, I told lots of folks about my experiences and about a few of the books that I purchased or had hoped to purchase in the near future. The one I began reading on the bus ride home was Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture by Kenton Sparks. I posted the picture of the book on my Facebook account, which led to a flurry of mostly negative comments. I don’t suppose most of the folks knew Sparks or anything about his book. They might have reacted to the title which calls the Bible both sacred and broken, and I’m sure Sparks’s quote from Bonhoeffer that I posted helped egg on the discussion:

“We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Sparks, 1; Bonhoeffer, Reflections on the Bible)

A former fundamentalist, I understand the concern. People assume (as I did once) that any insinuation about the Bible’s brokenness is simply an attack on the Bible’s authority. Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me uneasy, but it is also one of the more wonderful and refreshing things I’ve heard about the Bible in a long time. The more I study the Bible through an academic and critical lens, I am less convinced by the traditional ways to reconcile Bible contradictions and difficulties. It is one reason I could no longer tow the fundamentalist party line. But old habits and theological positions die hard, and Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me nervous yet hopeful in my search for a different approach to Bible interpretation. But Sparks intrigued me with his first quote, so I eagerly dove into the rest of the 156 pages for the next week. I read it slowly, marking it up in several places with some !’s, some ?’s and a whole lot of circles, underlines and comments. Overall, I was enthusiastic about the message.

He began his book by affirming that the Bible is God’s word, the sword of the Spirit, and written by those who were moved by that Spirit (8-9). It contains God’s truth and elements of divine beauty. Yet it also contains some features that are very disturbing to modern readers–to Christians and non-Christians alike. It is pretty clear that one of the basic messages in the Bible is that the world was created by God and yet contains a great deal of pain and evil. Sparks touches on different theological approaches to the creation narrative and the effects of the Fall on the universe, probably to show the theological complexity of the issue. He also offered a very brief argument himself, but ultimately stated that no one can really prove conclusively that the Christian view of evil is correct (17-19). I agree, especially since the Bible itself offers several approaches to the problem of evil (compare the messages of Job and Ecclesiastes for example). Furthermore, Sparks observed that God expresses himself through creation even though it is fallen and warped (20-21; cf. Ps. 19:1-3). I had never considered this before; and so as I read I could feel my hope grow. The Bible can and does reflect a redemptive message through the pens of depraved authors.

Next Sparks devoted a few pages to Christology..which is a little weird until you see where he is going with it. The coming of Jesus is an example of how God seeks to communicate with mankind. God became incarnate, taking on the “likeness of sinful flesh” to redeem and communicate with those people who were condemned (Rom 8:3-4). Therefore, the fallen world is only redeemed when God interacts with it (27). But unlike the nature of Christ himself, the scriptures were written by sinful men whose works were adopted or sanctified for God’s uses. To claim the scriptures themselves were sinless all together, insinuates a kind of hypostatic relationship between God’s divine perfection and text or its authors. Since none of the human authors have a simultaneously divine and human nature, a perfectly written text seems unlikely. This was a difficult section for me, but I largely agree with Sparks and I think that it honors God more to separate him from the text in this way. An inerrantist view of Scripture seems to idolatrously elevate the Bible to a divine status.

After giving some samples of the “broken” elements in the Bible, including logical and theological inconsistencies along with moral difficulties such as genocide and slavery, we get to the heart of the book where Sparks makes his main arguments. The fact that some of the laws of the Old Testament codify actions that are morally troublesome these days, indicates that the Bible is not simply a divine yardstick to measure all morality for all people. In Sparks’s estimation, “biblical error became God’s wise accommodation to the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the human audience” (53). The idea that the text cannot have errors because it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) cannot stand since, “the Greek word itself does not really imply anything in particular about how the transaction between God and the human authors took place” (56). Strengthening his case, Sparks shows that other key theological figures have made similar remarks in Church history.

At this point, I’ve agreed with Sparks a great deal, though I feel some trepidation. When he states, “By virtue of its human form and character, Scripture is an adequate human voice that does not fare so well when judged by the yardstick of divine perfection” (61, emphasis his), I must wonder if there is a yardstick at all. What makes Scripture so special? Should we trust the Bible’s documents with the fate of our souls if it doesn’t fare so well against divine perfection? It’s here my hope begins to fade, giving way to despair. But Sparks doesn’t leave me entirely dead in the water. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is a divinely motivated witness to God’s work of redemption in the world through Christ (63). But this still doesn’t answer my questions.

The chapter on epistemology was foundational to the book and one of the most intriguing parts in my reading, probably because I’ve been exploring postmodern ideas on my own. It is important because the way a person determines truth has direct bearing on that person’s ethics. Sparks promotes what he calls “practical realism” (73), which is a tempered postmodernist view. He acknowledges the importance of empirical evidence in the pursuit of truth, but recognizes that personal experience, culture, and traditions carry a great deal of weight as well. Thus, church tradition and history inform and guide church theology and ethics.

With this in mind, Sparks then revisits some of the diversity of ideas and difficulties in the Scripture again. In anticipation of Christ’s imminent return, Paul stated that people should avoid marriage (1 Cor. 7), but Sparks states that these days one is better off looking to Genesis 2 when deciding to marry (115). Good advice, I think. Regarding slavery: “We should not try to argue that biblical laws which allowed Israel to buy foreign slaves (Lev 25:44) fit very nicely with biblical texts that call for justice, equality, freedom and love of neighbor. At a crucial point the two views are simply incommensurable” (105). These slavery texts may have more self-serving purposes for the human authors than divine mandate. And, of course, there’s the church’s old view of geocentrism they finally had to abandon based on new scientific evidence.

Okay! I get it! But how can I know if my reading of the Bible is correct? I’m a Reformed Protestant, so I cry “Sola Scriptura!“and have placed little emphasis on church tradition for my hermeneutics. But recently I have joined a church that does place a great deal of weight on church tradition; so his points resonate with me now. Sparks notes that more Protestants are like me are recognizing the importance of church traditions in Bible interpretation (125). And so my hope grows even more! (FYI: See also the emphasis on tradition in 2 Thesselonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2) We also have confidence that the Spirit of God guides the church as she interprets the Bible. As mentioned earlier, we should also consider the natural world and scientific knowledge, since God also reveals himself in nature. Furthermore, Sparks argues that we should always consider our own experiences. He notes that he was taught as a child that Catholics could not be Christians, but working with several devout Catholics over the years has taught him that this is not the case. The church should take a similar approach when reading the Bible. Sparks also gives a list of guidelines and principles for validating one’s interpretation of the text. Part of it includes the mystery of God’s Spirit interacting with the church throughout history, and part of it recognizes one of the most obvious points of all the canon: God is on a mission to redeem the world.

If I could, I would thank Dr. Sparks personally for writing such a great book! It stretches the limits of my accepted doctrines and has given me the groundwork for an alternative to an inerrantist position. I had abandoned this position a few months ago, but Sparks’s writing has given me a nice blueprint for constructing a new hermeneutic. To me, the Bible remains authoritative even though it has clear evidence of human frailty behind it. Sparks affirmed my suspicions about the Scriptures, pointing out some difficulties I had never considered, and then gave me some guideposts with which I can chart a better hermeneutical method that still shows great reverence to Gods word. Now, I feel that I have stronger supports for my position.

Yet, I do have some criticisms and points of disagreements, but there is really only one matter I care to address. As a former fundamentalist, I was drilled with one doctrine above all: the Bible is inerrant. Without the Bible’s inerrancy, I had supposed with everyone else that all was lost. Without inerrancy, we can’t know God and his requirements. With an inerrant view, we can be certain who God is and what he requires. So when my friends saw the title “Sacred Word, Broken Word” and the Bonhoeffer quote, some felt two things: anger and despair. Anger because to question inerrancy is to question God himself, and despair because the recognition of errors in the Bible can feel like the foundation of one’s faith has been compromised. I’m a trained Biblical scholar, and I felt it even while reading Sacred Word, Broken Word; I can only imagine the layperson’s struggle through such a text. Sparks doesn’t seem to anticipate this tremendous emotional and existential struggle. Simply put, he is not pastoral anywhere in his approach. To be fair, he is a theologian and does a great job arguing his point. But this is a sensitive issue for some, and I didn’t see that he is aware of that.

The model I was taught as a fundamentalist is like that of so many: the Bible is my one foundation for truth. Sparks doesn’t replace that foundation with another, instead giving principles for good Bible interpretation via the church, tradition, experience, and nature. After reading Sparks’s book, there is no more singular foundation upon which a Christian can build his house (life). Thus, despair or anger for the fundamentalist reader. As one who has a so-called Calvinist perspective on the sovereignty of God, I find that this is a great replacement foundation to fill the fundamentalist void. The Spirit of God sovereignly moves through the church and through its members to eventually redeem us. We get it wrong sometimes, but through those errors, shortcomings, and even sins, God will be faithful to accomplish his purposes. A little emphasis on something like this would have been appreciated!

 

 

Categories: Biblical Studies, Calvinism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Practical, Theology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Better Approach to Postmodernists

So I left my readers hanging on my last post that showed folks how not to argue with a postmodernist.  Since then life got busy, so I’m later than I wanted to be (a month–sheesh!), but here you go. Let’s begin by remembering the way the postmodernist thinks.  Postmodernism is a mindset which considers the truth to be something constructed by each person based on their life experiences.  Someone born and raised in Asia will see life differently than one in America, or Brazil, or Africa.  This is a phenomenon we’ve noticed in the Christian church.  Christians of the same tradition, on the other side of the globe will have a different take on many different things religiously.  Different life experiences make people ask different questions about life.  Each individual is forced to come up with answers to those questions on his own.

The “authorities” on any subject are often eyed with suspicion.  Everyone knows that for every expert on a given topic, you can find another one with different or even opposite views.  Both of them will have great reasons for their positions.  Which one will you believe?  How will you determine which one is “right”? You’re not an expert in that field.  You’re not qualified to decide. You don’t have the smarts that they do. So what are you going to do?  Easy…you’re going to choose.  Your choice may not be “right,” and you may never be able to tell if it is with absolute certainty; but the choice you make gives you power and ownership over the situation.   You may choose to side with scholar A, scholar B, or not to side at all.  Whatever choice you make, your choice is completely yours.

Agent Smith and Neo. Neo is the one in the dress.

If you recall, this is one of the themes of the Matrix films.  The main character Neo tries to figure out what is going on in his life, asking some of the deepest questions one can.  Questions like “what is my purpose?” and “What is reality?” In the end of the last movie (the most disappointing of the trilogy, by the way), the arch-villain Agent Smith pummels poor Neo nearly to death.  Utterly broken, Neo stands to fight again.  A frustrated Agent Smith then starts a
lengthy tirade of questions, wanting to find the purpose and motivation behind Neo’s ambition:

Agent Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?

To Smith’s maniacal rant, Neo pants out a simple answer:

Neo: Because I choose to.

This is the triumphant answer of the postmodernist to life’s deepest questions.  There are many why’s and many systems of belief in the world.  Every one of them have logical reasons for their system.   Every one of them have logical inconsistencies as well.   Ultimately, people choose to believe what they believe.  This relates to my previous post where I mentioned that I won a debate with an acquaintance but apparently didn’t convince him of anything. He lost the debate, but I really didn’t convince him of anything.  In a way, I was Agent Smith, questioning all the logical problems of my opponent–but I didn’t win anything.  No, I wasn’t as nihilistic as Smith, but my badgering was the same.  So, what’s a Christian to do?

Here’s where the sovereignty of God comes into play.  If you’ll remember a secretive meeting between Jesus and one of the Pharisees in John 3, the Lord mentioned that the work of the Spirit–conversion–is as unpredictable as the wind (v. 8) [an obvious play on words since wind  and spirit are the same Greek word].  Luke tells us of a woman named Lydia who believed because God opened her heart, enabling her to respond (Acts 16:14).  Paul states that we believed because God made us spiritually alive (Eph. 2:5).  The point is, Christians tend to believe that a supernatural element is involved in all your conversations about Christ.  You may carry the message, but God will determine it’s efficacy.  Though important, apologetics and arguments go only so far, especially with a person who has a solid postmodern perspective.  Remember that the postmodernist sees your best argument as an attempt to control and manipulate others.  So when we talk to people about Christ and Church, you need to have a conversation and not a debatAlvin Plantinga after telling a joke ...e.

In the same way, I’m reminded of something Alvin Plantinga(John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame) said in a podcast interview some years ago (Unbelievable? July 26, 2008, ~30:00-32:00).  When asked if philosophical arguments could be effectively used to persuade someone to become a Christian, Plantinga indicated that most people are not moved by such an approach.   Instead, people tend to believe in God for existential reasons–that is, life experiences and events which have direct bearing on their thinking.  So experience tends to be more meaningful to people than well-reasoned arguments.  Certainly, God himself interacts with the human heart on this level.  But God also interacts with people externally, and we are privileged to be a part of that process.  That brings us back to the main question of this post: what’s the best way to talk religion with a postmodernist?

It seems to me that a person is not argued into the Christian faith, but is instead wooed.  Certainly, logic and reason are a part of the process and you shouldn’t abandon your convictions.  But there are some things that we can do to communicate a little more clearly.

Disagree, don’t correct.  “Jesus is not the Son of God”  If you are a Christian, what’s your immediate response?  Naturally, you want to say “Oh yes he is!”  Your knee-jerk reaction is to correct something that you see as error–a very big error.  But the moment you try to correct someone in this way, they will likely see you as arrogant and even manipulative.  Think of the people that correct you in life; who are they?  They are usually authority figures such as teachers, parents, judges, etc.  When you move to correct a friend in conversation, you’re acting more like an authority figure than an equal.  A more welcoming response would be disagreement: “I think that Jesus really is the Son of God”  or “I have a different view on that.”  Even “I don’t think that’s accurate” works better, because you’re saying what you think.  Instead of trying to be the truth-police, talk about why you believe what you do.   Otherwise, you may come across like a teacher trying to grade their oral report on religious ideas.

Ask meaningful questions.  One of my most influential professors  at seminary was a man who knew how to ask great questions.  When the topics became particularly controversial he tried not to tell us what to think.  Instead, he asked us a series of important questions about the topic so we could probe deeply.  Each of our answers revealed something about how we all thought about theology, God, and ourselves…which led to some great discussion.  In that class we learned that theology is not a cold machine-like system of facts, but is much more organic.  It is an extension of ourselves, and is subject to growth and change over time.  The prof had at least three reasons for asking questions: (1) so he could evaluate our thinking, (2) so we could evaluate our own thinking, and (3) so he could get to know us a little better.  Essentially, he asked us questions because he cared for us and for what we thought (unlike  Agent Smith).  As we answered these questions out loud in class, we learned to value each other’s opinions and understand how we got to the ideas we had.  Theology was not simply about right and wrong; it valued human relationships and experiences.

No doubt, Christians believe in right and wrong, good and bad.  I’m not denying that.  But when you ask questions with a genuine interest in the other person’s views, you’ll find it helps you communicate better.  It will help develop the relationship.  It also shows that you value that person, even though you may not agree with their views.  This makes a much greater impact than a debate approach.

Find common ground.  People grow through community and conversation, but what do you do if you’re trying to have a conversation with someone who believes that all religion is worthless?  You need to find some issues on which you both agree.  People who give public speeches to foreign audiences do this all the time.  An American speaking to an audience in Germany might try to speak some German just to bridge the obvious gap.  I remember the UK Prime Minister and tremendous orator Tony Blair’s speech to the US Congress, where he mentioned the following:

“On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where, in 1814, the British had burnt the Congress Library. I know this is, kind of, late, but sorry.”

Funny stuff!  And it helped to bridge gap between this British leader and the US Congress.  Such gestures show your good will and desire to have a friendship.

Likewise, there will be an obvious gap between you and someone with another religious view.  You may not be able to agree with someone’s religious ideas, but you can find something that you both agree on.  Finding common ground will give both of you confidence with each other.  And you do that by asking meaningful questions!  Take an interest in the other’s views even if you disagree.  You may be surprised how much you agree with each other after all.  That’s valuable to the postmodernist because it shows respect for the other person even though you may not agree with them.

The best argument you have is love.  It’s really a simple and powerful concept and one that Jesus stressed.  No argument speaks louder than a genuine concern for the well-being of others.  The Christian believes that the crescendo of everyone’s well-being comes through embracing the Gospel message…and that’s why  some folks want to present it so urgently…it’s why they are so quick to disagree with other religious views.  But that kind of urgency to present the Gospel looks very suspicious to the postmodernist.   He thinks you’re trying to con him, to trick him.  But if you show a genuine interest in his views, if you live out the Gospel daily in front of him, if you are there for him when he needs you, that makes the Gospel clearer than any philosopher or theologian’s approach.

Overall, how should you talk to a postmodernist about Christianity?  Take it easy.  Respect that other person’s views and interact with them.  Rest in the sovereignty of God.  Love first and speak the Gospel when God presents the opportunity.

Categories: Existentialism, Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Not to Convince a Postmodernist

Postmodernism is rebellion against modern reasoning.  In a earlier post, I showed how modernism used reason to liberate itself from the corrupt control of premodern authorities (kings, lords, popes, etc.).  Modernism indulged in reason and promoted the hope that reasonable societies were on their way to Utopia.  However, the bloodshed in the twentieth century was the worst the world had ever seen. People began to realize that even the best educated and most intellectual people disagreed about many things.  So, postmodernists rebelled against the modernist approach.  Instead of trying to find meaning in objective truth, they found purpose in their own subjective views. Personal opinion became everyone’s own reality, and the pursuit of an objective truth (a True truth) was abandoned all together.  Sure, some people still believed in one supreme truth, but the postmodernist doubted that we could see it for what it was.

Since the postmodernist has such a great suspicion against the keepers of reason, the Evangelical Church was frustrated time and time again in its efforts to reach them.  People started saying that they were against organized religion, though they found a spiritual side of life important.  Jon Meacham‘s “The End of Christian America” revealed just such an idea.  This disinterest in the church has been called the post-Christian Era.  Postmodernism has clearly affected the religious affections of America.  Though a number of scholars suggest that we have actually moved beyond postmodernism into a new era (some give it the tedious name post-postmodernism), the remnants of postmodern thinking remain.  How can the church expect to reach a post-Christian and postmodern society that distrusts (1) organized religion and (2) a pre-packaged, well-reasoned argument such as a gospel presentation or church sermon?

Let’s begin with an approach that isn’t as effective.  That is, a purely modernist approach.  When I was growing up, one of the most popular Christian books was Josh McDowell‘s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and a second volume would follow. The book was an attempt to prove without a shadow of doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was the divine Son of God who had physically resurrected from the dead and offered salvation to those who place their trust in him.  Supposedly after reading the evidence, you wouldn’t be able to deny McDowell’s claims.  The approach is clearly modernist: the truth exists and we’ll get there with reason.  The postmodernist scoffs at this kind of book.  He knows that there are many other books that seek to prove that Jesus of Nazareth never existed at all, or that he existed only as a good teacher.  The postmodernist sees a book like this as an attempt to control, not to convince. The postmodernist is not surprised that I find such books helpful because it reinforces my beliefs, but he does not because it doesn’t reinforce his.

(To McDowell’s credit, he dealt with this problem in a later book, Beyond Belief to Convictions)

If somebody wants to have meaningful dialogue with someone in this [post-]postmodern era, the best approach I’ve found is one that genuinely seeks to understand another person’s perspective.  Some years ago, I prided myself how well I could debate with others.  I had taken my college philosophy classes seriously and enjoyed any logical dialogue I could get.  I remember one rather intense conversation with a fellow who had studied to become a priest, but had later abandoned all that in favor of atheistic ideals.

My attitude? I was going to change that guy’s life.

My ego was a little too strong.  I knew the One truth, the One God, and the One way, and I wielded the tools of logic and rhetoric well enough to defeat virtually anyone.  My conversation with this gentleman was pleasant, though we disagreed about many things.  To each point he made, I offered a solid rebuttal; and at the end of the conversation, I had him in a logical corner where he had to admit that his own position contradicted itself.  It was a victory; I was very proud of myself. But I was shocked at his final response: That’s just what I’ve always believed, and I still believe it today.  It didn’t matter to him that I had out-argued him in a debate, he was still committed to his thought-system.  That day I learned a very important lesson.  Few are argued out of their positions, they are wooed.  I had engaged this man in a logical wrestling match and won.  I may have bested his outer defences, but I had not touched his inner world.  The only thing that I taught him was that his outer defences needed to be improved.

No one will woo a person by arguing them to the ground.  And the postmodernist who is cynical to a packaged logical system (and there are lots of them) will resist any notion that one logical system is objectively superior to another. So if you defeat him in debate, he is not going to abandon his system over that.  In fact, you may have inadvertently entrenched him even more, making him harder to reach next time.

There’s another approach that works much better.  I’ll propose that in my next post.

Categories: Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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