Theological Approaches To “The Transition Zone”

Theologians and philosophers have advocated many different approaches to postmodernism – or what we are calling “the transition zone.”  Since it is defined in terms of what it is not vis-à-vis modernity, the responses of many has been to approach postmodernism in terms of  what changes are needed from modernity.   There are six such basic approaches to postmodernism.

(1)  Constructive postmodernism views modernity as “an incomplete project awaiting completion.”[i]   They argue that the point is not to reject the previously mentioned assumptions of modernity, but rather to extend them and complete the project. They argue that the enlightenment was successful is achieving epistemological freedom, but that the process has not yet gone far enough.  What is needed is a second enlightenment that will extend the emancipation “to include all the spheres—personal, social, economic, political—in which human live and move, and to include all the people—not just Western elites—in the emancipatory process.”[ii]

(2)  Restorationist  postmodernism believes there to be much within the premodern and modern worldviews worth retaining.  Some of its critics have suggested that this approach is merely a return to premodernism, but it is not!  What it seeks to do is build on modern and premodern foundations considered worthwhile, while rejecting others.[iii]

(3)  Deconstructive postmodernism was a response to the literary theory called “structuralism.”  Structuralists hypothesized that cultures develop literary documents in an attempt to provide compositions of meaning by means of which people can makes sense out of the meaningless of their experience.  Deconstructionists rejected structuralism.  They said that meaning is not inherent in the text but emerged as the interpreter entered into dialogue with the text.  Consequently, the meaning of a text is dependent on the perspective of the one who enters into dialogue with it. [iv]  For this reason there can be as many interpretations of a text as readers (or readings). In an essay examining this approach to postmodernism, William Beardslee writes:

This type of postmodernism is marked by the abandonment of the quest for a vision of the whole.  Usually great emphasis is placed upon the nature of understanding as interpretation, that is, the view that no standpoint exists outside the flow of history and experience, so that all writing is interpretaion of earlier writing.[v]

Postmodern theorists began applying the theories of literary deconstructionists to the world as a whole.  They reject modernity’s claim to epistemological objectivity.  They reject Descartes proposition that there were any core truths or facts to which one could appeal as the foundation for human reason.  Deconstructionists seek to dissolve people’s trust in all claims to epistemological objectivity, showing that when structures are taken apart they are seen to be “nothing but contingent and relative constituents of contingent and relative  structures.”[vi]

(4)  A fourth approach to postmodernism is that of theological postliberalism.  For the postliberal theologian the challenge is not to save or reject the assumptions of the modern era, nor is it to restore (in some fashion) the lost benefits of the premodern era.  On the contrary, postliberal theologians see Christianity as an “other world” project.

A key figure in the development of a postliberal approach to postmodernism is Yale University professor George Lindbeck.  Borrowing from a general framework suggested by Ludwig Wittgenstein,[vii] Lindbeck argues that languages are guided by a system of rules.  These rules provide the structures of languages and its use.  The role of theology, then, is to understand the rules of the language game as they are used in the Christian religion.  As Wittgenstein writes, “Theology is grammar.”[viii]  Lindbeck writes:

…religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought.  It functions somewhat like a Kantian a priori, although in this case the a priori is a set of acquired skills that could be different.  It is not primarily an array of beliefs about the true and the good (though it may involve these), or a symbolism expressive of basic attitudes, feelings, or sentiments (though these will be generated).  Rather, it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments.  Like a culture or language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities.  It comprises a vocabulary of discursive and nondiscursive symbols together with a distinctive logic or grammar in terms of which this vocabulary can be meaningfully deployed.  Lastly, just as a language (or “language game,” to use Wittgenstein’s phrase) is correlated with a form of life, and just as a culture has both cognitive and behavioral dimensions, so it is also in the case of a religious tradition.  Its doctrines, cosmic stories or myths, and ethical directives are integrally related to the rituals it practices, the sentiments or experiences it evokes, the actions it recommends, and the institutional forms it develops.  All this is involved in comparing a religion to a cultural-linguistic system.[ix]

For the postliberal, theology is intratextual.  It is associated with the relationship of the text to the world. According to Terrence Tilley, “The point (of this approach to theology) is to see how to live in God’s world and how all other worlds fit or fail to fit in the world God has made.”[x]

(5) Liberationist postmodernism is a reaction against the social structures of modernity—social structures considered unjust and unfair because of a hegemony of predominately white Eurocentric males.  Liberationists seek to transform political and social structures in a way that destroys the established hegemony and brings about justice for those considered on the margins of society and culture.  For this reason, liberationists usually need some sort of adjective (feminist, gay, black, third world, etc.) to label what sort of liberation motif is at work.[xi]

A good example of liberationist postmodernism is Letty Russel’s book Church in the Round:  Feminist Interpretation of the Church.  Russel argues that the ecclesiastical traditions and structures of the church are dominated by white Eurocentric males.  As a result its identity is no longer germane to its current cultural climate or its ongoing life.  To make the church more relevant to the postmodern era Russell argues that the church needs new self-descriptive metaphors—metaphors that can come from feminist theology. 

What is a “metaphor?”  Feminist and liberation theologians point out that metaphor is more than a figure of speech—it is also a process of thought.  When we examine the unfamiliar we ask, “What is it like?”  By comparing one thing to another, metaphoric thought helps persons understand the unknown, thereby creating a new sense of reality.  In a post-modern world, Russell asserts that Eurocentric, male-dominated, hierarchical metaphors can no longer provide life for the church.  These metaphors must be replaced by images that are inclusive, particularly of those who stand at the margins of society and the church.

The metaphors that Russell suggests could help the church recover its identity in the post-modern era are those of tables—specifically a round table, a kitchen table, and a welcome table.  The round table is a familiar piece of furniture is most cultures.  Metaphorically speaking, the round table suggests commonality, connectionalism, and hospitality.  For the church, the image of the round table points both to the Holy Eucharist and to the eschatological banquet of God’s Reign when all humanity will feast together.  Russell says that this image of the round table “achieves its power as a metaphor only as the already of welcome, sharing, talk, and partnership opposes the not yet of our divided and dominated world.”[xii] This image of the round table is an appropriate place for feminists to begin developing an ecclesiology.  Feminism, as defined by Russell, does not seek to replace the oppressive male dominated power structure with an equally unjust female dominated hierarchy.  On the contrary, feminism is a word that points to the pursuit of liberation from “all forms of dehumanization on the part of those who advocate full human personhood for all of every race, class, sex, sexual orientation, ability, and age.”[xiii]  Feminism, then, has as its core the desire to include the marginalized in all conversations and actions regarding issues of politics, economics, and theology. Russell’s approach to the postmodern era is an attempt to transform the ecclesiastical structures of the church in such a way that they will destroy the established hegemony and bring about justice for those considered to be on the margins of society, culture, and church.

(6)  The sixth and final approach to postmodernism comes from those who advocate an ecclesiology of communal praxis.  Of those who advocate this approach, Terrence Tilley says the following:

What joins them is that they leave behind the endless debates of modernity about the foundations of religious belief in true or warranted doctrines.  What is key for this postmodern approach are the practices which constitute shared religious life.[xiv]

In other words, this approach is not concerned with finding a philosophical foundation for true belief.  Instead this approach understands true belief to be the result of involvement in the collective life of a religious community. 

Anabaptist scholar John Howard Yoder makes an argument for communal praxis ecclesiology.  In his book The Priestly Kingdom:  Social Ethics As Gospel Yoder says that the usual starting point for a study of theological ethics is a discussion about “the nature of ethical language, what it means to be talking about ethics, and the meaning of moral discourse within an intelligently self-critical community.”[xv]  Such discussions are thought to be the necessary groundwork for moral theology.  Yoder rejects this viewpoint. For him the most valuable resource for moral reasoning is the Christian’s voluntary commitment to the Christian community as distinct from secular society.  He writes:

There is no “scratch” to which one can go back to begin, anymore than there is any “onion per se” to be reached by peeling off one after another the layers of flesh.  What must replace the prolegomenal search for “scratch” is the confession of rootedness in historical community.  Then one directs one’s critical acuity toward making clear the distance between that community’s character or covenant and its present faithfulness.[xvi]

The communal praxis model is also advocated by Baptist theologian James McClendon.  McClendon’s systematic theology emphasizes this approach by beginning with a volume about ethics.  This rejects the usual order for study in systematic theology that begins with foundations (also called apologetics), continuing next to doctrine, and concluding with ethics. Foundations provide the basic groundwork for what follows.  Doctrines show what must be believed and taught.  Ethics discuss the conduct that should follow based on what is believed.[xvii] This is supposed to be the logical order for theological study.  Not for McClendon who argues that theological discourse should begin in the community with a conversation about ethics. McClendon writes:

On this view, we begin by finding the shape of the common life in the body of Christ, which is for Christians partly a matter of self-discovery…That is ethics.  We continue with an investigation of the common and public teachings that sanctions and supports the common life by displaying its doctrinal height and breadth and depth.  That is doctrine.  And we end by discovering those apologetic and speculative positions that such life and such teachings call forth.  That is philosophical theology or apologetics.[xviii]

It is interesting to note that theological postliberals and those advocating a communal praxis model are in many ways kindred spirits.  Both are allied in the argument that philosophical conversations are not the proper starting place for theological discourse.  Where they part company is in determining where such theological inquiry should begin.  Postliberalism is primarily concerned with the nature, status, and function of doctrine.  Postliberal theologians like Lindbeck focused on the relationship between the canonical text and the religious community in the formulation of doctrine.  Yoder, McClendon, and others who advocate a communal praxis model are primarily focused on the ethics and practices of the religious community.  This approach sees shared practice as being foundation to doctrinal formulations. 

Outlining A Postmodern Theology 

The ongoing mission of the church remains the same in the emerging postmodern era—that of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and finding appropriate ways to inform and influence this new world view with the “deepening and vitalization” of God’s Reign.[xix]  This is the work of evangelism—the content of Jesus’ Great Commission to the church as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.  (Mt. 28:19-20 NIV)

In light of the dramatic rejection of the epistemology of modernity, how does the church accomplish this mission?  How does the church do the work of evangelism? The thesis of this paper is that the contemporary church can develop a meaningful theology of evangelism in a postmodern world by recovering the Anabaptist vision of the church—an ecclesiological vision reflected in those who practice a theology of communal practice. A meaningful theology of evangelism in a postmodern world, therefore, will be based on the ecclesiology of communal praxis.  In brief outline form, a communal praxis theology of evangelism would be as follows.

(1)  The invitation of the church will be to invite those outside the Christian community to become true believers by entering the community of faith and becoming followers (disciples) of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The primary goal in evangelism will not be to offer people a sacred canon of propositional religious knowledge, but rather to invite them to become followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

(2) Life as a follower of Jesus Christ is not lived in a vacuum, but involves complete immersion into the life of the Christian community.  The Christian community is preeminently important in the development of Christian spirituality—which is the ultimate goal of evangelism. The community of faith is the place where religious knowledge works to produce a growing spirituality in the knower.  Stanley Grenz, himself a proponent communal praxis theology, writes:

A theology that is focused on spirituality, therefore, views itself as immensely practical.  In the postmodern world we must reappropriate the older pietist discovery that a right heart takes primacy over a right head.  Theology must take its lodging in the heart, for it is concerned with the transformation of not only intellectual commitments, but also the character and life of the believer (as well as the faith community).[xx]

(3)  The communal praxis theology focuses on the centrality of the biblical story for the formation of life within the community.  The focus here is not on the biblical text as though it were some sort of objective source for Christian doctrine.  Rather the focus is on the biblical story as the subjectively read word of God that uniquely addresses the needs of the church as the vibrant community.  The authority of the Scripture is not open for philosophical debate.  Rather biblical authority in the church is assumed on the basis that it is universally recognized book of the Christian community.  The Bible, then, is not a collection of propositional doctrines to be examined under the microscope of supposed true reason.  Rather it is the religious community’s source-book for Christian spirituality.  Again, Stanley Grenz writes,

. . . in engaging in the theological task, we may simply assume the authority of the Bible on the basis of the integral relation of theology to the faith community.  Because the bible is the universally acknowledged book of the Christian church, the biblical message functions as the central norm for the systematic articulation of the faith of that community.  Consequently, the divine nature of Scripture or its status vis-à-vis revelation need not be demonstrated in the prolegomenon to theology.  Sufficient for launching the systematic-theological enterprise is the nature of theology itself as a reflection on community faith.  And sufficient for the employment of the Bible in this task is it status as the book of the community.[xxi]

(4) The communal praxis approach is also by its nature rather radical in its understanding of grace.  Religious faith in the pre-modern paradigm was under the hegemony of the institutional church.  They declared for the masses what it meant to be a “true believer.”  The church (particularly its clerics) became the keepers of the sacred traditions and enforcers of the rules, rituals, regulations, and requirements of the faith.  Under modernity, religious faith became an exercise of reason and rationalism.  In both, the mystical movements of the spirit were regulated to the peripheries of the faith.  Each allowed for a more intense legalistic form of religion.

The communal praxis approach is by its nature more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  While forms of legalism tend to infringe on all forms of religious order, the communal praxis form of legalism is more vapid than most, allowing the grace values of freedom, mercy, peacemaking, community, and forgiveness to find strong expression. 

In this blog I have defined the term postmodern, described six of the contemporary theological and philosophical approaches to the challenges of postmodernism, and offered a modest outline for a postmodern modern theology of evangelism based upon the Anabaptist ecclesiological tradition—expressed in communal praxis theology.  In future blogs I will present an historical overview of the Anabaptist ecclesiological tradition.   This overview serves as the foundation for my understanding of Anabaptist ecclesiology, which will be presented in a subsequent blogs. 

[i] Terrence W. Tilley, Postmodern Theologies. vii.

[ii] Ibid. 5.

[iii] Thomas C. Oden,  After Modernity . . . What?  Agenda for Theology.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 59-70.

[iv] Stanley J. Grenz, “Star Trek and the Next Generation:  Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 92.

[v] David Ray Griffin, William A. Beardslee, and Joe Holland, Varieties of Postmodern Theology.  (New York:  State University of New York, 1989), 66.

[vi] Terrence W. Tilley, Postmodern Theologies, viii.

[vii] See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.  3d ed. trans. G.E.M. Anscombe.  (New York, McMillan, 1958) and Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief.  ed. C. Barrett. (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1966).

[viii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 373.

[ix] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine:  Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age.  (Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1984), 33.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] David Dockery, “The Challenge of Postmodernism,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 16.

[xii] Letty M. Russel Church in the Round:  Feminist Interpretation of the Church.  (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 17.

[xiii] Ibid., 22.

[xiv] Terrence W. Tilley, Postmodern Theologies, viii.

[xv] John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom:  Social Ethics As Gospel.  (Indiana:  Notre Dame Press, 1984), 7.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] James Wm. McClendon, Jr.  Systematic Theology:  Ethics.  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), 41.

[xviii] Ibid., 45.

[xix] Benard Häring, Evangelization Today.  (New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1991), 1.

[xx] Stanley J. Grenz, “Star Trek and the Next Generation:  Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 101.

[xxi] Stanley J. Grenz. Revisioning Evangelical Theology:  A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (Downers Grove, Ill.:  Inter Varsity, 1993), 15.

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