Monday, November 05, 2007

When Brian McLaren & J.P. Moreland Come Together...

J.P. Moreland, in his excellent book Kingdom Triangle, critiques the “Emerging church” which, he says, “appears to have hitched its wagon to postmodernism in a way that is fraught with difficulties seldom appreciated.” (67)

Moreland writes: “I do not wish to be harsh or inappropriately critical of my brothers and sisters who are part of the Emerging church. There is much good in the problems they are bringing to the surface and in some of the solutions they are offering. For now, I simply register my concern about what I believe is their unnecessary association with postmodern language.”

What, for Moreland, are his main objections to postmodernism (which he admits “is a variegated movement with many stripes”)? Postmodernism:
Rejects objective truth construed as a correspondence with reality
Rejects the rational objectivity of reason
Rejects the reality of simply seeing, and the human ability to be aware of and know reality directly, unmediated by “conceptual schemes,” language, or their surrogates. (67)

Moreland holds to a correspondence theory of truth. Which means: “In its simplest form, the correspondence theory of truth says that a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to reality, when what it asserts to be the case is the case. More generally, truth obtains when a truth bearer stands in an appropriate correspondence relation to a truth maker.” “Truth bearers” are what, in logic, are called “propositions” or “statements.” A “truth maker” is what makes a proposition or statement true. Moreland, in his philosophical work, writes much to explain the correspondence theory and argue for its plausibility. In Kingdom Triangle, see especially pp. 80-85.

Moreland especially looks at, among others, Emerging church leader Brian McLaren. For McLaren, absolute truth-claims cannot be made. Moreland quotes McLaren: “I think that most Christians grossly misunderstand the philosophical baggage associated with terms like ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ (linked to foundationalism and the myth of neutrality)… Similarly, arguments that pit absolutism versus relativism, and objectivism versus subjectivism, prove meaningless or absurd to postmodern people.” (78)

McLaren-ist postmodern epistemology seems to say that “no one approaches life in a totally objective way without bias. Thus, objectivity is impossible, and observations, beliefs, and entire narratives are theory-laden. There is no neutral standpoint from which to approach the world… Knowledge is a construction of one’s social, linguistic structures, not a justified, truthful representation of reality by one’s mental states.”

In this regard Moreland’s manifesto pleads that Jesus-followers reclaim the Christian mind.

I like the way Moreland develops this in Kingdom Triangle. I find him loving and gracious, and concerned. McLaren’s postmodern rejection of objective or absolute truth is confused in two ways. (see p. 83 ff.) This section of Moreland deservers to be studied. Moreland himself is working through these things. One can see, on reading him, that he is growing in his understanding of the real issues that underlie the discussion.

Brian McLaren, in his (to me) wonderful and challenging book Everything Must Change, responds to the Moreland-type criticisms. McLaren, like Moreland, focuses on Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

McLaren is concerned in learning what the message of Jesus is and applying it here on earth. He seems especially disdainful of Christians who overspend time debating “religious esoterica.” (20) Yet he does spend some time responding to the issue of “postmodernism.”

McLaren argues that philosophers and theologians whose epistemologies concluded that one could have absolute, certain knowledge, contributed to a cultural confidence that was arrogant and “excessive.” While this may be true, surely it does not follow that one cannot have certain, objective truth about things. What follows, at most, is that one in possession of such truth should be careful so one’s confidence does not become “a dangerous, malignant confidence.” And this cuts both ways. Surely one could become excessively arrogant as regards any theory of knowledge that one believes is true.

McLaren argues that the opposite of “postmodern” is not best understood as “modern,” but as “postcolonial.” “Postmodern” is one side of the coin, “postcolonial” the other. (44)

McLaren cites non-Eurocentric Christian leaders who don’t “focus on philosophical questions of truth and epistemology, but rather on social questions of justice, which are ultimately questions about the moral uses of power.”

Here, to me, is the heart of McLaren’s thinking: “This integration of postmodern and postcolonial concerns – for both justice and truth, for both a proper confidence and a proper use of power – made it possible for me to turn from a set on intramural arguments (which had preoccupied me for several years) to the more global exploration articulated in my two preoccupying questions: ‘What are the biggest problems in the world today?’ and ‘What do the life and teaching of Jesus have to say about these global problems.’” (45)

I very much like what both Moreland and McLaren are writing about, and how their thinking is developing. Moreland’s new emphasis on the urgent need to reclaim the demonstrative power-acts of Jesus and the Kingdom is welcome (McLaren gives a few sentences in acknowledgement to this in his The Secret Message of Jesus. A such, his work is excellent but imbalanced). And Moreland’s Dallas Willard-like call to reclaim the human soul is important. McLaren’s emphasis on the kingdom of God, here, now (both future and present), is important, and Moreland would agree. McLaren’s great fear that a correspondence theory of truth has and yet could create an epistemological hyperconfidence can be balanced by a serious call to a devout and holy life.

I like what McLaren writes in a footnote. “Conservative critics of postmodernism – including many critics of my work – rightly realize that one can so successfully undermine a culture’s excessive confidence that it eventually lacks sufficient confidence… [On the other hand] we have many modernist defenders backing away from the dangers of relativism and nihilism, only to fall backward into an immoral defense of cultural chauvinism, colonialism, and empire. One hopes we can all work together in more balanced, both-and ways in the future.” (303, fn. 3)

I am now thinking of what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

I’d like to see J.P. Moreland and Brian McLaren come together and advance God’s Kingdom on earth together. I think it will happen soon...