Sunday, November 06, 2005

Critiquing some Evangelical's critique of postmodernism

I do not really know much about postmodernism beyond what I have read in a couple of books and met on the street. It is a hot issue though for Evangelicals with a concern for mission today. When Evangelicals critique postmodernism it is often painted as denying the possiblity of knowing anything, or that there is such a thing as 'truth'. I do not really know if this is accurate or not but I have been interested to read two independent reviews of Evangelical critics of postmodernism.

First I read Joel Garver on the Don 'jack of all trades' Carson's weighty book on the subject.

In The Gagging of God Carson does a decent job of explaining "the modern," but when he turns to the postmodern, his exposition seems to forget that it is the modern against which the postmodernists are reacting. Thus, when a philosopher rejects the notion of "objective truth," Carson reads this as if it were a denial of any truth whatsoever, rather than a denial of a theory of truth that presupposes a radical subject-object dichotomy, a representationalist theory of mind, and the need for apodictic certainty in order to know anything at all.

Carson goes on to suggest that deconstructionists insist upon either absolute knowledge or complete relativism. But this is not what the deconstructionists claim. Rather, this looks to me much more like Carson's own modernist prejudices showing through, presupposing this either/or.

Elsewhere Steve Bush finds fault with Paul Helm's review of The Character of Theology by John Franke, which is quite postmodern I think.

A prominent theme in The Character of Theology is the need for the theologian to perform the theological task in full cognizance of his or her personal and social context. Helm mentions Franke’s opening discussion of this theme and then states, "Then follows what is by now an all-too-familiar apologia for the need for us to be postmodernists in theology, jettisoning claims to knowledge in the process."

This is erroneous. Franke never suggests that we jettison claims to knowledge. Rather, he rejects a particular conception of knowledge, Cartesian foundationalism, in order to attend to contextual specificity: "To be human is to be situated in the context of particular cultures and communities such that our respective communities and traditions, be they religious or secular, play an indispensable role in shaping our conceptions of rationality as well as the beliefs we deem most basic and central to them" (182). These considerations are not unique to Franke, but are well established in the philosophical literature. Franke asks theologians to take their situatedness seriously in their pursuit of theological knowledge. He does not remotely suggest that this situatedness precludes knowledge, and Helm gives us no reason whatsoever to think that Franke’s position collapses into such scepticism.

I do not know what to make of these comments yet, but will keep them in mind and try to avoid any rash comments on the subject myself.

----------------- Update: 8 Nov -----------------

Mark Horne, Kyle Newcomer, and Kyle's commenters have more to say on reviews of Franke's book... Illuminating stuff.

----------------- Update: 15 Nov -----------------

Paul Helm has responded to Steve Bush, and Steve Bush has in turn responded yet again. This post is also worth reading. It all makes for interesting reading.


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