How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art
by Crystal L. Downing
Nashville: IVP, 2006, 210 pp., $18.00 trade paper.
I first heard of Crystal Downing's How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith when it was promoted on the Emergent podcast. I decided that if it was receiving a marketing push of that magnitude, I needed to review it. I soon found that this book is a perplexing read. Numerous passages saw me enjoying Downing's writing style and agreeing with the content of her propositions. At other times, I was convinced we came from very different planets--like when she referred to Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian as a "lovely book" (203). Perhaps she was referring to the cover art.
Dr. Downing is on a crusade against modernism, and sees postmodernism as the temporary cure. While I agree with her about the egregious aspects of a materialistic modernism, I think she is far too quick to assume false unities as well as to create false dichotomies. I was puzzled that a young Downing found the account of Moses veiling his face to be so troubling. She writes of hearing a message during her youth in which the speaker admitted his desire to "veil" his weaknesses, just as Paul told us Moses veiled himself to hide his fading glory from meeting God on Mt. Sinai. The speaker then looked at Exodus 34:29-35, which tells us that the people were afraid by the radiance and Moses veiled his face. Downing writes:
Having been taught that the Bible is without error, I wondered how I was to regard Paul's expose of Moses' inaccurate account. After all, I was told that Moses wrote the creation account in Genesis; did he misreport that one as well? (34)I see no discrepancies in the accounts: Moses came down the mountain, initially unaware that his face shone. The people were afraid (and apparently quite impressed). Moses decided to veil his face, aware that the glory was fading, but desiring to maintain his image.
Usher systematically reinforced time frames suggested by earlier Christian leaders to conclude the world was created on October 23, 4004 B.C.--at 9:00 a.m., no less (64).While mocking little jabs play well with the fans, the reality is that Downing has blundered and distorted. First, Ussher based his work on the Biblical chronologies, assuming no gaps in the genealogical accounts, rather than on "time frames suggested by earlier Christian leaders." Ussher never specified a time. That came from Dr. John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. A minute or so spent on a web search could have disabused Downing of her misperception. I would encourage emerging types to feel free to continue mocking those not on the "inside," but to at least attribute quotes accurately when holding conversations.
Even to this day, rather than simply believing the Bible to be the Word of God, fundamentalists invoke science to "prove" the Bible's truth. When, for example, they work to find "empirical evidence" that a dyspeptic whale could indeed burp up an undigested Johnah, fundamentalists unwittingly imply that empiricishm has greater truth claim than Scripture.Excuse me? Anyone who looks for evidence that the Bible is true thereby implies that empiricism stands above the Bible? Figure that one out. I guess apologists are out of business. What is so terrible about finding evidence that supports the Biblical record? I find that to be a noble enterprise, and faith-building. I guess Jesus was confused, putting empiricism above faith when he gave his post-resurrection challenge for the disciples to engage with the empirical evidence:
The concept of an inerrant Bible did not appear until the 1820s, and, like evolution, it did not become widespread for at least a century (106).Really? Martin Luther will be a familiar name to some conversant with 16th century thought. He claimed:
I have learned to ascribe the honor of infallibility only to those books that are accepted as canonical. I am profoundly convinced that none of these writers has erred. (link)None has erred. No errors. Inerrant. That was three centuries earlier than Downing's claimed timing for the appearance of inerrancy.
None of these (scriptural) authors has erred in any respect of writing. (link)None has erred. No errors. Inerrant. That was 14 centuries earlier than Downing's claimed timing. Many more examples could be given, but that should suffice. Belief in the doctrine of inerrancy isn't a phenomenon of American evangelicalism held hostage by moderism, but a direct result of belief that the Bible is theopneustos, God-breathed.
The foundation cracked when it was discovered that the earth does indeed move. The same is happening today with Christians who are "young earth" creationists. Though they assume that they are standing firm for their faith with a rock-solid foundation, they don't realize that the Christian house built on such a foundation has such huge cracks in it that no one believing even the most conservative scientific estimates for the world's age would dare to move in. Thus, in the minds of many intelligent design scholars, rather than preserving Christianity, "young earth" creationists are making it intellectually unten(ant)able (118).Perhaps Downing would be willing to dialogue with a few of the intellectually bereft creationists, say perhaps Kenneth Cumming and Kurt Wise (both with science doctorates from Harvard), or Jonathan Sarfati (Ph.D. in physical chemistry and former New Zealand national chess champion). Perhaps she could save them from intellectually embarrassing themselves further.
In 1098 Anselm moved foundations when he redefined atonement as a payment made to God rather than as a ransom required by the devil (119).I'd caution Downing about relying on J. Denny Weaver, author of The Non-Violent Atonement. However, I can agree with her if she's writing of the cultural milieu during Anselm's time. Still, she might want to mention that Paul's writing--not Anselm's--provide the basis for those of us who hold to penal substitution (Jesus dying in our place to satisfy the wrath of God).
Christians, therefore, are not called to protectively cling to words that reinforce cultural hierarchies. They are called to follow the Word: a Person who, in living flesh (and probably not pinkish beige flesh), challenged easy distinctions between inside and outside, between the sheep and goats (147).Yes, we follow the Word. But did Jesus Himself not draw sharp boundaries?
Let me affirm right now that I do believe the absolute truth of a God who transcends all cultural constructions (149).Excellent, albeit puzzling in light of her earlier content; but what she gives with one hand, she soon takes away with another:
"How can you believe that knowledge is culturally constructed but also hold on to absolute truth?" That, of course, is what this book is about, and if readers object that I can't logically support a paradox, all I can answer is that, as a Christian, I have committed my life to following a paradox: I believe in Jesus Christ, who, though fully human, remained fully God, who died and yet lives. Thus, just as theologians work to make sense of these paradoxes, so this book works to make sense of absolute truth in relation to competing constructions of knowledge (149)."Paradox" can be defined several ways, so I'm not sure where she's going with this. However, I see no paradox in Jesus dying, then living. The resurrection is a miracle, but that sequence is not paradoxical. As for the cultural construction of knowledge, I have to agree--however, does she mean that truth is then unknowable, or that we must take cultural factors into account? I wish she had gone more in-depth in some of these areas of epistemology. I have no trouble admitting that I am shaped by my culture, but that doesn't preclude a knowledge of absolute truth--for example, I confidently assert that it is always absolutely wrong for adult males to take little Amish girls hostage with the intent of sexually abusing and murdering them. I defy any postmodernist/anti-foundationalist/new kind of Christian to assert that I'm merely being shaped by my language and culture in my "truth" claim.
If we conceptualize a God who transcends all towers of discourse, it implies that the same God can be seen from within the towers of all religions--as long as the people inside them choose to look up, seeking to know the God who is above all language (176).Downing here presupposes that all towers open to the top; perhaps most are closed on top, open only to the abyss below.
Truth, for the Christian, is not a well-articulated proposition, it is a Person: "I AM the way, and the truth, and the life." (177).Yes, but we must not forget John 1:1, either:
As we have seen, most modernist humanists operated (and still do) by a "correspondence" theory of truth, which holds that our statements about truth correspond to reality (191).Since Downing comes across as a likeable Christian person of sincerity and integrity, I have no reason to believe that she is engaging in deliberate deception. I must believe she simply does not understand the theory at all. By her definition (not her personal belief), anyone can make a statement about truth, and it is acceptable as real. She goes on to say that humanists can use this to assault Christianity.
In contrast, the modernist proclaimed, "You can rest in the fact that enlightened human reason, unlike religion, enables us to make statements that correspond with reality. Therefore you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free--free from the dependence of religion." The postmodernist challenged the hubris of this correspondence theory of truth (207).So does Downing use "this correspondence theory" to refer only to the atheistic modernist variety apart from a Christian variant, or is she using "this correspondence theory" to refer to the theory in toto? If she includes Christian evangelicals, she is making a rather harsh statement, as "hubris denotes overconfident pride and arrogance; it is often associated with a lack of knowledge, interest in, and exploration of history, combined with a lack of humility." (link) Given the tone of her book, I assume all adherents to correspondence are tarred with the same brush.
St. Peter was especially attuned to the construction metaphor, perhaps because Jesus designated him as "the rock" on which the church would be built (212).Without getting into Greek differences between petros and petra, I'd at least ask you to consider just why the church's sure foundation (that nasty word again!) would be a fallible man who would soon have to be rebuked publicly by Paul for his hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-21). No, the church's foundation and head is Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.
One descriptor I'd like us to reconsider is the identifying term employed by many evangelicals: Bible-believing. Perhaps it would be more helpful--and accurate--to characterize ourselves as Christ-following (217).It's not hard to argue that, at least for emergent types, accuracy certainly would be improved by avoiding the term Bible-believing. However, resorting to Christ-following begs the question as to the identity of Christ. The New-Age Christ? The Mormon Jesus Christ? Specifying the identity of the Christ turns out to be impossible without propositions.
Ironically, people who denounce postmodernism imply that Christian dogma cannot withstand rough handling, betraying perhaps a subconscious fear that the structure of Christianity might prove flimsy or false (229).Not so. Actually, I'm confident in Christianity and my fear is not that Christianity is inadequate but that Christians are too often deceived--what I do believe is that postmodernism is flimsy, false and incapable of surviving rough handling. Downing, like most in the emerging church movement, binds modernism and evangelicalism too tightly, insisting that any perceived flaws of modernism are characteristic of conservative evangelical Christianity. This is a fundamental weakness of the book. She writes well, creating an interesting read, but her presuppositions get in the way and seem to blind her to reality at times. One would expect no less from someone trapped in a tower limited by language.