Friday, September 02, 2005

McGrew's Response to Ekhardt's A Missional Incarnation of Christian Worship in Postmodernity

My friend Tim McGrew, who, unlike a former assistant professor [read: amoeba] such as myself, is a full professor [and now --- ugh --- chairman] of the Western Michigan U. philosophy department, has given me his blessing and encouragement to post something he's written.

A Reverend Bill Ekhardt wrote and published online a paper titled A Missional Incarnation of Christian Worship in Postmodernity. Readers can read the paper for itself at the link just given.

Tim McGrew's response to Rev Ekhardt will now follow.

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Bill,
Thanks for the links. I went for the pdf version of your paper and read it through, but for the most part I'll confine my comments to the beginning of it since I think that's where the central issues are framed.

I think you're right to point out on p. 6 (per the numbers in the text; in Adobe Acrobat it is the 9th page, counting front matter) that the term "postmodern era" is often ill-defined. But the definition you offer, which accords with what I've seen of Stanley Grenz's use of the term, raises a question: what was the Enlightenment Project, and how, if at all, has it "broken down"?

This is important, because insofar as there is something I can recognize as the Enlightenment Project—and here we must be fairly careful since by no means did everyone in the 18th century agree theologically or philosophically—I don't actually believe that it has broken down, either rationally (it hasn't been shown to be false or implausible) or socially (it hasn't been abandoned en masse in American culture). But what I would (if forced) refer to as the Enlightenment Project is something that only partly overlaps what the EC folks describe as falling under that term—when they can be bothered to lay it out in any detail at all.

Here we run into an impasse. You are leaning heavily on people like Walter Anderson, Stanley Grenz, and Dave Tomlinson as authorities on intellectual history. I understand how this happened. As a non-specialist writing a paper in this field, you need to rely on the word of some experts. The problem is that, in my opinion, the work of the authorities you cite in this area is often frankly embarrassing, the sort of pop history of ideas that sounds plausible only to those who haven't read the primary sources or done work in the relevant fields. If this becomes a mere table-thumping exercise then we're going nowhere: you, being a working pastor and not a specialist in the history of ideas, will be left with nothing but the conflicting shouts of a couple of presumptive specialists. So I'm going to select a few points, following your exposition, and then sketch some of my evidence for my disagreements with Anderson, Grenz, Tomlinson, and others. More than that, in the limited space available, I cannot do. But at the end I will make some bibliographic suggestions.

Per Grenz (in A Primer on Postmodernism), the stage was set for the Enlightenment by Bacon (stressing the discovery of the secrets of nature), Descartes (employing the method of doubt for the autonomous rational subject), and Newton (picturing the world as a machine regulated by discoverable laws). The assumption was made (but by whom?) that knowledge is certain, objective, good, and accessible to all human beings. "Emotion and intuition," you write, "were set aside as pathways to truth." (p. 7) The inevitability of progress meant that all social ills could be overcome through scientific discovery and education. And you quote Anderson and Harvey from p. 4 of The Truth About the Truth as saying that the thinkers of the enlightenment project "took it as axiomatic that there was only one possible answer to any question. From this it followed that the world could be controlled and rationally ordered if we could only picture and present it rightly. But this presumed that there existed a single correct mode of representation which, if we could uncover it (and this is what scientific and mathematical endeavors were all about), would provide the means to Enlightenment ends."

Postmodernity, you say, rejects each of these assumptions. It holds that no individual can be objective; we all stand within "paradigms" that function as "blinders," and we cannot even see our own biases. "People are suspicious of certainty and distrust claims of objectivity" says Tomlinson, whom you quote with evident approval—for you go on in your own voice to say that this "compels us to humility regarding truth claims. It obliges an admission that we are limited in our understanding by the unconscious paradigms in which we operate. It obliges us to openness toward new paradigms, for even if they are contradictory with our own and with each other, they avail us of windows to discovery that were not available through a single paradigm." (pp. 10-11) Perhaps this was overlooked by people in earlier times because, as you put it, "People in pre-modern world did not have to encounter pluralism in their daily lives," whereas "People of the modern era had the hope of universality guaranteed them by the inevitable progress of dispassionate rationality." (p. 9)

By contrast with the rationality of the autonomous agent, you go on to say, postmodernity embraces "holism" that "embraces the values of aesthetics and beauty, of emotion and spiritual encounter, and of dialogue and relationship." (p. 11) But the rejection of reason goes much deeper than a mere embracing of some positive values. Much later (pp. 51-52) you go on to reiterate the limitations on our access to truth and to emphasize (following Newbigin) that believers "cannot justify our perspective with argument and reason" and must instead engage in perspective-sharing, asking unbelievers to come stand with us and see if they don't "see the same pattern" that we do.

According to Grenz (Primer, p. 7) moderns were (universally?) optimistic about the effects of technological discovery, whereas postmoderns are typically pessimistic. Further, you say, postmodernists have a distinctive twist on truth. It is not universal, transcending culture, but rather relative to culture. And this is not just a matter of one's perceptions of truth but a matter of "the essence of truth" as well. (p. 12) Truth is itself relative to one's community. "At the least," you write, "postmodernity affirms the possibility that there are multiple contradictory truths. At the most, it fully rejects the possibility that there is absolute truth or anything that is true for every time and community." (pp. 12-13)

That's a thumbnail sketch of posmodernism and its understanding of modernism as you've outlined it, and I think you've fairly represented the thought of folks like Grenz and Tomlinson. But I find this picture bizarre. Already so many things have gone awry that it's hard to know where to begin. I'll respond under a number of headings corresponding roughly to the points you stressed.

An intelligible world

Bacon did indeed stress the discovery of the secrets of nature, but this is hardly original with him: it had been a theme in the history of thought for several millennia already. Plato in the Timaeus; Aristotle in multitudinous writings on physics, cosmology, and biology; atomists from Leucippus, Democritus, and Lucretius down to Galileo, Gassendi, and Newton; critics of Aristotle's physics including Strato, Philoponus, Maimonides, Aquinas (yes, even Aquinas doesn't think Aristotle got it quite right in physics), Marsilius of Inghen, Bradwardine, Heytesbury, Buridan, Oresme, Witelo, Cusanus, Copernicus—one thing they all agree on is that nature is a rational order with principles that are to a significant extent discoverable by a combination of observation and reflection. This is not a distinctively "modern" idea.

And outside of the circle of social constructivists and a few philosophers of science on what I might call the far left fringe, it is not seriously in doubt. Thomas Kuhn at his most relativistic does suggest that talk of a "hypothetically fixed nature" to which our theories approximate is not helpful, but as I have argued elsewhere at some length this is just the point at which Kuhn lapses into self-referential incoherence. The extreme wing of the "science studies" movement does endorse a sort of relativism like this. But it is not rationally defensible, and it is quite rightly rejected (even passed over in embarrassed silence) by the majority of philosophers of science. In any event I do not see any hope of reconciling such relativism with a Christian view of the creation.

I can't recall any thinker from the period who said that there is only one possible answer to any question, though surely all of them were familiar with the way that simple ambiguity can obfuscate dialogue. But in any event it would not, contra Anderson and Harvey, follow that "the world could be controlled and rationally ordered if we could only picture and present it rightly." We might picture it rightly and discover that we were stuck. I find this entire passage you quote utterly puzzling; it leaves me wondering who makes these things up.

Beauty, feelings, truth

Descartes does indeed employ the method of doubt for the autonomous rational subject. But it does not follow at all that aesthetics and beauty are of no value. It does not even follow that they are not of value in the pursuit of science. Talk to a scientist about the most beautiful experiment he has ever seen and you are likely to be captivated for an afternoon or longer. Kepler admits that he has been ravished by the beauty of God's works. There are entire books about the aesthetic dimensions of scientific reasoning.

The misrepresentation here is that in the Enlightenment there was some sort of wholesale rejection of emotion and aesthetic response in favor of cool reason—the stereotype of the scientist as Mr. Spock, lifting one eyebrow while looking at a sunset. ("Fascinating. It appears that the light from the local star is traveling through a sufficient thickness of atmosphere to scatter the higher wavelengths, leaving visible only the lower energy end of the spectrum.") But it is very difficult to think of any major thinker between 1600 and 1800 who wanted to replace emotion with reason. What thinkers like Locke (in Book 4 of the Essay) did emphasize is that emotion should not be a substitute for reason and that it all too frequently distorts our reasoning. This seems to me to be a most modest and sensible claim, one that it would be very difficult to contest.

Rationality and certainty

As for the autonomous rational subject, is it so certain that he has been put out to pasture, or is that just a straw man we see in the distance? Most of the critical firepower has been directed against the notion that we can have certainty about ordinary beliefs, as if all of the moderns thought that one could sit down with paper and pencil and a little concentration and come up with a proof that one's toothbrush is where one left it last evening. That position is easy enough to ridicule; it is practically a self-pastiche.

But who actually held it? It is not often remembered that Descartes himself gives up on the deductivist project of the Meditations when he comes to write the Principles, opting for the sort of hypothetico-deductivism that Huygens explicitly weds to probabilism in his famous preface to the Treatise on Light. And in fact the quest for certainty was abandoned even in the 17th century by the Anglican divines who worked out a probabilistic epistemology in response to the use of Pyrrhonian skeptical arguments by counterreformational apologists. On this point, see Popkin's History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes and particularly van Leeuwen's monograph The Problem of Certainty in English Thought. I'm citing sources here because this claim about the Enlightenment identification of knowledge with certainty is widely touted by self-styled postmodernists. It seems likely the writers of such literature are sharing one another's references—or just quoting each other—without looking back either at the primary sources or at the relevant secondary literature, with which they often seem unfamiliar.

In any event, it takes more than a free use of the word "paradigm" to make an argument that reason is so desperately limited as the postmodernists contend. In fact, some po-mos have tied their own shoelaces together at just this point: for if you claim to have shown by objectively good reasons that there are no objectively good reasons, your claim refutes itself. (For a refreshingly candid admission of intellectual dishonesty about such self-refutations by a recovered postmodernist, see the beginning of Jay Budziszewski's brilliant book The Revenge of Conscience.) But even more moderate claims about the limitations of reason in the understanding of the physical world are difficult to reconcile with the incontestable advances in our scientific knowledge. Whenever I read Latour and Woolgar, I am reminded of Richard Dawkins's biting rejoinder: show me a social constructivist at 30,000 feet, and I will show you a hypocrite.

From what you have quoted—and here I must rely on your summary since I have no firsthand knowledge of this author's works—Lesslie Newbigin's remarks on the limitations of apologetic methodology do not seem to be the outcome of any decisive argument. Indeed, in the passage you quote from The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, he seems to confuse possessing the whole truth with possessing something wholly true. The reference to the apophatic tradition is beside the point where apologetics is concerned. No doubt none of us has a complete conception of God (or, for that matter, of our neighbor); but this does not prevent us from making wholly true statements about them or from knowing that these statements are true.

It should go without saying that one need not believe that all advances in scientific knowledge have been beneficial. Wild optimism about scientific progress was by no means universal during the Enlightenment. (Shall we speak of Swift? Addison? Johnson?) The most one might say is that some of the philosophes did at times express that sort of optimism and that the doctrine of the perfectibility of man served as a surrogate religion for them. But let's not make the foolish error of assuming that thinkers like Grotius, Locke, Clarke, Abbadie, Butler, Sherlock, Lardner, Leland, Johnson, and Watson were cut from that cloth. If we are still more wary today than they were in their time, perhaps it is simply that we have more evidence of the baleful uses to which technology can be put. No deeper philosophical differences need be invoked to explain this.

Absolute Truth … sort of

You are yourself troubled by the postmodern rejection of absolute truth, and on p. 52 you stress that "God is truth" and that God's truth exists "completely independent of time and space, let alone the cultural contexts of any particular community."

This is fine-sounding language, but it is not as clear as one could wish. Do you mean that there are certain propositions that are true for everyone, regardless of culture? If so, which propositions are those? If not, what do you mean by your statements about God's truth? Are you still attracted to the postmodern idea that there are some propositions that are true for some people but not for others? If so, could you give examples of such propositions? If not, then—since this is a distinctive tenet of postmodernism, as you have argued at some length earlier—why do you identify with this movement?

*****

I want to stress that although I think that this sort of intellectual history is a complete mess, incompetent at best and fraudulent at worst, I am not blaming it on you. You've been educated in a particular milieu, exposed to one set of authors and ideas, and I think you've done a very creditable job summarizing what they are saying. If they have mislead you (and countless other readers), they are the ones who must bear the blame.

If you'd like to get a better sense of what this looks like from outside the EC movement, I'd recommend that you leave aside Horton and read J. P. Moreland's 2004 ETS address [link]—re-read it, if you've already done it once, but this time taking seriously the possibility that he might simply be right about the postmodernists and their fellow-travelers. You can find my response to Tim Enloe's summary of an essay by Rodney Clapp in the archives on Eric Svendsen's Real Clear Theology blog [link]. There is a more extensive treatment of a great deal of this sort of stuff in Doug Groothuis's book Truth Decay. For a secular evaluation of radical postmodernism, try John Ellis's Against Deconstruction or Noretta Koertge's anthology A House Built on Sand.

For criticisms of Kuhn, see Karl Popper's essay "The Myth of the Framework" in Lakatos and Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, my essay "Kuhn, Relativism, and Self-Refutation" in the Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy, and Israel Scheffler's important book Science and Subjectivity.

I will point out for the sake of full disclosure that I disagree with the criticisms that Moreland and Scheffler make of strong foundationalism. I've offered a response on behalf of the foundationalist in my 1995 book The Foundations of Knowledge and in the essay "A Defense of Strong Foundationalism" in Pojman's anthology; you can also find the latter piece on my website [link]. But this disagreement does not lessen my admiration for their incisive critiques of relativism.

************************************[Thus ends McGrew's post]

Choice McGrew quotes from the above:

(1) You are leaning heavily on people like Walter Anderson, Stanley Grenz, and Dave Tomlinson as authorities on intellectual history. I understand how this happened. As a non-specialist writing a paper in this field, you need to rely on the word of some experts. The problem is that, in my opinion, the work of the authorities you cite in this area is often frankly embarrassing, the sort of pop history of ideas that sounds plausible only to those who haven't read the primary sources or done work in the relevant fields.

(2) In any event, it takes more than a free use of the word "paradigm" to make an argument that reason is so desperately limited as the postmodernists contend. In fact, some po-mos have tied their own shoelaces together at just this point: for if you claim to have shown by objectively good reasons that there are no objectively good reasons, your claim refutes itself. (For a refreshingly candid admission of intellectual dishonesty about such self-refutations by a recovered postmodernist, see the beginning of Jay Budziszewski's brilliant book The Revenge of Conscience.) But even more moderate claims about the limitations of reason in the understanding of the physical world are difficult to reconcile with the incontestable advances in our scientific knowledge. Whenever I read Latour and Woolgar, I am reminded of Richard Dawkins's biting rejoinder: show me a social constructivist at 30,000 feet, and I will show you a hypocrite.

(3) I want to stress that although I think that this sort of intellectual history is a complete mess, incompetent at best and fraudulent at worst, I am not blaming it on you. You've been educated in a particular milieu, exposed to one set of authors and ideas, and I think you've done a very creditable job summarizing what they are saying. If they have mislead you (and countless other readers), they are the ones who must bear the blame.

I'd offer some PP commentary, but it would be PP-fly-on-the-McGrew-elephant commentary, and I've already in impenitent fashion impenitently stated my impenitent impenitence against postmodernism.