Modern and Post-Modern Foundations for Theology

Jeramy Townsley

Dec 2002

The modern mind is concerned primarily with Truth. The desire to thoroughly describe and explain ultimate reality and phenomenological reality has guided the development of the modern worldview. Not only are these realities describable, but they are, for all practical purposes, for the modern, one in the same with their phenomenology and able to be described in similar ways by all people. Thus the development of empirical science in the modern era. For example, water boils at the same temperature no matter what culture is boiling the water (assuming similar elevations, purity of the water, proper calibration of instruments, etc).

For the modern in regards to Christianity, several historical strands have developed from this worldview. One of the most powerful of the 19th Century strands was deism. This offshoot of liberalism believed that God created the universe in The Beginning, establishing all of the laws of nature at that time and then letting those laws take their course. Within this view, God chose to let those laws govern God's creation, rather than God needing to step in and alter the course of those divine laws. Consequently, miracles do not occur and God is "Wholly Other", complete transcendent from humanity, with absolutely no imminence among humans. One possible philosophical consequence of deism is that since God doesn't have to be involved in human affairs, then we really don't need God at all. Atheism can quickly be justified from a scientific, philosophical and even intellectually religious perspective.

Another offshoot of modernism is fundamentalism, which first gained prominence in the early 20th century. On the surface, while deism and fundamentalism appear to be opposite extremes, they share many assumptions. For example, the fundamentalists were split into two camps. One camp believed that Scripture could be proven by way of science. The more liberal of the two camps, they developed intricate series of apologetics to show that a literal interpretation of Scripture could be validated in the geological record, by biology, by astronomy, etc. While often stretching the credibility of their claims to scientific competence, they made great efforts to join science with Scripture, with the belief that the theological laws established in Scripture were somehow conjoined with and partially clarified by the natural laws established in the structure of the universe.

The other fundamentalist camp completely rejected science. The anti-intellectuals, they believed that a return to Scripture alone was the only way to know God. Studying texts other than Scripture was to follow the ways of the world, in opposition to the ways of God. Therefore science was irrelevant, since it was not based on a focused study of God. Their reaction was easily understood in light of the historical-critical methodology of studying the Scriptures in terms of history, archeology, literature, etc, which led to highly critical ways of understanding the texts. Scripture in the liberal tradition of the historical-critical method became no longer simply the literal, received Word of God, but a series of compiled texts handed down by fallible men and altered by fallible mythologies. Given the grave ramifications to the epistemology of God provided by science, the response of this strand of fundamentalism seemed reasonable.

Both camps, while one was pro-science and the other anti-science, were rooted in the modern worldview. The former, most readily seen as moderns, attempted to use modern methods to prove their theological position. Even though they used science in reverse (creating a system of "truths" and altering science to prove this truth), they were still using the methodologies of the moderns. The latter camp, even though rejecting science, was still using the methodologies of the moderns in that they had constructed a binary, linear view of the world: the Scriptures are pristine and since science seems to discredit these texts, science must be corrupt. This logical path is quite clear and there are no alternatives. If one questions the validity of Scriptures, then one might as well throw them out, since they similarly would become corrupt. This is a core feature of modern epistemology: the logic is linear, with A+B always and necessarily leading to C, and the choices are binary, pristine or corrupt, right or wrong.

This view of Truth is uniquely modern. The assumption is that there is one Truth that is accessible to all in the same form. From an empirical standpoint, the view says that ultimate reality is perfectly describable and all science will look the same to all people. From a spiritual standpoint, the view says that God is ultimate reality and God is Truth. When one looks for God and finds God, one will see Truth and that Truth is accessible to all who seek God with faith, love, passion and integrity.

However, this ignores several developments in philosophy, as well as some apparent realities of human existence. First, different cultures have always established different norms of truth. For example, while science would appear to be universal, the assumption that science itself is the grounding for reality is an assumption based on modernistic ideals. Science has come to be important for Western society and has brought us amazing opportunities and benefits. However, it has also brought with it it's own devastating effects of ecological destruction, emotional and social isolation, various physiological stressors, facilitated environments for numerous pathogens to develop with the advent of animal husbandry, industries and metropolitan cultures, has exacerbated class differences creating an unimaginably rich few having power over the masses of poverty stricken individuals who comprise the working class. The benefits of technology have come at a price that some cultures reject as too high.

Second, following Kant, it becomes clear that it may not be possible to discern ultimate reality. Given the physical barriers that we each face as we attempt to learn through our limited senses the complexities of the world external to our brains, it becomes evident that Truth is sometimes not as easy to discern as we had previously hoped. Differences in physical capacity, interpretation and perspective, all hinder individuals from discerning true reality. In attempting to see the larger picture of Truth, the individual is forced to search the community for other pictures of reality, to ultimately merge the various models into one that is hopefully closer to a better picture of reality. As science has learned over time, a single experiment does not make Truth. In order for an hypothesis to be well-accepted, the data must be replicated several times. Even then, the data is hardly worth notice unless it is encapsulated in a larger, interpretive theory. Data cannot stand on its own, but must be understood in the larger contexts of community confirmation and meaning.

These alterations in the ideals of pristine science have helped develop post-modern understandings of truth. Also, not simply the practice of science, but also the findings of science have moved us to other understandings of truth. With the discovery of quantum physics, we completely lose the hope that we can completely describe the universe and elucidate a complete ontology. Among other discoveries, quantum physics tells us that a particle can only be known in part-not because of technical insufficiency, but because that is the nature of the particle. The closer we come to knowing the location of the particle, the further removed we are from knowing its velocity and vice-versa. This is due to the dual nature of the particle as not simply particle, but also of wave. This relationality that has become evident in the nature of primary matter (the particle-wave duality) and the context-based dependency on understanding any given particle has become a metaphor for the relationality and contextuality that appears to be crucial to human nature. Humans, like particles, cannot exist in vacuums, but must live in contexts as well as in relationality.

Thus the making of post-modern truth is built on a different philosophical and ontological foundation than that of the modern. Truth for the post-modern becomes relational and contextual. The questions asked are very different from the ones asked by the modern. For the moderns, the answer needs to be something about Truth. What is the nature of reality? What is the true nature of God? What doctrines are true and which ones are false? Of these, which must I believe in order to be saved? How can I know Truth?

For the postmodern, the answers need to be about relationality and context. What kinds of relationships are just? What does it mean to love my neighbor? Who is my neighbor? What is the meaning of the various competing truths that I see around me? How can God seem to exist in paradoxical states at the same time (love vs. hate, peace v. violence, power v. weakness, equality v. gender and class distinctions, etc)? What does a relationship with God look like? This is not to say that the modern does not ask these questions, or that the post-modern does not ask questions about ontology and Truth. However, the distinction is on emphasis. Which questions haunts which generation more ferociously. Which questions makes doubt possible versus making faith possible? It often isn't answers that are the most haunting to cohorts of seekers, but questions. It is the questions one asks that circumscribe what one can know and what one can be prepared to accept as truth. In this way, the search for appropriate questions is often more important than the search for answers.

For the post-modern, growing up in a world where there is a continuing emphasis on "the victim" (in a Girardian sense) and a growing sense of the common humanity of all people, questions of God's justice in an unjust world become a primary haunt. Questions of the relevance of institutions that foster injustice, inequity and hostility pose great stumbling blocks to those whose worldview no longer is based on the idea of one universal discernable truth. Several key events led to the development of the crisis in modernism. From a philosophical perspective, Kant's reasoning showed the first major cracks in the epistemology of modernism. Freud, Nietzche, Goedel and Kuhn provided the psychological, philosophical, mathematical and historical perspectives, respectively, that nailed the coffin on modernist epistemology. History itself evidences the death of modernism by the rapidly increasing cycle of violence in the Western world during the 20th Century. Rather than ushering in utopia, modernism only seemed to produce more efficient ways of killing each other and tapping into the primal urges of human greed and power. Neither of the "Wars to End All Wars" (WWI and WWII) were that at all, but were, rather prominent symbols of the apparently all-consuming and innate violence of humanity. The idea of innate human goodness and progressiveness died as a culture, in part, with the global awareness of the victims at Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

One might notice, above, the occasional capitalization of "truth". To the modern, there exists a Truth. To the post-modern, there exists no such concept of one all-encompassing truth. The search for Truth and the claims of having found Truth are, for many post-moderns, the cause of violence and injustice. The Jews would never have been killed if Hitler hadn't believed it was True that they were vermin and the cause of German social ills. The non-orthodox in Spain and other European countries would never have been massacred by the Church had the Church not believed they had a monopoly on Truth. The thousands of individuals killed in the World Trade Center would not have had to die, had terrorists not believed they had singular access to Truth. For many post-moderns, the search for Truth is a futile search that will only result in the continued and rapid destruction of human communities.

For the post-modern, Truth may or may not exist, but regardless, it is not accessible to humans in a pristine way. The goal of the post-modern is to get on with the business of living, now that we have established the futility of modern ideals. Different from the existentialists, who reveled in the pain of the death of modernism, the post-moderns want to get on with life. Where do we go from here? We need to construct a new epistemology and new ways of living-how will we do this and what will be the foundations? Again, questions circumscribe the answers we will find. These questions presuppose the inaccessibility of Truth. I will not attempt to dispute this assumption, since I hold to this assumption myself. But other questions arise for the post-modern, primarily out of the context of a brutal 20th Century.

Primarily the suspicion of authority becomes the center of post-modern thinking. Not a suspicion of all authority with the goal of anarchy. But rather, a suspicion of oppressive authority and a goal for creating dispersed authority. Authority for the post-modern is found in the community. Authority, to be valid, needs to be rooted in a context, in freedom and in equality. The goals of freedom and equality are desired by moderns as well, and became the foundation for the history of politics. However, these modes of creating freedom and equality rested on the assumptions of finding Truth and that elucidating and applying Truth is the primary human goal. Post-modern modes of creating freedom and equality rest on the assumption that truth is contextual, and may even be ultimately irrelevant. What is important to the post-modern is peace, equality, respect and autonomy. Again, not foreign at all to modernism, however, these become primary, as opposed to simply results from the discovery and application of Truth. The search for Truth wastes time and resources, ultimately causing only division and violence.

This equivocation on the primacy of Truth is not incompatible with the search for God. It is, perhaps, more compatible with the nature of God, rather than less compatible. Within modernistic constructions of God, God is Ultimate Reality and Truth. This need not be unassumed by the post-modern. However, different emphases and definitions are required. For the modern, Truth is eternally static and God, similarly, is eternally static. For the post-modern truth is contextual, based in community and rooted in Love. For the post-modern, the core of God's nature is Love, not Truth. Love always produces Truth, but truths do not necessarily always produce love. There is Scripture backing for this view, since God is described as Love, but never as Truth. Certainly God values truth. However, the question arises whether God's Truth originates from God's Love, or whether Love originates from Truth. For the post-modern, if truth is contextual, truth must always follow from Love, which is the ontological foundation of the universe and the core nature of God.

From this perspective, the essence of God as Person is emphasized. The modern tends to view God as a series of characteristics to be described, who provides humans with a series of Laws to be followed. This, in essence, produces a God that is reducible to human constructions. Even the idea of God's eternality is a human construction. While, in casual conversation, we claim not to be able to understand eternality and then tie that label on God, even that apparent act of humility becomes idolatry when seen through the lens of post-modernism. To claim that God is eternal presupposes the nullification of the opposite-that God could not become finite. This is a human limiting of God. While it might seem intuitively obvious that God could not become finite, to make the bold claim restricting this action from God becomes an act of pride and violence against God and makes idolatrous claims about the capacity of human epistemology, as well as irreverent claims of human ability to step outside of God's universe to look at and describe God from an objective viewpoint. This objectification and reduction of God are unacceptable as ethical ways to treat any person, including God as Person. Thus, the search for Truths about God becomes idolatry and violence to the post-modern.

The theological goal of the post-modern is to discover ways of living with, relating to and communing with God. The human duty to God is to live in God-like ways. A post-modern vision of this requires a revising of the way we view God. To the modern, God created and maintains the universe, created Laws and enforces those Laws. These are all features of a worldview engrossed in Power issues. It took Power to do all of these Godly things. For the modern, to tap in to Truth and Law is to tap into Power. To discover natural laws is to be able to manipulate God's power to benefit humans. The search for technology and better ways to describe nature is predicated on the belief that humans will subsequently discover better ways to control nature. The discovery of Truth and Law is a discovery of ways to utilize Power. This all rests on the belief that God's core nature is Truth. The connection between sociological constructions of Truth and the hidden, subconscious, or even intentional agenda of attempting to attain Power is central to various discussions of epistemology in the past several decades, like those of Foucault, Girard, Chomsky, Derrida, Wink, etc.

Revising our understanding of the core attribute of God from Truth to Love takes our tendency to grasp at Power and refocuses it on community. As persons--humans and God--our essence is Love and therefore the expression of our true essence is in relationship, both with God and with those around us. Consequently, the core human responsibility, aside from being in relationship with God, is to form communities and be integrated into that community, creating communities of God-likeness. This understanding of human responsibility thus defines spirituality and ethics. Spirituality is the search for and practice of relationship with God. This contrasts with a modernistic theology, where the search for Truths about God is the goal of the Christian. Neither one excludes the other, but for the post-modern, relationship precedes knowledge, just as Love precedes Truth. Thus, when the search for knowledge about God impedes our relationship with God, then knowledge becomes idolatrous and destructive. Similarly, when our attempts to press our personal understanding of truth onto others impede our relationship with each other or with our or their relationship with God then those attempts are idolatrous and destructive.

Paul hints at this dynamic in 1 Co 13, when he says that "These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." If one conceptualizes "faith" as the content of one's spirituality, the details of one's belief about God, then we see Paul saying that these details are not as important as love. Paul does not dismiss these things, but prioritizes them. The modern sees the details of faith as the foundation for spirituality: understanding God's nature and understanding God's will (laws, in this context) as primary. However, Paul implies here that the foundation for spirituality is not what we know, but how we love. Loving God and loving one's neighbor, the Two Greatest Commandments according to Jesus, onto which "all the Law and the Prophets hang" (Mt 22), become the focus of one's duty to God. Exploring the appropriate application of these two guidelines are the way we live in God's will.

Sin exists for the post-modern. However, just as a revision in the conceptualization of God's nature is required, a revision in our understanding of sin is also required. For the modern, since God is seen primarily as a Creator, Law-Giver and Judge, it is easy to see sin as the breaking of God's Laws, the laws inscribed into the fabric of the universe. While not denying this, the post-modern sees sin as the damaging of relationship. When one sins, one isn't simply breaking a law-one is turning from God, thus damaging the relationship. When seen through the lens of the post-modern, all of the civil and moral code of Scripture (in a Calvinistic sense), are all about the maintenance of ethical relationship with other people and with God. Similarly, the Ten Commandments can be seen as a summary of how to maintain good relationships: the first five describe how to maintain a good relationship with God and the second five are about how to maintain a good relationship with other people. In recent history and contemporary society, it is common to call social injustice and violence evil. This follows from the post-modern view of sin as behavior that destroys relationship and impinges on the set of social ideals presented above of peace, equality, respect and autonomy. Thus sin is not only vertical, against God, but can also be horizontal, against our neighbor, since behavior that violates God's core nature of Love is construed as sin.

Orthodoxy, then, isn't defined by a list of factual creeds, but by generalizations about relating to God and relating to neighbors. Creeds are useful in that they help guide our thinking about God. But they become idolatrous when they are used to define the nature of God outside of the singular Biblical description of God's nature: agape. Thus the best theology should be done within the context of exploring this description. God further revealed aspects of God's nature by becoming incarnate in Christ. This is the living narrative of Love, through which explorations of theologies should begin. Contrary to contemporary "hermeneutics of suspicion", and various other allegedly post-modern hermeneutics, I believe a proper post-modern hermeneutic should be grounded in Love, since this best represents God's nature. The specific application of this hermeneutic and orthodoxy is based on the community and context, within the larger framework of Love.

This conception of community-based ethics is similar if not equivalent to the narrative ethics of Hauerwas, MacIntyre, et al, expanding the application from analyses of our horizontal relationships with other people to analyses of our vertical relationships with God. However, focusing on the boundaries of a horizontal love ethic, we see an emphasis on the same issues of peace, equality, respect and autonomy. When the post-modern generates questions of theological or ethical nature, they are relationally oriented, as opposed to questions of ontology or epistemology-eventually questions of Truth and thus Power. While these questions also have truth and power components, the goal isn't a centralization and sequestering of these components, but a distribution of these components throughout the community. Thus, for example, the orthodoxy of this post-modern ethic isn't nearly as concerned with describing the ontological nature of Christ as both God and human, but with establishing norms of a just and transforming reconciliation between members of a community, between communities, between individuals and God and between communities and God. Such reconciliations also need to occur between communities and God's creation, since God did not create humanity outside of the context of our environment. We have been created in integration with our environment to teach us stewardship, discipline and relationship.

In exploring these distinctions between modern and post-modern goals, we establish parameters around which the two worldviews can be compared. The questions of both are quite different, while the goals might be similar. Both involve a desire to know God and to live in peace with humanity. But the definitions of these constructs and the methods of achieving them are different. The moderns seek first Truth to establish their relationship with God and with other humans. The post-moderns seek first Love to establish their relationships, both with God and others, sometimes at the cost of claims of Truth. The questions of the post-modern then aren't about who is right or wrong in debates for Truth about God or God's will. The questions of the post-modern are about the evil in the world that causes suffering and injustice in the world as well as how to fix these injustices. Whether one has a correct belief "about" God isn't nearly as important as how one relates to God and how one works for peace, equality, justice and autonomy of one's neighbors. This can cause conflicts in discussions between these two worldviews, since they may not understand each other's questions and may talk past each other in their attempts to explain concerns for orthodoxy and justice. Understanding each other, as well as preparing ourselves to construct useful theologies for the future of godly community-making and loving God, will require reaching across this bridge to seek ways of common truthing and loving.

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"Open your eyes. Don't let your mind tell the story here." Tonic, 1996

"Our lies have made us angry with the truth." Five O'Clock People, 1997