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Postmodernism And The Church

Does Evidence Still Demand A Verdict?

The Church’s Apologetic Task And The Postmodern Turn

By Stanley J. Grenz

In many respects I am a quintessential baby boomer. Because I grew up in the u.s. in the 1950s and 1960s, I am naturally imbued with many of the views that typified the scientific culture of the modern era. Moreover, as a Christian who was spiritually formed in an age when science reigned, I developed an understanding of the apologetic task of the church that sought to link faith with the scientific enterprise. I paid special attention when my high school Sunday School class studied a series of lessons that explored the intellectual credibility of Christianity. As a university student I devoured the writings of Francis Schaeffer and c.s. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. And as a fledgling philosophy major in my junior year I became enamored with the apologetic value of rational arguments for the faith. I concluded that intellectually astute Christians had an array of invincible weapons in their arsenal that could confirm the credibility of the faith in the face of the challenges leveled against it and could also carry the day in their evangelistic efforts. In short I believed, as Josh McDowell has reminded us, that Christians possess “evidence that demands a verdict.”

Much has changed since 1973 when I graduated from the University of Colorado. I realize that some pastors minister in a church culture that continues to carry many of the values and beliefs endemic of the modern era in which it arose. Yet, in many respects, the church culture that many people are comfortable in is becoming increasingly alien to the 21st-century world in which we live. Nowhere is this more evident than in the apologetic mission of the church. The thoroughgoing shift in culture transpiring around us raises the question: Does evidence stilldemand a verdict?

In this second installment in our series, I want to explore the disconnect between the orientation toward evidence that demands a verdict and the contemporary, postmodern climate. To facilitate this we must examine how science came to rule the roost in modern society, and the major ways in which Christians have sought to engage apologetically with the modern perspective. Finally, we must understand in what sense the postmodern turn has undermined the entire orientation that Christian apologists in the past have shared with the people to whom they sought to demonstrate the truth of the faith. Then, we might hear the Spirit speaking afresh to us in today’s context.

How Science Came To Rule The Roost

The desire to put forth verdict-demanding evidence was an attempt by well-meaning, concerned Christians to engage in an era when science reigned. It was a response to the particularly modern understanding of the nature of faith and religion.

In many respects, the modern outlook toward religion began in an era known as the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries). In the wake of the military conflicts that ravished Europe in the early 17th century that pitted Protestants and Catholics against each other, intellectuals sought to overcome the struggles produced by religious differences. They concluded that the solution was to discover the truth that is available to humanity through reason.

The elevation of reason became the arbiter of truth. Enlightenment intellectuals acknowledged religion only if it could be proven reasonable. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, a Lutheran, articulated this idea in his book, Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone. Enlightenment thinkers like Kant believed a truly reasonable religion focused on ethics rather than dogma, and on the natural rather than the supernatural. In effect, they looked to religion to provide a transcendent sanction for codes of conduct. They believed such a religion would see God in the natural laws of the universe rather than in questionable miraculous occurrences. In keeping with this perspective, Kant said two things filled him with awe: “the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”

The elevation of reason eventually led some intellectuals to separate faith and reason into different realms. They concluded that the truths discovered through reason (especially scientific knowledge), and religious truth, which comes by faith, deal with two different aspects of the world. Moreover, because they focus on different dimensions of life, the truths of science and the truths of Christianity cannot conflict with each other.

Some Christians took the matter a step further. They asserted that the realm of faith or religion was beyond or above the realm of reason and science. In their estimation, religion was beyond scientific or rational scrutiny. Because faith was suprarational (not rational, and possibly even irrational), it did not need to answer to the standards of rationality. Many people with this perspective considered faith to be a leap into the realm beyond reason. Critics, however, quickly pounced on this idea. Such faith, they averred, was nothing more than a leap into the realm of make-believe.

Unconvinced that faith inhabited a realm above reason, many people traveled further down the pathway charted by the Enlightenment thinkers and installed science as the reigning monarch of modern society. The victory of reason was so complete that the scientific outlook set the standard for all claimants to truth, even Christianity. For faith to be acknowledged in a scientific culture, it needed a place within the scientific framework. Science now ruled the roost.

Apologetic Christians In An Age Of Science

The full flowering of the turn toward reason that had its beginning in the Enlightenment led to the hegemony of modern science. This, in turn, became the context in which Christians engaged in the apologetic task. True to form, Christian apologists rose to the challenge. They showed that the Christian faith could do well in a scientific culture. Modern Christians followed two basic approaches.

The first approach followed either classic liberalism or an evidentialist Christian apologetic. Some Christians sought to make a place for faith and religion in a realm ruled by scientific reason by capitulating to science. Apologists, determined to show the reasonableness of faith and Christianity, were not of one mind as to how this could best be accomplished. In fact, the strategies that apologists proposed coincided with a great division forming within the church between liberals and conservatives.

Some apologists sought to incorporate faith in the realm of reason by following what became classic liberalism. Whether in biblical studies, theology, or apologetics, liberals attempted to make Christianity palatable to modern knowledge and the modern outlook. To this end, they sought to reduce the supernatural dimension of Christianity and to show that, at its core, the Christian faith embodied our highest human aspirations.

This strategy is, perhaps, most blatantly evident in how liberal Bible commentaries deal with the miracles in the Gospels. The liberal explanation of miracles is encapsulated in the remarks of John a.t. Robinson on the feeding of the 5,000 in a book published in 1967, entitled, But That I Can’t Believe. The former Anglican bishop concluded, “I believe the heart of that story is not the physical miracle of a multiplication of loaves, but the spiritual miracle that can be sparked off when even one young person is inspired to share. And that’s what love can do. That’s what Jesus could draw out of a person. Time and time again, what He was able to achieve went beyond anything His contemporaries could account for or explain. Naturally they represented it in the terms of their day as sheer physical miracle.”

Conservatives disagreed vehemently with what they saw as a blatant attack on the integrity of the Bible. Nevertheless, with the same zeal as their liberal antagonists, they also sought to incorporate faith in a realm ruled by reason. To this end, they devised what is known as evidentialist Christian apologetics. This strategy shows how scientific findings support or even confirm the truths of Christianity. Josh McDowell’s, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, epitomizes this strategy. The conservative evidentialist apologetic began by drawing from the traditional proofs for the existence of God to make the case for theism (and hence to combat the atheist alternative). It then marshaled all available historical and scientific evidence that confirmed assertions found in Scripture, thereby making a case for the Bible’s reliability. But the crowning jewel of this strategy was the development of a proof for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, which they believed confirmed Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.

Despite the power of this first approach, some Christians in the modern era were not convinced that it was helpful or even warranted. Instead, they proposed a second way to acknowledge faith in a context in which science ruled the roost. They offered an updated version of the idea that faith and reason occupy two different realms. They were convinced that they could circumvent science by carving out a separate sphere for faith and Christianity. But, as in the case with the first approach, these apologists could not agree on the best strategy for accomplishing this.

Some Christians preferred the strategy that had worked so well in the Enlightenment era — relegating faith and religion to the realm of ethics or morality. This strategy is evident whenever we hear someone say, “If you want to know how we got on this planet, don’t ask your pastor. He knows nothing about this; instead ask a scientist. If, however, you want to know how we should conduct ourselves on this planet, don’t ask a scientist. He knows nothing about this; instead, ask your pastor.” This strategy is also operative when preaching focuses on offering hearers advice on how they can live better.

Other apologists, known as pietists, were certain that the sphere of faith lay elsewhere. They elevated one’s personal religious experience as the realm where faith reigned supreme. To see how pervasive this idea is, consider the closing line of the great hymn “He Lives” that many of us sing nearly every Easter: “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.”

The Postmodern Turn And The Church’s Apologetic Mission

The different approaches and strategies that Christians followed in their attempts to engage science apologetically in the modern era created a culture war in the church. Among evangelicals this culture war pitted the evidentialists against the pietists.

The pietists were certain that rational proofs could never carry the day. “You cannot argue someone into the kingdom of God,” they chided. The pietists had their own evidence that demanded a verdict. But it differed radically from what the evidentialists offered. For the pietists, the crucial evidence was the certainty of their heart and their personal testimony.

The evidentialists were equally dismissive of their opponents’ strategy. “Try taking your personal experiences into the marketplace of ideas,” they countered. Evidentialists were certain that the evidence proposed by their pietist friends would be dismissed out of court. After all, on what basis could they claim that their experience of Jesus was any more valid than the experiences had by the religious devotees of Buddha, Allah, or the Rev. Moon? What was needed was the kind of solid, objective, public evidence they were providing.

Regardless of which approach they took or which strategy they followed, modern Christian apologists had one thing in common: They were seeking the same ultimate goal — interfacing the gospel in a credible manner with people who were imbued with the assumptions of modernity. They were Christians seeking to acknowledge their faith in a cultural context in which science ruled the roost.

But things have changed. Many moderns are still in our world. In our encounters with these people, the older apologetic tools may still be of some assistance. Others, however, no longer offer unquestioned allegiance to modern empirical science. In their estimation, science, with its orientation toward naturalism, does not necessarily rule the roost. In fact, many people are calling the naturalism that has characterized Western society since the Enlightenment into question today. Postmoderns often decry modern scientific naturalism, claiming it is destructive of creation and that it propagates a truncated understanding of reality that has robbed the world of its mystery and our lives of soul.

Many postmoderns are now seeking to regain what they believe was lost in modernity. Many are looking to The Reenchantment of Everyday Life, to cite the title of Thomas Moore’s insightful book. They hope that they might regain the loss of soul produced by the modern culture. Above all, postmoderns desire to rediscover the spiritual.

In this changing context, the Spirit is admonishing us to end the culture war that Christians fought in their attempts to acknowledge faith in a modern, scientific culture. For many people, the older apologetic proposals, whether liberal or conservative, evidentialist or pietist — associated with an age when science ruled the roost — are simply passé. The Spirit is now calling us to thoughtfully determine what our apologetic approach ought to be in a postmodern context.

Three broad aspects exist in the apologetic approach that befits the emerging context. First, we must move to a more invitational approach. We must invite people to join with us and together pursue a relationship with God rather than seek to win intellectual arguments.

Second, we must move to a conversational approach. We must refrain from confronting those who are destitute of truth with dogmatic declarations of the truth we possess. We must become more intentional in listening to their stories to see where our narratives intersect.

Above all, we must move from being well-equipped apologists to becoming a believing community. Increasingly, people are looking for communities who, together, embody the message that they proclaim and thereby provide credence to its truth. They are looking for a community of people among whom they can discover the goal of their search — the life-giving presence of Christ. Today, many people are converted to community before they are converted to Christ. In short, the Spirit desires us to rediscover the truth in the old song that was popular in the 1960s and 1970s: “We will walk with each other. We will walk hand in hand. And together will spread the news that God is in our land. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

So, does evidence still demand a verdict?

Yes!

The question, however, is: What evidence?


Stanley J. Grenz is Pioneer McDonald professor of theology at Carey Theological College, Vancouver B.C., and professor of theological studies, Mars Hill Graduate School, Seattle, Washington.

 

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