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4.5 out of 5
ISBN/ASIN : 1581347405
Manufacturer : Crossway Books|
Release data : 08 November, 2005
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Great response to the Postmodern movement in the church
This is an excellent and fair response to the movement that is taking over in many Christian circles. R. Scott Smith has well articulated his analysis and some correctives that he believes need to take place. This could be read by those are familiar with the Emerging Church, and I think even those who belong to this movement would have to conclude that Smith was really fair in his assessment. I really liked his last chapter, "Objective truth," where he really nailed it on the head regarding Postmodernism. Several times I found myself saying "Yes" because he said exactly what I've been thinking. Two books that I would recommend in conjunction with this are DA Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church as well as Greg Koukl/Francis Beckwith's book on Relativism. Put all three of these together and the Christian has plenty of information to think through the Emerging Church issues.
Not convinced that Smith "matches up with reality"
Smith introduces this book with the words, "Christians are increasingly accepting of ethical relativism, and in a climate that promotes pluralism, we are losing our understanding of Christian ethical and religious truths as being objectively true."
While Smith presents good--and important--argument against relativism, I found his defense of objective truth to be less than convincing, and it would be even less convincing to people with a proclivity towards postmodernism.
The book is intended to help the average layperson gain a better understanding of "what is really" going on with postmodernism and to systematically address it. However, much of the book contains abstract and systematic philosophy (not surprisingly) and may not be that accessible to the average layperson. On the other hand, how does one address postmodernism and objective truth without waxing philosophical?? Those given to read this sort of thing will probably find it a helpful discussion of topic.
The two exceptions are the chapters discussing members of the Emerging Church, and Chapter 7. His review of Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, et al. is very readable and can present a good introduction to those not familiar with their views.
Chapter 7, on the other hand, tries to assess postmodernism's affect on Christian beliefs and ministry, and here Smith's systematic thought falters a bit (beginning with an argument that is actually against the Incarnation, rather than postmodernism). You're better off skipping this chapter.
As for Smith's defense of objective truth, he takes on postmodernity's view that we are on the "inside" of language and cannot get "outside" of it to know how things really (i.e., objectively) are. Truth, according to Smith, means that a proposition corresponds with reality. First, we must believe a given proposition, and that proposition must be justified. That is, there must be sufficient evidence to affirm the proposition. Then that belief must "match up" with that which "really is." (Ironically, Smith explains this definition of truth as "traditionally conceived, and as we often use the term in ordinary language.") To this end, Smith spends much of the rest of the book giving many examples of how, "We can, and often do, know objective reality as it really is."
I find Smith's arguments and examples unconvincing for a few reasons. First, what Smith refers to as "what really is" often amounts to nothing more than the collaboration of evidence, rather than "something real." He even substitutes the word "evidence" at one point. I was happy to see Smith attempt to illustrate in the last chapter how we have direct access even to abstract ideas and history, but not surprisingly, I was disappointed. Smith concludes his historical example with, "We examine the evidence [of an event] (pictures, testimonies, and more), and compare them with our concepts, to see if they match up or not." From this collaboration of evidence, we may try to deduce something about what happened, but this is certainly not the same as having direct access to the real event itself.
Take his example of the O.J. Simpson case. Smith offers the proposition that O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the charge of murdering his wife Nicole is true because that is the way things turned out in reality. Fine. But why didn't Smith make a proposition about whether or not O.J. Simpson actually murdered his wife? Because we have strong evidence of his acquittal (eg., court records), but insufficient evidence of the murder itself. It seems that we have "access to events themselves" only in cases where we have enough evidence to make a justified proposition.
This in itself severely limits the realm of which we can make any "true" propositions. Most of our past presents us with too little evidence to know the truth, such as who murdered Nicole Smith. But some things present us with too much evidence to ever synthesize into a single truth. Do any of us really have a "complete" picture of postmodernism, for example? And to what "objective reality" do we compare it? We all can only compare it to what we ourselves have experienced or learned from others, which is woefully incomplete.
Second, the postmodern Richard Rorty says, "We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations."
To say the truth is not completely objective is to admit that truth involves propositions, and propositions are always proposed by someone. Truth involves the correspondence of propositions to something, and that correspondence is never 100%. This doesn't necessarily deny reality, but only admits that even our best propositions don't completely match up with reality. Smith claims, in refutation of Emergent-Church-goers, that we do not need to have absolute certainty in order to know that something is objectively true. Yet, if it truly matches up with what really is, why is there any uncertainty? Because we might be mistaken, which means that the proposition may not match up with reality. Usually, it means that we may discover more evidence that we didn't have before, or that we misinterpreted some evidence. Whatever the case, Smith's third condition for knowledge, of correspondence with what really is, fails to acknowledge this distinction.
Smith makes the same error again when he scoffs at McLaren for saying that history began with our ability to write it. It is clear that McLaren does not mean that nothing happened before humans were able to write, but only that we have no history of those events. That is why we call that period, "prehistoric." History as we know it, no matter how accurate or complete, will never tell us how things really were. There are always things that were beyond the perspective of the eyewitness or the historian. Just so, there is always something beyond the perspective of the propositions we create and call "truth," and the evidence we collect to support it. Truth has infinite facets, and a myriad of valid axioms from which to start, so we may not all end up with the same--or even agreeing--"objective" propositions.
Lastly, I think we often miss the main point of people like McLaren and others when we try to defend the concept of objective truth, which is what this book does. The pursuit of objective truth often suggests (not always, granted) a methodology of demonstrating someone else's failure to think rationally or systematically enough, since it is clear to us that our own propositions match up with reality. If everyone only thought just as consistently, we would all end up living in the same, objective world agreeing one with another.
Smith admits that "emergent" Christians do not take Postmodernism to the same extreme that he does. In fact, this is part of his argument, that those who have jumped on the postmodern bandwagon haven't thought through the postmodern suppositions to their logical end. (While, he says, they have taken his own "modern" suppositions to an extreme that doesn't necessarily follow..) The problem is, I am not convinced, from this book at least, that postmodernism necessarily ends up where Smith says it does.
But what "postmodern" Christians care about more than this isn't so much about whether we all come to know the same "objective truth" and who's propositions more accurately correspond to it, but how we seek truth and what we do with it. We can form propositional beliefs, find evidence to support them, and systematically synthesize the evidence to demonstrate their verisimilitude. But we can also be confronted by the truth by listening to a parable that states nothing objectively. The question is, do we expect everyone else to see the world, to know God, the same way we do? Or can we trust that God can speak to other people in completely different ways, yet no less true? Do we trust only logic and reason to reveal universal truths? Or can we trust other avenues and be no less valued as a fellow believer?
If we truly examine what we believe, we will find that not much of it rests on well justified propositions that would hold true for everyone, but rather on what someone we love or trust has told us, on what experience has taught us, or on how our community has trained us to see things. And that can be okay. God can impress his truth in our hearts with theological propositions, or in ways that transcend propositional logic. A poem, piece of literature, or work of art might sometimes teach us more truth than an entire systematic theology course. This doesn't mean we toss out logical reasoning or doctrine. But reason alone just isn't enough anymore. It isn't the only trustworthy vehicle for knowing truth, one another, or God, nor is it a completely trustworthy vehicle. (Granted, it may be more trustworthy than other means, but still not entirely trustworthy.)
Terrific Addition to the Conversation
This makes for a wonderful book if you are investigating the claims of the Emergent movement. It also turns out to be a great read if you are interested in a relatively short defense of our ability to know objective reality in light of the postmodern view that we are "stuck" inside our own language. Smith ably shows what the core philosophical commitments are for post-conservatives and leaders in the Emergent Church movement, and then shows the logical consequences of those views. Much of the debate over and with the Emergent movement and post-conservatives hinges on whether the postmodern commitments they hold have orthodox or heterodox consequences, and after a great deal of survey, explanation, and philosophical explication, Smith comes down squarely on the side of heterodoxy.
Smith, in the midst of what I think is overwhelming critique, maintains an irenic spirit and does his best to present the other side fairly and clearly, quoting often not only from published works, but email correspondence as well.
This is a wonderful addition to a growing and critical trend in evangelical theology and praxis, and deserves to be read not only as a sound piece of philosophical work, but as an example of helpful, even friendly, critique.