Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Emergent Church and the Impossibility of Objectivity

It seems to me that the Emergent Church has embraced a serious philosophical mistake. That mistake is the post-modern notion that there is no such thing as objectivity.

Here are some links that, at length, will connect these dots:

Here, an Emergent pastor I know is Durham argues that objectivity is impossible (you have to scroll down a ways): http://timconder.typepad.com/

Here, a relatively famous professor discusses the same issue: http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/06/french-theory-in-america/?em&ex=1207713600&en=813ce2c4527f0de0&ei=5087%0A

And, here, Dallas Willard, refutes the idea that objectivity is impossible:


To read all this would probably take at least an hour, but you can skim and get the gist. Or just take my word for it.

I think many Emergent Christians have, in good faith, bought the argument that objectivity is impossible, and their ministries are good-faith attempts to be Christian having accepted that argument. Nevertheless, if the underlying argument is erroneous, it's important not to build anything around it.


Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Wow! I am shocked by what you are bringing up in this post! We are by God's grace being tested at my local Greek Orthodox church by the "ministry" of a presbyter and his presbytera, converts from Baptist and Mennonite backgrounds, immigrants from San Francisco, who are "helping us de-construct" our Orthodox faith.

Read what Presbytera Elizabeth Schroeder had to say in a comment on her blog Posts from Portland (http://postsfromportland.blogspot.com/). Responding to one commentator's objection to Obama's bid for the presidency based on his connexions to Islamic and vocally radical Black groups, she wrote this (and I'm referring especially to the last part):

"I am feeling the need to start thinking about racism on my blog. I am uncomfortable with the comments you've made because I think they are discriminatory to one kind of person for something that he did not choose. I hate to think of censorship, but I will certainly not have any qualms about proclaiming that this is not how I think and I believe your comments to be hurtful to a segment of society. Jesus preaches a gospel of love, not hate, and love is what I'm trying to do here.

"That said, no person can be truly objective. I can't be, you can't be, Obama, Clinton, and McCain cannot be objective. Just isn't happening. But I like the priorities that Obama has put up. He best represents my priorities, as far as I can see right now."

You can read the original post, Obama! and the ensuing ten comments, by going to her blog. Perusing this woman's blog (which I do not care to comment on, because she is not open to real discussion, just New Age dogmatics), will give you or anyone, I think, an idea of where this woman and her husband want to lead us. Describing herself as a "domestic goddess" and her husband as one out "to save the world," is no figure of speech. You'd have to see this couple in action yourself.

Christ save us from them!

Kenny said...

I am often amazed at how the same ideas pop up in different places at the same time. It's as if there are "spirits" at work.

Anyway, I have perused this woman's blog, and I agree it's scary.

What amazes me is how much traction the idea of the impossibility of objectivity has with regular people. Again, scary.

-Dave said...

Is there a difference between saying no man can be completely objective (overcoming 100% the biases we acquire through the process of living) and saying that objectivity does not exist?

I'd lean toward the first position (I think I'd say being truly objective is very hard, and maybe impossible), but call the second utterly false. Most of the arguments I've seen are along the lines of the first - by being too certain of our analysis, we come to some rather interesting conclusions (such as the exact date of the creation of the world).

When you accept that God exists, it is possible to both claim that we as fallen creatures will always fail to be objective, but that in no way means that there is no such thing as objectivity, because we claim to know One who is the Truth.

kennyching said...

The arguments I’ve read by postmoderns is that objective reality exists, but we’re just not privy to it. However, I think for a Christian this is problematic assuming that 1) there’s a God, and 2) that God has communicated to us in an intelligible way. If those things are true, then we have some ability, however limited, to set ourselves in relation to objective truth.

Even without assuming God, there seem to me to be a lot of common sense arguments for why meaningful (if not perfect) objectivity is possible.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Objectivity exists, but we're not privy to it? Isn't this just another way of saying what scripture already says? "My thoughts are not your thoughts, saith the Lord" (quoting from memory).

Meaningful and practical objectivity must exist, else Christianity as a living practice as well as doctrinal formulation would simply be impossible.

What was written in one of the links in Kenny's post, that our judgments and conclusions have to be balanced by those of others can only be true in frames of reference where the objectivity involves scientific analysis. If this idea were moved into the realm of spiritual knowledge, which for us Xtians comes from the Bible primarily, then to say our views are partial and must be balanced by those of others, would result in what it has proven to result in, such things as the Baha'i faith.

Man cannot be trusted to be objective, when he proclaims the idea that scripture has to be freed "from its captivity as a book of a-cultural directives and a-historical prescriptions." Such statements are meaningless to anyone who regards the Word of God as revelation, irrespective of any judgment as to its inerrancy on any or all levels.

kennyching said...

Frankly, Romanos, I completely agree with your post.

I'm just trying to figure out if there's anything at all to what's being said by these postmodern Christians. My intuition and common sense tell me "no," but they go on and on about it as if they'd discovered the Rosetta Stone, and so I wonder. Also, I know the man who wrote one of these articles, and he's clearly a godly man and true Christian. So, again, I wonder if somehow I'm missing something that he's getting.

So far, I can't see it.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Godly men and good Christians, and I have known a few, even among post-moderns, are still human, just like you and me, and not infallible. We do have to be careful, though, because of the verse that says, "even deceive the elect, if that were possible" (cf. Mark 13:22). Also, we don't know to what extent wrong ideas about God infringe on our salvation, if at all, once Christ Himself is accepted and confessed as Lord. I have this idea that not all those who were anathematized in the first Seven Councils were necessarily unsaved, non-Christians and heretics. We weren't there, so we can't know for sure that Arius' chanting Egyptian peasant women were any less saved than the hordes of modern female vocalist devotees of such modern evangelists as Bishop Jakes or Benny Hinn, though their beliefs and teachings about our Lord were somewhat (or very) screwy.

Ben said...

I really don't see what's so unorthodox about what Pastor Tim's saying. He seems to be saying, in different words, what Dave and Romanos are saying. We are fallible, sinful creatures. While we have the Bible as revelation of objective truth, even our interpretations of the Bible have varied vastly over the ages and across denominations. And, intevitably, the our interpretations are limited by our sinful nature and our finite minds.

That's not to say that we are lost in a morass of meaninglessness. We DO have the revealed word of God AND the Holy Spirit to guide us. I think we at least get the core of Christianity right. Nevertheless, it's important for me to be humble and accept that perhaps my other opinions - spritual, political, and social - could be wrong. Sometimes hard for a blowhard like me to do.

Another thought.....Tim and the other Emergent folks are ministering to a certain group of people who believe objectivity is impossible. Regardless of whether that's true, it's important to be able to minister to folks who believe that. Modernist, scientific apologetics of old doesn't really reach these folks. Now certainly one response would be to convince them they are wrong. But I think it's another legit response to at least attempt to speak their language and see where it gets us. If it gets us denying Christ's divinity, say, or the Resurrection....well, then we got trouble. If not, well then it's just another example of being all things to all people.

Kenny said...

Hey Ben,

What Tim is saying is clearly in line with the postmodern thought that there is no such thing as objectivity for a human being. This is much more radical than admitting that our objectivity is affected by sin, that we suffer some subjectivity. He’s saying objectivity is impossible.

And I agree with you, we have the Holy Spirit, and the revelation of God. But I don’t see how that doesn’t establish some baseline of objectivity. All you need is one established “objective” fact, and from there you can build a larger, objective framework. To me, despite all the struggles we have with subjectivity, we have lots of objective facts, and therefore meaningful objectivity is possible.

If what Tim were doing was simply learning the language of postmodernism so as to convey the truth of the Gospel, I would be fine with that. But having read Tim and some of his cohorts, it’s clear they believe postmodernism is true, and modernism and rationalism are false. So this is different than simply becoming all things to all men; it’s advocacy for a major philosophical paradigm shift.

-Dave said...

Taking your summary of the man's ideas as accurate, I think he's over-reacting against the real flaws in modernism.

We do have a firm foundation, but we have to be careful what we build on it. In statistical terms, you might say we have a given probability of error, e in every judgement of fact we make. As we layer judgement upon judgement, the foundation may be firm but our structure becomes shaky, as e is compounded.

If e is, say, 1% then our first layer of fact based on the foundation has a 99% chance of being correct. But our 100th layer of fact has only a 36.6% chance of being correct. If e is 5%, then while our first-order derivative has a 95% chance of accuracy, our 100th has only a 0.59% chance - even though each individual layer has a 95% chance of accuracy.

It's an over-simplified thought process, sure. But the criticism of modernism, for me, is that it builds layer on layer and eventually collapses under its own weight.

Ben expressed my thoughts well: we need humility in our reasoning to admit that we may well be wrong about a great many things. Modernism regards its own ability to interpret well too highly, though pure postmodernism goes too far to say that rationality is, therefore impossible. I'd say it's possible, perhaps improbable, and should humbly accept that it has limits.

Ben said...

Alexander Hamilton once said "Man is a reasoning rather than a reasonable creature." I've always thought that summed up my view of humanity's rational powers pretty well. Well, actually it's a bit too cynical. Some of the time. Depending on my mood.

"Ben expressed my thoughts well."

Funny, Dave. I was going to say the same about you. Clearly, you are the one who is comfortable expressing his thoughts in numbers AND ideas. I'm only good with the latter. I liked your "foundation and layers" image. It captures neatly how I'd respond to Kenny's assertion....only you've said it better.

Kenny - I agree that postmodernistm/Emergent-ism goes too far to the extent that it says we CANNOT ever perceive reality. But it has my pattern lately to take what I can learn from various Christian groups and denominations and grow from it. The Emergent folk like Tim can remind me of the limitations of my understanding compared with the infinite mind of God and hold back my tendancy toward arrogance (on display, I suspect, in my sarcastic debate with "Andy" over on Jeff's blog re: Obama).

The fact that you specifically mention Tim reminds me of an encounter I had with him which makes me question how far he really takes the "we can't know truth" thing. I asked him once on his views regarding homosexuality. He pointed out the passages that condemn homosexual sex in the Bible and explained how, with certain Bible passages the historical context, the way the language is used, translation from ancient Greek/Hebrew can give things different meanings than what we modern English-speaking readers take from them. (Sounds pretty postmodern so far, but wait...) Then he explained how, based on the way these passages make their point and their context, they cannot be interpreted away. They mean what they say in their condemnation of homosexual sex and, no matter how uncomfortable that makes lefty-types like him and me, the passages say what they say. Of course that leads to other questions of how we respond to sinners, the culture, etc., etc.

But honestly, his reasoning struck me as orthodox, nuanced, and sound. (I wish I could remember the details of it now.) So....I guess what I'm saying is you're sort of setting up Tim as a straw man. Or, maybe, he sets himself up as such by overstating his points in that blog.

Kenny said...

These are some quotes from Tim’s post on objectivity:

“Such is the strength of the myth of objectivity in our culture, one of the dangerous legacies of the modern world…

…This is certainly not an attack on truth. Truth and reality certainly exist. As do values that shape our lives and human societies.”

What I don’t understand is how you can say ‘truth and reality certainly exist’ (emphasis on the word ‘certainly’) while at the same time considering objectivity a dangerous myth. I’d love it if someone can convincingly explain to me how you can be certain of something while maintaining objectivity is a myth.

I like Dave’s point too about how certainty decreases with each layer of interpretation, but I’m pretty sure postmodernism is claiming something else. (By the way, while you guys are rephrasing each other, I’ll note that Dave and Atlanta Ben always reminded me of each other, though they’ve never met). To me, Dave’s statement is still thoroughly rationalist: it’s ultimately rational to realize that with each additional layer of interpretation, our accuracy diminishes. But Dave’s equation does not deny the possibility of accuracy. Post-modernism does:

“Thus, as Putnam famously holds, there can be no "God's Eye View" on the world: no view of reality as it is independently of how we have shaped it, no possibility of knowing it as it is when it is not being 'shaped' by our consciousness of it.” (quoting from the Dallas Willard article)