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Postmodernism and the emergent church

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The emergent church

Having encountered mention of talks about a new trend in Christianity called the emergent church I became curious and began to look it up to find out what it is all about, and I was rather intrigued. It seems to be rather varied in its philosophy but it seems to be aimed at breaking the mold and breathing new life into christianity. One aspect of its aim seems to be the idea that we can learn from traditional Christian ideas without cramming it down everyones throat and therefore there is an effort to create non hostile environments where people can freely discuss what they are thinking. Therefore there is more emphasis on questions and discussion that on dictating answers and indoctrination. Many evangelicals fear that this is movement is part of a trend to de-Christianize Christianity. There is such a trend and I cannot blame evangelicals for voicing this fear. Groups like the Unitarians, church of Religious Science and other new age churches have removed the Christian message from the church experience. Part of the problem seems to be an association of the emergent church with something called post-modernism, for this is indeed embraced by some parts of the emergent church movement. But others like the emergent Vinyard (e-Vin) have simply seen this as an opportunity to rediscover traditional Christianity with a focus on understanding how it remains relevant and valuable in a post-modern society. My overall impression is that the emergent church is the next step in the Protestant trend towards removing the "organized religion" from Christianity. This trend began with "religion" becoming a dirty word in the sermons of many evangelical churches, equating it with organizations that tell you what to do to appease God and earn your way into heaven.


One of first things that becomes obvious in an effort to discover what post-modernism is all about, is that this is as varied and ambiguous as the emergent church. As a reaction against modernism and in its claim to be founded on the existentialist ideas of Kierkegaard and pragmatism of Charles Sanders Pierce, I am predisposed to look favorably on it. However in considering the list of authors in the Wikipedia article that supposedly illustrate the post-modern movement: Barth, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Quine, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty, and Baudrillard (of which I only have previous experience with Barth, Kuhn and Quine), I have to say that my positive impression of Barth and Quine cannot offset my strong contempt for Kuhn and the whole trend of these other authors suggesting that the quest for understanding and truth is pointless, especially the dismissal of metaphysics but also the excesses of anti-foundationalism and anti-essentialism. The whole thing reminds me of the utterly absurd declaration that a philosophy student once made to me that there was no such thing as meaning.

I was reading the rather amusing article at http://forums.xisto.com/no_longer_exists/ and I would like to seperate his inclusion of "there is no such thing as certainty" from the other elements of postmodernism which he condemns. We can identify the idea that "there is no such thing as certainty" as fallibilism which has been associated with Charles Sanders Pierce BUT let me point out that Pierce never took the impossiblity of certainty as a reason to deny the possiblity of knowledge but instead to embrace the universal role of faith as the final step to knowledge of every kind. But from the Ravi Zacharias article we see that post-modernism has also been associated with the declarations that there is no such thing as truth or meaning. Nothing seems more exemplary of this to me of the contemptable elements of post-modernism than Thomas Kuhn's structure of Scientific Revolutions which encourages people to use the idiotic expectation of future revolutions as a excuse not to take the present day understanding of science seriously. Kuhn's analysis may be applicable to the softer sciences which have little to base their claims upon but it is utterly invalid in the hard sciences.

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Lets consider a few articles on postmodern thought, starting with:

For Love of the Things Themselves: DerridaĆ¢s Hyper-Realism

I would not lump Derrida or postmodernism with nihilism, relativism, or subjectivism, but its central principle of deconstruction seems to be based on the idea that the defining characteristics of a work of philosophical work is its flaws, and that by itself reveals the equally negative nature to this movement. I don't know if Derrida's idea of hyper-realism as "realism beyond realism" or "realism without realism" makes a whole lot of sense, but consideration of the limits of reality beyond what is commonly accepted is the source of fruitful discussion. I have argued that stories like Santa Claus represent a reality of their own (as stories) whose importance cannot be ignored. But this is not really such a new thing since the idealism of Plato, asserting the reality of ideas is hardly new.

The deconstructivist answer to the puzzle concerning how the "thing itself" always "slips away", sound like we must simply be content with the love of the chase. I would instead say that we merely have cause to abandon the addiction to certainty where the object of knowlege (the thing in itself) must be "grasped" without doubt, to accept instead that if our knowledge plays a useful functional role in human life, then that is sufficient. Let us not confuse deconstruction and postmodernism with the idea that knowledge requires a "pragmatic leap", for the origin of that idea lies in the fallibilism and pragmatism of Charles Sanders Pierce, and there is no reason to embrace one because of the other.

I am not sure what Derrida or Caputo mean by "singularity" but what is suggested by physics is that the "thing in itelf" can only be approached without every really getting close in some sense. But the physicist (and mathematician) would say that the point is in understanding the terrain around the singularity which is really inseperable from the singularity itself. There are even ways in which the terrain around the singularity can be said to define the singularity and make the singularity usable in calculations. The trick is in understanding fully what you can do and what you cannot do.

Derrida or Caputo's idea of reality being a secret is absurd, for a reality which is unknownable has no reality at all. Reality is what it is by the impact it has upon us and what this impact communicates to us is the only reality worth mentioning. By saying that reality is a secret is that there is no Secret, again communicates a negative message that there is no reality and this is pointless.

In the final evaluation, it is not merely a matter of evaluating what Derrida has said, there is also the pragmatic effect of Derrida's writings themselves. Have they like phenomenalism established a methodology that provides a means for acheiving a deeper understanding of things, or has it been used, as I believe Kuhn's ideas have been, merely to criticize and mock the whole quest for truth and understanding. After reading his work does the reader feel empowered to discover new meaning in things or are the left with the feeling that there is no truth or meaning to be found?

Edited by mitchellmckain (see edit history)

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Here is another paper on one of the central principles of postmodernism. So lets take a look at this.

Deconstruction by James E. Faulconer

As Faulconer says Heidegger claims there is no rational zero point but this is precisely what reveals the pointlessness of deconstruction. Human thought is a living process and shares much of the character of living organisms and its essence is a purely creative one of the discovery achieved in living. It is idiotic to detroy a living organism because it does not live up to imagined ideals of perfection, and so likewise it is just as idiotic to scrap human thought in order to start from scratch, imagining that one can find some more solid foundation. The living process itself has within it the seeds of infinite potential because it is capable of adaptation and learning and thereby becoming more than it was. Yes there is the possibility that we are on a dead end path (just as evolution has dead ends) and there is no telling how far back the dead end path may have begun. But it is not in the nature of living things to search backwards for certainty but rather to march forward in faith to find its ultimate destiny on the path that it has chosen. Obviously there is a balance to be found in this, for backtracking is a part of our skills of adaptability.

Ok so Heidegger affirms that there is a way to get past cultural relativism and the mistakes of the past, but Heidegger's answer sound suspiciously like the dialectic, and it is no wonder that deconstruction rather construction is what is born from this. Everything I am reading here suggest that deconstruction is moving in the wrong direction towards analysis only when what is really needed is to understand that human thought is a work of creativity. Take Faulconer's example of Aristotle's idea of matter and form. We do not have to limit ourselves to Aristotle's limitations but we can still go in the direction he points keeping the same framework and find better meaning of the words in the context of present knowledge. In the dichotomy between matter and form we see the contrast between comonality and difference, for example the same material can be given different forms in order to make different things. Well informed by modern physics, we can see a universal sameness in all things which we call energy, and in the mathematical-geometric concepts of physics we see how this energy can have different forms in order to be VERY different things, such as energy in the form of motion and energy in the form of mass. This is the kind of creative revitalization of human thought that is needed rather than the simple taking things apart that we find in Faulconer's paper, and which I take to be an example of what deconstruction does.

This paper by Faulconer defines "deconstruction" by metaphor to an introduction which gives evidence for the obvious fact that it is impossible to say everything about a subject. This only confirms my previous suspicion that deconstruction and its use is purely negative. In fact what we have here seems to be a justification of the work of the most unspired scholar, to summarize and criticize but add nothing. I say that the inspired scholar does much more than this, for he uses what has been written as building blocks for the creation of a new world of thought. If we understand things this way then it is more than obvious that it is impossible to say everything about a subject for there are always new worlds of thought that can be created. I finally see the expanation of a methodology in, "it looks for ways in which the book itself shows what it has overlooked." But scholars do this as a matter of course when they look for directions that they can go in new research. At least that is what they do in the sciences. But by explaining that the goal of deconstructive criticism is merely to show the necessary inadequacy of what has been written, it reveals itself as non-constructive criticism, which is usually considered to be something that has no value.

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