Posted On March 14, 2013

Can There Be An Orthodox Postmodern Theology?

by | Mar 14, 2013 | Contemporary Culture

In 2002 Richard Davis responded to a festschrift in honor of Reginald Stackhouse questioning whether or not there can be an orthodox postmodern theology.  I’ve included a summary of Davis’s article below followed by my response.

Davis, Richard B.  “Can There Be an ‘Orthodox’ Postmodern Theology?”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45, no. 1 (2002): 111-123.

In the editor’s introduction to Theology and the End of Modernity, a Festschrift in honor of Reginald Stackhouse, the writer claims there is, or at least could be, an orthodox postmodern theology.  Even though postmodernism is difficult to define, for our present purposes, I accept that postmodernism rejects the following: 1) the correspondence theory of truth; 2) the referential use of language; and 3) a person’s ability to access reality directly, unmediated by conceptual or linguistic schemes.  I will argue that some of these elements are present in Stackhouse’s theology and lead to a most unorthodox conclusion.

I began by examining Reginald Stackhouse’s intellectual autobiography “More Than Thirty Years On” that charts his journey from modern to postmodern theology.  He affirmed that humans do not bring about God’s existence through language constructions.  God exists independent of humans.  Stackhouse’s views, however, devolved into believing that God does not exist apart from human cognitive and linguistic activities.  Stackhouse believes that Christians should not “objectify God” by conceiving of Him as existing independent of humanity.  In order for God to be ascribed the worship, prayer, etc. as proposed in Scripture, He must be the sort of being who is “there,” the sort of being to which others can point to and identify as having an independent existence.  Stackhouse’s problem is that he believes if God exists independently, then He must be spatially located.  Since in our modernistic scientific age we know that space is immense (possibly infinite), there literally is “nowhere” for heaven or God to be.  We must, therefore, resist the urge to objectify God according to Stackhouse.

Then, I examined Stackhouse’s claim about Aquinas’s Five Ways, instead of proving God’s objective existence, lead us to become agnostics or atheists!  This charge by Stackhouse is unfounded.  Let us consider the “principle of independent existence” (PIE): Necessarily, for any objects A and B, if A exists independently of B, and B is spatially located, then A is spatially located.  It seems clear that PIE is false.  Either there are things independent of us or not, if not, then everything depends on us for its existence, which makes us sovereign in a god sort of manner.  The problem is that by hypothesis, we have a spatio-temporal location, and (necessarily) whatever has a spatio-temporal location is a concrete physical object.  So if PIE is true, and if everything depends on us for its existence, God is extended in three dimensions: God is a concrete physical object.  This leaves us with something like Spinozistic pantheism. 

On the other hand, suppose there are things whose existence is not dependent on us.  If PIE is true, each of these things will be spatially located physical objects.  Of course, this is mistaken.  For example, the number 7, like God, exists necessarily; it could not possibly fail to exist.  Furthermore, 7’s existence is independent of my own; for even if I had failed to exist, 7 + 5 = 12.  However, if PIE is true, then 7 is a concrete physical object with a spatio-temporal location.  This assumption follows that if God is existentially independent of us, then he is just one of many physical objects in the world.  One could not believe such things and remain a classic theist.  Stackhouse agrees, but instead of rejecting PIE, he draws the unwarranted conclusion that God does not exist independently of spatially located objects, of the material things he has made.  Stackhouse accepts PIE as if it is a self-evident truth of reason even though it entails a variety of absurdities and is therefore absurd.

Moreover, Stackhouse moves to a second line of argument that has to do with the problem of defending such claims that God objectively exists or has objectively revealed Himself in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Stackhouse believes there are a plethora of conceptual schemes or linguistic frameworks to communicate one’s beliefs, but those outside of my framework are under no obligation to agree with my reasons or conclusions.  It appears that Stackhouse endorses the “principle of interpretive mediation” (PIM): For any human agent S, there is an interpretive framework F such that F mediates S’s access to and experience of objective reality—that is, the way the world is independent of our cognitive and linguistic activities.  PIM makes a definitive claim about objective reality; therefore, PIM is either true or false.  Stackhouse believes it to be true, but if PIM is true, it is only “true” according to Stackhouse’s interpretive scheme, and those with other interpretive schemes may find it false.

At this point, I have argued that Stackhouse is wrong, but let’s assume for a moment he is right; what’s next?  If Stackhouse is correct and his arguments are carried to their consistent end, believers place their faith in a subjective state of affairs (God) to which they can make only private and ambiguous reference.  Stackhouse, however, rejects this subjectification of God in addition to already rejecting that God exists independently of humanity.  Instead, he offers better way: All talk about God is symbolic.  The inconceivable (God) cannot be conceived; therefore, symbols are necessary.  These symbols help Christians make sense of their world.  Thus, all Scripture that speaks of God must be understood as symbolic language.  The problem is that if “none of our language applies to God in a literal manner,” then this statement about God does not apply to Him in a literal manner.  The reality is that not only is God conceivable, but some of our terms and concepts do literally apply to Him.

Finally, are Stackhouse’s views a collective instance of orthodox postmodern theology?  Well, his views are postmodern, but they are outside of classical, orthodox theism.  If our terms and concepts cannot be applied to God in a literal way, then we cannot even say of God that He literally exists.

Response

First, I appreciate Davis’ concise explanation of Stackhouse’s arguments in addition to his concise interaction.  I also appreciate his clear definition of postmodernism and then his various references to Stackhouse’s argumentation that reveals his postmodern theology.  Finally, I appreciate Davis’ ability to see the absurdities of Stackhouse’s argument and to call him on it in light of his claim of an “orthodox postmodern theology.”

Second, I thought Davis made a good point concerning there being objects that are not dependent upon our existence because they exist independently of us.  His use of the number 7 as an example was elementary.  One must wonder why Stackhouse, who is obviously very intelligent, did not consider the existence of objects that are neither physical nor spatially limited.

Third, I appreciate Davis turning Stackhouse’s arguments back on themselves revealing their inconsistencies and absurdity.  If all talk of God is symbolic, then this statement too is symbolic; so, all statements about God must be a symbolic statement.  Everything becomes nonsensical at this point.

Finally, I appreciate Davis’s point that Stackhouse’s views are postmodern, but not orthodox.  If Scripture does not literally describe God, and all language is symbolic, then we cannot say that God literally exists.  Not only is this unorthodox, but it is an atheistic assumption.  Thus, Stackhouse affirms a postmodern atheistic anthropology.

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