Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Critical realism & the Church

Andrew at Opensource theology has posted an interesting article on the use of critical realism in re-modeling our theology of the Church. Though I can't agree with everything he says, the post is well worth your consideration.

These are two excerpts:

The ‘emerging church’ project is an experiment in new forms of church. The question of what ‘church’ is, however, cannot be resolved sociologically or experimentally. Ultimately, a theological answer is required. This page was written to provide some preliminary reflection for the Future of the People of God conference with Tom Wright. It is an attempt to address some of the more theoretical questions that arise when Wright’s retelling of the story of Jesus, constructed on the basis of a critical-realist hermeneutic, is considered from a postmodern perspective.

Why do we need a new story about Jesus and the church?

Raison d’ĂȘtre

Modernism, through a rigorously applied rationality, has undermined the irrational grounds for faith (tradition, emotion, sentimentality, superstition). Postmodernism, through a rigorously applied irrationality, has undermined the rational grounds for faith (arguments for the truth of Scripture or the existence of God). The church, as a result, has been left without a compelling reason to exist. Recent decades have seen an increasingly urgent process of reinvention as the church has struggled to find a workable identity in a post-Christian age. The danger, now, is that ‘emerging church’ will simply prove to be one more frantic rearrangement of the deckchairs before the ship sinks for good. It is essential, therefore, that we find a way to tell the story, not least to ourselves, that will sustain – indeed, that will necessitate – the continuing presence of the church in the world.

[. . .]

David Clines has some good things to say about the implications of postmodernism for biblical studies in an article called ‘The Pyramid and the Net’. The whole article is worth reading, but the following paragraph is enough to illustrate the tension between modern and postmodern approaches to the text:

If the modern is interested in what texts say, the postmodern is interested in what texts do not say. It is their silences, their repressions, their unexpressed interests, the social, religious and political ambitions that they screen from us, that we are concerned with in a postmodern age. We do not discount the project of exegesis; we might even sometimes, though not on principle, regard it as foundational. But it is the point of departure for more grown up questions about texts, for questions that go beyond mere meaning. The trouble with meaning as the goal for the study of texts is that it restricts the scholar to recapitulating the message of the text. You do not find scholars of a ‘modern’ persuasion saying, This is what my text means, and personally I do not believe a word of it. Mostly they think their job is done when they have said again, in their own words, what their text has already said. But in my opinion, any scholar who has ambitions of being a real human being cannot let it go at that, but has to involve herself or himself with the text, and not take refuge in critical distance (however necessary critical distance might be as a heuristic device). At the very least, the critic in a postmodern age will need to be asking, What does this text do to me if I read it? What ethical responsibility do I carry if I go on helping this text to stay alive?

Nevertheless, I think there are a number of ways in which we might establish a more constructive interaction between these two processes.

1. Both critical-realism and emerging church have developed, to some degree, as reactions against what is perceived to be a certain inaccuracy or inauthenticity within traditional evangelicalism with regard to its intellectual substructure and share a similar critique of it.

2. The current crisis of confidence and the growing willingness (born largely from desperation) to experiment with new forms of church have created the sort of opening needed to channel a more realistic understanding of Jesus, of his mission, and of the nature and purpose of the church into the mainstream. There appears to be a large group of believers who are open to new ways of thinking and willing to explore a new discourse of faith.

What is needed is a usable, public hermeneutic that does not merely serve the interests of an unthinking pre-emptive dogmatism. The challenge here is in the words ‘usable’ and ‘public’. Such a hermeneutic must be consistent with the standards and methods of ordinary rationality, which is likely to reflect an oscillation, rather than a conflict, between modern and postmodern habits of thought, and must be allowed to shape popular, and not merely scholarly, Christian discourse. To put it in Wright’s terms, the portrait of Jesus that is emerging from ‘Third Quest’ scholarship needs to have an impact at ‘pew-level’ and at ‘street-level’ (Who was Jesus?, 16).

3. An historically oriented hermeneutic presents what is probably the most effective means of deconstructing the controlling paradigms of modern evangelical interpretation while, at the same time, offering the possibility of re-constructing an alternative narrative coherent and powerful enough to motivate a recognizably ‘evangelical’ commitment and hope.

4. A critical-realist hermeneutic gives priority to the historical and theological referents behind the text. In that sense it is pragmatic. In this way we may hope to avoid both the modern preoccupation with abstracted propositional truth and the postmodern distrust of the texts and of the project of exegesis.

A critical-realist hermeneutic is the product not of church practice and teaching but of scholarly investigation. This has certain advantages. One is that we may hope to reduce the gulf that has opened up between biblical scholarship and the thought-world of the church. Another is that it will allow for a more tentative, open-minded management of the truth. We come much closer to the standpoint of postmodernism if we recognize that truth is always an emergent value and cannot be separated from the complex, unpredictable process of coming to understand.

5. Both critical-realism and postmodernism encourage a heightened interpretive self-consciousness, a stronger awareness of the difficult nature of the relation between reader and text. The Bible does not constitute an inert, unambiguous body of truth: it is complex, intricately related both to its own world and to the world of the reader, inescapably subject to interpretation. While critical-realism is always at risk of falling back into positivism, on the other side of postmodernism it becomes the means by which we take the reader’s engagement with the text with the utmost seriousness because it accepts the possiblity of finding truth again.

6. On the face of it, Wright’s insistence on the historicality of the gospel narratives runs counter to the postmodern distrust of purported historical knowledge, but it may be in its particularity that the story about Jesus finds its plausibility within the framework of a more suspicious epistemology. The history of dogmatic interpretation has always moved from the particular and concrete to the abstract and universal and has then re-imagined the historical starting point in universal terms. Postmodernism resists the dogmatic argument, but it may be possible to return to a more confidently reconstructed historical narrative and restate its inherent truthfulness in a way that does not ignore the limitations and difficulties of historiography. Biblical theology arose originally out of concrete, particular, historical narratives. The convergence of Third Quest and postmodernism allows, and requires us, to repeat that process.

7. If the critical-realist investigation of Jesus can be developed towards the idea of a post-eschatological church, there is a huge potential for constructing a highly integrated programme and spirituality for the church. In The Meaning of Jesus (208-225) Wright argues, on the basis of a critical-realist retelling of the story of Jesus, for an integration of four areas of Christian experience: spirituality, theology, politics and healing. This sort of ‘holistic’ approach sits well with the postmodern aversion to dualism (cf. N.T. Wright, New Tasks for a Renewed Church, 7-8).