...are the ones that make the biggest difference

12.21.2004

The Fear of Certainty

I am blessed with a job that allows me plenty of time to poke around the internet, which is both a blessing and a horrible temptation. At various times over the last few months, I have seen several postings on pomo/emergent blogs about theology and truth. I've left comments on some of these discussions and have gotten a relatively uniform response. I'll post some quotes, and then give my thoughts.

From Pomomusings in a post about theology and experience, wherein I left a comment asserting there may be an objectively true theology that we should strive to discover and adhere to it, I got this response:

"Theology is simply God-talk....I hate to break this to you bro, but there is no one, absolute, universal theology. It is impossible...There is no one way to think of God. There is no one theology."

From Harbinger, in a post describing "Vulnerable Generosity." Steve basically holds that VG is talking to others with the constant admission "I believe this, but I might be wrong" and it is really the best way for us to interact with the Other. I contended that at some point, not everything we believe should be "on the chopping block" merely for the sake of discussion. The author would have none of it, stating over a few posts:

"nathan, yes, everything has to be on the chopping block, or we are guilty of fundamentalism, dogmatism, and fideism in refusing to consider seriously the possibility that we are mistaken...I am familiar with the most valiant attempts in the history of philosophy to defend certainty, and I am also familiar with the arguments that in my mind decisively refute defenses of certitude."

The most recently, on Radical Congruency, Justin pens a piece comparing the Bible & theology to open-source computer programming. Its an interesting idea, but one that has its difficulties, as Justin realizes:

"I think many people confuse open-source with Wiki, the latter referring to online document collections that can be edited by anyone. Scripture is not subject to casual revision, though it is from time to time revised to reflect the best understandings of leading scholars and experts."

I'm not sure what revisions he is referencing above, but in the comments, I pointed out that there is some danger in opening our theology to be changed by anyone in our community - we don't know if they are being led by the Spirit or if they have a particular axe to grind, nor should we see our theology as mere God-talk. I pointed out that, ideally, our theology actually corresponds to the reality of God, and at some point, we have to put up a boundary that separates us as Christians from, say, Muslims. Another commenter replies in a lengthy post:

"I do not assume that any person has a firm enough grasp of the reality of God to adequately express Him to anybody. Nor do I think that any person could have such a firm grasp on the reality and truth and nature of God."

All of these were good discussions with insightful posts and points, but I am alarmed at the uniformity with which the pomo/emergent crowd thinks it is impossible that we can know the truth about God or, at the very least, are unwilling to say "I believe this is true." I know full well that I cannot *prove* that my beliefs are correct - I cannot prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection, I cannot prove the Trinity or the inspiration of the Bible - but I can say that I *believe* they are true, that they correspond to the reality of God. From there, I have a basis for living out my faith and participating in the communal life of the church.

What happens to a church or group of believers who are unwilling, or too scared, to make that statement of faith? What happens when we are unwilling to put a stake in the ground and say "we believe this is true"? This is a complete rejection of the historic witness of the church, in both its Traditional (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) and Protestant iterations. For the last 2,000 years, Christians have rooted their faith in specific events and specific beliefs about them - what about that makes this generation so uncomfortable? What drives this fear of certainty?

10 comments:

Doug said...

Great post, Nathan. Fascinating questions, and rather disturbing. I know very little about the pomo/emergent crowd, but how far do you think they’ll take this line of thought? Is the Creed up for debate? The Incarnation itself? The Trinity?

I may be off base here, but I wonder if this isn’t, at its root, a problem of ecclesiology rather than theology. In the New Covenant, if the relation of God to men finds its primary expression in the human individual, and the church is nothing but an afterthought, a collection of such individuals whose and opinions may or may not coincide, then this line of thinking almost makes sense. But if the primary expression of God’s new relation to men lies in the Church, Christ’s Body, and in its sacramental life, then authoritative teaching follows.

Nathan said...

Doug -

Thanks and congratulations on becoming a catechumen!

I'm not sure how far they'll take it, but I think it is safe to say that for most, the Creed is viewed as optional at best. Most would probably see it as largely irrelevant - informative, but irrelevant. The "need" for the doctrine of the Trinity has been questioned by people like Doug Pagitt, who is regarded as a leader in the movement. If the Trinity goes, needless to say, the Incarnation as it has been traditionally understood cannot be far behind.

"I may be off base here, but I wonder if this isn’t, at its root, a problem of ecclesiology rather than theology."

I think its really a problem in both areas. They have a very informal, ill-defined ecclesiology which is informed by a similarly informal, revisable theology. In my mind, ecclesiological decisions are driven by theology and theology must be informed by our worship and praxis. I don't think the pomo/emergent crowd sees this, or if they do, they embrace it - even though the praxis is entirely open to experimentation and constant revision. How can that not cause theology to follow the same course?

"But if the primary expression of God’s new relation to men lies in the Church, Christ’s Body, and in its sacramental life, then authoritative teaching follows."

This, I think, is the type of thinking that is roundly perceived as anathema to the pomo/emergent crowd. No institution can claim to speak for God, nor can it claim that God is working in a special way through it. We are talking about a hyper-individualistic group and one that is highly suspicious of any sources of traditional authority.

alana said...

Oh, how sad!

Such shallow puddles have they, then, to drink from.

God, have mercy!

Karl Thienes said...

Nathan,

You might find this post interesting:

http://steigerblog.blogspot.com/2004/12/ultimate-irony-can-emergent-church.html

Nathan said...

Karl -

I found that post, and other posts on that blog, very interesting. Thanks for the link! I think it may get on my regular reading list.

John said...

It almost sounds Nathan, that many of the Emergent folks are trying to get at the apophatic theology concept without fully understanding it. Do you notice how many things that are coming out of the emergent world are pseudo-orthodox? This is just another case of what happens when the concept is run with without being fully understood. But, maybe I am ignorant... It just sounds like some people heard the case for apophatic theology and said, "Yeah, like he said." And then when they had to describe it to someone else, they really didn't get it at all and messed it all up...

Phil Steiger said...

Nathan-

This string of responses is an unfortunate confirmation of my worst concerns for the Emergent Church Movement. I really do hope the best for the Emergent Church, but in my opinion they will need to separate themselves from postmodernism and reaffirm the orthodox faith.

jimmmaaa said...

Nathan, Very good post. I have taking a gaze at the emergent movement and I have an uneasyness about many things...a lot it just does not sit right with me...not that it is all bad, but a term I am uneasy and many of the things writter here resonate with me. I not a student of thelogy but I do read the Word and hold it in high esteem...at times I feel that some in the coversation are a little loose with the Word.

Thanks for your very wise words.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, you write, "I know full well that I cannot *prove* that my beliefs are correct - I cannot prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection, I cannot prove the Trinity or the inspiration of the Bible - but I can say that I *believe* they are true, that they correspond to the reality of God. From there, I have a basis for living out my faith and participating in the communal life of the church."

I agree with this (although I don't know what the clause "correspond to the reality of God" means.) I'm more than willing to say I believe that god is triune and I believe that Jesus is resurrected from the dead. And I agree with you that any Christian who wouldn't be willing to make belief-claims would be quite silly. My issue is whether we view ourselves as having obtained certainty with those beliefs. Since you admit you can't "prove" them, it sounds to me like you don't think we can. So I think we're in agreement on this.

Steve
http://harbinger.blogs.com

Nathan said...

Steve

"...although I don't know what the clause "correspond to the reality of God" means..."

It means that our language can, in fact, point to an objective, external reality. That language may not, and in the instance of God certainly cannot, exhaustively describe the external world, but it does successfuly refer to it.

"My issue is whether we view ourselves as having obtained certainty with those beliefs. Since you admit you can't 'prove' them, it sounds to me like you don't think we can. So I think we're in agreement on this."

Perhaps we agree to an extent, but I am still willing to say that I am certain, through faith, that God is triune, Jesus died and was resurrected, etc and am unwilling to consider abandoning those propositions. I can question them, explore them and come to a deeper understanding, but I can never renounce them. From our discussion on your blog, you made a statement that seemed to indicate that you are willing to abandon, or at least alter them if a "better alternative" (I think that was your phrase) presented itself. If that is not the case, then please correct me, but from our discussions so far, I'm fairly certain we aren't on the same page on this.