Critical-realism and postmodernism

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’être

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.

Renewal of the mind

The church has sought to renew itself in a number of different and largely discrete areas. It has undergone structural reorganization through the rise of lay ministry and the house and cell church movements. It has been renewed emotionally and spiritually through the charismatic movement. There has been a renewal of worship, first through the introduction of popular music forms, secondly through the rise of alternative worship and a recovery of older forms. There has been a drive to regain relevance through social and political engagement. To some extent the missionary imperative has been restored through the seeker church movement and the Alpha course. All these developments, however, have been jeopardized by a persistent problem of credibility: do we really feel that we have a good enough reason for doing this at all?

The need, therefore, is for an equivalent renewal of the mind – not as a new enthusiasm for dogmatic formulations of Christian truth but as the recovery of a basic critical intelligence and integrity. We have not dared to tamper with the core intellectual structures of evangelical faith (by which I mean a faith that is prepared to proclaim the same good news that Jesus taught) probably because we are afraid that the whole edifice will collapse on us if we do. The postmodernization of evangelicalism has gone some way in this direction because postmodernism is fundamentally a critique of ways of thinking; but it has for the most part stopped short of a serious reconsideration of the biblical foundations of faith. Central to the renewal of thought must be a new understanding of, and a new confidence in, the biblical texts. Only on this basis will it be possible to challenge the deep-seated paganism of Western culture.

Reintegration of the parts

The aim then will be to re-integrate these different areas of renewal around a reconstructed intellectual core. One of the real dangers of the postmodernization of evangelicalism is that it remains a rather narrow and esoteric interest. But in principle postmodernism, with its preference for organic, networked systems, ought to engender a more holistic and comprehensive approach to the life of faith.

What are the principles of thought and interpretation that will shape the telling of this new story?

Historical narrative is the basis for Christian self-understanding

There is both a diachronic and a synchronic dimension to the development of a theology for the emerging church. The argument has for the most part been developed synchronically, or a-historically, in response to cultural and intellectual changes taking place both inside and outside the church. Biblical stories are treated as types and exemplars of general spiritual truths. The diachronic or historical dimension has been neglected. We do not understand well enough the historical-eschatological narrative that brings us to the point at which we may properly address the postmodern questions about identity, community, mission, truth, culture, and so on.

The task of explicating the story is not exempt from normal standards of rationality

The story never becomes ‘true’ apart from the act of reading, interpreting and telling. This is not an epistemologically privileged process. It cannot be argued, for example, that the truthfulness of any particular telling of the story is vouchsafed by dogmatic tradition or by the activity of the Spirit. There must in principle be a willingness to subject the biblical texts to critical investigation and to accept, even if only provisionally, the results of that investigation.

Narrative must be contextualized

Abstract timeless truths need to be placed back in a narrative landscape. It is important that this landscape be determined historically because otherwise it is likely that the abstraction will be allowed to define the story: much postmodern Christian story-telling is merely an allegorization of the timeless truths. The historical-critical method is the only means we have of ensuring the production of an authentic and persuasive narrative and therefore, in the long run, of establishing viable grounds for mission.

A contextualized story is a story among others

From the inside the Christian story has always functioned as a meta-narrative that must assimilate and qualify all other stories, whether religious, scientific, political or philosophical. A church that is developing a postmodern mentality will probably have to let go of this presumption and find more modest ways of maintaining an allegiance to it in a pluralistic culture. We will need to learn more interactive, less combative, modes of engagement.

As interpreters we have chosen this story from among others as a matter of evangelical commitment

The narrative that emerges must retain its power to motivate worship, ministry and mission. The critical-realist approach is not intended to rationalize spiritual realities or demythologize a primitive belief system. It remains precisely an attempt to recover the religious and historical force of the events that unfolded at the end of the age, the personality of the protagonists in Israel’s end-game.

What is the core narrative?

There can be no definitive summary of the core narrative, but it will run something like this…

At the heart of the narrative is not the universalized theme of the Son of God becoming man and dying for my sins but a complex national story about a decisive eschatological transition in the identity of the people of God. Israel under Roman occupation was still in exile and still under judgment for its sins. Jesus announced an imminent return from exile, a restoration of the people of God, and the reinstatement of God as king in Zion.

Restoration, however, would not be easy: narrow is the path that leads to life. First, Israel as a political-religious entity would not escape concrete and catastrophic judgment for its hardness of heart. Those who survived – or were saved from – the disaster would do so only because they had, to use Paul’s terminology, ‘died with Christ’, who had suffered that judgment in their place. Secondly, a restored people, driven by the Spirit of God out from Jerusalem into the pagan world, would inevitably encounter opposition. At the heart of the eschatological promise to Jesus’ followers, therefore, is the assurance that the ‘beast’ would not prevail over the saints of the Most High, represented in Daniel’s crucial vision by a figure in human form: the pagan empire would be overthrown and the ‘kingdom’ would be given to the ‘one like a son of man’. Not even death was powerful enough to separate the saints from the love of God, any more than it had separated Jesus from his Father in heaven.

The community that survived the period of crisis would be marked by: i) an acknowledgement of Jesus as the one to whom the kingdom had been given; ii) the experience of Spirit, which is the life of the age to come; iii) a calling to be a blessing to the nations; and iv) a commitment to incorporate others into the people of God.

How does the reassertion of such a core narrative relate to the postmodern critique of the traditional evangelical method?

(This section overlaps with an earlier posting, ‘Postmodernism and the Jesus of History’.)

The development and implementation of a critical-realist hermeneutic and the postmodernization of evangelical theology are two distinct tasks. In certain respects they may even be seen as incompatible tasks: while postmodernism arises from a profound loss of confidence in human knowing, critical-realism aims to recover more reliable knowledge about – or a more reliable way of speaking about – a subject.

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).