Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Postmodernism and Trinitarian Thought

I hear it all the time in church--we're living in a postmodern era, where truth is relative. People have forgotten where Truth, with a capital "T," comes from.

Not that modernism was well-received by Christians, either. Modernism, I am told, began with the skepticism of folks like Descartes, who decided to question everything he knew and build up a whole philosophy grounded in only those "self-evident" truths like, "I think, therefore I am."

(I'm glad I got to finally throw in that quote on this blog.)

This kind of skepticism seeks the "facts." Once you have the "facts," which are presumably unquestionable once firmly grasped, then it's a matter of interpreting the facts to gain sufficient theoretical knowledge of the universe.

Modern science derives from this, but so do a lot of other things. Skepticism about Christianity, for one. Modernism made humans the ultimate judge of truth. If something wasn't "self-evident" to us--either from just thinking about it or checking empirically--then it wasn't a fact, and if it wasn't a fact, then it bore a huge burden of proof. Christianity no longer sat so comfortably on the shoulders of faith.

Postmodernism, it's true, hasn't done much to bring people back to faith. What it has done, however, is call into question this whole notion of "self-evident" truths, pointing out that the way we see the world is largely shaped by our culture and personal experiences.

Modernism is still hanging on in a lot of circles, but postmodernism has pretty much made its way everywhere. One of my fellow math grads actually said that "science is just one perspective among many." Not even science, which has depended so heavily on modernism, can escape from the doubts of postmodernists.

But the problem with postmodernism is that it's not much more than a set of doubts about modernism, rather than a philosophy in itself. What could possibly fill the void?

Many evangelicals around me suggest that the only thing to fill the void is to go back to the revealed Truth of God found in the Bible. The problem I see with this is that the suspicions of both modernism and postmodernism really are quite penetrating. Like it or not, modernism brought with it a lot of scientific discoveries and historical criticism that raise huge doubts about the perfect accuracy of the Bible.

Perhaps the more crushing blow comes from the sheer number of different biblical interpretations there are. As hard as modern evangelicals try, we just can't help but read the Bible through layers upon layers of traditional interpretation that has been handed down to us.

But what, then, to take the place of modernism? How do we respond to postmodernism with something helpful?

It seems to me that the whole problem comes from a plain, one-dimensional approach to truth. The idea of obtaining revealed truth straight from the Bible is one-dimensional: truth goes from God to the Bible to you in a linear fashion.

Modernism, for all its skepticism, is no different. Humans observe nature, and "facts" come directly from nature to humans. By noticing patterns in these facts, we can ascertain truth.

In meditating on the Christian concept of the Trinity, I was struck by the idea that if God is not merely One, but also Three, why should we expect that truth would be merely one-dimensional?

After all, postmodernists have a point, don't they? Our thinking is always shaped by our culture. The way we perceive reality is shaped by our own experiences. There is, in fact, a trio of characters that interact in our pursuit of knowledge.

To be concrete, why don't I talk about the study of the Bible? The Bible is a collection of writings which exist independent of me. I cannot simply will the letters on its pages to change their form.

But when I read it, I am not simply being spoon fed "truth." The message I get will be shaped by my own mind. I may be prepared--whether through experiences or contemplation--to understand its words differently from someone else.

That's not the whole story. I am not on my own when I read the Bible; my culture reads with me. Sermons I hear, books I read, and conversations I have all shape what I am prepared to see in the text. Of course, the culture itself is shaped by the Bible, as people re-examine it. But the culture also shapes the Bible, in the sense that is shapes the message I receive from it.

That's not all, either. I shape the culture in which I live, and the culture shapes me. All of these different interactions are natural and inseparable. It is a trinity, if you will; three in one, and one in three. The Bible and I and the culture around me are ever three and ever one, and the search for meaning can only proceed with all three parts involved.

Each failed attempt at obtaining truth can be critiqued according to this model. Pure revelation cannot work, because it denies the role of self and culture. Attempts to evade self and culture are doomed from the start--they are inescapable, just as much as God the Father cannot be without the Son and the Spirit.

Modernism does not work because it denies the role of culture, and it seeks to trump up the self as impartial and objective (provided one is enlightened through skepticism). Postmodernism provides a critique of this, and I accept this critique.

In the place of Modernism, however, I would suggest "trinitarianism," the idea that truth is not a set of propositions revealed directly, nor a set of ideas derived from an objective study of the "facts," but that truth is the continually harvested fruit of a right relationship between the self, the thing studied, and that ever-present third party (e.g. one's culture, though one might think of something, or someone, else).

What, then, of doctrines? Doctrines are useful insofar as they promote this harmony. C. S. Lewis talked about how doctrine is not the destination, but it is a map toward the destination. Many people are too quick to line doctrines up beside one another, find them mutually exclusive, and therefore try to throw away one or the other; but I think this is not always the best approach. Ideas gradually evolve in their meaning as this "triune" process unfolds.

When I evaluate an idea about scripture (the doctrine of the Trinity, incidentally, is a perfect example), I must first see if it causes me to look for something I had not seen before. Then I must go and read the scriptures and analyze how this idea may have enlightened or conflicted with certain parts of my reading. Then I should share with other people what that experience was like, and let them share their own experience with me. The result of this will not be an artifact that we can put in a box labeled "truth." The result will be a better harmony between the three parts of my search for truth, and it is that harmony itself that is worth seeking.

Is this a shocking idea to Christians? Why are we so bent on having a tangible thing, like a statement, confession, or book, that we can call "Truth"? How do we come to know God the Father except through God the Son, by the power of God the Spirit? It is the same with all things. We don't know anything except through a three-fold harmony, and knowledge itself can be equated with this harmony.

Perhaps the doctrine of the Trinity can point us toward a vision of truth that is more attainable, a vision that appears to be needed in this time of uncertainty. I'd like to think so, anyway.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to hear feedback!