Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Questions, Theology, and Postmodernism

My good friend Denny Burke gives a quote from Abraham Piper about the postmodern ethos of our day: “If you ask questions but you reject answers, you’re not actually asking anything. You’re just festooning tired, old propositions with trendier punctuation.” I agree entirely. I am highly unimpressed with the pomo obsession with questions that no-one answers and being-on-the-journey that doesn't go any where (or any where worth going to). Don't get me wrong, questions are a great way to do theology (see Thomas Aquinas no less), but without stating answers, even provisionally, it comes down to a meaningless word game. I say this because questions without answers (1) lead to indecision, inaction or inconsistency since the rationale to act is never established, and (2) little pomo popes wonder the country thinking that the more people they can confuse with their word games the greater their acumen and intelligence. Teachers should teach. They shoud not try to clone themselves nor aim to confuse. As Karl Barth once said to a student, we don't have time to play the devil's advocate!

Jesus used questions very effectively in his didactic ministry. Consider these two:
- Mark 10:18 Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
- Luke 10:36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
Jesus can guide people into answers through questions posed about story and scripture. Or else, he lets them discover the answer that is right on their nose after he has spoken the truth to them. But questions are never an end of themselves. In other words, questions are a good methodology but a poor epistemology!

Lest I be accused of pomo-bashing, there is a place for self-criticism and questioning the questions in theology. A question can often be loaded with assumptions like "Are you still beating your wife?" or pose false antitheses like "Are you a pre-mill KJV-only anti-ecumenical pro-segregationist man of God OR a liberal?". We can ask what is the agenda in the question and who does the implied answer favour. We can question the questions, but not indefinitely. We can deconstruct the question, but we must construct another one. In addition, we have to recognize that all answers are provisional since theological questions are posed through the limitations and contingencies that we have (linguistic, cutlural, historical, cognitive, etc) just as much as the answers are. As we sharpen up our questions so we sharpen up our answers as well. We begin to know God and to know ourselves better, which after all, should be the ultimate end of theology. That's my post-postmodern spin on theological method.

There endeth the lesson!


Ranger said...

Good thoughts,
I read Abraham Pipers post earlier today and loved it. It's very true. BW3 just posted on postmodernism as well but went a different direction.

Geoff Hudson said...

Wandering Pomo Pope Hudson has a question. (Mk.10) The prophet told the man to do two things after he had previously said he only lacked one thing. What is your provisional answer, good teacher? I know what mine would be. Now the man must have gone away a bit confused if the text is correct.

Geoff Hudson said...

My answer:

Surely if you lack something, you don't possess it. Yet the two actions the editor had Jesus tell the man to do didn't give him anything in a strict sense. Giving to the poor and following Jesus didn't make up for the lack of anything. It appears that the 'man' had kept the Jewish law perfectly, so he must have done something for the poor. But the man had asked, "What must I 'do'?" So may be the real answer was that he didn't have to 'do' anything as he had 'done' in obeying the law. May be he only had to receive the one thing he lacked, which I suggest was what the prophet proclaimed, that is the Spirit of God.
Pomo Pope Geoffrey

Wayne said...

I don't remember where I read this, but I found hit helpful. The postmodern critique of modernism is sort of like chemotherapy. It can be very useful to expose and undo the idolatrous structures of modernist assumptions. But like chemotherapy, if you don't have cancer, then you're just ingesting poison in manageable bits.

Anonymous said...

Who uses the word "festoon"? I have never seen nor heard that word in a sentence until today.

Matt said...

Dear Pomo Pope Hudson

Regarding your comment:
"Yet the two actions the editor had Jesus tell the man to do didn't give him anything in a strict sense"

I'm wondering how a postmodern arrived at a rather clear view that this narrative is the work of an editor? I wonder if the skepticism and 'scholarship' which underlies such a view were turned back on itself, would this view remain intact?

The point in the narrative is fairly clear. The rich guy DID lack ONE thing - the two things he was told to DO (sell everything & follow Jesus) related directly to how he should acquire this one thing. He lacked one thing, which was participation in the new Kingdom that Jesus was inaugurating. His excessive wealth, despite his obedience to the commandments, was something he could not give up to follow Jesus. In other words - his wealth was his 'functional saviour', or his 'king'. The rich man went away upset (mark 10:22), not confused, for he could not give up his wealth in order to follow Jesus.

While the questions you've raised about the narrative are interesting, they are hardly substantial when you consider the bigger point which is being made (not to mention the context, which makes it even more clear).

(non-pomo) Matt.