Engaging Postmodemity I: Matters of Substance
an excerpt from "Christianity and the Postmodern Turn" 85-88
"Pilgrim's Digress" Kevin Vanhoozer

How do I respond to specific postmodern views concerning knowledge, truth, ethics, and language? I take these challenges seriously, not simply as threats but as opportunities to display the rich resources of Christian doctrine.

Knowledge, metanarratives, and rationality

Situating reason: scripture as exploratory framework

Lyotard famously defines the postmodern condition as one of "incredulity towards metanarratives." Largely because of bulverism, we cannot believe in the "one true story" that explains every other story. We are too aware that other groups have their own stories that claim to be equally comprehensive. Metanarratives thus dwindle into mere narratives; "reason" is situated, deuniversalized. Consequently, the burning question becomes: Whose story (and whose interpretation of it) counts, and why? It is as hard for postmoderns to believe in metanarratives as it was for Victorians to believe in fairies (if you believe in metanarratives, clap your hands!). How can Christians respond to this legitimation crisis?

What is knowledge? Merely to exchange metaphors, substituting web or raft for foundation, is no guarantee against correlationism. The masters may have changed, but philosophers are still instructing theologians in how to make epistemological bricks out of the mud and straw of human experience or creativity. Having issued this caution, I nevertheless wish to propose the following metaphor for knowledge: the map.

Metanarratives, I submit, are not so much explanatory as exploratory frameworks. The map also has the advantage of situating knowledge claims in thp context of everyday life: our walk.

You are here. I agree with the postmodern insight that human reasoning is situated. I also agree with Lesslie Newbigin that the postmodern critique of foundationalism has shown that human thinking always takes place within "fiduciary" frameworks. Even the Enlightenment project began with a "faith" in the omnicompetence of reason, with a faith in a certain way of mapping the world and our way in it. The question, then is not whether we can avoid subscribing to some fiduciary framework or another, but rather, which one enables us to make cognitive contact with reality?

All human thinking takes place within fiduciary frameworks, but only the biblical frameworks enable us rightly to interpret the nature of ultimate reality. To be sure, the biblical maps do not explain everything. They may tell us how to go to heaven, but they do not tell us how the heavens go; we need Galileo and Einstein for that. Similarly, they tell us how humans should live, but not everything that life consists of; we need Crick and Watson for that. These supplementary maps drawn up by other disciplines do not contradict the biblical maps but identify previously unknown or uncharted features.

The point is that we need multiple maps for multiple purposes. We can map the same terrain according to a variety of different keys and scales. In this respect, Rorty is right: our vocabularies (maps) are related to our interests, to what we want to do. A road atlas need not contradict a map that highlights topography, or a map that highlights historical landmarks and points of scenic interest, or a plat or survey that shows where properties begin and end.

Reason does not stand over the gospel, deciding which map to accept and what to reject. Here Christians and postmoderns agree: reason itself is always already situated. Postmodern philosophy is never "from above." Christians are therefore entitled to assume the gospel as the ultimate interpretative framework with which to make sense of all other knowledge and experience. To reason Christianly is to negotiate the real world with the aid of biblical maps. Reason here plays a ministerial role. But are we rational in accepting just these maps? I believe that rationality is less a matter of starting points or neutral ground than it is a matter of being willing to put one's faith commitments to any number of critical, even existential, tests.34

To construe knowledge as a map and to contend that the biblical maps chart certain aspects of reality correctly is to subscribe to what we may term a confessing epistemology. To say "I know" is, for Christians, a way of saying "I believe rationally," and rational belief is part and parcel of the larger Christian project of bearing witness. I believe in the epistemic primacy of the gospel and its canonical context, not as a base on which to build a pyramid of knowledge, but as a map that reliably guides us in the way of truth and life.

Doctrine and rationality

Situating knowledge in the biblical creation-fall-redemption schema yields specifically Christian perspectives on the nature of rationality. Plantinga appeals to the doctrine of creation when he speaks of the "design plan" of the human mind, which is to produce true beliefs. The doctrine of creation is a compelling warrant for affirming the reliability of our cognitive faculties. The doctrine of the fall, however, reminds us that our cognitive faculties are distorted-out of order. Accordingly, we need to complement reliabilism with a fallibilism that insists on rationality as a willingness to submit one's belief to critical testing. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, however, than for an academic to admit that he or she was wrong! Our account of knowledge needs a third moment. In order to practice criticizability, the knower must become intellectually honest and evince epistemic humility. Honesty and humility are not functions of methodological procedures but personal virtues. The rational person must be a person of intellectual virtue.35 And to acquire intellectual virtue, we need to undergo a transformation of our hearts and minds alike. As the doctrines of creation and fall lend support to reliabilism and fallibilism in the domain of epistemology, so here too the doctrine of redemption confirms and deepens virtue epistemology s point that rationality has less to do with following scholarly procedures and more to do with becoming a saint.

Creation (reliabilism), fall (fallibilism), redemption (intellectual virtue): a threefold epistemological cord is not easily broken. In sum: "I believe in reason, but I reason in belief." I believe in reason. Reason is a God-designed cognitive process of inference and criticism, a discipline that forms virtuous habits of the mind. I reason in belief. Reasoning-giving warrants, making inferences, analyzing critically-does not take place in a vacuum but in a fiduciary framework, a framework of belief.

Being, metaphysics, and reality

Nonrealism and metaphysical idolatry

If metaphysics is the attempt to think all of reality by means of a single set of categories (e.g., "being"), then the postmodern condition is as antimetaphysical as it is antisystematic. Though everyone has some kind of informal metaphysic or "final vocabulary"-"a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their belief, and their lives"36-the Postmodern ironist is aware of other vocabularies that purport to be final and are equally as impressive.

The challenge is not whether we can find the words to describe the world, but whether any of our descriptions get beyond self-description. The bulverist turn is especially damaging to metaphysics. Is what we say ever indicative of the world, or is what we say always about us: about our preferences, our interests, our abilities? This general worry becomes even more acute when the reality we are trying to think is God. Must we conclude that the metaphysical quest for God, like the quest for the historical Jesus, Is simply the story of people looking into a deep well and seeing their own reflections?



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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on April 18, 2008