Month: December 2011

Soft vs hard postmodernism

cover of Reformed and Always ReformingIn his book on postconservative theology – Reformed and Always Reforming – Roger Olson makes a valuable distinction between two types of postmodernism. It is a distinction that I came to make in some way in my own mind, but it would have been so very valuable to read it articulated like this back in my undergrad days at Murdoch University in what will turn out to have been the twilight of ‘absolute’ (and ‘hard’) postmodernism.

Olson describes hard postmodernism like this:

On the one hand is deconstructive thought that seeks to expose the oppressive power of truth claims and especially of metanarratives. Philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, and Richard Rorty engage in this hard kind of postmodern philosophy, which seems inevitably relativistic. For them, all truth claims are but masks for will to power. Some critics have described this hard type of postmodern philosophy as “cognitive nihilism.” Its main purpose is to relativize truth.

This is the kind of postmodernism which is more familiar to people. I think it is only of limited usefulness and insight. More helpful and insightful is what Olson calls ‘soft’ postmodernism:

On the other hand is a softer kind of postmodern philosophy found in thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, who does not deny ontological reality or objective truth but seeks to show that even reason always operates within a narrative context. In other words, knowledge may be relative even if truth is not… This is not relativism but recognition of the relativity of perspective inherent in all human thinking. All reasoning and judging takes place from within some local context shaped by a narrative about reality and carried forward within a community of tradition created by that narrative.

Conservatives will tend to assume postconservatives are embracing ‘hard’ postmodernism, when in fact they are only using the insights of ‘soft’ postmodernism.

The Housing Bubble and Megachurches: It’s Connected!

The housing bubble and megachurches are connected.

The housing bubble is one of the social evils of Australian society today. The baby boomers are largely to blame. Not all of them, of course. But as a generation, they have pushed up house prices to insane levels, to the point where houses are not affordable. This has happened through speculation, media infatuation (property shows), negative gearing, and an obsession with property.

John Howard is partly to blame too. He and his government loved making Australia’s middle aged middle class feel incredibly wealthy because their houses were ballooning in value. It was part of the reason for his electoral success. Rudd’s government introduced the first home buyers’ boost just when property was correcting, and all that money went into the hands of real estate agents and baby boomer investors.

The outcome of this situation is that nobody has any time. Two incomes are the norm, and working hours are long. The average house price is something like seven times the average annual income – while historic averages are more like three. So everyone is so very busy paying off ridiculous mortgages making some other people feel wealthy.

A colleague commented the other day that the death of volunteerism in churches has led to the rise of the megachurches. I say the death of volunteerism is surely linked to the busyness due to the housing bubble. (Volunteerism, of course, is not entirely dead; but it’s not as flourishing as it once was. The reason for this is not simply the selfishness of Gen X and Y.)

So with no time to volunteer or help, people need/want churches which do it all for them, with a large paid staff to do all the things which the ‘laity’ once had the time to do. My colleague’s theory, then, is that this situation means megachurches work best for the busy lifestyle of today.

I feel angry and disenfranchised by the way things have gone. I hate this obsession with property; I hate that I have ended up spending a lot of time thinking about it. I think we have a huge house of cards, and there is this part of me which longs for it all to come crashing down. The other part of me dreads the pain this will case so many people, the overly-indebted Gen X and Y, particularly.

But the society which will emerge in the aftermath of the coming financial crisis has to be better than the one we have now. In hardship and humility, we may just reconnect with each other. We may have time for each other. We may lose the Australian obsession with property and wealth.

Puritan and Pietist contending within evangelicalism

cover of Reformed and Always ReformingRoger Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Theology. (Baker Academic, 2007)

In outlining the difference between conservative and postconservative evangelical theology, Olson makes a fascinating proposal. For him, evangelicalism has always faced the challenge and rewards of its dual origins in two different streams of Christianity – Puritan and Pietist. The Puritan stream has emphasised doctrinal correctness and seen theology as the task of systemising the Bible into doctrines and then defending these formulations (basically already completed) against innovations. The Pietist stream has tended to make the experience of conversion and discipleship the primary mode of faith, with doctrine flowing from this. (This is a simplification of his generalisation, so bear that in mind before picking holes in it.) I don’t identify with either of these streams, but I am very sympathetic to the postconservative evangelical theologians.

Today, conservative evangelicals (inheritors of the Puritan stream) tend to look at the Bible primarily as a means of information. Postconservative evangelicals (inheritors of the Pietist stream) look at the Bible just as much as a means of transformation and encounter; just as important as propositions are stories, parables, poetry in the Bible which call for our response and participation. Postconservatives also believe that no post-canonical formulation of doctrine can be seen as final and beyond questioning; they tend to encourage theological imagination and creativity.

Olson believes conservatives are susceptible to an ironic kind of traditionalism. Despite the fact they tend to downplay tradition as a source for theology, conservatives will often defend Reformation (or later) formulations of doctrine as fixed and final, because they take them to be the only faithful way to understand the biblical witness.

On the Road 51: Exploitation in Bangkok, the story of Rachel and Leah, and Dave Andrews on Fear vs Love

I’ve just released issue 51 of On the Road, the journal of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand. This one is the Women’s Issue. Inside, you’ll find a personal narrative from Bessie Pereira, one of the first women to be ordained in the Anglican Church of Australia and now director of a house church network. Andreana Reale gives a succinct and punchy defence of women in ministry. Jeanette Mathews offers a close reading of the Rachel and Leah story, while Sandra Lowther-Owens reflects on faith in hard times and Jen Noonan writes about the sexual exploitation of women in Bangkok in the context of a conference on women doing theology. There is also a new article from Dave Andrews about the two narratives running from biblical times to now – fear versus love.

Religion as a life sentence

I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who’d just as soon dangle us all from a hook. And I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus. But I could never quite feature the two of them living in the same house. You wind up walking on eggshells, never knowing which… is at home at the moment.
– Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible

I’ve been listening to The Poisonwood Bible in the car. I didn’t read it when it came out; I was biased against it because it was a book club favourite. But two tapes in, I’m finding it an enthralling novel. A Southern Baptist family move to the Congo to live as missionaries there in the 1950s; Nathan Price, the father, is a harsh and stubborn man, not willing to learn from the Africans – or his wife, from whom this quote comes.

Jesus is tender sometimes, but is just as often harsh, especially with hypocrites. But still her quote resonates with me. Faith asks us to live out a particular way of life, at odds with the world. And we have do that without certainty. We shouldn’t think of salvation as ‘life insurance’ – yet often we do, and if it doesn’t pay out, then we have just been given a life sentence.