Have we mislaid our theological foundations?

Pilate asked the question long ago: “What is truth?”

Maybe Jesus’ silence in the wake of that question means we should not seek to answer it either, but I am troubled by the thought that many of our contemporary philosophies and theologies begin with the conviction that Pilate’s question is non-sense.

Put simply — surely too simply — much modern theology appears to be built upon philosophical assumptions that deny the existence of truth as a real thing that is independent of our ability to grasp it. In place of such realist conceptions of truth, we have a variety of conceptions that all more or less limit “truth” to whatever we are able to agree about. Such conceptions make truth dependent on human cognition and perception, and argue for some form of cultural, social, or linguistic construction of all truths.

This is not particularly problematic if you are an atheist, pragmatic philosophy professor. But to deny the existence of truth surely must not be compatible with Christianity that has any semblance to the historic, orthodox, Trinitarian faith of the last 2,000 years.

I know my thinking here is poorly informed and woefully ignorant of lots of reading that I should have done before venturing into these waters. But as I read more contemporary theology that appears to stand on the backs on philosophers, who not only deny the existence of God but also deny the possibility that anything could exist outside the ability of humans to conceive of it, I find myself wondering how any of their theological conclusions could be useful or sound. If you start from the position that God does not exist and cannot possibly exist, how can you do theology at all?

Paul wrote that we see now as in a mirror darkly but that one day we will see clearly. Much of our theology today appears to be inspired by philosophers who argue that all there is and all we can ever expect is the darkness.

[For those wishing to wade into these waters, I found this article by Alvin Plantinga challenging but helpful.]


19 thoughts on “Have we mislaid our theological foundations?

  1. Post-moderns are not the first to find that truth is… inconvenient. So, something less is preferred. And, much is written and said to justify settling for that something which is less. Sad. But, truth is to inconvenient.

  2. I think the first thing to admit is that modern theology is a varied beast, and of course the concept of what is modern is debatable. Surely in a field that dates nearly 2000 years, Barth, Bonhoeffer and those theologians of the 18th and 19th century are still modern and it would be difficult indeed to say that such theologians have no concept of truth as an objective reality. But there are also plenty of theologians today who would hold the same conviction. Of course Christian theology struggles with epistemic questions, and it would be negligent for theologians not to explore areas of philosophy in order to help itself to language to describe God. There is more to theology than enlightenment fueled anti-realism. I would even go so far as to say that such a position in the entire history of thinking about God is very small part of theology.

      1. I doubt how vocal they are is justification for generalization. It’s like saying just because America has a very vocal problem with evolution and Christianity, theology itself must fall the same difficulty.

        1. If you’re going to make the claim that modern theology bankrupt in it’s understanding of truth, then it’s not a case of “how many” but “who”. Particularly I’d like to see why you want to say Barth, Bonhoeffer, Rahner, Bauckham, Moltmann, Hauerwas, Hart, Wright, Williams, Ratzinger, Schillebeeckx, et al..recognised and influential theological thinkers within the theological community have either, a philosophically loaded concept of truth that is deficient by your standard.. Or why they should be ignored as influential theology.

        2. Did I saw “bankrupt”?

          I’d be happy to be shown how you can have an anti-realist epistemology and also have a belief in a real God. My post was written as a question for a reason. It is a question.

        3. “see” did you “see” bankrupt. And yes, that seems to be the gist of your highly rhetorical question. After all. “If you start from the position that God does not exist and cannot possibly exist, how can you do theology at all?” does imply an answer.

        4. “say” … of course.

          It certainly implies an answer, but I’m open to having someone educate me about how the answer is actually opposite of what appears to me to be the case.

        5. Pardon that first response. Too snarky.

          My observations grow out of what I read and hear both in seminary and around the blogosphere in United Methodism. I am not sure how to come to terms with your contention that the theologies built on the foundation of anti-realist epistemologies are the minority. How do we quantify it? Numbers alone can’t be it. One extremely influential writer outweighs dozens of lesser lights.

        6. I’m not saying that such theologies don’t exist or are irrelevant. Of course not. Much of Barth’s work is a response to the empty theology coming our of his setting. But by and large I think he’s the influential one from that setting. Your claim just doesn’t add up with what I see coming out in journals and peer reviewed publications where I am from. And it’s not what I see coming out of the influential theologians of our time.Such as, The heads of the Anglican and Catholic churches

          Perhaps your (in my view) very much justified complaint is more unique to your experiences, as it does not extend to mine. Again my thoughts are less a reflection on what you said, but how you said it. I do not agree that this is the state of modern theology.

  3. There is a distinction to be made between anti-realisms (whether creative or existential, to use Plantiga’s taxonomy) and post-foundationalism. This is not distiction Plantinga made– but he should have.

    Instead, in the Realist camp, Plantinga essentially equates “universals” with “other minds, or propositions” as things realists would all say actually exist, but anti-realists, in one form or another, would not.

    And there’s the trouble: Universals are simply not in the same category as the other two. As soon as you get to universals, you really must ask, “on whose foundations or what foundations are you saying X either IS a universal in the first place, or has the properties you say it has.”

    Post-foundationalism presses those questions. And it does so not in reaction against either realism (per se) nor even as an expression of anti-realism. It does so on the basis of a rejection of an uncritical over-reliance by Enlightenment (and some Classical) thinking on universals as “givens.” The trouble is, universals are not givens AS universals. Not even in science. Universals are in fact creations of culture. And who gets to create and propagate which universals AS universals in their contexts has had a lot to do with how those cultures tend to work things out. And, of course, without naming the un-namables on the Internet, it was such “false” universals that have led to genocides, eugenics, and other “cleansing” and segregationist tactics by many cultures, nations, and groups across history.

    So one is rightly suspicious of universals as universals.

    Post-foundationalism in Christian theology is thus not necessarily (or even actually) a species of anti-realism. It is rather involves a critical rather than an presumed “common sense” reading of universal claims.

    And it goes one step further. It denies one has to have universalist foundations at all to make valid claims.

    It does that on the basis that if you look at both Hebrew thought (in the Bible) and a variety of non-idealist species of classical thought (Heraclitus, for example), you find it’s quite possible to build coherent theology and philosophy without reliance on someone else’s scheme of universals. Seriously, universals just don’t matter in the Bible. The Bible is much, much more interested in particulars, in life concretely lived in actual communities. Even where Paul appeals to things like “whatever is good, whatever is noble, whatever is kind” etc. in Philippians, he’s not making a claim about universals or even an appeal to them as foundations. Rather he’s saying, Live like this! Focus your hearts, minds and bodies on embodying goodness, kindness, holiness, each of which has primarily concrete rather than primarily “universal” properties.

    As an entrée into this way of doing theology, one that does not deny realism at all but rather critiques claims to universals and uncritical foundationalisms, see “Theology without Foundation” available here. http://www.amazon.com/Theology-Without-Foundations-Religious-Theological/dp/068700280X

    And note the pedigree of the folks involved in this project– not “relativist liberals” at all– but theologians and ethicists within Methodist, Anabaptist, Reformed and Jewish traditions (primarily) who are deeply committed to lived discipleship to Jesus Christ and the authority of scripture.

    1. Thanks for this typically thoughtful response. I debated including the Plantinga article because it would create that impression that he is the source of the questions in my post. Actually, the article is something I found after beginning to wrestle with the questions, which came to my mind after reading a general introductory book on epistemology by Christopher Norris.

      While reading Norris, I kept coming across references to philosophers and theories that I recognize as underlying some of the things I hear about a lot these days — including the post-liberalism of a Hauerwas among others.

      After reading your comment, though, I did come across some places where it appears Plantinga rejects classical foundaitonalism as well, so I’m not sure he is unaware of the difference or unmindful of it. But, as I say, I’m not a disciple of his. Just a novice in questions of epistemology and how they relate to theology.

    2. Do you think there is a correlation, resemblance, or similarity in the Universalism of today and the Sophists in Paul’s time?
      Philo, St. Paul and Plato are considered in the writing of Winters. He contends that Paul’s opponents in Corinth were sophists, and that Paul counters the sophistic movement in both 1 and 2 Corinthians.
      Philo has contempt for the sophists who he seems to believe have no real desire for truth.
      Bruce W. Winter. “Paul and Sophistic Conventions,”

  4. My “take” of your post is that you have a concern for the integrity of gospel truth as proclaimed, not so much with the entangled debates between the philosophers (be they modern, postmodern, or other). Am I right? In his own way, N.T. Wright battles for the “integrity” of gospel truth via his insistence that when we are discussing Jesus, “by all means let us have the debate. But…it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.” (London Times, 6-11-10)

    1. Yes, although I do worry that some of our theology might be starting from places that undermine the gospel by virtue of its assumptions.

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