Saturday, 3 November 2007

Postmodernists Believe in Objective Reality too!

In recent conversations with Stephen from Emerging from Babel, the question has arisen as to the adequacy of postmodern theory in helping us formulate a theological hermeneutic. My purpose here is to argue that the claim that the Bible as an external reality can shape our response to it (Childs' "coercion of the canonical shape") does not contradict the epistemological critique of postmodernism.

My thoughts are taken from James K.A. Smith's book, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (2000), specifically the chapter entitled: "The World as Limit: A Phenomenological Criteria".

Postmodernism claims that all articulations of truth function within the specific conditions of human finitude. A great way to signify this is Heidegger's use of the term Dasein ('there-being'; being-there, at a particular point, and not everywhere). Our perspective, shape by our context, inhibits us from ever being able to comprehend anything within the world exhaustively. My knowledge of an object cannot be adequate to the object itself. As such, there can be no normative interpretations.

But to deny that there are no normative interpretations is not to deny that there are no interpretive norms. There is an external reality, there is a given/gift - creation (and in this case God's gracious gift of the Bible) - that every interpreter encounters. This reality stands before our interpretations and is binding upon every construal. It is the phenomenological criterion of every construal, what Smith calls an 'empirical transcendental' (i.e. the world as given and experienced). The 'Bible' is not mine to be manipulated, it is rather the norm that judges my interpretations. The Bible does not prescribe a single "correct" interpretation, but it does preclude an infinite number of interpretations.

The idea that truth is 'subjective' does not mean that it can be whatever we want it to be. Rather, it means that 'truth' is dependent on the uncovering role of Dasein: "All truth is relative to Dasein's being - not "left to subjective discretion".

Two quotes:

"These empirical transcendentals urge themselves upon a plurality of interpreters and resist capricious construal, allowing for a plurality, but not an infinite number, of interpretive possibilities. ... Interpretation is not merely a subjective appropriation: it is a subjective construal of an objective reality."
These thoughts are relevant to the Childs/Brueggemann debate. I hope they can provide us with more precision as we stake out our respective positions.


Drew said...

Hey there! found your interesting blog via the web o' links of the blogosphere.

I think what you are pointing to here is a key distinction in the interaction between the subject and object where our knowledge is conditioned by the object but is not determined by it. And this goes the other way round to say that our subjectivity neither determines the objects of our perception. Knowledge of an object occurs in the interaction between self and other. Think of it as a ping between subject and object where one's perception shoots back and forth between existing cognitive structures and the object in question at light speed and shaping both simultaneously.

There is always a limit to a field of knowledge and often that limit is arbitrary and assigned by the value judgment of the subject. This is why, I think, critical theory offers a nice constructive side of postmodernism since it calls these limits into question when one abstracts understanding from the experience.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your comments, Drew. Please keep me updated with your thoughts.

I was fascinated by the YouTube clip on your blog, by the way ...

John C. Poirier said...


I am loathe to enter into a new conversation on your blog, but there are serious problems with Smith's views. You might want to take a look at John C. Poirier, "Why I'm Still Afraid: A Response to James K. A. Smith's *Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?*", *Westminster Theological Journal* 69 (2007) 175-84.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for that John. I've had a look at your seminary's website, you've certainly written a lot!

I'm still looking forward to your promised article on Dahl.

I haven't got round to reading your last comment. Sorry, but time and other responsiblities mean I can't write everyday. I will do as soon as possiblie. I hope to make my last post on "according to the Scriptures" at some point and then carry on the series.

Having said that, I'm not sure what you would disagree with in this post. As a tribute to our conversation, I actually left out the bit where he says: "Truth, then, is not something uncovered, it is instead the process of uncovering". Not because I disagree with him per se, but becuase I don't think that this alethiological statement can be made on the basis of philosophy alone. What counts as truth depends on the kergyma.

I hope you tick the boxes that are provided in these pop ups. They alert you via email once the conversation continues.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil, please contact me at poirier[at] so I can get your email address.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'm often uncertain what specific point you're driving at. In this case, I follow the argument — it's perfectly clear. But I'm not sure how it relates to the dialogue we've had on Childs and Brueggemann, and you don't explicitly say.

The main thing I take from postmodernism is this: there is no way to know, with certainty, which interpretation is correct.

It may be possible to demonstrate that some interpretations are not correct. Similarly, we may be able to demonstrate that some interpretations are more likely to be correct than others.

But, to a significant extent, we get out of the scriptures what we bring to the scriptures. The Bible conditions our understanding to a degree. But it's clear that people find their presuppositions confirmed again and again, and arguments tend to harden people in their positions rather than change people's positions.

Moreover, the Bible addresses topics that are not directly accessible to us for investigation. We are left with words, which convey things imperfectly. Words which were written hundreds of years ago, in another language, by people who were shaped by another culture. Words as part of a dialogue — a dialogue that we hear only one half of. (E.g., I would love to hear the Pharisees' side of their dispute with Jesus.)

These facts leave us with huge holes that create plenty of room for disagreement. I'm sure there is a truth, and I believe that the scriptures testify to that truth. But I'm also convinced that we each have only a very partial and imperfect understanding of the texts that testify (imperfectly!) that that truth.

Is this in any way a relevant response to your post? I'm not sure. I agree with what you wrote in the post, but it doesn't undermine my appreciation of Brueggemann as an interpreter of scripture.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Stephen,

you're right, I didn't make the connection to our conversation explicit. I don't think it speaks for either Brueggemann or Childs on its own, it just wanted to have it hovering in the background. The Bible, as an external reality, forces itself upon us and is not a victim of whatever we want it to say. I know you don't think that and neither does Brueggemann, but I feel that in practice Brueggemann often overemphasises the subjective dimension, such that Childs' proposal is rejected out of hand simply because he's making a claim about the true nature of the text. A more adequate response would be to look whether he is right: is there a kerygmatic element, does it make sense that we should value rather than suspect the tradents' decisions, do narrative frames colour and relativize their contents? Brueggemann, from what I've seen at least, seems to just repeat the epistemological claim about subjectivity, and use this philosophical insight as a basis to undermine Childs' claim that his method should become normative (a large claim, of course, but not intrinsically immoral or wrong. Canon means 'rule', which is intimately connected to ideas of authority). Brueggemann seems to be taking postmodern theory too far. Postmodernism cannot be used to evaluate truth claims, it just highlights the conditions under which we make them. As such, the fact that Childs has an interpretive agenda is not enough to deny his proposal that the church should indeed value rather then reject the work of the tradents. This value judgement (as you put it, and I agree) cannot be made on the basis of philosophical deconstruction. But that is what Brueggemann does. He reifies deconstruction to a “critical theological norm”, something Childs argues only the Bible can do.

This can be seen in Brueggemann's in depth review of Childs' Isaiah commentary (2001). I've got it on pdf, so I intend to post it along with my comments when I find the time.

I know these thoughts may be hard to follow, but I hope that I'm beginning to make some sense (whether I'm right or wrong). Perhaps my post on Brueggemann's review will help. I should add that I've come to this conclusion independently, after having really tried to live Brueggemann's approach for a couple of years. This is why I'm keen for critical responses to what I'm saying.

I appreciate the dialogue. Please do keep it up, and tell me if I'm being obscure!