Yesterday evening, I led a prayer meeting linked to the "30 days of prayer for Islam" campaign sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance in Germany. The growth of Islam in Europe is a hot topic in Germany right now, especially after the recent arrest of three would-be terrorists, two of which turned out to be German converts to the Muslim faith.
How do we react to the fact that another truth system is gaining ground? Looking at it in a purely postmodern/relativistic way, it shouldn’t matter too much. Someone has another idea of truth — so what? As long as I am allowed to keep my own version, I shouldn’t be concerned too much. But of course, I am not buying into that …
First of all, I think there might be some real danger in a large-scale Islamization of Europe, at least in the long run: If one day, Islamic political interest became dominant in our country, I fear that the choice of your own truth and your own religion would be done away with rather fast. Fortunately, this frightening perspective does not seem to be realistic any time in the near future. Still, Islam is growing in Germany.
The second, and much more important reason why I think we cannot sit back and do nothing is because we do have a metanarrative to defend. I’ve argued before that I don’t think we can live without one, and that we have the best metanarrative there is — and a non-violent one, at that. The question then is, how do we face the growth of a new belief system in a non-violent way?
I tried to illustrate the proper approach at church yesterday evening by imagining what we would do if the local Islamist union (yes, we do have that in Freudenstadt) set out to build a large mosque in our city. I proposed two possible responses:
- We could gather all believers from our city and go for a large protest march, leading from the building city right to the mayor’s office. We could carry signs saying "We don’t need no mosque here!" and "Let them build their mosques in Turkey!" (and while we’re at it, the logical next step would be something like "All Muslims are terrorists, anyway" and "Send all foreigners home". The result? Well, the non-believers all around would be confirmed in their view that all religious folks are completely insane, anyway. And we would have resorted to the very violence that caused the total rejection of metanarratives in postmodern thinking. Not good, then.
- We could let them build their mosque. Why not, actually? They have the right to do it under our constitution (with it’s guaranteed freedom of religion, which is a great treasure we don’t want to lose), anyway. At the same time, we will go back to our church and pray for the Holy Spirit to act through us in a new, mighty way. We would then devote all of our energies to proclaiming and living our own (better, even best) metanarrative in a positive way — and see to it, that God’s work is so clearly expressed in our private and church lives, that nobody even cares to go to the new mosque, because they’re all coming to us to see what God is doing. How about that for a non-violent defense of a metanarrative?Of course, having said that, it becomes apparent that the ideal approach would be to implement solution (2) even right now, without waiting for a specific "threat" to arise. Why not push the metanarrative just today — but in a positive, non-violent way. We’ve got the best message there is, so why hide it?
So, in the postmodern world, truth is somehow defined by the community — "local" truth, that is. This is a necessary step, because postmodern thinkers do not believe in the autonomous, thinking self anymore (does that sound like a contradiction, or what?). But then, who or what defines the community? It cannot be the sum of all its individual members, because they are undefinable, in a flux, ever-changing, nothing, really. The only thing that I can up with is that the community is somehow defined by a shared, local truth. But see, here we have a problem. The community defines the truth which defines the community. At the end, both community and truth become totally arbitrary, meaningless values. And we all succumb to the usual postmodern depression, fall into Derrida’s abyss, or whatever …
But, wait! Maybe there’s hope. There’s one community — yes, you guessed right: I am talking, as usual, about the Spirit-filled community — which is not defined by a circular (non-)definition, but rather by an external standard. The Spirit which indwelles all of the believers is the defining factor of the community and the source of its truth (which, we claim, is more than just local). So this community is different. It is unique. Maybe it is the "right" one.
Now, that sounds awfully exclusivist (and, therefore, oppressive). But, is it exclusive, when there are no other candidates to be excluded?
How can you seriously reject a metanarrative? Postmodern thinkers who do claim it is terrible how individual "local" narratives elevate themselves to meta-narratives beyond the
scope of their community context and claim to be universal, thereby judging other local narratives inferior. I’d say, by the same standards, the meta-meta-narrative of postmodernism, which elevates itself even higher, beyond all supposedly universal meta-narratives, judges them inferior and even oppressively rejects them as false, thus claiming to be the only true narrative itself, should be regarded as more horrid. But, in saying so, am I not creating a meta-meta-meta-narrative? Then, again, if I was, you’d never be able to tell me, because your statement would constitute a meta-meta-meta-meta-narrative. I think I’d better stop right here. Isn’t this ridiculous?
I have already mentioned (in one of my replies to Brad Andersen) that I cannot but see the Christian story as a meta-narrative. Its claims to exclusivity, universality, and absolute truth are completely incompatible with the post-modern portrait of a "local story" within a community. Yet, I do think that the story of faith, i.e. the story of the Spirit-filled community, is able to escape the post-modern criticism against meta-narratives for a number of reasons.
One of them has just re-surfaced in my reading of Anthony Thiselton’s Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise: In chapter 3 ("Do All Controlling Models in Religion Serve Manipulative Purposes?") Thiselton refers to the New Testament, to Luther’s "theology of the cross", to Bonhoeffer’s writings and to JÃ¼rgen Moltmann in order to show that the Christian story is not promoting power and glory for its proponents. Criticism levelled against it from the days of Nietzsche through Heidegger, Foucault, and Rorty, has therefore no base: The Christian community is not seeking to promote itself above all other communities.
Rather, it is seeking to promote Jesus Christ, the liberator, who sets people free from oppression. But, that’s already another argument …
Antti Hirviniemi has joined our recent discussion on post-modernism and the knowledge of God by posting to his own blog. In his summary of my statements about post-modern epistemology, he remarks that
[…] Christoph takes a generally pessimistic (perhaps realistically so) view of postmodernism […]
I’m not sure I do. I am in the process of formulating my stance towards post-modernism for my Ph.D. dissertation. So far, I haven’t completely worked out my conclusion on this question — which, first of all, depends on how you define post-modernism. And, again, that’s something I’m not sure you’re even able to do.
Anyways, I have recently written up a partial definition, along with the pros and cons I find in post-modern thinking in a presentation I made to my doctoral promoters while in Amsterdam. To summarize a little bit (you can read the article here), I find positive as well as negative aspects to the underlying philosophy.
Brad Anderson has some interesting thoughts on Augustine, the knowledge of God, and its relation to (post-)modern thinking.
In his short summary of the movement from modernism to post-modern basics, he remarks that,
This shift in thinking is what has allowed faith to enter back into the public arena of thought Ã¯Â¿Â½ because in the postmodern context, Ã¯Â¿Â½faithÃ¯Â¿Â½ is as valid an interpretive framework as feminism, post-colonialism and many others are.
Of course, I’d like to add that what is direly lacking in post-modernism is any kind of validation to that faith — "true faith" isn’t an objective category any more. The only thing that may lead to the discovery (no, that’s too modernist — the definition) of "true faith" (where "true" is a function of a particular context in post-modernism) is through the consensus of the community. And that is usually derrived from pure pragmatic thinking: We’ll accept whatever seems to work for us.
Whatever we may think about this kind of "truth" and the underlying epistemology, it highlights the importance of living a highly practical faith that "works" so well that the people around us cannot but acknowledge its truth. As the old saying goes, we’ll preach the word at all times (but "preaching", again, would be very modernist), only we’ll use much more than words.