snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Thursday, November 02, 2006

chronological snobbery & postmodernism

“‘Why - damn it - it’s medieval’, I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as abuse… Barfield made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery’, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period’, and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, chapter 13

Well, having had a week to cogitate on the things we heard at the WTS emerging church conference, I have to say that one thing which we who have some sympathy for the emerging church need to be on our guard against is a sort of chronological snobbery towards theologians and theologies of the past. Simply noting that a thinker did his or her work in the 4th century BC or the 17th century or the 19th century or whatever has never weighed heavily in my mind for or against the truth or falsehood of his or her claims nor the cogency or lack thereof of his or her arguments. Only as I found myself being swept up by the savvy and chic of making the “hermeneutical turn” and the glitz and glamour of being “relevant” did chronological snobbery begin to creep into my heart. You see, most of my college education consisted of studying arguments laid out by men from centuries and even millennia past that continue to vex and compel undergraduates and professors emeritus alike. Philosophical and theological arguments do not come with expiration dates on them, but rather they, unless refuted, have indefinite shelf-lives.
But our snobbery is often a tad more subtle than Lewis’ had been before Barfield laid into him. We tend to pay lip-service to those who have gone before us in the Christian theological tradition by saying that they “were good for their times” or that “I would have sided with him had I been there in his day,” and then, having given them this formal nod of approval, we proceed to ignore them, not unlike the teen who patiently pretends to hang on his Grandmother’s every word of advice while simultaneously discounting everything she says as quaint, antique, hopelessly behind the times and, therefore, utterly negligible. Often our recognition of past thinkers having been “bound by their contexts” is simply a means of justifying treating them with a sort of benign neglect and, though we would deny it, we do sometimes functionally use the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse (read, “you modernist/rationalist...jerk”). (Perhaps we need to be reminded that at the resurrection we may have occasion to personally explain to Calvin, Hodge, the Scholastics, Medievals and the like why we slandered and disregarded them so.) Of course, we will acknowledge in a show of epistemic humility that we too are “context bound” and that someday our notions may grow stale and useless as well. But what is important is that the contexts by which we are bound are the current ones and the contexts which bound our forebears are not. We tend to think of ideas as being like manna in the wilderness which, if eaten immediately, will nourish us, but, if stored, will be full of maggots by morning.
In my estimation this line of reasoning uncritically assumes the false premise that the contexts by which thinkers were bound in the past have nothing in common with the contexts by which we are bound presently. But a moment’s reflection upon this premise, once baldly stated, reveals it for the sham that it is. Is our context one of religious and philosophical pluralism wherein Christianity is but one (marginal) voice among many? So it was in the days of Justin Martyr. Is our context one in which we can look back upon a checkered history of an imperialism that is petering out before our very eyes? So it was in the days of Augustine. In fact, many of the arguments used by the Skeptics of Augustine’s day are essentially the same as some of the ones being dressed up and trotted out as critiques of Foundationalism today. We are neither so wise nor so special a case as to be able to afford ignoring those who have gone before us in the theological enterprise. Powdered wig or no, Jonathan Edwards said some things that continue to demand our attention and even our assent. We need to recognize that many elements of our own context have analogues in the contexts of the great Christian figures of the past and some of their ideas and arguments may well still be of service to the church. When we believe them to be faulty they deserve our respectful critique and straightforward disagreement rather than a patronizing tip of our the hats before we go on about our business as though they had never said anything worthy of our consideration.
I’m not advocating a sort of naïve traditionalism that makes theologically normative a figment of our historical imaginations but rather a critical interaction with the theological tradition that eschews prejudice against thinkers of different times as much as it eschews prejudice against contemporary thinkers of different nationalities and ethnicities, one that weighs arguments according to their respective merits rather than according to their currency. Only then will the Reformed or emerging Christian truly be like a householder who brings out of his treasure both what is new and what is old.


Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

Some good thoughts....but did I just read you defending Foundationalism??

Say it ain't so!

The flip side of your coin is, of course, just because it's old doesn't make it better (aka The KJV Defense).

1:57 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

I knew that comment on Skeptics and Foundationalism would give that impression. No. I wholeheartedly endorse the critiques of classical foundationalism by Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. I would say that the Skeptics had a point then in Augustine's time and they have a point (perhaps even a more significant point) now in our own. They effectively dismantled certain mistaken notions about human knowledge, certain mistaken notions which cropped up again a few centuries later in the post-Enlightenment West. And so some postmoderns AND analytic philosophers like like the Reformed Epistemologists (and David Hume in the 18th century, come to think of it) were right to take the Skeptics' arguments off the shelf, dust them off and then use them to knock-down classical Foundationalism. But then Augustine too had a point in his time that we would do well to hear: global skepticism is nonsensical, self-referentially incoherent. Some of Augustine's arguments are cogent, plain and simple, and some even have applicability to some of the sillier forms of postmodernism. And finally, older may not be better, but when an older writer has a good argument and states it well, drawing from them has the benefit of enlarging our world of discourse. It serves to remind us that not everything of importance has been said here and now or even within the confines of our century but that much that is worth our consideration has been said else-where and else-when.

7:15 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Oh, I meant to add that the reason the Skeptics' arguments can be taken down and reapplied is precisely because really good arguments do not go bad with age. In that respect, they are more like wine than like eggs.

7:19 AM  
Blogger A Sojourner said...

Mark, do you sleep??

8:09 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

Golly, this post is sooooo, like, 14 hours ago. I'm not sure I can take it seriously anymore given my immediate horizons of inquiry. :-)

But, good stuff.

I think I'd want to say that, despite our own situatedness, part of what a historical sensibility gives us is the ability to grow more and more self-conscious about our own context in light of all the ways it differs from prior contexts (even if we only encounter those prior contexts from within the horizon of our own).

Thus the humble and receptive study of history is indispensible to our ability to navigate the present and to contextual in appropriate ways.

But it also seems to me that this same study of the past enables us to make historical judgments (even if they are also provisional and limited) about the relative health and helpfulness of earlier historical periods. Thus, it needn't be snobbery to say that, for instance, 19th century neo-scholastic Thomism was stuck in a rut or that a particular period was a philosophical dry spell.

Part of what I like about postmoderism is that, by turning the modern critical apparatus against modernity itself, it re-opens historical, philosophical, and theological inquiry to vast stretches of history that modernity had dismissed or denigrated.

12:33 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Joel, yea and amen.
I would agree that "it needn't be snobbery to say that, for instance, 19th century neo-scholastic Thomism was stuck in a rut or that a particular period was a philosophical dry spell." In principle, I haven't even any objection to saying that a whole period or movement that may have been exceedingly prolific produced nothing of value, if they were enthralled by a certain fallacy or their arguments hinged on a false premise in such a way as to be irreparable. What matters is the cogency of the argument or the insightfulness of the observation. I would also endorse your description of the benefits of a robust historical sensibility.

9:46 PM  
Blogger John Fouad Hanna said...

Bravo. Well-said. Marvelous. Encore. Encore.

Very truly yours,

a naive, un-selfconscious, decontextualized rationalist

4:12 PM  

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