Anglo-American Postmodernity

I’m taking a class on Theological Methods right now. Basically, that’s the study of different approaches to writing and thinking about theology. For the class each student is responsible for two presentations based on assigned readings and a major research paper (25 pages or so).

At the beginning of the class I picked up presentations to do on the 4th and 5th week of the class. Last week and this week. I’ve had to read the assigned books particularly closely and then put together a 20-25 minute presentation (about 10 pages). Needless to say, these last couple of weeks I’ve been a bit focused on those tasks. Add to this a big change in the class schedule between this week and last. Last week we met on Thursday afternoon, this week we met last night. So instead of a week, I had about 3 days of preparation.

But, prepare I did. And last night offered my summary of two chapters from Nancey Murphy’s Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics.

It’s a worthwhile book because so much of the discussion on postmodernity assumes the sort of deconstructionalist, relativist side of things, which isn’t inherent to everything that is postmodern but is, rather, limited to a particular form of postmodernity, much of which originated from continental Europe. This is frustrating because everything with a hint of movement from modern assumptions gets lumped in with the most frustrating of this philosophy, pushing those of us who seek to discover new approaches to defend such approaches from what are really rather unsophisticated charges.

This is important because so much of missional/emerging theology is not about pushing for relevance as much as it is really, authentically postmodern. All throughout the church people have discovered that the tools the modern period gave us are often either insufficient or even destructive.

Nancey Murphy’s book is not a particularly light read, but it’s not a hard read given the subject matter. I’d highly recommend it to those who are seeking a more coherent philosophic justification of newer forms of theology and church.

Oh, and another little curious change in the class worth mentioning. The professor who was to lead the class got sick (he’s now getting better) and another professor took over for the rest of the quarter. The new professor is Nancey Murphy.

Which means I spent about a half hour summarizing her book to the class and to her.

This sort of thing seems to keep happening to me.

Here’s an excerpt from my presentation:

Although both liberal and conservative expressions of theology have found relative success in many aspects of understanding both religious and scientific thought, they each have at their core key assumptions of modernity. By adopting the particular answers to these core questions, which are not wholly separate but indeed lead and feed into each other, a particular framework is constructed and direction of development established.[1] As these assumptions have weakened over the course of the last half century, both liberal and conservative theology have become weakened as well.[2] Their foundations are, it might be said, now past the point of retrofitting and the edifices built upon these are now in danger of imminent collapse, even as there are many on both sides not willing to accept this quite yet. For those seeking a more coherent picture of reality as it is presently understood, however, neither the liberal or conservative expressions of modern theology offer acceptable paths. Instead, these categories are no longer helpful and there is a need for new patterns of knowledge that better allow for a more holistic spectrum. Nancey Murphy points us in key directions to do just this.

She begins by looking briefly at two postliberal theologians.[3] George Lindbeck and Ronald Thiemann are very helpful in addressing key weaknesses of modern thought and contribute a great deal to new directions in theology, especially in their attempts to replace foundationalist thought with a model based less on a building metaphor and more on Quine’s web of belief.[4] Yet, aspects of their approach may not be as helpful to those who begin with core conservative assumptions.[5] The first of these core assumptions is the place Scripture has as a special authority, more so than experience. The second is that God is understood to interact with this world. Finally, any postmodern theology must allow for truth claims about Christianity in particular. While these core values may have been at the heart of conservative modern theology they are not inherent to modern philosophy and so should be able to find expression with any new formulation of theology. Key to this new formulation, for Nancey Murphy, is the work of Alasdair MacIntyre.


[1] “The choice of any one of these options tends to determine the choice of options from each of the other three pairs.” Murphy, 110.

[2] “It may be only a slight exaggeration to say that it has simply been impossible to do theology in an intellectually respectable way using the resources of modern thought.” Murphy, 112.

[3] Murphy, 115ff.

[4] See Murphy, 50ff. See also the diagrams on 120ff.

[5]Murphy, 118. Unlike modern thought, however, the differences are not inherent to the project and are not permanent. Rather, there is an expected convergence between liberal and conservative postmodern thought. To find this convergence, however, it seems important to not only move from one strand to the other, but to explore how each strand can best be expressed in postmodern terms and in doing this allow the two to meet in a suitable middle place.


Read the whole thing!

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