June 2010


I’m on partial vacation this week, so I apologize that my weekly post is one day late.

I spent last week at the biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the primarily organization that accredits theological schools like Wesley Seminary@IWU.  We will apply for associate membership in October 2011 and hopefully be approved at the next meeting 2012.  It was very helpful last week to get a sense of the association’s flavor and trajectory.

A number of aspects of the meeting were quite encouraging to me.  President Smith of IWU encouraged the design team of the seminary to aim at where ATS was headed rather than where it currently was and we are getting very close to seeing how the two might very well intersect in two years.

First, ATS will be looking very carefully at revising its residency and duration requirements these next two years.  I would argue that we are actually very close to where they currently are on this score.  For example, we currently require 24 of the 75 hours of our program to be completed “onsite” in an intensive format.  One could argue this is the equivalent of “one year” of a three year degree, which is the requirement.  Where we do not currently meet the standard is in relation to the MA, which they currently require to be “one year” in residence, while our MA can be done entirely online with the exception of orientation.

However, Northwest Nazarene was granted associate membership this year and their MDIV is entirely online.  The reason is that associate membership is currently purely a matter of resources, not meeting admission standards.  Unfortunately, this entry loophole of sorts may be closed by next meeting.  Thanks NNU 🙂

We will see how other proposed revisions will go.  The current duration requirements are MA=two years; MDIV=three years.  Our MDIV meets their standards fine, since they accredit down to 72 hour MDIVs.  One could argue that our MAs also currently meet their standards since it takes two years to do it.  They will, however, likely shift to an approach that goes by hours rather than years, so the question is whether they will accredit a 36 hour MA, which has become quite popular.

A final item of great interest has to do with library resources.  They currently have some rather strong expectations of any satellite campus regarding a standing library.  This has caused some issues for groups wanting to offer classes on an ongoing nature at church sites or sites that do not have standing libraries.  Hopefully they will recognize the increasingly available nature of electronic resources (for example, the entire library of Andover Newton seminary has been scanned by Google Books and will become available as soon as the legal issues are solved) and the power of Off Campus Library Services.

The presentation of Dan Aleshire, Executive Director of ATS, was entirely on target and I’ll post the link as soon as his paper is available.  In general, I sense the association shifting from a focus on structures (residency, library holdings) to outcomes (assessment of whether students are leaving with requisite learning).

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If one postmodern shift in focus is to pay more attention to the role of power in knowledge, the second is a shift toward pragmatism–what knowledge seems to “work” and what does not.  If we inevitably see the world from within time-conditioned frameworks from which we cannot free ourselves, then we cannot acquire a God-like point of view on what is true.  Our sense of truth will always be skewed to some extent at best. 

Coming to terms with this situation, postmodernism has focused on what we might call “pragmatic” tests for truth.  If our paradigms inevitably impose meaning on the data of the world, then the best test for truthfulness is what works.  So Thomas Kuhn has shown the degree to which paradigm shifts in science have to do with the voices in power and trends in history.  But it is clear that most of these paradigm shifts have resulted in understandings that are more useful than the ones before.  Say what you like about the absolute truth of quantum physics as a paradigm–it has brought us incredibly “useful” “truths.”

The appropriate Christian response is not to rail against every aspect of postmodern discussion–as if attaching the label “postmodern” to an idea is adequate enough to dismiss it.  It is this sort of move that has appropriately won many Christians a reputation for being bad thinkers.  There are some compelling elements to these discussions that cannot be dismissed simply by stamping a label on the box they come in.

On the other hand, Christians believe in a Guarantor of truth, and Christians believe that God has a word for the world and his church.  The notion of revelation is fundamental to us as Christians.  Meaning for us thus cannot be completely random, and the power that steers truth cannot be merely human power.  Truth may turn out to be more sophisticated than we thought before, but we as Christians believe in truth.  The next section explores some key ways that we as Christians might process and appropriate some of the insights postmodernism has brought us.

For the beginning of chapter 2: Priority of the Heart 1

Postmodern Trends

The word postmodernism gives within itself the key to what it is.  It is “after” modernism.  It involves a critique of modernism.  In a nutshell, it is a critique of any sense that we might achieve any kind of God-like objectivity about the world.

Of course some have gone to an extreme in making this critique, as if it were almost impossible for any words to have any stable meaning at all (deconstruction) or that truth was only a matter of the power to get others to adopt an idea (poststructuralism).  Most of us seem to get along well enough getting others to pass the salt, and our laptops and cars seem to reflect something other than the power of some engineer to convince us of her ideas.  At some point such pessimism can get a little over the top.  The picture simply is not as bleak as some made it out to be!

Nevertheless, these voices have exposed elements to the truth equation that we do not always see and yet that are crucial to the process of the way we interpret words and the world.  On the one hand, with regard to words, one strand of late modern and postmodern thinkers have shown us how flexible words are.  A previous generation argued over whether the Bible was inspired or not.  The postmodern critique has made it clear that an even more crucial question is which meaning of the words of the Bible is inspired!

An even more substantial critique has to do with the frameworks through which we understand things, the paradigms that make up what is often called worldview.  For example, Thomas Kuhn fairly well demonstrated that even within the queen of knowledge for modernism–the sciences–we do not find objectivity.  Kuhn showed that scientists approach data within frameworks of understanding or paradigms that often shift as much for social reasons as because of evidence.  Francois Lyotard actually defined postmodernism as a kind of skepticism about overarching frameworks by which one might understand the world.

Instead of objectivity in truth seeking, postmodern voices suggest two other key forces at work.  One is power.  For example, Kuhn showed the role of that power played in the changing of scientific paradigms.  Someone as influential as Einstein may have questioned the trajectory that quantum mechanics took in the mid-twentieth century.  But he got old and died.  His voice is no longer at the table–is powerless to continue objecting.  So what was once a viable alternative is no longer.  The alternative paradigm has won.

Michel Foucault more than anyone else showed how paradigms subtly shift over time.  Some of his major works sketch out how key elements of society like sexuality, sanity, and punishment have changed without us hardly aware that someone might look at such things differently.  Throughout his historical studies, he fully acknowledged that his particular version of these histories was an assertion of power.  The way one tells the story involves a choosing of one perspective over another, of one set of the data over others, and such selection and deselection was for him an act of violence.  If the modernist Francis Bacon once said in the 1500s that “knowledge is power.”  Foucault would reverse it: “power is knowledge.”

If one postmodern shift in focus is to pay more attention to the role of power in knowledge, the second is a shift toward pragmatism–what knowledge seems to “work” and what does not…

As often happens with labels, the word postmodernism has become largely unhelpful.  Not only has it become politicized both by those who oppose “it” and like “it,” but different individuals use the word in different ways.  We often get the impression that most who use the word–both in favor and against–do not really understand what it is all about.  Some use it as some evolutionary step in the progress of human culture–some have now suggested what the next “ism” might be. [1]  To say the least, anyone of this mindset is not using the word postmodernism in its philosophical sense but to label a particular cultural trend.

In terms of philosophy, postmodernism is not a new “thing” at all but an “un-thing,” an undoing of the most recently dominant perspective on the world, modernism.  Postmodernism thus means “after modernism.”  In its most extreme forms, the reaction to “modernism” was a revolution against it.  Extreme postmodern trajectories rejected any definitive meaning to words and considered truth more a matter of power than of anything fixed about the world or ourselves.

It is easy enough to see how many Christians would react strongly to these sorts of ideas.  Is not the Bible true?  Is not truth more than the changing whims of those with enough power to convince or force others to see it their way?  Nevertheless, it is possible to process these sorts of challenges to our assumptions and come out the other end with a deeper appreciation for the way we and the world are, as well as how God deals with the way things are.

Indeed, some Christian responses to postmodern trends are potentially very enriching to Christian faith, particularly the work of James K. A. Smith. [2]  The Wesleyan tradition in particular seems very well equipped to resonate with what seems to be true about postmodernism without falling into its excesses.  In particular, postmodernism points toward a greater appreciation for what is in our “guts” as often far more primary and enduring than what we are thinking with our heads.  We would argue that this focus fits very well with Wesleyan sensibilities, making our current situation a great time for the Wesleyan tradition.

Next week: Postmodern Trends

[1] E.g., Digimodernism ***

[2] Cf. James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? ** Radical Orthodoxy *** and especially Desiring the Kingdom ***