Food for Thought

The following is an excerpt from James K. A. Smith’s, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? I’d love to hear your thoughts as you read Smith’s introduction to his vision for the postmodern church.

Apologetics and Witness in a Postmodern World

[C]lassical apologetics operates with a very modern notion of reason; “presuppositional” apologetics, on the other hand, is postmodern (and Augustinian!) insofar as it recognizes the role of presuppositions in both what counts as truth and what is recognized as true. For this reason, postmodernism can be a catalyst for the church to reclaim its faith not as a system of truth dictated by a neutral reason but rather as a story that requires “eyes to see and ears to hear.” The primary responsibility of the church as witness, then, is not demonstration but rather proclamation – the kerygmatic vocation of proclaiming the Word made flesh rather than the thin realities of theism that a supposedly neutral reason yields.
To put it another way, unless our apologetic proclamation begins from revelation, we have conceded the game to modernity. On this score, I side with an even earlier Parisian philosopher and proto-postmodernist, Blaise Pascal, who adamantly protested that the God revealed in the incarnation and the Scriptures – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus Christ – is to be distinguished from the (modern) god of philosophical theism. But even more importantly, this new apologetic – which is, in fact, ancient – is one that is proclaimed by a community’s way of life.21 As Peter Leithart has remarked, “The first and chief defense of the gospel, the first ‘letter of commendation’ not only for Paul but for Jesus, is not an argument but the life of the church conformed to Christ by the Spirit in service and suffering.”22 The church doesn’t have an apologetic; it is and apologetic.

From Modern Christianity to a Postmodern Church

If I am opposed to the epistemology, or theory of knowledge, that plagues modern Christianity, then I am also opposed to the ecclesiology (or lack thereof) that accompanies this modernist version of faith. Within the matrix of a modern Christianity, the base “ingredient” is the individual; the church, then, is simply a collection of individuals. Conceiving of Christian faith as a private affair between the individual and God – a matter of my asking Jesus to “come into my heart” – modern evangelicalism finds it hard to articulate just how or why the church has any role to play other than providing a place to fellowship with other individuals who have a private relationship with God. With this model in place, what matters is Christianity as a system of truth or ideas, not the church as a living community embodying its head. Modern Christianity tends to think of the church either as a place where individuals come to find answers to their questions or as one more stop where individuals can try to satisfy their consumerist desires. As such, Christianity becomes intellectualized rather than incarnate, commodified rather than the site of genuine community.
In discussing Christian faith emerging from modernity to postmodernity, however, I rarely speak of Christianity, and I resist talking about Christians as individuals; rather, I tend to speak of the church – indeed, with a capital C. I want to advocate a shift from modern Christianity to a postmodern church, one akin to the paradigm shift experienced by Neo [in The Matrix]. My point here is confessional: as attested in the Apostles’ Creed, I believe in the holy catholic church, and I believe that the very notion of the holy catholic church undoes the modern individualism that plagues contemporary evangelicalism.23 Indeed, we would do well to recover a much-maligned formula: “There is no salvation outside the church.” This doesn’t mean that a particular ecclesial body is the dispenser of grace or the arbiter of salvation; rather, there simply is no Christianity apart from the body of Christ, which is the church. The body is the New Testament’s organic model of community that counters the modernist emphasis on the individual.
The church does not exist for me; my salvation is not primarily a matter of intellectual mastery or emotional satisfaction. The church is the site where God renews and transforms us – a place where the practices of being the body of Christ form us into the image of the Son. What I, a sinner saved by grace, need is not so much answers as reformation of my will and heart. What I describe as the practices of the church include the traditional sacramental24 practices of baptism and Eucharist but also the practices of Christian marriage and child-rearing, even the simple but radical practices of friendship and being called to get along with those one doesn’t like! The church, for instance, is a place to learn patience by practice. The fruit of the Spirit emerges in our lives from the seeds planted by the practices of being the Spirit, it becomes a witness to a postmodern world (John 17). Nothing is more countercultural than a community serving the Suffering Servant in a world devoted to consumption and violence. But the church will have this countercultural, prophetic witness only when it jettisons its own modernity; in that respect postmodernism can be another catalyst for the church to be the church.

21. For further discussion of this new apologetic (following Robert Webber), see James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 179-82.
22. Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003), 99.
23. I remain concerned that, despite all of the talk about community in the emerging church, we have not yet explored the radical implications of it. the next task for the emerging church is to articulate an ecclesiology.
24. Here we do well to return to the rich, sacramental theology of John Calvin as opposed to the thin, Zwinglian theologies that seem to have won the day in Reformed evangelical circles.

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