This is the second post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM/re-church Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from chapters of Deep Church, by Jim Belcher. You can find the reading schedule here.
Imagine you are sitting down to a Bible study with your neighbor. It's not the formal fill-in-the-blank kind, but a conversation between old friends. The conversation settles on the topic of life after death. Part of you is excited about introducing the Adventist perspective, but you're also nervous as you know that your neighbor believes that people go directly to heaven or hell when they die.
As you study the topic with your neighbor, how will you prove the truth of your beliefs? Will you use evidence from Scripture? From science? Will you refer to an authority like your pastor or the Biblical Research Institute? Will you connect it together with a logical argument, or just let your words speak for themselves?
This, of course, isn't a one way conversation. Your neighbor will likely have evidence from Scripture and science, authorities, and personal experience. What does this imply for how strongly you should hold your belief? Should you be open to your belief being wrong?
At the root of these questions is the debate about the possibility of knowing the truth. Jim Belcher addresses this in the fourth chapter of Deep Church, “Deep Truth.” He analyzes what the traditional and emerging church have to say on the matter, and attempts to navigate a third way between classical foundationalism and excessive post-modernism.
Modernism was fueled by the confidence that it was possible to build a foundation of certain and universal truths using reason. From this foundation one would build up a body of true knowledge. And with this ideal, modernism was not without fruits: modern science, medicine, liberal democracy, religious liberty and capitalism. Belcher doesn't assess modernism very kindly, however, claiming that it has “led to the breakdown of morality, self, and community” by cutting off the individual from tradition and divine revelation.
Traditional churches, however, have adapted the model of knowledge from the Enlightenment, along with modernism methods for establishing truth. Having proved the Bible to be true, and their carefully reasoned out interpretation of it, many pastors have an overconfident and triumphalistic attitude, which leads to arrogance; this shuts down conversation, learning and growing. Belcher agrees with the critique of the traditional church made by the emergent church in this regard.
The emerging church has been associated with “post-modernism.” Belcher distinguishes between two kinds of post-modernism: post-foundationalism and anti-realism. Post-foundationalists reject the idea that one can establish a certain foundation of knowledge. We are constantly interpreting our histories, our sacred texts, our personal identities, our relationships, and our activities, whether individual or collective, through the lenses of our past, culture, language, emotions and subconscious desires, and even our genetic pre-dispositions; our vision of reality is clouded. Every foundation we try to build is imperfect, because we ourselves are imperfect. Belcher agrees with emergent thinkers that this post-modern critique of foundationalism is consistent with our fallen nature and that this understanding ought to inspire a desperately needed humility.
However, some thinkers go further and making an anti-realist claim, denying there is a reality independent of our perception, and if there is, that it is really knowable. Usually this isn't a denial of physical reality, but a denial that mental objects (concepts like the number 7, goodness, or solidness) are true for all people, at all times, in exactly the same way. The fact that we all have similar concepts of 'solidness' is due to the similarity between the contexts in which we constructed the concept, not the fact that we perceived some universal truth of 'solidness'."
Belcher argues that this version of post-modernism is incompatible with Christianity. Referencing the Bible, Belcher claims, “We have an outside authority to tell us about this reality.” He doesn't claim anyone in the emergent camp actually accepts anti-realism, but seems to think they are in danger of tacitly accepting of some variant of it by not distinguishing it adequately from post-foundationalism. Belcher is uncomfortable with constructivist epistemologies and a “relational hermeneutic” that discovers truth in community. He asserts, “[A]part from revelation, there is nothing to hold a particular tradition, community or history accountable. There is no prophetic voice.”
Belcher claims that the deep church rejects both classical foundationalism and hard postmodernism. In doing so, we can, in a sense, have the best of both worlds: feel confidence in God's revelation of reality, while being characterized by a humility born out of an awareness of our limits as sinful humans.
Belcher’s analysis has much to say to Adventists, but also raises many questions. Much of Belcher’s negative description of the traditional church because of its foundationalism can be applied to us. Like other evangelicals of the traditional church, Adventists have a paradoxical relationship with modernism. Our belief in self-evident truth, our practice of using texts as evidence for our beliefs, our suspicion of creeds, the individualistic and intellectual nature of our sermons, conversion, and discipleship practices are all modern in their very nature. At the same time, modernism challenges the Bible that is foundational to our beliefs. I wonder, however, if Belcher’s third way solves the arrogance problem. His appeal to “outside authority” seems to be, well, very foundational. Who gets to interpret the Bible? Which interpretation is the best one? Furthermore, how does all this work in the context of living in a religiously diverse world?
While I appreciate Belcher’s emphasis on the need for “humble confidence” and “boldness,” I’m drawn to the emergent church’s vision of church as a community that is honest about doubt, characterized by a deep humility, and a willingness to learn. I long to see more of this in the Adventist church. I'm tired of the fear that seems to lurk in the shadows of people and institutions deeply vested in certainty. ***** William Cordis is a Sales Rep for Red Hat, Inc. and a graduate of Southern Adventist University. He lives with his wife Ann in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a bookworm and computer geek with interests ranging from philosophy to Japanese culture. This is his first contribution to SPECTRUM.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2525