Beyond the Postmodern to Christ

I have no label to describe my present understanding of Christian Truth and its function.  Twenty years in Japan taught me that my own static (“modern” ?) apprehension of Christ could not be made to address the Japanese heart and mind.  When it occurred to me how the Gospel does address Japanese, it did not leave me with a new static truth but with an understanding of how Christian truth is necessarily dynamic, as it unfolds only in its engagement of the world.

The NT presentation of the working of the truth of Christ, by the very necessity of the incarnation, is pictured as unfolding against the various cosmologies and worldviews of Judaism and the plurality of religions of the first century.  While this truth might be called universal, it is a universality that is in process.  It is not Lessing’s “necessary truths of reason nor Descartes disembodied thought (cogito); rather it is a truth grasped from the particular location of a variety of first century readers from within their varying worldviews. Yet, what consistently happens in the NT (e.g. in Hebrews, Colossians, Revelation, John, and Philippians) is that the rebellious orders of the world – the principalities and powers – are pictured as being brought into subjection to the Lamb of God.[1] The world, cosmology, religion, or worldview, of various civilizations are not the defining factor to which Christ is made to fit. The rule of God, as it is being established by Christ, is demonstrated in the language and categories of first century societies at the same time that Christ empties out and overturns these categories.  He transcends provincial notions of truth which by definition points to the ever expanding, never fully defined work of Truth which is Christ.

The writer of Hebrews describes it as a process in which Christ is bringing all things into subjection, but which is not yet an accomplished reality.  The reference is simultaneously absolute and relative. It is absolute in that it refers to “all things” –  which from the context of Hebrews directly references all that was entailed in Judaism (the political, religious, moral, and even the philosophical and notions of what is “genuine” or “real’).  It is relative in a double sense – “we do not yet see all things subject to him” (2:8) and the readers understand who Christ is from their particular framework of a Jewish worldview.  Christ’s deity and reign at the right hand of God, the writer presumes, is to be understood on the basis of his particular humanity. From the opening verses Christ’s exalted status is understood in relation to creation and redemption.

The recurring heresy which Hebrews (along with John and Galatians) is resisting, is the attempt to isolate the deity of Christ from his humanity. This disembodied universality is overturned by the particularity of Christian universality. This universality, is one that must be worked out in the context in which it arises. What is brought into subjection to Christ, a subjection which serves as the substance of his exaltation, refers to particular persons in particular social settings. The particularity of Christ, that is, pertains both to His particularity, as a historical person in a particular time and place, but also to the manner in which Christian truth is established as an ongoing work of this original particularity. “We do see Jesus” who in the manner of his life, death, and resurrection (2:9) is a worked example of the truth all are to follow.

The frame for understanding Christ in Hebrews is created by God, in that He spoke to the fathers through the prophets through many means and in various ways (1:1).  The question, which Hebrews sets out to answer, is how the “many portions and many ways” connect or compare to the way he has spoken in Christ. God’s former revelation is not simply set aside so that Christ is apprehended in isolation from these relative truths; rather the multiplicity and incompleteness of the times past is itself the frame of reference through which the readers will grasp singularity and wholeness.  Their particular, limited, grasp of truth is not a disadvantage in the pursuit of “absolute” Truth – it is the necessary platform for apprehending the nature of this Truth.

The manner in which Judaism functions in this role in Hebrews is the prototype for the way the truth of Christ interacts with a variety of cosmologies, worldviews and religions.  As portrayed in Revelation, Christ is able to solve the puzzle of history (4:1-5:4) and to break the seal and unroll the scroll depicting the outworking of salvation and judgment.  His followers confront the world on the basis of the hope that this is the case. In John Howard Yoder’s description, “Jesus-believers with a relatively smaller, more homogeneous, poorer, less speculatively pretentious world view moved with their hometown forms of faith into the encounter with peoples and meaning systems which have no place for their confidant call to decision. The Jesus movement was utterly particular. The Hellenistic Roman world was classically pluralistic.”

In Colossae the world, held together by a network of principalities and powers is overturned, in Paul’s depiction, by the One who holds all things together.  In the Prologue to John, notions of a Gnostic logos (serving at once as a ladder but also functioning to keep heaven and earth separate) is smashed by the Logos become flesh. The Logos is claimed to be equal with God, not merely the first of many emanations, and there is no more ladder. As Yoder states it, “Its language has been seized and used for a different message. No longer does the concept of Logos solve a problem of religion, reconciling the eternal with the temporal; it proclaims identification, incarnation, drawing all who believe into the power of becoming God’s children.”

As Barth said of his theology, so too it can be said of the working out of Truth: to attempt to capture the functioning of Christian truth according to some characteristic form of thought is to miss the point. This functioning of Truth cannot be pinned down. In a broad fashion, premodern, modern, and postmodern, refer to definite periods with reliance on particular forms of thought and modes of understanding. But we should not imagine that, with this terminology, we are saying something very specific or technical about how humans go about knowing or how Christian Truth functions. Like the cosmologies confronted and overturned in the NT, our own worlds must continually give way to an ever-enlarged understanding of who Christ is.

The “postmodern,” at least in the way I would employ the term, is the space opened up by certain failures typifying modernity.  It is not that I have formulated some broad alternative or even shed all of the presumptions of the enlightenment.  I presume that there is the possibility of a shared human understanding – not just theoretically but in practice. Benjamin Whorf may have discovered Hopi have a completely different time sensibility – yet he was able to explain this so that I understand it.  Thomas Kuhn may have discovered that we see the world and particular phenomena, scientist or not, through paradigms – yet we need not presume incommensurability – or that those who hold to competing paradigms are totally blind to the alternative.  Ludwig Wittgenstein offers us the notion of “forms of life” and “language games” but at the same time he pictured embodiment as giving rise to the very possibility of a variety of forms of life.  This observation does not demand explanation but only acquiescence.

A postmodern or postliberal theology is, as the names imply, more a statement of what they are not. Neither necessarily constitutes a philosophical answer or fully worked out alternative to modernity.  That is, the theological presumption is that we can begin to work and think in a different mode without fully understanding the height, depth, and breadth of the Truth to which we witness.  This is the missionary task: to continue to realize the nature of this Truth as we witness to the particular world where we are.

[1] I am following John Howard Yoder’s article, “Now We See Jesus.”


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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