Reflection on Postmodernity

In my favorite passage from The Strangest Way (a text I used in previous semesters), Robert Barron claims that "knowing is a bloody and muddy process — not simply a bland looking at things from a pristine height. [These thinkers] tell us that we have to plow, climb, will, act, decide, push our way to insight — like painters learning their craft, or baseball players learning how to swing the bat, or like young philosophy students moving into Plato's world. ... I don't think we come to the way of Jesus through the privacy of our inner experience, but rather through a lively intersubjective play; I don't think we embrace the way of Christ by knocking down the monuments of the Christian tradition, but rather by walking around and through them, looking at them with admiration and critical attention; and I don't think we find salvation through an isolation of mind from body, but rather through the movements and passions of the body. Christianity is a way, and we learn it by walking..." (28-29).

This matches The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, which critiques the dominant understanding of knowledge in our western "pluralist culture" as something that stands at a distance (for relativists, an infinite distance) from the inquirer (chapters 1-3), then presents an alternative understanding of knowledge rooted in the Christian tradition and lived out in the contemporary scientific and historical disciplines where the inquirer indwells a subject of study as a participant in a tradition of inquiry (chapters 3ff).

To use a dangerous word, Barron and Newbigin are advocating a "postmodern" theory of knowledge over against modern ones. This advocacy is usually received with some skepticism by new students of Christian doctrine. Newbigin's purpose is "to examine the roots of this [pluralist] culture which we share and to suggest how as Christians we can more confidently affirm our faith in this kind of intellectual climate" (7). Still, at this point in the course many of you sound more threatened than relieved by his effort!

So, in this assignment, you will put Newbigin to the test using the other course readings you are becoming familiar with. This will help you begin to judge whether Newbigin is truly a better analyst of how people apprehend the Christian faith.

Newbigin's vision of teaching and learning the Christian faith opposes the visions that are dominant culturally and even within contemporary Christian circles in the west.

Choose either Donovan chapters 1-4 and Camp chapters 1-3, or Wilken chapters 1-3 and 6 and Barth chapters 1-4. Use each of these writers as a testing ground for the specifics of Newbigin's vision of how we learn and teach over against the modern western cultural approaches he is opposing. How does or doesn't Newbigin help you understand Donovan's/Wilken's description of a culture encountering the gospel? How does or doesn't he help you understand Camp's/Barth's description of Christian faith?

(If particular aspects of Christian faith we have been exploring in class are relevant to this person's story — e.g., doctrines of creation, humanity, and/or sin it might be constructive to appeal to them, but this is not a required feature of the assignment.)

Failure to draw substantively and not just shallowly on all the course materials listed will constitute failure to answer the question. Make sure you attend to the major claim of each chapter in Newbigin chapters 1-6. You have a lot to accomplish in such a short paper, so your prose will need to be both pithy and concise if you are to do well.

Please write your paper as a three-page double-spaced essay. Pay attention to every part of that question. Work to improve your writing by focusing on the lessons of Harvey chapter 1. Follow the other directions in my handout for writing papers.I want to see proper style, clear writing, a thorough answer to the question, and explicit citations of course materials.

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