I certainly took issue with his incorrect portrayal of the “postmodern.” He was quite obviously unfamiliar with primary texts of the usual postmodern suspects: Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, etc., etc. But this for me was only a minor irritation. The main problem that I had with the old preacher on that day was his obvious superiority complex.
The old preacher was clearly in business to prove the dominance of the church over and against other ideas and rivals. As I will show later, there is nothing wrong with stating one’s position and believing that one has a superior view. But his was a superiority with a focus on dominance and defeat. There were several things that were implicit in his tone, ideas, and presentation:
1 - The church must prove its superiority to the world.
2 - Having proved herself superior the church is now worthy of the world's attention.
The preacher obviously was working under a model of apologetics and evangelism that sought to seek-and-destroy. And in so doing he gains a hearing from the world who will recognize the superiority of his position. And an added bonus, of course is that he will simultaneously assure all of his devoted Christian listeners that their faith is sure because their worldview is so much better than anyone else’s.
One needs to do little to show that this model will gain no hearing with those who are among the “postmodern.” It is speaking a language of alienation, which will only confirm the suspicions of the postmodern who believes that religion is merely another form of domination and control.
The old preacher’s model gains no hearing and garners no respect in the public square.
Furthermore, I do not think it is all together consistent with biblical teaching. Where did we get the idea that the church was to be a tool for domination? Jesus exhorted his disciples to teach obedience and make disciples. Interestingly, Jesus seems more interested in long-term dedication than in quick converts who are only impressed by the superiority of the Christian worldview.
But there is the other end of the spectrum: The antithesis of the old preacher. In reaction to the superiority complex presented above many that we might call post-evangelicals suggest a model of conversation with the world. There is, as far as I can gather, a willingness to surrender or suspend one’s beliefs or positions in order to enter into conversation with those of differing religions. One might even hear talk of “learning” from these other perspectives and world views. In this way the model of dominance and superiority is turned on its head. The point is not to convert or conquer but to engage and to converse. This model serves as an important corrective to the old preacher and those of similar ilk because it opens up the public square to give Christianity a hearing and provides an opportunity to make the case for faith.
However, the question that I have for this conversational engagement has to do with identity. Does Christian faith lose its identity by seeking to blend itself in with conversation and “learn” from other worldviews? The problem I have is the suspension of belief and what I see as a suspension of controversial positions for sake of conversation.
But this raises the important issue: Must the church have a superiority complex (like the old preacher) in order to establish an identity?
Now, my problem with suspending our beliefs is not to suggest that we must always come out with guns-a-blazin.’ A must not always put their worst (or most controversial) foot forward when presenting the faith. The problem is not in a temporary suspension of controversy, but in a permanent suspension of tension.
As such, I present two reasons why tension and controversy is crucial for Christian dialogue:
First, the controversial claims of Christianity are at the heart of the faith. Like it or not Christ made the claim that he was the only way to God. The John 14 passage is perhaps the most famous of these in which Jesus claimed to be “the way, the truth and the life.” And, just so as to make sure there was no confusion as to whether or not there were other “ways” or other “truths” or other “lifes” outside of himself he added that “no one comes to the Father but by me.”
To claim the Christ of revealed Scripture is to claim an exclusive Christ. A Jesus who demands not only personal allegiance from his followers, but also demands that all persons in every place acknowledge his pre-eminence. The heart of Christian faith is the lostness of everyone who rejects Christ. Jesus claimed that he was the only true connection between a broken human race and a God who seeks to mend that brokenness.
Deny the Christ-connection to God and you deny the heart of Christian faith and biblical revelation.
But besides being essential to Christian faith there is another reason to embrace the tensions of the faith: It is the only way to have real and genuine dialogue.
I’m not sure it is possible to have dialogue apart from position statements – you believe this and I believe that. Perhaps you believe the Bears are the dominant team in professional football (the American “football”) and I believe that the best case is for the Indianapolis Colts. But what kind of fun can we have if we suspend our beliefs because there is tension? Can we ever engage in true dialogue about the better team if we deny our heart-felt belief in the superiority of our team?
True dialogue means openness. It means opening one’s belief up to analysis and attack. It is a passive willingness to be examined, and it is an active engagement with that examination. It begins a process of exchange that centers on truth and discovery. This is what opens to door for issues to come to the surface that might otherwise have remained hidden. (For example, I might not have realized how superior the statistics were for the Bears’ defense over and above the Colts, and likewise you might not have truly considered the dominance of the Colts in the past 4 years.)
Real learning happens when we are open, and this openness requires an uncompromising statement of our own position on an issue regardless of how controversial it may be. Openness has two sides: Openness to learn and openness to teach. The learning comes as we are critiqued and analyzed. The teaching comes when we present our views and the reasons that we hold them. Real dialogue never compromises or completely suspends identity, but at the same time it opens itself up for examination.
Call this my Dialogical Manifesto.