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Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism
How Modern & Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Rockwell Lecture Series)

Nancey Murphy
ISBN 9781563381768 (1563381761)
Continuum, 1996

Category: Emerging Church & Postmodern Faith

Nancey Murphy joins others who have recently suggested that theological conversation between evangelicals and liberals has been relatively fruitless because both groups tend to be preoccupied with modernity, and that postmodernity may provide a better framework for such dialogue. Murphy helpfully sets out the basic thesis of the book in the Introduction, arguing that the division between 'liberals' and 'conservatives' has been due largely to the philosophy of the modern period, and she suggests a rapprochement between the two as to how theological discussion may be possible in the postmodern era.

The three chapters in Part I successively open up three vital issues for consideration:

  1. Experience or Scripture: How do we know God?
  2. Description or Expression: How can we speak about God?
  3. Immanence or Intervention: How does God act in the world?

In each case, according to Murphy, conservative and liberal views, locked in the mindset of modernity, led to a bifurcation of positions - right and left.

Part II goes on to utilise insights from postmodern philosophy and science in an attempt to move beyond the impasse between 'conservative' and 'liberal' theology outlined in the first section.
Thus, with regard to knowledge (Chapter 4), modern philosophy worked with the assumption that knowledge required a 'foundation'. So, when it came to theology, that foundation was found either in universal human experience (according to liberals), or in an inerrant, infallible Scripture (according to conservatives). However, in postmodern philosophy (Murphy makes particular use of W V O Quine among others) we are able to acknowledge that our system of beliefs is less like a building with a foundation, and more like an interconnected 'web of beliefs', with different beliefs supporting one another in complex ways.

For instance, responding to the concern that relativism 'is the besetting problem for the postmodern epistemological era', Murphy draws on the work of Imre Lakatos in philosophy of science, and Alasdair MacIntyre in moral philosophy, to advocate a view she describes as 'historicist-holism'. Theological reasoning, she says, is similar to scientific reasoning in contemporary philosophy of science à la Lakatos: scientists work within a 'research programme' which consists of a fixed core theory, and a series of changing auxiliary hypotheses that allow for prediction and explanation of novelties. For his part, MacIntyre claims that a tradition (theological or otherwise) is justified insofar as it can be shown to make progress on its own terms (overcome its own 'crises' of knowledge) while its live competitors fail (on their own terms) to do so.

With the question of religious language (Chapter 5), modern theology offered a choice between language as expressing something of human experience (according to liberals) or stating facts (according to conservatives). But with the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J L Austin, and other 'speech-act' theorists, we are now able recognise that language works in richer and more complex ways than those two positions alone suggest.

And when it comes to science (Chapter 6), with the modernist project science was reduced to a world of action and reaction, under which lay the 'divine' (according to liberals), or which was occasionally punctuated by God's intervention in miracles (according to conservatives). But recent developments in physics show that causation can work from the top down, from complex levels to more simple ones - which leads to the possibility of other ways of thinking about how God works in the world.

She concludes by pointing out that while we may still have a spectrum of positions between the 'right' and the 'left' in today's theological climate, we are by no means compelled to reduce the spectrum to two entrenched positions.

The book is not always easy going, and a nodding acquaintance with some aspects of current theology and philosophy would make for a better reading experience (although she is careful to explain most items as they are introduced). Not all will agree with the way she draws the lines between 'liberal' and 'conservative', or her descriptions of how theology has been carried out under those rubrics, and how postmodernity may address the alleged impasse. But none of that should detract from the fact that the volume combines an excellent, concise overview of the areas under discussion, with stimulating reflection on the past, present, and future of theology in the postmodern world.

Antony Billington, November 1998

Antony Billington teaches Hermeneutics (that's Biblical Interpretation to you & me) at London School of Theology. He's heavily into film and contemporary culture and spends most of his wages in the LST Bookshop (enter at your own risk).

Previously published by London School of Theology. Reused here by kind permission.


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