Truth and the Emergent Church

Truth and the Emergent Church: A discussion between Sean McDowell and Tony Jones (National Coordinator for Emergent Village)

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A discussion between Sean McDowell and Tony Jones (National Coordinator for Emergent Village)
Tony says:
Sean, as you know, I have a great deal of respect for your ministry, and for that of your dad.  In fact, I have a very distinct memory of being 16, and I was a camp counselor at our church's camp for 3rd-5th graders (we called it Camp Pyro (that's for the fire in your heart from the Holy Spirit!)).  That year, I taught a class on apologetics every afternoon, and, guess what, I basically just went chapter-by-chapter through More than a Carpenter-one of your dad's books!
But since then, I've become much more skeptical of modern apologetics methods, primarily because they overestimate the abilities of human reason.  First, let me say this: I'm not all that confident in our rationality, and I say that not out of some existential philosophy, but because of my study of history.  At the very moments that out forbears have been most convinced they were right about something, it turns out (from our perspective, at least) that they were wrong.  I'd start with civil rights, then go to women's suffrage, then slavery, and back from there.
In the modern era, we became convinced that science would get us out of this mess, because science "proves" things.  But recently, we've all come to see that scientists, like any other humans, have their blind spots and biases.
And yet, most modern apologetics is bent on proving things, things like the divinity of Jesus or the historicity of the resurrection.  Of course, these things cannot be conclusively proven, so we just attempt to muster as much evidence as we can for them, and hope that's enough to convince people.
But students who are reared in this kind of faith are bound for disappointment when they get to college and find that the humanities and social sciences don't rely on this type of reasoning, and even the hard sciences realize the limits of human reason.
Sean says:
I do know that you respect my ministry, Tony, which is why I enjoy these discussions. I hope you feel the same from me. Yet, it should come as no surprise that I see things a bit differently!
First, I find it a bit ironic that you are giving me reasons for why we should be less confident in our rationality. We can only come to the conclusion that our minds are not fully trustworthy by using our very own minds! You criticize apologetics and science for trying to "prove" things, but aren't you trying to prove your point to me? If you lack confidence in human reasoning, then why are you confident that your reasoning has correctly led you to question human rationality?
It's actually the Christian worldview that provides the best reasons for trusting the human faculty of rationality. Since God is reasonable (Isaiah 1:18), and we are made in His image (Genesis 1:27), we have sufficient reason to believe that our minds can accurately understand the world. It's actually Darwinian evolution that undermines the trustworthiness of our mental faculties.
The main reason I do apologetics (besides the fact that I love it!) is to be faithful to Jesus. Jesus set the example of apologetics in his own ministry and the church has been following his lead ever since.
I actually agree with you that we can't "conclusively" prove the resurrection or the divinity of Christ. If our standard of proof is absolute certainty, then we're at a loss. But proof doesn't require bomb-proof certainty. Lawyers, historians, and even scientists know that. When we look at proof in this light, the case for Christianity is compelling. Students will be disappointed if we train them with any less confidence.
A final question: Is it merely our "perspective" that our forbears were wrong about slavery, women's suffrage, and civil rights? Or were they truly wrong?
Tony says:
Well, Sean, let me start out by saying that I completely disagree with you that Jesus was an apologist in any sort of philosophical sense.  When you and I attempt to defend or justify the Christian story, we are beholden to a Hellenistic philosophical scheme which Jesus was not.  Furthermore, that scheme has evolved dramatically over the centuries.
Next, I want to parse out a couple of the words you use.  I am not trying to prove anything to you.  I am trying to convince you of something.  If you were a police officer, I could not prove to you that the car I hit ran the stop sign, but I'd try to convince you of it-I might even use evidence like skid marks and eyewitnesses, but I could not prove it to you.
Since space is short, let me jump directly to your final query.  I believe that all I can say about the issues I've raised is that, from my perspective, my forbears were wrong.  I can say that with confidence, but also with humility.  I know, for example, that for thousands of years, whole economies were based on human slave labor, and I know that many cultures treated their slaves with a great deal more respect than did American slaveholders.  That's not to defend slavery as a practice, but to say that in different times and different contexts, different decisions make sense differently. (See the difference? J)
So, tell me this: What do you say of the student who remains unconvinced even after you've marshaled all of your apologetic evidence?  Is it your fault? The student's? The Holy Spirit's?
Sean says:
My point is not that Jesus was a "philosophical" apologist, but that he set forth reasons to believe. In John 5, for example, Jesus points to five witnesses in support of his testimony (John, miracles, the Father, Scripture, and Moses). John 20:31 says, "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."
Jesus regularly gave rational reasons to move his audience to belief. Was it Jesus' fault when people didn't believe? Did he somehow fail to prove his position was true? Of course not! People can refuse to believe for multiple reasons (volitional, moral, practical).
We do apologetics not to convince people, but to be obedient (1 Peter 3:15). If I share the truth respectfully and live it out faithfully, then I am successful regardless of the results. God is responsible for changing hearts. My father has seen thousands of people convert to Christ through sharing the gospel with apologetics. Ironically, he's seeing more come to Christ today, even in our so-called "postmodern" culture.
According to the dictionary convince means: "to move by argument or evidence to belief." Prove means: "to establish the truth or genuineness of, as by evidence or argument." Jesus wanted to convince people and prove his position. And I think you do too, Tony. If you didn't think your position was true, then why would you try to convince me (i.e. prove your point)?
Finally, I'm baffled at your unwillingness to clearly identify racism, slavery, and sexism as truly wrong. Is child abuse wrong? What about rape? Or are those also relative to "different" contexts?
Tony says:
Sean, you might be baffled by my stance on the issues that you list, but I stand in accord with the vast majority of moral philosophers, now and in the past.  I think this is a point that you and I have clarified many times in these discussions: You believe that there is some Archimedean point from which we can obtain a sense of objectivity; I believe there is no such point.
For me to stand with vehemence and certainty against things such as rape and child pornography – which I do – is one thing (and, by the way, I don't quite know what you mean by "truly wrong").  For me to claim a God's-eye-view perspective on such moral issues is something completely different – and, honestly, it has little to do with my actual opinions on these issues.
One of the straw men constructed against postmodernists is that we're wishy-washy relativists who ultimately can't take a stand for or against anything.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Anyone who knows me will affirm that I hold strong opinions on everything from politics to theology to the designated hitter rule.  The point isn't that I don't have opinions, or that I don't hold them strongly, but that I arrive at them differently than you.
Sean says:
To say that people construct a straw-man of postmodernism means that a real "man" must first exist. But that is the very thing postmodernism denies! If there is no objective reality, then how can you claim that someone has distorted postmodernism? Or is it just your perspective? And if so, why should anyone else care?
My point is not that postmodernists can't have strong opinions about moral actions. Rather, that postmodernism undermines any basis for those actions being intrinsically wrong. You can have your opinions about them (as strong as they may be). And I can have mine. But if we take postmodernism seriously, we must ultimately conclude that they are all equal, since there is no final arbiter beyond our perspectives. This is why postmodernism is incoherent, contradictory, and ultimately unlivable.
Actually, the vast majority of moral philosophers (past and present) are moral objectivists, not in the sense that they have some God's-eye-view of morality, but in the sense that they believe that moral values really exist. Even the New Atheists believe this!
It's curious to me that you're "certain" about child abuse being wrong. I thought your whole point was that we should not "overestimate the abilities of human reason"?
I'm sure our next discussion on the exclusivity of Christ will be equally stimulating.
The following discussion first appeared in The Journal of Student Ministries, vol. III no. 6 (Nov/Dec, 2008), published by Student Ministries Partners.

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