William Placher. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.
Christians say something of value to non-Christians in a pluralistic
world, where some doubt that there is even evidence that Christianity is
true? That appears to be the question that Placher tries to tackle in
this book. Placher addresses such issues as foundationalism, the
Enlightenment, relativism, postmodernism, religious dialogue, and how
Christians can find religious value in the Bible, notwithstanding its
The book is an excellent resource for
those who want to read a crisp, lucid summary of significant thinkers,
such as Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Rawls, and the list goes on. I did not
understand Placher's discussion of Bertrand Russell's paradox, but Placher explained everything else in a clear and accessible manner. Plus, I can't find anything that explains Russell's paradox in a way that makes sense to me, so I probably can't blame Placher here!
seeks a middle-ground between relativist postmodernism and a belief in
objective truth. Like postmodernists, Placher doubts that there is a
stable foundation of evidence for much of anything, and this includes
science. Placher argues that even science contains interpretation, and
that scientists stick with theories that are not entirely consistent
with all of the data (and yet Placher notes that science has made
progress based on theories that were later supplanted). Placher is also
critical of past attempts to find some objective standard of justice,
for he believes that some of them have marginalized traditional voices
while privileging Western thought.
At the same time, Placher does
believe that Christians can offer something of value to non-Christian
cultures, and vice-versa. At least once, Placher mentions that humans
are made in God's image, and he seems to think that this means that
there is enough common ground among diverse human beings that they can
talk with one another, notwithstanding their different
conceptualizations of the world. And yet, relativism remains a backdrop
to Placher's discussion of dialogue. Placher does not think that
Christians can appeal to some alleged objective moral standard in
speaking to people from other cultures, for those other cultures do not
necessarily believe in that standard (at least not entirely). But,
according to Placher, Christians can critique practices of
non-Christian cultures on the basis of the non-Christian cultures'
standards, looking at places where conclusions don't follow from their
premises. And Christians can find common ground with non-Christians on
such issues as social justice. Can Christians benefit from religious
dialogue, according to Placher? Placher thinks so, for he refers to
someone who argued that religious dialogue can highlight what Christians
believe, as well as help Christians to correct what may be wrong or
deficient in their own tradition.
Placher also discusses how
Christians can find value in the Bible, notwithstanding its historical
inaccuracies. Essentially, he seems to think that Christians can
appreciate the Bible as a source that presents how God and the world
are, even if not all of its details are historically-accurate.
Here are some of my thoughts:
I am not a hard relativist or postmodernist, for I believe that there
is truth out there, and that there are times when human beings can
approximate what that truth is. Don't get me wrong: I seriously doubt
that our conceptualizations of reality correspond perfectly with that
reality, for there are factors such as human interpretation, human
limitation in trying to describe reality, human selectivity on what
facts deserve to be considered, and the vast amount of things that we
just do not know. But my impression (which is subject to correction) is
that relativists and postmodernists go too far. I believe that there
are some facts, and that we can know what they are.
2. Placher does not seem to believe in foundationalism, whereas I don't go that
far. Still, I find Placher's critiques of attempts to find an
objective standard of justice or truth to be valuable. One person may
believe that he has the truth and that there is a reliable foundation
for that truth, and yet how would he convince someone who does not share
his truth, or even acknowledge the criteria that allegedly support his
truth? In light of that, attempts to find some "objective" standard may
prove to be useless because they marginalize non-Western voices and
contain a Western bias----useless, not because they are false
necessarily, but because they may not be convincing to people within
other cultural frameworks. I can have a truth, and my truth can
help me and maybe influence me to help others; but what good is my
truth in the world of public discourse if others are not convinced by
3. And yet, I have to be careful here.
While there are different cultures, I don't think that there is some
brick wall of language and different conceptualizations inhibiting one
culture from influencing the other, for better or for worse.
Obviously, cultures do influence one another. Christian missionaries
have had their influence, which has sometimes resulted in humanitarian
reforms. Capitalism has had its impact on the world, for good and for
bad. Admittedly, some of the influence that the West has had on other
cultures has been due to force, imperialism, and gross insensitivity to
the cultures. And yet, some of these cultures have been persuaded by
Western values. And, conversely, people in the West have been
influenced by Eastern cultures----consider the attraction that some
Americans have towards Buddhism!
Why is this? I think
that it's because many people want certain things, and they believe that
elements of other cultures can help them to get those things.
Moreover, encounter with another culture may convince them that what
they are experiencing within their own culture is not the only way to do
things----that there are other ways of doing things that may treat them
with more dignity or give them more opportunities.
On Placher's argument regarding the Bible and history, yes, there may
be something to it, but I think that more work needs to be done. I have
problems saying that, say, the non-historicity of the Exodus is no big
deal theologically, when so many voices in the Bible do believe
that it's a big deal, appealing to it as an example of God concretely
intervening in history on behalf of the oppressed Israelites. If we
erase what were believed to be concrete examples of God's intervention
in history, do we have much of a theology? Are we just left with some
general belief that God is just? Without belief that God concretely
demonstrated that justice in history, we're rather impoverished, in my
opinion. I'm not saying that my faith personally rests on the Bible
being historically accurate, but I don't think that the importance of
the Bible's history to theology should be casually dismissed, but should
be wrestled with more.
Overall, Placher's book is good. Like Van Harvey's The Historian and the Believer,
it does an effective job dismantling other approaches, yet its own
approach leaves me with questions. As Placher and (I think) Van Harvey
acknowledge, it's easier to critique other positions than it is to
construct an alternative. I have to give them credit for trying to be
constructive, however, even if their approaches (as I understand them)
do not entirely convince me.
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