William Placher. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.
Can 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 historical inaccuracies.
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!
Placher 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:
1. 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 it?
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.
4. 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.