How (Not) to Speak of God as a Postmodern Evangelical

Theologies given birth within modernity will not transfer to postmodern cultures.
-Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger – Emerging Churches [1]

This quote should serve as an alarm for all those who profess to be evangelical Christians. Everywhere one turns, one finds evidence that the Western world is in the midst of a cultural shift. Using language from the quote above, this shift has been described as a move from modernity to postmodernity, from one way of understanding and conceptualizing the world to another. This shift, or “turn towards postmodernism,” as some call it, effects governments, economies, entire academic disciplines, and the very way people conceive of truth. By claiming that theologies created within the modern era will not transition into the postmodern era, Gibbs and Bolger are making a considerable statement, one that should prompt all theologians, including evangelicals, to examine its validity and perhaps also their own theology. Is it true that modern theologies will not survive postmodernism? What should evangelical theologians do with the answer to this question? How should we react? It is these questions, as a reaction to the quote above, that are the launching points of this paper and it is hoped that the answers provided to them will assist all those who affirm the Christian faith within our postmodern times, evangelical and perhaps also emerging.

It has been said that there are as many definitions of postmodernism as there are people who use the term. To some it is a philosophy, to others a set of hermeneutical and ontological observations, to others postmodernism is a much larger cultural transition, to others myth and a misnomer, and to still others the end of civilized society. To successfully answer the questions above, a definition of postmodernism must be explained and also explicated.

A simple way of understanding postmodernism is to view it as a compound word, as “post” “modernism”. At the same time, it is both a sharp rejection of modernism and also an intellectual extension of the same ideology. As a rejection of modernism, it challenges the Enlightenment assumptions of pure reason and the objective, universal, and knowable characteristics of truth. As an extension of modernism, this critique continues to emphasize the self as the ultimate arbiter of truth, though through subjective rather than objective criteria. Being at the same time both a rejection and an extension of different aspects of modernism has lead to a great amount of confusion about postmodernism, but the one constant seen in both rejection and extension is the focus on truth, knowledge, and man’s ability to acquire it. Man’s ability, or lack thereof to know objective truth divides modernism and postmodernism, and to this ability we must turn.[2]

Rene Descartes famously declared “I think, therefore I am.” In making this declaration, Descartes provided a summary statement for the Enlightenment project, affirming both the centrality of the self and the importance of cognitive ability. For Enlightenment thinkers, it was a trust in one’s own abilities and sensory perceptions that served as the foundation upon which knowledge could be constructed. At the same time as the philosophical Enlightenment occurred, so too did the scientific revolution, understanding truth as the result of experimentation, logic, and reason. Based upon this, it could be said that modernist thinkers developed a foundational understanding of knowledge. For them it was necessary to start from the beginning, affirming what could be proven true, building upon the foundations already proven true. This foundational approach towards knowledge is at the heart of modernism, and in testing all truth statements against an already proven foundation of knowledge, modernist thinkers affirmed man’s ability to know objective truth. Postmodernism stands in sharp opposition to the modern attitude towards objective truth.

For postmodern thinkers, the idea that man can possess objective truth is problematic, citing that man is not objective, but always subjective and always limited, incapable of ever reaching a purely objective and universal place from which to know what is true. Accordingly, it is impossible to possess a foundation of truth that can be used to test all other truth claims, since one can never objectively know that the foundation is correct. As a result of this lack of faith in man, postmodernists advocate a “nonfoundational” understanding of truth, viewing truth as a collection of beliefs that exist in a constant state of tension. The web, containing many beliefs, has no identifiable foundation and collectively works as a test, checking ideas both inside and outside of itself for their validity. There is then, no statement or belief that only tests other claims, rather all beliefs are held accountable to each other, and none are considered unquestionable. Postmodernism does not affirm man’s ability to know truth objectively because of this nonfoundational understanding of knowledge and truth.

To answer the question of whether modern theologies will survive in a postmodern culture, we must now redirect our thinking from the general philosophical tenets of modernism and postmodernism and begin to think about the theology we do. Modern theologies have not escaped the influences of their cultural surroundings, they are steeped in the modernism and the trust in human abilities that have defined the era. In many ways, the discipline of modern theology is like any other science, except that while biology attempts to learn truths about living organisms, theology seeks to describe, 4 understand and communicate truths about God. The majority of modern theologies tend to be foundational, trusting solely in either the Holy Scriptures as some do, or in the power of human emotions and religious experiences as others do.[3] For both of these groups, there is a foundation upon which knowledge can be built and against which other ideas can be tested, however, the foundation can not be tested for either group. Through postmodern eyes it is precisely the “untestable” nature of these theological foundations that is problematic, not because of what they actually are, but because it will ultimately be the human interpretations of those things that becomes the true foundation. It is for this reason, that in reality man always creates his own foundation, that postmodern cultures reject foundational modernism. It is because of this that Gibbs and Bolger made the statement they did, that modern ways of thinking, with unquestionable, manmade foundations, will not transition to the postmodern and nonfoundational world.

It is at this point that our other questions come into play. If modern theologies will not survive in a postmodern culture, what should we as evangelicals do? How should we respond? There are three possible answers to these questions. We can choose not to respond at all, we can scrap the work we have done so far and begin again, or we can search for an option between these two poles. The first of these options is by far the easiest and it would take little work to simply discredit Gibbs and Bolger, their quote and the entire postmodern movement. In fact, some evangelical theologians have already chosen this route.[4] In picking this solution, however, one must be willing to do three particular things: stand in direct opposition to important data that suggests the modern church has failed as an institution, further distance evangelical theology from the world of academia in which virtually all other disciplines have engaged with postmodernism, [5] and accept responsibility for a lack of caring about those lost in the world. By the tone used, it should be clear that this option will not do, for it will not further the Church, nor will it further our understanding of God.

Our second option will not work either. Since the Enlightenment, the majority of theologians have worked from within the foundational modernist mindset. It would be both tragic and irresponsible to set aside the results of nearly five hundred years of theological inquiry due to external pressures facing the evangelical tradition. To simply begin again and start completely anew within postmodern culture would be even less productive than ignoring it entirely.

Clearly then, a third option must be created, an option which will be received within our postmodern context and will remain faithful to our specifically evangelical roots and to the greater Christian tradition. It is by listening to those within the emerging church movement– Christians who have already crossed into the postmodern realm– that we will be able to carve this third path towards a postmodern, evangelical theology.

In August of 2006 How (Not) to Speak of God, written by Peter Rollins, was published by Paraclete Press in the United States and by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in Great Britain. Since then it has been enthusiastically received within the emerging church movement, and in less than a year it has become one of the most significant and useful books in describing and explaining the movement. Famed author Brian McLaren, himself an influential voice in the movement, writes in its foreword that How (Not) to Speak of God is “one of the most important contributions to date to the emerging church conversation.”[6] Scot McKnight describes it as “a firestorm of a book,” and Tony Jones, the U.S. national coordinator of Emergent Village, calls the work “the best bloody book yet on the emerging church.”[7] With so much praise from those within the emerging church, any attempt to converse with the emerging church theologically must take this book into account. Additionally, the fact that the back cover descriptor reads: “Explore the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the emerging church movement” makes it the ideal conversation piece for evangelicals looking to understand how one does theology in the postmodern world. Rollins is not without flaws, and concerns can be raised about his theology, however as a conversation piece his book has much to offer those needing to engage postmodern culture.[8]

How (Not) to Speak of God lays out an understanding of the Christian faith that seeks to be both faithful to the Holy Scriptures and the Christian tradition and also sensitive to the needs of a postmodern world. To do this in an effective manner, Rollins divides his work into two parts, the first focusing on his theoretical and philosophical arguments, and the second examining ten religious services done within IKON, an emerging community in Belfast founded by Rollins. By including this second, more pastoral portion in a theological text, it is Rollins’ hope that people will recognize the need for a postmodern Christian theology that is both academically sound and practically useful, however for our needs here, we will be looking only at the first section, as it is here that Rollins discusses the move from modernism to postmodernism.[9]

Rollins begins his work by offering to us a modernist definition of theology: “in faith God is experienced as the absolute subject who grasps us, while in theology we set about reflecting upon this subject.”[10] Accordingly then, modern theology is an intellectual pursuit that seeks to comprehend the subject of our faith, rendering God an intellectual object that is to be reflected upon. In the same way that a scientist can understand the world through the application of reason and method, so too a theologian understands God as he is revealed in the Bible. Because of this, modern theology is a task primarily concerned with developing a correct understanding of God and theological orthodoxy, working to uphold and defend a correct understanding of the Christian faith.

With this definition in mind, the modern church has responded to this task of upholding orthodoxy in two ways, either by rejecting it as impossible, which has been the path towards liberalism, or accepting this task as entirely possible, the path towards conservative theology. Rollins ultimately finds both of these positions “modernistic and problematic” arguing that they are both “idolatrous positions which hide their human origins in the modern myth of pure reason.”[11] Theology done within both the modern liberal and conservative frameworks is idolatrous for Rollins because they seek to reduce God to a comprehensible object, one that can be objectively understood and explained. In much the same way that the Old Testament prohibited the worship of physical idols, so Rollins rejects the results of foundational modern theology as an intellectual idol.

Rollins does however believe there is hope for theology. He sees within the emerging conversation a way of talking about God that looks beyond the polar opposites of absolutism and relativism and their idolatrous tendencies. He suggests that there is a connection between the postmodern philosophical critique of ideology and the biblical mandate against idolatry, arguing that both challenge the believer to question his assumptions and the objective truth he thinks he knows about God.[12] To begin his task of moving from a modern to a postmodern theology, Rollins redefines theology, no longer viewing it as a human discourse which speaks of God, but rather as the location in which God speaks into human discourse.[13]

To accomplish his goal of creating a theology that is the location in which God speaks, faithful to both the Christian scriptures and tradition and also relevant for the postmodern context, Rollins introduces his readers to ten ideas. These ideas are actually “reintroductions” since they are concepts once believed by the Church, but “radically critique the ‘theological’ approach found in large sections of the contemporary Church.”[14] These ideas draw from various theological traditions, are compatible with postmodern philosophy, and are necessary components of a postmodern theology. They are understanding: 1) concealment as an aspect of revelation, 2) God as hyper-present, 3) the affirmation of doubt, 4) the place of silence, 5) religious desire as part of faith, 6) Christian discourse as a/theological, 7) God-talk as iconic, 8) a recognition of journey and becoming, 9) truth as a soteriological event, and 10) orthodoxy as a way of believing in the right way rather than simply right or correct belief. It is within the first half of How (Not) to Speak of God that Rollins examines in detail these ten concepts, each of which can be placed into one of three more general categories. These categories concern God’s relation to man, man’s relation to God, and man’s response as a result of these relationships. It is within the context of these three categories that the foundational nature of modern theology is challenged and the possibility of a nonfoundational postmodern theology is developed.[15]

The first collection of ideas reintroduced by Rollins concerns how we conceive of God’s relation to man. Through the ideas of concealment as revelation and God’s hyper-present nature he challenges modern notions of how God interacts with us. Throughout the majority of church history, theologians have been unified in saying that it is through revelation that we come to know God and who he is. For modern theologians, this idea has been pushed to an extreme and revelation has become understood as that which is revealed to us about God, with its opposite being that which is concealed for us. For the modern theologian, it is the revealed truths of God that serve as the material for theology. For the postmodernist, this concept is problematic for two reasons. First, it assumes the ability of subjective man to comprehend the objective truth revealed about God, and second, it sets up this subjective understanding of revelation as foundational for theology.

For Rollins, revelation is far from the opposite of concealment but rather has concealment at its center. While on one hand we can know about God, we can never completely know God or know God as God knows himself. As a result, Rollins then concludes that revelation is not that which makes God known, or that which leaves God unknown, but rather, that which “renders God known as unknown.”[16] It is through the act of revelation that we realize how little we truly comprehend about God. Similar to a baby being held by its mother, the baby experiences its mother but does not intellectually comprehend her, so we are held by God and experience his revelation. We are overwhelmed and overpowered by the light of God, soaked in a “divine saturation” that transforms us in a way which we are unable to describe or understand. In the face of God’s hyper-present nature which reveals him as known and unknown, the postmodern theologian understands that God is not the object of our thoughts, but rather, he is the “absolute subject before whom we are the object.”

If a postmodern understanding of theology affirms that God is not simply an object to be studied, but that his relationship towards man is that of the absolute subject, then we as mankind are forced to reevaluate our attempts to describe God. As a critique of contemporary theology, Rollins argues that an affirmation of religious doubt, an appreciation for silence, a recognition that all God-talk is iconic, and a realization that Christian discourse is a/theological, closely embody an authentic relationship with God. Of central importance in these four ideas is that they encourage the believer to assess the way in which he or she believes in God and the Christian faith.

Following the postmodern understanding of man as subjective, Rollins advocates an understanding of faith that pays careful attention to our limited ability to describe the subject of our faith. By describing our talk about God as iconic, and our Christian discourse as a/theological, Rollins highlights our limited ability to objectively speak of God. By affirming the place of silence and doubt within our theology, he suggests we should be comfortable with our limited ability. His overall goal is to communicate a humble faith comfortable with uncertainty and subjectivity, not pressured into foundational thinking, but resting in faith and trust that God is God regardless of our failed attempts at describing him. A nonfoundational theology values the known and unknown elements of God, recognizing the need for humility when doing theology.

In moving from the modern to the postmodern, Rollins seriously reshapes both God’s relation to man and man’s relation to God, and as a result he also needs to reconsider man’s response to God; that is, our faith. To do this, Rollins reintroduces the ideas that religious desire is by its nature a part of faith, one’s faith journey is of central importance, Truth is a soteriological event, and that orthodoxy should be understood not as correct belief, but as belief held in a correct way. In each of these four concepts Rollins attempts to communicate that of central importance in the Christian walk is faith and trust, not objective information. We should be primarily concerned with our own faith journey, our “becoming” Christian, and our relationship with God, not our understandings of God. Rollins declares strongly that Truth is a soteriological event, it is something experienced, not described. He writes, “Truth is God, and having knowledge of the Truth is evidenced not in a doctrinal statement, but in allowing that Truth to be incarnated in one’s life.”[17] This is the idea at the heart of a postmodern theology, that what is truly important is that the Church is the incarnation, not that it has an objectively true understanding of the incarnation.

Having examined the ten ideas that Rollins sees within postmodern theology it could then be summarized that for a theology to connect with postmodern culture it must realize that God is both known and unknown at the same time. It must also understand that as subjective creatures, man will never be able to completely describe or comprehend God. A postmodern theology must provide space for subjectivity and embrace our limited nature, and in this light be primarily concerned with our relationship with God, and not our conceptualizations of God.

With that being said, what then can evangelicals learn from those who are emerging? Can evangelical theology transition into the postmodern culture? It can and it must, if it is to survive! What is critical for evangelical theologians to understand is that many within the emerging community are not challenging the content of evangelicalism, but the context. In Rollins’ “radical critique,” he never discusses theological doctrines or dogma. He remains silent on seemingly all “theological” debates. He never challenges the content of theology, the “What?” question. He does however, challenge the “How?” and “Why?” questions. For the postmodern nonfoundationalist, the central critique of evangelicalism is not the beliefs that are held, but the way in which they are held and the reasons for which they are held. As Rollins adeptly states it, “Unlike those who would seek to offer a different set of answers to theological questions, those with the emerging conversation are offering a different way of understanding the answers that we already possess.”[18] Scot Knight echoes this idea and goes so far as to say that “the vast majority of emerging Christians are evangelical theologically” but that they define themselves as “post-evangelicals,” not as protesters of beliefs, but of the ways in which modern evangelicals hold their beliefs.[19] Perhaps then, we within the evangelical community can begin to reassess the claims of both those within the emerging church movement and those within our own camp, realizing that they have much to offer concerning context, and we have much to offer concerning content.

In order to remain intelligible to those raised within our postmodern context, those within the evangelical world must take steps to learn from Rollins and others about how one can be Christian and postmodern. In examining How (Not) to Speak of God we see just one imperfect attempt at a postmodern theology. In this attempt, the point was clearly made that the divide between modern and postmodern has more to do with method than substance. Contrary to the statement made by Gibbs and Bolger, I am confident that a distinctly evangelical theology, though born within modernity, can transition into our postmodern culture. However, it can only do so if those within the evangelical community are willing to take their theology and allow it to grow and mature.

In Rollins’ work we saw how those within the emerging church movement have (not) spoken about God. It is now time for evangelicals to go about a similar project, reassessing not what, but how we too choose to speak or not speak about God.

[1] Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 34

[2] I am greatly indebted to John R. Franke and his course TH 521: Missional Theology 1 for providing me with these understandings of postmodernism, specifically concerning its existence as a rejection of the modern ways of viewing knowledge.

[3] For further discussion on the foundations of modern theologies see: Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International, 1996)

[4] See for example, D.A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)

[5] For a sampling of data which suggests a falling modern church I would recommend the following: Peter Brierley, The Tide is Running Out (London: Christian Research, 2000); George Gallup Jr. and D. Michael Lindsey, Surveying the Religious Landscape (Harrisburg, PA: Moorehouse, 2000)

[6] Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006) Foreword by Brian McLaren, vii

[7] It is on their blogs that McKnight and Jones make these comments, and, respectively.

[8] For a more detailed interaction with Rollins that is both constructive and critical, see five articles published in The Church and Postmodern Culture, Vol. 1:1, pgs. 29-50 (2006) available at:

[9] Rollins, xiv

[10] Ibid., 1

[11] Ibid., 2

[12] For more on the connection between the biblical mandate against idolatry and the postmodern critique of ideology see: Bruce Ellis Benson, Graven Ideologies (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002)

[13] Rollins, 21

[14] Ibid., 73. Rollins’ use of the word ‘theological’ here is significant. By placing the word in quotations he is making reference to the modern idea that theology is the study of what we can objectively know about God.

[15] Rollins himself does not create or even imply these three categories; they are only an attempt by this author to reduce his ten ideas into more workable sections.

[16] For further information on the idea that revelation renders God as unknown, see: Graham Ward Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2004) and William Stacy Johnson, The Mystery of God (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997)

[17] Rollins, 56

[18] Ibid., 7

[19] Scot McKnight, October 26, 2006. “What is the Emerging Church?”, Lecture given at Westminster Theological Seminary. Concerning what the emerging Christians are protesting, McKnight writes “To be an emerging postevangelical is it be post-Bible study piety, to be post systematic theology, and to be post “in/out” in perception.” For McKnight then, it is the use of the Bible for rendering judgment on others, an understanding of theology as fixed, final, and systematic, and a preoccupation with determining who is “saved” and who is not, that postevangelicals are protesting A transcript of the lecture can be found at: