Stephen Toulmin wrote in his Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity that the formal doctrines underpinning the thought and practice of modernity followed a trajectory with an Omega shape: "After 300 years we are back close to our starting point."1 Toulmin argues that modernity really began with the tolerance and mild skepticism of the Renaissance, with its interest in the timely, the local, the particular, and the practical. The quest for universal, certain, theoretical knowledge begun by René Descartes has been a long detour from which we are only now returning.
I, too, would emphasize ways the modern quest has come nearly full circle, but I see better options than a return to skepticism. Jeffrey Stout describes modernity as a flight from traditional authority.2 The Enlightenment accounted for its own origins in terms of the rejection of religious superstition and mankinds daring to think for himself (I use the masculine advisedly). Toulmin and Stout, each in his own way, trace it instead to the desperate need to resolve bloody disputes when Protestant and Catholic authorities disagreed. Stout argues that the resources devised for this purpose created an epistemological crisis for theology from which it has never recovered. If modernity was a child begotten by Christian strife, it would have been poetic justice if modern standards of rationality had resulted in the death of Christian belief. Yet Gods justice is not "poetic," and the church has outlived its recalcitrant child.
If indeed modernity began with the rejection of traditionthe quest (in Toulmins words) to begin with a clean slatewe have closed the circle in Alasdair MacIntyres recognition of the tradition-dependence of all rationality. "To be outside all traditions is to be a stranger to enquiry; it is to be in a state of intellectual and moral destitution. . . ."3
Another feature of modern reason has been its dualistic attempt to detach cerebration from the life of the body. Current feminist thinkers (Shenk draws largely from the work of Rebecca Chopp) recognize the extent to which knowledge begins with our embodied presence in the world. Confirmation for this claim comes from a variety of sources, most powerfully from the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who argue that all of reasons categories are extensions of metaphors based on bodily experience in the physical world.4
We who are involved in theological or church-related education often have much to celebrate in such developments. One who celebrates and puts them to good use is Sara Wenger Shenk. "The long dark night honoring those who engaged primarily in detached rational thinking" has come to an end (p. 157). Drawing on a wealth of current resources, she has devised an approach to education that draws its strength from the particular, the practical, the timely, and the local. This pedagogy recognizes its indebtedness to tradition, understood as the social and critical embodiment of the communitys formative texts. She translates an epistemology rooted in the traditional, the spiritual, the communal, the bodily, the intuitive, the ethical, and the practicalalong with the rationalinto strategies for education that stress reimaging our communal ideals, indwelling narratives and practices, communal moral discernment, and revitalization of family and church practices.
Shenk promotes this vision with a sense of urgency. Just as the secular world has been returning from its detour in search of universal rationality, her research shows that her own Anabaptist tradition has been rapidly losing touch with the traditional formative practices that have been an important source of its identity. Yet Anabaptism is rich in resources for an approach to knowledge appropriate to our postmodern world: communal reading of the biblical texts, discernment, theology developed in response to live issues in the church. I share Shenks sense of urgency but also her enthusiasm for promoting an authentically Anabaptist epistemology and pedagogy. I am honored to have my voice included among the resources she has so skillfully woven together.
Nancey Murphy, Professor of
Anabaptist Ways of Knowing orders:
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