Listening to the Marginalized Voice

Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity – 7

Here is one aspect of postmodernity that we should applaud: In its insistence that there is no single human perspective that provides the ultimate “Truth” about reality, postmodernists desire to listen to the marginalized voice—the voice that has been oppressed in the power-grabbing word games that epitomize modernity.

Christians should actually embrace this, joining with postmodern philosophical criticism of all “isms,” and affirming that we too should be against any oppressive system of thought. This includes our own “graven ideologies” (as Bruce Ellis Benson calls them); we need to be critical of our own “isms.” This is what gets certain Christian leaders’ feathers ruffled, especially when those in the Emerging Church are critical (because of their postmodern sensibilities) of the traditional systems of thought that have dominated the church for the last 400 years (especially that ultimate “ism of isms,” Calvinism).

Derrida and Rorty, in the words of Kevin Vanhoozer, are actually “cleansing the temple…”

They are '…playing the role of outraged prophets seeking to cleanse, sometimes playfully and sometimes painfully, the modern philosophical temples of knowledge. Overturning the economies of the knowledge changers in an ethical gesture on behalf of marginalized others whose voices and vocabularies have been systematically suppressed.” (“Pilgrim’s Digress” in the book, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn)

The postmodern concern for the marginalized voice is something that is very biblical. And, strikingly, when we read the Bible, the voice that most often gets marginalized is the voice of God. The Word of the Lord goes out to the people, and more often than not, the people ignore it. Instead of listening to this voice of grace, mercy, hope, and peace, the people instead go after their own particular interests, suppressing anyone who would speak for God. The people know that the Word of God says they are to be a blessing to others, but they instead want to be a nation capable of the same politics of power and wealth. The people know that the Word of God says to care for the oppressed, but they instead manipulate the poor and deny justice to the oppressed.

Just a cursory reading of the prophets reveals this. How many times do we read passages like this?:

For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.
(Amos 2:6-7)

The ultimate marginalized voice is God’s.

Now this is missed by atheist postmodern philosophers, though it springs from what they have been writing. As I wrote in my last post, Reality is what is really “out there”—it really exists. And if it really exists, it has a voice. And God really exists “out there,” and God has a voice. God seeks to communicate to us. And so it should not be surprising how much the “Word of the Lord” is at the center of the biblical revelation.

  • God spoke—and the Creation was made.
  • God continued to speak his Word throughout the Old Testament record in the Law and the Prophets.
  • And God ultimately spoke through the “Word become Flesh,” Jesus Christ.

God is not silent; he is seeking to communicate to us. But, again, in keeping with postmodern understanding, language is inherently difficult in a fallen world—and therefore, we cannot hear the voice of God perfectly.

Or, in other words, though there is a TRUE REALITY that is God, our perception of that reality is deeply flawed. Postmodernists and Christians alike understand that there is a problem with humanity’s ability to listen to the marginalized voice. Christians understand this as a result of our fallenness—that we are mired in sin. Sinners marginalize the voices they do not want to hear, and create stories of their own that places them in power over others (and in the case of Christian history, people have taken the voice of God and marginalized it for the sake of interpretations that place themselves in power over others).

God, all the while, continues to speak (His Word is still living and active and His Spirit is still articulate), pleading with humanity to hear his voice, a voice that knows Reality as it really is—the only voice that is the Truth. Because God speaks from this holy place of Truth (“holy” meaning “other, separate, unique”—as opposed to humans who say that they know the “Truth” but are incapable of saying this absolutely), God's words carry Truth about Reality that is beyond any human endeavor.

But we must be careful to be chaste in our belief that we can know this Truth totally. God’s message comes to us via the scandal of the particular. It is revealed to a particular people. It is revealed through Himself in the incarnation of the Christ at a particular place and time and language. This language can carry Truth insofar as we can rightly understand it. So, we have the capacity to know Truth, though we cannot know this Truth absolutely (as Paul puts it, "Now I know in part").

This calls us to humility as we attempt to listen to the voice of God. We must insist that no one interpretation can possibly be the end-all, be-all interpretation for all peoples and all times. And, most of all, we must yield to the Spirit of God who is capable of clearing the fog between the Divine voice and our listening ear. The Christian message is one of redemption: That even though we are fallen and cannot hear the voice of God rightly, God supernaturally intercedes that communication gap as we yield to His Spirit within us as believers in Christ. Theology is a never-ending venture that must bring into consideration the many cultures and traditions that make up the biblical faith, constantly listening for God's Spirit in it all.

For God is there—pleading with us to hear His voice: the voice of the marginalized, the voice of the One who was so despised, so hated, so oppressed that he died upon the Cross of the powerful and oppressive.

If postmodernists are consistent, then they must listen to this marginalized voice.

Index of this series: Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity



jazztheo said...

this is profound thinking.


Scot McKnight said...

Very good. I'm not so sure I'd say our knowledge is always "deeply flawed," but surely limited and flawed.

Very good stuff on the value of the marginalized voice being heard; I like this series and your voice here.

The other thing I'd say is that Truth, God, is a Person and all genuine Truth is deeply personal. So, relationship shapes what we can come to know about Truth.

Bob Robinson said...

Amen, Scot, when you say, "Truth, God, is a Person and all genuine Truth is deeply personal. So, relationship shapes what we can come to know about Truth."

That is what I was trying to get at in my last post, "Is There a 'Reality' That Is True? And Can We Know It?"