What Can Helen Keller Teach Us About Theology?

Recently my wife and I saw a delightful film entitled The Miracle Worker (Disney’s version from around the 1990’s I think). It tells the true story of Helen Keller as a little girl under the instruction of Anne Sullivan, who is the miracle worker. Sullivan creatively and patiently worked to bring a blind and deaf girl into contact with the world, and Helen Keller’s life and subsequent achievements are well known because of Sullivan’s dedication to her. The primary thrust of Sullivan’s educational method was to teach Helen to recognize and use language. Of course, being both blind and deaf, Helen Keller had to learn how to do sign language through touch, but she learned language nevertheless and went on to live the life of a human being and not that of an animal.

I hope every self-avowed postmodernist watches this film. There is a powerful lesson in it, namely, that far from barring us from the real world, language actually puts us in touch with it. This comes together vividly at the movie’s climax, where Helen finally “gets it” at the water pump. All of the sensations she had been feeling as her teacher made signs on her hand were actually words that corresponded to the world. The liquid that she felt pouring over her hand from the pump was “water,” (as written in sign language on her hand). She immediately began asking about all the other things she felt around her, and Miss Sullivan spelled them out on her hand. The world was now open to her as an ordered reality, not a meaningless barrage of sensations. Through language, Helen Keller learned how to interpret the world and so live as a full human being in contrast to the beastlike existence she knew before.

Of course, the postmodernist will retort, “Yes, but language was only that–a means of interpreting the world and not a connection to the world-in-itself.” But I would beg to differ. Does interpretation through the construct of language necessarily imply that we have no real connection to the external world but only to the constructed worlds of our individual communities? Certainly, what is “water” to one community is “agua” to another, and so on. But does this necessarily mean that there is no common human experience and understanding of this liquid substance? Just because we use different linguistic symbols to express our understanding of the world does not mean that all understandings are therefore one step removed from reality. This is what makes translation possible. Anne Sullivan, an English-speaking woman, was able to translate concepts from English into touch sign language and so bring Helen Keller into contact with the world itself, and not simply with the world as English-speaking people know it.

Postmodernists greatly exaggerate the implications of our finitude and contextual situatedness in their epistemology. Yes, we are finite. Yes, we are located in specific contexts and so are shaped by our communities. But does this necessarily imply that there is no transcendent reference point through which we as human beings in God’s world may truly (but not exhaustively) know the world that God has made and the God who made it? I think language is one transcendent reference point. I don’t mean that all human languages descend intact from Heaven, but I believe that language itself is tied to creation in the image of God. God is a God who speaks; the fact that we speak is a reflection of him. Our speaking of this world in a truthful manner is a subset of what he has already interpreted for us as truth. Human knowledge of the world is true insofar as it is a subset of what God already knows to be true. The symbols that express this truth may change, but the truth itself may still be expressed truthfully (though not exhaustively) through them.

This is why I am wary of any attempt to “postmodernize” the Christian faith and theology. To be sure, we can thank postmodernism for exposing the failures of modernism. But Christianity is neither modern nor postmodern. Both modernism and postmodernism begin with the self as the reference point for epistemology; the fact that postmodernism rightly recognizes that taking the self as the starting point does not get us to absolute truth does not thereby elminate the Christian worldview as traditionally understood, which begins not with the self but with divine revelation. This is why I believe Stanley Grenz and John Franke go way off course when they lump conservative Christianity in with liberalism as a tradition steeped in modernist foundationalism. For them, the inerrant Bible is the conservative version of an Enlightenment foundation. But if this is the case, then it would have to be proven that the doctrine of inerrancy is a modern invention (presumably a creation of the Princetonians). That battle has already been fought, and John Woodbridge demolished the claim with his book Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers-McKim Proposal. According to Woodbridge’s historical analysis, inerrancy has been the historic doctrine of the church, even if the word “inerrancy” did not come to prominence until the modern period (and that happened because the church responded to attacks made on the Bible’s accuracy from the liberal side). Grenz and Franke (in Beyond Foundationalism) do not even make reference to Woodbridge’s book, thereby demonstrating shoddy attention to historical analysis that refutes their claims. D.A. Carson has pointed out in his review of Grenz’s Renewing the Center that Grenz plays fast and loose with history in his analysis of the contemporary situation and proposal to move forward. The late Dr. Grenz was a creative and stimulating theologian, and there is much that he said that I think needs to be said. But his overall approach to Christian theology looks to me like a repackaging of the liberal project: a concern to accomodate the faith to the spirit of the age. I am not at all saying that Grenz was a liberal. He criticized liberalism and conservatism equally. I do believe, however, that he saw changes in the culture taking place and proposed a way of dealing with those changes that mirrors what liberals did in the wake of the Enlightenment (and in the process virtually destroyed the Chrsitian faith). All of this was based, I believe, on a misunderstanding of what conservative Christianity really is. It is not a fading remnant of a passing modernism; it is, rather, the tradition in which the historic Christian faith has been preserved and passed down to us today.

All of that is to say that we can welcome the valid insights of postmodernism without capitulating to it. To my mind, postmodernism’s view of language is at odds with the teaching of Scripture. To the postmodern mind, language is a construct that always keeps us one step removed from the real world. We filter reality through constructs of language, and this means that our thoughts and words create a world for us rather than interpret the world that is there. Grenz and Franke put an interesting spin on this concept, arguing that Christian theology seeks to create the eschatological world through language, the world as God wills it to be. There is some truth in that statement, but I think it goes too far by making eschatology not only a lens of theology but the sole locus of theology as well. But in fact, there is much that theology has to say about the past and present in addition to the future. There is much about this present, fallen world that God wants us to know, so we cannot restrict theology to the realm of constructing the eschatological reality that God has for us. The eschatological world that God is bringing in through Christ is not more “real” than the present world (as Grenz and Franke argue); it is simply more permanent. Permanence and reality are different categories. This present world is “real” even if it is passing away, and it is a real world that God made and intends for us to know as interpreted by him.

In contrast to postmodern theory, Scripture beckons us to know the world God made through language. Language is a gift that connects us to the world, not a barrier that keeps us out of it. This means that our theological language can and does express truth that corresponds to reality. Just because we cannot know or express the truth exhaustively does not mean that we cannot know or express it truthfully in our limited capacity as the bearers of God’s image. John Frame’s insight is on target: “In Scripture, reality (God in particular) is known, and our senses, reason and imagination are not barriers to this knowledge; they do not necessarily distort it. Rather, our senses, reason, and imagination are themselves revelations of God–means that God uses to drive His truth home to us. God is Lord; He will not be shut out of His world” (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 33). The postmodern project (which has infected both postliberal and postconservative Christian theologies) does, in a sense, shut God out of his world by removing us from truthfully speaking about him through human language. But it is a strange understanding of God that considers the linguistic structures in which we live (which God made and which reflect his nature) as a barrier and not as a help to knowing him and his world as they really are.


One Response to “What Can Helen Keller Teach Us About Theology?”

  1. Luke Smith Says:

    Can you say anything constructive without bringing your favority post-modern straw men? I blow this horn repeatedly…but I will again. In Baptist life, both at NOBTS and at ABSW (An American Baptist “liberal” school) the Baptist dialogue is almost always about what the other person is saying. Baptist are seemed to be bred to complain about the faults of others. Why not use what I think are interesting and significant observations about Helen Keller and make some connection with faith…apart from the alleged “post-modern”. If someone wants to argue instead of having to label them you might actually learn to engage.

    blessings Luke Smith

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