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One of the central methodological issues in the dialogue between theology and science is the nature of rationality. The way one imagines the operation of reason within and between these disciplines will shape the way one works to bring them into dialogue. The postfoundationalist model of rationality has emerged out of this ongoing discussion as an explicit attempt to move beyond the impasse between foundationalist and nonfoundationalist models. Unlike the foundationalist, the postfoundationalist acknowledges that rational reflection (and more broadly, experience itself) is always and already conditioned by communal and historical contexts. Unlike the nonfoundationalist, the postfoundationalist does not believe that this contextuality makes it impossible to reach beyond the confines of particular communities or to strive for interdisciplinary and transcommunal conversation. The post is not merely after, nor simply against foundationalism (as in nonfoundationalism), although it is both of these. Postfoundationalism is the search for a middle way between the objectivism of foundationalism and the relativism of many forms of nonfoundationalism.

The philosophical theologian most closely associated with this view is J. Wentzel van Huyssteen. His book Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology (1997) outlines the contours of this model of rationality, and he fills out the details in The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science (1999). Philip Clayton also illustrates this model of rationality in several of his works, including The Problem of God in Modern Thought (2000). In his earlier methodological contribution to the dialogue, Explanation from Physics to Theology (1989), Clayton argued that rejecting foundationalism does not mean that one automatically falls into the waiting arms of the nonfoundationalists. Several other scholars share the family resemblance of postfoundationalism (for examples, see F. LeRon Shults The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology, 1999). Both van Huyssteen and Clayton suggest that the entire debate between foundationalism and nonfoundationalism is based on an outdated epistemological dilemma. Several dichotomies are at play here, but they are all embedded in a deeper assumption that separates epistemology from hermeneutics.

Epistemology and hermeneutics

In the search for apodictic knowledge (episteme ), classical foundationalists privileged epistemology as the primary enterprise of philosophy, and eschewed the subjective factors that lead to mere opinion (doxa ). Nonfoundationalists valorize the play of hermeneutics as philosophy's task; since all we have is opinionated interpretation, the ancient (and "modern") goal of objective knowledge must be given up. Postfoundationalism aims to accommodate the postmodern critique of neutral episteme without collapsing into relativist hermeneutics. Conversely, it affirms the modernist interest in general patterns of rationality, but rejects foundationalist absolutism. Postfoundationalism insists on a constitutive reciprocal relation between epistemology and hermeneutics, avoiding a collapse into the former (with its "meta-narrative") or the latter (with its isolated narratives). The goal is to maintain the search for truth as an ideal that drives inquiry, without asserting that any particular claim to knowledge provides a totalizing and final metanarrative. For van Huyssteen the search for "intelligibility" is upheld as a common link between theology, philosophy, and the sciences. Accepting the ideal of intersubjective intelligibility, however, does not entail objectivism. An awareness of the "fallibility" of all human knowledge, argues van Huyssteen, protects against the absolutism and hegemony that worry the nonfoundationalist. Further, to avoid fideism, which sometimes haunts nonfoundationalist appeals to the faith of a particular community, the postfoundationalist holds onto the ideals of truth, objectivity, and rationality, while at the same time acknowledging the provisional, contextual, and fallible nature of human reason.

Experience and belief

As a theory of belief-justification, foundationalism distinguishes between "basic" beliefs, which are justified without reference to other beliefs, and "non-basic" beliefs, which are justified by their inferential relation to basic beliefs. In this view, basic beliefs emerge out of and are immediately justified by experience (whether rational or empirical); inferential justification then flows in one directionfrom basic to nonbasic beliefs. One can imagine a "pyramid" of knowledge secured by its firm foundation. Nonfoundationalists typically hold to a form of coherentism, which is the main competitor of foundationalism vis-à-vis the debate over the justification of belief. The favorite images here are a "web" of interconnected beliefs or a "raft" that must be repaired while afloat. Foundationalism has difficulty defending its criteria for the basicality of a belief and accounting for the interdependence of all human beliefs; nonfoundationalism, insofar as it maintains strict adherence to coherent relations among beliefs as the only criterion of justification, has difficulty indicating the truth of its beliefs outside the system. If these are the only options, then philosophers of science and theologians must choose between the alleged security of the foundationalist pyramid and the turbulence of the coherentist raft.

In The Shaping of Rationality, van Huyssteen suggests a balance that affirms the broader networks of belief in which rationally compelling experiences are already embedded and recognizes the way in which beliefs are anchored in interpreted experience. Against the foundationalist idea that some beliefs enter the web neutrally (without being interpreted), van Huyssteen insists that all experience is interpreted. Rather than leading to nonfoundationalist relativism, however, he argues that one can critically explore the experiential roots of beliefs without feeling compelled to throw out one's commitment to the explanatory power of those beliefs. In her Evidence and Inquiry (1993) Susan Haack asserts that foundationalism and coherentism do not exhaust the options. Against coherentism, foundationalism requires that justification occurs in one direction; against foundationalism, coherentism insists that justification is exclusively accomplished in terms of the relations among beliefs. Haack argues for a middle way that she calls foundherentism the justification of beliefs is not unidirectional and a coherent relation among beliefs is not sufficient for their justification.

Individual and community

The debate over belief-justification is closely linked to the question about the way in which individual and communal factors shape the formation of beliefs. The Enlightenment ideal was the "man of reason" who stands alone and objectively measures the world. All rational individuals can and ought to come to the same conclusion, irrespective of their subjective interests or communal background. Nonfoundationalists build upon the historicist critique of this model of rationality, and emphasize the contextual factors that influence an individual's acceptance of criteria for what is reasonable. Pointing out the linguistic and communal mediation of an individual's web of beliefs, nonfoundationalists argue not only that the modernist ideal is impossible but also that it is undesirable because it so easily leads to the domination of one narrative rationality over another. In its extreme relativist forms, this leads to the conclusion that local theologies and local sciences have their own incommensurable rationalities and are not accountable to other communities of inquiry.

The postfoundationalist agrees that we must move beyond foundationalist theories of rationality that aim for universality and certainty, but finds the nonfoundationalist price for the immunization of theological rationality from critique from other sciences too much to pay. Postfoundationalism accepts the nonfoundationalist sensitivity to the hermeneutical conditioning effected by being situated in a community of inquirers, but refuses to give up the intuition that it is the individual who actually makes rational judgments. This model of rationality recognizes that an individual is always a participant within a particular community of inquiry and so works out of the standards of its tradition, but also acknowledges that the personal voice of a rational agent may also critique those standards through distanciation from the tradition.

Explanation and understanding

The dialogue between science and theology has been shaped by the separation in western culture between the natural and the human sciences. This modern dichotomy was made explicit by Wilhelm Dilthey in the nineteenth century, but was grounded in the metaphysical dualisms of early modern thought (extended vs. thinking substance, nature vs. mind). On this model, the natural scientist objectively observes and measures the material world, offering an explanation of the facts in terms of universal laws. The human (or social) scientist examines the behavior of human beings over time, presenting an understanding of the value of a particular event in the pattern of a broader context. With these as the available options, some theologians tried to model the study of the Christian religion after the natural sciences; this typically took a foundationalist form in which basic data is posited (e.g., in Scripture or religious experience) and propositions are objectively inferred. Nonfoundationalists, on the other hand, are often satisfied with categorizing theology as a "human" science, involving the depth description of particular linguistic communities.

For the postfoundationalist, all human knowing and so all of the sciences are characterized by both hermeneutical understanding and the drive toward experientially adequate and intersubjective explanation. In Explanation from Physics to Theology Philip Clayton proposes a mediating position that recognizes the shaping influence of contexts of meaning, but simultaneously allows for general standards or criteria for explanation in the sciences. He defines understanding broadly as an intuitive grasping of patterns of meaning, and explanation as a rational reconstruction of these interrelated structures in a primarily theoretical context. Although the values, interests and goals that guide their operation will differ, explanation and understanding are interdependent and operative in both theology and science. By exploring the dynamics of rationality that lay across these fields, postfoundationalism aims to contribute to a safe interdisciplinary space for the dialogue between science and theology.

See also Coherentism; Fallibilism; Foundationalism; Nonfoundationalism; Postmodernism


clayton, philip. explanation from physics to theology: an essay in rationality and religion. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1989.

clayton, philip. the problem of god in modern thought. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 2000.

gregersen, niels henrik, and van huyssteen, j. wentzel, eds. rethinking theology and science: six models for the current dialogue. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1998.

haack, susan. evidence and inquiry: towards reconstruction in epistemology. oxford: blackwell, 1993.

murphy, nancey. beyond liberalism and fundamentalism: how modern and postmodern philosophy set the theological agenda. valley forge, pa.: trinity press international, 1996.

schrag, calvin o. the resources of rationality: a response to the postmodern challenge. bloomington: indiana university press, 1992.

shults, f. leron. the postfoundationalist task of theology: wolfhart pannenberg and the new theological rationality. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1999.

stenmark, mikael. rationality in science, religion, and everyday life: a critical evaluation of four models of rationality. south bend, ind.: university of notre dame press, 1995.

van huyssteen, j. wentzel. essays in postfoundationalist theology. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1997.

van huyssteen, j. wentzel. the shaping of rationality: toward interdisciplinarity in theology and science. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1999.

f. leron shults