Catholic theologians and philosophers have spent at least 50 years worrying over whether their theology speaks to modern people. A clear instance would be Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, though one could read the whole of Vatican II in a similar way. Protestantism had a 200-year head start in worrying over this, making it either the vanguard or the canary in the mine, depending on what thinks about the problem.
One factor to take into account in evaluating this is that “to speak to someone” is just a synonym of “to persuade someone”, and for the last 50 years the overwhelming number of persuasion-acts that have affected us are from advertising. Advertising is our paradigm for persuasion simply because of its sheer ubiquity. Chances are that there are at least five logos within reach of anywhere you are: sitting at my desk I see one on the phone, one on each Kleenex box, two on the pencil sharpener, three on the computer, one on the dry erase marker… and this is before I count any that are on my clothes, my glasses, my zipper… as an artist friend tells me, we are surrounded by art, but most of it is invisible – though not in the sense that it is forgotten but in the sense that, as T.S. Eliot put it, it makes the music that is heard so deeply that it is not heard at all.
All of these logos make a largely unconscious language of persuasion. All things efficient or powerful have clear, angular, and dynamic looking logos, and are made with the “motion color” materials like silver, grey, black or deeper blue (sometimes white) all things appetizing draw from another palate with yellows, red, oranges, green etc. and have rounded-type logos. Make a hammer as sturdy as you please – no one is going to buy it if your advertising aesthetic is used by Burger King or My Little Pony. Make the tastiest burger in town – no one will buy it if it’s in a black wrapper with silver and blue angular writing.
All this is a roundabout way to show that the desire to update theology is not a cry for new theology but for new marketing. The Vatican II buzzword of “pastoral” theology is itself marketing. It’s pointless to try to swap out, say a Thomistic approach for a Kierkegaardian approach, or to swap out historical perspectives for more logical ones. Changing the content does nothing, it’s the form that needs updating. There are at least three elements to this updated form:
1.) Be brief and bullet-like. Advertising has conditioned us to expect that persuasion must be more or less instantaneous. No one can follow a paragraph as long as Locke or Newman anymore. I don’t mean Newman was verbose – he never used a wasted word. But Wittgenstein is the new model. Philosophy like a programming language or a soundbite. (A return of the disputed question might be an improvement.)
2.) Seek out the image, story, or example over an argument. The brevity we have become accustomed to in advertising makes us mant to see something immediately as true as opposed to having to reason laboriously for it. Everyone knows the Chinese room, the trolley problem, zombies, possible worlds, etc. Few Analytic philosophers can get from one end of a thought to another withotu using some far-fetched and wildly improbable illustration. The success of Dan Dennett (or, on the opposite extreme, Chesterton) seems in large part that he is an interesting storyteller. Raymond Ruyer could write whole books that moved from one masterstroke image to another, although little of his work has been translated out of French.
Giving examples is, of course, nothing new, but the centrality of the story over the argument is something distinctively post-modern. Our insistence on “evidence” means as evidence as opposed to argument. We want to just see the truth. We are skeptical of any multi-stage process of reasoning.
Methodologically, this supports the use of abductive and/or analogous reasoning over either deductive or inductive reasoning, that is, we should start with tentative ideas and point to some facts that make one hypothesis more probable. Scientific mythology makes us (irrationally) more convinced by evidence than by self evidence; more certain of the probable than the certain. We’ll repeat a single scientific test as though it’s gospel while being suspicious of the Pythagorean theorem.
3.) Emphasize ambiguities where possible. Advertising accustoms us to see persuasion as coming in a morass of competing and conflicting acts, and so ambiguities are essential to establish ones bona fides. Even the most strident dogmatist can find many to bring forward. Pure consistency and clarity is understood to be ideological and therefore a sort of rationalization. This is particularly the case in the Anglosphere, which tends to express itself tentatively even without the post-modern love of uncertainty making an additional contribution.
This is makes exception to rule 1. If you are giving a lengthy description of how ambiguous are difficult a problem is, people can follow it and believe it. If you insist on one dogmatic point at the end of this, or at some point during the flow, people will accept it as gospel.