Era and Epoch, Epoch and Era: Christian Intellectuals in the Postmodern Turn

Scott H. Moore


In the Preface to Philosophical Fragments, Soren Kierkegaard's pseudonym Johannes Climacus laments the tendency of "scholars" to carve up history into dubious periodizations and then to find comfort in these newfound chronological truths. Most of us have been guilty of thinking at one time or another that "a new era, a new epoch, was beginning." Sometimes we are tempted to make claims about what is "no longer believable" or "what we now know." Climacus describes these sorts of people as characterized by "convulsive yelling, while the sum and substance of the yelling are these words: era, epoch, era and epoch, epoch and era, the system. {1}" In this essay, I am going to commit the very crime against which Climacus warns us.

I believe that Christian intellectuals have much to celebrate in the cultural-intellectual turn which is Postmodernity. While much has been written about the dangerous character of many of the ideas which march under the heading of "postmodernity" and "postmodernism," here I would like briefly to offer a perspective for Christian intellectuals on how we might celebrate certain aspects of postmodernity.

First, however, we Christians need to seek acceptable interpretations of what postmodernity is and is not, and this is no easy task. Postmodernity has come to mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people. Some interpret postmodernity as a linear historical development; others employ it as a cultural justification for any and all claims to truth or meaning. I reject these sorts of formulations. Postmodernity is not any particular "thing." Therefore, neither Christians nor anyone else is justified in wholesale praise or attack. We have to name the beast before we can know it. This insight is one which is central to much that goes under the name of postmodernity. I would like to describe (or name) postmodernity as a "turn" rather than as an epoch or era. Postmodernity is a modern problem and a modern phenomenon. The resources which we have to address its concerns are largely modern in nature. But these resources do not run in the same direction or have the same implications which they have had previously.

I find this metaphor of the postmodern "turn" appealing for many reasons. On the one hand, we can speak of turning this way or that or of turning back or returning. One of the wonderful by-products of all of this talk about postmodernity is the opportunity to explore premodern traditions of discourse and the premodern insights which continue to guide many of our communities of memory. On the other hand, the inertia of Modernity makes taking such a turn extraordinarily dangerous. You don't have to be a literary critic or a social theorist to recognize that "postmodernity" has brought more nonsense and balderdash out of the woodwork than most of us thought possible. The Social Text scandal is merely the most recent installment.

If postmodernity is a turn, where do we stand with respect to it? It seems to me that we are in the midst of this postmodern turn. We are "coming around the mountain when we come," so to speak. The turn is dangerous because we do not know what lies ahead, and in our usual arrogance, we're probably taking it too quickly. What is wonderful and exciting is that new vistas and insights confront us at every turn. We are no longer constrained only to see the facts of the world in the ways that our larger non-Christian, modern culture has demanded. In truth, we have new vantage points from which to view the notion of "facts" at all. And this is the first point we Christian intellectuals have to celebrate about the postmodern turn.

Now a fact is simply a linguistic label we place on pieces of data about which we think there can be no more meaningful conversation. That means that facts, as ontological entities, don't exist. Now by calling into question the existence of facts, we are surrendering neither the truth that water at sea-level boils at 100 degrees Celsius nor the truth that the Lord God created the Heavens and the Earth. To call into question the existence of facts is to make a claim about how we label information. To refer to some bit of information as a fact is to pay that piece of information the compliment that here there seems to be sufficient warrant for our belief. To put it slightly differently, when it comes to facts, we do not anticipate that there can be much more meaningful conversation on whatever the issue is. If at any time we begin to have doubts about whether this matter really is settled, then we can revisit it. Now, inasmuch as postmodernity represents a perspective that calls into question the world of facts, particularly the world of facts as the non-Christian, secular world understands it, then Christians have a vested interest in denying this world of facts.

Thus, Christians have every reason to be excited about the opportunities that are opened up by postmodernity, not because we deny the existence of just any collection of facts but because we deny the existence of a particular set of facts. Above I said that to call into question the existence of facts is to make a claim about how we label information, and labeling information has been one of the chief preoccupations and favorite pastimes of the modern age. Our therapists, our consultants, our advisers and our other various experts have all done a marvelous job at helping us distinguish our facts from our opinions from our superstitions from our subconscious repressions. We should be incredulous about these particular sets of facts and the ways we let them rule our lives. The postmodern turn presents us with resources which can assist with the cultivation of this incredulity.

We deny a particular set of facts. We deny that the issue about what could or could not have happened in history is settled. Over and over again the world of secular modernity has said dead people stay dead. Old lives do not become new. There is nothing new under the sun. It is against those sorts of affirmations that the Christian says no. The Christian denies that world of facts. What the Christian wants to do is boldly to propose a new set of facts, a novel way of looking at the world. She wants to articulate that these conversations are not over and that they are not open to just any conclusions. The Christian knows how the story goes, and that makes all the difference.

But what's so special about postmodernity? Haven't intelligent Christians been saying these sorts of things all along? Well, yes and no. For a very long time (about 1700 years) Christians said things like this, but for the last 300 years or so, most of us have desperately wanted to validate our knowledge claims by the methods and assumptions of the reigning knowledge people in our culture. Lately, that's been the scientists. They liked to talk about the results of their inquiries as being "objective." The things they were describing were "objects" out there in the world, not the distortive, subjective interests of the investigators. Real truth became "objective truth."

It is not difficult to see the attractiveness of the notion of "objectivity." If the unconcealed reality of something is an object to be examined by anyone anywhere, then "this thing" really might be unassailable. If on the other hand "this thing" is subjective and not available for inspection by interested bystanders, then it is immanently assailable. This regrettable state of affairs only arises when we insist that truth only comes in two flavors---objective and subjective. Of course, it all turned out to be a sham, and that's why we Christians should have nothing to do with it.

Now, again, postmodernity represents all sorts of things to all sorts of people, and there are certainly lots of perspectives that march under the banner of postmodernity that are completely and totally antithetical to Christian belief, and Christians should have no patience for that and should not seek to redeem all aspects of postmodernity. But to the extent that postmodernity is post-modernity, then we must take up the standard and seek to articulate new ways of knowing, new ways of thinking about the world, new ways of being faithful in the age to come. We do it in the recognition that this modern world with all of its self- delusions about freedom and autonomy and objectivity has fallen away. The Christian narrative never claimed any of those kinds of things, and it was only because we desperately wanted to be paid modernity's compliment that we tied Christian truth to notions of objective fact.

So what does this mean? This means that Christians must very carefully examine the products of postmodern discourse. We must look again at what could or could not be the case. We have to overcome the sensibility that says, "well, if it's not objective, then it's not real." That is not the case at all. Most of us believed in the reality of the gospel of grace long before we thought that substitutionary atonement was an objective fact, and frankly, we will believe in it a long time after we have given up the notion that it's an objective fact.

So let's look at postmodernity and see what there might be that Christians can appropriate. Look at Jacques Derrida's use of language and deconstruction. What here can be reinscribed in a Christian perspective? Much of it, perhaps, cannot, but what about Derrida's recent writings on the "gift" of both life and death? What is the gift that comes through language? don't we think of grace as enabling us to speak the truth in ways in which it was not previously possible? If our living has been transformed by the gift of grace, do we not begin to think of our dying altogether differently? Is there not something here that Christians can appropriate and can celebrate and can use?

What about Michel Foucault's creative power/knowledge continuum? Contrary to Francis Bacon's famous aphorism that "knowledge is power," Foucault asserts that "power is knowledge." That is, those who have power are always in the position of deciding what is and is not knowledge. Do not our religious traditions frequently reflect the manipulative use of power in the construction of knowledge claims and in self-justifying appeals to divine insight? Is this not the sin of pride?

What about Foucault's "subjugated knowledges"? I am presently working on a project in which I am seeking to understand how Christian truth exists as a sort of "subjugated knowledge" against these "regimes of thought" which make up our larger culture. Modernity is a regime of thought if ever there was one. Yes indeed, Foucault was perhaps a nasty piece of work (to use Rorty's description of Heidegger), but there are deep insights in his work which Christian intellectuals need to explore. And this is the second point we Christian intellectuals have to celebrate about the postmodern turn.

Clearly one of the most useful thinkers for Christians to explore and investigate is Emmanuel Levinas. This extraordinary Jewish thinker, who died on Christmas Day 1995, is a gift of grace to Christian intellectuals living in the postmodern turn. Levinas takes seriously the reality of God and the significance of the Other. And that is what it means to be an evangelist. That is what it means to "good news" people---to take the Other seriously and to take to the Other good news of the reality that the world doesn't have to stay the same, that the future can be different. We Christians will obviously articulate this in ways different from Levinas. Nevertheless, we learn from his example by taking seriously the Other and by refusing to cheapen their commitments or to deny them the respect that we should have for them. We do not do this because they are autonomous human beings but because they (like us) are ones for whom Christ died.

Merold Westphal has demonstrated so persuasively the significance of the role of suspicion in the life of faith. We need to continue to articulate that suspicion and employ a thoroughgoing hermeneutics of suspicion. We need to be suspicious of those things that make us comfortable, suspicious of those standards of fact that modernity has articulated, and suspicious of postmodern alternatives. We should take nothing at face value; we should investigate and take seriously these challenges. Yes, there are many postmodern thinkers out there that have no greater agenda than to deny the validity and significance of Christian faith, but surely that was the case with modernity as well. Many of us have a certain delusional security in modernity because we believe that maybe we can fight it out here because we know what the rules are.

Let me tell you what the rules are. The rules in postmodernity come down to this: the regulae fide. It is the rule of faith, and only as Christians who are drawn out, called into the community of faith which is the Body of Christ, only then can we articulate successful faithful, helpful rules of engagement with postmodernity. Some of these rules are going to look very much like premodern forms of discourse. Some of the rules are going to be new and innovative and exciting. Some of them are going to be very sensible and reasonable. They are going to be very modern because postmodernity is not what comes after modernity falls away, but it is that turn in which modernity's assumptions have been problematized and the continuity of our confidence has been called into question.

The rule of faith only makes sense within the community of the faithful. Here we find fellow strugglers who can, paradoxically, help keep us on the straight and narrow even as we negotiate this difficult turn. And if these rules are in fact the rules of faith, then by those rules we will discover in time whether this era and epoch was really something new after all or only convulsive yelling {2}.

{1} Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 6. Special thanks to C. Stephen Evans (Calvin College) for helping me read Climacus's "Preface" in the light of postmodern considerations.

{2} Special thanks also goes to the Lilly Fellows Summer Seminar Program within which and through which an earlier draft of this essay was written.

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