Christianity and Postmodernity

Alan G. Padgett


Last summer I was privileged to take part in a seminar on Postmodernism and Christian Thought, led by Merold Westphal at Calvin College. This was a model of keen, Christian intellectual work which I enjoyed immensely and from which I learned a great deal {1}. A key question that arose in the seminar is, how shall the Church respond to postmodernism? This is an important question facing those members of the Church whose vocation is that of scholarship. For like it or not, postmodernism is one of the most pervasive and (I would argue) important intellectual phenomena in the West today. But what is it?

Ah, that's the question! And no one seems to be able to give a definitive answer to it. Perhaps this is because "postmodernism" is such a diverse cultural movement. In fact, I don't think there is any such thing as postmodernism, as an "ism." Postmodernity has no set of practices and beliefs that gives it the coherence of classical Marxism, say, or logical positivism. Rather, it seems there is a postmodern attitude. This attitude celebrates the demise of King Reason (including linear, "scientific" thinking), the Independent Ego, Absolute Truth and any unifying (or "totalizing") metanarratives. Pluralism, locality and historicism are celebrated. A second move that is typically postmodern is a kind of Marxist and Freudian suspicion of any claims to "truth" or "orthodoxy," any universal claim to reason. These smell like power-moves, just another way to continue the evils of the status- quo or substitute them with different forms of oppression. Michel Foucault in particular is important in this regard. I like the way Gary Percesepe put this in an article on postmodernism in CSR ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being Postmodern," XX:2 [December 1990], 124): "the hope of a self-grounding philosophy has crashed and burned, and every attempt to propagate one today is greeted with suspicion. This is the postmodern condition" (italics removed). Reason understood as all-encompassing and all-powerful; the Self understood as an independent, self-sustaining substance; and Truth understood as pure, absolute and self-evident: these are rejected by many thinkers today, not just French ones. I am, for one, inclined to say that the world of rationalism is a world well lost.

The mark of the postmodern is both the rejection of such a Platonic, Cartesian or Hegelian rationality, combined with the refusal to entertain nostalgia for its loss. Rather, like Nietzsche, they celebrate the death of "God" (that is, the God of the philosophers, the God of what Heidegger called the onto-theo-logical project). Since all claims to truth and reason are grounded in particular social and historical situations which relativize them, "truth" becomes just another power game. Such a postmodern critique often includes both feminist and racial criticism of Western culture as well as the usual Marxist analysis.

In his short article introducing the essay by Percesepe, Merold Westphal introduces two images concerning the way Christian scholars have treated the postmodern challenge: the ostrich and the bogeyman. Some of us (i.e., Christian scholars) have acted like ostriches, hiding our heads in the sand and hoping that all this negative French stuff will go away. To the ostriches among us (and all of us face this feathery feeling from time to time) Westphal rightly insists the postmodern critique is not going to disappear. But more importantly, the postmodern critique has things to teach us. "Ignore it" would be bad advice. It has something to say to Christian thought, especially in the radical criticism of philosophers like Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard.

Westphal's second image is the postmodern as "bogeyman." Here postmodern criticism becomes demonized as those atheistic, un-Biblical thinkers. Now I am not going to suggest that such writers are warm, loving Christians. They certainly are followers of Nietzsche in their atheism, at least for the most part. There are religious postmodern writers, however, who maintain the same critique of the Enlightenment faith in reason and science. Among such theistic postmodern thinkers I would include Ricoeur, Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion (also, of course, Percesepe and Westphal!). The rejection of the Enlightenment and of any Platonic certainty (or Lockean certainty, for that matter) does not have to lead to atheism. As Westphal insists, the fact that our knowledge is not God-like and that we are not gods does not mean there is no God. This is a non sequitur that lies at the heart of postmodern atheism. The demise of the Enlightenment project of pure, objective rationality does not imply the death of God. Soren Kierkegaard is a good guide for us here.

I would like to add two more possible responses to postmodernism beyond Westphal's pair: the postmodern as "best buddy" and as "critical dialogue partner." Westphal doesn't even consider the possibility, in his article, of a too-ready acceptance of postmodern thought. I would call this the "best buddy" model. Christians will want to pause before accepting the whole of French negativism exemplified by the three (non)names we have (counter)indicated. I don't think these men are the best friends of Christianity. Perhaps John Caputo in his dialogue with James H. Olthuis in the pages of CSR (XIX:4 [June 1990] and XX:2 [December 1990]) is a good example of the "best buddy" type. In his article, "Hermeneutics and Faith," Caputo does an excellent job of explaining Derrida's thought and correcting some misinterpretations of his philosophy. But I have yet to read any real criticism of Derrida by Caputo, either in this essay or in his other books. I have learned a great deal from Caputo's work, and I respect his ability and his attempt to find some moral and spiritual value in Derrida's philosophy (see especially Caputo's newest book, The Prayers and Tears of Derrida). What is missing is any fundamental criticism of Derrida's thought, and it surely does deserve some.

A full critique of Derrida is not necessary at this point (thank God). But having mentioned the need for criticism, some hints are perhaps in order. (For more hints, see N. Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse [1995], chapter 9.) On what grounds shall we criticize Derrida? One place surely is his hyperbole, his sometimes overblown rhetorical claims and his general style. Some of his followers mimic the master in this regard. For example, Caputo's essay for CSR creates a false dilemma between Cartesian certainty (167) and radical Derridean undecidability. I don't think either view will do, at least with respect to religious faith. For example, Soren Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" is not really anti-rational, nor even non-rational, contra Caputo. It's rather a "leap" that reason's own humility---its self-knowledge of its limitations---sets up and even cries out for. Only the non-humble Reason of Hegel's System cannot make the leap. And after faith, after decision and action, we can still reason about that faith and find good grounds for continuing in the faith. (See C. Stephan Evan's excellent book on Kierkegaard, Passionate Reason ["excellent" = "agrees with me"].) Like too many postmodern philosophers, Caputo polarizes the situation into a binary system of "good" and "bad" philosophy in order to set up his own extreme view.

Another bad example of polarization is Mark McLeod's "Making God Dance," (CSR XXI:3 [March 1992]: 275--292) which provides the reader with the false dilemma of either a naive realism (Common Sense) or anti-realism (under the misleading label of "multi-world realism"---good rhetorical ploy but bad philosophy). That more sophisticated versions of realism are possible is not addressed in McLeod's essay. Christians will be (sophisticated) realists because they are theists. There is one God and therefore one world and one truth about that world (i.e., God's knowledge of the world). In fact, Kant himself defined the "noumena" (i.e., things as they are in themselves) as God's knowledge of the object (Critique of Pure Reason, B71, 72). That's one reason Kant believed in the thing-in-itself. To argue, as McLeod does, that "there is no noumenal, mind-independent reality" (291) suggests on Kantian terms there is no God who created and knows that reality.

The stance I would recommend in this rather simple typology (which of course already deconstructs itself!) is that of "critical dialogue partner." Here we listen to the concerns of the postmodern attitude and address ourselves to this audience, rather than demonizing them or hoping they will go away. We are willing to admit that Christianity in the past bought into a "God of the philosophers" that was part of an onto-theo-logical project which objectified the Other and the ecosystem, leading to social and physical violence to them both. We should study the best postmodern thinkers carefully and pay attention to their insights. I am afraid that Diogenes Allen, therefore, is not a good dialogue partner in his recent article, "The End of the Modern World" (CSR XXII:4 [June 1993]: 339--347). I agree with the major points Allen makes in this essay. He is surely right to claim, "There is a lot to be said for deconstructionism, but its claims are too extreme" (339). Unfortunately, Allen is not a good critical dialogue partner because he gives too casual a dismissal of French poststructuralism (which I guess is the referent of "deconstructionism") both in this article and in his other writings. We should do a better job of careful analysis and exposition of the position of our dialogue partners.

But Christians will also maintain their own thinking, grounded in God's own self-revelation in Scripture and tradition. Any philosophy which would undercut such a revelation will be looked at with suspicion. Christians, therefore, must develop their own theologically motivated and faith-full hermeneutics of suspicion to deconstruct diff‚rance and undo the negativity of French poststructuralism. Of course this does not mean we erect King Reason or Autonomous Self all over again. I don't think the way forward is the way back to pre- modernism nor to defend modernity. Christianity must pass through both the acids of modernity and the suspicion and negativity of post-modernity into its own healthy self- conception of self-in-community-with-the-Other. This healthy self-conception in community will focus especially on God as Other but will also include Neighbor and Fellow-Creature as Others. I think Olthuis and even Westphal in his own way adopt such a stance toward the postmodern. Another good example of this in CSR would be David Lyon's article in dialogue with Foucault, "Whither Shall I Flee?" (XXIV:3 [March 1995]: 302--31). Although couched in terms that are linguistic and epistemological, at its root postmodern suspicion is ethical. The postmodern attitude turns our heads to see those who have been marginalized and oppressed by social institutions blinded by their own security and false self- understanding. This ethical challenge to the Church is in the end the most fundamental. The Church in the past has misused its power and excluded and oppressed the Other: Jews, women, Africans, "unbelievers," heretics. We need to be especially careful that our modest and humble claim to know (non-absolute) truth in Christ does not lead to a system that Christ would and does condemn. Following Him in a postmodern situation calls for a discipleship of suffering with and for others. But this has always been the Gospel truth for followers of the Crucified.

{1} Many thanks to C. Stephen Evans, Sandra van Kley and Anna Mae Bush for their kind hospitality at Calvin College. I am likewise grateful to Joel Carpenter and the Pew Charitable Trust for their financial support of the fine Faculty Summer Seminars at Calvin.

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