A friend of mine said something yesterday that piqued my interest. I paraphrase: “Students in my Modern/Postmodern class will need to pray for help because the writers of the essays in our text do not give any hope of resolving a crisis of faith.” This paraphrase also contains some of what I understood him to mean, I apologize for my failure to grasp the exact thought.
He is correct when he worries for the Christian students in his class. Postmodernism does not try to sew up the cracks in our perception of reality. The reality his students have, and the reality they have constructed is largely deficient in the critical faculties necessary for the raw critique found in postmoderns, post structuralists, and literary critics like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Fish, Gadamer, or even Nietzsche. That is because they have little training in classical philosophy, or the philosophes of the Age of Reason. Most of these believers have been brought up in the certainties of early twentieth-century conservative theologies.
There is nothing in particular wrong with these certainties, except when they face the much longer and more difficult philosophical conversation of the critical schools. The critical schools have little to do with conservative Christianity, and their remarks are aimed at a much broader set of issues in society. Conservative Christianity is the child of a narrow branch of conservatives, perhaps the Scottish plain language school of theology where the sentence in question just means what it says: a form of literalism. Literalism is fine for a small community that doesn’t interact with the wider world. It is too fragile for contact with uninterpreted reality, say, the truths of experience that are only found outside the covenant community. It is part of a closed system that not unlike natural systems, suffer continuing entropy for lack of a persistent source of energy.
Alongside these certainties is the vigor of youth, that turns their certainty into a weapon for defense of their knowledge citadel. This is all, at times, that their elders expect. What their elders do not expect, because they have no acquaintance, is that the knowledge they have imparted, is at best naïve, and subject to the critiques made famous in the postmoderns. In fact, the sidelong attack of the postmoderns on the knowledge of the modern era (from the Enlightenment) is particularly apt at stressing the unexamined presuppositions of the conservative Christian. This is why my friend’s request for prayer is appropriate.
Part of what has always been the character of the conservatives version of education is indoctrination. That is, flatly, “you should confess what I have told you to believe.” This works perfectly well for doctrinaire scientism as it does for conservative Christianity. Their models of knowledge are similar. Happily the attack of the postmoderns work as well on both crowds. The problem the Christian faces is the failure of their worldview, while the adept at scientism finds a new indoctrination that they naïvely see as truth in the same way as the predecessor scientism. Both reactions are incorrect.
Before we get started, let me suggest as an aside, that the initial mistake many Christians make with postmodernism is that they take it as a replacement for what they call knowledge. This is a failure to recognize the difference between theory and critique, between knowledge and skepticism. When the postmoderns speak they do so not as an authority, but as pointing out flaws in their subject’s perception of knowledge. They are not building an alternative worldview, but suggesting that the current worldview is a cobbled together piece of excrement. Some, like Foucault do this early in their careers, but after tearing down get around to building something later on. Others, like Derrida, never construct anything. They are always and forever deconstructing the precious objects. That is perhaps a bit unfair, but I have found few instances of construction in his writings. His puzzling rhetoric annoys, teases, and rejects the foundationalist certainties of an early twentieth-century worldview.
Problems in the Church with postmodernism (I am most familiar with these) range from outright rejection to reassertion of the fundamentals as a response to the critique. But the range of reactions rises from a lack of acquaintance with the material the postmoderns are critiquing in the first place. Some rail against the postmoderns, not realizing that postmodernism is unhappy with all foundationalist pretensions, not just those evidenced by conservative Christianity. But the Christians I know who reject postmodernism out of hand, don’t realize that they themselves have foundationalist pretensions. They want to say that the Bible is a reliable foundation for Christianity. OK, let them say that. They are wrong. Jesus said himself “You search the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, but they are the ones that testify of me.” Christ, and the revelation of Christ is the foundation of the Church and Christianity, not the Bible, (or Peter for that matter,) which by the way, the early believers only had a part of what we call the Old Testament in the Hebrew TENAK and the Greek Septuagint. So Jesus couldn’t have been speaking of the New Testament at all.
So, if Christ is the foundation for the Church, then there is no need to defend the logic of the Bible. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what it says, or understand history, context, organization, and theology.) These critics of postmodernism rightly believe that postmodernism is an attack on Christianity when Christianity has become an adherent to the text instead of an adherent to Christ. Or these believers think that they are defending Christ when they are defending a culturally inept interpretation of God’s intention, mistaking their theology for reality, they have missed Christ altogether and placed a terrible burden on reality to prove their theology. The postmoderns are correct to critique that miscegenation.
The proper view of the postmodern critique is to treat it as a skeptical instrument to call into question foundationalist assertions, that is, assertions of knowledge that rely on the annunciation and exact correspondence of our knowledge with absolutes. Any study of science or theology will reveal how terribly wrong humans have gotten it at times. The critique of the postmodern is just another instance of calling us to account for some of those errors.
What does the believer have to fear from postmodernism? Well, in my estimation, nothing. All that’s required is the kind of reading and research that is required for any other dense and often inscrutable set of texts: a healthy ego, a wry sense of humor, some fair historical awareness of the subjects of their critique, and an acquaintance with the larger conversation. If somebody mentions a writer, say Foucault mentioning Nietzsche, it would be worth your while to discover what Nietzsche was doing that Foucault critiques. If a writer mentions an essay or a book, as Foucault does when he mentions Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” you will notice that he also mentions Dr. Paul Rée who is one subject Nietzsche critiques in his book. Rée is known as the subject of Nietzsche’s critique by any who have read the Genealogy, and so wouldn’t necessarily require a citation by Foucault. But for the uninformed reading Foucault’s essay, Rée is a piece of the puzzle unknowable outside of Foucault’s reference to his ideas. But this scholarly concern of mine is meant only to hint at the many ramifications possible in tracing out the meaning of any reference. Any casual dismissal of Foucault because he “attacks” conservative Christianity, has no idea what Foucault has said and so does a disservice to the hearers, in fact performs the office of lying and misleading.
I haven’t told you what Paul Rée actually said, or what Foucault or Nietzsche said. But a student who wishes to be counted, should be able to enter that conversation fairly as an observer, and later, a participant. A reader worth their salt will be able to evaluate what they say without spitting or cursing. Comprehending any writing is partly a skill that requires being able to ground the conversation in some space, taking one side or another (one of many possible sides). The tendency to see any conversation as black and white is one of the unfortunate characteristics of foundationalism. Every statement is judged to be right or wrong, fitting or perverse. One must be willing to try to see an alternative worldview. You should even try swapping out your worldview for somebody else’s. That takes strength of character, so you may have to work out for a while in simpler tasks before trying it.
Does the postmodern critique give us relativism? No, it doesn’t. Remember that postmodernism is not giving us anything but a critique of failed beliefs, systems, and ideas. You might conclude that relativism is an appropriate response to their critique, but it would be your choosing that, instead of their critique resulting in that. According to Hughes LeBlanc, probabilistic logics function as well as binary ones. And Joe Margolis suggests that a robust relativism does not preclude truth. Thinking in black and white terms is probably wrong. Just because Jesus speaks the truth does not preclude Kongzi or Plato from also speaking the truth. Just because Aristotle is wrong about one thing (actually more than that) doesn’t mean he was wrong about all the things he said. Just because you have made mistakes in the past doesn’t mean you always make mistakes, etc.
Cheer up! The postmodern conversation is a fruitful one, when you can flex like a palm tree in the wind. The practice of shoring up your defenses against a possible attack can give you insight into your form of life, and help you to be transformed and not destroyed by this contact.