22 March 2002

Oh, I suppose I should blog something more.

Okay. Yesterday Merold Westphal gave a talk on campus entitled, "The Religious Uses of Postmodern Philosophy." Westphal is a professor of philosophy at Fordham University in New York City, went to Wheaton as an undergrad, Yale for his PhD, and is an elder in the RCA (though he currently attends a Lutheran church). His talk was something of a continuation of the line of thought in his book Suspicion and Faith, which was subtitled "The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism."

In that volume he surveyed Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche as a Lenten exercise, viewing them as critics of religion and "theologians" of original sin. His point was that in each case, though the thinker was atheistic, his critique of religion was not necessarily tied to that atheism and, in fact, was largely borrowed from Christian biblical traditions of critique from within. Thus Christians can reappropriate the insights of these thinkers and (re)place them in a Christian context.

Freud, for instance, concieved of common beliefs in God as a projection of the father figure and an expression of wish fulfillment. Thus we create for ourselves a god in our own image, rather than living in terms of a God in whose image we are made. And, a Christian can see that what Freud posits is far too often the case and is, in fact, of the essence of idolatry. Likewise, Marx argues that religion has been taken up by economic forces and transformed into "ideology" in the strict Marxian sense: a set of ideas put into the service of maintaining certains kinds of hierarchies and privilege. But, of course, we know that Isaiah, Amos, and others made a very similar critiques of the religion of their day many centuries ago.

That brings us to Nietzsche who is, in some ways, the "founding father" of postmodern thought (which, as Westphal notes, is highly ironic giving the postmodern ill-ease with both foundations and fathers). Nietzsche saw religion as something that, more often than not, was pressed into the service of the "will to power." So, for instance, he criticizes Christianity as a religion of resentment against the powerful who lord themselves over others and suppose that their position is by definition good and noble, while the common folk are bad and slavish. Thus the slavish, expressing their will to power, end up positioning their overlords as the evil whom God will destroy on their behalf. Of course, this more or less the position of the Pharisees who, in resentment against the Romans, saw themselves as the inalienable objects of divine favor, prepared for revolt. And Jesus had something to say about such attitudes. Once again, the Christian may re-appropriate the atheist's argument and charge him with plagiarism.

Westphal briefly summarized these points and then moved on to talk about Heidegger, Lyotard, and postmodernism in general. His focus with regard to Heidegger was his attempt to overcome metaphysics and to reject onto-theology. The idea here is that, within philosophy, much theological development was in terms of bringing in a notion of god as part of metaphysical explanation. In Aristotle, for instance, the prime mover is needed in order to explain and control the existence of the realm of beings, but it does so only by positing one more being without thereby moving on to the question of "Being" as such. Such a god is not one that inspires worship, song, praise, and dancing. In the modern era similar onto-theological moves are made by various philosophers, including Hegel after his own fashion. But Heidegger argues that as this god is pushed to the margins, the various existing things remain apart from the question of Being and thus are subject to explanation and control by the proliferation of technology and human manipulation.

Again, a Christian can appreciate Heidegger's point. While Heidegger himself was atheistic, his analysis is not logically tied to atheism. For Christian theology, at least prior to Duns Scotus, God was never one being among beings, pressed into the service of philosophical explanation (which would suppose a univocal notion of being). Rather God was Being itself, or Being beyond Being, ineffable and incomprehensible. God was also not a philosophical conclusion, but revealed, placing theology transcendentally prior to philosophy. We can agree with Heidegger that the construction of god as an object of philosophical speculation pushes theology to the margins, gives us a god unworthy of worship, and opens the door to technological and utilitarian reductionism.

With regard to Lyotard, Westphal reviewed his notion and critique of philosophical "meta-narratives." These are the stories, philosophies of history, produced by philosophers of the modern era in order to explan and legitimate the Modern project of the Enlightenment and, in this postmodern era, a project we can see has largely failed. Thus Lyotard is deeply suspicious of such metanarratives.

One might think that this undermining of grand meta-narratives would similarly undermine the Christian narrative, but Westphal suggests that this is not the case for three reasons. First, the Christian narrative is not a meta-narrative, a second-order narrative, a narrative about other narratives, but is itself a first-order narrative. It is certainly an extensive and wide ranging narrative--from "let there be light" to the "last trump"--but this only makes it a "mega-narrative," not a "meta-narrative." Second, the Christian narrative is not a philosophical construct, but purports to be a revealed story. Third, the Christian narrative is not designed to provide a philosophical legitimation of the Enlightenment project and Modern politics, society, and economics. If anything, the Christian narrative calls that project in question as much as any postmodern theorist. And part of that questioning from the standpoint of Christian faith is one that focuses itself, like postmodernism's own critique, upon the Modern attempt to make man into God.

That brought Westphal to his final point: general postmodernist scepticism about final truth and the adoption of an absolute perspective. Postmodern thinkers are all, in varying versions, perspectivists about knowledge. That is, they deny the possibility of what Nagel calls "the view from nowhere" (or in a more Hegelian vein, "the view from everywhere"). As finite limited beings, we can never gain a perspective upon the whole that is entirely free from who we are, our peculiar outlook, our language, our culture, and so on. In short, we are not God and cannot know as God knows. And in this point postmodernism is one with Christian theism.

This is not to say that "anything goes" epistemologically or that we should adopt some kind of relativism. One is hard-pressed to find any serious thinker, postmodern or otherwise, who would say that. But it does mean that we must take all our views with a degree of humility, even if we are passionately committed to them. No word is the last word and no word is the complete word. There is always more to be said. As Augustine noted with regard to the Scriptures, they are a treasure-box out of which new treasures may continually be brought. Postmodernism instructs us to broaden this to all knowledge of the world. Again, this does not mean that some things cannot be rejected as false. Nor does it mean that we cannot make judgments of better or worse.

Westphal left things there and in the discussion that followed some rather pointed questions were raised. One regarded the context of postmodernism in distinction from that of the premodern. Where a postmodernist might well see our limitations as the product of the violence human constructions place upon the reality interpreted, the premodern would see our limitations arising from the infinite depths that reality possesses in that it is only truly known in relation to a God who is incomprehensible and infinite. And I think that suggestion is essentially correct.

Another troubling point is, I think, the question of relativism (despite what I said above). It is true that postmodernists generally and rightly reject any kind of simple relativism. But it is difficult to see how such a rejection functions against the background of an epistemology that seems to deny any knowledge, however incohate, of an Absolute. On the postmodern view, the phenomena appear to be drained of their depth, remaining suspended over an abyss, subjecting them thereby to the exigencies of chance and violence. On a premodern view, perspectivism is posited in light of the infinite depth of things in relation to an Absolute who, though ultimately unknown in essence, is nonetheless intimated beyond the horizon what is known (for how can a horizon even be seen if one cannot see beyond it).

Nonetheless, Westphal's talk was intriguing and, in many respects, I think, quite helpful. Postmodernism needs to realize that it's atheism or agnosticism functions as a dogma that does not necessarily follow (nor is presupposed by) any of its helpful insights or its critique of the Modern. And here the premodern theology of Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas and others may well anticipate postmodernism in many ways. As a consequence, it is also important that religious thinkers, Christians in particular, be open to postmodernism as a possibly very useful tool for theology, one that stands very strongly for the createdness of the human condition.

There. Hopefully this blog entry will keep folks satisfied for a while.