28 July 2002

I do still plan to get back to my views on late medieval theology and "the modern," but Allen asked a while ago in the comments about my views on "postmodernism" and its relationship to Christian faith. As some of you who read this blog regularly probably already suspect, I do have some deeply postmodern sympathies, whatever that may mean.

This is part of the problem: "postmodernism", everyone seems to agree, remains a terribly difficult notion to define precisely. And there are various strands of postmodern thought, some of which seem to me more congenial to Christian faith than others. One thing all strands of postmodernism seem to share, however, is a purported rejection of what has come to be seen as characteristic of "the modern" (of course, by that definition, Giambattista Vico and Nicolas of Cusa might qualify as postmodernists).

The further questions, then, include: [a] how a particular brand of postmodernism diagnoses the problems with the modern, [b] what it proposes as a solution to those problems, and [c] how it stands in relationship with the pre-modern. At each of these levels, there are places where I find myself in some agreement with certain postmodern perspectives, and places where I would significantly diverge.

With regard to the first question, the difficulties of the modern that are typically diagnosed from the standpoint of postmodernism include the following:
  • construction of false dichotomies such as:

    faith vs. reason,
    individual vs. corporate,
    subject vs. object,
    citizen vs. the state,
    sacred vs. secular,
    mind vs. body, and so on;

  • embracing unworkable forms of epistemological foundationalism;

  • setting up false notions of subjective "interiority";

  • strategically displacing metaphysics with epistemology in such a way that the metaphysical foundations of the modern become maximally hidden;

  • creation of grand metanarratives in which the Enlightenment turns out to be the goal of history;

  • mystifying politics in such a way that individual freedom is seen conditioned upon more intrusive disciplinary technologies and/or foreign imperialism;

  • projecting a false economics whether capitalist or socialist;

  • tending toward logical positivism and other forms of hyper-empiricism
Further diagnoses that move beyond this list of symptoms toward deeper difficulties suggest, for instance, that there is a dispersed and anonymous field of power relations involved in the construction of what is taken to be knowledge within the modernist program. Others point to the way in which language tends to arrange itself along lines of difference that construct and perpetuate these peculiarly modern difficulties. Still others make analyses from the standpoints of phenomenology, neo-marxism, feminism, queer theory, ecology, or the like.

I am largely (though not entirely) in agreement with the basic diagnosis of modernist symptoms and would probably add some of my own (e.g. privatization of religion, valorization of religious "inwardness" apart from external signs and means, the nelgect of formal and final causality, etc.). And I would also be sympathetic with certain analyses of the underlying problems, especially those which critique "onto-theology," question metanarrative schemas, and attempt to uncover underlying violence--broadly speaking, those analysis of the broadly deconstructionist and phenomenological variety. As Merold Westphal notes, figures like Nietzsche can be read as perceptive theologians of original sin. Nonetheless, I would, naturally, give a more theological diagnosis of the disease underlying the modernist symtoms, pointing especially to shifts in the late medieval era that I have associated before with nominalism.

As for the second question--a solution to these modern difficulties--proposals range from varieties of anarchist micropolitics and deconstructionist interventions to political movements and a multiplied diversity of competing narratives. While some of these proposals have much in them that is commendable, again, my proposal would be more theological, focusing upon the Christian biblical narrative, the centrality of liturgical and sacramental action, and a return to the pre-modern Christian synthesis in order to move forward into the postmodern, finding perhaps a number of counter-modern fellow travellers along the way (Vico, Luther, Jacobi, de Lubac, etc.).

This last bit leads to the third question concerning the relationship between the pre- and postmodern. In some postmodern authors there is a seeming return, not to patristic and medieval Christian sources, but further back to ancient Greek and Roman paganisms. This is seen already in Nietzsche and has various continuing echoes in authors ranging from Michel Foucault to Martha Nussbaum. From a Christian perspective, however, this return to the dynamics of late antiquity can be read instead as the culmination of modernism itself (rather than as a true rejection of it) necessitating a re-narration of modernism akin to Augustine's narration of the ancient in City of God. Such a reading of the modern/postmodern would be a subversive task attempting to show a fundamental continuity in its ontological assumptions as embodying a primordial violence that remains analogous to that upon which ancient city states were founded from Athens to Rome. Such assumptions can be questioned and shown to be unsubstantiated from the standpoint of the Christian narrative with its own trinitarian ontology and ethic. This is the kind of project that thinkers such as René Girard and John Milbank have begun.

In the end, then, I do think that postmodernism provides a great opportunity for us as Christians, theologically speaking. For several centuries now Christian faith has vested too much of its interest in the modern project, giving rise, arguably, to trends ranging from theological liberalism to evangelical revivalism. And there is much value in a critique of this investment. Moreover, the demise of the modern also means the demise of the "secular" and all the ways in which it has been constructed in order to insulate us from religious claims and the demands of the divine presence. Finally, the return to pre-modern authors, re-reading them now no longer through the lens of modernist, provides us with new prospects for retrieving earlier Christian reflection and thought with which to move forward. All of this is fraught with dangers, not the least from non-Christian postmodernists who have another story to tell. But the opportunties granted are ones we cannot afford to miss.