09 September 2005

on "postmodernism"

I guess everyone has pet peeves. For some, it's folks who leave the toilet seat up. For others, it's people who don't use their turn signals. Some peeves can be frivolous and others, deadly serious. I think it's best, however, to avoid having too long of a list of peeves, lest one turn peevish and the whole world become an excuse for perpetual crankiness.

I confess that most of my peeves center around the misuse of philosophical concepts and terms. For instance, "begging the question." To "beg the question" is to engage in a fallacy otherwise known as petitio principii, where an argument is so tightly circular the assumed premises basically just restate the conclusion. Nevertheless, I often hear on the news and elsewhere that some issue or fact "begs the question" or this or that, when the speaker simply means "raises the question." For better or worse, that bugs me.

A friend recently emailed me ask what I thought about the use of "postmodern" as a term of disapprobation. This is probably another of my peeves.

It seems that these days the term "postmodern" gets thrown around quite a bit without it being very well defined (which definition, admittedly, is a difficult thing to do). I get the sense that for some, calling a view "postmodern" is simply a way of saying something along the lines of: "This is bad, I don't like it, grrr, boo, hiss." You can hear this in the tone in which "postmodern" is sometimes voiced.

I've seen "postmodern" applied in this way to items as diverse as soteriological inclusivism, various views of Scripture, the emergent church, the new perspectives on Second Temple Judaism and on Paul, Protestant retrievals of medieval and patristic thought, evangelical eclecticism, and so on. But I don't find that kind of usage particularly helpful.

I also find it odd that a lot of what gets called "postmodern" in these contexts is, for the most part, simply old-fashioned "modernism" -- things like religious pluralism and relativism, the idea that there are many paths to God, that we can no longer accept the parochialism of Christian claims, questions about the uniqueness of Christianity or of Christ, agnosticism, religious individualism and self-help moralism, rejections of inerrancy, historical-critical approaches to Scripture, and so on. People have been saying these sorts of things for the past 200 years and, while these views have perhaps continued to progress along that trajectory, they strike me as much more a matter of late modernity than as anything distinctively "postmodern."

As for defining "postmodern" itself, that's tricky. I think one probably should distinguish between several varieties of postmodernism, maybe along these lines: [1] postmodernism proper, [2] hyper-modernism, [3] post-secularism, and [4] popular postmodernism.

Under [1], I would include serious academic postmodern thinkers: Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, Marion, Deleuze, Zizek, etc. These figures are making a thoughtful and sustained effort to move beyond modernity and to develop new categories and ways of thinking. They are not generally relativists, though some are pluralists. They don't reject all claims to truth, though they question modernist pretensions to objectivity. There are very few among the popular speakers and writers in evangelical circles who seriously interact with this kind of scholarship. Mike Horton, Bruce Ellis Benson, Jamie Smith, John Franke, and a handful of others are among the exceptions.

Under [2] I'd include various thinkers (who strike me at least) less as trying to move beyond modernity, but rather as radicalizing modernity largely from within its own categories. Suggestions of names here are bound to be controversial since many of these figures likely think of themselves in the previous category. Someone like Richard Rorty would probably fit here as would Roger Haight who wrote a book on christology that I'm currently reading.

Under [3] I'd include all those who see postmodernity as the opening for a post-secular retrieval of the premodern and theological in order to move forward beyond modernity and postmodernism (a kind of post-postmodernism, perhaps). I'd include here the various figures associated with Radical Orthodoxy, as well as Merold Westphal, Hans Boersma, Mike Horton, and so on, perhaps even including Jack Caputo (though he too often falls more within category [2] to my mind).

Under [4] I'd include all the ways in which all these trends in academia trickle into popular culture, apart from scholarship and its various qualifications and nuances. As such it usually ends up looking like modernism gone to seed, with all of its relativism and so on. That's to say, popular postmodernism probably isn't so far off from category [2].

I suspect that when "postmodernism" is used popularly as a term of disapprobation, it is meant largely in terms of [4], which to my mind isn't very helpful. As Mike Horton notes, postmodernists "in the academy today have a lot to teach us about the very dangers that so many popularizers of postmodernism embrace." Using "postmodern" loosely to criticize all sorts of popular notions strikes me as the equivalent of identifying popular evangelicalism (Bill Hybels, Rick Warren) with classical Protestantism and then criticizing it as too "Protestant," with a note a disdain.

In any case, it's Friday of the second week of classes and I'm probably feeling a bit too peevish, so I shall resist saying anything more.