Postmodernism is Not a Religion

A fellow student made a fascinating comment the other day in the systematic theology course I’m taking this quarter. The professor was talking about the ecclesiology of the Emergent church, and the student asked something along the lines of:

“What’s the deal with this emergent thing? I never heard that phrase until I moved to California—seems to be a big thing out here. But I don’t understand how people can use postmodernism and call themselves Christians. I mean, if someone was incorporating Christianity into Buddhism, we wouldn’t call that person a Christian, right?”

While this certainly raises questions about religious pluralism, the distinctions between general and special revelation, etc., what struck me was that he very directly equated postmodernity with religion—an interesting proposition that requires some serious thought.

Not serious thought in that we need to consider whether or not postmodernists are “religious” with regard to their attitude toward the postmodern, but serious thought in terms of understanding how certain Christians may view postmodernity—that a Christian would understand the postmodern this way. It makes sense to me, after all, that someone who might not be well read in the postmodern would probably make this claim in the same fashion that one would claim that New Atheists seem to attack religions with a zeal that suspiciously resembles religion itself.

But there’s a problem here.

Maybe more than one.

First and foremost is the problem of reading. Merold Westphal writes in the introduction to his Overcoming Onto-Theology that many Christian theologians who vehemently oppose the use of postmodern philosophy in theology have not actually read any of the Continental or the Anglo-American philosophers considered to be the fathers of secular postmodern thought. They’re familiar with the names, and perhaps familiar enough with some general ideas brought forth in the work of writers such as Lyotard, Derrida, Wittgenstein, etc. to be able to raise objections to those very broad concepts. But pushed a little farther, Westphal says, and they are forced to admit they haven’t really read the primary texts. This is a responsibility that falls squarely on theologians. We know postmodernity is “looming” over the church (to put it rather negatively), and as such we need to do our best to try to really understand what it’s saying and what it can offer, if anything. That’s not to say that one has to read everything—there’s far too much out there—but no attempt at all just isn’t acceptable anymore.

It’s so pervasive in both culture and the academy that to not give it its due at least as an important historical phenomenon is really to retreat into a cave and cower.

Second, there’s the much more narrow issue of thinking that the utilization of postmodern philosophy in theology is much the same as the utilization of the Qur’an or some other holy book in the development of doctrine. The problem is that no serious theologian would ever look at “those other books” as mere tools to use when conceiving of the doctrine of their own religious tradition. Those books are, in their own right, the centerpieces of the faith to which they belong. To use them outside of that context requires some substantial justification.

Postmodern philosophy as a corpus, however, does not function this way; that is, the body of “postmodern philosophy” does not itself constitute a holy book. In fact, unlike the modern period which can point to pillars such as Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Darwin’s Origin of the Species, postmodernity really does not have seminal texts in the sense that these modern works are seminal. At least, there is no strong consensus that either Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (need I go on?) can be considered pillars in the same way the modern texts are. Some may even argue that those are not the seminal texts of each individual author!

We must also remember that philosophy is a second order discipline. That is, it tries to get at and make sense of the assumptions that other disciplines are built upon—to see how they tick, so to speak. Religions themselves are not second order disciplines—they’re not even disciplines in the strict academic sense of the word (although they certainly require discipline.) But the study of religion as a subject or the systematic theologies of particular religions are not second order disciplines either.

Furthermore, it’s pretty difficult to make the sweeping statement that one should not “use postmodernism” when talking about one’s faith when “using postmodernism” could mean a myriad of different things. Unfortunately, because this is the case, many mistakenly think that postmodernism equates to relativism or that no one knows what it means. Really though, that is not the case at all. It’s just that part of postmodernism is recognizing difference as vitally important. Even lumping all Modern thinkers together (Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant, for example) is really doing those thinkers a great disservice since in many cases, their thought differs greatly one to another, even though there may be some very basic underlying assumptions. Since I’m trained in literature, I’ll use literary criticism as an example. Someone could look at, for instance, Slavoj Zizek’s insistence on subjectivity in arriving at an adequate political theory to talk about the politics of a Charles Dickens novel. Or one could use Lacanian psychoanalysis to talk about the same novel in a different way. Or perhaps Derridean deconstruction.

Not that any of those would be necessarily good readings of the text. The point, however, is that while Zizek, Lacan, and Derrida all bear certain marks of postmodernism, those marks are different, and the three really can’t be conflated under one large banner of “The Postmodern.”

And the fact that those readings I pulled off the top of my head may in fact not serve us well in understanding Dickens illustrates another important point: When one reads a text and wishes to employ a particular theory, one is using that theory as a hermeneutical tool in so far as it is useful for the task at hand. You can’t force a theory or a philosophy onto a text. If it isn’t doing work for you hermeneutically, then there’s no point in using it.

This has chapped the hide of many a social-activist-would-be-Marxist-revolutionary-first-year-undergraduate-English-major who wants to argue that Falkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” can be read as an allegory for the struggle of the proletariat.

(Not that one could never attempt to make that case, of course.)

All this means for biblical hermeneutics and theology is that sometimes postmodern philosophy may be useful under certain circumstances and other times it may not be. There’s no need for anyone to convert to postmodernity. Rather, postmodern thought helps us articulate what I see as a better approach to understanding scripture, theology, and religious experience in general. Of course, I would also argue that seeing the Bible “postmodernly” is often times more helpful than not and that we should always take a posture of humility forcing us to recognize our study of theology as limited rather than pursing an all-encompassing theology where we are attempting to contain God in our very limited understanding, to understand his being in its entirety.

The postmodern, whatever that is, keeps us intellectually honest and, as Westphal says, prevents us from thinking we have the ability to look over God’s shoulder.

by Joel Harrison

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2 thoughts on “Postmodernism is Not a Religion

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Achtung Aeon, A Church Unbound. A Church Unbound said: A response to a common complaint regarding the use of postmodern philosophy in theology:… http://fb.me/STNtrOXc […]

  2. […] written many, many posts that deal with the sort of complaint that Olson is raising. In the first point, he’s assuming that there’s no mediation […]

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