Some Important Talking Points on “Postmodernism” (IV)

[First, the obligatory disclaimer. Doubtless some readers more acquainted with philosophy than I am will dispute some of what is written below, and feel that some important issues have been left untouched or seriously inadequately explained. Nevertheless, what I'm trying to do here is promote more healthy conversation among Evangelicals about "postmodernism." One has to start somewhere, even if that place is deficient in some ways.]

Picking up from Part III, here are Greer’s two examples of Anti-Realist positions in the debate over “postmodernism” and related issues.

Post-Foundational Anti-Realism: Greer describes this position as follows:

Being antireal, it insists that the really real…cannot be known in any definitive way. Instead, we only have differing lenses, made up of differing cultural and historical moments, from which we look at reality from afar. (pg. 124)

Greer considers this position to be very closely approximate to “conventional postmodernism”, and correctly criticizes it as a total departure from historic Christianity’s concern with the universal applicability of the Gospel. He then continues:

In addition, this position most closely approximates theological liberalism due to its penchant for religious pluralism and heavy dependence upon higher criticism. Its principal difference from theological liberalism involves its rejection of the Cogito and its affirmation of an antireal epistemology. (Ibid.)

If Francis Schaeffer is for Greer an example of Foundational Realism, then his example of Post-Foundational Anti-Realism is John Hick. Anyone who has looked at the modern position of religious pluralism (that is, the position that there is more than one valid path to get to God, even though those paths utterly contradict, as with Christianity and Buddhism) will be familiar with John Hick. For those who have not looked at that debate, one quote from Hick will suffice to describe his version of anti-realism:

It was possible to develop…the idea of a “Copernican revolution” in our theology of religions, consisting in a paradigm shift from a Christianity-centered or Jesus-centered model to a God-centered model of the universe of faiths. One then sees the great world religions as different human responses to the one divine Reality, embodying different perceptions which have been formed in different historical and cultural circumstances. (Hick, God Has Many Names, cited by Greer, pg. 128)

Again, it is possible to see from these explanations why some things I have said appear to others to be “postmodernist” in orientation. For instance, I often write about “perceptions” and “lenses” and empasize the different “historical and cultural circumstances” in which various theological ideas and their defenses are found. John Hick, who embraces a virulently anti-Christian form of religious relativism, also talks like this.

Nevertheless, I would point out that my remarks on these points are always confined to discussions about Christian doctrines–that is, doctrines held by various communities of people who hold to the orthodox Christian (Trinitarian) faith as it was hammered out in the great ecumenical creeds of the undivided Church. Whatever anti-realist tendencies do exist in my thinking they do not prevent me from believing that the Christian religion is the only true religion and that only in its light can we make sense of the world and our experience. Within the basic acceptance of the actual truth of historic Christianity, it is surely not wrong to examine diversity and lenses. It is obvious enough to anyone that Christians are a diverse lot, and I think it should be obvious enough to anyone that Christian diversity has a lot to do with the historical and cultural circumstances in which different Christian communities have found themselves immersed and to which they need to form a “faith seeking understanding” response.

For instance, Christians raised in a cultural milieu suffused with assumptions about “universal Empire of the Romans” created quite different political structures than have Christians raised in cultural milieus suffused with different political assumptions. We can argue about the relative merits of the various political systems, but we surely ought not to fail to appreciate that Christians can read the same Scriptures, but apply them differently to their differing circumstances, and arrive at views which, as Christians, they naturally consider to be “the” Christian way of thinking. Is recognizing this fact a form of “relativism” or a “denial that truth can be known”? I hardly think so. It is recognizing the God-given diversity in the world and attempting to apply Scripture to it faithfully. It may be that recognizing this type of diversity among Christians might lead us to the conclusion that there is no single divinely-sanctioned form of politics–no “timeless truth” that, say, democracy or monarchy is the God-given way of government. God made the world diverse; it is entirely reasonable to consider the possibility that He made it in such a way that political diversity is inescapable. (And of course, this has implications for ecclesiology and social theory and other areas of human endeavor.)

But against facile complaints that a denial of “timeless truths” leads only to “skepticism” it should be pointed out that at the base of a Christian denial of “timeless truth” is the affirmation of the real existence of the Triune God of Scripture, Who created and upholds all things by the Word of His power. Even if someone is skeptical of X claim to “timeless truth”, it does not necessarily follow from that skepticism that he is a a “skeptic” in the sense of “denying that truth can be known”. Once again elementary apologetics materials could help here, particularly with recognizing different senses of the word “skepticism”. To use a different example, if I disagree that a particular theologian has managed to get at a “timeless truth” in Scripture via an “objective” method of exegesis it does not “obviously” follow from my disagreement that I also believe that exegesis is a fruitless undertaking because truth cannot be known. The debate is not on whether truth can be known, but on how it is known and applied to the world of our experience.

Thus, for those concerned about my supposed “postmodern” inclinations (read: my supposed “relativistic” inclinations), it is surely of no small consequence that I have written many things against anti-Christian worldviews, such as my essays and blog posts about the terrible falsehoods of ancient Greek polytheism and pantheism. As well, I spent my formative years in apologetics arguing vigorously with religious relativists and insisting upon the unique truth of Christianity as over against all other religious worldviews (a position I still hold today). Further, I support Christian apologetic work against such non-Christian systems as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Given these things, it is not reasonable to convict me of using talk of “lenses” and “perspectives” and “historical and cultural circumstances” to relativize truth or make knowing truth impossible. Therefore, to the extent that various critics of mine believe that what they call “postmodernism” is a form of “relativism” which “denies” the ability to know truth, it is not possible to convict me of “postmodernism”.

One last thing on this point. I certainly affirm the existence of non-relative truths (e.g., in the manner in which Romans 1′s indictment of all men speaks of them), and I particularly affirm the universal applicability of the Christian Gospel. Merely because I deny the Cartesian / foundationalist obsession with “objective truth” and its pretensions to have eliminated all distorting factors from its thinking is not sufficient to convict me of “postmodernism”, as some have done. The whole charge is a simple non sequitur, for there are other ways to think of “universal truth” than the Enlightenment-foundationalist way. And it seems to be a peculiarly foundationalist failing to merely assume there is no other way, and then to argue as if this “fact” is “clear” to anyone who is being “reasonable”. A finer set of conceptual distinctions is needed than the one which several
critics of mine consistently employ. And in that light, I hereby strenuously deny that I hold the position described above as “Post-Foundational Anti-Realism”. Greer’s fourth position is:

Post-Foundational Middle-Distance Realism: More readily known as “postliberalism”, this view of epistemology is, according to Greer, a “hybrid” which “attempts to strike a middle distance bretween metaphysical realism and antirealism, preserving the positive characteristics of both.” (pg. 142). The major example here is George Lindbeck, who has described himself as a “Wittgensteinian Thomistic Lutheran” (ibid) and as a “Wittgensteinian postmodernist” (pg. 143). Postliberalism is not strictly speaking reducible to the positions of George Lindbeck (as with all schools, varieties have developed over time), but it seems to be George Lindbeck who outlined the original vision for the program and also coined the word “postliberal”.

It will be very difficult to summarize Greer’s summary of Lindbeck in the short space of this blog post, but here goes. In a 1988 journal article called “Scripture, Consensus and Community” Lindbeck made use of the postmodernist Jacques Derrida’s theory of linguistic deconstruction to highlight several features of his own program and to critique the “radical relativism” of Derrida’s type of postmodern thought. According to Greer, Derrida’s system argues that language precedes thought (because one must have a language in order to think), and that language orders and limits thought. Syntax, grammar, and vocabulary literally affect how one thinks about truth, and because there are different languages there are necessarily different systems of truth. And because human languages are constantly changing the cultures they create constantly change, leaving no ability for any system to claim a privileged position.

Against Derrida Lindbeck first argued that Christianity generally speaking (and pre-Modern Christianity in particular) is not susceptible to Derrida’s deconstructive linguistic theory, which attempts to relativize everything by denying the existence and possibility of any kind of transcendental viewpoint. Lindbeck argued (rightly, in my judgment) that Christianity is not a set of Cartesian “timeless truths” but is instead grounded in “the Word made flesh”. For Christianity both transcendent and relative concerns are recognized and kept in a stable relationship because of the incarnation, which united God and man. Lindbeck sees Derrida (and I would think, by extension, what is typically glossed as “postmodernism”) as missing the fact that Christianity has a long history prior to the advent of the epistemological and linguistic “closed circle” categories of Modernism. That is, Christianity is historically-independent of the Cartesian subject-object dualism, which ultimately traps every individual inside his own private mind, contemplating “objective truths” that are only “self-evident” to himself. Christianity is therefore not subject to critiques made purely from within a Modernist framework–or the reaction to it that is typically called “postmodernism” (pp. 143-144).

Second, Lindbeck argued that Derrida’s view of language–which relatives all human experience by denying the existence of transcendent language–is fundamentally flawed because (like the Modernism in which the so-called “postmodernism” is based) it is a “closed system”. That is, it a prioristically denies the possibility of divine revelation, of the transcendent reaching down to us from its transcendence and speaking to us in our relativity in such a way that we can understand. But if this can happen, then it is not necessarily the case that our natural human relativities are the final word. We cannot be transcendent ourselves (and here is where Lindbeck denies the Realist schema of truth and knowledge), but we are not left hopelessly adrift in our relativities because God has spoken. What’s more, God interacts with us, providentially guiding our affairs. Human language is thus not grounded in the (relative) word but in the (transcendent) Word. Human language does indeed change constantly, and does indeed order communities and individuals in different ways (this seems undeniable to me), but there is no uncrossable bridge between man and what is outside him because God Himself has built a bridge between them (pp. 144-146).

This allows Lindbeck to appropriate certain emphases of “postmodernism” (such as its helpful view of the role of linguistic and cultural factors in the human comprehension of truth) without falling prey to its extremes (such as deconstruction and radical relativism). By freeing Christianity from its captivity to Modernism (that is, all projects inspired by the method of the Cartesian Cogito), Lindbeck argues that Christianity is able to maintain its transcendent truth claims, but to do so in complex tension with the undeniable fact of change in the created world. Lindbeck stipulates that Christianity has “a privileged text and a privileged mode of interpretation”–respectively, the Bible and the ecumenical creeds. These are the fixed reference points for the Faith (the “Realist” element of Lindbeck’s moderating position), but by the indwelling power and guidance of the Holy Spirit they are made “new every morning” in “situationally specific speech” (the “Anti-Realist” element of Lindbeck’s moderating position).

Of course, the result of this sort of view is every dogmatic foundationalist’s nightmare: there is no single absolutely unambiguous and absolutely unquestionable epistemological-linguistic-hermeneutical-cultural framework of “timeless truths” that can be and are “objectively” discerned. Truth must be seen as a far more subtle thing than obsessions with “objectivity” and “plain meanings” are capable of handling. Relativism proper is denied, but relativity-within-fixity (my description), a complex interplay of perspectives leading to a richer, fuller, fixed-but-always-fresh understanding of truth is affirmed. Christianity is thus not a “rigid” system presuming a univocal view of language and truth (that is, a view which says that the meaning of everything is exactly the same for God and for us). Truth is maintained and defended, but not with reductionistic modernist and postmodernist tools. Which of course makes absolutely no sense to modernists and postmodernists, who think that their limited, ultimately fruitless action-reaction dialectic is the only way of thinking and that one must choose either the one or the other because there are no other plausible options.

There is a lot more to Greer’s summary of Lindbeck. One particularly interesting angle he mentions is Lindbeck’s discussion of how the capitulation by many Christian thinkers in the 18th century to Enlightenment standards of “evidence” and “rationality” at last brought on the reduction of Holy Scripture from its natural function as a divine narrative (story) to an unnatural function as a static repository of “scientific truths”. This capitulation by Christians created two reactionary strains of apologetics, inerrantists and historical critics, each of which abominates the other and claims to be the only legitimate reading of Scripture even though both read Scripture entirely wrongly because they have subordinated it in advance to an alien intellectual agenda. Like everything else in the reductionistic Modern worldview, biblical truth becomes for the Modernism-soaked Christian intellectual a “scientific fact” that can only be articulated properly within the framework of “reason” and its language of “propositional truth”.

Thus, Lindbeck’s focuses on narrative and relativity of application of truth are obviously reasons why more or less Anti-Realist positions such as his are typically glossed by naive “conservatives” as being “postmodernism.” For, operating from within a naively-accepted Modernist framework, with its petty rationalisms and inability to appreciate nuance and adapt itself to the God-made diversity of the world, a focus upon story rather than upon propositions cannot appear to be anything but “postmodernism” and a “denial of truth”. I will leave further examination of the profound intellectual failures of this sort of viewpoint for future posts. Enough has been said by now, I think, to demonstrate a great deal of plausibility in past remarks of mine that critics who have simplistically (and in a very much sloganeering manner) charged me with being a “postmodernist” and who have refused all invitations to open discussion of what that means are operating out of a seriously deficient worldview. A worldview that itself not only cannot at last support the truth claims of Christianity (as it claims to be able to do) but is actually a die-hard enemy of Christianity. This does not mean that these critics are not Christians; it just means they are Christians who do not think like Christians.

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