Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Postmodern Medicine

Postmodernism is quite a curious thing. People love it. People hate it. It’s a relativistic evil embraced by liberals. No wait – it’s the new weapon of right-wingers. Well, actually, it does not even exist. Or maybe it does… Either way, Joe Carter makes a good point when he states:

I can’t recall ever meeting a true postmodernist. I don’t think I’ve ever met two people who could define the term in the same way. Ask a philosopher, an artist, an English major, an emergent church leader, and the pizza delivery girl how postmodernism differs from modernity. Assuming they can do more than stare blankly in befuddlement at the question, the responses will likely be at complete variance from one another.
So if no one can even define the term or, at least, no two people can agree on a definition, why is it stirring up so much emotion? Why is it posited as either the epitome of the new cool or the beginning of the end of Western Civilization?

(You may be expecting me to answer my own questions right now, but holding true to PoMo form, I am merely posing provocative questions with no intention of answering them. It’s kind of fun actually. Call me a deconstructionist PoMo poseur.)

Now I am not suggesting we rush to embrace this new cultural trend. Actually, I sympathize with blogger Matt Martinson who pleads, "Please make it stop." However, it does bother me that the doomsayers appear to be either advocating a victim mentality (sort of like what Lance warned about) or embracing a completely defeatist view of our culture. Some are even equating post modernism with post Christendom.

A good first step would be to get the terminology down first, particularly as it may apply to spiritual beliefs. And I think someone like emergent wannabe gets it right when he says:

Postmodern culture is not something we should ignore, oppose, or embrace; rather it is simply another culture that we should seek to redeem and transform by the power of the gospel...

Fortunately, my God is bigger than all of this brouhaha. I’d also add a word of caution to PoMo enthusiasts:

If you’re searching for the miracles of postmodern medicine, you’ll likely end up with nothing more than some sort of voodoo.

And finally, in the midst of all this meandering, I'll end with some lyrics I found to be appropriate (from Gomez):

The operation’s on
Movin’ forward
Don’t know where we’re going
But we’re on our way
So raise the alarm
Movin’ forward
We don’t know where we’re going
But we’re on our way

Thanks for the trackback. You're right that there are cultural aspects to "postmodernism" and that those stand, like any other human culture, in need of redemption. Much of the debate concering the "emerging" church movement, however, relates to epistemology, not primarily to culture. In epistemological terms, "modern" means having human reason as the foundation for knowledge claims. Modern epistemology displaced "premodern" epistemology, which viewed authority -- of God, the Church, and/or the King -- as the foundation for knowledge. "Postmodern" epistemology seeks to get beyond these competing views of foundationalism by asserting that there is no single foundation for knowledge claims. The metaphor for knowledge is more of a web with anchor points, which may include reason and authority as well as community and language, rather than a building with a single foundation.

This obviously is a simplistic reduction of the nuances of the various epistemological positions, but it outlines where the tension lies between modernist and postmodern Christian theologians. It's not primarily about a cultural zeitgeist, it's primarily about the proper source of justification for knowledge claims.
Thanks for the elboration and delineation of the difference between epistomolgy and culture. It's an important one. I definitely intend to delve more into the epistemology issue and specifically relate it to the whole emergent church movement. (Which I think is too often unfairly stereotyped and criticized based on the questionable theology of a few leaders.)

In this post, I primarily wanted to address the near-hysteria in some corners at something that is often not even understood in the first place. Usually, it seems to result in equating postmodernism with relativism, which I think is not really fair. If it were, I'd be howling about the evils of PoMo as much as anyone.

In so much as postmodernism seeks to ask tough questions and sort of deconstruct some of the authoritative views of knowledge, I find it interesting and necessary in at least some aspects. Modernism could use an overhaul. My hope is that PoMo does not result in a rejection of ALL objective standards of truth and authority in the process. If so, it would be incompatible with Christianity.
Well, part of the question postmodern epistemology asks is what we mean when we talk about "objective standards of truth and authority." Is anything really "objective"? Don't people filter everything through the lenses of language, culture and history? By what standard do we judge whether a truth claim is "objective"? What if the supposedly foundational standard we're trying to use -- such as human reason -- isn't itself truly "objective"?

These kinds of questions sound scary, and they certainly can lead to relativism. But they also can lead to a greater appreciation for God as a being who is truly ontologically "other" than us. We can accept the limitations of our knowledge without denying that our efforts to "know" truly relate to an ontological reality outside of ourselves. This, I think, is not only compatible with Christianity, but reflects a posture towards human knowledge that is far more Biblical than the idolatry of foundationalism.
I don't know if you've read this blog in the past, but there was a huge thread of discussion between mine and a bunch of other blogs about a month ago that focused on this topic. I'm not even sure what to call it and that was part of the problem: Relativism vs. Absolutism, Subjectivism vs. Objectivism, etc. It's definitely a nightmarish scenario in terms of semantics just trying to get everyone on the same page, but it's always an interesting discussion to have. (Gaunilo mapped out the whole progression of the discussion here.)

I have a big problem with the refutation of objective standards b/c in my interpretation of scripture, it is clear that there are objective things such as Truth, Good, Evil, etc. A big problem is that in the absense of recognizing any such innate standards, we cannot condemn anyone for their behavior b/c "who are we to say what this person is doing is wrong?" Anyway, that is admittedly an oversimplified version I know, but it's the gist of my problem with relativism or whatever we should call it.
I think most Christian postmodern theologians would agree that relativism is anti-Christian, as would I. The problem, from their perspective, is the use of a category like "absolute truth," as expressed in propositonal form, as the only alternative to relativism. No human proposition captures the Truth "absolutely" because all human propositions are bound by the limitations of human perception, language, and culture. All human truth claims are contingent. The "absolute" Truth is found only in the person of God.
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