Friday, June 10, 2005


Postmodern Medicine - Take Two

As I continue to probe into the whole realm of postmodernism, my head begins to spin ever faster, and I find myself even more confused than normal. However, I find it to be a huge help to bear in mind the distinction that needs to be made between postmodern culture and postmodern epistemology. (Thanks to David at Through a Glass Darkly for reminding me of this recently.)

As for postmodern culture, it seems to stress authenticity in place of the all too common pre-packaged church marketing schemes. I like that. Andrew at Tall Skinny Kiwi pointed out a fine article by David Posthuma entitled, Postmodern Ministry Takes Us Back to The Bible. As a member of what he deems the “echo-boomer” generation, I think the following assessment really does resonant:

If you ask most church leaders what trait most typifies the Echo-Boomer generation (ages 15 – 33), the likely response will be that the current generation does not believe in absolute truth…that the young adult decides for themselves what is true. Repeatedly, I have heard church leaders regale against the current relativistic generation because they tend to perceive such young adults as de-valuing Scripture. I believe this perception is inaccurate.

It is very true that today’s young adult wants to judge for themselves what is true…and this includes the process of knowing God. The Echo-Boomer has no love for the know-it-all pastor who tells the congregation what to believe and how to live. At the same time, the Echo-Boomer displays little long-term appreciation for topical talks we label as “Seeker Services”.

They know intrinsically that God is much more complex than these feather-weight talks convey. The Echo-Boomer, above all things seeks authenticity. They are marketing savvy. They can smell a packaged presentation a mile away…they have trained themselves to disbelieve any thing that does not display true authenticity.

It is when we turn to the epistemological discourse that I get a little leery of the potential ramifications of postmodernism. Catez has an interesting interview with Nancy Pearcy in which Nancy makes the following observation:
…postmodernism is growing ever more subjective and relativistic, reducing truth to private, individual experience ("true for me, but not true for you").

She then goes on to say:

As Christians, our goal should be to reject this dichotomy altogether. All truth is God's truth, in every area or field. God has created a multi-dimensional world with many forms of truth - scientific truth, religious truth, moral truth, mathematical truth, artistic truth, and so on. That's why the title of my book declares that Christianity is Total Truth.

I’m thinking she’s right here. As with pretty much anything, it is a matter of finding the right balance. Postmodernism can lead to radical subjectivism, while modernism can lead to radical idolatry. I suspect we want to avoid them both.

UPDATE: iMonk has some interesting thoughts on postmodernism. Most of it echoes and elaborates on the points I was making. But he also asks a very interesting question to which I've yet to hear a good answer:

It strikes me as particularly strange that the defenders of true Christianity don't see their tacit defense of modernism as more than a little troubling. How can these critics condemn "postmodernism" without embracing the errors of modernity?

Pomo everywhere - Tim Challies, in a new post, equates postmodernism with relativism. I can see how so many people are conflating the two, but again I think it's oversimplified, particularly when considering postmodernism also has a cultural context. Additionally, by so adamantly rejecting postmodernism, are we to assume that Tim is thereby embracing modernism (as iMonk was asking above)?

Well, now we may have an answer to that. Take a look at this thoughtful and well-articulated response to the question iMonk posed above.

Hey Chad,
"Postmodernism" is such a vague word that I've nearly disavowed using it; it tends to be a placehold for pretty much whatever the speaker wants it to mean. In my seminary context, it was generally used as synonymous with "relativism" which always annoyed me, since I view this term as something of a boogeyman (but we've already been there lately (-:).

Anyway, I suspect given your earlier post you're using the term in the sense of "pomo culture" as an equivalent for emergent (yes/no?). I'm as much in the dark about what emergent is as yourself - but whatever else it is, it's certainly an effort to build a postmodern Christianity (postevangelical, for many) that embodies the best of pomo'sm: community and relationship based understandings of truth, identity, and Christianity.

As for pomo epistemology, I think the charge of subjectivism and skepticism, while having an element of truth, misses a big part of the classic philosophical postmodernism: a suspicion of all metanarratives not (just) b/c of a denial of absolute truth but primarily b/c claims to absolute truth are understood as claims to power and domination. Postmodernism, thus conceived, is about asking the question: "Who's telling the story that we accept as 'truth' and what are their power interets in telling it this way? Whose story are they suppressing with their narrative of 'truth'?"

I've always seen postmodernism as an unmasking of the idols of thought and knowledge. As a Christian, I cannot accept claims to absolute truth precisely b/c I accept the postmodern critique as a necessary deconstruction of modernity (which has, as you say, given the church many idols).

Sorry for the long comment!
Interesting post Chad. I think the basic problem with postmodernism - which in fact is a philosophy, is that it claims to deconstruct modernism but doesn't actually succeeed. I agree with Nancy Pearcey - it actually simply increases the divide and moves in a different direction.
I wrote a series on postmodernism some time back - beginning with the philosophy - and in essence it is a philosophy of despair. The problem with holding that there are no metanarratives is that postmodernism is a metanarrative itself - one can't really escape that.
It is debatable whether there really is a postmodern culture at all - the word postmodern has become trendy in some circles - but the culture is as it has always been - a combination of the modern and what is deemed the mystic or metaphoric. Nothing new there. And if you critique Western culture as it is now - nothing very postmodern about it.
Absolute means wholistic really - and absolute contains the personal and public - the rational and the metaphoric.
Where I disagree with a comment like that of Gaunilo is in the way it tries to split the two - we are both rational and spiritual - made in the image of God. The postmodern movement is I think reactionary - emphasising one part of who we are but at the expense of others.
G, I concur that postmodernism is a very elusive term. Hardly anyone can properly define it for themselves, much less come to an agreement with others on a definition. But everyone seems to have an opinion on it (I wrote about that here. That's partially due to the fact that so many dismissively equate it with relativism, which I think is taking the easy way out.

While I would hesitate to equate pomo culture with emergent per se, you are correct that those terms are closely linked in the context I'm using them.

As for epistemology, I do like the questioning - up to a point. However, this is where I can see what Catez is saying here. If we begin to question everything, it seems like it can really lead to despair or at least to a deconstruction of the core tenants of our spiritual belief systems.

I'd be curious to know if you see this as a concern? Shouldn't there be some things that are agreed upon as core truths and should not be questioned? And, if so, what are they?

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, I am finding myself increasingly irritated at "narrow" theology that suggests (arrogantly) that certain denominations have all the answers to all questions. Christian bookstores tend to bother me in that they seem to project this friendly, air-brushed sort of God that wants primarily to offer us self-help and tips for earthly prosperity.

One big positive thing Emergent seems to be doing is restoring a sense of mystery back into the deity. It seems the Church in general could benefit from espousing a greater sense of reverence and holiness in relation to God. The pendulum has swung pretty far to the "personal God" end and it may need to move back the other way a bit.

So, on the whole, I tend to think postmodernism (whatever it actually is) seems to be serving some valuable purposes, even if there is really nothing particularly new or different about it as Catez has suggested. The concern to me is in taking it too far to the point where we lose our anchor or foundation.
Chad, that's a good question. Should we be concerned about a philosophy that represents a wholesale critique of our belief system? Absolutely. As a Christian I can and I must affirm a belief in truth. But I also think that as a Christian I must resist any attempt to equate this truth - which is Christ, who is always beyond us and accessible only in the Spirit - with a belief system or set of doctrines, or, for that matter, with the Bible.

See, I come to postmodernism as a critic of modernity. My question with critiques of postmodernity is "What's the alternative? Modernity?" I think modernity is just as hostile - if not more - to Christianity as postmodernity. It was modernity that gave us empiricism and positivism, the emancipation of thought from tradition, the disjunction of fact and value - things which have worked havoc on spirituality. Let's not forget that it was the moderns who were the first to be radical skeptics (well, not the first, but way before the postmodernists anyway), who declared the death of God, who despaired of any transcendent truth.

I do think that we must continually interrogate our belief systems. I think such is required by any kind of robust understanding of revelation - whatever revelation might be, it certainly is beyond our attempts to capture it in proposition and in doctrine. In addition, a postmodern suspicion of power interests isn't all that far from a robust doctrine of sin - the fact that all we do is infected with the taint of sin and concupiscence, that our first idol is ourselves and our pride and self-interest.

Postmodernism doesn't have to mean there is no truth or no "narratives" (an aside to the obviously learned Catez: it's two very different things to describe postmodernity as a suspicion of metanarratives and a denial of metanarratives altogether - the former doesn't disallow postmodernity as a metanarrative [really, a meta-metanarrative] itself, as you aver) ; what it does have to mean is that stories are always being retold, and originate not in our "objective" knowledge of the world but in our practices as communities and the languages we use to try to speak to one another.

I have no idea if this is a coherent reply. I'll go ahead and post it anyway because your question merits an answer. (-:
The one thing I am tired of the emergents saying is that if your not pomo you must be modern. That is, in my experience, generally false. Modernity has its own issues and people see them.

I think the post above that says that emergents are tired of people giving answers and proclaiming truth are bad, and they want authenticity. I know of plenty of people who are authentic and act in the manner complained of, and frankly, I am tired of a lot of emergents insulting good, caring, authentic people. To me, it comes across the wrong way.
BHT guy here. Philosophy candidate. Read a lot (too much). Pretty familiar with the labyrinth that is pomo philosophy. Beware of using the jargon (like 'deconstruction' and 'metanarrative') in ways that clank off the rim like a Shaq free throw. Sick freaks like me who actually read the sources (in the examples, Derrida and Lyotard, respectively) no longer recognize or understand what you're talking about. Pearcey follows Schaeffer's "two-storey" grid to critique postmodern philosophy. But that's like trying to do origami with a ballpeen hammer. (Sorry I'm going nuts with the metaphors here--long day.) It just doesn't work. Not even close.

'Metanarrative': a comprehensive, systematic story (philosophy) that claims to be legitimated by some fixed, absolute criterion (read: Universal Reason). This is a paraphrase of Lyotard's definition. Christianity is NOT a metanarrative. Christianity does not appeal to an abstract criterion like Reason for legitimacy. Christianity appeals to the Bible for legitimacy. The Bible is a concrete, historical text (in addition to whatever theological claims we wish to emphasize) that tells a story with sweeping, universal claims. But it is auto-legitimating. It does not point outside of its narrative for legitimation (it points to Jesus, who is the whole organizing figure of the narrative). Contrast with, say, Hegelian subjective idealism or Marx's dialectical materialism or Smith's capitalism. These are metanarratives. They are systematic expositions of reality that appeal to Reason for their legitimacy. What matters is not the scope or sweep of the "grand story." What matters is what the story teller appeals to to justify/certify/authenticate/validate the "grand story" for his audience.

How Christian apologists fall into the modernism (metanarrative) trap: they assume and act on the belief that Christianity must appeal to Reason to be considered a valid witness to the truth (hence the dismissal of what they perceive to be "irrational" Christian attempts to extract the faith from the spell of modernism, like Kierkegaard's existentialism and Marion's phenomenological theology, etc.--both of which are wonderful antidotes, BTW). In general, no religion should be characterized as a metanarrative. It is ironic that some Christian interpreters unwittingly try to do just that (which makes perfect sense since the history of Christianity in the Western world is irrevocably wedded to Western philosophy). I've written more on postmodern themes at BHT if you're interested (or sadomasochistic :-). Keep up the conversation!
Sorry, forgot to leave email!
I think Joel just said what I was gonna say. The reason I see churches coming under fire is because the theology is veering away from the solid historical basis of the Bible. This would be the "core truths" you were asking about, Chad. So the postmodern culture that you see as good is possibly the reaction to the postmodern epistemology. I don't even know what modernism is but i do know i am a traditionalist. The Bible is the medicine we need most...take as needed.
Two quick points,
I've read Lyotard's "The Post Modern Explained" and do understand his use of "metanarrative". And he does attempt to deconstruct it but only replaces it with a different one.
Also - Christianity doesn't appeal to Reason as defined in modernity - but it is a metanarrative from the Logos (Reason) who is God. Christianity is based on God - the bible comes from God. Important distinction.
God's absolute truth is the metanarrative.
Yes, nancy Pearcey uses Schaeffer's grid - and makes an excellent analysis with it.
Catez, I just don't understand claims like "God's absolute truth is the metanarrative."

I agree with you that we must distinguish divine Logos from Reason. We must exercise great care when subjecting our thinking about the Incarnate One, the Word of God, to a principle of thinking which sets up in advance the demand that He be orderable as a comprehensive, enclosed body of knowledge (the metanarrative gesture). It appears in apologetical form like this: "Divine propositional revelation is the indispensable axiom, the starting point, the first principle of Christianity. If that first principle is perverted or twisted, then all theorems – doctrines such as election, salvation, covenant, and church – derived from it will be perverted or twisted as well."

We can think about our faith reasonably without the demand that it conform to a wholly rational model, a la geometry. And given the concrete historical reality of where we are in our time in relation to modernity, it is very difficult work to keep our guard up against this zeitgeist. It's one thing for us to say that Christianity doesn't appeal to Reason as defined in modernity; it's quite another to actually practice that in our thinking which is so very much shaped by modernity.

We'll just have to disagree about Pearcey's critique of philosophy :-) I will say that I found her attempt to bring Lutheran insights into contact with "worldview" thinking in the final section of the book (Part IV, I think) delightfully incisive and (almost) redeemed the value of the whole book for me.
The Christian worldview of Francis Schaeffer's stuff is based on reason...he tested Truth against our reality. Thus, he argued, Christianity is a faith of reason, based on God's Word as historical. This is where Pearcey is coming from. I love her book and am really glad it is being talked about now.
BTW, there is a bit of chat on this modernity thing at my space, "Postmodern Myth".
Hi Joel,
I'll be hoonest and say that I don't have time for a really long discussion. But also - saying the Logos is absolute truth is not saying that we can neatly sum everything up by reason. God is the one who is omniscient. It helps to not take an anthropocentic vantage point. God is absolute truth - he has the metanarrative from before the foundation of the world. That's very basically what I was trying to say.
Or to look at it another way - God has THE metanarrative - others that deny him are really split off derivatives and imitations.
Interesting commentary and I liked your stuff over at BHT on this subject as well. I'm not going to pretend like I have the philosophical background that you do and try to sloppily engage some of your specific points. I do have some reservations about postmodernism taken in the extreme with its tendency to drift toward relativism. But I like that it reminds us of our own limitations in comprehending the Truth (as long as it does not deny the existence of Truth altogether). The fact that you can work in Shaq free throw metaphors is an added bonus.
Thanks, Chad. I think your reservations are wise. I usually try to point out somewhere in the midst of my (all too) frequent advocacy for Christians to examine some postmodern themes seriously that proponents of postmodern"ism" are often just as poor at interpreting postmodern themes as some opponents are. They often do run off the ditch into relativism or skepticism or nihilism. But you can go just as astray studying Plato as you might Derrida. Postmodern philosophy is no more a bogeyman than Kant, Descartes, or Aristotle. For the interested readers, I would recommend working through the source texts with a trusted teacher who, even if not an "expert" (*shudder*--all philosophers should consider themselves beginners!), can provide good guidance and context and jargon-parsing.

Since I teach at the U of KY, basketball metaphors are de rigueur. :-)
Look I have to say this - postmodernism does use relativism. It really isn't accurate to say that's getting to the fringe of post modernism at all. Lyotard and others very much rely on relativism - and when you look at postmodernism's take on culture it is relativistic. I think it's important to admit that.
I know some people are trying to draft their own pomo derivations but the fact is it does depend on relativism.
None of what I've just said is an appeal to modernity - it's just an honest look at what pomo is.
The biggest relativised area in pomo that I've seen has been the position on culture.
I can understand a philosophy student studying pomo in depth - but why would anyone else spend inordinate time on it? It's incomplete at best. Personally I do think it can become an intellectual distraction after a while - I don't have it on my list of intellectual necessities, i.e. I don't need it for intellectual conformity to Christ. I've taken a reasonable look at it - but I'd say no, if one is going to spend a lot of time on something then don't just go with pomo.
Combine modernity and pomo - I think the Shaeffer grid is a great little blueprint for intellectual pursuit.
Your point is well taken that pomo is not worth obsessing over. But I do think it's important to at least try to gain some rudimentary understanding. Afterall, it's popping up all over the place. It seems to me that we need to define terminology as best as possible before we can have an educated opinion on it. Clearly, you are knowledgeable about the subject. I, on the other hand, am still trying to come to grips with its meaning and ramifications.

Bottom line though is that we need not & should not ascribe to postmodernism, modernism, or any other secular worldview. It is a Christian worldview that we need to develop and embrace. However, I feel that learning about these various "-isms" can help us better do that. And Schaeffer's at the top of my list of desired reading materials.
Hi Chad,
Yes I understand where you are coming from. My comment was not directed at you personally but I was responding to the idea that a person needs to get a teacher and spend an inordinate amount of time on it.
It isn't as complicated as some would make out. Joe Carter had a good post some time back which questioned whether pomo is really part of the culture at all. It was very good. It's a philosophy, but I think it's overstated in terms of cultural impact.
Actually, it's a long time since I've read Schaeffer. I agree - we need a worldview informed by more than one "ism".
I believe this is the post by Joe Carter you're referring to. As always, Joe offered an interesting take on the issue - I even quoted it in my other post on this subject.
Chad, catez, and other interested parties, I've just posted a lengthy answer to a question about whether we aren't over postmodernism already. I get the distinct impression from catez and many others that I talk to that we'd rather just get over all the nonsense and get on with something meaningful again. I'm very sympathetic and share much of the frustration that this sentiment expresses. But one reason we might not want to be too glib in dismissing postmodernism (as if we comprehend it just fine) is the danger of covering over insights into what has become of our institutions, especially the church, and the people who comprise that community. We may not get very many helpful prescriptions for curing our ills, but at least we might gain clarity about the extent and depth of the problem.
In response to this:
"I get the distinct impression from catez and many others that I talk to that we'd rather just get over all the nonsense and get on with something meaningful again."

A few comments on a blog post is not an extended discussion. I simply mean I don't see the need to go onto inordinate detail and time on pomo. I have looked at it:

But here's the thing, and it's funny because this sounds pomo - I don't have to look at it. It isn't actually relelvant in my context. So it's not high on the priority list I'm afraid. I haven't stopped "getting on with something meaningful" - you see I didn't get all caught up in a philosophy which supposedly tells me where things are now or will be. Or to put it another way - we don't choose the real frame of reference but we sometimes think we do...
"We may not get very many helpful prescriptions for curing our ills, but at least we might gain clarity about the extent and depth of the problem."

Joel the difficulty I have with this sort of statement is manifold:
1. It assumes that anyone not pomo has no resources for guiding the church or recognising and addressing problems.
2. It assumes that pomo is an answer for church problems.
3. It assumes or infers that if some-one is not into pomo they are part of some institution (as opposed to living body) and are part of the problem.
4. This is a big one - it presupposes that one hasn't already experienced a pomo appraoch/overlay and found it wanting.
Yes, I'm being self-referential with no.4.
catez, I have tried to engage with you and others in this comment thread in an agreeable and open manner. I have not tried to brush off, minimize, or otherwise dismiss you or your views. I appreciate that you are a human being and that the only thing I know about you is through this thread. As for me, I am a Christian, a philosopher, a teacher, an engineer, a husband and father, and a ruling elder in our PCA church. I understand God's call on my life right now to be a philosopher, to contribute to a particular field of inquiry (phi of science), and to teach my heart out to a lot of kids with absolutely no intellectual or moral rudders. That's me in a nutshell.

I'm not asking anyone to spend an inordinate amount of time on pomo thought. Lots of people in our church don't (and shouldn't) spend the first minute worrying about it. I suspect that those of us with vocations in academia are a pretty small minority of churchgoers (probably exaggerated on the blogosphere). Carpet cleaners and welders and home builders are generally not going to be shaping the contours of contemporary culture. And that's fine. But their kids might go to a liberal arts college or to architecture school. For pastoral reasons, those of us who are their teachers ought to prepare them, guide them, and counsel them through an often hostile environment. We cannot do that by misrepresenting what they will find there. If we teach them that postmodern theorists are hostile to objectivity or certainty or clarity, end of story, then we do them a disservice. If they're good students and do their reading and go to class, they'll quickly find that these broad-brush criticisms are inaccurate and unfair. This will not reflect well on their Christian teachers who are trusted to be truthful and charitable.

Earlier I wrote: "We may not get very many helpful prescriptions for curing our ills, but at least we might gain clarity about the extent and depth of the problem."
I am not talking about looking to pomo for how to guide the church or for answers to the church's problems. That would be a prescription, the very thing I said we should NOT look for! And I certainly did not mean to imply that anyone not in pomo is part of the problem. Good grief, I know I can be abstruse, but was my meaning THAT unclear? The "problem" I was speaking of was how the church, through many of its apologetic and theological efforts (wherever we're using our intellect to think about our faith), is implicitly adopting philosophical presuppositions that are informed more by modernism than by the faith (e.g., conflating the "certainty" of salvation with "certainty" identified in epistemology.) This is a problem because we then wed biblical teaching to 16th-17th century philosophy. "Certainty" means different things in these contexts. And I think it is a problem to ignore this difference as if it doesn't matter as much as it is to accept that "certainty" means the same thing in these cases. Postmodern philosophy, if we want to think of it in worldview terms, comes along with a bit of "Egyptian gold" (Augustine) to help drive a wedge between what is essential to our faith and what is vain human philosophy. You don't have to have pomo to do this, but I have found it helpful. Nor do you have to buy into everything pomo is selling just because you've found one helpful thing in it. I thought I had been clear in this thread that, if one is going to study it, any philosophy should be approached carefully. The only reason I'm speaking up is that I have found many of my fellow evangelical Christians who have tried to understand or refute or otherwise take a philosophical position on postmodern philosophy to have missed the mark badly. In the scheme of most people's lives, it may not matter much that they hold false beliefs about others. But I'm going to tell the truth to the best of my ability, hopefully in a manner that is adorned with loveliness as the Holy Spirit enables. I think I've worn out my welcome here, but if any of you want to continue a discussion, I'd be glad to do so by email.

Just an FYI - I enjoy reading your commentary and you certainly have not "worn out your welcome". You and the other guys at BHT can come over here anytime. If I have refrained from commented extensively here, it's because it is a topic I am interested in but not very knowledgeable about as of yet. But this thread and the links are helping. Thanks.
Thanks, Chad. I'm embarrassed by my defensive tone in that last message and I hope, Catez, that you're not offended. One of the wonderful things about the Christian blogosphere is the venue it provides for those who are passionate in pursuit of Truth to express their views and describe their journeys. The heat can certainly rise, and eyebrows will be raised, but I am confident that the Holy Spirit will work mightily through honest disagreement and conflict. Unity prevails even where unanimity is absent.
Hi Joel,
I'm not offended - I think you over-reacted though. I simply looked at what you have said and gave a response. Granted you weren't making it a prescription - I am corrected there. But we may just have to agree to differ. I don't think pomo is as prevalent or important as your comments suggests to me you think it is.
I understand the academic environment and where you are coming from with that.
You've also gone into some detail, which is thoughtful, but to be honest, and not intending to offend you - I've spent more time on this than I intended to.I do still pick up in your comments the sense that if one doesn't get into pomo one is a modernist - which is not where I'm coming from. I think perhaps that's because your comments are generalised rather than engaging specific responses in the thread. But let's take a break anyway. I haven't said anyone should dismiss it without looking at it at all - I have said I found pomo very wanting. Within a ertain context,i.e. academic pholosophy/art then it will be discussed. But I talked about "absolute" before - and I know philosophers don't like that word - yet it isn't hard to grasp what I meant. I like to think outside the square a bit, and don't want to be bound be jargon - no offence but the philosophy terminology sometimes seems so limiting.
God bless you.
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