Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What is Postmodernism? More Tony Jones

I’ve decided to focus this installment of our series on Tony Jones' new book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, on a single issue. I have done so because the issue is rather large and unusually squishy. What I want to talk about is postmodernism.

To begin, there’s this from chapter two, p.37:

At its essence, emergent Christianity is an effort by a particular people in a particular time and place to respond to the gospel as it (once again) breaks through the age-old crusts. And it’s the shifting tectonics of postmodernism that caused the initial fissure.

Postmodernism (pomo for short) figures pretty heavily in this chapter and pretty heavily in emergent. Emergent authors and practitioners talk a lot about pomo. But what is it they're talking about? What is this 'thing' that caused the initial fissure within which emergent Christianity has taken root and is beginning to flower?

We get several characterizations in chapter two. According to one characterization, it’s a “cultural watershed” (p.38). According to another it marks an “age of enlightened mystcism” (p.43—Tony quoting Brad Cecil, an important voice at the beginning of emergent back in the late 90’s; italics Tony’s).

Well, I dunno what Tony or Brad might mean by enlightened mystcism, and that's because I don't know what they mean by mysticism. And I must confess to being a wee bit skeptical of the "watershed" view of postmodernism. The idea, as Tony presents Brad presenting it in chapter two, and as the annoying know-it-all "Neo" presents it in Brian Mclaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, is that some sort of cataclysmic, epochal shift occurred in the fairly recent past, when we moved from 'modernism', or a modernist way of viewing the world, to 'postmodernism', or a postmodernist way of viewing the world.

I'm not sure what to make of that claim either. It's the putatively "epic" nature of the shift that I have problems with. I have no doubt about there being differences, and significant differences at that, between this generation and previous generations. But I'm inclined to think that those differences are largely cultural and have little to do with the philosophical ruminations of the patron saints of so-called deconstructive philosophy, with whom postmodernism is often associated, such as Derrida and Lyotard.

So what do people mean by 'postmodernism'? Here's how John Caputo puts it in a quote that Tony uses as an epigraph at the beginning of the book, and refers to in this chapter: not relativism or skepticism, as its uncomprehending critics almost daily charge, but minutely close attention to detail, a sense for the complexity and multiplicity of things, for close readings, for detailed histories, for sensitivity to differences. The postmodernists think the devil is in the details, but they also have reason to hope that none of this will antagonize God.

Tony doesn't tell us where that comes from, but there it is. I like the John Caputo behind that quote. (It's the other John Caputo, the one who is in fact a pretty thoroughgoing epistemological, and so religious, skeptic that I don't like nearly as much! But that's a topic for another day.) For one thing, I understand what the Caputo behind this quote says here. (That's not always the case with the other Caputo.) And for another, I'm rather favorably disposed to postmodernism if this is what it is.

Let me offer my own definition of postmodernism. I begin by first distinguishing between cultural pomo and philosophical pomo. Some of the features of the former include new technologies, new forms of connectivity (cell phones, the internet w/its ubiquitous social networks, like Facebook and Myspace, etc), decentralization and globalization. These features of pomo are, I think, very significant. Epic? Maybe. I dunno, though.

Philosophical postmodernism, on the other hand, involves calling into question “meta-narratives” or grand stories of the world and our place in it, like Marxism, atheistic naturalism, consumerism and Christianity itself. What gets called into question by philosophical postmodernism is our ability to float free of the grand narratives we find ourselves in and to view things from a “God’s eye view.”

Those sensitive to this sort of postmodernism recognize that our grasp of reality is always partial, incomplete, and fragmentary. And this recognition can engender humility, tolerance, and an opening for dialogue with others. Those who really appreciate our human finitude and situatedness are more inclined to say, “Here’s how I see things and here’s why. But, I recognize that I am a finite and frail human being; so I could certainly be the one with blind spots. How do you see things?’ as opposed to saying “I’m right. You’re wrong, and going to hell. End of story.”

This flavor of pomo resonates very deeply with me and, if I read Tony and other of the "new" Christians right, it resonates very deeply with them, too.

And yet. And yet there is another element some people (including some emergents) often add to this plausible rendering of postmodernism. And that is what I will call, following Alvin Plantinga, creative anti-realism or social constructivism. I think this is what people often have in mind when they say such things as that there is no objective truth and the like. Those who add this element to pomo do so, it seems to me, because they believe (mistakenly in my view) that either the epistemic humility characteristic of the plausible strain of pomo requires it or they believe (also mistakenly I would say) that the plausible form of pomo leads to it. In any case, it's this element that seems to me utterly implausible. Let me explain.

I am inclined to think that there is (say) God and our various understandings of God (e.g., that God is loving and merciful and gracious, etc.). I'm also inclined to think that there are the objects that populate the world (like stars and mountains and mollusks) and our concepts of those objects. Well, so far as I can tell, the less than plausible brand of pomo (i.e. social constructivism) rejects this commonsense view of things. According to it it is our concepts and language that actually create God and the objects that populate the world. We don't discover objects in the world or their properties and then use language and concepts to refer to them and describe them, we create them with our words and concepts. It sounds crazy, I know, but the view really is that we create what we find, be it God, stars, mountains or mollusks. And, as I say, this sounds utterly implausible to me. (Though I should also add that very smart people who are not French philosophers have said these very same things. For example, the American philosopher Nelson Goodman embraced this very view.)

Here's a slightly tamer variation of the social-constructive sort of pomo. It's the view that while there may be a world independent of our concepts and language we are incapable of ever coming to know it as it is independent of us. As this relates to God the idea seems to be something like this. God is so big, so wholly other, and we are so small (or finite), that to name God as loving or merciful or gracious (or whatever) is really to create an idol, it's really an attempt to domesticate or tame the un-tameable, to name the un-nameable. Those attracted to this view are thus very attracted to what is called apaphatic or negative theology, the view that no words can legitimately be used to describe God, that none of the properties we ascribe to God actually apply, and so the proper but difficult task of theology is to rid our minds of its idols (i.e., our names for and descriptions of God). For this will make way for the event of God.

It's these latter two elements, often layered over the plausible form of pomo, that lead some emergents to call for a Christianity beyond belief. The idea is that committing oneself to concrete Christian beliefs is to place oneself in the primordial waters of modernism. The postmodern turn for Christians is a turn away from Christianity as believing certain things and a turn toward Chrisitanity as being fundamentally about opening oneself to a transformative event. As I read them, Spencer Burke and Pete Rollins advocate this view.

Maybe an example will help. My friend Pete (Rollins) seems to think that realist claims don't apply to the religious realm. Did Jesus literally and really rise from the dead? I want to say "Look, if he didn't, then those who claim to have been transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ are mistaken." People who say they've had such an experience may in fact have experienced a transformative event, but if Christ is not risen, then their transformation does not owe to an event involving the resurrected Christ. Pete, on the other hand, seems to think that Christianity is a subjective, transformative event that is detachable from historical realist claims. He seems to think that it’s possible to undergo a transformative event of the resurrected Christ even if Christ hasn't really risen. And that doesn't make sense to me. Mind you, I'm all for Christianity as subjecive, transfomative event. I’m even open to the possibility of people participating in such an event without realizing that it is an encounter with the risen Christ. But if the event has anything to do with a risen Christ, then Christ must be risen. (You can view an exchange Pete and I had about this issue on his blog by going here.)

Let me bring all this back down to earth with a bit of autobiography. When I think of a biblical story that parallels my own life experience, I think of the story of Peter out in the boat and Jesus calling him to himself, calling him to get out of the boat and come toward him. Peter must have been scared feces-less. I feel like Peter a lot of the time, in the sense that I feel like I’ve received a call (from Jesus) but between me and him is a raging storm, or to switch metaphors, between me and him is a thick woods. I can’t see clearly most of the time. So I’m doing my best (and sometimes less than my best) to make my way toward that voice, toward the one issuing the call.

So, as I understand it, mine is not a faith that is a groping toward an I-know-no-what. Mine is a faith that is a groping, but a groping toward God, a God of all-inclusive love, compassion and mercy who was, I believe, in Christ reconciling the world to himself and bringing about a new reality, a new society. A robust recognition that I am a finite creature, frail and given to self-deception, and that my knowledge of God and the world is thus always partial, fragmentary and incomplete, does not lead me to religious skepticism (which I think it does lead to in Caputo and Rollins). What it leads to in me, I’d like to think, is epistemic humility. But epistemic humility is perfectly compatible with concrete Christian beliefs and commitments.

All of this having been said, let me add that I still like to read Pete and Caputo. Why? Mainly because I learn from them. I believe that deconstructive philosophy can function as a kind of therapy and can be profoundly helpful. There is a very real sense in which it is true to say that the past three years of my life have been one long deconstructive event. And in the midst of my own disorientation and confusion a space was broken wide open and in that space God appeared and I was re-oriented and re-constructed.

Okay, 'nuff said. I do think it’s important that we get as clear as we can about what it is we’re talking about when we talk about pomo. If the pomo of emergent is the more plausible version of philosophical pomo I described above, then I’m on board. If it’s the less plausible or implausible pomo of creative anti-realism, I’m not. And what of of apaphaticism? Well, I guess I think our language can apply quite literally to God. Which is not to say that I think human language can ever exhaustively describe God. I believe God really is loving and compassionate and just. And I'm sure I cannot plumb the depths of God's love and compassion and justice with words or concepts. But I also don't think that when we get to heaven (or heaven in all its fullness gets to us) we will discover that God was so wholly other, and our language so impotent, that it turns out God is really a self-absorbed, hateful, wicked, unjust and apathetic sonofabitch.

Next time, friendship and eschatology.


smokin joe said...

Good post! My impression is that there are even different levels of social constructivism. The kind of social construction put forth by Peter Berger in the 1970s or Nicolas Onuf in the 1980s did not (in my humble opinion and limited knowledge) deny the existence of objective reality but simply pointed out the contextual and cultural lenses that through which we view that objective reality, which I find akin to your description of epistemic humility. In other words, God, the stars, trees are really there… but the symbolic meanings we attach to them in language is socially constructed.

Anonymous said...

i got here through jesuscreed and found the post very helpful.

Dan Brennan said...

Kevin, another great piece. We got to start planning to get together.

Raffi Shahinian said...

I'll just chime in with two of my favorite quotes from N.T. Wright on the subject:

- Pomo is like the Bible. If you think you've got it figured out, that just shows you've misunderstood the question.

- The God-given role of Pomo is to preach the doctrine of The Fall to arrogant modernity.

Great post.

Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian
Parables of a Prodigal World

Rachel said...

Hey, thanks Dr. Corcoran. :) If you guys are up for it sometime, I think they would welcome a guest post and a good debate.

Stephen Krogh said...


This post, for some reason, is one over which I've wanted to think before I write it. Unfortunately, I am sure I've not thought enough, and so my response will likely be impetuous, shot from the hip, and more cathartic for me than insightful for anyone else. With that caveat (and a hell of one it is, I think!)...

I have an interesting relationship (I think) with pomo. On the one hand, I think it is basically an empty term, the teenage child of modernity demanding independence and insisting it will never be like its parents. On the other hand, I've intentionally chosen graduate schools with a reputation in phenomenology and continental philosophy, because I believe in so much of what men like Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger (and to a lesser extent Godamer and to a much lesser extent Derrida) were trying to do, namely question philosophy-as-usual. This leaves me in a bit of a bind; I want to study these writers, but am certain to not like where their current scholarship is taking them, especially their Christian scholars (Caputo, for instance).

I could not have said more concisely my intuitions regarding pomo:

'Well, I dunno what Tony or Brad might mean by enlightened mystcism, and that's because I don't know what they mean by mysticism. And I must confess to being a wee bit skeptical of the "watershed" view of postmodernism. The idea, as Tony presents Brad presenting it in chapter two, and as the annoying know-it-all "Neo" presents it in Brian Mclaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, is that some sort of cataclysmic, epochal shift occurred in the fairly recent past, when we moved from 'modernism', or a modernist way of viewing the world, to 'postmodernism', or a postmodernist way of viewing the world.

'I'm not sure what to make of that claim either. It's the putatively "epic" nature of the shift that I have problems with. I have no doubt about there being differences, and significant differences at that, between this generation and previous generations. But I'm inclined to think that those differences are largely cultural and have little to do with the philosophical ruminations of the patron saints of so-called deconstructive philosophy, with whom postmodernism is often associated, such as Derrida and Lyotard.'

Brilliant! Since I started reading Kierkegaard and Heidegger (you can thank Matt Halteman for that), I've had an uncomfortable feeling about the whole business, and I knew the feeling was not from the authors, themselves. I think you've voiced my concern precisely. There is an overarching sense of self from the disciples of the postmodern movement, which is ironic, because such a large part of their ethos revolves around searching for what has been given to them, for 'detailed histories.' It is a strange thing that by looking into the past one has forged something epically new, especially when one considers that looking to the past for help is not new in the western philosophical tradition at all, which leads me to my ultimate concerns regarding pomo.

Chiefly, I think pomo is not only nonepochal, I think it is wholly unoriginal. I see it as an amalgamation of hyper modernity and pre modernity. I say hyper, because pomo is, it seems, intensely interested in its own movement (not unlike Hegel and his school). Only a truly modern mind would try to name itself and then define that name. Only a confused modern mind would struggle with the definition of the very movement it so covets. A hyper modern mind tries to name its movement, and demonstrate how this movement is born from the need for progress in western thought. What has come before is stagnate, boring, irrelevant, etc; what we are doing is vigorous, alive, beautiful and necessary. Can you get more modern than that?

I say pre modern, because any of the attributes predicated upon pomo, and here I will use Caputo, himself, minute close attention to detail, a sense for the complexity and multiplicity of things, for close readings, for detailed histories, for sensitivity to differences, could just as easily be predicated upon the ancients and the medievals. In fact, much of the method of pomo is also ancient or medieval. (e.g. looking to the past, epistemic humility, 'mysticism,' etc.). Aquinas, himself, the scholastic of scholastics, acknowledged our inability to know the essence of something (I can't find my Treatise on Human Nature, so I can't cite it specifically, but it is around Questions 84-90, I believe). In fact, Aquinas dismissed Anselm's ontological argument on the grounds that expected more of reason than reason can do. I could go on with more than just a single example, I suppose, but I haven't done the proper research, this is only a blog, and the longer I type, the more like whining my writing becomes. But, Plato's apparent aversion to readily defining the form of the good, and later questioning (deconstructing?) his own views, Augustine's seemingly obvious (but not unprofound) declaration that understanding, where there is understanding, only comes to pass through her who is doing the understanding (in other words, it will be as limited as she who is doing the understanding), or Pseudo Dionysius, or Hugh of St. Victor, or William of St. Thierry, the list goes on. In fact, apophatic theology existed, because they understood the limits of systematic theology. Upon realizing the limits of both, ascesis-holy work-was the last mean of expressing the ineffable.

As I promised, this has been circumlocutious, sorry about that. I am sure that this has been a vast oversimplification, but I think my main point is not (at least, I hope it isn't, because along with schools with continental reputations, I also chose schools with medieval reputations, because I hope to distill these inclinations into graduate writings, thesises, and maybe dissertations), namely that anything currently called post modern is at worst hyper modern, and at best, pre modern, though with a contemporary twist.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Smokin Joe:

Thanks for stopping by! Hard to deny that we view the world (and God) through contextual and cultural lenses. Absolutely.


Interesting thoughts! I'm with the pomo crowd when they decry the elevation and pretense of reason in the enlightenment. Studies by Damasio and others seem to show quite convincingly that reason never operates alone, free of emotion and affections. The view of human beings bequeathed us by the Enlightenment does seem a rather pathetic, one-dimensional view.

You make some interesting points about pomo's relation both to modernism and pre-modernism. Nice!

Christi said...

hmmm. I read it. Interesting, yet I have some kind of gut-level dislike for it that I can't put my finger on. I will, undoubtedly, let you know when I figure it out. I will respond, but probably at my own blog. Yes, I will blog again:) Thanks to you.

P.S. Mclaren's character Neo is from A New Kind of Christian, not A Generous Orthodoxy.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Hey Christi,

Fancy meeting you here! What? You don't like it? )-: Hmmmm. Well, once you get your finger on "it", you let me know.

And right, A New Kind of Christian. My bad.

You're going to start blogging again? Thanks to me? This whole blog is your fault, you know. (-;

Cheers, sister. Come back!

John Frye said...

I enjoyed meeting you last evening at the alt worship event.

As I read your post I realized that a number of the Christian (evangelical) pomo-promoters assign an epic grandiosity to their views over against modern (traditional) evangelicals. I think I fell for some of the pizazz of the conversation. I like Stephen Krogh's comments that all these pomo-findings and applications to the Christian faith are not all that epic or original. "Epic" is in the eye of the beholder sort of thing.

But I do resonate with the pomo call to an epistemic humility. As a pastor in the USAmerican evangelical world I see a hubris and arrogance so far afield of Jesus' character.

About objective reality, would you consider yourself a "critical realist"?

Kevin Corcoran said...

Hey John,

Yeah, I'll go for critical or "chastened" realist.

Hope to see you next week.

Lori said...

Not surprisingly, I've been mulling over this post all week. There's much here to slow me small accomplishment! Anyhow, a couple thoughts.

It seems evident that by & large, most emergents would locate themselves within the pomo stream which you advocate. The majority of books I've read & folks I've talked with evidence the epistemic humility and openness to conversation that you reference. So it seems you can rest easy.

A very few, however, do seem to take some additional steps into social constructivism (though I have yet to hear one of them question the reality of their latte or their pint). I understand your concerns with this, but would have to ask about the history of the apophatic tradition. I know Pete, at least, has been influenced by texts such as "The Cloud of Unknowing"; orthodox Church tradition seems to have made a place for this negative approach to "knowing" God. Is it possible that there is a dimension of human knowledge or experience that can only be characterized in the negative?

One of the beauties of this era of human history, of course, is that we can hold conversations like this without anyone being burned at the stake for saying the "wrong" thing.

To your (and Stephen's) questions about postmodernity as "epic", I'd agree it seems a bit premature for such claims. But whether it's rooted in culture or philosophy (or both), it seems a shift of significant proportions has definitely taken (and is taking?) place. On a strictly pragmatic level, philosophers aside, there is a cultural divide growing that defies neat analytical descriptions. I understand Stephen's comparisons of our current concerns with those of premodernity, and I'm sure they're largely accurate. But it seems to me that a return to premodern sensibilities is entirely different than a premodern culture with no other alternatives (as it would historically have been). There's something to embracing what had once been abandoned, from a place of acquired knowledge & choice, that seems to me a different experience.

But maybe that's just the pomo in me talking...ah, choice...

Jason Clark said...

HI Kevin, I'm coming to your great post a little late, and there is so much that I was stimulated by and could interact with.

But here are a couple of things.

I shared a meaningful time with Pete Rollins during a worship time in Geneva. I like Pete a lot, and thought we had shared a meaningful time around a real risen Jesus. Now I wonder if we really did?

Come to think of it, was Pete really there? :-)

And if I had studied the philosophy that Pete had, maybe I'd have to end up where he does to have any semblance of faith that can connect to that way of deconstructing and thinking.

I do think there is an epistemic crises in our modern world, about how we know, and also an ontological crises too, of what it means to be, that is closely related.

In the words of Quee Nelson, there does seem to be a 'canon' of postmodern philosophy that is accepted as the 'norm' with a turn away from the 'naivety of knowing'.

I'm all for epistemic humility (like you). I am not for being left in a place where to assert we can know somethings, is socially naive and makes you some modern foundationalist monster.

It's time we explored how we can know and be, and have that 'proper confidence' Newbigin talked about.

And we need some philosophers like you to help us through the dazzling lights, and smoke and mirrors of postmodern philosophy.