What Significance Has ‘Postmodernism’ for Christian Faith?
Published in 2016 as Chapter 33 of Renewing the Christian Mind (HarperOne Publishers).
What makes Postmodernism so interesting today is that it lets us get on with business that we firmly believe we ought to be getting on with: careful discussion of those things that matter most in life. It arose, not in response to modernism generally, or to that of a Descartes, Locke or Kant, but in response to the culturally paralyzing empiricist varient on modernism that defines itself through David Hume, John Stuart Mill and the so-called "logical" positivism of the mid-Twentieth Century. With this varient there came the view of knowledge as restricted to "science" and "scientific theory," always interpreted with a bias toward the sense-perceptible world. "There is one reality, the natural world, and physics is its prophet."
Postmodernism takes the scientistic bull by the horns and says: "Why, theorizing in science is just another one of the social practices which you find going on is our world. There are other practices such as literary criticism, politics, biblical theology, handicapping horses at Hollywood park.... They all have their own internal standards of meaning and correctness. And physics with all its techniques of discovery has no more hegemony over them than they have over it."
The postmodern response to empirico-positivist modernism is essentially a "you too" response. All social practices persist as the continuation of a more or less stable set of interconnected activities. To the "scientific" critique that says to systematic theology or political science, for example, that it does not meet criteria which would stamp it as a respectable intellectual enterprise, the postmodern response is that systematic theology, etc. has its own language, traditions, texts, problems, and methods, and that, while physics or formal logic of course has all that too, it has nothing more. It cannot, in particular, lay claim to be the form which knowledge must take--to possess the essence of knowledge--and it cannot claim to have an exclusive window on reality, one allowing it to report that "the other guys" aren't dealing with anything that is real.
Why can it not? It is at this point that we come to the intellectual substance of the postmodernist position. This actually consists in nothing less than an account of what the conscious life consists in. As much as postmodernists like to insist that theirs is not just another philosophy, they cannot avoid the reality that they are engaged in exactly the same task as all of the clear cases of modern philosophy, that of analyzing the nature of human consciousness. They have three main points: (1) Consciousness is a linguistic activity. (2). Language functions by its internal dynamics alone. What governs the `cognitive' and other moves in the cultural process, marking them as successful or not, are interrelations within the process itself, and these alone. (3) Language is a social life. With my language others and a shared world are already involved--through "rules"--in any consciousness I may have. The first two points stand in radical disagreement with the great "moderns," while the third would have seemed to them a simple irrelevance.
There are three corresponding negations. (n1) Consciousness is not a purely inner or spiritual or mental life, such as the "Platonic" or "Cartesian" self was supposed to enjoy. It is important to secure this, for if non-linguistic consciousness were allowed, the next thing might be that it would claim direct access to how things really are, undistorted by the communal linguistic filters: a distinctively `modern' idea. Postmodern philosophers do not tend to be greatly worried about where this leaves God's consciousness. (n2) Language is not tied to a reality lying `outside' of it, to which it must conform and which it "mirrors" when correct. If this is not granted there is always the possibility of a perspective outside the "language game" criticizing the moves made within the game in terms of their lack of adequacy to how things "really" are. (n3) There is no "private" language. If this is not granted then I might very well have knowledge that is totally removed from rational appraisal by others, and, conversely, I am threatened with scepticism, since my consciousness might then have no essential connection with anything beyond my self.
Given all of this one can very well say, "On with the show!"--whatever the show may be. If it is physics or literary criticism, evangelizing urban pagans or Muslims in the Philippines, or discussing postmodernism, the moves in the game are guided and subject to criticism, but only by reference to standards that are themselves part of the cultural activity in question. This, I think, is the primary significance of postmodernism for the Christian gospel, and for the many sub-practices and disciplines that fall under its unifying thrust in world history.
Some questions will arise. Doesn't this mean that the secular humanist, the Buddhist--or for that matter those sacrificing chickens to their god in Los Angeles and New York City--has just as good a game as an Evangelical minister trained in the best Evangelical seminaries? Their game can, according to postmodernism, be judged as deficient only by rules internal to the life-game they are playing. The non-___ is in no position either to know or to show that they are wrong about God or reality. The Christian who would be postmodernist surely has the task of explaining the Great Commission of Matthew 28 in postmodernist terms. "The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone"?
And what about revelation on the postmodernist view? Did the Patriarchs etc. just start one cultural tradition among others, or did they, within some limits, find God as he really is apart from all languages and pass the objective truth on through the centuries to us. In John 14 Jesus explained to His little graduating class that the `world' cannot receive the Spirit of truth because "it neither sees nor knows Him.""But," He continued, "you know him for he resides with you and shall be in you." He talks as if the `world' were blinded to a reality that is there all the same, their empirical language-game notwithstanding. Is Christian revelation, and Christian experience today, access to a reality by which the adherents of all language games are to be judged, or not? Acts 17:30-31 suggests it is.
And then how can the postmodernist reconcile his interepretation of knowledge with itself. Indeed, it is clear that he (Rorty, Toulman, MacIntyre, Lyotard) intends to lay clear before us the absolute nature of knowledge (language, consciousness). Yet in the nature of his case his interpretation of knowledge (his knowledge of knowledge) can only be more talk about the talk in which knowledge consists, whether it be Biblical Theology talk, Physics talk, or whatever. So why should a modernist accept the language of the postmodernist about knowledge? The postmodernist cannot consistently say, "Because that's how knowledge is!" He cannot, even though he clearly intends just that. He cannot officially deal with objective essences. The modernist can at least consistently affirm that he is stating what knowledge really is, even if he turns out to be wrong. The postmodernist can only say: "We find it works best for us to talk about knowledge in our way."
Finally, postmodernism is actually a return to the authority of social practice as the basis for all critique, which means that social practice in general cannot be subject to critique. This is abundantly clear from, for example, Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature as well as Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. Such ancient precepts as "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Ex. 23:2) can be applied in specific cases, but postmodernism hardly leaves you a logical leg to stand on to oppose "professional practice," much less the spirit of the age.