Back to Postmodernism: Dogma Without Dogmatism

A little while ago I was writing about James K. A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? and I’m back to finish it off – not with a final review of the book, however (overall it was a great introduction to postmodernism and the positive aspects for the church, but turns into a big plug for Smith’s Radical Orthodoxy posse – John Millbank, Graham Ward, Catherine Pickstock, etc.) but with a reflection on what postmodernism means for epistemology (or the theory of knowledge), the Church, and hermeneutics.

When Steven Sukkau reflected on his time in college, he said “I have no more statements to make, only questions.”  Such a statement works as a comment on postmodernism and the effect it has had on our world.  Derrida’s insistence that we must interpret reality itself, and that we cannot find the original intention or meaning of an ancient text like the Bible, makes us pause before we make any sweeping dogmatic statements.  Lyotard’s suspicion of metanarratives reminds us just how arrogant it is to have an answer for everything, and particularly because we actually don’t have answers for everything.  Foucault’s statement that power is knowledge reminds us that there are many forces that form what we consider to be truth or knowledge, and we need to acknowledge those forces and their impact on the way we see the world – and recognize that those forces are different, depending on where and who we are.

In a phrase, if it can actually be reduced to a phrase, postmodernism is a critique, suspicion, or rejection of modernity and its claims.  Modern Hermeneutics insists that we can access the original author of a book of the Bible, and once we know who that author is and what his agenda is, we can understand the true meaning of the text.  In the equation AUTHOR –> TEXT <– READER, modernists say that meaning is entirely at the Author end.  This led to the quest for the historical author of every book of the Bible, and the debacle of the JEDP (Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priest), in which critics would cut up sections of the Old Testament (and sometimes even individual sentences) and ascribe different parts of it to different supposed authors (J,E,D, or P) who can each be identified by supposedly distinctive terminology or content.  In the end, this approach butchered the Bible beyond recognition and suggested that its true meaning is only known to those scholars who could see it in its separated form (now if only those scholars could agree on what that form was, or what meaning could come from it!).  As ridiculous as this sounds to people who just read the Bible as it is, remember that when a modernist comes up with a metanarrative, an answer to all questions like this, it quickly becomes so-called “self-evident”: there was a time (about forty years ago) when this was not only unchallenged, but assumed to be self-evident to all.  It was how things were done, because obviously that’s how the Bible works.

Then, in the 1950’s, this began to be challenged by a few different schools of epistemology and literary theory.  People started noticing that this really isn’t the way people think, or read, or write, and probably never did.  A transition began, away from the modernist thoughts about knowledge and communication, and focus moved from the Author in the equation to the text.  While it takes the author into account, New Criticism suggests that the text itself is the carrier of meaning, and so if we can’t know the author it doesn’t really matter.  The text itself not only carries the meaning the author intended, but can actually carry more meaning than the author ever dreamed.  Take, for example, the so-called Proto-evangelion (or proto-gospel) in Genesis 3:15 – when God says of humans and the serpent “You will strike his heel and he will crush your head” (paraphrased).  Christians today quite easily see Jesus’ victory over Satan in that passage, and that is precisely how John sees it in Revelation as well (I think it’s Rev. 12 – the passage about the dragon and the woman and the child).  Did the writer of Genesis, whoever it was, really have that in mind?  Who knows?  It’s pretty unlikely, particularly because Genesis doesn’t mention its writer having ecstatic visions of the future.

Deconstruction took it even further than the New Criticism, by saying that the original author is not only unimportant, but that it is actually impossible to figure out what he actually meant by anything as long as he’s not around to clarify (and maybe not even then!).  Derrida puts meaning entirely on the side of the Reader: our understanding of a text comes entirely from what we bring to the text, our presuppositions or preunderstandings.  Basically, we see in the text whatever we want to see, or whatever we’re conditioned to see, rather than what was intended by the original author or even what is actually present there.  I think Derrida’s totally right, in that people do that all the time.  Barth said that we don’t read the Bible, the Bible reads us: our interpretations of the Bible usually say more about our own worldview and presuppositions than it does about reality.  That being said, I disagree that we cannot actually find the intended meaning of the original author, or even the meaning contained within the text itself (if indeed they differ from one another); but I think that this search for meaning in the text is made more fruitful and authentic when we recognize that what we bring with us has a major effect on what we find there.

So in Hermeneutics, as in culture and practice, we should take postmodernism in moderation.  Yes, each person will see the truth a little bit differently, but that doesn’t mean that truth is relative.  Yes, we each bring presuppositions to the text that do not match the worldview of the original author, and yes language is limited, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find the true meaning of something (or close enough to make sense).  We don’t have to throw doctrine out the window, and the Bible is still reliable and true!  But what we can’t do anymore is claim certainty apart from faith – and who ever thought Christians would try to do so in the first place?

At a certain point, the Church became so convinced of the modernist metanarrative that says that we can actually know everything that we, like modern scientists and political/social theorists (e.g. Marxists, Capitalists, etc.) became arrogant enough to say that we know something beyond a shadow of a doubt.  We not only said that about things, but we became convinced that for our entire worldview to make sense we had to say that…about everything.  If one little part of a doctrine was vague, it was a hole in our theory, and we were afraid that such holes would be exploited by combative atheists or those damned evolutionists, or whoever.  If ever there was something that we couldn’t prove, we’d say “that’s why we need faith” – which gave the impression that faith is for things that don’t make any sense, that aren’t logical, or that aren’t real.

Postmodernism reminds us that all knowledge requires faith – whether it’s reasonable, logical, or not.  Whether it’s empirically proven or not.  Everything we know, we take on faith AND evidence, and there’s plenty of both of those in the Bible.  We don’t have to say that we can’t know anything, but we can be comfortable with not knowing everything, and that changes everything.  I’m not a know-it-all, but I’ve got plenty of reasons to believe in Jesus Christ as my saviour and the Son of God; anything more than that is probably deceiving myself, and it probably won’t deceive anyone else.  I don’t need omniscient, objective knowledge to say that I know something, but I can’t say beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m right either, and that makes me more humble.  Thank God for that!

4 thoughts on “Back to Postmodernism: Dogma Without Dogmatism

  1. thanks for this Jeff. today is the final class for Philosophy of Religion. I’m having a former student, Spencer Boersma come in to discuss Postmodern Philosophy in relation to religion. I have always had a love-hate relationship with Postmodernism. My obsession with Radical Orthodoxy since my Cambridge days has had me read through alomst all of Smith’s work and I need to read this but your posts have given me a taste until I finish my thesis. For me the problem with Postmodern Philosophy is basically a “So what?” … after everyone admits that we all interpret things, and even reason requires faith (and faith requires reason) … do we really get much else? I feel like the attach on ‘modernism’ is a little overwrought as we all go back to relying on science and logic to help us figure out how to read the physical world, our Culture, and the Bible. It appears that Hypermodernity is already starting to prevail over postmodernism in popular consciousness, and all our general world view has gotten from it is an anchor for thier ethical and epistemological Relativism. I know that is perhaps a bit pessimistic, but after learning about the hermeneutical nature of all knowledge and agreeing with the need to always have an eye open for the plight of the Other in ethics, I find a lot of postmodernism a pile of word games and ‘i’m smarter than you’ … sure I like word games and smart people but it can get a bit pretentious.

    Wow, did I just admit to all that … I’m getting old.

    Now onto the next philosophical stop … Altermodernism.

    • Great points!

      I hear you on the “so what” part of it. I feel like the greatest thing we’ve gained from postmodernity is a greater humility about our beliefs, as well as a level playing field where we can present them (if the scientific metanarrative really has been dethroned, which is open for debate). Unfortunately, when these notions filter down to the mainstream, too often it’s in the form of relativism, which really isn’t necessary from postmodernism but seems to become its common expression.

      What I like about Smith’s perspective in this book is that he ties it to the practices of the Church – really, his view of postmodernity and what it offers the Church boils down to a plug for Radical Orthodoxy. I’m not 100% on the RO bandwagon, but I like the embodied theology aspect of it all. He uses postmodernism to justify practices and rituals that embody Christ in our worship and our very existence as the Church, and I certainly can’t argue with that. Perhaps it is not so much embracing postmodernism as appropriating the aspects of it that work and using them to proclaim Christ, which strikes me as precisely what the Church should be doing in every era. Perhaps if we had only embraced certain aspects of modernism we wouldn’t have the same disfunctions we do today; let us not jump into postmodernism headfirst and fall into all of the traps and fallacies and distractions that come with it.

  2. Based on my reading of this blogpost I have determined that there were four different authors, each adding and potentially redacting ideologically dangerous ideas over a span of many years. Surely this did not originate from this hypothetical (and surely metaphorical) “Jeff,” but perhaps the first writings originated in a community of people following his teachings. They are the J authors.
    But I can see some contradictory references too, so they must have come from a later community that seemed more interested in Church history and less about postmodernity, so they must have been responsible for phrases like “Church became so convinced” and “modern scientists and political/social theorists (e.g. Marxists, Capitalists, etc.)” So I shall call them the E authors.
    Thirdly there is the strain that is concerned with the inner Christian life–something that the history focused E author and the original J author didn’t consider, seeing as the internalization of the experience of some sort of “divine” is a relatively new phenomena. So where it says “I don’t need omniscient, objective knowledge to say that I know something, but I can’t say beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m right either, and that makes me more humble. Thank God for that!” and, indeed, wherever there is a reference to the selfish “I” we can attribute that to one pious editor, F1.
    Lastly there must have been a final compiler who had no invested interest in the text, but stitched the whole thing together. This editor shall be known as F2.

    So it seems that this blog post was authored by a J.E.F.F

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