By popular demand, here’s the guts of what I said in my seminar on postmodernism…
If your university experience is anything like mine was, then lots of what postmodernists say can feel unsettling — if not downright threatening. Especially when it comes to their insistence on the limits of human knowing.
The modernist, so we are told, claimed unmediated access to absolute truth (usually through reason) as well as universally-binding knowledge about (and thus mastery over) … well, everything. The postmodernist: (a) doubts that such universally-binding knowledge — or unmediated access to reality — is available and (b) suspects that those claiming it are probably feathering their own nests.
All this can be threatening — particularly when flung with animus against Christianity. However, I want to suggest that Christians have nothing to fear from postmodernism.
I can think of at least three reasons why:
- Fear is a remarkably unproductive conversation-strategy. It tends to manifest itself either in conflict-avoidance or in a kind of ‘aggressive defensiveness’. (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve waded into a conversation that has tilted towards the postmodern with a demonstration of the incoherence of relativism or something like that. And you know what? It’s almost never convinced anyone!) The trouble is that when you follow the path of fear it’s difficult to learn anything about what the person who’s espousing postmodern — or postmodern-sounding — ideas means by them or what’s motivating them. Which also makes it hard to love that person.
- Lots of what postmodernism says should come as no surprise to us. Since when was the gospel message about giving us unmediated access to reality through reason or universal mastery through knowledge? Rather, it’s about us relinquishing our pretensions to precisely these sorts of things, putting our trust in Jesus, and repenting of our tendency to pander to self-interest. Instead of running and hiding or making excuses, we need to own up and ask for help to do better.
- I’m convinced that the postmodern critique moves out of a deep ethical intuition that Jesus alone satisfies. Postmodernism is shot through with a profound yearning for justice — explicitly so in Levinas and the later Derrida. But it struggles to marry this with its inherent suspicion of claims to universality or absolute truth (which it sees as disguised forms of the relative and partial). And here’s where the message of the Crucified Messiah goes one better. Jesus turned His back on securing worldly influence and entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly, becoming the paradigm for us as we take up our cross and follow Him.