Modernism, postmodernism and then what?

January 6, 2012 § 2 Comments


English: Statue of Immanuel Kant in Kaliningra...

Immanuel Kant

At the end of my essay ‘How The West Was Lost’ on the disappearance of Christianity from the West I propose a few recommendations for the way theology should move forward. Christian theology, I argue, has not been able to stem the tide of secularization and has not been able to adequately answer and change the post-Enlightenment worldview in which knowing is located in the autonomous human subject. This is not because theology has been done badly. In fact, the 19th and 20th centuries have seen a vast array of theological approaches to deal with the new situation. Rather, as belief systems, which theological constructs are (together with things like scientific paradigms, building skills, etc.) they are unable to counter the deeply ingrained assumptions inherent in modernism as a worldview. Worldviews dictate belief systems and use them for justification. Belief systems will rarely challenge worldviews, since the worldview’s assumption are established a priori. They are not up for debate. Though postmodernism critiques modernism, it still works from the basic assumption of knowing located in the human subject, However, instead of being positive about the outcome it is now rather pessimistic of the possibility of arriving at true knowledge. Christian thought, therefore, will need to move beyond postmodernity to provide an alternative to both modernity and postmodernity. This is short is what my essay is about. Though my essay does not address how we should be going about this, it ends with a few recommendation. I present them here as they are:

What is needed is an overtrow of the modernistic/postmodern worldview. It needs to become part of the ultimate commitments of people in the West that modernist epistemology is not only doomed to fail (as postmodernism seems to conclude), but that it needs to be replaced by a new epistemology that is located outside of the human subject. It is hard to imagine how such a change would ever come about. Neither integrative nor antithetical responses in theology have been able to bring this about. As we have seen, this is largely because these theologies as belief-systems are not equipped to deal with the towering influence of  a worldview. Rather belief systems are derived from the assumptions of these worldviews and aid their explanatory power. Yet this is the task that theology has in view:

1. It is not the task of theologians to change the worldview of a culture but the task of the church to witness to the risen Christ. Of course, these two do not have to mutually exclude one another. It could be imagined that the task of theology is subsumed under the task of the church, but it needs to be consciously done so. That is, the theologian, needs to be first and foremost a Christian, who, as member of her church community, testifies to the hope that is inside her: the new life of God in Christ through the Spirit. Only on such a basis can the theologian commit herself wholeheartedly to the task of constructing a theology for such a time as this. Theology needs to be conceived of as flowing out of the mission Dei, adapted for the particular context the church find the world in today.

2. The quest of the Enlightenment can be described as one for epistemological certainty. It is assumed that such a quest is both noble and attainable. As theologians we should ask whether such is the case, that is: does epistemological certainly find itself comfortable in the company of faith and has it been given to humanity to arrive at such a priviledged and autonomous position? The answer is no. Though faith and knowledge do not exclude each other, faith and absolute certainty are opposed to each other. Certainty strives for autonomy from the divine and locates the epistemological powers in the human subject. Faith on the other hand, thrives by independence on God and exults in the emphasis on human inability. Our true nature as humans who are image bearers of God is to be dependent upon God. Though this dependence is valid in moral respect it holds true in all areas of life. It is the Spirit that brings to life and we live as long as the life of the Spirit is in us. We should therefore be willing to develop and embrace a model of openness and ambiguity. We do not need to know everything, but walk in faith by the light that we have received in the knowledge that our very cognitive abilities are a gift from our Creator. We may begin this liberation of ‘the Church from Western Cultural Captivity’ by listening to non-Western voices from within Christianity that do not carry the burden of a modernist past.

3. But there is more.  For too long has theology attempted to be either intellectually relevant or theologically correct. This has often been the sole goal of theology. Relevance can be seen as emphasized in the integrative approaches, while correctness is very much the drive in the antithetical approaches. These two approaches correspond to the vertical (correctness, conservatism) and the horizontal (relevance, liberalism) dimensions of theology and Christian life. Intellectual relevance should be met by existential relevance. We should develop a model of vertical horizontalism in which theology and praxis go hand in hand, where theology accommodates the horizontal concern of speaking after God and the vertical of actually doing what Jesus told us to do. Even without solving the riddle of Enlightenment challenges we can say the following. Both vertical and horizontal need to be kept in balance: metaphysically (epistemologically, religious and rational knowledge need to be integrated) and practically (relationship with God and world need to be in balance). The latter imbalance is the result of inability to solve the former. Evangelical theology has yet to bring these two together in an integrated theology. A church that actually practices what it preaches and that has the theology to back it up, will go a long way to be heard. It would be a great thing if this would contribute to an elimination of the liberal-evangelical divide. Philip Clayton suggests that a Spirit infused postmodern pragmatic idealism might lead to a new progressive Christianity.

4. So one way forward to go beyond the Enlightenment is to show anomalies in its worldview. Postmodernism does that, but only to an extent. While showing that the human subject cannot be the source of objective knowledge it merely states the problem but does not provide a solution. The need for a new epistemological entry point to reality needs to be emphasized in order to escape nihilism and relativism as postmodernism does. I would suggest we need to develop a theological epistemology that locates knowing in the Spirit. The source of knowledge and adjudication of truth need an origin outside of ourselves. If we don’t manage to achieve this, we are lost. Lost as a civilization, lost as humans in that we lose our humanity. We therefore need a metaphysical framework that allows for such a model. This is essentially an argument for God. A divine being is necessary for humans to function as human beings epistemologically and even morally. We need a renewed theory of divine immanence to get us beyond postmodernism’s dead end. We need to re-establish a connection between epistemology and pneumatology. A pneumatological epistemology can only be advanced by Christianity for it has the toolbox to do so. It maintains that divine revelation is possible. It has a trinity to carefully balance divine transcendence and immanence. And, lastly, it provides grace flowing from the throne of God, i.e. God cares about us and reaches out to humanity. In First Theology VanHoozer advances the idea that in hermeneutics we need to return from general to special hermeneutics not just in the reading of Scripture but in all reading. He believes that meaning is only possible when it is mediated by the Spirit of God. He also suggests a new approach to the hermenutics of Scripture in which Scripture is seen as a set of divine speech acts that come to us in a trinitarian way. I think that along the same line we need to start thinking about epistemology. We can know (and I literally mean knowing in general) only through the graceful work of the Spirit. This concept is close to what in Reformed theology is called common grace. The Spirit allows us to breath, to live, to communicate, and to know. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of meaning as well as cognitive acquisition. Now more than ever, with the postmodern conclusion of the failure of the Enlightenment’s epistemological project, does the Church have the opportunity to get this message across.

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§ 2 Responses to Modernism, postmodernism and then what?

  • Dave M says:

    “We may begin this liberation of ‘the Church from Western Cultural Captivity’ by listening to non-Western voices from within Christianity that do not carry the burden of a modernist past.”

    A question: As much as I welcome the reading of sources outside of the Western tradition – and I certainly do – I can’t escape the fact that I am informed, both explicitly and implicitly, by certain theological traditions within Western Christianity that have formed me. Certainly, in some ways these traditions have formed me in ways that are more “culture” than “Christian” and it’s very helpful to read sources from outside of that trajectory to shed light on that.

    But I think a larger problem is that no one reads – anything. There are lots of theologians who are within the Western tradition but who can’t talk intelligently about the leading lights within that tradition. Most people who don’t have some formal theological training will avoid theological reading all together. I think that presents pastors and theological educators with a conundrum that I haven’t figured out how to work with at this point.

    • Josh says:

      You are absolutely right. Philip Clayton addresses this to some extent in his ‘Transforming Christian Theology’ (which I haven’t read, only skimmed). I would like to add, that I am deeply impressed, after engaging post-Enlightenment theologians, with their profundity, analysis, and creativity. Of course my point is that we should investigate how others, not burdened by the legacy of the Enlightenment, integrate natural and supernatural and what they do with epistemology.

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