Thursday, June 4, 2009

Torn between two words of counsel regarding postmodernism

"Insofar as the church (and mutatis mutandis, Christian theology and philosophy) has bought into key assumptions of modernity;

And insofar as these assumptions (for instance, regarding the nature of freedom, the model of the human person, the requirements for what counts as 'rational' or 'true,' or what can be admitted to the 'public' sphere of political or academic discourse) represent a rejection of biblical wisdom and the Christian theological heritage;

And insofar as postmodernism articulates a critique of just these assumptions;

Then the postmodern critique of modernity is something to be affirmed by Christians, not because it is postmodern, but because the postmodern critique of modernity can be a wake-up call for Christians to see their complicity with modernity, the inconsistency of this with a more integral understanding of discipleship, and thus actually be an occasion to retrieve ancient and premodern theological sources and litrugical practices with new eyes, as it were."
(James K. A. Smith, "The Logic of Incarnation: Towards a Catholic Postmodernism," in The Logic of Incarnation, [Wipf and Stock, 2009], 5-6.)

"Should Christians utilize postmodernist insights from time to time as they find helpful? I don't believe they should, and to see why, consider Nazi ideology. Surely, some aspects of Nazi thought--for example, a commitment to a strong national defense and to solid education for youth--are correct and appropriate. But for two reasons, it would be wrong to say that one was neutral or even favorable toward Nazi thought, rejecting its problems and embracing its advantages. First, Nazi thought is so horrible and its overall impact so harmful that its bad features far outweigh whatever relatively trivial advantages it offers. Thus, such an attitude is inappropriate toward Nazi thought. Second, neither of the advantages just cited (strong national defense and solid education) requires Nazi ideology for its justification.

The same points apply to postmodernism. Its harm to the cause of Christ and human flourishing far outweigh any advantages that may accrue to it, and whatever those advantages are, they do not require postmodernism for their justification...

...[P]ostmodernism is a form of intellectual pacifism that, at the end of the day, recommends backgammon while the barbarians are at the gate...However comforting it may be, postmodernism is the cure that kills the patient...As followers of the Lord Jesus, the postmodern option is a concession to our culture that goes too far, however well-intentioned it is. We can and must do better than this if we are to be up to the task of responding to the crisis of our age."
(J. P. Moreland, The Kingdom Triangle, [Zondervan, 2007], 86-87, 88.)

I have been wrestling with these two opinions existentially for some time now. On the one hand, I think the task at hand should be theological construction yet the insights provided by the acute spiral of hermeneutical suspicion, a spiral that is largely deconstructive to the point of being leery of the very possibility of theological construction, are hard to shrug off simply because one is anxious to get on with constructing in a context of crisis. Perhaps a way out of this dilemma is to say that there is a time and place for both construction and deconstruction depending on one's existential and cultural location. If it took some of the excesses of postmodernism to draw believers' attention to particular debilitating weaknesses in contemporary expressions of faith, what's so irresponsible about someone like Smith coming out and saying, "This is what my exposure to postmodernism has taught me"?