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What the Heck Is Wrong With Systems, Anyway? Part 4: Postmodern Christians?

November 15, 2013

In my last post, I took a satirical look at the postmodern philosophers who have been a large influence on the “system-haters.” In this more serious post, I will point out some of the problematic aspects of the relationship between Christianity and postmodern philosophy.

The last post spent a considerable amount of time making fun of how esoteric the French Deconstructionists were. This is an easy joke to make, but their obscurity is also a stumbling block to many interpreters. Put simply: Postmodern philosophy is very hard to understand. This in itself is not problematic; the problem comes when these postmodern ideas start being watered down and disseminated.

A typical “system-hater” might know Derrida from John Caputo. However, reading Caputo on Derrida is not the same as reading Derrida–something is lost in interpretation. And reading Tony Jones on Caputo on Derrida gives even a fainter trace of Derrida’s original ideas. The flow of information goes something like this:

Foucault: “We must therefore reevaluate the meanings assigned to Tuke’s work: liberation of the insane, abolition of constraint, constitution of a human milieu–these are only justifications.” (The Foucault Reader, 145)

Professor: “Foucault’s sociological work focused on the way that society’s discourses affected the marginalized.”

Airy-Voiced Chapel Speaker at a Midwestern Christian Liberal Arts College:”The marginalized…”

The danger of misinterpreting postmodernism are manifold. In his excellent book Graven Ideologies, Bruce Ellis Benson has pointed out some fundamental errors that people have made in interpreting Derrida, some of which were noted by Derrida himself.  For example, Benson notes that Derrida’s claim “there is nothing outside the text” has been interpreted as an affirmation of “the belief that what we call ‘the world’ is merely a construct of our minds” (129). However, Derrida himself attacks this interpretation. Benson writes,

Consider Derrida’s own gloss of that statement: “‘There is nothing outside the text’ means nothing else [but]: there is nothing outside context.” (136). He goes on to criticize anyone who would read this phrase as implying that “all referents are suspended, denied, or enclosed in a book” as “naive” (148). (Benson 129)

Or take another one of Derrida’s supposedly monstrous claims: “There is ‘no center which arrests and grounds the play’ (WD 289)” (Benson 129). R.V. Young has read Derrida’s anti-metaphysical bent as a direct attack upon God–metaphysics sneaks God in the back door, so it has to be destroyed. I think there is some validity to Young’s reading, but Derrida himself would contest this reading.

As Derrida puts it, the characterization of the deconstructionist as “skeptic-relativist-nihilist” is ‘”false (that’s right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposed a bad (that’s right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine” (146). (Benson 131).

A philosophy professor like Benson who has the leisure to read Limited, inc. is able to see through these bad readings of Derrida. Someone who isn’t inclined to closely read Derrida (or Benson), on the other hand, runs the risk of creatively misinterpreting his work. Derrida’s idea that “there is no center” might be transmogrified into a defense of panentheism. A “false and feeble” reading of Of Grammatology or Writing and Differance could lead to false and feeble readings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Of course, the problem isn’t reading Derrida, but in failing to understand him. But when it comes to misinterpreting Derrida’s words, the possibilities are endless–which is a hermeneutic route Derrida wouldn’t approve of.

Another problematic aspect of Christianity’s engagement with postmodernism is the uncritical, un-suspicious attitude that some Christians have when reading postmodern philosophy. As Brian Mattson pointed out, the first people we should be deconstructing are Derrida and Foucault–they certainly weren’t operating from a Christian viewpoint. Although I can’t completely endorse R.V. Young’s “Derrida vs. God” narrative in At War With The Word, I can’t totally adopt John Caputo’s view of Derrida as a quasi saint in Philosophy and Theology (Both are very good books, by the way). To paraphrase Doug Wilson, we need to study postmodern philosophers like Wellington studied Napoleon, not like Lydia studied Wickham.

Related to that is the problem of Christians rushing to embrace postmodernists too eagerly. The sense that I get from reading some Christian philosophers is that “the jig is up” for traditional Christianity: Heidegger, Derrida, et al, have destroyed metaphysics and the old ways of understanding, and now we have to revise Christianity to make it “fit” all these new ways of doing philosophy. I’m not really clear how a Heideggerian or other framework will make Christianity better–after all, Heidegger was hardly operating from a Christian base. And why do we necessarily have to use a “postmodern” framework? Why not a Thomistic/Aristotelian one? Why not even a Platonist framework?

The danger is that postmodernism will become another Christian intellectual fad that takes an idea that the unbelieving world has come up with and then tried to square it with Christianity. It has happened many times. Think Christian Neoplatonism. Think “Muscular Christianity.” Think “Death of God” theology. Think of all those terrible Christian pop-punk bands from the early 2000s. We don’t want this to happen again.

There are problematic aspects to Christianity’s convergence with postmodernism. But “problematic” just means “having problems,” and problems presuppose solutions. I think that there is good in reading postmodern philosophy. But we must read carefully, discerningly, and (to a degree) dispassionately, being “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Postmodernism lies at the door; it’s desire is for us, but we should rule over it.

This concludes the main part of “What the Heck is Wrong With Systems, Anyway?” The series will continue–the next installment will look at Rob Bell–but I want to get back to doing some non-sequential posts on the blog.

Recommended Reading:

Philosophy and Theology by John Caputo. Good book: short, easy to read, sympathetic to Derrida.

At War With The Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education by R. V. Young, especially Chapter 2: “Deconstruction and the Fear and Loathing of Logos.” Young’s take on Derrida is very negative.

Graven Ideologies: Nietzche, Derrida, and Marion on Modern Idolatry by Bruce Ellis Benson, especially Chapter 5: “Deconstruction and Justice.” More favorable to Derrida than Young, but not quite as favorable as Caputo.

Of course, nothing beats reading the original texts.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2013 5:05 pm

    Hi Nick,

    This was rather surprising to me – almost seems as if there is some ‘original’ post-modernism and then, the popularized version, which may be based on an erroneous understanding of the fathers of this school of thought. I have tried to deal with Earl Creps’ book which tries to accommodate post-modern ideas into Christian missional living here:! and created the following table to compare post-modernism (as found in Earl’s books and some other resources I found on the subject) to biblical concepts:

    Common outlook, agreement Individualistic
    Absolute Relative
    Ability to know the truth, exclusivity Pluralism of opinions
    Revelation, reason Opinion
    Teaching, preaching Conversation
    Preservation Expansion
    Truth Point of view
    Unity Diversity
    Acceptance based on shared beliefs Acceptance despite contrary beliefs
    God’s (His-)story No metanarrative exists
    Principle Pragmatism, experiment

    So this may not reflect Derrida as much as what has become of post-modernism as Christians have tried to contextualize it, or as it was popularized by others. Do you think this more or less represents a fair comparison, and would you then agree with the conclusion that the two concepts are not compatible, and consequently, Christians should take a hostile stand vis-a-vis post-modernism (as in Wellington vs Napoleon)?

    Also, John Feinberg claims to deal with the issue exhaustively in his rather large volume (which I only read the intro of) entitled, “Can You Believe It’s True? Christian Apologetics in a Modern & Postmodern Era” – have you come across it and would you recommend it as well for Christians grappling with the subject?

    Finally, how important do you deem post-modernism in today’s culture (and the coming years)? Will it remain a minority idea, will it become mainstream, has it already impacted society so much that it must be reckoned with or can we as Christians allow ourselves to ignore it since it will go away all by itself?

  2. November 15, 2013 5:09 pm

    Sorry, as an engineer, I like tables but the blog does not and took out the tabs. Trying again:

    Common outlook, agreement Individualistic
    Absolute Relative
    Ability to know the truth, exclusivity Pluralism of opinions
    Revelation, reason Opinion
    Teaching, preaching Conversation
    Preservation Expansion
    Truth Point of view
    Unity Diversity
    Acceptance based on shared beliefs Acceptance despite contrary beliefs
    God’s (His-)story No metanarrative exists
    Principle Pragmatism, experiment

  3. November 15, 2013 5:13 pm

    Maybe underline works? I should add these may simply be different emphases = Christians would emphasize unity and strive for a maximum of it, whereas post
    -moderns would encourage diversity without striving for unity (in opinion).

    Common outlook, agreement__________Individualistic
    Ability to know the truth, exclusivity_____Pluralism of opinions
    Revelation, reason__________________Opinion
    Teaching, preaching_________________Conversation
    Truth_____________________________Point of view
    Acceptance based on shared beliefs____Acceptance despite contrary beliefs
    God’s (His-)story___________________No metanarrative exists
    Principle__________________________Pragmatism, experiment

    • November 17, 2013 10:25 pm

      I think that the table that you have set out is a fair comparison of “pop” postmodernism versus some aspects of Christianity. Many postmodern philosophers would consider the binaries that you just set up to be “collapsible”–in other words, they could show an example of how the either/or choice they set up is a false dillemma. For example, Michael Horton points out that while Lyotard characterized postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives,” Merrold Westphal defends Christianity from that charge by showing that it is not a “metanarrative” but a “meganarrative”–it doesn’t locate truth in some timeless, a-historical, a-contextual setting, but in the historical, incarnational actions of God and his son. That’s just one example, there are many more. Suffice it to say that the “pop” postmodernism is usually less subtle and and more antagonistic to Christianity than the real stuff.
      Should we be hostile to postmodernism? I think we should be reasonably suspicious of any ideas not based on a Biblical ground motive without automatically dismissing them. Discernment is key. Again, I think many of the binaries set up in the chart are collapsible. The antagonism between the ideas sometimes seems to be a creation of “postmoderns” themselves rather than anything inherent in the ideas. For example, for the Christian, some things are absolute and others are relative. It is the role of discernment to find out which is which. Also, I think that many “postmodern” people are less relativistic than Christians think they are. Young, intelligent, urban atheists aren’t typically going to say that what you think about evolution or gay rights is “just your opinion.” Does this address your question, or did I totally miss the mark?
      I have not read the Feinberg book, although it looks interesting.
      How would I deem postmodernity’s role in the culture? It depends on what you mean by postmodernity–whether you mean the “pop” version of it, or Derrida, etc. I don’t think the influence of postmodern philosophy can be denied in the philosophical realm. I think that the watered-down versions of it have been imbibed (especially in evangelical culture) so much that they become unthinking assumptions or even emotions–Derrida’s “there is no center” eventually becomes “let it all hang out, dude.” But you would probably have to be more specific in what you mean by “postmodernism” for me to give a satisfactory answer.

      • November 18, 2013 1:38 am

        Thanks Nick – so it seems there really are versions, which does not make any conversation easier 🙂
        Yes, it’s a bit of that imbibing of pop-post-modernism that I was criticizing in my review. I also found parallels between PM and Christianity, such as the realization that technology and progress cannot solve the world’s problems – which Christians always knew (or should have known) and which post-moderns emphasize to oppose modernism. Yet, that tech-modernism and belief in progress is still present everywhere, or post-moderns would have to not go to the doctor or refuse giving money for cancer research. We all know that we can improve the world to a certain extent at least, even if it will never be paradise down here. I just wondered if post-modernism will become so important that we need to adapt all our liturgy and apologetics if we want to still be around in 25 years or if it might be a fad. Definitely, the ‘that’s your opinion’ part has become fairly mainstream (even in policy-making – at least in Brussels), even if it won’t always come up in each discussion.

  4. Troy Lizenby permalink
    November 16, 2013 2:30 pm

    Thanks Nick for another thought-provoking entry. I particularly like Peter Leithart’s view of postmodernism as a “revenge of the vapors on modernism”. I also appreciated your “Postmodernism lies at the door; it’s desire is for us, but we should rule over it.” John Steinbeck struggles over the translation of that verse from Genesis in East of Eden and finally comes up with ‘but thou mayest rule over it’. I am considering reading carefully some Heidegger as reportedly he lays waste some of the assumptions of modernism.

    • November 17, 2013 10:27 pm

      Thanks, Troy.
      I myself have not read Heidegger. His book “Being and Time” is one of the most intimidating works in all of philosophy. I have heard that he breaks down many of the false idols of modern thought–if that is true, then Christians can stand by him in that respect, but I haven’t read him yet, so I can’t make any conclusive statements.

  5. January 21, 2015 1:53 am

    Just saw this, which may be helpful (in case you hadn’t seen):


  1. What the Heck Is Wrong With Systems, Anyway? Part 4: Postmodern Christians? |

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