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GOTT-November 11, 2005

Christianity and Postmodernism I: Reply to McLaren

As Steve Bush pointed out here at Think Tank, a few weeks ago I wrote a post over at Certain Doubts called “Characterizing a Fogbank: What Is Postmodernism and Why Do I Take Such a Dim View of it?”.  I think Steve accurately describes that post of mine as a “criticism of postmodernism from the point of view of an analytic philosopher.”  Steve also writes, “Keith mentions his concerns about the reception of postmodern theory in Christian circles with a brief treatment of Brian McLaren at the end of his post.”  Well, as Steve knows, I do have some concerns here, and in the final section of my post, I do mention McLaren (who was kind enough to leave a very gracious comment).  But in that post, I don’t get into my concerns about the reception of postmodernism in some Christian Circles, and I was only using McLaren as an example of someone who is explicit about our having recently gone through a major transition between historical periods.  (This is not a complaint about Steve: Since he knows I have such concerns, it was easy – and harmless – for him to take me as expressing them in the post.)  So, as a bit of a follow-up, I will here briefly express those concerns of mine about the reception of postmodern theory in Christian circles, contrasting my point of view with McLaren’s, responding to his comment and also to a piece he wrote a couple of years ago, but which I have only very recently (in fact, only today!) found:“Why I still use the word Postmodern.”

As one might guess, I’m less bullish than McLaren is about Christians characterizing themselves as “postmodern.”  But I hope that those who are now fearing that I’m about to unleash a typical anti-pomo-Christianity rant will be pleasantly surprised to find that nothing like that is about to follow.  I don’t mean to be so much “fighting it out” with Brian over this difference between us as just trying to get my alternative view expressed and related to his.  So here I’ll be explaining why I think it’s inadvisable for various Christians to characterize themselves as postmoderns.  In Part II, which I hope to post soon, I’ll explain why I am not inclined to unleash a rant here – why I am not so alarmed as many “traditionalists” seem to be about the phenomenon of Christians characterizing themselves as postmodern. . .

I’ll use these abbreviations for ease of reference:
[ML-a]: Brian’s ’03 post, “Why I still use the word Postmodern”
[ML-b]: Brian’s comment on [DR]
[DR]: my 10/23/05 post, “Characterizing a Fogbank: What Is Postmodernism and Why Do I Take Such a Dim View of it?”

When Brian’s comment [ML-b] came in, it was getting a bit late for me (I think the times listed at CD are central, and I’m on the East Coast, an hour later), so I just registered my appreciation for it (comment #53, directly below Brian’s), and went to bed, intending to respond later.  Part of the reason I didn’t respond until now is that I largely agreed with what Brian wrote in his comment.  In fact, I found much of it quite helpful and insightful.

[DR] was primarily about postmodernism as an intellectual movement in various of the humanities.  Only in the brief final section (the one in which Brian was mentioned) did I get at all into pomo as a cultural phenomenon.  Regarding postmodernism as an intellectual movement, Brian writes:

Second, I’d make a distinction between postmodernism as a philosophical movement and postmodernity as a cultural phenomenon. I assume Keith is right or largely right in his diagnoses of the weakness of much postmodern philosophical thought in today’s academy, although he may miss the small baby in the large bath.

So, on the main issue I was addressing, there’s no big dispute between us.  I don’t want to read too much into this statement of Brian’s.  When Brian writes that he assumes that I’m “right or largely right,” I don’t take him to be expressing any settled opinion, but just to be expressing that he thinks that my evaluation of “postmodern philosophical thought in today’s academy” may be close to right, and that he in any case does not wish to dispute it.

It may be that if we really got specific about our evaluations, it would turn out that Brian and I do disagree to at least some extent about the exact size and nature of the small baby involved.  In fact, based on what Brian goes on to write in the remainder of [ML-b], I’m pretty confident that there would be such a difference.  And it’s likely that this difference, however slight, in our assessments of postmodernism in the academy is a part of what’s behind the differences we have in how advisable we think it is for Christians to characterize themselves in terms of postmodernism.  For my part, it is in part because I (like many other philosophers) think of postmodernism as such a bankrupt intellectual movement that I think it is unwise to identify with it.  But this does not appear to be a big difference between Brian and me.

So, on to “postmodernity as a cultural phenomenon”…

Brian writes (third-to-last paragraph of [ML-b]):

Some (not all) Christian ministers like me do have reason to believe that something significant is afoot. Consider the decline in church attendance and active Christian practice in Europe, for example (well documented by Philip Jenkins in “The Next Christendom”), or the growth of the Religious Right in America, along with quite significant dropout rates in church attendance among young adults.

I certainly don’t want to deny that there are significant cultural changes taking place – and that some of them are very important to the church.  And while I was expressing some skepticism about the magnitude of the changes, I don’t mean to be denying that they may be very important.  I’m just skeptical about their being so momentous as to mark such a major transition in human history.  I’ll paste here the relevant paragraphs from the last section of [DR]:

So far, I have been addressing postmodernism as an intellectual movement. I am also suspicious when people talk of postmodern times as a major period of history that we are now entering or have recently entered into. People ask about how we should approach such-and-such an issue “in our postmodern world,” Christian ministers discuss how to reach out to “postmodern” youth, etc.

Times change. Generations differ from their predecessors. I usually try to take the above kind of talk to be a mostly harmless way of referring to our current cultural situation, which, no doubt, is in some ways significantly different from what it was just a few years ago – just as the cultural situation of that time differed from that of a few more years earlier.

But there does seem to be an assumption built into (or at least hinted at by) a lot of such talk that an unusually major change has taken place some time in the fairly recent past – the transition from the modern to the postmodern period. A book I happen to have looked at recently is explicit about what I take to be implicit in a lot of such talk: A New Kind of Christian, a novel by the fairly popular “emergent” Christian writer, Brian McLaren. In the second chapter, one character (the to my thinking annoyingly know-it-all character, “Neo”) lays out a division of all of human history (and pre-history: the first period in question is the pre-historical) into five great periods, and explains that at about the year 2000, we made the transition between 4 and 5. Well, that makes the transition we’ve just undergone an immensely huge deal, I suppose.

I’d just like to here display my own skeptical sensibility by registering skepticism about our having recently gone through any such an immensely momentous transition. And if we happen to be entering such a transition period, I suspect that will be due to major technological advances, and the transition will have nothing to do with the “postmodern” thought that is to be found in our colleges and universities today. I think there is a tendency among many to overestimate the magnitude of significant differences between their own times and the times that immediately preceded them, and I suspect that any thought that we’ve just gone through such a major transition is an instance of this general tendency in action. (Then again, even when major transitions really are underway, there probably are foolish skeptics who deny that anything of the sort is transpiring, and I’m taking a risk of being one of those.)

(Having reproduced the above material, I’d like to take this opportunity to confess that my parenthetical remark about Brian’s character, Neo, constitutes a gratuitous pot-shot at Brian’s books – gratuitous in that it was unnecessary to the points I was making.  And I’d like to publicly apologize for taking that pot-shot.  It was because Brian’s comment was in response to someone (me!) that had just treated him so and that Brian otherwise didn’t know at all that I was so startled at the graciousness of Brian’s response.  And I should note that in response to my amateur literary criticism, in [ML-b] Brian wrote:

Fourth, a small point – Keith called my book a novel. As a former English major, I tried hard to lower people’s expectations for that book and its sequels by calling it “creative nonfiction,” not a novel. As Keith said, its characters are disappointing as literary creations. For all their weaknesses, I hope the fictional dialogue made my material more accessible for popular (i.e. nonacademic) readers, who were my primary audience.
And I can see how the format Brian chose allowed him to explore certain issues in an effective and easy-to-digest way.)

Anyway, back to the main point, and on to [ML-a].  Whether to take us to be in a transition between major periods of human history, of course, depends a lot on how one characterizes those periods.  And though I’m no expert on the history involved, I do have a significantly different view of it from what Brian expresses in [ML-a].  I start by ripping a couple of quick passages from Brian’s [ML-a] violently out of their context:

Postmodernity will more likely seek to integrate rationality with things beyond rationality, things like imagination, intuition, even faith. In fact, if the medieval era (the thesis, in a Hegelian progression) was seen as an era of faith, and the modern era (the antithesis, in the Hegelian sense) as an era of reason, we could expect the postmodern era to be a synthesis of faith and reason. . .

Medieval faith without modern reason didn’t work. But modern reason without faith didn’t work either. Maybe there’s an untried alternative that we can help to pioneer?

The above indicate the very basic structure of how Brian characterizes the eras in question, but these passages, ripped out of context, certainly do make Brian’s view appear more simple than it is.  Brian shows awareness of the fact that there’s a lot of complexity that such an account misses, explicitly warns against viewing culture as monolithic, and acknowledges that there are always cross-currents and counter-currents running through a culture.  (Do see [ML-a] itself for Brian’s account.)

But I don’t think this characterization will do even as a basic account that acknowledges that there are complexities that it misses.  When I think in basic/overly-simplified terms, I tend to think of the medieval era as the era of what Brian is hoping for in the postmodern age: the synthesis of faith and reason.  The teacher of my college survey class on medieval philosophy is responsible for this.  He loved medieval philosophy, and when asked to explain why, the first thing he would say is that he loved how so many of the great philosophers from the period paid so much explicit attention to how to integrate faith and reason.  For reasons well-known to students of these philosophers, we spent the most time discussing this in class when we studied Anselm and Aquinas, but it was a theme that popped up with almost every philosopher we looked at.  I may be focusing more on the intellectual culture (philosophers/theologians) than Brian is, but I don’t think that I could go for Brian’s basic characterization (medieval: faith; modern: reason; postmodern: integration of faith and reason) as an account of the general culture.  The general sense I picked up from my Reformed education (I was in schools of the Christian Reformed Church from third grade through college [Calvin College]), was that there was a greater emphasis on faith at the outset of the modern period (after the Reformation) and for quite a while after that than there was before.  So while I may share the hope that our immediate future will be one in which faith and reason are well integrated, if that were to happen, I couldn’t plug that into the grand historical story the way Brian does.

For many important matters, the differences here between Brian and me don’t matter much at all.  He perhaps sees a bit more value in postmodern academic thought than I do, but that’s not even clear, and it’s no big deal.  And while he doesn’t wish to dispute my evaluation of the value of that development in the academy, I certainly don’t dispute the sense that Brian and other Christian ministers have that “something is afoot” in the general culture – that the differences he’s sensing are real and significant, or that it’s vitally important for the church to respond to them well.   And I suspect we’d even largely agree on what are the best ways to respond.

But while the importance of the differences between us shouldn’t be overblown, they are not entirely unimportant, either.  For one thing, Brian clearly recognizes the importance of recovering important insights from Christian thinking of the past, and it’s in relating to the past that it’s likely to be important not to exaggerate – or, to be fair, to understate – differences that come between us and that past.

Posted by Keith DeRose in Cultural Theory | Permalink


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It’s good to keep the discussion going and I’m impressed that you responded in enemy territory—as it were. I’ve alerted those who follow my amateur-ish drivel with a post so they can follow here. Thanks for clarrifying.

The question that continues to bounce around in my head even after reading this post is: how are you convinced that there is no major change afoot in society at large? And a second is: how do you view the changes that you do acknowledge, fitting into history? Or, how do you see the phenomena described in dozens of books on the subject fitting in to history if they are not describing a significant cyclical change?


Posted by: bill | November 12, 2005 at 04:40 PM

how are you convinced that there is no major change afoot in society at large?

There may well be a significant change afoot, and I’m not even out to deny that there’s a major change afoot. But what I am skeptical about is that we’ve just come through an immensely huge transition in human history — one of the transitions between two of only five great eras in all of human history. Even there, I admit I may be wrong. But quite a bit of skepticism seems to me reasonable here.

I know preachers sense an important difference — especially when dealing with young people. I’m not denying they’re sensing something real and important — and something it is important for the church to respond to & respond to well. And it may even help to reach some people to believe and declare that the change here is of the immensely huge variety. But my suspicion is that this change is of the type that happens several times a century, not just a handful of times in all of human history. And in the long run, I suspect we’re better off not exaggerate the scale here.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | November 12, 2005 at 10:54 PM

While some anthropologist wouldn’t label themselves ‘postmodern’, I don’t know of anyone who calls him/herself ‘moden.’ In my field, naive objectivism and naive realism are over. Even realists need to acknowledge and deal with, among other things, social constructionism and perspectivalism in epistemology.

The rubber meets the road in my field in terms of linguistic-influenced postmoderns (word play, fluidity of reality, anti-realism) and Marxian-influence pomos. Marxians (and I am one) see that the industrial mode of production has given way to a predominantly information economy – what kinds of implications does that have for cultures and societies, and social justice concerns.

It’s a different pragmatism than the pastoral concerns, but those of us concerned for real-world social justice issues tend to use a Marxian framework to understand new class alignments and dislocations.

For me, it’s not as simple as deciding whether or not to label myself ‘pomo’ as a Christian. The vast majority of us who went through grad school in the 90s simply _are_ postmodern – it’s just a matter of what type.

Posted by: jenell | November 13, 2005 at 02:17 PM

“For one thing, Brian clearly recognizes the importance of recovering important insights from Christian thinking of the past, and it’s in relating to the past that it’s likely to be important not to exaggerate – or, to be fair, to understate – differences that come between us and that past.”

I certainly did not get this idea at all from hearing Brian last Monday in Seattle, nor reading his book Generous Orthodoxy.

In fact, I was appalled at his lack of acknowledgment of where he “gets his ideas” from.

Posted by: Jonathan M | November 13, 2005 at 04:55 PM


The long post that I was working on, which included some of my own still germinating theory on social waves, is scuttled in favor of a simpler response. After reading some of the philosophical discussion (dare I say destruction) around the blogosphere against postmodernism, emergent church and Brian McLaren’s work in particular, I realized that new ideas don’t stand a chance in such a hostile environment (so much for academic inquiry). So, I’ll post just a summary and a short bibliography for those interested in looking outside of philosophy and theology and to show that I don’t just repeat what I read in some text book.
That societies ebb and flow should surprise very few. That it cycles periodically and returns (kinda) to similar states already experienced is obvious upon closer inspection. One of the more well known theories of generational change was posited in several books by Strauss and Howe. David Hackett Fischer maps detailed commodity price changes through the past 800 years but disputes cycles saying: “It should be understood clearly that the movements we are studying are waves—not cycles. To repeat: not cycles, but waves.” And I accept his wave theory but also believe that this wave action, like waves in the sea or of a beam of light, ebbs and flows because of the cycling of forcing functions. At least the forcing functions are somewhat periodic—enough to create cycles even if they are of varying wavelength.
You probably already know that the ancients believed in eons or ages marked by the astrological constellations pointed to by the earth’s axis as it wobbles. These ages are roughly 2160 years long—called Platonic Months by Carl Jung. Whether cosmological patterns significantly affect human society and philosophy is really a tough point to argue, to be sure, and I’m not convinced that they are more significant than merely changing our weather patterns. But closer inspection of the apostle Paul’s writings and of the gospel of John show at least that these men and the audiences that they wrote too, both accepted and perhaps expected cosmological ages to usher in with significant changes. The latest change was of course the age of Pisces or fish, roughly 2000 years ago. And the ancient Greek philosophers and mathematicians gave considerable weight to the relationships between Logos and these aeonic periods. So, when the writer of John begins his gospel saying that Jesus was the “Logos,” and because he was writing just several decades within this new age, John ties the Jewish Messiah to the Greek Logos. You don’t have to accept it. I’m not sure what I think of it. But it’s a pretty interesting concept.
I’m not going to take up anymore space with this except to say that I believe social change, which includes philosophical change within a society, occurs on many levels and on multiple dimensions and, as such, is not easily mapped and modeled mathematically. Personally, I don’t see much good that would come of it, were it possible. Nevertheless, to deny that life ebbs and flows is to misunderstand life itself. Life and the societies within which it works and thrives, is no more linear than my life and yours. Each of us will one day die and complete a cycle—no matter how small and insignificant we are in the big scheme. That is the way of all life. So it easily follows that there will be harmonics set up within greater society by these frequencies.
And the final point deals with the original question whether we are now living within the throws of a major social, philosophical, theological and ecclesiastical cycle change. Of course we are. We are always in the cycle somewhere. And most any part of the cycle is important in some way. The more important question is: where on the wave are we right now? But I won’t give my opinion on that to those who will merely tear it apart with analytic surgery.
Hope this is useful to somebody.
Suggested Reading

David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rythem of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)

William Strauss & Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1991)

Karen Armstrong, The History of God: the 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Gramercy Books, 1993)

John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea (New York: Random House, 2003)

Robert Brenner, The Boom and the Bubble: the US in the World Economy (London: Verso, 2002)

Books by assorted futurists including, George Gilder, Alvin Toffler and Don Tapscott. As well as some by Peter Druker.

Posted by: bill | November 15, 2005 at 05:20 PM

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