Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Christian Confession in Post-Modern Times

painting: "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by Pablo Picasso
Indicative of the defamation of the human body, objectification of women, sexual confusion - fashion art, shock art, exploitation, disposable, and degenerate - thoroughly consumable - loved by all university students who are high out of their minds and social awkward - Picasso is for you

It is understood that Christians ought to welcome post-modernity rather than bemoan it. Where modernity launched a more deliberate assault on Christianity and religion, the post-modern philosophical and ontological environment presents unique opportunities to confess God’s revelation in Christ and the Holy Scriptures. We can consider three thinkers of the Parisian stripe: namely Jaques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault.

Jaques Derrida is credited as being the founder of deconstructionism and dealt extensively in literary theory and grammatology. He considers how language works and the complexities and contradiction within it that restricts the speaker from neatly expressing what he or she intends. For Derrida all philosophy is metaphysics, dealing with an understanding about the very nature of being – of existence and relationships. Incompatible meanings in language and disparate images produce both ‘presence’ and difference – difference ultimately pervading all philosophy as producing a discrepancy between signified and signifier. James K. Smith in "Who's Afraid of Post Modernism" reviews Derrida claim that there is nothing outside the text [il n’y a pas de hors-texte] can be considered a radical translation of the Reformation principle sola scriptura. In particular, Derrida’s insight should push us to recover two key emphases of the church: (a) the centrality of Scripture for mediating our understanding of the world as a whole and (b) the role of community in the interpretation.”[1]

From the Enlightenment thinker Rousseau we received the idea that human beings “in a pure state of nature” does not need to “mediate through language” and “interpret” but simply “knows.” The Enlightenment notion of the “noble savage” finds his civility and brilliance not from language, interpretation, and mediation but through experiencing the world “as it is,” without blinders - man and world in unmediated bliss. Derrida’s claim derides the Enlightenment understanding of language as a barrier, claiming that one can never “get beyond the realm of interpretation to some kind of kingdom of pure reading.”[2] This does not mean that interpretation is only involved in physical or spoken texts, but more radically that all the experience of reality is in essence a textual and linguistic analysis. Therefore interpretation is not a nasty word that encumbers the pure meaning of a text, but serves with all its complexities and obstacles to bring the text safely to the dock. There is not a “pure reading” to be reached by moving beyond the text. Summarizing Derrida’s claims James writes:

“Everything is interpretation; interpretation is governed by context and the role of the interpretive community. This entails abandoning the modern notion of objectivity and embracing a central theme of postmodernism: interpretation goes all the way down…there is no brute facts passively sitting there to be simply and purely seen.”

Though we are called to navigate within the collage of post-modern philosophical proclivities and in pluralistic communities, I find James’ observation of Derrida’s claims to be confessionally shaky and prone to disorientation. Though interpretation is the means by which the church finds its life, it (interpretation) is governed by God himself. We may use Derrida as an ally for sola scriptura, but ultimately the Holy Scriptures, as a text, apart from its passive hearer are “self authenticating.” As confessional Lutherans we must continue to confess that Scripture is its own interpreter (“Scripture interprets Scripture”). Therefore we must part with James’ use of Derrida because the philosophical axiom that “there is nothing outside the text” presupposes that the human actor ratifies and enacts reality through a linguistic exchange and elucidation. The suggestion is that we ought to leave behind the exclusively ‘modern’ notion of objectivity and embrace the approach that knowledge of the gospel, Scripture, and church find their own ontological depth and definition wholly through the human interpretive lens.

Fundamentally, the Holy Scriptures are not a text to be dissected and interpreted by the community in the way James sets out. The Bible is not a book to analyze as simply another text, precisely because it is God’s living Word. In the words of Oswald Bayer, “we do not interpret Scripture, rather Scripture interprets us.” There is passive receptivity to God’s word, because He performs in His word as it is passed down and experienced by the community of the faithful. The result of Derrida’s claim is that reality is a mere construct of the human language and busy interpretive process. Objective truth is dependent solely on the human community – and truth cannot exist and encounter the world extra nos. This is a fundamentally flawed theory, leaving no room for the more dynamic linguistic interchange from God to man. It ultimately comes by way of revelation which ultimately creates and sustains the communicative speaking of God and the faithful hearing of creation. We ought always to speak of a “theology of facts” rather than a “theology of interpretation.”

Besides a construction of reality built on human language, the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard positively defines postmodernism as an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Metanarratives are simply the “big stories” which form a group’s worldview. James describes metanarratives as a “distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal stories do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason.”[3] Therefore, Lyotard’s claims do not dispute certain cosmologies and epic narratives but rather the presupposed autonomous and universal reason that is thought to justify the given narrative. The metanarratives of humanistic emancipation, such as Immanuel Kant (moralism) and Karl Marx (class struggle) stand out as systematic narrative that parade as absolute sciences. James reflects on Derrida’s critique of postmodernism:

“We must not lose sight of the fact that what constitutes the postmodern condition is precisely a plurality of language games – a condition in which no one story can claim either universal auto-legitimation (because of the plurality of “the people”) nor appeal to a phantom universal reason (because reaon is just one myth among others, which is itself rooted in a narrative). And this plurality is based on the fact that each game is grounded in different narratives or myths (i.e., founding beliefs).”[4]

The implication is that even scientists claim to myths, grounded in speculative cosmologies and eschatologies. Darwinism and macro-evolution is the quintessential myth of our time with its big story in “The Origin of Species.” It’s claims are supposed and confessed as established truths – masquerading as scientific achievement and breakthrough. The adherents of this modern revelation of evolution are not repulsive because they believe it, but rather because they refuse to admit the narrative that is historically bound up in their belief. The scientist, evolutionist, and Marxist are therefore faithful adherent bound up in myth making like anyone else. The Christian however, readily admits the content of narrative in the Scriptures and accepts that his or her life and being is given in faith – which is provided as categorical gift. The Christian instead of moving forward with absurd claims about human scientists legitimizing God’s revelation, they let His revelation of narrative guide their confession of reality.

With the adoption of French philosopher Michel Foucault, Smith seeks to use Foucault’s obsession with knowledge and power as a paradigm for church discipline and effective discipleship. Smith attempts to make an ally of Foucault in a Schliermacherian way. It is supposed that the church is a voluntary association of people solely seeking to follow, act, and make disciples among themselves. The church itself, its formation and life ultimately remains an article of faith, not to be boiled down into a loose confederation of self-willed disciplinary societies. Christians, according to Smith must “enact countermeasures, counterdisciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be…the ultimate goal of sanctification and discipleship is to shape us into a certain kind of person.”[5] The assumption is that discipline within the organization of the church is the key to discipleship and living out the “Christian life.” That power and discipline take on a positivistic role in the life of the church, as Smith suggests (employing Foucault) is not however how disciples are created and sustained. This web of human interaction however – of knowledge, power, and control are not the marks of how the church is birthed and lives the continual life of regeneration and forgiveness of sins. In summary of the benefits of Foucault’s possible contribution to the church, Smith writes, “Conceiving of the church as a disciplinary society aimed at forming human being to reflect the image of Christ, we will offer an alternative society to the hollow formation of late-modern culture.” The ways in which Smith suggests we use Foucault always assumes that man’s action dominates the ontological reality, through a riddle of communal interpretation, power, and knowledge. God is left in the dock and the Christian according to Smith ought to refashion himself, worship, perform, and act on his own accord.

I happen to agree with Smith’s basic thesis that Christians, particularly clergy ought to philosophically engage the post-modern world – her universities, art exhibitions, films, literature, and performing arts. Yet, the post-Marxist Parisian philosophers that Smith seeks to make allies for the proclamation of the Gospel are mostly scatter brained deviants. This text seeks to make off with the “postmodern loot” of these somewhat contemporary thinkers. The only treasure however, is the voice of the Shepherd who can alone turn hearts, save from sin, and speak throughout all ages.
[1] James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Post Modernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 23.
[2] Ibid., 49.
[3] Ibid., 68
[4] Ibid., 70
[5] Ibid., 106

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