Insights into faith questions in a postmodern world

By  Reid B. Locklin, Catholic Register Special
  • October 25, 2006
 How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art, by  Crystal L. Downing (InterVarsity Press, 240 pages, softcover, $17.47 at amazon.ca). 

Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian, by Heath White (Brazos Press,  176 pages, softcover, $17.47 at amazon.ca).

In the midst of the controversy about Pope Benedict XVI’s University of Regensburg address, some interpreters lost sight of the Holy Father’s primary focus on faith, reason and culture — specifically, Christian faith, Greek reason and European culture. One person who was not misled was the Swiss muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan. In an incisive critique published widely, Ramadan deplored the violence that followed the Pope’s address. But he also questioned the Holy Father’s interpretation of faith, reason and especially culture. Muslim scholars, he suggested, could and should respond by offering an alternate account.

This subtle exchange offers one good example to suggest why thinking Catholics might be interested in two recent works on postmodernism. Crystal Downing and Heath White have little to offer on the relationship of Christianity and Islam. What they do provide, however, is more important: insight into vexed questions of faith, reason and culture in an increasingly postmodern world.

What is postmodernism? Downing, a professor of English and film studies, answers this question with narrative — her own personal discovery of postmodern thought and the way it might serve her Christian faith, followed by a broader and deeper tale of such important postmodern thinkers as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva. White, a philosopher rather than a literary critic, emphasizes ideas over narrative and thus offers the following definition: “Premoderns placed their trust in authority. Moderns lost their confidence in authority and placed it in human reason instead. Postmoderns kept the modern distrust of authority but lost their trust in reason and have found nothing to replace it. This is the crux of postmodern thought.”  Both authors emphasize what Downing calls “positionality” and White refers to as “the social construction of the self.” That is, the claim that there is no such thing as pure reason or true objectivity. Everything, including what we typically ascribe to common sense, is deeply influenced by culture and there are many different cultures. Ergo, no single interpretation — of culture, of reason or even of faith — can ever claim to be definitive or absolute.

In a way, for many in our society, these are uncontroversial claims, which is precisely why books such as these need to be written. Both Downing and White, writing in the context of evangelical Protestantism, avoid either demonizing the postmodern challenge or using it as a pretext to insulate Christianity from critique (“If there are no objective truth claims, then you can’t challenge anything I want to believe.”) Instead, both suggest that postmodernism offers a valuable opportunity for Christians to re-think many of their assumptions in constructive ways.

One important point made by Downing is that postmodernism developed as a rejection, not of Christianity, but of the modernist project that attempted to do away with religious faith.

“When postmodernism exposed that the modernist denial of Christian truth was merely a human construction — a vault inside ‛the modern’ house — it allowed for the return of what modernism had entombed: Christian faith. With the return of faith, the house of modernism fell,” she writes.

Though she largely accepts the postmodern critique of objective knowledge, Downing denies that this erodes Christian faith. It turns us instead toward what, following Derrida, she characterizes as “the Impossible” — God beyond any limitations of culture and language.

Christians do not possess God. God possesses us. And this, she argues, is better communicated through faithful and loving Christian practice than through a pseudo-modernist insistence upon absolute truth.

White shares some of Downing’s appreciation for postmodern insights about language and rationality. Nevertheless, he is also more circumspect. For the postmodern mind, he argues, truth can never be entirely separated from power, and this invites moral relativism and cynical self-assertion. Moreover, postmodern ideals of freedom necessarily conflict with the paradoxical Christian claim that we are both “under the all-encompassing authority of God” and “supremely free, freer than any non-Christian could be.” He notes that postmodernism involves a shift in worldview, much like other such shifts undergone by the church throughout its history. We are simply awaiting a work like Augustine’s City of God or Thomas Aquinas’s Summa to help us navigate these new intellectual and cultural waters.

It is on precisely this point that Downing has, ultimately, produced the better piece of work.  White is very systematic and clear, but one never gets the sense that he is fully engaged.  Downing, on the other hand, provides not only her life story, but also specific examples of postmodern thinkers and theories, models of an authentic Christian response in the persons of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers, and a highly nuanced discussion of relativism that is, by itself, worth the price of the book.

Her suggestions are messy, fragmentary and finally inadequate, particularly from a Catholic perspective. But the very messiness of her account rings true, given what she is attempting to do.  One cannot help but admire the result.

(Locklin is an assistant professor at the University of St. Michael’s College’s Christianity and Culture program.)

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