Postmodernizing Religion

May 25th, 1997

by Paul Pardi

Religion often has been seen as a necessary balance to the stiff, cold, conclusions given to us by science. Whereas science tells us what the world is, religion tells us what the world means. However, since the enlightenment, religion has, for many, lived in a tension: religious believers are concerned that the object of their faith is “true” yet see the rationalist approach to religion with its deductive proofs for God’s existence and rigid, analytic approach to doctrine as a bane to religious belief and practice. When thinkers like Hume and Kant showed these “proofs” to be inadequate, religion either fell on hard times or survived under the auspices of an irrational activity called faith. The post-Enlightenment period certainly has not been easy on religion but is religious belief destined to be either irrational or irrelevant? Enter postmodernity.

Many philosophers of religion see the adoption of some strain of postmodern thought as a valuable return to the ineffable quality of religion that was lost in the modern period. Releasing God from the shackles of the modernist, logic-chopping philosophy enhances faith and encourages devotion. In this sense some see postmodern thought as a welcome friend to religion. The postmodern epistemology seems to serve as a fine bedfellow for faith in a transcendent being. James Turner in his penetrating *Without God, Without Creed* concludes his historical analysis of the rise of atheism in Western culture with the following insight: “The crucial ingredient, then, in the mix that produced an enduring unbelief . . . boiled down to a decision to deal with modernity by embracing it—to defuse modern threats to the traditional bases of belief by bringing God into line with modernity. Put slightly differently, unbelief emerged because church leaders too often forgot the transcendence essential to any worthwhile God. They committed religion . . . *intellectually* to modes of knowing God fitted only for understanding this world.”

In fact the religious mind has been skeptical for some time of attempts to make God the conclusion of a syllogism or logical proof or scientific discovery. Most conservative believers of any religion would not claim to have come to faith in God by way of some argument. These same believers also, when asked why they believe, would not cite a list of evidences justifying their beliefs. On the face of it, it appears that postmodern epistemology justifies what the religious believer wants to claim: the most important truths are not based upon evidence, reason, and logic but upon experience and community. Thus, under the postmodern epistemology, religion moves out from under the scientistically-bent modernist label “irrational” to the postmodern “non-rational.” For many religious persons, the latter is much better than the former. J. Bottum concludes an article for *First Things* by highlighting a distinct value postmodernity provides to the Catholic apologist, “There is perhaps a use we might make of the postmodern in apologetics, for the collapse of modernity may allow believers to speak once again about God without defensiveness or self-consciousness.”

As with most issues in philosophy, not everyone sees the outlook for the union between postmodern epistemology and religious belief with the same optimism. One immediate question that comes to mind is this: has the postmodern epistemology changed the nature of religious belief or has religious belief always rejected what Alan Padgett calls “linear, scientific thinking” and thus finds the postmodern epistemology a welcome and long-awaited friend? Philosophers of religion now are wrestling with these questions. Interestingly however, this debate doesn’t have two sides but three. There are those who adopt the postmodernist epistemology and see a clear application of that epistemology to religion. As an example of an implementation of this approach, the University of Chicago Press has an intriguing series dealing with postmodernism and religious belief. Their 21 volume collection entitled the *Religion and Postmodernism Series* edited by Mark C. Taylor (who recently released his fourth contribution to the series entitled, *About Religion : Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture*) covers a variety of topics from a somewhat narrow range of authors (including the eminent Derrida himself).

On the other side are those that are highly critical of this union. As might be expected, the criticisms surface not on the marriage itself but on the postmodern epistemology in particular. Of course, it naturally follows that if the postmodern epistemology is vacant, one certainly does not want to marry it to religious belief. *Postmodernism and Christian Philosophy* edited by Roman T. Ciapalo critically examines these very issues. The general consensus of the anthology is that postmodernism is generally a negative influence on Christian thought. Similarly. St. Mary’s College in Twickenham, England will be discussing the viability of the relationship between religion and postmodern epistemology in their conference entitled *Religion and the Cultures of Postmodernity: Quests for Meaning in a Fragmented Age* in June of 2000. On a more popular level, a group called The Crossroads Project is promoting a book by Dennis McCallum entitled *The Death of Truth*. They held a conference with the same title that addressed issues surfaced in the book. McCallum sees postmodernism largely as having a negative influence on culture despite the inadequacies of a pure modernist worldview.

Somewhere in the middle of this debate (and probably most in keeping with the postmodern spirit) are those that see both negatives and positives in the postmodern approach to knowledge and thus in it’s application to religion. The University of Indiana Press has released two back-to-back titles dealing with the subject of postmodern thought and religion in its *Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion*. Merold Westphal (who has done his own share of writing on Kierkegaard and Hegel and serves as General Editor of the series) edited *Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought* which deals with the new challenges postmodernity brings to the Christian idea. Similarly *God, the Gift, and Postmodernism*, edited by John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon sympathetically treats the discussion between postmodern theology and the postmodern epistemology putting Derrida and theologian Jean-Luc Marion into dialog.

As I read the introductions to these books and skimmed the chapters, I found that the authors were less concerned with getting a set of “facts” before the mind of the reader and more concerned with constructing images. Communicating factual information, seems to imply rigidity of thought and a one-way, author-to-reader monologue. These authors seem more interested not in telling the readers what to believe as true, but in creating images that are more ideologically fluid and “dialogical.” Still, the books represent a position that holds, for the most part, that postmodern thinkers like Derrida have it right (whatever that might mean) and the project of these volumes is to explore how notions like deconstruction and the “hermeneutics of finitude” might apply to religion.

I asked philosophers Dr. C. Stephen Evans and Dr. Merold Westphal about this movement in philosophy of religion towards postmodernity. I asked Dr. Evans if he saw postmodern philosophy to be a friend or a foe of religious belief. He said, “I am inclined to say both friend and foe. Obviously, it is a friend in unmasking Enlightenment rationalism and its attacks on the rationality of faith. But it is an enemy in undermining respect for objective truth and developing suspicion about ‘metanarratives.’” He sees postmodern philosophy’s biggest aid in that it tears down religious epistemic hubris and opens the door for a more “perspectival” understanding of knowledge given the human condition (which, under the Christian framework, is a state of sinfulness and depravity). On the other hand, “The most damaging aspect is that it can lead to a loss of faith in truth and in the human capacity to know anything, and this in turn leads to a loss of conviction, a pluralistic ‘tolerance’ of everything.” he said. “What we need is an understanding of our finitude and sinfulness that does not despair of the possibility that there is a truth to be known and that we can at least approximate that truth in part.” Evans captures the essence of what many philosophers of religion are trying to do, at least in the West, in evaluating the application of postmodern philosophy to religious systems.

Westphal was a bit more optimistic about postmodernism’s influence on religion. In fact Westphal indicates that postmodernism surfaces a commonality among the major religious systems of the world. He stated, “The great monotheisms, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic, have insisted that God is ultimately unfathomable, ineffable, mysterious, beyond the capacity of created intellects to comprehend. This is a joint reflection on the nature of God as infinite and on the nature of human understanding as finite. Postmodern epistemology is an analysis of the finitude of human understanding on its own terms, without reference to creation or the Creator. But there is an agreement about the inability of human knowledge to grasp totality, infinity, the ultimate.” Westphal affirms that providing this sense of our own epistemic finitude is one of the most auspicious functions of postmodernizing religion. He’s quick to point out, however, that in accepting that finitude, postmodernism may take us too far. “The danger, to which both secular postmodernists and theistic thinkers are sometimes prone, is to assume that if we cannot have everything we cannot have anything, that the only alternative to absolute knowledge, fully adequate (perfect mirror) to its object is cynical nihilism.” Westphal appears to want to caution against this. This is a common *festina lente* that theists tend to apply to the postmodern project vis-à-vis their secular counterparts.

One more important observation needs to be made. One does not have to dig very deeply to see the close affinities postmodern philosophy has with much of Eastern thought, particularly Eastern *religious* thought. Whereas systems like Buddhism and Daoism tend to embrace what appear to the western mind to be contradictions (in the form of, for example, a koan) in an attempt to train the mind to live with contradiction, the postmodern mind isn’t so radical. Postmodernism tends to apply interpretive lenses to contradictions and thus make the contradictions less, well, contradictory. Hegel’s patrimony here is obvious (a fact which makes me think Schaeffer’s observation that modern Christianity’s woes are due primarily to Hegelian thought came three decades too early; Schaeffer may turn out to be more correct than any of his commentators realized). Interestingly there does seem to be some movement on bringing Eastern religious thought and postmodern philosophy together. A paper by Ian W. Mabbett called “Naagaarjuna and Deconstruction” attempts to demonstrate just this. Speaking of Naagaarjuna and Derrida he writes, “Eastward and westward: opposites meet. Perhaps the apostle of the Middle Way and the prophet of infinite deferral have something in common.”

For my own part, being the modernist that I am, I find the notion of a postmodern religion both disturbing and largely incomprehensible. Still, if I were to make a prediction I’d say that a postmodern religious system, like much of Kant’s writings, is just obscure enough that at the end of the day, many philosophers of religion and theologians will find it irresistible.

This entry was posted on Sunday, May 25th, 1997 at 4:45 pm and is filed under Philosophical Apologetics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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