Postmodernity and Envangelical Thought (3): The Basic Tenets of Postmodernism

Yesterday, I outlined a number of the basic features of modernity. Today, I pick up by looking at the shift from modernity to postmodernity.

Postmodernism’s Progenitors: Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Nietzsche

It has been said that in the history of Western thought there have been two French Revolutions that gave birth to modernism and postmodernism.  In the Enlightenment, Frenchmen Rene Descartes brought about a new way of thinking when his Cogito turned Western thinking towards the subject.  Instead of keeping God at the center, now all centered on man.  This was the first French Revolution.  The second was the rise of Jacques Derrida, who not only questioned the Author of the universe, he questioned every single author who rose in his place.  Derrida has rightly been esteemed as the forefather of postmodern thought, and for good reason.

In the mid-1900’s Derrida proposed that all thought is constrained by language, and that language is not universal but local.  Since language is conditioned by the ‘situatedness’ of the culture someone is in, it is impossible for their thoughts not to be shaped by language.  Whereas, the previous two eras—pre-modernism which ascribed authority God’s word (and God’s church) and modernism which ascribed authority to the words of rational thinking men—Derrida questioned the assumption of ‘logocentrism.’  Like Descartes before him, he had a hermeneutic of suspicion. Whereas Descartes questioned knowledge, Derrida questioned words themselves.

Derrida is not the first to think like this.  Standing as a prophet in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche declared that “God is dead!” and that humanity is to blame for his death.  He is not making a metaphysical claim so much as he is observing the way men have treated God, or rather relegated him to the status of non-being.  God’s absence from the world marked the end of morals and the end of meaning.  By dispatching the Author, humanity had to create their own meaning.  Such thinking led Nietzsche towards two kinds of nihilism—passive nihilism which saw the world as possessing no meaning and aggressive nihilism which saw supermen as able to make their own meaning.  The connections between Derrida and Nietzsche are obvious: language creates truth and those who control the language have the power in the world.

Postmodernity: An Endless Discussion of Words

The postmodern era is one that focuses on language.  Whereas premodern thought ask questions about metaphysics, and modern thought pursued epistemic knowledge, postmoderns seek to ascribe (more than understand) meaning to language.  One of the chief philosophers of language who has also contributed to this discussion is Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein has two phases of thought in his career and both have played a role in the philosophy of language.

The early Wittgenstein understood all language to be referential, meaning that for anything to have meaning it must project something that exists.  This is called the “picture theory of language.”  While this certainly does describe much language, certain things are excluded—God, theology, philosophy, metaphysics, logical relationships, etc.  Such a view of language is very similar to the authors of the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy, but with one crucial difference.  When the Bible speaks of about God and other eternal, heavenly, or invisible realities—the lack of sense perception does not deny them as it does for Wittgenstein.

The later Wittengenstein replaced his consistent view of language with a more relative and situated understanding—namely, he located meaning in particular cultures.  He said that all language participated in “language games,” so that to understand anything it must be thought of in conjunction with a set of rules that govern it—rules established by the community that uses that terms. The result of this theory is that universal truth is impossible. 

A concrete instantiation of this would be found in the Yale School  who argued for a canonical reading of the Bible.  Men like Hans Frei and Brevard Childs argued for such a reading because the Bible was the church’s book, but not because they believed the Bible to be true or divinely inspired. For them, the Bible provides the grammar of the church’s language game.  As with Nietzsche, it is easy to see how, Wittgenstein’s focus on local languages leads into postmodern thought.  In Nietzsche’s case, men create meaning with their language; with Wittgenstein, all language is local.

Postmodernity and Pluralism: Throwing Out the Meta-narrative

Another contributor to postmodernism was Jean-Francois Lyotard.  His famous dictum stated that postmodernism has an ‘incredulity towards the metanarrative,” meaning that universal truths and narratives that give explanation for the universe (like the Bible or any other religion or philosophy) are inadmissible in our diversified world.  Richard Bauckham addresses this in his little book, The Bible and the Mission, and contests that it is better to say that the world is filled with many meta-narratives that are in competition.  Thus, as another has put it, meta-narratives have become micro-narratives.   Such a view of the world has  a way of eroding certainty and supporting pluralism.  This foreshadows one of the reasons why many evangelicals think that postmodernism has nothing to offer biblical Christianity.

One more point from Derrida.  Derrida, in contrast to the early Wittengenstein, asserts that all language is differential, meaning that red does not join up with some universal property red (as in a referential theory).  Rather, red is “red” because it is not green, blue, or black.  Likewise, red is “red” because it is not “fed,” “led,” or “bed.”  Thus, Derrida makes words abstract signs.  Communities assign meaning based on what seems good to them, and thus he removes even more weight from the metaphysics of language.  This last move is what is called deconstruction, and it basically asserts that there is no necessary or intrinsic meaning in words.  All words are simply the creation (or functional agreement) of local communities.

Postmodern Hermeneutics

In the end, postmodernism agrees (with modernism) to do away with the Author of Life and the Bible, but it goes one step further than modernism by dispatching with the human author as well.  In postmodernism the author has been devalued, and what remains is the perspective of the reader.  This has massive impact on hermeneutics.

Postmodern hermeneutics places value on the reader and the meaning he or she brings to the text.  No longer is the author’s intention privileged as the meaning of the passage; now every text has pluriform meanings.  Likewise, knowledge is not discovered or reasoned.  Instead it is created, or agreed upon by the community in which someone finds themselves.  Or maybe to put it the other way around, like Schleiermacher did two centuries ago—communities are those gathered individuals who come to the same experience when they (in this case) read the Bible.

Hence, before getting to evangelicalism itself, postmodernism’s effect on theological hermeneutics in general is to create dozens of parochial communities who each have their own biased reading of the text.  The milieu of today is that of all kinds of communities bringing their situatedness to the text and applying their own experience to the meaning of the Bible. This is a popular approach to the Bible—just read the book catalogues of Baker, IVP, and Eerdmans—but it will not ground faith. It erodes truth, and it undermines the biblical gospel.

Tomorrow, we’ll begin to consider if it is possible for evangelicals to appropriate any of the insights from postmodernity, and if so, how.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

3 thoughts on “Postmodernity and Envangelical Thought (3): The Basic Tenets of Postmodernism

  1. Dave

    These are helpful summaries. I think you did them justice. James Smith argues that the postmodern “bumper-stickers” have been misunderstood. Here is a little summary that I wrote about Derrida using Smith as a jumping off point.

    Derrida is associated with post-structuralism and deconstructionism. One has to admit that these theories have been harmful to the church at different points, and that Derrida comes too close for Christians to denying “transparent truth” and “absolute values.” But from what I have been reading his name gets rubbed in the mud without much real interaction of his work. As one commenter said at his death.

    Mr. Derrida’s name is most closely associated with the often cited but rarely understood term “deconstruction.” Initially formulated to define a strategy for interpreting sophisticated written and visual works, deconstruction has entered everyday language. When responsibly understood, the implications of deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clichïs often used to describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure—be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious—that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.

    The “bumper-sticker” approach looks at the statement “there is nothing outside the text” and concludes that Derrida is claiming that the whole world is a kind of book. It sounds like Derrida is saying there are no material things, there is only language. For Christians this would mean there is no God, and there is no objective truth.

    But Smith contends that there is a serious misunderstanding of this phrase of Derrida’s. What Derrida is centrally concerned with is a naïve attempt to get “behind” or “past” texts. Derrida argues because all our experience is always already an interpretation (p. 39). The world itself too “is a kind of text requiring interpretation” (p.38).

    When Derrida says there is nothing outside the text, he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language. We simply can’t ever get past texts and interpretations to things “simply as they are” (p. 42).

    Smith says:

    Language is a lens through which we see the world, albeit with some distortion, simply because this lens stands between us and the world. As soon as there is a lens, there is distortion.

    • Thanks for sharing and clarifying Derrida’s point.

      Hopefully, tomorrow’s post which follows the work of Vanhoozer, Lints, and Horton, will effectively show ways that the linguistic observations of postmodernism can be wisely appropriated.


  2. Pingback: Postmodernity and Evangelical Thought (5): A Post-Script for Postmodernism | Via Emmaus

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