Postmodern Theology – Introduction
Postmodern theology begins with a soft form of atheism. Atheism is the theological belief that there is no God, no supernatural Creator, no Divine moral lawgiver, and no ultimate Judge of man’s actions. It is the theological backbone of not only Secular Humanism and Marxism, but it is also the predominant theological view of classical Postmodernism.
Although more subtle in some ways than their fellow atheists,1 Postmodernists have their theological underpinnings in atheism. Kevin J. Vanhoozer says, “Postmodernists agree with Nietzsche that ‘God’—which is to say, the supreme being of classical theism—has become unbelievable, as have the autonomous self and the meaning of history.”2
Postmodern Theology – Atheism…Postmodern Style
Postmodern theology stretches from militant atheism to village atheist. All the major Postmodern writers were atheists, including Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Bataille, Barthes, Baudrillard, Macherey, Deleuze, Guattari, and Lacan.
Charlotte Allen noted that Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, “and their [followers]...were all militant atheists, with all the intolerance and totalitarian tendencies of that breed.”3
Yet at times Derrida himself was more cryptic about his atheism. Speaking before a convention of the American Academy of Religion in 2002, Derrida commented, “I rightly pass for an atheist.”4 However, when asked why he would not say more plainly ‘I am an atheist,’ he replied, “Maybe I’m not an atheist.”5 How can Derrida claim to be and not be an atheist? Both the existence or nonexistence of God requires a universal statement about reality, but Derrida is unwilling to make such an absolute claim. In this regard Derrida’s theology is consistent with his Postmodern inclination for ambiguity.6
Likewise, Richard Rorty at one time admitted he was an atheist,7 but in a subsequent work, The Future of Religion, he says he now agrees with Gianni Vattimo that “atheism (objective evidence for the nonexistence of God) is just as untenable as theism (objective evidence for the existence of God).”8 Thus, Rorty insists that atheism, too, must be abandoned in favor of something he labels “anti-clericalism.” Ecclesiastical institutions are dangerous, but not necessarily the local congregation of believers. “Religion,” he says, “is unobjectionable as long as it is privatized.”9
Postmodern Theology – Religious Pluralism
When it comes to Postmodern theology, the idea that religious beliefs are private preferences has filtered down from the academy to the “unenlightened” commoner, many of whom now embrace pluralism.
Religious pluralism is the belief that one must be tolerant of all religious beliefs because no one religion can be true.10 This notion agrees with the defining tenets of the Postmodern mood—skepticism of absolute truth, skepticism of a discernable foundation for knowledge, and, in the end, skepticism of all metanarratives (any overarching story that defines reality).11 As such, many of those immersed in the present Postmodern culture deny religious truth claims.12
This trend can be seen in how our present society often thinks about religious claims in general. In the pre-modern and modern eras, religious claims were judged to be either true or false. For example, either there is a God or there is not. Either Jesus is Savior or He is not. Either miracles happen or they do not.
However, in our Postmodern climate where truth is denied, religious claims are based on preference rather than on objective standards. For example, either you prefer the notion of the existence of God or you do not. Either you like the idea of Jesus being Savior or you do not. Either miracles appeal to you or they do not.13 This attitude accommodates all religious preferences.
A problem arises when certain religions claim to go beyond personal preferences and convey objective truth, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But making exclusive truth claims runs counter to the Postmodern condition. For that reason, the only religions not tolerated are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Postmodern Theology – Conclusion
While Postmodern theology is generally atheistic in nature, we recognize that some individuals become atheists because they think Darwin solved the question of life’s ultimate origins. Others become atheists because they look upon God’s moral order as “too restrictive.” Still others believe because they agree with Freud that, “God was a projection. When children have problems, they run to their father for protection. When adults have problems, they project their earthly father into the skies, and they run to this entity for comfort.”14 Some look at all the evil in the world and decide that no loving God could allow such a situation.15 In the end, however, Postmodernists offer no new rationale for defending their brand of atheism. Our critique of atheism has been presented in other sections of this work, so it will not be repeated here.
In response to religious pluralism, we contend that the problem with this system in particular is the problem with Postmodernism in general—namely that neither our perspectives nor our preferences can dictate reality. Real people may end up in a literal Hell regardless of whether or not they prefer the doctrine of eternal punishment.16 In the end, reality is what it is whether one prefers that reality or not. For example, many may not prefer a number of Christianity’s tenets—creation, fall, salvation, judgment, abstinence, sobriety, etc. However, our preferences about Christianity or even reality itself cannot change the true nature of reality.
The Bible, of course, has a descriptive term for a person who says in his or her heart there is no God (Psalm 14:1). We will explore in later chapters the consequences of atheism as lived out in the areas of ethics, psychology, sociology, and each of the other disciplines. In these chapters we will find that those who embrace this theology have followed a foolish path indeed.
In the final analysis of Postmodern theology, atheism is a belief system of the intellectual elite (“the people of fashion”) because only they possess enough faith to believe in it. The common, everyday working man cannot believe that everything in the universe is a result of random chance. As Mary Midgley says, “It may simply not be within our capacity—except of course by just avoiding thought—to think of [the universe] as having no sort of purpose or direction whatever.”17
Rendered with permission from the book, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews (Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.
1 See Mark Goldblatt’s article “Can Humanists Talk to Poststructuralists?” in Academic Questions 18, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 59. “In Dissemination Derrida states: ‘It is thus not simply false to say that Mallarme is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is above all not true. And vice versa.” As Goldblatt says, “the ‘vice versa’ undermines any attempt to get at what Derrida means.” Derrida also regularly employs terminology that simultaneously affirms and denies. Says Goldblatt, “the only way to read Derrida on his own terms is mentally to insert the phrase ‘or not’ after every one of his statements.”
2 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., Postmodern Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 12.
3 National Review, September 13, 2004, 52.
4 See Simon Barrow’s “Derrida’s Enduring Legacy” on the FaithInSociety weblog.
6 Millard J. Erickson, Truth or Consequences: The Promise & Perils of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 131: “Derrida’s own statements are seldom unequivocal [having one meaning]. He either makes a statement and conjoins it with its contradictory, or makes a statement and then in another place says something very different on the subject.”
7 Brandom, Rorty and His Critics, 344.
8 Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo, The Future of Religion (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005), 33, quoted in Philosophia Christi 7, no. 2 (2005): 525.
10 D.A. Carson, “Christian Witness in an Age of Pluralism,” in D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge, eds., God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl F.H. Henry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993).
11 A more complete list of what Postmodernism is against can be found in Robert Audi, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 725.
12 The logic of this position is very similar to the religious pluralism championed by some liberal theologians—John Hick, William Cantwell Smith, and S. Wesley Ariarajah. We must be careful not to equate these liberal theologians with outright Postmodernists. David S. Dockery, ed., The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Books, 2001), 135, 142.
13 Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1990).
14 Ian S. Markham, ed., A World Religious Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 24.
15 McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, 229.
16 Veith, Postmodern Times, 193–4.
17 Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion (London, UK: Routledge Classics, 2002), 159–160.
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