Pomo 101 [2]: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism – Smith chap 1

I had meant to have this post up a while ago. However, since the first post of this series we have experienced a bit of stress in our lives. My wife (who blogs here) had a surgical procedure related to some longstanding health issues and we were waiting for results from some biopsies concerning the possibility of cancer. In the meantime I found it hard to concentrate enough to type out a blog. But as one of her nurses told us, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” We ended up getting good news that Christie does not have any sign of cancer but she will have to undergo another surgical procedure in a few weeks. Prayers are appreciated. I have also been in the process of reading through Dan Stiver’s Theology After Ricoeur: New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology, which I had a hard time putting down. Besides being a very good introduction to the thought of Paul Ricoeur it is also one of the best recent attempts at a constructive postmodern, hermeneutical philosophy/theology. I highly recommend it (in the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that I was Dr. Stiver’s Grad Assistant during my time at Logsdon Seminary so I admit to being biased). In any case, I did finish it so I guess that means I should finally get to this post.

This is part two of an anticipated 12 part series meant to be somewhat of a primer on postmodernism in which we can hopefully glean some insights into what the postmodern turn means for epistemology, church practice, and theology. In the first post I gave an introduction to the series and a tentative outline for the series. A discussion partner throughout this series will be James K. A. Smith and his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism (WAoP) in which each chapter will get one post. I highly recommend this book as a very accessible introduction to many of the issues that will come up through the course of this series. In this post we will cover chapter one (pg 15-30) of Smith’s WAoP, ‘Is the Devil from Paris? Postmodernism and the Church’ which will serve as a further introduction to some of the themes that will surface throughout this series.

Raising the Curtain: The Matrix

Smith begins with a scene from The Matrix. “Welcome to the real world.” These are the words spoken to Neo by Morpheus after he is released from his imprisonment in the Matrix, a “neural-active simulation complex” designed by machines to control humans. According to Smith this scene replays one of the most ancient philosophical images: that of emerging from Plato’s cave. In Plato’s Republic Socrates tells how the masses are enslaved to a world of images and shadows as if they were chained inside a cave with their heads locked in position. All they have ever seen are shadows on a wall, cast by a small fire that sends light across small puppets. Because these prisoners have never known anything different they believe that the shadows are real, until one of them is released. This liberated prisoner makes his way outside of the cave, in the process realizing that the shadows were only images cast by the puppets. As he comes into the light he is blinded because he is accustomed to only darkness. The light of the real world is painful to those that have never seen it. The liberated prisoner first finds his way around by looking at shadows on the ground and reflections in water. These images are not cast by copies and cutouts but by the things themselves. The liberated prisoner slowly realizes what he thought was real in the cave was really a shadow of reality: a copy of a copy. Now, as his eyes adjusted, he could not only behold the shadow or cutout image of a tree, but the tree itself. What was clear to him now was that the world of his birth was not real. Clearer still, says Smith, is that he must go back into the cave, proclaim what is real, and liberate his companions.

Smith calls the character Neo in the The Matrix a ‘postmodern Platonic prisoner.’ Neo has been a prisoner his whole life, connected to hoses and lying in a pod of quasi uterine liquid. What he sees connected to the Matrix is not a darkened world of shadows but a Technicolor world of high-rises, coffee shops, and nightclubs. Neo’s own mind is the ‘wall’ on which the Matrix feeds a world of images. All the humans trapped in these pods are actually being harvested for energy by the machines. In the Matrix they believe themselves to be someone and somewhere else. Neo thinks he is Thomas Anderson, an average employee of a technology firm. Morpheus comes as Neo’s liberator, someone who knows the truth and ‘descends’ back into the Matrix to release others. When Neo’s questioning mind is no longer passive to the neural-active simulation of the Matrix the system flushes his body out of his pod. Morpheus and his crew rescue Neo. “Welcome to the real world,” Morpheus says. “Why do my eyes hurt?” asks Neo. “Because you’ve never used them before,” Morpheus answers. Neo vomits out of disorientation and sense of a kind of vertigo. As Smith says, “Its not easy getting used to the real world.” (17)

According to Smith, our contemporary culture, as well as the church, has experienced a similar dis- and reorientation – a similar emerging from place to another, from one construction of reality to another, from modernity to postmodernity. The cultural shifts and changes can be traced to the advent of postmodernity and the ‘trickle-down’ effect of postmodernism on our culture. This shift calls into question previously held sureties and rattles faith that has been to easily equated with Cartesian certainties. The result is a kind of epistemic vertigo. Confusing questions are raised and there is a sense of being lost. As Morpheus says to Neo, “I imaging you must feel a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.” As Smith says, “If the shadows we thought were real have been unveiled as mere shadows, doesn’t it feel as if the whole world were dissolving?” And even if this is the real world, “we’re not sure how to make our way in it.” (18)

Question: This is a good to point to introduce a question which Plato’s cave analogy and The Matrix bring up. That is: what is the nature of embodiment and knowing (epistemology) and how are these related. The philosophical background of Plato’s cave analogy is a dualism of mind and body. In fact, in much Platonic thought the body is a sort of prison house. Plato’s eternal (yet disembodied) ‘Forms’ are in a sense what really counts as real. In The Matrix though Neo’s unplugging is an act of embodiment. It is ironic then that in this paradigm of embodiment that so many were inspired to take up the impetus of The Matrix by playing the video game hours on end! In any case, as a generalization we could say (with philosopher Charles Taylor) that modernity has had a movement towards excarnation and dis-embodiment. In this we could ask, is the search for ‘objective’ truth a search for a de-situated, dis-embodied truth? But is not all our knowing in a very important sense incarnate…embodied and situated? We are faced with the competing narratives of excarnation and incarnation in our epistemology as well as our relating to others. Which narrative will we choose?

What is Postmodernism?

Smith offers Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism as an orientation to the world of postmodernism, the world in which we now find ourselves. He notes that for some it is the bane of Christian faith, the new enemy replacing secular humanism and the target for demonization. For others though, such as the emerging church movement, who seek to castigate the modernity of pragmatic evangelicalism and want to retool the church’s witness in a postmodern world, pomo is a fresh wind. Smith claims that in both cases though, postmodernism remains nebulous and “a slippery beast eluding our understanding.” (19) Postmodernism seems to take on a chameleon like quality: if seen as enemy, pomo is defined as monstrous; if positive, pomo is seen as savior! But this (re)making of pomo into what one wants it to be doesn’t help us to understand just what is postmodernism?

Smith notes that a historical thesis has been offered to the nature of pomo. This would be postmodern in the sense of ‘after’ modern. Attempts have even been made to link the advent of pomo to specific historical events – the student riots in 1968, the fall of the gold standard, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 3:32 pm on July 15, 1972 when the Pruitt-Ingoe housing development (a prize winning machine for modern living) in St. Louis was dynamited as uninhabitable. Its hard though to link pomo to one single event (and more likely that these events evidence an overall gradual cultural shift that is affected by both modern and pomo influences). Smith proposes instead that postmodernism, whether monster or savior, is something that has come out of Paris and French philosophical influences. Smith contends that most will nod their heads at this point but have not gone so far as to really engage the philosophical underpinnings. For instance Smith states that Brian McLaren regularly tips his hat to the philosophical but then brushes it aside as ‘too far removed from everyday life’ or not really needed to understand ‘cultural postmodernity’ versus ‘philosophical postmodernism.’

We will explore the common heuristic distinction between ‘postmodernity’ and ‘postmodernism’ in the next post. What is important to note here is the ‘Schaefferian method’ that Smith proposes for his analysis of pomo. In The God Who is There and Escape From Reason Francis Schaeffer offers a sort of trickle-down theory of philosophical influence. In particular Schaeffer analyzed the shifts of modernity beginning with philosophy. Thus, for him cultural phenomena tend to reflect philosophical movements, not vice versa. Smith suggests that his analysis of philosophical postmodernism might serve as a needed prerequisite to McLaren’s analysis of postmodernity and proposes a Schaefferian strategy in which 1) he feels we need to return to the philosophy itself in order to understand pomo (“We take culture seriously by taking ideas seriously,” Smith states) and 2) he sees himself as Schaefferian in that he wishes to offer WAoP to practicioners of ministry and postmodern searchers instead of just philosophers alone. The three philosophers that he wishes to engage in WAoP are Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.

In particular he considers three slogans most often associated with these thinkers. 1) Derrida: ‘There is nothing outside the text,’ 2) Lyotard: ‘Postmodernity is incredulity towards metanarratives,’ and 3) Foucault: ‘Power is knowledge.’ These slogans are usually invoked as mutually exclusive to confessional Christian faith. How could someone reject metanarratives and still believe the Bible? How could someone who believes in God not believe in the reality of things outside of texts? How could someone who believes God is love hold to a Nietzschean ‘will to power?’ In response Smith suggests that: 1) these are really bumper sticker readings; claims made without a context that perpetuate a number of myths about pomo and 2) that these three claims have deep affinity with central Christian claims. As such Smith intends to not only introduce us to postmodern thought but to also critique common Christian misunderstandings of pomo as well as to show that postmodernity is a condition that Christians in many ways should welcome. “Something good can come out of Paris.” (22) Smith says next that he is replaying a Hebrew strategy, later adopted by Augustine, Calvin, and Kuyper: making off with Egyptian loot. Just as the Hebrews left Egypt with Egyptian gold to be put to use in the worship of Yahweh (though misdirected at times) so Christians can find resources in non-Christian thought that can be put to work for the furtherance of the kingdom. In this way Smith states that WAoP is “an attempt to make off with postmodern loot for the sake of the kingdom.” (23)

Question: Again, a pause for a quick question. Smith is rubbing up against a long standing debate in Christianity, that is, the place of philosophy in relationship to faith and theology. There has been for quite some time a dualism both in and out of the church. The attitude of many has been that since philosophers were supposed to somehow bracket their presuppositions that there could be no such thing as Christian philosophy. Alvin Plantinga has done much to change this view by arguing that the Christian philosopher has as much right to their ‘pre-philosophical opinions’ as anyone else. But, going back to Tertullian who asked “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” the church has had a long history of shunning ‘outside’ philosophy. Perhaps the irony here is that the Western Tertullian introduced the first trinitarian formula in Latin, tres personae, una substantia (three persons, one substance), but that it took interaction with the East and Greek philosophy (specifically ousia and hypostasis) to work out the orthodox trinitarianism of the Creeds. What also seems apparent is that the calls to keep theology/faith and philosophy separate come too late. We inherit a situation where they have already intertwined (though in the modern context the influence has been primarily in one direction in favor of philosophy).

Moving on, Smith suggests that while we should expect some areas of fundamental disagreement and need to critique some of their conclusions; Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault can help us to recover some truths about the nature of the church that have been overshadowed by Christian appropriations of modernity. Smith states, “One of the reasons postmodernism has been the bogeyman for the Christian church is that we have become so thoroughly modern. But while postmodernism may be the enemy of our modernity, it can be the ally of our ancient heritage.” (23) Smith suggests that Derrida’s claim that there is ‘nothing outside the text’ can push us to recover the centrality of Scripture for understanding the world as a whole and the role of community in interpretation. He suggests that Lyotard’s claim of ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ can help us to recover the narrative character of faith and the confessional nature of our narrative in a context where we find ourselves in a world of competing narratives. He suggests that Foucault’s claim that ‘power is knowledge’ can help us to realize the cultural power of formation and discipleship and the necessity of the church to “enact counterformation by counterdisciplines.” (23) In other words, Foucault can tell us something about being disciples.

In each chapter Smith begins with a discussion of a movie to illustrate some of the questions at stake. He then moves into a discussion of the author being considered that leads into implications for the church in both its theology and practice. Each chapter ends with a tour of a postmodern church in which he seeks to interact with those such as the emerging church movement that have attempted to respond to the postmodern condition. While sympathetic, Smith feels that emerging church proposals remain at times captive to modernist strategies. Smith argues instead that “the postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient, that the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition, and that the most effective means of discipleship is found in liturgy.” (25) A truly thoughtful engagement with postmodernism will prompt us to look backwards, with one eye continually on ancient and medieval sources providing interaction with premodern ways of knowing, being, and doing. These ancient sources provide a useful countervoice to modernity (for instance the medieval scholar David Burrell has noted the affinity between pomo and medieval theology saying that ‘postmodern’ could be rendered ‘anti-antimedieval’). Smith emphasizes that this isn’t the attempt to recover some sort of a mythical pristine tradition or paleo-orthodoxy. Instead a persistent postmodernism should embrace a ‘radical orthodoxy’ in a postmodern mode that doesn’t shrink from an unapologetic dogmatics, and in which a thickly confessional church “draws on the particular (yet catholic) and ancient practices of the church’s worship and discipleship.” (25) In this way, his last chapter considers how the best way to be postmodern is to be ancient.

Apologetics and Witness in a Postmodern World

It is easy to assume that everything has changed with the advent of pomo. But this is not true. Pomo and modernity seem to exist together in ways that are continuous as well as discontinuous. Pomo is varied and pluriform yet it does not break cleanly with modernism at some points. The result of this is that in the postmodern context we often see the intensification of modernism, such as with notions of freedom, the use of technology, and epistemological relativism. Also, Derrida and Foucault confessed that they were both, in an important sense, Enlightenment thinkers. However, there is also an important sense in which they are critics of modernism. Despite the intensifications and continuity with modernism, pomo still breaks with modernity in important ways. One of Smith’s aims is to tease out these discontinuities. A second aim is to explore the continuities between pomo and orthodox Christian faith. But Smith realizes that recognizing such continuities will be resisted by many due to the presence of modern presuppositions which masquerade as ‘biblical’ Christianity.

For example, Smith notes that our faith, as well as our apologetics is compromised by modernism when we fail to appreciate the effects of sin on reason. When this is ignored we adopt an Enlightenment optimism about the role of ‘neutral’ reason in the reception of truth (and end up seeking to build a Christian America under the banner of natural law). Classical apologetics operates with a modern view of reason whereas presuppositional apologetics is postmodern in that it recognizes the role that presuppositions play in what counts as and is recognized as truth. Pomo can be a catalyst for the church to reclaim its faith, not as a system dictated by neutral reason, but as a story that needs ‘eyes and ears to hear.’ The responsibility of the church then is not rationalistic demonstration (as in much of contemporary apologetics) but kerygmatic proclamation (of the Word made flesh empowered by the Spirit, not the thin theism that a neutral reason yields). Smith states it starkly, “unless our apologetic proclamation begins from revelation, we have conceded the game to modernity.” (28) And ultimately, this new apologetic (which is ancient) is one that is proclaimed by a community’s way of life together. “The church doesn’t have an apologetic, it is an apologetic.” (29)

Question: Again, a pause for another important question Smith touches on. That is, what is the role of natural law and theology in the churches witness? It is understandable that one would want a common starting point or to emphasize ‘common grace’ in the public realm. But we also have to ask if such an approach not only leads to a watered down, lowest common denominator faith (what else can we expect when we are trying to make everyone happy) but whether it might also threaten particularity by obscuring important differences that need to be recognized. Is Smith correct that the ‘neutral reason’ that natural theology/law (ironically) presupposes produces a ‘thin theism?’ This is not to say there is no such thing as natural theology, general revelation, or common grace. But what is the role of these things when it seems that we interpret them by special revelation? What would happen if we didn’t appeal to a modern notion of ‘neutral reason,’ but recognized the perhaps necessary role of our presuppositions?

From Modern Christianity to a Postmodern Church

Smith goes on to say that if he is opposed to the epistemology of modern Christianity then he must also take issue with the ecclesiology (or lack thereof) that is part of the modernist version of Christian faith. Within modern Christianity the base ingredient is the individual. The church then is a collection or aggregate of individuals. When matters of faith are a private affair between the individual and God modern evangelicalism has a hard time articulating what role the church is to play – other than a place to meet other individuals who also have a private relationship with God. In this model what matters most is Christianity as a system of correct truth, not the church as a living community embodying its head. In the modern version, “Christianity becomes intellectualized rather than incarnate, commodified rather the site of genuine community.” (29) Smith, in reaction to this, confesses with the Apostles Creed that he believes in the ‘holy catholic church’ (little c) and that he believes the very notion of the ‘holy catholic church’ undoes the individualism endemic to much of modern evangelicalism. As Smith states, “we would do well to recover a much maligned formula: ‘There is no salvation outside the church.’” (30) This means not that some ecclesial body is the sole dispenser of grace but that there is no Christianity apart from the body of Christ (ie, the church). “The body is the New Testament’s organic model of community that counters the modernist emphasis on the individual.” (30) The church does not exist for ‘me’ and salvation is not simply a matter of intellectual mastery or emotional satisfaction. What we need is not so much answers but a reformation of the will and heart. For Smith the church is where God renews and transforms us; a place where the practices, sacraments, liturgy, life, and praxis of being the body form us in the image of Christ. Nothing is more countercultural than a community serving the Suffering Servant in a world of consumption and violence. Smith concludes, “the church will have this witness only when it jettisons its own modernity; in that respect postmodernism can be another catalyst for the church to be the church.” (30)

Final question: What is the nature of the church? This is a pressing concern and in my opinion Smith is on to something. But we need to ask: should we even bother trying to recover the formula ‘There is no salvation outside the church”? What are the role of practices, sacraments, and liturgy in forming us into Christlikeness? How does the church become incarnate and communal rather than intellectualized and commodified?