January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
January 28, 2013
In the past few months I have started to ponder what increasingly strikes me as an emergent crisis of our own discourse as postmodern thinkers.
What I have to say is probably going to offend a lot of people, but hopefully it will be taken as a genial offense, i.e., one that provokes soul-searching and reflection more than defensive outrage.
This crisis remains latent and unspoken in many ways, because so long as we continue to call ourselves “postmodernists” – a term that from its invention has totally lacked precision and has carried itself forward only so far as it functions much in the same way as avant garde did for previous generations – we privilege ourselves as those on the “edge,” when in fact the edge has become quite rounded and worn down. A recent personal anecdote will perhaps convey the sense of my disquiet.
First, what I would term a “pedagogical” one. I have a young pastor friend who has been sharing with me online discussions he has been having recently in a master’s course at an evangelical graduate school on the topic of “world views.”
As many who have been around the block on this one are aware, “world view” comparisons represent a vital staple as well as a rather smug apologetical device for evangelical theologians and philosophers, particularly when it comes to the pedagogy of the higher learning, in pushing for the superiority of the Christian perspective over others without really having to do the hard intellectual heavy-lifting.
This approach assumes there is something distinctive called “the Christian world view” which, when set beside other presumed world views (most of which are straw men anyway), readily if not self-evidently warrants itself. If one places a Big Mac next to a sirloin steak, one does not have to make a strong culinary case for the latter, especially if the former’s nutritional reputation, popular associations, and fast-food service venue discredit it almost automatically.
On the other hand, when I was in college years ago they used to serve in the dining hall every Saturday night so-called “steaks” that had the consistency of a Michelin tire and the taste of finely aged roadkill. We would often sneak out to McDonald’s to buy a Big Mac so as not to starve or be complicit in our own demise through food poisoning.
I have the impression from many conversations with ex-evangelicals that the analogy is not as fanciful as one may think. And it all depends on how you characterize both world views.
The accounts given of non-Christian world views in many introductory evangelical texts rarely give an exhaustive and nuanced summary of what they claim to be either contrasting or refuting. And the putatively “superior” Christian world view is usually an ahistorical, theologically tendentious, and oversimplified if not cartoonish version of what the complex and rich history of Christianity in its many shades and variations has begotten over the millennia. Augustine of Hippo and Charles Darby would not exactly share the same “world view.”
Comparing World Views
Moreover, arguing world views is like arguing which NFL team is best. Clearly, there are discernible criteria to distinguish between good and bad teams, but not necessarily among the “good”, which is relative to the sample chosen anyhow.
One team may have an incredible passing game because of an outstanding quarter back or a pair of tight ends, but the other may have a powerful defense and an assortment of highly talented running backs. Normally, the issue is settled by post-season competition, which comes down to the assumption that the top team wins. In the West at least, Christianity may have dominated the “superbowl” of cultural hegemony from the time of Augustine through Calvin, but it has been losing more and more ever since (except of course in other parts of the world where the “rules” of play are somewhat different).
There is of course the argument “we’re the best, but we’re neither properly appreciated nor understood.” But that plaint rings increasingly hollow. If “losers” are easily ignored today, in Roman times they gained adherents because of the same label that was slapped on them. The problem today is not that Christianity is poorly understood. In truth, it is completely misunderstood by the establishment – particularly the evangelical establishment – which defends a “Christian world view” that should remind us of what Voltaire said about the Holy Roman Empire, namely that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
I have probably wasted a lot of pixels in composing the foregoing paragraphs, because obviously I do not most likely have to convince the readers of this blog about the merits of this sort of argument. But what if the same issues were equally germane to us “postmoderns?” What if, in effect, we are simply commiting the same sins as our “fathers” in arguing, in effect, that the postmodern world view is superior to the “modern” – a term we casually throw around without even the most minimal historical sense or sophistication about what the term actually connotes or signifies?
The way the words “postmodernism” and “modernism” are deployed in the current theological literature amounts to nothing more than alleged Zeitgeist brand labels. The postmodern is in, the old is out. It is current rather than historical. Now we read Deleuze rather than Hegel. Big factitious deal! And Jesus? We would take him more seriously perhaps if he were French rather than Jewish.
So why is our version of the Christian “world view” superior? Uh, we read philosophy books, go to secular universities, and vote for Democrats. And we spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter. Unlike our ignorant counterparts, we have no qualms about smoking cigars over good malt scotch. And, yes,we know that Jesus really did care for the poor, so spend an hour a week in food pantries.
The problem with world view comparisons is that they overlook the fundamental epistemological problem – which is actually an extra-epistemological problem – of how we are existentially related to and committed to the the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses who took the radical, almost incomprehensible step of showing that he was “God with us” by going to Cross at Calvary in the person of his Son Jesus of Nazareth and raising him from the dead. In the history of the world there is no “world view” other than the language of witness to give an account of it.
Even Žižek has a hard time with that one.
World View Wii
I think the contemporary German philosophers Peter Sloterdijk, who seems to have crypto-Christian sympathies, is right when he in his recently translated book The Art of Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2012) insists on making Husserl’s famous epoché a personal rather than a purely “theoretical” decision on our part. Sloterdijk, the well-known German public philosopher, argued this point in a best-selling book from a few years back, which is unfortunately still untranslated, titled You Must Change Your Life when he showed how “re-disciplining” one’s daily routines in a way that changes your complete stance toward everything has profound social as well as philosophical consequences.
In the Christian argot that means learning how to “walk with God,” as the prophet Micah meant it (Mic. 6:8). We do not walk with God when it is done virtually by playing the theological Wii-game we
term “world view analysis.”
Okay, but let’s get back to philosophy. Even if we can’t rely on the God of the philosophers, particularly the postmodern French ones, as Pascal and Kierkegaard remind us, we can orient or “set our faces” (as the Bible would say) toward toward a form of philosophical – or minimally a “theoretical” – discourse that would approximate the existential positionality that would refute the suspicion we are merely Christian intellectual poseurs.
Since that prolonged era when the thunderstorm of deconstruction crackled over the land of Anglo-American thought and Christian theology came to believe it had somehow heard the voice of God in the clouds, it has become quite fashionable among Christian intellectuals to play a much more sophisticated version of World View Wii that might be termed “making our seemingly besieged and slightly problematic sense of Christian identity in an indifferent culture more culturally relevant.”
Liberal theology has been playing this game since long before the game was invented, but now everyone appears to be giving it a shot.
Often we accomplish this task simply by defining the cultural or intellectual issue du jour and finding some modish philosophical or theological authority with Christian – or at least crypto-Christian – credentials and exegeting them to the point that we are convinced they can resolve this issue. I own a T-shirt on which the backside is emblazoned with the question “what would Nietzsche do?”, mocking of course the older hackneyed megachurch marketing slogan of two decades ago “What would Jesus do?”
None of us of course can see ourselves stooping to that sort of polyester-suit superficiality, but the tough-love question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are not ourselves doing much the same. Perhaps not what would Nietzsche do, but what would Marion, Milbank, or Meillassoux say…about our confounded cultural or intellectual situation?
Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with being relevant. Paul was the first genuine practitioner of the art. But the difference was that he did not quote Epictetus to justify Jesus. He cited the Christ event – both the one that had been reported by the original witnesses and his own encounter on the road to Damascus – as the linchpin of a whole new and unprecedented discourse of “salvation” (Greek=soteria ) that was common in both the Jewish and Graeco-Roman worlds.
Paul did not play the game
In other words, Paul did not play World View Wii. Nor did he assert the “Christian world view” or the “postmodern Christian world view” with its proper textual authorities and iconic sages (other than of course Abraham, the pioneer of faith) as the preferred ones.
He testified to the Christ event, as Badiou in his epochal book on St. Paul argues with overwhelming force, as what I in my most recent book entitled Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012) characterize as a “singularity” of signification and experience that smashes the prevailing systems of discourse like a rolling tsunami and redistributes them and re-circulates them in such a manner that what we know call “Christian discourse” (perhaps misleadingly) is born.
The world view game constitutes an effort to simulate the power of Christian faith without the encounter or the commitment to the event, not only in the world but in our own lives. And we fail to recognize that those who spend their whole lives playing video games are – well, uh – world losers.
What Christian discourse lacks today is not another plug-in for the game, another discourse-simulation that we can enjoy and perform effectively, even perhaps honing our theological “skills” in the process.
What we need – and what we lack – is a sense of the event!
And the event – as the authors of the Bible from Deuteronomy to Revelation – keep reminding us is “very near” or “at hand.” Does postmodernism – or evangelical modernism for that matter with its smug sense of guarding a “Biblical world view” that is nothing more than Enlightenment cognitivism decorated with Biblical terminology without any sense of the mysterium tremendum of the revelation behind the Bible – mean we are simply wandering alone in the days of the final silence, in Nietzsche’s “twilight of the idols,” or that the rubble of idols beneath our feet wherever we wander constitutes an indicator that the event is closer than we think?
But figuring that out is a job for a postmodern “eschatology”, which no one dares play nowadays. He is here now!
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and Senior Editor of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. He is author of numerous books over the years on philosophy, culture, religion, and postmodernity including his most recent one Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. He specializes in continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the theory of religion. Raschke is an internationally known writer and academic who has published numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. His latest book, The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (2012), looks at the ways in which major trends in continental philosophy over the past two decades have radically altered how we understand what we call “religion.” Raschke is also a permanent adjunct faculty at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and has been a visiting scholar and lecturer at the University of Vienna.