Let’s stop playing “World View Wii” – confronting the crisis of our own postmodern theological discourse

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.

Kantwurst

German philosophers make it into the German supermarket.

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).

  • Casey Franklin

    I really like this post. As best I can gather, you are skeptical of the
    “postmodern” label, lamenting the ambivalence, ambiguity and
    over-usage as well at the same time criticizing the tendency to jump on the
    bandwagon just because it is the “cool thing to do”…

    I hope you don’t mind if I gently push back a bit on just one small part of
    your blog. The reason I like the term is for the very reason you perhaps tire
    of it. I agree with you that it is overused and way too fuzzy. However, this is
    exactly why it works so well to attempt to describe our current
    “condition.” Our current situation is fuzzy. The cataclysmic shift
    from simple to complex, from monism and to pluralism, from a sense of what
    grounds us as individuals as well as society vanishing beneath our feet. I also
    agree that people have been far too quick to jump on the bandwagon of something
    that so severely lacks definition or specificity–but again that is so
    symptomatic of the condition.

    Postmodernity, in my humble opinion, is both a set of critiques of The
    Enlightenment paradigm, epistemology, and general outlook on the world,
    but also a “condition” which while extremely difficult to encapsulate
    or describe, consists of at least a couple of general “moods.” One of
    the “moods” is a sense of a turn back to honesty and, for lack of a
    better term, “being real.” It’s daring to ask, “What is
    real?” simply because one feels there is no other choice. As a Gen Xer, I
    understand this mood firsthand. While the shift to what is (really) real
    aspires to nihilism and left to its own devices ultimately leads to despair,
    the turn itself is constructive. It’s like the alcoholic finally admitting he
    is one. It’s the beginning of recovery as the addict finally admits that he’s believed
    a lie all his life.

    This is why I agree with those who contend that Postmodernity is more interested in truth than those who repudiate Postmodernity as being trivial and relativistic regarding truth. Postmoderns are concerned with the truth about truth. Postmodernity is interested in the truth about ourselves, others, our world and God. Modernity created a fantasy world, that
    like Dorothy, Postmodernity pulled back the curtain to reveal the real Oz. The
    world has been gasping ever since.

    Pomo is a general mood of skepticism about everything, but especially about any system that make claims regarding the certainty of knowledge. The Pomo mood is skeptical that such knowledge is certain, objective or inherently good. It’s giving up trying to maintain pretenses. The real Oz has been exposed, so why try to pretend anymore?

    Fortunately, it doesn’t stop there. It’s a realization that in order to be constructive, you must first be deconstructive. Once you have torn down the façade that has created the fantasy, you can finally begin to rebuild something that is real with the raw materials.

    I think this is one of the reasons that postmodernism is so attractive to
    emerging generations. This is why its ambiguity “works.” It’s like identifying
    with a mood. You’re not sure why you feel the way you do; you just know it when
    you feel it. You identify with it like a favorite color, even though giving it
    definition eludes you. It’s a bit like feeling a little melancholy and not
    knowing exactly why. When you experience a certain mood, or emotion, you long
    for something to identify with, suddenly you encounter something call
    postmodern thought, and you go, “That’s it! That’s me! That’s exactly what
    I’ve been feeling for years, but never knew what to call it! I never knew what
    I was feeling actually had a name…” There’s comfort in knowing that you
    have not been the only one feeling the way you do…

    As for Postmodern Christianity, there’s a sense in which this mood is more
    honest about faith, doubt, and what we know and what we don’t know. It is this
    sense that not only is there something is wrong with the world but what
    “Christian” is that makes us search for what is “real.”
    Modernity wasn’t quite right…we strive for the “post” of
    postmodernism. It seems the best way to move forward. In fact, it is the
    only way. It’s acknowledging that life is not simple, but complex, and
    therefore, so is this thing we call “faith.” We put our faith in Christ knowing
    He is the answer, yet, also knowing that life is hard, full of ambiguity,
    uncertainty, and loss. Christ experienced what we are experiencing in this
    life, good and bad. We serve a God who can sympathize with our pain, suffering
    and sorrow and calls us “friend.” We don’t have to go on pretending
    that we have all the answers, and that we experience constant “joy,
    happiness and fulfillment…” but instead can be honest with ourselves,
    others and God about what we experience, knowing that Christ is the ultimate
    (un)answer. We don’t have to have all the answers, we don’t have to have it all
    figured out, we simply give ourselves to Jesus, humbly try to walk with Him as
    we experience Him walk with us. Ultimately, it’s not that we have found
    “the answer,” it’s that we have found Grace, true Grace, amazing
    Grace that we can’t fully explain, but we know it when we experience it. Once
    we finally “get it,” we become grace addicts, grace converts, grace
    people. Then once and for all we know we can stop pretending and start being
    real. This is why Jesus died. He was and is the ultimate “real.” He
    invites us into his reality. He invites us into his crucifixion so that we can
    experience true Resurrection.

    The “reality” that Modernity gave us is nothing more than a we Wii little world. I agree, we need to stop playing Wii.

    • Carl Raschke

      Casey, you have a point, especially when you outline the cultural and perhaps we might say “moral” virtues of the postmodern condition. But of course every generation’s straw man is yesterday’s figure of integrity. And I think you miss the gist of what I am arguing. We can’t do away with the term postmodern these days any more than we can jettison phrases like “happiness”, “love”, or “capital”, which are historically overused and unanalyzed, which makes them good subject matter for philosophy. I could make one more time all the critical points I do about what has come in a stereotypical way come to be labelled “modernism”, especially in the new evangelical literature.

      Modernism is a rather capricious and slippery term too. The word as it applies to the revolution in the arts (interestingly both these words comes to function as general descriptors in art and architecture) that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century has a different force than when it refers to, say, the kind of naturalist critique that was used against Christian fundamentalism up until World War II (relying on figures such as Kant and Darwin). Modernism was also anti-authority as well. That is why the Pope condemned it in 1870 and why it was always contrasted, particularly after the Scopes trial in the 1920s, with “fundamentalism.” Now postmodernist Christians refer to fundamentalists as modernists, a strange exchange of nomenclature that just happened in recent years. Fundamentalists used to claim that the Bible has its own authority over science. Now “fundamentalists” claim the scientific – i.e., “modernist” – method – without the scientific conclusions that go along with it. It claims to be the superior “science”, and of course that “science” warrants a superior “Christian world view.”

      Your are using “postmodernism” in exactly the same way we used “existentialism” to fight scientistic modernism (not the religious kind) back in the 1960s. And relevance was coined as a kind of “cultural imperative” also during that period. The terms died out with the demise of Sixties sensibility, and returned in the 1990s with a vengeance.

      My argument is against making postmodernism, or postmodern Christianity, primarily a “world view,” something with which I think you would agree. One world view is as good as another, and world views change slowly like styles of clothes, communication, and interior decorating. Christianity always acclimatizes itself to world views, but just as the map is not the territory, the world view is not the faith that utilizes the “signifiers” through which that faith is expressed. Faith is the witness and grounding in an event. Just as it is easy to miss the forest through the trees, so it is even easier to confuse the world view with the event that shapes that world view. Even the “pomoest” of us do that. That is what I am saying.

      • Casey Franklin

        I love your term “pomoest.” Who’s the pomoest of them all?

        • Casey Franklin

          Why can’t Wii all just get along? :-) I’m sure I missed your “Gist”…sorry about that!

          Yes, I would agree that neither postmodernism, nor should Christianity
          for that matter, be put forth as a “world view,” especially a superior
          one. Doing so makes commits the same fatal error of all other world views. The term “world view” is problematic in the first place just as you point out that terms like “Modernism,” “fundamentalism,” etc. are as well as “postmodernism.” They mean different things to different people, and people latch on to them because of what they think they represent. Every generation has it’s “beef” with the so called “Establishment” and use their own terms to justify and communicate their critique. While there is nothing wrong with “viewing the world” a certain way, for indeed, we all do this whether we hold a “formal” “world view” or not–we are subjects after all. It is indeed the Christ Event as you say that is the game changer. The Christ Event has changed the whole paradigm. In fact, it is in the Christ Event that we see the entire structure of “world views” destroyed. The temple curtain is torn asunder between man and God. There is no longer a need for a “world view” because Christ has closed the gap between man and God. The whole structure of man’s search for God has been destroyed.

          What I am arguing is that there is an implicit structure of foundational epistemology that often accompanies evangelical theology. I am arguing that there is a need to move to a holistic epistemology, one that is intrasystematic. This could be the “pomoest” move yet.