Friday, July 29, 2005

Metanarratives, Postmodernism and Christianity

Ever have one of those moments in which you think something like, “Wow-so 2+2=4!” It is one of those moments of epiphany in which you wonder how you never saw that before. I had one of those reading an article in the latest Philosophia Christi by Brendan Sweetman entitled, “Lyotard, Postmodernism, and Religion.”

His fundamental point was quite straightforward and one that I am a little embarrassed at not putting together myself a long time ago. But I guess this is why we read things written by people much smarter than we! The question is whether there is a place for religion, specifically Christianity, within a Postmodern philosophical construct. Sweetman’s answer is, “no.” The reason, the argument of his paper, constituted my own private epiphany:

1.Postmodernism in its most fundamental and essential form is incredulity toward metanarratives.
2.Christianity is a metanarrative.
3.Therefore, there is no place for Christianity within a Postmodern philosophical construct.

I have to say I agree, and that I have always agreed. When evangelicals play with Postmodernism they are literally adopting philosophical tenants that are contradictory with their own Christianity. The two schools of thought cannot be assented to at the same time taking the central claims of each seriously and without equivocation.

There are two ways of getting around the above argument. First, deny the first premise. I think that fails in large part because it is the founding principle of postmodern thought and has influenced all its developments since Lyotard. Anything that now passes as postmodern-pragmatism, language-games, ethically significant cultures, deconstruction-all stem from the basic premise, “incredulity toward metanarrative.”

The second, and probably more popular route would be to deny the second premise. The best way to deny that Christianity is a metanarrative might be (as the article points out) to create a strong bifurcation between faith and reason, assert that Christianity is only a matter of faith, and that metanarratives are exclusively matters of reason. But this denial misconstrues the Biblical notion of faith, turns it into something it was never intended to be (ONLY “blind faith”), and fails to take seriously the metaphysical, epistemological and ethical claims of the Christian faith.

Christianity is clearly a metanarrative-a narrative for the ages.


Macht said...

You may want to check out James K.A. Smith's "A Little Story About Metanarratives: Lyotard, Religion, and Postmodernism Revisited" in the journal Faith and Philosophy (I forget what issue). He argues that it isn't just that metanarratives are matters of reason, but that they are legitimized through reason. The Biblical story certainly isn't legitimized through reason. And this doesn't require the misconstrual that you talk about, since not being legitimized by reason is much different than being "only a matter of faith."

Public Theologian said...


Let me also add to Macht's very salient point that metanarratives also have a coercive aspect, weilding powers of enforcement across all social distinctions--race, class, gender, age, ethnicity, etc, which function to reinforce it and to keep it alive. Communism, National Socialism, the Roman Emoire, medieval Islam all possessed metanarratives that relied on force for their contuinuity.

Micronarratives, on the other hand, have only the bond of community to keep themseleves alive from generation to generation. Communities tell their people particularly their children who they are, where they are from, and where they where you are going. "Reality"is simply what the community says it is, but this reality only has any force within the community itself, since the community recognizes that there are other scripts, other narratives by which group members may ultimately live their lives. .

What Sweetman .confuses is ChristENDOM with ChristIANITY. The early church's narrative was not one passed along by coercion nor one which was legitimated by reason, but rather one that was passed through baptism and legitimated by the Risen Lord whom, it confessed, had taken up residence in its midst.

In the fourth and fifth centuries Christianity did become Christendom and it is at this point that Sweetman's syllogism first becomes true, and for many centuries this was indeed the norm. Thankfully, however, this is no longer the case. We are living in the first generation of the post-Constantinian church, in which the church no longer calls the shots but is just another option alomgside of many others in the intellectual marketplace (see the full discussion of this in Hauerwas and Willimon's now classic Resident Aliens). Folks like Sweetman opine for the glory days when Christians were in charge and could assert a hegemonic worldview without dissenters, but those days are long gone.

Rather than a cause for disappointment, this is a great opportunity for the church to go back to its roots. The chruch was never intended to be a world power, or to define metaphysical reality, but was instead at its best when it was the alternative to a metanarrative like Rome, and as it still is in places like China. Rather than resisting its secondary status as a world power, the church should see this as a gift from God, a second chance for the church in the West, to once again be the alternative polity to the rest of the "Isms" that the world has to offer.

We play our best when we are behind!



Eric "the" Lind said...

While it is true that metanarratives can lead to coercion, it is not true to assume that they are so automatically. The fact that I believe in the overarching Truth of Christianity does not mean I'm going to try to force my beliefs on others, nor that I will support those who do so.

I also disagree with the notion that the early church's narrative was not legitimated by reason. Christ, the apostles and the other church founders were constantly appealing to reason, both based on the Old Testament and on Greek philosophical thought. This appeal, however, was done in support of Christian faith to prevent that faith from being blind.

Finally, I do agree that Christianity should play best from behind. The thing that set the early Christians apart from the rest of the world was the fact that they didn't try to take over politically. This made the Christian metanarrative fundamentally different from all others and contributed greatly to church persecution. A coercive, political metanarrative knows how to deal with another coercive, political metanarrative, but how does it handle one based on love, faith, and peace?

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on NT Wright's published perspective on postmodernism's critique of the enlightenment project. Is there actually something to this beyond denying absolutes that leads inevitably to nihilism?


Bob Robinson said...

There's yet two other ways of dealing with the above argument, and both deny the conclusion of the third statement (the "therefore" statement).

One is the tact that Stan Grenz and others have taken, that we should indeed have incredulity toward metanarratives, therefore, we must embrace the micronarratives of inidvidual Christian communities as they seek to explain the Christian story.

Another tact (which I prefer) is one that Nicholas Wolterstorff and others take--that postmodernism is absolutely correct in undercutting three particular metanarratives: (1) Modernity is making us happier by making us more free, (2) Modernity is unfolding the meaning of human existence, (3) Modernity's technological progress will lead to human progress. Wolterstoff argues that after postmodernism clears away these falsehoods, it opens up space for them to be replaced by the true metanarrative of Christianity.

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Anonymous said...

Are we tryimg to create a postmodern Christianity, or a revolution of Chritians reaching postmoderns for Christ?

Lindsey said...

fantastic post. right on.

Callmeteem said...

Good and well thought-out post. It gives me the thought that bringing the truth of the gospel to post-modern people amounts to cross-cultural missions.
And how do we communicate when, to some degree, we don't exactly speak the same language?

Anonymous said...

Are you suggesting that we need to change the words (and possible meaning) of scripture to appease pagan ears, or just make it more digestable? Do you think we over think things just a bit and forget that we are only the waterer or planter, and the Holy Spirit is the one that brings the lost to Himself. We are called to just speak the truth, as found in His inspired word.

Phil Steiger said...

Macht-Good to hear from you. I think that construal of metanarrative-"legitimized by reason"-is an interesting, if not narrow, description. I will have to check out his article, but it strikes me as a definition that does a couple of unfortunate things. First, it might eliminate every worldview outside of the hard sciences as legitimate, all-encompassing worldviews. Secondly, it makes room for an unjustified and unbiblical bifurcation between faith and reason.

I don't know your stance on natural theology, but the reasoning behind it does not eliminate the role of faith, and vise versa.

PT-If we are in any kind of postmodern Christian generation right now, we will not last the next two generations. I have posted before, and I believe it now more than ever, that because postmodernism is such a vacuous philosophy it cannot stand on its own two feet for very long; and if we are going to wed our faith to it, a postmodern church will not last long either.

I disagree with your distinction between Christendom and Christianity in this context. Metanarratives are not coercive. And the assertion that they are is one of the classical logical blunders-"because someone once (or many times) used a hammer to kill someone, all hammers are evil!" I think you are capeable of better moral reasoning than that.

Besides, your micornarrative, as you call it, can be just as oppressive. After all, why do you comment on this blog if not to "oppress" me with your point of view? Are you trying to change my mind of the minds of my readers, or are you just asserting your local narrative into the linguistic void of cross-cultural communication hoping for absolutely no communication at all? And if you have children, have you thought that maybe they don't want to be force-fed your little micronarrative? Maybe they identify with an entirely different group altogether.

Calmeteem-I think your observation is right on the mark in many ways. Ministry in America today is more and more analagous to American missionaries in, say, Laos than every before. Our challange is to speak the Gospel (in all of its metanarratival glory :)) while finding ways to communicate with a radically changing culture.

Anonymous-You said:
Do you think we over think things just a bit

Never. It is easy for Christians, especially Pentecostals and Charismatics, to hide themselves behind the work of the Holy Spirit. I would rather look at it this way: How does the Holy Spirit work? And the answer, in my opinion, is that the HS works in two basic ways-through the gifts and abilities God has given people and miraculously.

That then means that because God gave us the ability to analyze and reason, it is our faithful duty to do so. We rely on God to work on the hearts and minds of men and women, but if I am going to be faithful to what He has asked me to do, I am going to think as well as I can.

Emme said...

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is primarily emphasized in the Pentacostal churches in more externally interesting ways, and in my personal experience have found this to lead some away from the core heart issues, but the Holy Spirit is the power behind the Christian. Jesus said without me you can do nothing. Even reason. . .

The problem with reason is that on so many "issues" or questions of the Christian faith, there are no answers. Then what. (?)

At what length do we battle with the tough unanswerable questions. How far do you take "your reason."

In the end is there only left the simple words of Jesus, and faith.

Can the very act of "attempting" to reason, be only a distraction? Is it so "simple" or difficult, to just believe what He has already told us in His word?

Emme said...

I will add that I will not pretend to be innocent of over analysing the Christian faith and much of the doctrine to such a degree that I am frustrated and disallusioned with the lack of answers. Just like health food and diet and all that--the more you research and study the more confused you get. There is too much contradicting information.

I was thinking about this last night when my 9 year old daughter was sure she had all the information she needed to make her conclusion regarding a point in discussion. She was far from correct because she lacked very important information, which she refused to listen to, at that time. She used her God given ability to reason, but lacked the wisdom and direction needed to piece together a correct conclusion. I wonder if God looks at us like that when we rely on our own abilities and discredit the power of the Holy Spirit.

Bob Robinson said...


I hoped you'd interact with Grenz or Wolterstorff--
They embrace much of postmodernism yet hang onto orthodox Christian faith...and you haven't read them.

Have you read Grenz' key book, A Primer on Postmodernism?

Have you read Wolterstorff's recent book, Educating for Shalom, especially the excellent chapter on "The Project of a Christian University in a Postmodern Culture"?

Have you read the latest from Brian Walsh? Colossians Remixed is a solid exegesis of Paul's letter to the Colossians from an apologetic and postmodern perspective.

Have you listened to NT Wright's crucial lecture on the subject, Christian Hope in a Postmodern World?

It seems you have not yet interacted with the best that's out there before you criticize.

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-Assumptions can be dangerous-and you assume way too much. I am a little surprised by you-you haven't sounded like this in the past.

You assume that those you list have embraced postmodernism and remained orthodox-you assume too much. There is a great deal of controversy as to whether Grenz remained orthodox in some crucial ways. I have read the Primer, and several other works of his, and I have to say, I am on the side of the skeptic.

As for most of the others, I have not read those specific books. I have taken a serious look at Colossians Remixed and avoided it because it appears to me to play too much with the faith (but I should avoid too many assumptions...)

Overall, you cannot assume that these authors have actually embraced postmodernism (I seriously doubt Woltersdorf has in any serious way-to educate being sensetive to postmodernism is very different from embracing pomo), or that if they have, they have remained orthodox.

What nobody in the emergent church wants to admit or acknowledge is that the core tenants of pomo are diametrically opposed to the core tennants of Christianity-you literally cannot embrace pomo and remain orthodox-it is impossible.

Too much of the Emergent crowd believes that if they simply state they are still orthodox, they can believe any stupid thing they want, and they are still orthodox.

That, my friend, is floppy thinking.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for calling out my "assumptions."
I was just disappointed that you didn't interact with Grenz or Wolterstorff in your criticism of pomo. I really appreciate your insights, and most often find myself agreeing with you and learning from you. That’s why I was surprised at what seemed like your simple dismissal of all things postmodern.

My point is this: In your argument above, your two premises are true, but your conclusion is faulty.
1. .Postmodernism does indeed have as a fundamental element the incredulity of metanarratives.
2. Christianity isindeed a metanarrative.
3. But the above authors are offering a conclusion that is a better solution to the one you offered.
They are saying that we do not have to "embrace" postmodernity in order to learn from postmodernity.
I agree that postmodernity has just as much wrong with it as modernity did. But I know many Christians who are very modern and yet still held to an orthodox Christianity (thus parting with several central tenets of modernity in order to do so). I think the names I list above are Christians who lean toward postmodernism yet also are able to still hold to orthodox Christianity (by parting with several central tenets of pomi in order to do so).

It seems to me that postmodernity is here. We can either decide (a priori) that it is all evil and that we can't be Christian in any sense while interacting with pomo philosophy (thinking, wrongly, that a modern philosophy is more "Christian"),
or we can discern what is helpful, what opens new doors of apologetic, what sheds our modern preconceptions that have warped the purity of a pre-modern religion, and what we need to call out as indeed diametrically opposed to that orthodox pre-modern religion.

Is that better? Sorry again for appearing to be in a huff.

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-Thanks for writing back-I never know if people come back to a post that is getting burried in a blog.

When you put things that way, I agree wholeheartedly on several things. (And I typically do when I read your posts/comments, which is why the last one surprised me a bit.) There are things to be learned from the pomo critique, and they should be taken seriously. A pomo culture really is here, and we should learn what that means for the unchurched and for the life of the church. The authors you listed have much to teach us in that way.

I think one of the mistakes typically made in that process that I try to call out often is confusing the process of understanding the pomo culture and adhering to some of the central tenants of pomo philosophy.

For example, pomo philosophy argues that community is deeply formative-gives us our ethics, metaphysics, and human nature-and that kind of deep formation does not jive with Christianity.

So now the hard job is with us Christian thinkers-how do we address that kind of assumption in culture, hold to a contradictory philosophy within the church, and reach out all at the same time.

Because that is no easy task, I think many church leaders (of all kinds of stripes) make it easier by dropping the whole "contracitory philosophy" part and "embracing" pomo philosophy.

I still wholeheartedly believe, especially given the distinction between understanding pomo culture and assenting to pomo philosophy, that there is no room for pomo philosophy in the Christian worldview.

God bless, man, and thanks for keeping me honest!

Bob Robinson said...

You see, your example serves as a test-case as to what to do with postmodernism.

You write, "pomo philosophy argues that community is deeply formative-gives us our ethics, metaphysics, and human nature-and that kind of deep formation does not jive with Christianity," and that Christian thinkers must "hold to a contradictory philosophy."

I think it is would actually be more intellectual if Christians did not simply write off pomo as wrong-headed and wash their hands of it all. In doing so, these Christian thinkers would miss the important lesson to be learned: Christianity has always been about "community," we are actually mandated to created such communities to "make disciples...baptizing them...and teaching them."

In order to be a Christian, one must be converted. This conversion, according to experts in the fields of both sociology and theology, is not just a conversion of belief but also a conversion of community (we must be willing to change allegiences--Jesus said, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple" [Luke 14:26]).

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has written Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels, a theology on Conversion (see some of his blog posts on the subject here). Much of his orthodox Christian biblical study on conversion lines up with the pomo understanding of community.

So, I think Christian thinkers, if they want to intellectually deal with postmodernity, need to have a more nuanced strategy than just simply creating what may be a false dichotomy--"there is no room for pomo philosophy in the Christian worldview."

What do you think?

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-Thanks again for your thoughts. The basic point you raise-what is the most intelligent approach to pomo for the Christian-is profoundly important. I am not saying I will necessarily deal with it profoundly, but I am putting up a new post in order to address the issue.

In a nutshell, the most intelligent thing for a Christian to do is to dutifully study a philosophy and/or cultural trend, understand it on its own terms, and deal with it accordingly.

Nuance doesn't always mean intelligence-sometimes it means whitewashing.

Bob Robinson said...

I think great models of Christian intellectual engagement with postmodernity are Tom Wright and Brian Walsh.

Wright's latest lecture on the subject was at Seattle Pacific University, and they have published the transcript from this lecture in Response Magazine (you can download a pdf of it here).

Brian Walsh has written (in my opinion, and in the opinion of the college-outreach ministry I work for, the CCO) the best book on Christian Worldview published in the last quarter century--Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (InterVarsity Press, 1984). So he is not some faddish postmodernist...he is engaging postmodernity in the fashion that I'm advocating here. Colossians Remixed is the kind of result that this type of engagement will bring.

Bob Robinson said...

And, if you've got time, I invite you to check out my blog post on getting Lyotard right on his definition of the "Metanarrative."

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