DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Postmodernism

The first thing to be said about this subject is that it appears impossible to precisely define it. Despite that, the general line of thought which underlies postmodernism undoubtedly poses a challenge to traditional Christianity at least on a par with anything of the past two hundred years.

In order to bring it all a little down to earth, the contrasts below might prove useful as a start.

Modernism

        Postmodernism

Disenchantment with religious truth and search for abstract truth. Truth can be stated firmly and in many cases, finally. It is capable of unambiguous statement within given paradigms.

Timeline:
(Renaissance) >> Enlightenment >> 1750s >> 1850-1945 in the development of analytical disciplines >> ongoing in the 21st century but modified by postmodernism

General:
Attempt to fashion a unified, coherent worldview from a fragmented reality. After the First World War, in the 1920s and 1930s a "High Modernism" saw current ways of portraying and managing the world as outmoded. It needs only a new way of seeing truth and beauty. Meaning comes through rational, scientific means. History shows progress in a steady linear movement. Literature and art are windows onto a new world.

Computers: PCs / Unix / software is a linear set of commands. A logical, mechanical sequence, often compartmentalised in its overall structure. Independent units have difficulty in interacting or even communicating.

Culture: High culture, produced by intellectuals, is all that really matters. The masses follow.

Symbols: Symbols convey meaning e.g. Hammer & Sickle conveys Communism, the "Evil Empire"; National flag signals good.

Architecture: A building's form follows what it's used for. Straight, functional lines look the same worldwide. All is functional. What is beautiful is subjected to what is useful.

Business: Mass production in stable companies. National wealth and exports. Planned production and lifetime employment.

Science: Truth is out there to be discovered. Clockwork universe and absolute laws. Knowledge through analysis and reduction.

Politics: Mass social movements. Policy derived from ideology. Nation versus nation. Centralised controls, big government and parties. Top down decisions and balanced powers.

The arts: Novels and movies the main media. Meaning is proposed by the author and taken on board by the reader and viewer. A body of "good" art exists, defined by an intellectual elite. Mass fashions.

There is no universal truth, abstract or otherwise. Truth is individual and subjective. It depends upon context. Change the person and context and the "truth" also changes.

Timeline:
1890s and after with origins in anthropology and other disciplines >> Post-World War II >> especially post-1968 >> possible decline after 2000


General:
Any distinction between "High" and "Low" culture is not much use. External, objective truth is replaced by self-reference. All things are merely relative to each other. So one can't distinguish between "good" and "bad". Our world isn't linear but organic, a multiplicity of texts and discourses. We can't learn from the past, only about it. Only the present matters because "the past" is a man-made text - as is all art.

Computers: Intuitive Windows systems. Networks. Shifting, independent but interacting modules. The Web a multifarious, uncontrollable entity, operating at many levels and dimensions, only loosely linked by a search function.

Culture: Popular culture is the focus. The media are now concerned mainly with commerce.

Symbols: Symbols become drained of meaning; become commercial. Hammer & Sickle can now be used in advertising which is seen as an art form.

Architecture: No single look is best. Styles from the past mixed. Function and form interlock. Each informs the other. Looks matter. What people prefer is catered for.

Business: Automated production. Instability and fast adaptation. Multi-national companies on a global scale. Multiple careers.

Science: We design systems of thought and know the world through them. Truth is not objective. The universe is a system.

Politics: Social movements based on sectional needs. Policy derived from interest groups and minority pressures. Smaller government plus mass media influence. Move to more local decisions and power.

The arts: Television and computer media now primary. Novels and books decline except in mass promotions. Art is dumbed down. "Good" art is in the eye of the beholder. Individual preference.

I'm not sure that the above simple distinctions are particularly useful in themselves. But they do enable a newcomer to postmodernism to at least gain some idea of what it encompasses.

Some fundamental postmodern claims can be summarised as follows:

  • You and I (the "signifiers") have replaced a supposed objective reality (the "signified") as the focus of meaning and value in life. Whereas our immediate predecessors held that truth is out there to be discovered, defined and preserved for ever, it turns out that truth is relative to the person stating it. It is ephemeral, constantly shifting and changing according to circumstance and context.
  • This focus is revealed primarily in the way we use language. Previously it was thought that words referred to actual things in a way which told us exactly (or as nearly as possible) what those things are. 

    Postmodernists maintain that language is capricious and indeterminate, that it means what we say it means and no more. Thus the meaning of a novel can be stated in a number of dimensions. It means [a] what the author intended it to mean; 
    [b] what the text conveys; [c] what the reader thinks it means; and [d] different things in different times and in different cultures. 

    It certainly doesn't have only one meaning which we can discover through careful analysis and reflection. A competent analyst, for example, might understand the novel better than the author does - even though it issues from the latter's thought.
  • This way of perceiving reality forces us to conclude that every intellectual discipline - even science and mathematics, usually thought of as utterly objective - is an interpretation of some underlying reality which can't be described. 

    Thus an acorn means one thing in a poem, something else to a scientist, and another thing to a squirrel. What, if anything, is the "real" meaning of an acorn? The art and discipline of working out such meaning is known as "hermeneutics" and is a dominant method of understanding postmodern meaning. Presumably, an expert postmodernist is able to identify and describe this underlying meaning.
  • There is no such thing as dispassionate interpretation or explanation of anything. It is always influenced, if not determined, by a number of factors such as our social background, our personality, our genetic inheritance, our need for power and so on. As William Grassie writes, according to the postmodernist, "There is no direct experience of reality without interpretation; and all interpretation is in some sense corrupted by the cultural and personal prejudices and prejudgements of the interpreter" [1].

The postmodern vocation is to expose the fault of modernist claims to objectivity. Words like  "corrupted", "prejudiced" and "prejudged" are applied to modernist positions. They are all pejorative. One might be forgiven for wondering if there are postmodernists who criticise other postmoderns for using such biased language.

Be that as it may, it's essential, say postmodernists, to recognise that nothing is what it seems. It's impossible to describe anything as it really is. Names of things are conveniences which depend on other words for meaning. If one looks at a dictionary, for example, one finds that every word's meaning is defined in terms of other words. They in turn are given meaning by yet more words in an endless cycle. Similarly, the word "water" doesn't describe H2O, any more than the word "electron" describes part of a molecule.

The only way meaning can be discovered is by breaking down or "deconstructing" everything that is said and written into its constituent components and by casting it in its many contexts. Only then is it possible to discover the underlying constructs of any communication. 

If we do this we discover that much, if not all, of what we regard as truth is exposed for what it really is - a narrative of our unrecognised, unconscious prejudices. So, for example, men inevitably perceive life from a male perspective. Thus feminist deconstruction of male bias is essential. Males might in turn, one supposes, deconstruct feminist communications and paradigms to reveal hidden female prejudices. What often seems to be lacking is the assertion that one should, as a matter of good practice if not conscience, strive to see past one's own non-deconstructed perceptions.

Similarly, those possessing power in society tend to define life in terms of that which will preserve their power. Deconstruction of power and knowledge reveals hidden structures which perpetuate (albeit unconsciously) deception and oppression of the vulnerable by those who are powerful. It's up to the oppressed, therefore, to re-define power in a way which restructures society itself. Presumably, it is the skilled postmodernist who is able to reveal the un-deconstructed prejudices of both positions.

A consequence of the postmodern position (if such actually exists) in the arts is that there is no such thing as "good" art. The word "good" merely signifies a particular entrenched position, usually socially sanctioned. Thus in architecture, for example, it's permissible to describe certain styles such as "modern" or "gothic". But neither is "better" than the other. If therefore a building consists - as many now do - of a mix of styles, there is nothing wrong with that.

Postmodernism turns out, it seems to me, to be a range of philosophical approaches to life which lack formal shape and definition as a coherent system of thought. Some claim that postmodernism comes after modernism in time. Its (better) approach to reality has rendered redundant the attempt at systematic thought which began with the Enlightenment. 

Others (I think more accurately) maintain that postmodernism is not the end of modernism, but is a "moment within modernism". The latter has been correctly criticised for claiming absolute objectivity. In that sense, postmodernism has served a good purpose in pointing out a damaging absolutist weakness in the modernist position. But that doesn't invalidate, they would say, the ongoing thrust towards a thought-out, if provisional, approach to reality at large.

I for one have been unable to penetrate the opaque code and obscure references of most postmodern writing I have attempted to wade through. I conclude that I'm neither intelligent nor well-educated enough to fully comprehend what they're talking about. Having made that damaging admission, my criticisms of postmodernism may lack weight.

Whatever the shortcomings of modernism (itself not a definable movement of thought, but a wide-ranging method of thinking), it seems to me that the postmodern attempt to demolish modernism has failed.

At the heart of postmodernism lies the notion of deconstruction, made famous mainly by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Deconstruction is the process by which a text is unpicked layer by layer to expose meanings which would otherwise be hidden. As one commentator remarks, deconstruction leads to a conclusion that

... no meaning, no identity, is ever stable or fixed, but is dependent on multiple contexts, none of which is either discrete or finite. [2]

[1] When a text is deconstructed - that is, when the underlying metaphors are laid bare, and consequently the "real" but hidden meanings are revealed - we are supposed to discover that neither the identity of the author nor the author's intentions are of ultimate relevance. Whatever the author's intentions, there are always more layers of meaning to be searched out. No communication has final "meaning" except insofar as its multiple levels are laid bare and explained.

As A E McGrath puts it, 

All interpretations are equally valid, or equally meaningless (depending upon your point of view) ... [it implies] that someone had authority to define how a work of literature ought to be understood, and denied others the opportunity to exercise freedom of interpretation, thus stifling their creativity. [3]

The postmodern outlook is, I think, correct in pointing out the degree to which metaphorical function is frequently mistaken for a naming function.

Our language of thought relies on metaphor to a degree far greater than most like to admit. This can become particularly dangerous when metaphor is reified, that is, when word-pictures are treated as though they are descriptions of something real "out there". In particular, religions tend to reify metaphorical expression.

Postmodernism is also correct in revealing the degree to which we all interpret the same words differently, depending upon the way we see the world. So the word "dog" may mean an animal which is dangerous to one person, and a cuddly bundle of fur to another.

But the postmodern case is often taken too far. Meaning cannot be entirely stripped from words or images. Despite varied interpretation of events and objects, words do mean something. They are useful in establishing common ground between individuals.

For example, whatever the secondary associations of the word "dog" might be, and however varying the mental images elicited by the word, there is nevertheless a particular kind of being or entity associated with the word. It is distinct from (though linked to) every other entity. This association will be made by all but the tiniest fraction of humanity. We all know that a dog is ultimately, like everything else, made up of elementary particles of matter into which everything can be ultimately broken down. But so what? The dogs we live with are real and can be experienced and described. 

Hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) turns out to be a profoundly circular discipline if postmodernism is given full rein. When I read and interpret a novel or philosophical treatise, postmodernists assert that I bring to it my personal bias and cultural background. These often operate beyond my awareness, just as they operated beyond the awareness of the novelist when he or she was writing. 

It turns out that anyone reading my interpretation, and in turn attempting to interpret it, is just as biased as I was. Everyone ends up not being brought nearer to the original, but being forced to wade through several levels of bias from their own biased points of view.

In short, postmodern hermeneutics ends up being bogged down in multiple, recurring levels of meaning. If we are to take the postmodern position seriously, any communication cannot display its meaning until the entire world of personal and social meaning has been applied to it. To put it simply, this is an impossible dream. The hermeneutical buck has to stop somewhere [4].

[2] Postmodernists claim to be able to deconstruct all expressions of thought and so derive the hidden meanings which reveal the "true" nature of communications. Thus the policies of a political party, for example, may reveal that by "freedom" its members mean something like "the rich doing what they wish with the poor". For the poor, the concept "freedom" might mean the poor taking over the assets of the rich.

Similarly, the recipient of a Nobel Prize may be praised for a fundamental advance in the science of curing cancer. But deconstruction might reveal that acclamation of a cancer cure is "in fact" an unwitting smokescreen for various powerful industrial corporations which recklessly pollute the environment and so caused the cancer in the first place.

These examples are no doubt somewhat ham-handed. But I'm trying to point out that all conclusions derived from deconstruction themselves depend on rational thought. Every deconstruction is itself open to a theoretically endless sequence of deconstructions. 

If any single foundation of modernism exists, it's surely that the human capacity for rational thought is our crowning glory. With proper safeguards we are able to think our way through to valid conclusions, even if they are for the most part provisional. Contemporary postmodern doubts about the value of reason are entirely valid if that value is regarded as ultimate - that is, as the absolute and only way of arriving at "truth".

But if the postmodernists are not applying reason as they deconstruct, then their conclusions are no more valid than those of the thinkers they are deconstructing. And if that's the case, then there's no such thing as meaning apart from the private meaning of each individual. Modernist and postmodernist each have their own opinion and I have mine. Who's to say which is "better" or "right"?

In other words, who is to deconstruct the deconstructionists? The thesis of postmodernism carries within it the seeds of its own demise. No amount of coding, no degree of obscurity, can mask this ultimate reliance upon reason. Effective postmodern deconstruction rests upon the same fundamental foundation as modernism. Grassie puts it well: 

Without the insights and meta-theoretical claims of modernity, there would be no possibility of postmodernity ... within the history and development of human thought, there are no immaculate conceptions. [1]

Nevertheless, the implications of rational postmodern deconstruction for traditional Christianity are, in my opinion, highly challenging. It's not surprising, therefore, that certain defenders of the faith denounce postmodernism as nihilistic, relativistic and irrational while at the same time failing to answer its good points.

Rather than go on the defensive against a perceived threat, I prefer to try to work out what aspects of postmodernism appear incontrovertible and therefore had better be taken into account if we want a credible Christian position for the 21st century.

  1. Our perceptions are not stable say the postmodernists. That is, what we perceive of the world around us shifts and changes constantly. The process of understanding life doesn't yield a fixed reality, but rather a set of temporary perceptions which we may have to change from time to time. If we think that the way we perceive and interpret the world is the last word, we may find ourselves responding to it in ways which have worked previously but are now ineffectual - a potentially dangerous position to be in. 

    Traditional Christian teaching falls at this fence with a resounding thump. In theory there is only "one faith" - by which most Christians mean only a single "true" set of Christian teachings. But in practice this set turns out to be their own, while all other sets are to a greater or lesser extent either plain wrong or inadequate. The postmodern thesis has shown that all systems of so-called absolute truths fall prey to deconstruction. 

    So, for example, many have shown that Jesus of Nazareth has been interpreted in more than a few different ways over the millennia. That is, when the construct "Jesus" is deconstructed, it turns out to be a large variety of cultural images, underpinned by constructs unique to every individual. In other words, not only do Christian concepts change culturally, but there is no such thing as a set of constructs common to all people.

    This, say the postmodernists, damns the whole idea of "true" doctrine. If deconstruction reveals so many "true" figures of Jesus, who is to say which one is the "right" one? To which modernist Christians no doubt reply that such a varied understanding of Jesus is good and useful - provided only that each relates to the historical data of what we know about the man and his times, that is, to the "Jesus of history". But postmodernists are not likely to let Christians off the hook at this point. They would counter that any "historical" Jesus can be deconstructed to reveal a variety of figures linked to factors external to the raw data.

  2. One response to the traditional Christian assertion that Jesus is "the answer" for all people at all times and in all places, turns out to be powerful. It is that because change is the only constantly prevailing certainty, there are probably no final answers to any question. All individuals vary in their experience of the world. All cultures are in constant flux. Even my understanding of the world now differs from my understanding last year or ten years ago. And nature itself is constantly changing.

    Because the way we perceive the world isn't constant, and the world itself is similarly always changing, some answers cease to be useful in describing the world. Others may become "more true" by being expanded and updated to meet changed circumstances.

    Newton's theories, for example, have not been falsified by Einstein's theories. Rather, they are now known to be only part of a larger picture which has expanded how we understand the way things are. Truth isn't absolute but expendable and expandable.

    I know of no Christian doctrine which survives unscathed this way of construing the world. Hence the Church's unstinting criticism of, and opposition to, the main postmodern thesis.

  3. And yet, some statements do appear to be unvaryingly true once they have been accepted as such. One such is that it is impossible for any two people to interpret the world identically, that we all interpret our individual experience all the time, each in his or her unique way. 

    Even when two people receive identical stimuli at the same moment in time, they will inevitably interpret those stimuli somewhat differently. Sometimes their interpretations will have almost nothing in common; at other times they might agree to use a common paradigm even though they don't individually share all details of the experience covered by the paradigm. Thus, for example, my experience and understanding of prayer might differ from yours. But we both agree to use an agreed "neutral" formal prayer for the sake of corporate expression.

    This particular ongoing truth either stands or falls. It can't be partly true. If it stands then there is no such thing as unambiguous truth. Rather, there are multiple truths as each person interprets stimuli through their individual filters - genetic, familial, social and personal, to name but a few.

    This is the foundation of the postmodern enterprise. It strikes at the very heart of traditional Christian teachings because (in theory at least) some are claimed to be unvaryingly and eternally "true". If a teaching is unvaryingly and eternally true, it should be possible for more than one person to construe it identically. Indeed, if we are to believe the Roman Catholic Church, this must be possible because salvation depends upon it.

  4. Our individual interpretations usually serve, or correlate with, our needs. So the way we frame our responses to the world and people around us will inevitably be shaped according to our own agendas. Hence the postmodern way of regarding our responses to our environment.

    This is simply a fact of life if multiple findings of psychology over many decades have even face validity, more so if they are scientifically valid (which I think they are).

    Sometimes, however, we are consciously self-serving in the ways we respond to our environment - in which case we deserve to be exposed. More often we proceed with unconscious bias - and as often resist anyone who points it out. In modern times racism and gender bias are two good examples. We should be glad in such a case to have our unconscious prejudices revealed so that we can change the way we perceive things.

    To this extent, postmodernism has a point. But this point does not always warrant accusations of willful bias, prejudice or criminal manipulation (an accusation sometimes made by unconsciously self-righteous postmodernists). This is just the way we are and postmodernism serves us well if it forces us to become ever more aware of the subterranean forces which shape our perceptions. It serves us badly if it discounts everything we do or say because we are the way we are. Such accusations are a case of a postmodern pots calling non-pots black.

These are some of the substantial implications for traditional Christianity of perceiving the world through postmodern lenses. 

However, one particular Christian teaching warrants particular mention in this respect - the notion of a set of absolute truths arrived at through revelation. For obvious reasons, this is one important casualty of the postmodern philosophy. Another is the idea that a human being can pronounce on the truth of anything in a form which can remain unchanged for ever, such as ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope. 

Yet another casualty is the possibility that a human being can adopt any position without being prone to hidden motivations - often those relating to the getting and keeping of personal and institutional power over others. The latter is not a popular conclusion among Christian hierarchies They claim that their position of power is a matter of good doctrine derived ultimately direct from God via revelation. They also maintain that they control other Christians not as rulers but as servants. This claim does not survive even the most cursory postmodern deconstruction. 

Thus postmodernism at its best calls all these and other Christian ideas into question. At its worst, postmodernism is a tightly coded, in-group philosophical position which rubbishes the very notion that anything is either real or fundamentally worthwhile. The in-house coding of postmoderns is invariably so tight that its writing can appear gobbledygook to most of us. Only when decoded by those few patient souls who have the brains and talent to interpret it, may it become useful. 

I remind myself, when postmodernism's extreme forms call to question even the temporary stability of knowledge and perception, that a car accident can ruin anyone's day.
_______________________________________________________
[1] Postmodernism: What One Needs To Know, in Zygon: Journal of Religion 
      and Science
, March 1997
[2] Obituary in The Times, London, 11 October, 2004
[3] Christian Theology, 1994
[4] See Jesus Through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan, Yale, 1999

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