Postmodernism: Still Alive, Still Prophetic
For many thinkers and church leaders, postmodernism has been a friendlier cultural and intellectual context for Christianity than was modernism. Aspects and attitudes emerging from the postmodern turn include epistemic humility, tolerance of diversity and difference, hermeneutical richness and complexity. Numerous postmodern thinkers (if not the most radical ones) repeatedly argue that "standpoint epistemology," multiple discourses, and hermeneutical indeterminacy does not amount to relativism or lead to nihilism. Among those who have accepted the postmodern turn, the recognition of contextuality, epistemic finitude, and the significance of perspective enabled a breakthrough in engagement with minority theologies and formerly suppressed (and oppressed) voices.
Hansen glossed over a striking concession in Docx's essay: postmodernism, by de-privileging the voices of a select few, has "led to some real gains for humankind." Marginalized and subordinate groups were given voice, in large part thanks to the postmodern turn. In this respect, it is not contradictory, as Hansen suggests, to find postmodernists seeking justice. For the patriarch of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, "deconstruction is justice."
Hansen is certainly correct that it is, in the end, the Gospel that matters. The paradox of the God-man and the salvation he offers to the world is our central concern, our focal point as Christians. But if anything, postmodernism as applied to Christian theology has helped evangelicals remember that Christ is just that: a paradox who offers himself to be appropriated by faith (not by Rationality). And he offers himself first and foremost as a person, not a proposition.
Postmodernity, at least as it has been appropriated within evangelical Christian theological discourses and church practices (e.g., the Emergent Church), has aimed toward authenticity; patience with plurality; contentment with hermeneutical limitations and theological incompleteness; in sum, toward epistemic humility. These qualities are not inconsistent with a Gospel-informed life of Christian discipleship.
It is tempting for evangelicals to triumphantly declare that the wicked witch is dead, so we can go back to the Kansas we once knew. But dead, dying, or still kicking, the prophetic lessons of postmodernism should not be forgotten in the face of the inevitable increase of plurality and difference in our neighborhoods, towns, and urban centers. Postmodernism has given us conceptual tools with which to fight against our natural tendency to have the last word, to lean on our own presumed certainty of knowledge, and to subsume particularity under a totalizing homogeneity. If we have entered the twilight of postmodernity—which or may not be the case—it would be a shame if it came and went without really understanding it.
Postmodernism will indeed eventually give way to something else. If it is, as Doxc suggests, the "age of Authenticity," then it will be, at least in part, due to postmodernism's persistent critique of our natural tendency toward idolatry. In this sense, the lessons of postmodernity are consistent, as Hansen rightly acknowledges, with the teaching of the Apostle Paul: we see through a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). We are finite, fallen, and broken. And we are still not in Kansas anymore. But if we are really entering the twilight of postmodernism, there may still be time to learn its lessons.
For further resources geared toward Christians engaging and understanding postmodernity, see:
Myron B. Penner, ed., Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views
Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith
Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Lead Faculty of Christian Thought, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN). He researches and writes on issues related to the intersection of theology, philosophy, and culture. Follow Kyle Roberts' reflections on faith and culture at his blog or via Twitter.