Does Postmodern Theology Risk Becoming What It “Hates?”

Does Postmodern Theology Risk Becoming What It “Hates?” April 3, 2013

I’ve been getting ready to head out to speak at the Subverting the Norm conference this past week or so, and in preparing, I’ve been talking though my presentations with my wife, Amy. Basically, the conference is a dive into the roiling waters of postmodern theological thought, with the aim of addressing the question of whether such theology can exist within the structure of organized religion. I’m a big fan of much of what is being discussed by the forefront thinkers in this area (like Peter Rollins, John Caputo and others), such as critically examining what we believe about God and why. More to the point, perhaps, is the endeavor to free people from the damaging, or at least limiting, religious strictures and conscious constructs that they have built up around God and their faith.

I’m no postmodern theology expert, so I’ll leave it to the pros to explicate more about what’s what in postmodern thought.  But for me, the exciting work revolves around supplanting things like binary, propositional “truths” about God with more inductive, open-ended notions of the Divine that transcend religious doctrine or even our own mental constructs of God. This is both a necessary and a liberating process, I think, that indeed can lead the Church (big C Church, that is) toward something far more reconciling and healing for humanity than the modernist approach to faith we’ve employed for many decades now, if not some centuries.

It’s helpful to look back a little bit at where we’ve come from in our religious and theological evolution of thought and practice. At the risk of geeking out on something that puts everyone to sleep, I’ll try to make this quick and fairly painless. Interestingly, it can be argued that the more fundamentalist strain of Christianity can trace its origins back to the “liberal” thinking following the Enlightenment that suggested all things – faith, God and religious thought included – could be explained by rational means. This hyper-rationalism sought to build up rhetorical constructs that made a case for God, so to speak, as well as buttressing the doctrines of the Church.

But it also led to division, power struggles and the kind of other-izing that has opened the gate to religiously-fueled violence in the past. We may be a bit more subtle about it today than they were back during the Salem witch trials or the crusades, but the attempt to hyper-rationalize faith still leaves much human colateral damage in its wake. Just ask one of the millions who claim emotional abuse or neglect when a religious leader or even a family member placed their belief above the humanity of the “other.”

So in so much as postmodern theology seeks to depart from this destructive model of faith, I’m all for it. Deductive approaches to faith that require us to nail down truth (seems we have a history of doing that, don’t we?) have led to much damage on the personal level, while also splintering the Church Universal into a fragmented mess, rather than a dynamic and diverse organism which leaves room for a breadth of religious experience and thought.

The thing is, I have my own concerns that this movement risks becoming the kind of thing that it seeks to distance itself from. Whereas there’s a great potential benefit in challenging, or even actively deconstructing everything from our image of God to our notion of all things supernatural or miraculous, there’s also the risk that we end up embarking in our own sort of “scorched earth” theological crusade, intent on wringing all metaphysical thinking from the conversation and discounting anything beyond aesthetic experience and fundamental human morality.

This is a borad brush, I know, and this isn’t to say that the whole of the movement is becoming a sort of hyper-rational response to the byproduct of previous hyper-rationalism. But the seeds are there, as I’ve observed from time to time. Amy keenly observed that this, like many other movements within organized religion, seems to be dominated principally by Anglo males. Certainly there are other voices at the table, but just in browsing the roster of keynote speakers for this weekend’s event, half of the featured presenters appear to be white men. Amy supposed, without casting any particular judgment, if the predominance of male voices had some relationship to my perception that we risked sliding into this new iteration of hyper-rationality.

That one caught me off guard. But I think maybe she’s right. As she noted (recognizing these are generalizations that don’t always apply), in our experience, women tend to be more comfortable with mystery, open-endedness and more inductive thought processes, whereas men have a stronger tendency to pursue and define certainty, perhaps even at the risk of alternate perspectives or multiple coexistent truths.

This is why I’m particularly glad I’ve been asked to speak on the topic of theopoetics. Basically, this is a look at how art connects us to the longing for God we all possess in our capacities to experience beauty, love, conflict, justice and the like. Whereas we can argue the nature of God (or the lack of any defining “nature,” perhaps), an experience of deeply moving art in the moment can draw us outside of ourselves, cause a moment of reverent reflection and even a course correction in our future story.

Again, I’m not saying in broad, certain terms that portmodern theology is doomed to repeat the very patterns that gave rise to what it most ardently resists. But I see the potential, mainly because human beings are involved. It’s my hope, though, that alongside all of the heated, heady discussions that I’m sure will take place, we all will take the time and set some of ourselves aside to seek the ineffable, the transcendent and the profound in radically illogical ways. For the sake of this relatively new expression of theological thought, I expect it’s the only chance it has to truly find a home among more than a fe bookish God-nerds like myself.

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  • Good stuff man. I, too, have noticed certain tendencies within these circles toward a hyper-intellectualism and a dismissive attitude toward those ignorant onto-theological types. A helpful counter to this, for me, has been someone like Cornel West – who fully understands postmodern theology & philosophy, but also points out some of its inherent weaknesses. Honestly, I don’t see the day coming when someone from the radical theology camp takes over the reigns of speaking for “mainstream Christianity.” I think process theology has a lot more opportunity for this. From my perspective, it will remain on the periphery – though providing some very important critiques and proposals.

    • You just made Tripp Fuller smile. He’s a big Process guy and encouraged Pete to give up atheism for Lent 🙂

  • prophetsandpopstars

    I don’t know that it’s a “post-modern theology” claim. Since I’m pretty skeptical that “post-modern” isn’t just a neo-enlightenment retread in a pair of Tom’s, I prefer to consider the way you approaching things as a thinking man’s journey toward faith.

    “Think upon these things and the Holy Spirit will fill in the rest,” Paul tells Timothy (2 TIM). I consider myself reformed and yet see Theopoetics as a necessary and integral tool to communicate the Gospel. But you have to think. We have to be willing to re-think. That’s not process, post-modern or presbyterian. It’s reasonable, and faithful. Faith is the mechanism that protects our minds as we think our way outside the box. John Stott commented on that 2 Tim reference saying something to the effect of, “Paul provides proof that just because you are Christian doesn’t mean that you can abandon the divine call to think.”

    Great post! Thanks.

  • Jeremy

    (Just FYI) colateral, borad, fe

  • While you claim to not be an expert on postmodernity, you coupled deconstruction with nihilism, which can only be attributed to the critics of postmodernity. Deconstruction at its core is about logical consistency that often stands in opposition to universal declarations. Postmodernity doesn’t equal nihilism or relativism like the critics would want you to believe. Postmodernity teaches us to loosely grip truth and understand that truth declared always has a degree of present subjectivity that prohibits universal application in all confidence.

  • As someone who tries to do postmodern theology and is now working on applying it in ministry I appreciate this article. I also do take seriously the concern as I am a anglo male that utilizes postmodern theology that I am not a minority. To counter this problem I work to be extremely receptive toward all that I meet. To understand the mystery of G-d we have to be receptive to grace and the plethora of images that G-d utilizes to show grace. To become overly attached to one particular image of G-d creates a risk for violence and harm to others. Working in rural South Dakota, that’s news to a lot of people, but it creates fun discussions. 🙂

    As of now, what I’m doing is an experiment, but it is a fun one and I think my postmodern thought helps a lot of students engage their own conscience and are free to talk about whatever they need. Postmodern theology really is a ministry dedicated to being about relationships first and then building bridges to the community of students and staff. Unity-in-diversity is a key component of theology in thinking about the Trinity and that really gets lived out in postmodern theology where we have a level of reservation about what is true.