Can Postmodern Theology Live in Our Churches? #STN2

Can Postmodern Theology Live in Our Churches? #STN2 April 6, 2013

That is the overarching question at Subverting the Norm 2, a conference that I’m attending this weekend in Springfield, Missouri. Honestly, not many people addressed the question yesterday, at least not in the sessions I attended. So far this morning, the presenters have pivoted to talking about it.

Last night, I responded to John Caputo‘s plenary address. Some here accused me of failing to actually respond to Caputo, others have wondered if I made a Derridian move, and still others have thanked me for speaking plainly and forthrightly. Some requested that I post my response, so I will do so here. But before that, some prolegomena:

First, Caputo is the rock star of this conference. Several people here are his former PhD students, and many are his acolytes. I, too, am a big fan of Caputo — I think his Weakness of God is a brilliant text — and I had no desire to present a deep critique of his work in this context.

Second, due to no fault of his own, Caputo did not provide me with his manuscript in advance. In academic conferences, respondents are usually able to see the paper in advance so as to write a prepared response.

Third, Caputo is a philosopher of the first order. I am not. I’m a (practical) theologian, well-versed in postmodern philosophy, to be sure, but not at the level of going nose-to-nose with someone of Jack’s caliber. To do so would have been stupid of me and disrespectful of Caputo.

For all of these reasons, to attempt an on-the-fly response to Caputo would have been nigh on suicidal — or at least would have held the potential for a massive trainwreck. So, instead, I composed 13 points of challenge and exhortation for those in the crowd — particularly clergy — who are really trying to answer the question, “Can postmodern theology live in our churches?” Some of these points I prepared before Jack’s talk, and some are a direct result of and response to it:

1. There are two types of radical theologians: those who want there to be a God, and those who don’t. I‘m interested in the work of the radical theologians who want there to be a God, even if they’re not willing to affirm that there is a God. There are 7 billion people on this planet, and the vast majority of them want there to be a God.

2. Process theology had its chance. If process theology couldn’t get traction in the American church under the auspices of John Cobb in the 1970s, I doubt that it will gain traction with his acolytes. Outside of Claremont (and Homebrewed Christianity), I hear little about process theology. I am not saying that popular theology = good theology; that would make Joel Osteen a theological genius. What I’m saying is that process theology did not capture the imagination of a critical mass of clergy and laypeople in its heyday, so I doubt that it will today. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Cobb was ahead of his time, and the church is only now ready for process.

3. Put less words in scare quotes. Just answer the goddamn question. In his talk, Caputo went through the entire question, “Can postmodern theology live in our churches?” He put each word in quotes, and deconstructed it. “Can” “postmodern” “theology” “live” “in” “our” “churches.” That’s a fun exercise at an academic conference, to be sure. But it rarely works in pastoral ministry. Postmodern theologians and the churchmen and women that are inspired by them — including the emerging church movement — have become adept at eternal deferral. People ask real question, the questions that they want answers for, and we respond by deconstructing the question, telling them, “That’s not the right question,” or saying, “That question doesn’t interest me.” I’ve grown tired of this posture. I’d like us to answer some questions, and to do so forthrightly.

4. Let’s double down on epistemic humility. One of the benefits of deconstruction is that it imbues all of our intellectual activity with the reminder that even our most strongly held beliefs are, ultimately, deconstructible. You might be wrong about there not being a God, and I might be wrong about there being a God.

5. Be loyal to this tribe. We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today. If our version of the gospel is to stand a chance, particularly among the “nones,” then we’ve got to stick together in spite of our doctrinal/theological/philosophical differences.

6. Indefatigably produce original content. Again, if we’re going to change the conversation about what is Christianity, then we have to fill the world with content about this version of the gospel.

7. We must maintain our sense of humor. Like #4 above, postmodernism demands that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, because we might be wrong. Like #5 above, if we can maintain our senses of humor, it will be a more attractive alternative to the earnest, overly serious, even hateful versions of the faith that many people see today.

8. My next book will disappoint you: but I’m not writing it for you. I have a different vocation than a university philosopher like Caputo, or a subversive free-range philosopher like Peter Rollins. My vocation is to think and write through the issues that vex modern-day Christianity. Your vocation is something else — to preach or write poems or blog or something. Don’t try to be Caputo or Rollins. Be yourself.

9. I have never read a word of Žižek. You can’t do it all. You can’t read every book and blog; you can’t listen to every podcast. Find what you want to read and know, and embrace that, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t read it all.

10. Beware of the allure of the word “atheist.” I’ve lived through the waxing and waning popularity of terms like “postmodern” and “emergent.” The term “Christian atheist” is currently waxing. It, too, will wane.

11. People aren’t talking about God. They’re talking about Jesus, the bible, angels, heaven. This conference, at least on day one, was consumed with talk of God. That’s fine. But in my experience, people outside these walls are asking less about God than they are about other volumes in the theological encyclopedia.

12. Don’t get so far out ahead of your army that they mistake you for the enemy and shoot you. That’s a danger after a conference like this, that you’ll go home and preach a sermon on the death of God. Chances are, your congregation isn’t ready for that.

13. Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh of Ex 3:14 means “I will be that who I have yet to become.” It doesn’t mean “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” It is much more eschatological than that. In fact, Jewish Bibles leave this passage untranslated. That commitment to untranslatability should stand in critique of all of our talk about God.


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  • This is great stuff. I have a lot of thoughts, probably worthy of a blog post. But, I’m taking a break from blogging because life. Really wish I could have made it out there.

    • Alright, so I still would really like to know what a church is. I think that needs to be relatively defined before this kind of question can be answered. For example, I started a group that is now meeting every other week here in Raleigh. We’re mostly hanging out and discussing various topics in bars. But, except for none of us presenting a specifically Christian “message” every time we get together, it doesn’t seem to be much different than what Jay Bakker was doing in Brooklyn. Is Revolution a “church”? If so, could – or, even, should – what we’re doing be considered “church”? I’m open to this possibility.

      Also, I’ve become friends with folks from Emmaus Way in Durham and North Raleigh Community Church. Both of those somewhat traditional churches seem to be “living” via “postmodern theology.”

      I have some random thoughts about some of your points. Again, I love this. I really hope they post your talk soon, which I’m assuming will give more context.

      2. If Rob Bell’s new book is any kind of thermometer, I think process theology may be getting a second wind. He’s obviously been influenced by some of the radical thinkers, too, but it seems like he is moving much more in the direction of process. And a lot of people seem to be saying, “that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking,” without knowing where those lines of thought originated.

      3. This has been one of the most frustrating things for me. A lot of the diverting from certain questions comes off as being entirely dismissive – implying that the questions are not just irrelevant but stupid. This seriously bugs the hell out of me. Maybe some questions are stupid. But, the majority of questions that I am hearing dismissed are, I think, very important. Even if no one has very good answers.

      8. Love this. And it’s why I’ve been questioning if I even want to be a blogger anymore. I don’t know.

      10. This is why I gave up atheism.

      Thanks, Tony.

  • Thanks for this post Tony… great points all around. I was most drawn to #5 and #6. I have the luxury of exploring practical theology and ecclesiology in a none zone region… which is very different from exploring the topic of this post in a bible belty region like Missouri where a ‘none’ is someone that missed church two weeks in a row. In my reality, there is a clear hunger for postmodern theology among the folks outside of our organized churches for sure. Postmodern theology and ecclesiology as I know it and have fostered it over the past 10 years resonates deeply with the real ‘nones.’ It has also been extremely well accepted within the churches that I have served. In my experience, teaching and leading from a perspective that aligns itself with the characteristics that loosely define postmodernity has led to personal and communal growth on multiple levels… especially among the real ‘nones.’ up in my neck of the woods I get to engage theology with nones that have been nones for generations…. they seem willing to engage postmodern theology… organized, institutionalized religion, not so much. For me, the core of your question (in the post title) centers on the definition of ‘Churches.’ If ‘church’ deals with a strong sense of community outside of the typical definition of church then the answer is an easy yes.

  • Chris Roane

    I appreciate the conversation. But I’m still confused about all of the terms like postmodern, emergent, “christian athiest”, liberal, etc… A lot of the division among Christians has really bothered me, especially those who you must fully agree with their theology or you’re labelled a heretic. Which is one reason #5 really resonates with me.

  • I resonate with much of what you say here. I am not at the conference due to the ministry commitments I have with my congregation but I am following on twitter.

    I find point 9 to be refreshing to me. I emailed my spiritual director and said “I’ve studied Reformed, Feminist, and Queer Theology now I have to study Žižek too? How the hell do I keep up while loving the people in my congregation?” Her words to me “Know your role in the Christian story. You tell the Gospel from a particular lens that has captured your heart. Do that and do that well.”

  • Keith Rowley

    I have actually found the way McClaren does number 3 to be refreshing at times. Though yes at times it is annoying. The problem is that some questions don’t make any sense in the new context we are thinking from.

  • I resonate most with 3, 11, 12. I take myself to be operating within the realm of postmodern theology (though I’m sure others will question my bona fides), but most of my ministry I’ve been doing that in the context of long-established United Methodist churches. Just tomorrow I’m becoming supply pastor to a small congregation where the young people are in their 70s. I do what I call postmodern theology not because it’s hip, trendy, or approved of by some Awesome Person somewhere; I do it because it seems to name the best way to read the Bible and Christian tradition. I also do it knowing full well that my way of doing it is only one of many. For that reason I almost never use the title “postmodern theology” for what I do.

    Thanks for sharing, Tony. my brother made it to the conference but I did not.

  • Brenton Reading

    I appreciate these points and your delivery of them in person was even better! In particular, I appreciated that you exemplified the humor you called for in number 7.

    In the spirit of number 3, at some point would you expand on your thoughts in number 5 as to why you feel that we have a better gospel than the regnant view of the Gospel in the West today and how you think we could best communicate this?

    My suspicion is that even though our faith journeys originated in different traditions, our paths are converging and I would appreciate your thoughts.

  • EricG

    You must have ruffled some feathers with this!

  • Buck Cole

    I’ve read a number of books on Postmodern, pyrotheo,etc., in an attempt to understand all this in layman’s terms. Your post has motivation me to respond and I thank you…Many churched and unchurched are desperate for a less cluttered explanation of what all this means. There I said it. We need thinkers who can and will write to ordinary people without the semantic distraction and didactic boredom of academia. Remember what Carl Sagan did to popularize Astronomy?

  • Marshall

    Seems to me #13 contradicts #11. God is “I am” or “I will be” or “I shall become”, whatever: personal pronoun + ongoing existence. Whereas “angels” *deserves* scare quotes because it’s a category without fixed content, can mean whatever nice thing you like. You talk about angels, pretty soon God likewise becomes a category without content: “I might be”, “I should be”. Churches should speak to disciples (“answer the question”, and the follow-up question), people who want live spiritual food . I guess being nice to people who just want their salvation is all very well and certainly part of the job is to comfort those so afflicted, but if that’s all you talk about, those hungry others are going to head out for the wilderness looking for a someone in camel hair and a leather belt. Which might be a good thing or not, depending on how you feel about the church age.

  • #13. What? Really? Mind Blown. I am one of the few who is talking and thinking and wondering about God more so than Jesus, angels, etc (#11).

    • If book sales are any indication, it seems “God” is a pretty important topic for a lot of people.

  • Thanks for saying this. I think it was really needed. When you get too many people together agreeing so much, we always need those swift kicks to the pants that remind us that the world is bigger than we are, and we still have a long way to go to make this applicable. I thoroughly enjoyed your 13 points. It was a great conference for sure.

  • John Michalski

    What precisely IS this “better version of the Gospel” that he and his tribe possess? Describe it to me, so I can decide if it really IS better.

    • I agree with John Michalski. The ECM must find a way to clearly articulate what is so new and unique about what binds you together. ECM simply seems like another corral with unarticulated atributes which elude those of us on the other side of your invisible fence. I’ve been reading most of the books offered up for the past 10 years or so. So far I see very little that is revolutionary. Perhaps what inspires the ECM is only new to them…?

      • BradC

        I hear this a lot – it has been stated many times:the ECM started with some recognition and repentance.
        1. Recognition that we have reduced God to an object of human conceptual mastery and those in the movement (tribe) are repenting from this move. The recognition of the profound limitations we face – conceptually, linguistically, etc.
        2. Recognition that if language is so limited the “Gospel” can’t be reduced to a proposition.
        3. Repentance from the reduction of the Bible to a hermeneutic structure and proclaiming it as an “Eternal Truth”
        etc….just to name a few.
        ECM is largely about the recognition of the reduction of God by the church (especially the last 500 years) and figuring out how to recover from this action – how to free the Bible, the Gospel, theology, etc from this move

        • John Michalski

          Back-track to before the reduction happened.

          The Fathers (especially the early Greek and Syriac Fathers) point towards answers to most of the problems frustrated/disappointed modern Christians have. So why do we keep wanting to invent our OWN wheel?

          • BradC

            Because “once enlightened” you can’t go back.
            We can not be ancient, medieval or pre-modern Christians any longer – we can learn and recover some thought and praxis but we must figure out what it means to be a follower today. This is the ECM – figuring out what it means to be a follower.

            • John Michalski

              What is the ECM following?

              More to the point, however, what is this “enlightenment” that we have experienced? What neurological/epistemological evolution have we undergone that makes the wisdom of ancient Christianity irrelevant?

              I am firmly convinced that there is no way to either improve upon or move beyond “roots Christianity. ” The ancient Church – in faith, praxis, and spirituality – is normative, today just as it always was.

              This might be why Eastern Orthodoxy is growing faster than pretty much any other branch in Christianity.

              • Well, equality and social justice, for example, are concepts that I’m not sure the ancient church would lead us to, on its own. These concepts were, in large part, based on a rationalistic, modernist, view of society.

                Same with capitalism, the industrial revolution, the information revolution.

                And modern concepts of science: biochemistry, neurology, quantum physics, astronomy, etc.

                The ancient church may can be normative. But any current day experience of the ancient church is filtered through the lens of modernity — social structures, economies, and technologies — that would not have exist if we had not gone through the enlightenment and the modern era.

                The ancient church today cannot be the same as it was in ancient times, because we have changed. The way with interact with and view, the world and each other, has change. We must figure out what it means to be a follower today.

                • Good stuff, Curtis – I agree.

                  The more I ponder the beginnings of the ECM, the more convinced I am that It really started in the mid-1940s, with The Church of the Savior in Washington DC. Those folks (Gordon Cosby, et al) did church differently. They started one of the first missional coffee house, Potter’s House, in the 1960s and many, many, social justice ministries since – including some here in the Twin Cities.

                  Doing church differently is not an ECM invention – it’s simply the most visible post-modern iteration of “doing church.” …and it’s a good thing, I think.

  • If the “Church” is going through a growth spurt, then “postmodern theology” is a single stretch in but one of the body’s maturing muscles. It will serve its purpose, but then be done. Personally, I’m thankful to see it finally wading.

    Conferences like STN, and yes even the Emergence Christianity conference that was held in TN a couple months ago, really get my head shaking. Subject matter and themes may differ, but all these conferences seem to be doing is talking about some thing that isn’t ultimately “the thing.” And collecting money from attendees who care to listen and join in these “conversations.”

    I am reminded of a scene from the movie Titanic (1997). It’s the scene that immediately follows the dinner table scene, where Jack was invited to dine at the first class table with Rose’s family after he had saved her from falling off the stern of the ship. All the men from the table — and only the men, all them well-to-do, white, and with first class passenger accommodations — retire to a lounge where they smoke cigars, drink brandy, and discuss politics, philosophy, etc., in a fog of snobbery. That’s postmodern theology and other neoteric theologies, and their silly conferences.

    Conversely, Jack and Rose go down to steerage with the poor, third-class, multi-ethnic passengers — men, women, and children — who are having a lively party, dancing, laughing, being rowdy, and being thoroughly human in their fellowship. That’s the living faith that’s happening and evolving on the ground, in the belly of the ship.

    So to answer Tony’s question, “Can postmodern theology live in our churches?” . . . it is, of course, the wrong question. And I, of course, am not surprised.

    • That is a false dichotomy of titanic proportions, Mr. Pearson. Come to one of these events, leave your presuppositions at the door, and you’ll see them as much more third-class than first-class.

  • John Michalski

    “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and to those in the tombs restoring Life!”

    Until the Christian churches start preaching – and living – THIS message again they’ll continue to wallow in futility and decline.

  • Billy Roberts


    I’m not sure if you remember me (and that’s fine), but I listened to you speak one evening at Fuller while I attended classes there and a few of us went for drinks at Lucky Baldwin’s following the talk. I’ve really been a big fan of your writing. At times I’ve felt like you’re confrontational for the hell of it, but the more I’ve read your work and those who are committed to fighting people like you, the more I’ve come to see that you are Progressive (though Evangelical as you’d like to remain) but you are realistic. I’ve heard people say that theology that doesn’t hit the ground is useless. Though that’s a bit extreme I do think there is truth to that. This post affirms to me that you provide a middle road between paving a path for what’s ahead for Christianity and encouraging others to join in the process not leave them behind if they aren’t as far along as we think they ought to be.

    Thank you thank you thank you for this.

    And thanks for freeing me from feeling like I need to be well-versed in every trendy philosopher/theologian/sociologist/etc. “Find what you want to read and know, and embrace that, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t read it all.” Encouraging thought.

  • “Be loyal to this tribe” / “we’ve got to stick together”

    Tony, tribalism is one of the problems – us/them, win/lose, clean/unclean, in/out, religious/secular, myway/highway… “tribe” and “army” metaphors seem increasingly unhelpful in a flattening world. Jesus seems to offer a unity proportionate only to love, not tribal conformity or propositional harmony.

    and.. R.J. Pearson – partying on the top deck or the bottom deck are both missing the point. it’s easy to love your own tribe.

    • Billy Roberts

      I’m not sure that’s the point, John. I think it’s entirely possible to be loyal to a tribe without being exclusive.

      I don’t think the point was to be us v them, but rather find unity as much as we can as the church. That is more of a charge to be civil between brothers and sisters in Christ, not a call to draw lines between the church and the world.

    • John L. . . . It isn’t about tribe, but about trajectory. Jesus trajectory was to head “below decks” with the poor, disaffected, powerless, and “least” among the other passengers.

    • Liberalism has a problem. Maybe you’ve heard this old saw:
      Conservatives destroy the Other; liberals destroy each other.

      I don’t think that showing some loyalty to one another — some support of one another, especially in public — is tribalism. I think it’s human compassion.

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  • Hi everyone,

    I find myself drawn to postmodern theology and was wondering if there is a good primer you might recommend. Thank you.

  • Keith Titus

    iT’S #7 FOLKS. Paul (Mr. humor himself) saw it. It really is just silliness (He said “to the gentiles). We need to start out by acknowledging the absurdity (in human terms) of most of this strange business we’ve been drawn to.
    I’m wrestling with the real practical terms of what to do with 15 northern michigan churches who are in their death throes… aged folk clinging tenaciously to the church of the 50’s-60’s. You just don’t plop them down in some absolutely radical (for them) reimagining of what it means to be church in the 21st century. Is the job of these 15 pastors just to quietly conduct them to their eternal rest? I just can’t do that. But getting from “A” to wherever “Z” is, there’s the mystery.

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  • Kevin

    “Can Postmodern Theology Live in Our Churches?”

    The problem with the question is that it presumes the masses care about theology, and my experience mostly in broadly evangelical circles is that by in large people don’t. So then what difference does it make if a theo-nerd shares from a perspective of postmodern theology? I doubt most people in most churches would know the difference if a pastor’s theology held to God exists vs. God insists unless the pastor were to state it explicitly. Further, no matter how subversive my views might be, I think most people would not bat an eye so long as I can provide prooftexts.

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  • I am just getting around to this AAR session. While I am deeply sympathetic with Caputo’s postmodern critique and the processs approaches, in general, I wholly resonate with your response, Tony, which was remarkably dispositive of and apposite to a manuscript you had not seen.

    One needn’t be either a professional or academic, philosopher or theologian, I hope, to contribute something important to their discourse. Being neither, I welcome your hospitality, a hallmark of the Spirit, to #8 be myself and #6 contribute original content.

    To your points #1-4, yes, yes, yes and amen!

    In the first place, the postmodern approach remains -not a system, but- a critique. Those who systematize it will discover that it self-subverts. Caputo gets its constructive aspect, but, while semiotic interpretation does go on and on in its recursive triads, theoretically, its radicalization, practically, pays value-realization dividends much sooner than it seems certain deconstructionists seem able or willing to recognize. (I’ve much more to say in defense of this but suspect many intuitively grasp this.) After all, ours is a “pragmatic” semiotic realism in this quintessentially American tradition, which might be what distinguishes it from what has gone on, as they like to say, on the Continent, not always for the better in either religion or philosophy.

    As for process approaches, all metaphors eventually collapse and root metaphors are especially susceptible, as they try to prove too much. Some are saying way more than we can possibly know. Process approaches launched from within the faith as theologies of nature can be great poetic adventures of liturgical import. Onto-theologies beginning in descriptive science and normative philosophies can be legitimate theoretic enterprises, hypothetically and provisionally, but should have less practical import and performative significance than the orthopathic, orthocommunal and orthopraxic approaches of our great traditions, themselves, approaches which a pragmatic semiotic realism esteems due to its inherent axiological conservatism, epistemologically. Your pastoral experience has likely injected these epistemic intuitions into your theological marrow, so you feel it in your philosophic bones. Good religion does that, fostering a sustained authenticity (Lonergan), which makes us better scientists, better philosophers, better artists, better servants, better parents, better lovers, precisely because it orthopathically orients our evaluative dis-positions to the horizons, where intellectual, moral, social, economic and political positions are informed by beauty, goodness and unity, on the wings of which truth often flies in.

    I do believe certain process intuitions regarding God’s weakness are spot-on for a variety of reasons that can already otherwise be established both from a more vague, emergentist phenomenology and, especially, from the Gospel. Someone is telling untellable stories, however, capitulating to humean nonsense and modernist reductionistic tendencies, when too strictly limiting divine prerogatives and sovereignty, all resemblances to Caesar, notwithstanding. Let Griffin’s Anselmian formulation stand, that God’s power is one greater than that which otherwise cannot be consistently thought (or something like that), consistent with an order, that is, that would not interfere with human volition, free will. It doesn’t follow, then, that because some divine interaction would thus interfere that all would. And it would caricature process approaches to suggest that because their stance precisely provides for weak or soft power. But power presents on a spectrum, which makes it problematic to draw lines or venn diagrams distinguishing persuasion from coercion. A weaker claim is defensible, it seems, which is that God indulges neither, actually eschews, an apathetic indifference (deism) nor a pathetic interference (codependency), but, rather, a polite, habitual, intercommunion (soft power, persuasive indwelling) and a sovereign, occasional, intervention (even coercive but within constraints limited logically per kenotic self-limitation, consistent with preservation of human volition). We don’t get this from onto-theology but from revelation, amplified by a theology of nature, phenomenologically, not metaphysically.

    All which brings us to a Goldilocks epistemology, somewhere between the modernistic epistemic hubris and postmodernistic excessive epistemic humility (a perverse, incoherent hubris). There is MUCH in popular piety that needs deconstruction, but our great traditions contain this wisdom, already, for they foster a move beyond the exoteric to the esoteric. A postmodern sensibility is supposed to get that a myth, while not literally true, nevertheless can evoke an appropriate response to ultimate reality, that sacraments, as symbols, efficaciously and semiotically, gift us with authentic human value-realizations, making real and oresent precisely the eucharistic realities they bring to mind. It’s not an authentic postmodern critique that deconstructs such myths and symbols without truly, radically recovering their deepest meanings but a degenerate modernistic capitulation to scientism.
    Popular piety, in my view, deserves a semiotic benefit of the doubt, whether with angels and demons, loved ones in heaven or intercessory and petitionary prayer, which can reveal healthy evaluative dispositions, while not at all inconsistent with legitimate theological positions, unless one so narrowly misconstrues them, reducing them from interpretive stances to descriptive science and normative philosophy, which, ironically, is a major philosophic category error.

    Bravo, ToJo!

    pax, amor et bonum

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