Crystal L. Downing. How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006.
Heath White. Postmodernism 101. Grand Rapids: Brazos 2006.
“My pastor," an evangelical friend instructs me, "cannot preach a single sermon without mentioning the word 'postmodern.'" The good Reverend's philosophical fixation is likely a symptom of his church's proximity to a major university, but he is by no means the only contemporary Christian leader who feels the hot, espresso-tinged breath of Foucault and Derrida on the back of his neck. Indeed, "postmodernism" has become a buzz-word among many Christians who do not otherwise trouble themselves with philosophical matters. It is therefore understandable that much of the discourse on postmodernism that takes place in Christian circles is conducted with relatively shallow knowledge of just what "postmodernism" really is, or where it came from. Welcome, then, are two new books that attempt to explicate this phenomenon, specifically in the context of Christian belief. Both books, Postmodernism 101: A First Course For the Curious Christian, by Heath White, and How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy, and Art, by Crystal L. Downing, are written by and for evangelical Christians. Both are addressed to readers without advanced academic training in philosophy, and both aim to dispel some of the confusion and apprehension that surround evangelical understandings of postmodernism.
Of the two books, Postmodernism 101 is the more compact (at 165 pages) and more straightforward. The stated purpose of the book is to elucidate the main ideas of postmodernism and offer some suggestions for how Christians ought to deal with this new way of thinking. White, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, executes this task with grace and aplomb. His philosophical training and able pen allow him to communicate difficult ideas clearly and efficiently. The short, tidy chapters of Postmodernism 101 are conceived thematically, with titles like "Truth, Power, and Morality" and "Culture and Irony." White quotes sparingly from primary sources, offering instead his own precis of complex and sometimes convoluted ideas. Throughout the book, White employs a friendly tone and treads cautiously, acknowledging that such a brief treatment forces him to paint with "a very broad brush." This caveat, and the modesty that accompanies it, is both salutary and necessary, because in many of his brief chapters White attempts to outline the premodern, modern, and postmodern perspectives on the issue at hand. Any reader who comes to Postmodernism 101 with significant knowledge of any of the periods or issues under discussion will no doubt be frustrated at times by White's boiled-down version of complex historical and theoretical actualities. But in the end what White loses in depth he gains back in breadth and accessibility. And what else is a 101 course for?
So much for the first part of White's task. What of the second? How ought evangelical Christians respond to the challenges of postmodernism? White's various answers to this question are pragmatic and thoughtful, leaning more towards the pastoral than the theoretical. For example, take the marquis issue: moral relativism. Christians cannot, he writes, compromise on the issue of moral absolutes. But how to deal with relativist claims? One common response to statements denying the existence of absolute truth—moral or otherwise—is to point out that any such statement is itself a truthclaim, and thus the relativist seems to undermine his own position. White calls this tack the "nifty logic trick." It may, he admits, have something to it as a logical argument, but it almost always will lack persuasive power. If one thinks, as many postmoderns do, that all statements of moral truth contain a threat of social control or violent domination, then a mere bit of self-contradiction seems a small price to pay for keeping blood off one's hands. Instead, White advises his reader to treat the moral relativist with compassion, and to gently point out historical examples—the Hindu practice of suttee or South African apartheid—which seem to be obviously and absolutely wrong.
Readers with strong philosophical interests might appreciate a more substantive philosophical response to the problem of relativism, and it does not seem incredible to imagine that the non-philosopher who is engaged enough to read a book on postmodernism might be edified by such a discussion. But then again, one cannot do it all in 165 pages. White is making good on his offer of a concise, accessible first course.
Crystal L. Downing, associate professor of English and film studies at Messiah College, has written a very different book in How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith. As one might garner from her title, Downing's posture towards postmodernism is less ambivalent than White's. Where Postmodernism 101 offers a survey and some modest practical responses to postmodernism, Downing's book offers a deeper survey and an appreciation of postmodernism's influence on Christianity. She has two main grounds for praising postmodernism. First, postmodern ideas have led to a greater openness to Christianity in the academy. Second, postmodern insights can help to free Christians from the corrupting influence of modern thought.
Along with some helpful, relatively in-depth explications of postmodern movements and specific thinkers, the book offers a personal narrative of the author's evangelical upbringing, her intellectual maturation, and finally, her confrontation and rapprochement with postmodernism. Downing's embrace of postmodernism could be recounted as follows: faced with a caste of thought (modernism) that seemed thoroughly anti-Christian, Downing "welcomed whatever might bring to ruin an intellectual edifice that [has] posted at its door 'Christians not allowed'" (56). The beneficent vandal turned out to be postmodernism.
In the process of making her case for postmodernism as a servant of Christian faith, Downing demonstrates wide reading in the postmodern corpus. The thematically organized chapters are packed thick with in-depth treatments of Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and others. Downing augments her philosophical readings with a lively sense of the place that art has played in the modern/postmodern story. There is much to recommend Downing's erudite treatment of how these forces play off one another in the sweep of history. But How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith is ultimately, as noted above, an apologia for postmodernism's influence on Christianity, not an even-handed examination. The reader gets just enough Thomas Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog," to recoil from the anti-religious "sneers" of "hubristic" modernism, and just enough Derrida to breathe a sigh of relief. In postmodernism, one feels, we have found a philosophy that "allows us to share [our] faith with impunity" (213).
For example, Downing quotes Derrida's statement, made at the 2002 American Academy of Religion conference, that he "prays" to the "unnamable" god of negative theology—a god who Derrida generally refers to simply as "the impossible," and who is not expected to answer. The negative, or apophatic, theology that Derrida refers to flourished in medieval Christian thought. Apophatic theology emphasizes the inability of human language finally to grasp the truth about God. Thus, if God is to be treated in language, he is best treated by negation. All we can really say is what God is not. Many orthodox Catholic theologians, such as St. John of the Cross, pseudo-Dionysius, and Meister Eckhart are counted among the ranks of negative theologians. Indeed, there is a notable element of apophaticism in the theology of the "Angelic Doctor" himself (Thomas Aquinas) who writes that "no names belong to God in any sense that we can give them." Augustine, too, writes that if anyone describes what God is, then it is not God that has been described.
Downing treats Derrida's "prayer" in tandem with her brief treatment of medieval Christian apophaticism, highlighting the obvious analogy between the two. The problem is that she nowhere mentions Derrida's explicit rejection of negative theology. It is true that Derrida himself considers at times the possibility that his project of deconstruction shares a great deal with Meister Eckhart's project of Christian apophatic theology. But in the end, Derrida indicts Eckhart for intellectual dishonesty. Eckhart, Derrida decides, illicitly has retained a residual confidence in his ability to know something about God. If we truly cannot say anything affirmative about God, how can we "believe" in him? What is to keep us from atheism? The only honest response to our linguistic limitations is, according to Derrida, to cease speaking of God altogether—to give up the thought that we can know him. How this part of Derrida's thought is compatible with Christianity is a problem that Downing leaves entirely untouched. (For an account of Derrida's relationship with Eckhart, see Denys Turner, "The Art of Unknowing: Negative Theology in Late Medieval Mysticism," Modern Theology, Oct. 1998).
It is indeed a fact that the rise of postmodernism has contributed to the "return of religion" into the academic conversation. But one need not be a full-blooded modernist to look with some suspicion on the type of welcome that postmodern thought extends to Christian belief. It may be that such suspicion is unwarranted, but Downing has not here done enough to allay it. Despite these criticisms, though, both Downing's and White's attempts to equip evangelical Christians for this important conversation are, as I noted at the beginning of this article, most welcome.
Ian Marcus Corbin,
Yale Divinity School