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Irving, Texas. Is the devil from Paris? Many people seem to think so. And if not the devil himself, then at least a particular demon, one whose name is not “Legion” but “Postmodernism.” Postmodernism is a philosophical movement that originates largely with a legion of Frenchmen, three in particular, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. This “unholy trinity” (as Jamie Smith calls them) has raised a challenge to the received wisdom of Enlightenment thought that many find as perplexing as it is (at times) incomprehensible. By the “Enlightenment” I mean basically the challenge of 17th and 18th century philosophy to the authority of traditional faith and belief, in general, and to the Catholic Church in particular. This challenge consisted of asserting the autonomy of the individual, and a claim of a pure “objectivity” which results in a science that has a unique access to universal truth and a rationalism to which all cults, creeds, and cultures must submit themselves if they wish to have any validity.

However, as much as persons of faith might appreciate a challenge to such rationalism, they often find that postmodernism has a basic problem. Namely, although it purports to reject the Enlightenment’s notions of truth, it regards these notions as the only possible notions of truth. Hence, postmodernism secretly accepts back what it rejects, and ends up rejecting truth itself; it therefore ends in nihilism. Indeed, in practice, postmodernism often ends up as hypermodernism (see Battling the Swooshtika), the idea that we have no real identity save what we create for ourselves, largely (in a capitalist society) through the products that we buy or the politics that we practice, products and politics that have no real meaning in themselves, save the meanings we can be persuaded to give them. This results in the primacy of marketing and ideology.

Nevertheless, a critique of modernism should be welcomed by Christians, or at least by those Christians whose Christianity has not been completely tainted by rationalism. And we find that many Christians have indeed appropriated the postmodernist critique; this forms the heart of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, for example, which would return theology to its pre-Enlightenment (and even pre-14th century) roots. And Pope Benedict XVI appropriated much of postmodernist thought in his recent encyclical, Spe Salvi (see The Postmodernist Pope.) From the other side, postmodernist critics are discovering the value of Christianity in their analysis. For example, Slavoj Žižek has made heavy use of Christianity in general and G. K. Chesterton in particular (see G. K. Chesterton, Postmodernist.)

One problem, however, is that the postmodernists often use a vocabulary that is inaccessible to general reader. Indeed, it seems to some that the postmoderns get entirely too much credit for translating Enlightenment drivel into incomprehensible French. Hence postmodernist thought has remained beyond the reach of most people. This problem is addressed by James K. A. Smith in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture). In this brief book (156 pages), Smith manages to take the most problematic expressions of postmodernism and not only to explain them in clear and accessible language, but to show their relevance to traditional Christianity. Jamie Smith concentrates on three statements of postmodernism: “There is nothing outside the text” (Derrida); “An incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard), and; “Power is knowledge” (Foucault). Smith undertakes the formidable task of making these statements understandable in plain English, and showing their relevance to Christianity. Concerning the Derrida’s “deconstructionism,” Smith concludes that it helps us recover two key fundamentals of the faith: the centrality of Scripture for mediating our understanding of the world and the role of the community in the interpretation of Scripture. As for Lyotard’s “metanarratives,” these help us recover the understanding of faith as a narrative, rather than a collection of propositions, and the confessional nature of our narrative. In regard to Foucault’s Nietzschean claim that “power is knowledge,” Smith counters that it should “push us to realize what MTV learned long ago: (a) the cultural power of formation and discipline, and hence (b) the necessity of the church to enact counterformation and counterdisciplines. In other words, we need to think about discipline as a creational that needs proper direction.”

Prof. Smith notes that, “One of the reasons postmodernism has been the boyeyman for the Christian church is that we have become so thoroughly modern. But while postmodernism may be the enemy of our modernity, it can be the ally of our ancient heritage.” This is an important insight; it may well be that the best way to be “postmodern” is to be “pre-modern.” While the postmodern is often forced into nihilism by an inadequate notion of truth, the Christian has older models and older means, and so can appropriate the postmodern critique to the advantage of Christ and His Church.

My sole critique of this book comes in Smith’s application of postmodernism to liturgy, an application that strikes me as excessively modern rather than pre-modern; it seems to me to be mere “muti-culturalism.” However, this is a nitpick in an otherwise excellent treatment; liturgy is hard, especially for the liturgists. If you can read but one book on Postmodernism, this is the book to read.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Smith is an outlier within the Radical Orthodox cohort being a Calvinist. His weakness on liturgy is not surprising. But I agree, this book is excellent when addressing its main task.

  2. Slavoj Žižek is not a post modernist and has at numerous times strenuously denounced the whole phenomena. He is a very traditional Marxist, a fighting materialist.

  3. I’m not sure how useful the term post-modernism is. It seems Smith has just collected a few philosophers of very different traditions and grouped them together for their opposition to modernity. I know for a fact Foucault rejected this label as empty. Why is it that only those who like to dismiss ideas of prominent late 20th century thinkers out of hand and those who wish to co-opt their ideas for their own purposes use and embrace the label?

  4. Foucault wrote some interesting articles on Christian asceticism, focusing on St. John Cassian. I wonder if any Orthodox or Catholic scholars have tackled his take on the renowned ascetic and bridge between Latin and Eastern monasticism.

  5. Dan: It is Lyotard himself who spoke of the “postmodern condition”, and it would seem that there is something shared by those who think that in one way or another the trajectory of “modernity” is exhausted. In any case, I don’t see John doing either of the things you object to, rejecting “post-modernists” out of hand or co-opting them. He is agreeing that the modern project has come up empty, and is criticizing the conceit of many others who say this without realizing how much they still cling to elements of that project in inadequately considered preference to viable alternatives. About all that I think he is quite right.

    Foucault, to be specific, for all his interesting study of ancient philosophers, never quite arrives at insight into how some of those philosophers challenge his basic assumptions about the meaning of reason and knowledge. He is inadequate on Plato and negligible on Aristotle. This is a quite common pattern.

  6. Check out John Caputo and Gianni Vattimo. Each has written on post-modern thought and Christianity, and each explores a phenomenon Caputo calls ‘weak theology’. A decent intro to the concept is their co-written book ‘After the Death of God’.

  7. Mark,

    I agree John is not doing either of the things I objected to, sorry if my comment left that impression. Smith however, is trying to co-opt their critiques for his own purposes.

  8. I taught Smith’s book as part of a postmodernism unit in a Contemporary Philosophy class for Catholic seminarians last semester. My students and I found it informative and challenging, but the last 5 pages, on liturgy, made us cringe. The consensus of the class was that Smith needs a more robust notion of tradition, because the phenomenon he describes in those pages smacks of consumer choice and eclecticism of the worst order. Other than that, the book is an excellent starting point for Christians to engage postmodernism. Of the three French thinkers, I found Smith’s treatment of Lyotard the most persuasive.

  9. Dan,

    Could you define what you mean by “co-opt” or be specific about what it is that Jamie Smith is doing to which object? I’ve read Smith’s introduction to Radical Orthodoxy and have read around a bit in John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock and at least on that basis your point escapes me. How precisely are Smith or Milbank or Pickstock “co-opting” certain French thinkers, as opposed to being in fruitful conversation with them?

  10. Benjamin,

    The Radical Orthodoxy crew are neo-Platonists (Not that there is anything wrong with that). They are not fundamentally interested in Post-Modernism (whatever that means) “in itself” (As Husserl would say). They will utilize the post-modernists to attack modernity and gain the cache of being Christianity-in-dialogue-with-Post-Modernism to get attention. Proclus doesn’t move inventory but Derrida does.

  11. Dan,

    So, let me get this straight.

    If Radical Orthodoxy is in any kind of conversation — however fruitful — with Post-Modernism, then that constitutes a “co-opting” Post-Modernism by Radical Orthodoxy?

    Could the same be said, by extension, of Post-Modernism itself, or of individual thinkers who could be placed under the “Post-Modern” rubric?

    Are Post-Modernists thinkers similarly guilty of an illegitimate “co-optation” of this or that set of ideas, merely by virtue of being in dialogue with them?

    To reverse your formulation: are Post-Modernists guilty of utilizing, say, Pre-Post-Modernist philosophy to attack Pre-Post-Modernity and gain the cache of being Post-Modernity-in-dialogue-with-Pre-Post-Modernity (merely) to get attention?

    That would seem to be the thrust of your argument.

    That is, if your thinking is consistent.

    But perhaps it’s not and doesn’t mean to be.

  12. “If Radical Orthodoxy is in any kind of conversation — however fruitful — with Post-Modernism, then that constitutes a “co-opting” Post-Modernism by Radical Orthodoxy?”

    This is of course assuming there is a genuine conversation. If I were to talk about you, if I were to sight your writings in books and essays does that mean I am in dialogue with you? Not necessarily. I could be but I’m not necessarily so. To be in dialogue I would have to find something unique and fruitful that you have said and then build upon it. I could also name drop you, use your arguments when I find it convenient, and use them to undermine and oppose your thought. Is that dialogue or is it a bait and switch?

    “Are Post-Modernists thinkers similarly guilty of an illegitimate “co-optation” of this or that set of ideas, merely by virtue of being in dialogue with them?”

    Perhaps, but it also wouldn’t be genuine dialogue. Although not a post-modernist I think Žižek does this with Christianity. He doesn’t seek genuine dialogue so much as an attempt to re-read Christianity through his own philosophical lens. It wouldn’t be a problem if it was an honest engagement but oftentimes its not and descends into outright distortion of the idea.

    “To reverse your formulation: are Post-Modernists guilty of utilizing, say, Pre-Post-Modernist philosophy to attack Pre-Post-Modernity and gain the cache of being Post-Modernity-in-dialogue-with-Pre-Post-Modernity (merely) to get attention?”

    No, it’s just not cool enough to be plausible. The kids don’t get excited about Proclus (Contra Huey Lewis, it is not hip to be square).

    The Neo-Orthodox’s roots are in neo-Platonism filtered through de Lubec and Barth not Foucault and Lyotard. But I understand the temptation as they are rollicking good fun!

  13. Dan,

    I’m getting the sense that a shorter version of your argument would go like this:

    “I (Dan) don’t like Radical Orthodoxy because the Radical Orthodox are Christians and/or because they are not Post-Modernists or Modernists or Proto-Modernists.”

    Fair enough, but so what?

  14. Dan and Benjamin: You seem to be talking past one another. It might be more fruitful to frame the problem differently. Why don’t we, for convenience’s sake, admit that anyone who is trying in some serious way to deal with the legacy of Heidegger is a post-modern thinker in some sense.

    The radical orthodoxy folk are among a larger category who are critical of those who simply accept Heidegger’s intervention as a decisive fait accompli and push further in some direction he was going or try to alter the course, but still on the assumption that history can only go “forward” from there. The post-modern critics of what we might call post-modernISM still recognize the fundamental challenge for philosophy represented by Heidegger, especially as a critique of modern thought, but find Heidegger’s treatment of important pre-modern alternatives inadequate. So these pre-modernizing post-moderns would include the radical orthodoxy folks, as well as followers of Leo Strauss, Jacob Klein, Eric Voegelin, H-G Gadamer, and various other iterations. Then there is a third in-between category, people like Jean-Luc Marion, who accept Heidegger but try to show that (especially after Levinas) the very implications of his accomplishment point us back to neoplatonism as a more adequate treatment of the problem of theological metaphysics.

    So “co-opting” or window dressing is too simplistic a characterization, I think, though Dan is right that there is a “sexy” factor to their points of engagement that gives the RO folk more splash than the other veins of criticism.

  15. Benjamin,

    This is emphatically not my argument:

    “I (Dan) don’t like Radical Orthodoxy because the Radical Orthodox are Christians and/or because they are not Post-Modernists or Modernists or Proto-Modernists.”

    1)The only reason I pay any mind to the Radical Orthodox is precisely because they are Christians. They find their way onto my book-self because their resoursement of Christian Neo-Platonism is interesting stuff, their “dialogue” with Post-Modernism (still uncomfortable using this term as I have never heard a better definition than “Those cool guys I like” or “Those scary guys I dislike”) is not.

    2) I don’t dislike them because they aren’t Post-Modernists (Again what does that mean?) but because they are Neo-Platonists (Again nothing wrong with this) who insist, for reasons or marketing or simple sexiness, that they are somehow engaged with the Post-Modern project because they are both suspicious of the enlightenment.

  16. Mark,

    I think your right on with the last comment! I think your definition is problematic but this is minor quibbling.

    “So “co-opting” or window dressing is too simplistic a characterization, I think, though Dan is right that there is a “sexy” factor to their points of engagement that gives the RO folk more splash than the other veins of criticism.”

    This splash that is created sucks the oxygen out of the room for theologians who are actually engaged with these ideas (i.e. Rahner) as opposed to simply sympathetic th their suspicions about the modern project.

  17. I love the term “Post-Modern”. It is so triumphal and so much more dramatic, like in the way a Mid Air-Passenger Jet Collision is better than a mere train wreck.

    I once perused a copy of a sprite little book named “Derrida For Idiots” at a little cafe book store named Atticus in New Haven…and boy, was it.

    However, looking at Foucault’s reversal “Power is Knowledge” does get some points when looking at the Institutional charade of our Current government and economic system where power has created a kind of short term reality that is bulwarked against the Forbidden Knowledge that might debunk or doubt it.

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