Monday, July 10, 2006

"How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith" - A Book Review

How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art by Crystal L. Downing
(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. 230 Pages)

A Review

When I started reading this recently-published book by Crystal Downing I wasn't sure whether I would like it or not, but the title had roused by curiosity -- and also found myself wondering who she was. Crystal Downing teaches English and fild studies at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, although was raised and educated on the West Coast. When I started reading I sometimes found her turn of phrase or choice of illustration a little saccarine, but by the time I got to the end I realized that this was someone who is an engaging teacher and is truly worth knowing.

Dr. Downing has read and absorbed most of the fundamental works that have shaped the postmodern mindset. While the likes of me have only dipped into Michel Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, and Richard Rorty, and the like, she had read and digested them, and from this has concluded that the era they have ushered in, as part of the sweep of the culture's advance, is a setting that orthodox Christians should learn to embrace more than criticize.

Like all good communicators, Downing tells her story. She grew up in the bosom of evangelical Christianity, but it was as she ventured out into the hostile world of academia that her faith was challenged down to its very roots. There she encountered a cynicism toward things Christian that forced her to confront her detractors while at the same time asking significant questions about what she believed. As she said, she came to realize of her inquistors that "Christians are not the only ones who hold on to their beliefs so tightly that they can leave bruises" (Page 36).

Her doctoral studies, teaching, and life experience have led her to recognize that if we are to remain trapped in modernist, Enlightenment thinking we are going to miss the blessings and benefits that postmodernity bring to those of us seeking to think and live as Christians. For several hundred years we have labored with the illusions of the Enlightenment that there is such a thing as a legitimate objective ground for all knowledge that is achieved solely through the use of reason, but now we have been set free from this cage.

Dr. Downing writes, "My willingness to start asking questions about postmodernism led to the discovery that it serves my faith -- not in spite of its view of history but because of it. For postmodernism calls into question historical accounts that proclaimed Christianity a superstitious construct of the past" (Page 49). While demonstrating how postmodernism can legitimately be considered the offspring of modernism, that child of the Enlightenment, it is developing a thoroughly different identity of its own.

Crystal Downing does not keep on beating Enlightenment thinking over the head with a baseball bat, but recognizes that for all its strengths and the benefits we have gained from it, even though it had (and has) woeful blindspots. Many of these blindspots are rooted in the Enlightenment's determination to absolutize human rationality and demand that everything must be empirically verifiable. As soon as we start thinking like this it is obvious that, for example, the existence of God cannot be tested, and so the notion of God ceases to have any positive meaning to the modernist thinker.

To use the language of postmodernity, the Enlightenment sets up a metanarrative, that claims to be a consistent worldview, and all must be measured and judged within the context of that metanarrative. What postmodernist thinkers did was to start poking holes in this mindset which ultimately is as much a human intellectual construct as any other worldview. Modernism had hoodwinked us for a long time into thinking that it alone is able to judge on the basis of its own mindset what reality is, when modernism itself has been unwilling to recognize that it, too, has feet of clay.

One of the strongest messages from Crystal Downing's book is that it helps me recognize how the whole intellectual and spiritual topography has been changing during my ministry. In the Sixties we felt we had our backs up against the Enlightenment wall and sought ways that would help us to escape from the corner into which we had been backed. Because modernity's take on the way reason is used was supreme, we were always looking to get beyond conceding that the Christian faith was an illusion, the figment of overactive or naive imaginations.

As Crystal says, "a long-established model of intellectual autonomy had shoved Christianity out of the door" (Page 83). Yet while its seemed domination, the Sixties was actually the period during which the Modernist, Enlightenment myth was being throttled, and with it the evolutionary notion that we are on this constant upward journey that takes us to a greater level of advance and maturity than previous generations. This mentality still prevails in the Episcopal and other mainline churches.

So it is that we have entered a different kind of discourse in a world with changing presuppositions. Whether we self-describe as orthodox, liberal, conservative, progressive, or what, many of us remain trapped in yesterday's world of ideas. We learned to think and believe in that Modernist world which has now been deconstructed, and do not want to leave its ruins. The result is that a lot of the time we flounder.

The manner in which Reason was enthroned at the Enlightenment, and then the way in which those of us who are children of the Enlightment have used it, whether we are coming from the left or the right, in one way or another either shuts out or devalues the past. On the other hand, postmodernism, "makes the past relevant to contemporary lived experience as though to say that the Enlightenment did not get any closer to objective truth than did the Christian Middle Ages" (Page 98). If you read that carefully, then you will see immediately that the playing field which has for generations been rigged against believing has now been levelled and we can come out of our bunkers.

Even so within the postmodern mentality is an insistent desire to raze the foundations of our thinking, acting and believing, and Downing handles the complexity of this with adroit brilliance. However, what it comes down to is that objectivity has different shapes and forms, and that we minimize humans if we use our way of thinking to reduce them to merely rational animals. The question is whether we are going to try and prop up the claims of the Gospel using a reductionist cornerstone, or whether we are going to recognize that "the truth of Christianity is not like the universal truth of reason. The cradle of Christian faith is a story rather than a system" (Downing quoting Kevin Vanhoozer, page 109).

I wish I had space to really unpack this 230-page book because Crystal Downing has provided us with good reasons for stepping further back from the Enlightenment prison without falling in the other direction and uncritically accepting this Postmodern age as the best thing since sliced bread. She has in the latter part of the book excellent material that deals with the nature of objectivity and subjectivity, as well as the nature and danger of radical individualism.

I suspect that this book will not be picked up by many who would benefit from it, partly because it is published by InterVarsity Press. This is a pity because Crystal Downing is no more willing to do a whitewash job on the evangelical way of thinking (which owes so much to Modernity) than she is to any other mindset. This book has been written by a woman knows very well, as any good postmodern should, how to assess the impact of her own presuppositions and conditioning, and then to reach beyond it. If nothing else, the method with which this book is written is a lesson to all of us attempting to live out Christ in this strange new world.

This leads me to the conclusions she draws. I am being over-simplistic, I know, but perhaps it can be said that those of us who are children of the Enlightenment have, as Christians, either sought to replace the prevailing secular metanarrative with an equally absolutist "Christian" metanarrative, or we have tailored our understanding of the faith so that it is more comfortable with the blinders of Modernity. Thus, conflict is made little more than a battle of ideas, which ideas are the most superior, and who is in power.

What postmodernity has done is to allow the culture to take a "religious turn" (Page 214), which is one reason why this multicultural world is so confusing. "The return to religious crops, however, created a new problem: an excessive multiplicity of faith vocabularies, with an indescriminate emphasis on tolerance for all. Tolerance, of course, is a good thing. But postmodernists who argue most vociferously for tolerance are often intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their definition of tolerance... The problem of the religious turn of postmodernity, then, is not getting people to turn toward a Christian window but getting them to spend serious time looking through it so that we can explain to them the significance of what they see" (Page 216-217).

This brings us back to focus on what we believe and how we believe it. We function in a different marketplace than the one that has formed any of us who are over the age of about 45, and even the under 45s live with the echo of our Enlightenment past. Sitting as we now do in a postmodern culture demands not that we let go of the Scriptures but handle them with care within the great tradition (Downing quotes everything from Nicaea, to Augustine, to Barth, to the Shepherd of Hermas, as well as the Bible to make her point).

But ultimately, if the window through which we see reality and understand truth is to have any validity at all, it is only going to be taken seriously if we incarnate what we actually believe. "The example of Jesus, formalized by Christian doctrine, thus fulfills what is 'written on the hearts' of postmodern theorists: that ethics must be based on 'openness to the other.' And, I would argue, it is also true" (Page 229).

The Christian faith in the postmodern age, therefore, only makes sense if what we say with our lips we believe, we live and love out in our lives. The tragedy of the church in the West, conservative or liberal or whatever other label you hang on it, is that we are failing utterly and miserably in this. While Crystal Downing does not say it, I will. One of the reasons why denominations, especially our own, are crumbling is that they spoke and worked well in an age that no longer exists.

Yesterday morning one of our church members, whose family have been to hell and back over the past years, said the most wonderful thing about our little congregation that I have ever heard. He said to us just as we were closing the building after Sunday worship that unlike so many other Christian communities, people could come to ours broken, and there in Christ's love and power, they find healing and are made whole. This was what was happening in his family. This is the power of the faith in a postmodern age.

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