Over the last ten years it is estimated that the word postmodern was cited in approximately 71,348,241 sermons in the western world, which is more than “Kingdom of God”, “Mary” and “irony” put together. When you consider how often the word was used in homegroups, Christian books and seminars at conference, it surely outnumbers the use of the word “Messiah” or “heaven”.
Of course, Derrida died five years ago and it has been a long time since “postmodernism” lost its sexy allure in the rest of the world but us Christians are admirably loyal to such old ideas as tradition but less impressively keen to cling on to this concept. I am, as I have often said, so postmodern that I distrust the term and the concepts behind it.
As I have just finished the nth iteration on a thesis about the modernity of Irish society, I thought I’d try to actually explain to you, if you are Irish Christians, why we should let our preoccupation with postmodernism go. I know it will be hard because using it makes us feel very clever. But the truth sets you free.
The whole language game is so stupid. Modernity is always likely to be understood as contemporary. But we are arguing that modernity, the historical period where by society has a shared value system based loosely around the values of the Enlightenment (reason and all that auld 1700s stuff about “self evident truths”) has now been replaced by post-modernity. The best definition we have of this is NT Wright’s summation. If postmodernism exists, it means the collapse of a shared value system. Such tight and practical thinking won’t do for Christians however and so the word has been polluted with ideas about the end of truth and other such nonsense. As if a major philosophical school could arise that would be about anything but conceptions of truth!
We cannot consider postmodernity, and its distrust of all overarching metanarratives (the big stories that we fit our lives inside: the Christian gospel, the inexorable rise of science, the triumph of human reason, the Communist revolution etc) without pointing out that the idea that history is broken down into specific periods is intensely modern.
Modernity was a revolt against tradition. It declared that we should not agree on what we can know based on what others have said in the past but by recourse to our own reason. A noble project. But you’d expect a Presbyterian to say that. We try to downplay it but let’s be honest, we drew the blueprints for this endeavour!
Postmodernity, if it is to be discussed, must be seen as ultra-modernity, as a rebellion against the modernist rebellion. Where modernity said we should trust our reason, ultra-modernity argues you cannot trust our reason at all. The 20th Century seems like a pretty convincing argument.
So on the God question, modernity told us that God doesn’t exist except as a psychological projection of our innermost desires. Ultra/post-modernity goes down the line more fully and deny “humanity” exists, except as a psychological projection of our innermost desires. Ultra-modernity is following through the Enlightenment to its conclusion. Modernity tells you the individual to trust reason and method. Ultra-modernity points out that if you get to assess things, then feel free to trust yourself if reason and method doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.
We need ultra-modernity to preach the Fall to modernity, to introduce some methodological distrust into a system that is increasingly invested with blind faith. But it is finally, with the introductory comments made that I can unleash my argument as to why we, as Christians, can exile these words and concepts from our vocabulary.
The church does not believe in society. The church does not rest on philosophy. The church does not need to get involved in such discussions because its preoccupation is bringing the Kingdom to bear in the place we find ourselves. Regardless of the divide in history you can locate us in, enacting the story of God’s transformational love for creation through the church does not need to stake its reputation or method on whether or not we live in a postmodern society.
Because the church and the Kingdom are not pieces on the chessboard that we call contemporary society. It is the other way around. “Post-modernism” is a brief and passing player in the great story of God’s restoration that is unveiling all around us. Hauerwas puts it well, “‘postmodernism’ merely names an interesting set of developments in the social order that is based on the presumption that God does not matter”.
Your Correspondent, A sick joke at the expense of revolutionary avant-gardism.