Monday, November 16, 2009

Editorial: How can theology answer the challenge of postmodernity?

Introducing a five-day series on summary issues of contemporary Christianity:

The postmodern horizon challenges Christian theology insofar as it questions the epistemological foundations and structures which Christian theology has long assumed. Theology traditionally presents itself as words about God and holds the commonsense assumption that truth corresponds to revealed realities of God.

We can, through theology, describe something of the face of God, because God reveals God’s self through scriptural witness, the wisdom of tradition, one’s own experience of God in the current age, and the faculties of reason and logic available to everyone.

Theology’s task has long been simply to parcel out the truth available to us.

The postmodern horizon, on the other hand, by coming not only between believers and God, but also between us and any objective account of the world, has us always describing our own faces, regardless of any claims to the contrary. Words about God become simply words about us.

The postmodern horizon is a mirror.

The postmodern horizon does not deny experience, but does deny that we can have any experience outside of our selves. Scripture is ‘human, all too human’ witness; tradition is the self-interested pronouncement of past just as our own situated-ness confines us today; and reason more often than not springs from solely from one’s own perspective. God (or any capital letter at all) does not seem to belong in the postmodern context. The secular drift of society as a whole, and the fleeing of many of my own friends from their native faith, would indeed bear this new reality out.

Postmodernity, indeed, has arrived. It is not our choice. It is simply our condition.

But, at the same time, the inescapable nature of postmodern epistemic claims can hardly be more binding than the inescapable desires of the hound of heaven. The claim of scripture and postmodernity alike, after all, is that there is nothing new under the sun. If something as abominably hubristic as the Enlightenment can revitalize Christianity in the 17th and 18th centuries through the various Awakenings, I see no reason why the God of all history should not manifest in humbler postmodernity as well.

Just because we cannot escape our contexts does not mean that we need be terrorized by them; the very claim of Christians, after all, is that we have nothing to fear from history. And theology has not always been words about God; it began as words to God. Augustine first significantly wrote a prayer in the first person, and the Trinitarian formula began as the liturgical ritual of baptism.

In postmodern times, theology can rediscover itself not as science, but as prayer and liturgy.

Theology can reinvent itself not by making further claims about reality but by embodying the realities of God to transform the ‘realities’ the world always seeks to hold. The mirror that forms the postmodern horizon should ostensibly not matter – or rather, it should matter only insofar as it continues to reveal ourselves throughout all our manifestations.

What should matter most is the effect that theology as prayer and liturgy has upon the reflective, reflecting, and reflected self.

As Jules in the eminently postmodern film Pulp Fiction attests of his own religious experience, “It’s not about what…you don’t judge shit like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced as an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God’s touch, God got involved.”

At its root, then, the most significant effect of the post-modern horizon is not the denial of revelation as such but a re-prioritizing of the means of revelation and its ultimate meaning. Experience supersedes reason, scripture and tradition as the preeminent flowering of truth in the postmodern Christian framework, and it does not limn the face of God so much as it illuminates the witnessing self.

Reason becomes the postmodern means to discern the import of one’s own experience, tradition becomes the shared weight of Christian experience through the ages, and scripture becomes the communal narrative of primal experiences of God. The postmodern gospel, then, is less the propositional gospel of the Scholastics and the Reformers who critiqued them and more the Lukan gospel of the deaf hearing, the lame walking, and the blind being able to see.

That these indicate transformations of faith more than articulations of fact has always been the case. That these are personal and ‘human, all too human’ testimonies is only anathema insofar as our cultures have preferred impersonal and inhuman, mechanistic means of revelation in the first place. That testimony is irretrievably self-interested, provisional, and qualified is only anathema if one assumes that disinterested, unconditioned and unqualified truth is both possible and privileged.

But whereas the postmodern horizon asserts that such has only been the case in the modern West, the challenge of postmodernity need not spell the doom or even the decline of Christian faith.

Rather, employing the postmodern zeal for a-historical pastiche, the postmodern Christian may take the opportunity to embody the ancient Christian practice of bold and unabashed confession, the passionate exploration and careful explication of what, exactly, has happened to us.

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