A postmodern Christianity?

by CarlD

A guy I play tennis with shot me an email earlier this week asking for my thoughts on how to discuss postmodernity in relation to Christianity without getting into too much philosophy. He’s a smart, well-educated pharmaceutical rep who’s leading a Sunday school class of other educated, non-specialist professionals. They’re discussing “a book by Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian. The crux of the book is … the idea that the transition from medieval Catholicism to the Reformation created a new posture for Christians so different that if effectively created new Christians. Likewise, the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism should have created a new type of Christian – but it didn’t.”

I haven’t read the book and it’s not my field at all, but there’s some overlap. So I batted the question around with a couple of the guys from our Religion department and a guest speaker on science and religion we had this week, basically in the form of the question ‘What would a postmodern Christianity look like?’ What follows are the resulting unsystematic thoughts I sent to my friend.

*In terms of modernist discourse the zone of contention is between the tyranny of religious community and the narcissism of the individual conscience. Luther attacked the corporatist dogmatism of the Church and replaced it with personal faith. The Pope’s reply was basically ‘Look, if you assign worship to individual conscience eventually you’ll have as many churches as there are individuals boutiquing up their own religion, picking the best potlucks, and bailing as soon as anything inconvenient is demanded of them.’ As it turns out, he was right.

*This analysis breaks down a little with historical and anthropological analysis. As the record of the Inquisition shows, Catholicism itself was already a highly hybridized religion with all sorts of local and individual variants, many of them already consistent with one or another flavor of Reformation and many barely distinguishable from paganism. In a larger sense, religions never stably succeed in imposing a unitary dogma, although most of them try. As the Word passes through persons and situations it is changed by them even as it changes them. This point is consistent with Bruno Latour’s argument in We Have Never Been Modern that the modernist purities postmodernism supposedly broke down had never actually existed in practice. Objects like churches are always assemblages of this and that; the trick is therefore to figure out what the elements are in each situation. Although this point might look postmodern, Latour rejects the lazy corrosiveness of postmodernist discourse in which everything collapses into a big mishmash of difference. As an anthropologist he thinks we can be quite specific about the particular situated configurations that actually happen.

*Speaking of difference, if we take modernist Christianity to be about devolving the faith out from the institutional core to the periphery of individual conscience, an obvious postmodern move would be to push a step further and question the coherence of individual conscience. Self and social identity are themselves metanarratives, fictions that we tell ourselves to enable a sense of effective coherence. If in fact we’re each walking, talking dispersions of contradictory history and affiliation, it might make sense to ask who or what we are and who or what is actually having the personal relationship with Jesus, resulting in salvation for what part of our fictive array. If we further understand ourselves to be smeared into larger fields of dispersion including our dogs, accountants, refrigerators and so on, what it means to be ‘personally saved’ becomes pretty tricky. Interestingly Jesus himself prefigures this identity confusion, since he’s apparently human and divine, God and Son, terminal and eternal etc. all at once. (This may all get us to something like a Spinozan pantheism, but I can’t say much about that myself.)

*In a more materialist sense, postmodernism may just be the ideological corollary of advanced consumer society, which brings us back to potlucks. Once Burger King starts telling you you can have it your way and the idea that the customer is always right is embedded into the very structure of our material lives, religion’s power to compel is broken, a market is created for ‘personal spirituality’ in the mode of any other commodity, and stable revealed truth is reduced to a niche marketing slogan that may or may not inspire purchasing decisions.

So, what would a postmodern Christianity look like? Anything to add/subtract/correct/reject/subvert?

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114 Responses to “A postmodern Christianity?”

  1. Postmodern Christianty looks like Avatar.

  2. I think that’s a good call, Kvond. But I don’t know about the OP- there seem to me to be a whole lot of post-modern Christians today.

    They don’t really believe the Bible is literally true, but they think everyone should bow deferentially and respect their (very difficult to pin down) beliefs simply because the experience of faith is beautiful- church gives them a nostalgia buzz- or something. Since no one can argue with the idea that church makes some people feel good, the discourse buck effectively stops there.

    That’s on the liberal, “open-minded” end, where you have Unitarians, Episcopalians and some Anglicans/Catholics. Terry Eagleton. Lots of educated theologians fall into this group.

    Then on the more hard-nosed end, you have American Catholics and fundamentalists. Bill O’Reilly comes to mind, with his infamous “But it’s true for me” line. While railing against the liberal media’s War on Christmas, he simultaneously pleads with the audience to consider the possibility that there might be many truths, for many different people. Which is an attitude that the makers of the post-modern de-motivator posters seem to equate exclusively with secular academics and other large blocs of unbelievers, not the flock.

    Given the fact that I see most Christian denominations as hotbeds of post-modern symptôme, I find their criticism of “secular” post-modernism and the tolerance narrative quite ironic. They’re finally starting to feel their majority status in culture slipping away, and suddenly (voila!) they’re the ones whining about how *intolerant* everyone is of their beliefs- because SNL did a mean skit, Disney movies are so pagan, or that Big Meanie New Atheist questioned the claim that morality is a function of religious belief.

    Funny how the tables can be turned like that.

  3. My goodness, I wish Postmodernism was over. Hasn’t it had its 15 minutes of fame yet?

  4. I know so very little about this – but, to ignore the ‘without getting too much into philosophy’ for one second, the intersection of philosophy and theology is I think one area where there’s very clear influence of the stuff generally described as ‘postmodern’ on religious discourse. Derrida was (and maybe still is, I don’t know), a very big deal in plenty of theological circles, for instance, I believe.

    Once we move out of intellectual history, though, and into the discussion of social practices, the issue becomes cloudier – largely because I think it’s a bit unclear (at least to me) what the term ‘postmodern’ picks out. There have certainly been a set of social shifts in developed capitalist societies since the ’60s, which are associated with a lot of the phenomena called postmodernism – but that’s a broad field.

    The comparison with Protestantism is interesting, I think – but partly because the shift towards Protestantism was associated with a much vaster social shift than anything in the late 20th century: the emergence of capitalism was a huge world-historical transition, and developed alongside comparably huge transformations of religious practices and sensibilities. You wouldn’t expect to see a comparably huge shift in religious practice as part of the structural transformation of the ’60s (and after), I don’t think.

    Wish I knew more about all this though.

  5. I may have mentioned that when I was on the market one of the frames I put my stuff in was ‘the prehistory of postmodernism’. I did a job talk at Illinois in which I spun that out in terms of precocious postmodernisms (the manuscript preface on the Stuffed Voles page has some of that material in it). It went over well and among the most excited about it were the classical historians, who were buzzing about how what I was saying resonated with the pre-Socratics. All this to say that although I think postmodernism is fun at parties, I’m not impressed with it as an epochal event. It’s more of a loose coalescence of critical-thinking commonplaces unmoored from responsibility and pumped up by conjuncture with late capitalism. But I will say this: you can’t have postmodernism with[out] irony, preferably self-irony. So anyone who’s taking themselves very seriously is out of play.

  6. Soooo…qualified postmodern Christianity would be one that didn’t take itself too seriously (???)…one that says “Isn’t it ironic God became the flesh” or “Isn’t it odd that Jesus died right when the calendar was changing to zero?” I don’t get it. Carl, what are you imagining pomo Christianty would be? Or, are you saying there is no such thing as postmodern Christianty because postmodernism isn’t really epochal?

  7. I feel like I ought to have something pertinent to say here, but I can’t seem to find any place to grab hold. Having read one of McLaren’s books, I thought he seemed to be trying to move his evangelical base toward a more liberal position, both theologically and politically. He emphasizes the gospels and the life of Jesus as paradigmatic, which reflects a shift from the Protestants’ traditional focus on the Pauline letters. Postmodern? Well, McLaren emphasizes narrative rather than propositional truth, as well as other-centeredness rather than self- or church-centeredness. On the other hand, he’s invoking a return to the historical Jesus as the model for how to live, which looks a lot like the backward gaze toward an earlier golden age or founder that characterizes traditional religion. And he’s hoping to bring economic justice to the world through cumulative individual changes of heart on the part of the Western haves while counseling the third-world have-nots to be patient. While McLaren self-consciously presented his ideas as radical, they seemed pretty cautious to me, though by my lights they’re still a distinct improvement over evangelical orthodoxy. I have his latest book in the house — maybe I’ll give it a look.

    Duncan rightly observes that postmodern theory has had a significant and broad theological impact among Christians. I’m skeptical about some of it; e.g., the PoMo rejection of science as totalizing discourse seems ready-made for religious mystification, and the rejection of the modern “cult of progress” seems to open the door to more regressive religious impulses. On the other hand, the PoMo hermeneutic of the reader in the text and the cultural boundedness of interpretation gives traditional fundamentalists more leeway in imposing their own contemporary meanings on the Biblical texts without having to abandon the authority of Scripture. And this respect for the other seems to open up more tolerance for other faiths. On the other hand, I think maybe the tide has already turned against the postmodern “emerging” church, with a more conservative retrenchment underway in matters of doctrine and evangelism.

  8. Ha. What do you know, in thinking about it I realize that when I was researching the connection between Gadamer and Augustine I accidently wrote about Postmodern Christianity:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/01/22/augustines-own-anti-private-language-argument/

  9. *In a more materialist sense, postmodernism may just be the ideological corollary of advanced consumer society, which brings us back to potlucks. Once Burger King starts telling you you can have it your way and the idea that the customer is always right is embedded into the very structure of our material lives, religion’s power to compel is broken, a market is created for ‘personal spirituality’ in the mode of any other commodity, and stable revealed truth is reduced to a niche marketing slogan that may or may not inspire purchasing decisions.

    It might be worth considering the classification of different types of individualism in Robert Bellah, et al’s Habits of the Heart

    Bellah suggests that American individualism now assumes four forms. In two classical forms, the ultimate source of value is located outside the individual, in God (the religious variant) or the State (the nationalist variant). In two more recent forms, the ultimate source of value is located inside the individual, in instrumental calculations (rational choice) or in feelings (the therapeutic form.

    The proposal I derive from Bellah is that the modern form of Christianity was classical; God was still out there and, while the Protestant believer might be conceived as having a direct relationship to God, it was properly one of awe and absolute obedience. A Christianity restructured to fit either rational-choice or therapeutic individualism falls into the consumerist trap so nicely described in the passage quoted above.

  10. Kvond, I agree that hermeneutically speaking PoMo Christianity presents a kind of fusion between Gadamer and medieval Catholicism. According to the Eemerging© view, fundamentalist Protestant Biblical interpretation stems from a kind of empiricism that regards the Bible as data to be analyzed, combined with a belief that language signifies objects and events outside of the language and in the world — both irredeemably Modern conceits, purportedly. The medieval exegetes interpreted Biblical passages not just literally but also allegorically, morally, and mystically — what’s known as “the four senses of Scripture,” which the Catholic church still supports. Now the Bible becomes less a factual account vouchsafed by God but more an icon or portal through which God can communicate directly to the reader/hearer.

    The problem, it’s recognized, is that the mystical interpretation quickly disintegrates into a congeries of entirely private and idiosyncratic unspoken languages known only to the exegetical mystics and, presumably, God. The Gadamerian position asserts that the Scriptural autographs and the medieval mystical interpretations weren’t idiosyncratic visions of lone individuals: they embody and reflect the faith communities in which they emerged. There can be no recapturing of the original authorial intent. There can, however, be contemporary faith communities from which new allegorical, moral, and mystical interpretations of the ancient texts can emerge. The contemporary community interacts vicariously with the ancient communities through the texts, not achieving transcendent Truth but rather approaching a Gadamerian “fusion of hermeneutical horizons” within human place and time. So the fragmentation of hermeneutical individualism is averted by re-establishing the embeddedness of all individuals in social contexts, while the inspiration and perhaps even the infallibility of Scripture is preserved in its iconic and symbolic form rather than in its empirical accuracy.

  11. Typo on the extra “e” in “Eemerging.” As Lacan says, God is unconscious,” so maybe that typo represents God’s secret communication to us through my fingers that He wants us to develop an Eemerging hermeneutic? I’ll look into the copyright procedures and work up the preliminary business plan and pro-formas.

  12. And the missing first quotation mark at the beginning of Lacan’s quote: is the unconscious God saying that He’s always talking through us, and that He stops only when we impose an artificial quotational distinction between what He says and what we say?

  13. Kvond @ 6, yes, out of all of the elements variously constellated into postmodernism – fragmentation, contingency, hybridity, decentering, radical skepticism (‘incredulity’), anti-foundationalism, anti-essentialism – I am foregrounding ironic reflexivity. According to which the question ‘what would a postmodern Christianity look like’ is hilariously self-deconstructing. Because the thing about pomo is that it doesn’t let anything stay still or be what it is. There can be no such thing as pomo Christianity, but there are an infinity of possible pomo Christianities, none of them stable or grounded enough to do any of the things people want to apply labels like Christianity to do; but each enabling its own characteristic jokes like the ones you imagine.

    In short, ‘being a Christian’ requires a planting of feet that is inconsistent with postmodernism. This refusal of postmodernism to pin down into positive agendas has been frequently noted by people from across the range of agendas, e.g. leftists who realized pretty early on that despite all the gaudy critical apparatus, pomo can’t be made into politics. My sense is it can’t be made into religion, either.

    John M., agreed.

    John D., I suppose a pomo response would be that the problem is not solved but only amplified by moving idiosyncrasy to the community level, and that this is our human condition. Perhaps the Augustine Kvond writes of in his linked post is correct that anything with a human vector origin is false or at least, given the inevitable limitations of any particular fusion of horizons, unverifiable. A tragic fate or a hilarious pickle? Sometimes I think this is the only difference between modernism and postmodernism.

  14. I wonder Carl, have you read Badiou’s little book on St. Paul? If so, would you consider his take on Christianity a postmodern answer to your objection to the absurdity of a pomo Christianity?

  15. “There can be no such thing as pomo Christianity, but there are an infinity of possible pomo Christianities”

    You’re saying this more as a commentary on postmodernism than on Christianity, yes? I.e., you could replace “Christianity” with any abstract noun and the answer would be the same.

  16. It would be an odd thing to say. Would it mean that AS a pomoist, I lose the right to refer to a single thing, pomo Christianity, or what would it mean that if anyone at all refers to pomo Christianity, they would be factually incorrect? Then, is there such a thing as “pomo philosophy” or “pomo architecture”?

  17. Carl – I’m not I guess confident that the kind of ‘planting of feet’ required for membership of a religious community is incompatible with the intellectual inclinations you mention. There are, I think, plenty of religious communities that self-consciously thematise, as part of the intellectual work associated with an overtly ritualised social space, a pragmatist reproduction of community through ritual (over and against the centrality of belief). And even as regards individual or subjective attitudes to the divine, the lack of specific grounding associated with divine inscrutability or alterity (for instance) is a regularly thematised element of plenty of theological work, I think – I’m not sure that this inclination is in itself incompatible with specific religious conviction. (Again, I wish I actually knew the space at all – but on the irony thing – wouldn’t you say that Keirkegaard deploys & thematises irony pretty centrally while remaining Christian as dammit? Though admittedly it’s not the most laugh-out-loud cheerful of ironic attitudes; maybe that’s why he’s not pomo.)

    kvond – wouldn’t you say that Badiou’s book on Paul is part of the theoretical reaction against pomo?

  18. kvond – wouldn’t you say that Badiou’s book on Paul is part of the theoretical reaction against pomo?

    Kvond: I’m not sure. I am one that likes to treat Badiou’s book on Paul distinctly from his general work (of which I think much is self-overblown), and theory positioning. The book is excellent, much of the else not. So by my reading the book on Paul is a praxis designed to show how one can activate and activize under the auspices of totalizations WITHIN the field of pomo. For me this makes the book on Paul consistant with Pomo criticisms.

    I’m sure that this will be sour to Badiou fans who like to imagine that Badiou is doing something radical and new, but to me the greater part of Badiou is all wrong, the book on Paul withstanding.

  19. I see, that’s interesting. (I’m also no fan of Badiou, but I haven’t read his Paul book. Maybe I will.)

  20. (ktismatics’ summary of the Gadamerian synthesis is really interesting too, btw.)

  21. Pomo Christianity was Don Cupitt’s thing for some time (with a strong accent on Rortian anti-foundationalism). I remember going from being quite impressed to finding it utterly vapid in a fairly short space of time.

    There is a kind of irony with which “educated” Christians are familiar, which comes with the realisation that demythologising all the picture-language gets you nowhere fast, and that the picture-language is already perfectly capable of self-deconstructing without any help from Heidegger. You’re left in the position of having nothing but picture-language with which to articulate the matter of religious commitment and experience, and of knowing at the same time that it is picture-language, and not some sort of pseudocode that can be compiled into pure systematic onto-theology. The irony is the only thing separating this position from that of the “uneducated” Christian who simply used the picture-language as picture-language all along.

  22. Yeah Dominic, agreed.

    Re: some stuff further upthread, I think some of the slip in this conversation comes from a distinction that might be drawn between ‘postmodernism’, an intellectual current, and ‘postmodernity’, a possible name for a historical era. Some more slip comes from the fuzzy modernism/postmodernism transition. Let me see if I can clarify my take on these things and possibly answer a couple of questions in the process.

    On ‘postmodernity’, I agree with Duncan that there’s not much there there. Certainly ‘late’ capitalism, whatever that means, isn’t doing anything now it wasn’t doing a hundred years ago, and most of what gets called the postmodern condition has roots that stretch back 500 years or more. The scale, speed and density of global networks is different (as I remember every time I drink an IPA, invented to keep the beer fresh on the long hot ocean shipment from England to India), but the scaling has all in all been smooth enough that none of the dynamics are unfamiliar. Whatever modernity is, we’re pretty definitely not post it.

    Of course the sense that big change is afoot, all solids melting into air, centers not holding and whatnot, the narrowing of historical horizons, obsession with innovation, nostalgia for lost integrity and constant obsoleting/reinventing of tradition, are characteristic of modernism. As is some version of pragmatic/existentialist feet-planting amidst the maelstrom. Modernism therefore tends to play out in the romantic, tragic or stoic modes. As I’ve said, the actual conceptual apparatus of postmodernism is none of it new, but what is distinctive in pomo as such is a ludic celebration of chaos, that there’s nothing solid to plant on. Of course we can find even this in, say, the Futurists, but they were quintessential modernists in a romantic mode, their faith invested in the raw power of technology.

    Had to go to a meeting and lost my train of thought. Hope this moves things along.

  23. @15 and 16, right, commentary on pomo but also on its suitability as a modifier of things that don’t want to be modified that way.

    Philosophy is an activity that doesn’t need to come to a particular conclusion, so it can be pomo. Architecture needs to not fall down and crush people, so it can’t be pomo, and similarly a Christian must be saved. Pomo can do all sorts of things with architecture and Christianity and call them ‘postmodern architecture’ or ‘postmodern Christianity’. But if your emphasis is structural integrity or eternity, you’d best stay away from pomo, because those are mere social constructions, metanarratives toward which it will demand incredulity.

  24. At one point I decided that the most characteristic pomo critical tactic was what I call the ‘hidden God trick’. Find the thing your opponent is holding stable as a foundation for anything else they’re saying and deconstruct it. Lather, rinse, repeat. What’s compelling about pomo is how easy this turns out to be. What’s vapid about pomo is how easy this turns out to be. As Dominic says, responsible people end up right back where they started, making commitments they now know can’t be ultimately grounded. So I guess I’m saying that you can have a Christianity that’s passed through pomo and come out the other side tougher, wiser, and more self-ironic. You can have postmodernists playing around with Christianity and calling it ‘postmodern Christianity’. But what you can’t have is something that’s both really postmodern and really Christian.

  25. I realize btw that when we say ‘Christian’ we might just mean a particular style of being a right person, along the lines of ‘Christendom’. I’ve been assuming here that we’re talking about a Christianity that further wants to get some folks to Heaven through the intercession of Jesus, the Son of God, and other folks to Hell through some failure to earn that intercession.

  26. 23. “Architecture needs to not fall down and crush people, so it can’t be pomo, and similarly a Christian must be saved.”

    Kvond: Not to be trite or to read too much into a throwaway line, but this is a rather profound (that is, a to-the-deep) misreading of what Postmodern architecture was, and perhaps because of that, a misreading of what Postmodernism at large was.

    Or, to put it a different way, postmodern philosophy argument also has to not fall down and crush people.

  27. 24. “So I guess I’m saying that you can have a Christianity that’s passed through pomo and come out the other side tougher, wiser, and more self-ironic.”

    Kvond: I wonder about this. I liked the earlier point about Kirkegaard’s irony and his appeal to radical even absurd faith. I also wonder about Latour’s Catholicism.

  28. 25. “I’ve been assuming here that we’re talking about a Christianity that further wants to get some folks to Heaven through the intercession of Jesus, the Son of God, and other folks to Hell through some failure to earn that intercession.”

    Kvond: This is an interestng proviso, perhaps something akin to “You can’t be a postmodern Christian because Christianity as I qualify it is modern”. I wonder if in order to be a Christian you have to believe in the doctrine of a literal Hell, or you cannot take things like “the Son of God” in a more complex or subtle way.

  29. Says Kvond: “You can’t be a postmodern Christian because Christianity as I qualify it is modern”. I think this might be right, Carl. You seem to be defining the Master Signifiers of Christianity in an a priori and timeless way, rather than regarding them as modern or premodern planks that have been assembled into various structures which have heretofore been branded, separately and collectively, as “Christianity.”

    Says Carl: “Philosophy is an activity that doesn’t need to come to a particular conclusion, so it can be pomo.”

    Surely you can at least imagine open-ended variants of Christianity. E.g., Paul wrote about the “new creation” governed not by law but by the movement of the Spirit: this suggests an immanentist Christianity rather than an eschatologically predetermined one. And it’s possible for some variants of Christianity to regard Paul not as an inerrant revealer of eternal Truths but as a man of his time and place trying to make sense of God’s presence and movement. Whether Badiou is or is not postmodern, he’s going to point back to the “Christ event” as paradigmatic truth, with subsequent human efforts to define “Christianity” propositionally or performatively as tentative and derivative and therefore always subject to change.

    Says Kvond: “I wonder if in order to be a Christian you have to believe in the doctrine of a literal Hell, or you cannot take things like “the Son of God” in a more complex or subtle way.”

    There are distinctly modern Christian exegetes who question whether the Bible even describes a literal Hell as a place of eternal torment for the damned. It’s arguable that when Jesus spoke of consigning sinners to “gehenna” (hell), he was referring literally to the physical place called Gehenna, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem, which functioned as the city dump and incinerator. I.e., you as a material being are doomed to physical annihilation just like all the other detritus we produce in this city.

    The Mormons take “son of God” as being a destination toward which all can move. The Eastern Orthodox do as well with the doctrine of “theosis,” whereby humans take on divinity. In these variants, arguably modern and premodern respectively, Jesus is regarded as “firstborn” of the god-men — which is consistent with the Pauline epistles.

    I’m not here to defend either postmodernism or Christianity. I’m just concerned that these blanket statements like “pomo Christianity is X” or “pomo Christianity is impossible” seem too…totalizing and hegemonic?

  30. Look, I’m open to all kinds of monsters. I’m just saying that without Christ and at least some of the conceptual structure of Christ, there’s not much point in calling whatever’s left over ‘Christianity’. I mean, I try to be nice to people in roughly the ways Jesus described on the Mount. It might be fair to say that this makes me culturally Christian. But religiously Christian this lifelong agnostic is not.

    To boil down the point, postmodernism is essentially anti-essentialist. But to be Christianity, and not something else, Christianity needs an essence, or at least a central constellation of defining whatsits. Postmodernism won’t let any of that sit still or stay centered.

    Postmodernism is NOT simply a flavor of open-endedness. It’s every critical strategy of Western civilization pushed to its absurd extreme and turned back on itself. Kierkegaard is not postmodern because in the face of the absurd he plants his feet. In this respect he is a quintessential modernist. This is not an insult. As I keep saying, postmodernism is fun to play with but impossible to get anything done with, because it busily deconstructs any method and goal of doing. This is the only thing that makes postmodernism post modernism – all the rest of it is there already in modernism.

  31. Kvond, you can have a ‘post-modern’ architecture in which the buildings don’t fall down only because it’s possible in that field to specify so precisely what the ‘modern’ architecture was that the new architecture is post. So there’s a dialectic of rejection and incorporation directly analogous to other posts like the post-Raphaelites or the post-Hegelians. And it’s always true that if you can specify precisely what the ‘modern’ is, it’s possible to be ‘post’ it in such a dialectical way.

    However, my point is that postmodernism as such is not post a precise and definite modernity or even modernism. It’s post any attempt to settle a foundation, even conventionally (Wittgenstein is therefore a modern, not a postmodern). Because of this, postmodern philosophy does fall down and crush people. This is Latour’s point in a nutshell.

  32. “Christianity needs an essence, or at least a central constellation of defining whatsits.”

    You propose properties of what you regard as Christianity’s essence; my response is to point out some of the variants, some of long historical standing, in which those essential properties don’t hold but that still regard themselves as Christian. We could probably perform this exercise repeatedly without ever arriving at a mutually agreed-upon essence of Christianity. Maybe in that sense Christianity has never been modern. If by Latourian definition modernism divides everything into human and natural, and if Christianity, like most religions, positions itself within a third supernatural register, then presumably Christianity could never have been modern anyway.

  33. @30: Yes, this.

    The thing that occurred to me, as I read the original post, was thoughts of friends of mine who are active (possibly devout) members of Christian churches. While we don’t talk all that much about deities, per se–not least because they know I don’t believe in deities–we have talked enough so that I can see what they’re “getting” from their religion. It isn’t necessarily the promise of heaven or the threat of hell (or, for members of other faiths, whatever is being promised), at least for my friends (I recognize that those locations are real for many people). Instead, they are responding to a particular habit of belief, a shared practice around behavior (e.g., discerning right and wrong), and, for all I know, an actual deity (hey, I suppose I could be wrong), but also, they are members of communities. This membership is not trivial, or purely social, or anything like that–which is why the notion that people select their church by the quality of the potlucks is really quite wrong. Assigning worship to individual conscience does not lead to the potluck-method of congregation choice.

  34. John, I agree with your point here, but you have not in fact identified any variant of Christianity that doesn’t have something Christy in it. Different flavors of Christiness are all still Christian because of that, just like different flavors of ice cream are all ice cream because of the ice and the cream, and frozen yogurt is not ice cream because yogurt is not cream any more, and Italian ice is not ice cream because there’s ice but no cream, and cream + ice is not yet ice cream because they have not undergone the requisite amalgamation. Without Christiness you may have something really lovely, but it’s not Christianity.

    Look, if I say that a Krishna cult is a form of Christianity and the Gita is a Christian text because Krishna is basically the same sort of critter as Jesus, I’d be committing a category error, right? Which is not to deny the parallels. That’s all I’m getting at here.

  35. Sure, Christianity has Christ in it. The essence of Christ — Christiness — has always been up for grabs, providing the impetus for a lot of contentious schisms down through the centuries, as you’re well aware. Can Christ’s human and divine natures be separated, or are they inextricably merged? Did Jesus always have a divine nature, or did he acquire it while on earth? Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone? That one split the Catholics from the Orthodox. Does the resurrected Christ still exist in bodily form somewhere in heaven await the post-Apocalyptic victory tour? Is it really the body and the blood at Eucharist, or is that just a figure of speech? And so on.

    There’s Carl, and then there’s Carliness. Throwing Carliness into question doesn’t mean that Carl can’t cross the divide from modern to postmodern. No need to throw the baby out with the babyness.

  36. 31. “It’s post any attempt to settle a foundation, even conventionally (Wittgenstein is therefore a modern, not a postmodern).”

    Kvond: Your defintion is arbitrary. Conventionality certainly can be a source of regularity without lapsing into foundationalism, and I’m not at all sure that Wittgenstein (latter-day) is “modern”. In fact, it could be argued that Wittgenstein (early) was modern, and he made a post-modern break from modern when he rejected any notion of essence.

  37. Carl at 30: “To boil down the point, postmodernism is essentially anti-essentialist. But to be Christianity, and not something else, Christianity needs an essence, or at least a central constellation of defining whatsits. Postmodernism won’t let any of that sit still or stay centered.

    Postmodernism is NOT simply a flavor of open-endedness. It’s every critical strategy of Western civilization pushed to its absurd extreme and turned back on itself. Kierkegaard is not post-modern because in the face of the absurd he plants his feet. In this respect he is a quintessential modernist.”

    Kvond: I don’t know, your defintions are all over the place. Modernism is all about foundations, and then its all about essences and then its simply all about planting your feet. I find nothing about Kirkegaard’s foot planting that makes him modernist in the Modernist sense, essences are denied (at least from the Father of exitentialism pov), and the act of faith as absurd does not at all “quintessentially” qualify as modernism. Modernism is, if anything, all about NOT the act of faith, but rather the aesthetic or Reasoned grasp of what is essential and unshakable. Where modernism suceeds there is no “absurd” no real leap necessary. I can see aspects of modernism in Kirkegaard but to call him a “quintessential modernist” seems, I don’t know, absurd. I would think a quintessential modernist philosopher would be something of a Rationalist.

    Be that as it may, I was not claiming that Kirkegaard was a postmodernist, what I suggested as that his mode of faith and rhetorical irony could furnish a postmodern Christian perspective, at least theoretically.

  38. 31. “Because of this, postmodern philosophy does fall down and crush people. This is Latour’s point in a nutshell.”

    Kvond: And how to you match this up with Latour’s Catholicism? (Frankly, Latour is rather postmodern in my view.) Let’s just make a description (and not an explanation), and then get on with praxis. This is pretty much Rorty.

  39. 34. “Without Christiness you may have something really lovely, but it’s not Christianity.”

    Kvond: Yes, you set up the equation where you require the essence of Christ (a modern concept) to be essential to Christianity.
    In short, anything with essences is modern.
    Christianity relies on the essence of Christ.
    Therefore, Christianity is necessarily modern.

    As John points out, all these qualifying terms have been up for grabs for millenia.

    It reminds me of Quine’s disproof of the disproof that All Swans are White.

    1. All swans are white.
    2. No, here, I found a black swan.
    3. That’s not a swan, all swans are white.

    So if someone comes up with a new “kind” of Christianity that is of a radical break, you simply say “Hey, that’s not Christianity”. I wonder what Catholics felt when they ran into those Protestants, probably something like “That’s not Christianity”.

    What about Badiou’s argument towards praxis that says that the NAME Communism needs to be reclaimed from history (not its essence, its name), for a revolutionary movement. What happens when the NAME of Christianty is reclaimed, but the form is radically different? Ah, that’s just a cult, I imagine is your chorus. Perhaps.

    But were the Gnostic cults of early Christianity in the North of Africa during the first few centuries, whose doctrines were heretically stricken, closer to or further from what Christianity IS? As a historian I would think you would find this point a salient one.

    What if for instance there were a Christ doctrine that only viewed Christ as an elevated version of what we all as Christ-souls have within ourselves, and though he did (through his Christ-element) created a rift in history, but as we too have Christ elements, we too can and do create rifts in history. Is this (partially made up) position modernist? Could it have postmodernist elements? I think it could.

  40. Wittgenstein didn’t reject ANY notion of essence, quite; he says something like, there’s no one definition of language games, but there are language games. (I don’t have my LW handy at my desk, only endless budget spreadsheets . . .) One doesn’t draw boundaries–and one doesn’t draw NO boundaries–one draws boundaries for a purpose. LW was pointing us toward using the correct map for the question we’re asking–if you want to get from the north side to the south side, then a public transportation map is what you need, but if you want to get from Philadelphia to Chicago, you’ll need a different map, and if you want to get from where I was then to where I am now–in some sense having to do with who “I” am–then you’ll have a different discussion altogether. In each case, you’re putting down a stake of some kind, just not the same stake, and the same stake won’t do for every occasion (and sometimes you want a steak, rather than a stake). I’d also point to LW’s observation that languages/language games are like cities, in that they have old sections, and new sections, and sections that have been modified and lived in, etc.; just as Christianity isn’t a static thing in some very important ways (though i recognize that the notion of Christiness counters that, perhaps).

    I’d have to think a bit to map this analogy onto Christianity, but I don’t think that’s an impossible task.

    And I always appreciate the opportunity to babble about LW; he’s my best bud.

  41. I keep saying everything useful about postmodernism was there before postmodernism. Yet somehow it’s making sense to y’all to keep refuting me with historical examples.

  42. 40. “Wittgenstein didn’t reject ANY notion of essence, quite; he says something like, there’s no one definition of language games, but there are language games. (I don’t have my LW handy at my desk, only endless budget spreadsheets . . .) One doesn’t draw boundaries–and one doesn’t draw NO boundaries–one draws boundaries for a purpose.”

    Kvond: It would help if you were referring to the use of “essence” as a proper philosophical term and isolatd pursuit (as I was). And this indeed is something that Wittgenstein rejected in his latter phase (unlike his atomic picture theory of language in the early stage).

    Indeed his refusal to give a final defintion of language games (rather offering only examples) is against just such an “essence” approach to philosophy, characteristic of modernism. As is his “family resemblance” approach to issues that otherwise lead into essence changing. LW’s appeal to the analogy of older and newer parts of cities ALSO is an anti-essence approach to philosophy, as such, cities also have no identifiable “essence”.

    And he is explicit about the mistake of trying to identify the essence of something, as for instance characterized by the pursuits of Logic:

    “For there seemed to pertain to logic a particular depth – a universal signifance. Logic lay, it seemed, at the bottom of all sciences. For logical investigation explores the nature of all things. It seeks to see the bottom of things and is not meant to concern itself whether what actually happens is this or that.–It takes its rise not from the facts of nature, nor from the need to grasp causal connections: but from an urge to understand the basis, or essence, of everything empirical. Not however as if to this end we had to hunt out new facts; it is however, of the essence of our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand.”

    PI 89

    And again at PI 97, in referring to the “halo” of thought, imagined as its essence…

    “We are under the illusion that what is peculiar, profound, essential, in our investigation, resides in trying to grasp the incompariable essence of language. That is, the order existing between the concepts of preposition, word, proof, truth, experience, and so on.”

    If you follow the history of the philosophical pursuit (including Wittgenstein’s own pursuit of it early on), you will see that what W is against is EXACTLY this pursuit, and it is this pursuit that in many ways characterizes the MODERN pursuit, to strip away surfaces and reveal the “bottom”, the “hidden” the under “order”. This is the case not only in philosophy, but also in architecture (Wittgenstein also built a thoroughly modern architecture house in the model of his friend Adolf Loos, when he was young: http://dianepernet.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/dianepernet2480.jpg ). Early Wittgenstein was DEEPLY modern, and Late Wittgenstein refused all of those essence chasing, essence revealing attempts.

    All of your references actually prove this point.

  43. Carl: “I keep saying everything useful about postmodernism was there before postmodernism. Yet somehow it’s making sense to y’all to keep refuting me with historical examples.”

    Kvond: Okay, so your point is…

    1. If there are currently any modes of Christianity that are identified with postmodernism, this is false because all these features existed before modernity, and therefore are not postmodern.

    This seems silly. All it takes is for a modern Christianity to make us of Postmodern philosophy, in the NAME of postmodernism, and I think it de facto is postmodern (self-identified). I remember when I read Rorty in depth I kept coming upon Theological readings of Rorty. Rorty was practically the posterboy of Americann postmodernism (though he refused the label). I’m not sure where your argument comes from.

  44. “What about Badiou’s argument towards praxis that says that the NAME Communism needs to be reclaimed from history (not its essence, its name), for a revolutionary movement. What happens when the NAME of Christianty is reclaimed, but the form is radically different?”

    You want my answer, or a postmodern answer? A postmodern answer is that the NAME Communism needs no reclaiming because Communism was only ever a name for a fiction, a difference constantly deferred. The name has no presence and neither does Communism. Call your parakeet Communism for another instance of differance.

    My answer is that I don’t see the point. You could call me Chuck because that’s my Dad’s name and I continue him in various ways. But for a variety of practical reasons it regularly becomes useful to recognize a punctuation in the flow of life by assigning a new name or putting down a stake. So at a certain point in the flow of Southwestern Asian monotheism the Judaism variant sprouted off the Christian variant, in a way that meant enough that everyone agreed to call it a new thing. Not Paulism, or trinitarianism, or hydrolevitationism, but Christianity. Then later there was a family quarrel and the Catholics split with the Orthodox; yet to both it seemed important to maintain the Christian clan name.

    When people call themselves Christian nowadays it’s presumably because they see some point in remaining part of this family. If they’d like to do something radically different, a different name would seem to be in order.

  45. Damn. Talking past each other but now I have to go to a dinner. I’ll try to reread the thread so I don’t say obvious absurdities when I get back.

  46. Carl: “I keep saying everything useful about postmodernism was there before postmodernism. Yet somehow it’s making sense to y’all to keep refuting me with historical examples.”

    Kvond: I would have to add to this a few criticisms.

    1. You say “everything useful”. This restriction to usefulness has to be qualified. Because all of these features (which you seem to feel exist in a non-historical sense, being of the same “use” in 1066 and 1986) existed in specific expressional form in the past, their use has to be measured in the context and assemblage they have been put into.

    2. If postmodernism (in any of its incarnations) takes its position AGAINST modernism, in the sense of “not that, this newer thing”, this by self-defintion is post-modernism. If such post-modernism puts together a lot of old useful things into ANY meaningfully new way, like combining ingredients, even if that “new way” is in the historical context of being AFTER and in response to modernism, then we have a new “use”. Postmodern architecture employed Greek facades and colonial columns in a new way, and it certainly seems that post-modern philosophy did the same.

    3. The question is, are their Christian theologies that do this sort of thing AND even if there are not, COULD there be?

  47. I’ve always thought that a lot of people who get accused of being post-modern and having no firm essential ground to plant themselves on actually do have quite a solid set of foundational political values- it’s just that they’re not exactly the traditional ones.

    Usually it’s feminists or blacks or other ‘marginalized’ groups who are labeled post-modern and summarily dismissed when they (to borrow a pretty ghastly academic term) interrogate the specific set of essential truths that are taken for granted by most everyone. I think it’s important to make a distinction here between holding *no* truths essential or self-evident, and questioning the ones that are already held to be self-evident. It’s the latter that most feminists are interested in, and yet, as a lot of academics in male-dominated disciplines would have it, this is simply vapid post-modern kvetching. When women talk politics, it simply doesn’t have the same aura of authenticity, seriousness, and universality.

    For these reasons, I think the entire discourse surrounding post-modernism (cf postmodern discourse itself) has been mostly hijacked by people who are trying to take back control of academic discpilines like philosophy and history from minority interests. I’m skeptical of this not because I think there are no essential truths– I think it’s essentially true that all people deserve to be treated equally and everyone deserves equal rights under the law, for one–but because history is littered with examples of what happens to groups like women and ethnic minorities when a small group of privileged men get to decide what’s important and true for everyone.

    If this makes me “post-modern”- well, ok, I suppose there are worse insults. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, though, as I basically couldn’t disagree more with Lyotard on the death of grand narratives, and I think modernism on the whole is vacuous and nonsensical when it isn’t racist and chauvanist. I’m much more sympathetic with Latour in We Have Never Been Modern, and I honestly think his is the only real path forward out of the postmodern jungle.

  48. Carl: “So at a certain point in the flow of Southwestern Asian monotheism the Judaism variant sprouted off the Christian variant, in a way that meant enough that everyone agreed to call it a new thing. Not Paulism, or trinitarianism, or hydrolevitationism, but Christianity. Then later there was a family quarrel and the Catholics split with the Orthodox; yet to both it seemed important to maintain the Christian clan name.

    When people call themselves Christian nowadays it’s presumably because they see some point in remaining part of this family. If they’d like to do something radically different, a different name would seem to be in order.”

    Kvond: It depends what you mean by “remain in the family”. People might very well call themselves Christian because they feel that they are returning to the core, or hidden or very early “truth” that was lost through thousands of years of ecclesiastical process. For you to disqualify such self-calling Christians AS Christians, because they do not adhere to, let us say, the very ecclesiastical history of doctrines and dogmas which they are seeking to correct is really to not understand or acknowledge their claim or belief. If some group called themselves postmodern Christians, I would assume that this is a very particular positioning.

  49. AL: “I’m much more sympathetic with Latour in We Have Never Been Modern, and I honestly think his is the only real path forward out of the postmodern jungle.”

    Kvond: For me, I’m a little bit over the Internet Latour love fest. I find him a bit of a lighter thinker who isn’t so original – and his political comments, what little I’ve read – have been outright embarassing (I believe we discussed some of them here on this blog, back in the day). Further, I think that there are some problems with his “path” out of the jungle, in particular the hidden possibilities for micro-fascism and the turning of critical thought towards uncritical corporate interest, some of which I wrote about here, citing:
    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/fascists-bindings-in-latour-the-blinding-glory-of-non-human-agency/

  50. Thanks for the link.

    When I say that I find Latour’s ideas useful, it’s not because I think he’s a particularly savvy politician. [Fascism is a strong word, I think; maybe he’s not as tough on neo-liberalism as some would like. Honestly, if anything, he’s easy on critical theory while being much harder on scientific naturalism. He wrote an entire book about how the lab is a praxis and scientific discoveries are woven out of social interactions/networks, for example. Critical theory doesn’t get a free pass, necessarily, but he doesn’t focus much attention on its constructedness, either.] It’s because he dispenses with the commonly held notion that modernism is good and politically circumspect while post-modernism is bad and politically dangerous; he rightfully (imo) identifies the fact that the two are continuous and interdependent.

    But I’m sure I’ve bored you with all of this before…

  51. Without taking a stand either way on Latour’s politics or stature, I’d just like to echo that he’s Catholic. On my read of his work (though others may disagree), his Catholicism is not incidental, but is really the major driver of his intellectual project. See for example the Unseld Prize acceptance speech (pdf!), some of which is probably relevant to the discussion:

    You could think that Bultman’s radical exegesis would have had the dissolving effect of an acid on the sturdy set of certainties that you acquire in good catholic and bourgeois Burgundy. But for me the result was exactly opposite: even though Bultman himself was trying to reach for authenticity by wiping out one after the other every successive addition that had been wildly invented by long chains of Christian locutors — and the result, as you know, was that, at the end of The Synoptic Tradition (just translated by my mentor), you might end up with no more than three or four “genuine” Aramaic sentences uttered by a certain “Joshua of Nazareth”—, my reading was on the contrary, that it was only in the long chain of continuous inventions that the truth conditions of the Gospel resided. Provided, that is, that those inventions were done, so to speak, in the right key. It was on this key, this way of discriminating between two opposite types of betrayal — betrayal by mere repetition and the absence of innovation, and betrayal by too many innovations and the loss of the initial intent—, that I did my PhD thesis: the subject matter was really the spirit of invention, or I should say, the Holy Spirit. I had taken the poison out of Bultman and transformed his critical acid into the best proof we had that it was possible to obtain truth (religious truth) through an immense number of mediations provided that each link was renewing the message in the “right manner”

    And from a little later in the same speech:

    Hence, my fascination for the reading and writing aspects of science, for the visualizing tools, for the collective work of interpretation around barely distinguishable traces, for what I called inscriptions. Here too, exactly as in the work of Biblical exegesis, truth could be obtained not by decreasing the number of intermediary steps, but by increasing on the contrary the number of mediations.

  52. AL: “It’s because he dispenses with the commonly held notion that modernism is good and politically circumspect…”

    Kvond: I think its been pretty well documented that Latour’s position was in reaction against Bourdieu’s effect on French socialism. The position he took (and takes) in order to be substantially appreciated (I would contend) has to be contrasted with that to which he was offering the greatest contrast. Almost everyone on the internet (many of which are leftists of some sort), in our little cirlce of thinkers, picks and pieces from Latour in what for me is a rather superficial way (this is the first time I recall you sing his praise, but I have short memories at times). Almost NONE of them consider Latour in the context of Bourdieu, and it actually is Bourdieu that brings the most interesting criticisms, many of them with modernist values, to bear upon the proposed neutrality of a description. I sense that the fun of Latour is the way that he tosses so much of the past discourse out of the window, the way that one can say reductively, “Oh, we have never been modern”. I like much of Latour, but frankly Bourdieu is a much more interesting and perceptive thinker, and there is much of Latour that is already in Spinoza. I contend, perhaps of this latest wave, “We have never been Latourian”.

  53. Duncan: ” my reading was on the contrary, that it was only in the long chain of continuous inventions that the truth conditions of the Gospel resided. Provided, that is, that those inventions were done, so to speak, in the right key. It was on this key, this way of discriminating between two opposite types of betrayal — betrayal by mere repetition and the absence of innovation, and betrayal by too many innovations and the loss of the initial intent—, that I did my PhD thesis: the subject matter was really the spirit of invention, or I should say, the Holy Spirit.”

    Kvond: Very cool reference.

  54. Rereading the post and the thread, I find many interesting thoughts expressed by all. I also find that I’ve said what I wanted to say, and reframed it several times to address what I take to be honest misunderstandings.

    At this point I must accept that this is an area where I do not explain myself very well. For example, I can find no sense in which the following is even slightly responsive to anything I think I’ve said, or can imagine myself appearing to have said from the words I wrote:

    “Ah, that’s just a cult, I imagine is your chorus. Perhaps.

    But were the Gnostic cults of early Christianity in the North of Africa during the first few centuries, whose doctrines were heretically stricken, closer to or further from what Christianity IS? As a historian I would think you would find this point a salient one.”

    It’s salient for a very different conversation than the one I’m trying to have, yes. Now, squinting my eyes up tight and thinking real hard it occurs to me that despite all present and historical evidence to the contrary I might have managed to give the impression that I think I can legislate what is and isn’t Christian. Good news there. Not only do I not think this, I’d ‘rather eat bark’, as Narya might say. So let’s drop that fight and see what else I might have meant.

    What I have said, struggling here for another phrasing that might connect, is that Christianity is, like any other category, a domain subject to insides and outsides. The borders might be fuzzy and all of their contents might be contingently optional but there’s a point where one might say yup, that’s Christian and nope, it’s not. As in, “Over here, we have a Christian. In contrast, that other thing is a ham roast.” I really don’t care where those borders are; my point is that in order for a cluster of entities to exist that we can intelligibly call ‘Christianity’ some border work has to be done.

    Now, I’ve defined postmodernism as that collection of critical strategies pushed to their absurd extreme and turned back upon themselves which, as its special mission and that which makes it ‘postmodernism’ rather than merely a collection of strategies available elsewhere in history in various contexts, seeks to make all such border work impossible. I’ve distinguished this ‘postmodernism as-such’ from the various post-modernisms that arise from the specific rejection/incorporation dialectic with various modernisms. And what I’m saying is this: if you want to be Christian and have it mean something in particular; or Buddhist; or lesbian; or Black; or Marxist; or hungry; you cannot also be postmodernist, because postmodernism forecloses any such stable identification. This is postmodernism’s special gift to the world – nothing gets to be what it claims to be.

    As AL alludes, this looks very, very attractive to people who have gotten stuck with identities they don’t want, or negative ascriptions to identities they do want. The machinery of postmodernism will deconstruct those bad old social constructs in the wink of an eye. The problem is that it insists on tearing down the identities you do like, too, and everything else in its path. Postmodernism is an equal opportunity destructor.

    Now, can a Christianity have ‘postmodern elements’? Well, depends. As I’ve said, all of the elements of postmodernism are available elsewhere. They only become postmodern when they’re assembled in the particular configuration and concentration that makes them maximally corrosive. The question is kind of like asking if you can use a thermonuclear explosion to boil some water for tea. Yes you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

    Hitting submit and running to my next obligation, ‘exam breakfast’.

  55. Carl: “And what I’m saying is this: if you want to be Christian and have it mean something in particular; or Buddhist; or lesbian; or Black; or Marxist; or hungry; you cannot also be postmodernist, because postmodernism forecloses any such stable identification.”

    Kvond: This is known as a performative contradiction, and did not prevent postmodernist philosophers from meaningfully self-identifying as “postmodern”. So, you say that a postmodern Christian cannot meaningfully identify as postmodernist, and such a Christian indeed might tell you that they indeed find meaning it. You may say: “Fool, you are contradicting yourself!” and he might say, “I have no problems with meaningfully saying I’m a postmodern Christian”.

    I understand your catch-22 argument, but personally I find know deep contradiction buried in the idea of a postmodern Christian. Perhaps though that is because I do not subscribe to the same supposedly stable criteria of what makes a Christian as you do.

    Just to play this out:

    A quick google of the basic tenants of Christianty produced this list:

    1) We believe the Bible is the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct
    2) We affirm the necessity of the new birth in Jesus Christ
    3) We affirm the Church as a fellowship of believers.
    4) We affirm a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.

    Now, can a postmodern epistemologist believe in all four? It would seem that a Latourian approach could grant the historical contingency of 1). 3) is obviously not a theoretical problem, and 4) can be achieved through a subjectivist approach to truth and revelation (truth is not objective, it is revealed). The biggest question I think is 2). What does a new birth in Jesus mean? Well, Badiou goes Pauline and says it means “dying to the Law”. This seems in consonance with postmodernism which is largely a critique of justifications of the Law.

    Part of my acceptance of the possibility of a meaningful ascription of a postmodern Christianity is that not only do I accept your thought about the stability of criteria for Christianity, even less so do I for postmodernity. I think for instance that one can be an epistemic postmodernist (which is to say a skeptic of a certain kind, accepting a certain critical stance towards texts, including the Bible), and a certain kind of Christian (perhaps one that isn’t the sort you would find meaningful).

  56. edit: I should have written in conclusion “…not only do I NOT accept your thought about the stability…”

  57. Carl, Perhaps part of the problem is that you seem very selective of what qualifies as “postmodern” philosophy. In fact it seems to have a necessary pushing towards absurdity: ” I’ve defined postmodernism as that collection of critical strategies pushed to their absurd extreme and turned back upon themselves which, as its special mission and that which makes it ‘postmodernism’ rather than merely a collection of strategies available elsewhere in history in various contexts, seeks to make all such border work impossible.”

    The thing is that there are a great number of postmodern philosophies, so called, not to mention the question as to whether post-structuralists are postmodern (I think they are, but still deserve to be distinguished). From wiki (always a definitive source), the philosohers all qualify as postmodern:

    Post-structuralists: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva.
    Postmodern wholecloth: Richard Rorty (and possibly) late Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Belette Desinvolte, W.V. Quine.

    Now, are all these philosophers (or is which one of them?) the REAL postmodern philosopher who PROPERLY uses “critical strategies pushed to their absurd extreme and turned back upon themselves”. If we have a better sense of just WHO qualifies as a postmodern philosopher (or which specific arguments) then we can have a better sense of figuring out if any of these can have a Christian analogue, or meaningful use.

  58. Or, perhaps it is worth unpacking your restriction against ALL postmodernists meaningful identification with some category of persons:

    Carl: “And what I’m saying is this: if you want to be Christian and have it mean something in particular; or Buddhist; or lesbian; or Black; or Marxist; or hungry; you cannot also be postmodernist, because postmodernism forecloses any such stable identification.”

    Kvond: If I’m a postmodernist, and in many senses I could see something to that, I could tell you that I could meaningfully, and I do mean meaningfully, identify AS a “white” “male” “Christian” and any other thing. The reason for this is that I wouldn’t have the same notion of “identification” which you seem to carry which would include the idea that I “essentially” AM “white” or “male” or “Christian” (being hypothetical). I would tell you that identifying with some category or class of persons means that identification is a kind of process, one in which one affectively projects oneself into the abstract and historical position of a group of persons (or onto one ideal allegorical representative), and that this process of identification has nothing to do with “stable” identification. It might very well be the case that other idenitications, these equally meaningful and shifting, will also occur. For instance Deleuze (a possible postmodern candidate) makes much of “becoming girl” or “becoming animal” or “becoming Jew”. This does not mean that one adopts a stable identification, but rather enters into an affective arc, a process of transformation. It seems pretty clear that under THIS notion of identification one could indeed identify as a Christian, or even as a Christ (as for instance the centuries tried and true imitatio dei has already prescribed). A postmodernist would tell you that you have an incorrect, and really modernist concept of what an identication is and how it works.

  59. Interesting to think about why Rorty insisted he wasn’t a postmodernist.

    Identity-as-becoming is in Montaigne, and Hume, and Hegel, and Marx. That’s not postmodern yet.

  60. I think the centre of misunderstanding and / or disagreement here is the identification of ‘postmodernism’. So, while Carl defines postmodernism as –

    that collection of critical strategies pushed to their absurd extreme and turned back upon themselves which, as its special mission and that which makes it ‘postmodernism’ rather than merely a collection of strategies available elsewhere in history in various contexts, seeks to make all such border work impossible

    – kvond challenges this definition in part by listing various intellectual figures who have been identified – by a large and ongoing communal project of classification and knowledge-stabilisation – as ‘postmodern’, and (I think) suggesting that these figures do not find all border-work impossible, and probably actively participate in various kinds of border-work themselves (perhaps even at times the limning of the boundaries of the ‘postmodern’).

    Myself, I think there are at least two issues here. One is the status of this idea of postmodernism as apparently oriented towards performative contradiction. If we accept Carl’s definition above as an accurate characterisation of postmodernism, I think we have several analytical routes available to us. We can say that postmodernism in this sense has never existed and probably never could – because no one can actually render all border-work impossible. We could, alternatively, say that the rendering of border-work impossible is the goal, not an achieved accomplishment, of postmodernism, and that this goal is in fact pursued in all sorts of intellectual endeavours (unsuccessfully, by its nature). Or, again, we could say that even this goal is, itself, never (or seldom) aimed for in intellectual or more general social activity – partly, perhaps, because of performative-contradiction issues – and that, therefore, again, postmodernism in this sense doesn’t (or rarely) exist(s).

    Which brings in second issue – whether Carl’s definition is in fact an accurate characterisation of postmodernism, in any of various senses (ideal-typical post-modernism or actually-existing post-modernism, of any of various different sorts). Here I’m basically on board with anodyne lite:

    I’ve always thought that a lot of people who get accused of being post-modern and having no firm essential ground to plant themselves on actually do have quite a solid set of foundational political values – it’s just that they’re not exactly the traditional ones.

    I think that there are (or certainly were) a fair few academics who would accept something like a more positively-valanced version of Carl’s definition as a characterisation of their own intellectual projects (people self-identifying as strong relativists, for instance). But most intellectuals who identify and are identified as postmodernists wouldn’t accept this (most of the figures on kvond’s list wouldn’t, I don’t think – though I guess there’s room for debate with some. [btw – Belette Desinvolte’s facebook appreciation page suggests ongoing influence… ;-)] So the question becomes – 1) the extent to which Carl’s definition of ‘postmodernism’ usefully picks out the kinds of phenomena that are in other discursive spaces described as ‘postmodern’; 2) the extent to which Carl’s definition is useful in its own terms.

    For what it’s worth (and to use the Fregean sense/reference distinction, which I honestly never thought I’d ever want to), my view is that Carl’s definition more or less fits with the sense of ‘postmodern’ as it is used in a whole heap of discursive contexts. I’m not at all convinced that it adequately refers to the kinds of phenomena that such discursive spaces generally claim to be picking out with this sense, however. And I think this says more about problems with the discourses about postmodernism, than it does about the discourses of postmodernism. Basically, I don’t think that intellectual practice generally described as ‘postmodern’ is in fact oriented towards the rendering-impossible of boundary-work. I think that some ‘postmodern’ intellectuals incoherently understand their own intellectual practice in something like these terms – but that they are very often in fact wrong; they have in at least one important way misidentified the nature of their own intellectual practice. (Perhaps mistaking advocacy of multiculturalist tolerance for advocacy of cultural relativism, to take a frequently-cited and by no means great example.) Much more common, however, is the mischaracterisation by others (non-postmodernists) of (‘postmodernist’) intellectual work that has never understood its own practice in anything like these terms. (I suspect this is a frequent practical outcome of definitions of ‘postmodernism’ along the lines of the one we’re using.) So, for instance, lots of people seem to think that Kuhn advocates or at least describes intellectual anarchy and anything-goes relativism because he made some sensible observations about the history of scientific investigation. Etc. And then finally there are people who genuinely are (incoherently, and therefore inconsistently) advocating or intending to practice something like Carl’s definition of postmodernism – and who form, I submit, a really pretty small subset of the stuff generally characterised as ‘postmodern’ (and who anyway don’t do this all the time, because you can’t: that’s how performative contradictions (don’t) work).

    It seems to me, then, that Carl’s definition is talking about an ideal-typical form of postmodernism that definitionally cannot exist, and that the definition is therefore of limited value along both sense and reference vectors of its meaning. There can really be no postmodern Christianity, or postmodern anything in this sense, because the nature of the definition is that it renders such identifications impossible; but I’m not at all convinced that this tells us much useful about postmodernism (or Christianity). There are (empirically) lots of people self-identifying as Christian post-modernists, and lots of people identified (by communally-produced knowledge-resources like good old wikipedia) as same.

    To editorialise a bit for a minute – I also think there can be a sort of slippage between space-of-reasons critique and empirical (potentially predictive) social analysis in these sorts of discussions. I’m not sure quite at what level Carl’s analysis is pitched; but I’m familiar from other spaces with arguments of the form “x is a performative contradiction! therefore this social form cannot persist!” It seems often to be the case, however, that positions characterised as contradictory from one discursive position can be plenty compelling from another. If apparently inescapable self-contradiction is enough to render a form of Christianity untenable, you’d have thought the “fully man yet fully God” thing would have finished off Christianity in general some time ago…

    Apologies for this long and laborious comment.

  61. Returning to this thread, I am reminded of one of my favorite analysts of the postmodern condition, Zygmunt Bauman. In Liquid Modernity, Bauman is careful to note the objection that,

    Was not modernity a process of ‘liquefaction’ from the start? Was not ‘melting the solids’ its major pastime and prime accomplishment all along? In other words, has modernity not been ‘fluid’ since its inception? (2000:2-3)

    He then goes on to address the objection as follows,

    Let us remember, however, that all this was to be done not in order to do away with the solids once and for all and make the brave new world free of them for ever, but to clear the site for new and improved solids; to replace the inherited set of deficient and defective solids with another set, which was much improved and preferably perfect, and for that reason no longer alterable. When reading de Tocqueville’s Ancien Régimem one might wonder in addition to what extend the ‘found solids’ were resented, condemned and earmarked for liquefaction for the reason that they were already rusty, mushy, coming apart at the seams and altogether unreliable. Modern times found the pre-modern solids in a fairly advanced state of disintegration; and one of the most powerful motives behind the urge to melt them was the wish to discover or invent solids of — for a change— lasting solidity, a solidity which one could trust and rely upon and which would make the world predictable and therefore manageable.

    Bauman’s view of the postmodern is that has replaced this desire for a new solidity with acceptance or celebration of the world’s being forever liquid. Or, as I might put it, Heraclitus rules!

  62. Thanks, Duncan. Would it be fair in the terms you set up to say that when ‘postmodernists’ do things that don’t fit my definition, they are not in those moments being postmodernists? Is this just an all-swans-are-white dodge, or is there some value in seeing postmodernism as that moment when the critical strategies it assembles, and which can be used severally without it, do assemble into the ultimately tail-eating performative contradiction you (and Kvond, misascribing it to me) diagnose?

    John, I like the reminder that the projects of modernity are about liquefying the old and solidifying a new. Thank you.

  63. John – yeah but the thing is Heraclitus doesn’t rule. It’s really (imo) a fantasy space. It’s a fantasy space that’s participated in by a small number of people who self-identify as ‘postmodernist’, and by a whole swathe of people who are critical of ‘postmodernism’. But it’s basically inaccurate and – functionally – diversionary. There’s just huge amounts of stuff, intellectual and social, that hasn’t melted into air at all. And there have been some specific social and intellectual changes and challenges to tradition, some of which have been positive, in the shift to ‘postmodernism’. It’s not helpful to theorise this as a propagation of Heraclitian flux, or to critique the intellectual resources that were used to theorise these shifts as opening the door to Heraclitian flux.

    So for instance: actual social shift: greater permissiveness w/r/t publicly tolerated & available gender and sexual roles. (This was a positive shift – an emancipatory one.) Plenty of the theorisation of this shift was ‘postmodernist’. Plenty of the theorisation was really bad. But it wasn’t bad because it opened the door to the collapse of all social boundaries; only right wing fearmongers claim this, plus a minority of ‘postmodernists’ who are a bit grandiose and ott.

    This is the narrative that the right presents, however: if you permit certain kinds of intellectual resources (which are anyway more effect than cause), you’re opening the door to the collapse of all intellectual standards and all social boundaries. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. It’s the same narrative that you’ll find in Dostoevsky, say, worrying about nihilism (and advocating Russian Orthodox nationalism). But in fact [wrenching this back to Christianity!!] Dostoevsky’s preferred brand of Christianity was not the only brand that could maintain functioning communities of belief in the face of the threat of nihilism. Just as Christians today using pomo resources aren’t opening the door to the complete destruction of the tradition.

  64. Would it be fair in the terms you set up to say that when ‘postmodernists’ do things that don’t fit my definition, they are not in those moments being postmodernists

    Well obviously I’m a bit leery about the category, but no, I wouldn’t say so. I think I see postmodernism as a bit vaguer than your definition, though. (And because the word means different things, which is part of the issue, this stuff can get confused.) One of the things that’s most associated with ‘postmodernism’ is a sort of pick-‘n-mix approach to cultural and intellectual resources (I guess the sort of thing you associate with consumerism in the OP). That could be seen in terms of the destruction of intellectual or cultural boundaries – high & low mashed together! – and this association can in turn link up with the critical impulses that are often referred to used the word (get that high culture off its pedestal!). But this sort of thing generally only functions if you’ve got something stable offstage to enable the contrast.

  65. I suppose my disagreement is with the implications of this analogy:

    The question is kind of like asking if you can use a thermonuclear explosion to boil some water for tea. Yes you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

    I see the situation as more like the following: I’m with a group of friends; I ask if they would like some tea. They would. I put the kettle on. There is (perhaps unrealistically) a thermometer installed in the kettle. My friends – a slightly nervous group – watch the temperature on the thermometer rising. Their faces pale. Eventually, they begin to protest. “Look at the temperature rising!” somebody cries. “Don’t you see – if the temperature keeps rising, eventually that kettle will be as hot as the sun! And we will all be burnt to a cinder!”

    I see concerns about the corrosive effects of postmodernism as being sort of similar. Not exactly wrong – if the temperature kept rising, the kettle would indeed eventually become as hot as the sun. It’s just that, for practical purposes, I’m not worried.

    I suspect we’re operating with different definitions somewhere, though – so this is probably unhelpful.

  66. “But this sort of thing generally only functions if you’ve got something stable offstage to enable the contrast.”

    Yeah. This sums up my perspective nicely. As I’ve said, the weaponry of pomo itches to go after every target. (I’m making a ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ sort of argument here.) My sense is that what postmodernists actually do to cope with this is one of two things. Either they keep their offstage very carefully hidden, or they move it around like nukes on rails, setting up just long enough to squeeze off a shot and moving on before the riposte can score a hit.

    I also agree with you that the contingent value of postmodernism can be high, as I mentioned in relation to first-stage identity politics. The problem comes later when the same devices that (conceptually, for what it’s worth) took down the enemy construct prove just as deadly against your own.

    And yes. Mostly people are not nearly focused or consistent enough to follow through on the logic I’m addressing. They pick and choose, mix and match, it’s pastiche and bricolage all the way down and critical mass is never actually a danger. Maybe we could call that postmodernism, but to me it just looks like culture.

  67. (Last comment for now, I promise:)
    (Oops – wrote this before seeing your last one.)

    The reason it matters, to the extent it does, is that I think we’re decisively shifting away from postmodernism at the moment. There was plenty of awful postmodernist stuff that we’ll all be happy to see the back of. There was also, however, plenty of nuanced theory that was anti-foundationalist without being relativistic or subjectivist (some of it was, I believe, compatible with and deployed by Christian discourse). At the moment, I think, we’re in a big reaction against this kind of intellectual approach – and part of the reaction is a process of straw-manning. The hoo-hah over ‘correlationism’ in the theory blogosphere is a good example: a subjectivist position is caricatured, and a whole bunch of nuanced anti-foundationalist theory is uncomprehendingly thrown out, because we don’t like pomo any more. When these intellectual shifts happen, an important kind of intellectual work is the work of not-forgetting, I think.

    So – lots of different kinds of religious community are possible, for example. Communities that, at least in important aspects of their intellectual practice, understand themselves in broadly anti-foundationalist terms, and are oriented to the process of negotiation that produces communal norms. Or, alternatively, communities that understand their own ground of self-reproduction in dogmatically ‘foundationalist’ terms. The former isn’t necessarily going to enable more hospitable or tolerant communal behaviour than the latter; but it might well, I think. I certainly think it’s a bad idea to insist on the incompatibility of ‘postmodern’ resources with religious conviction and practice; a better idea, is to insist on the strong compatibility – both because this seems to me to be right, and because it makes available more social and intellectual resources for positive social organisation.

    Again though, we’re probably just using different definitions.

  68. Maybe we could call that postmodernism, but to me it just looks like culture

    Yes – I agree – it is just culture, but one of the main reasons we see culture this way is that we’ve just come off the back of however many decades of ‘postmodernism’. It isn’t in-all-contexts-obvious that culture works this way; it’s something that a specific cultural milieu (one associated with ‘postmodernism’) has helped enable us to see. This intellectual approach is something worth preserving and building upon; and part of that work should involve caution about just what babies we’re throwing out with the pomo bathwater.

  69. True that. I just think you can get everything you need to do those good things without going down the pomo rathole (as we know NP has been showing in relation to Marx). No doubt plenty of people have been introduced to useful tools under the pomo rubric. If that’s where you go to get them, and you get out alive, more power to ya. Pomo itself is a dead end, which is also subject to the excellent principle that “[w]hen these intellectual shifts happen, an important kind of intellectual work is the work of not-forgetting.”

    Good night, sweet prince.

  70. Oh well obviously I’d be happy if everyone went to Marx instead. 😛

  71. I realize that you guys have been pulling together the threads of this stimulating conversation into concluding remarks, but I find myself still mired in the specifics. In particular I’ve been thinking about the quote from Latour in Duncan’s comment #51:

    “the spirit of invention, or I should say, the Holy Spirit”

    This is one way for a postmodern Christianity to proceed: by celebrating inventiveness, even in exegesis and theologizing and praxis, as evidence that Holy Spirit is in their midst. But then I’m struck by Latour’s extension of his religious thoughts to science:

    “Here too, exactly as in the work of Biblical exegesis, truth could be obtained not by decreasing the number of intermediary steps, but by increasing on the contrary the number of mediations.”

    At least three interesting implications follow. (1) Latour regards the truth procedures of religion and science as more similar than different. (2) He interprets scientific truth as a matter of invention rather than of discovery. (3) He implicitly blesses science as a field of endeavor inspired by the Holy Spirit. As Anodyne Lite observes in comment 50, Latour is hard on scientific naturalism, which revolves mostly around the discovery/invention distinction. I guess that’s not surprising, since Latour regards science as a particular kind of religious praxis not that different from the endless parade of inventive exegeses and commentaries on commentaries that collectively comprise Christian theologizing. I’m not sure whether Latour is postmodern, nonmodern, or medieval in this regard.

  72. John, A lot of really good writing (and thinking), especially the longer post above. Some of the best thinking I’ve read of yours, really nice.

    Carl: “There was plenty of awful postmodernist stuff that we’ll all be happy to see the back of. There was also, however, plenty of nuanced theory that was anti-foundationalist without being relativistic or subjectivist (some of it was, I believe, compatible with and deployed by Christian discourse).”

    Kvond: Carl, sometimes I get the feeling that the subject of this thread is: Why I don’t like postmodernism, and why I don’t like Christianity, therefore there can never be a “postmodern Christian” (coupled with the ever-shifting justification of why). I don’t seem to have the same problem with either postmodernism or Christianity, so I find the possibility of discovering an interesting hybrid discourse space really interesting (rather than ruling it out of existence, in the first place).

    But I wonder, specifically, when you say:

    “There was plenty of awful postmodernist stuff that we’ll all be happy to see the back of. There was also, however, plenty of nuanced theory that was anti-foundationalist without being relativistic or subjectivist (some of it was, I believe, compatible with and deployed by Christian discourse).”

    I just want to know, was Deleuze “postmodern” for you?

    Duncan: Really good stuff too.

  73. p.s. the reason why Rorty did not like being called a postmodernist was that people were using it a bit like a slur, and as I mentioned “identification” is likely best not seen as an essence identification but as a process of community and projection building. Rorty liked to call himself a Pragmatist, something “real” Pragmatists recoiled from with horror. And yes, identify-as-becoming existed before Deleuze, and yes, this was not YET postmodern, because it was not an argument made in the context of modernity, and a criticism of the same. For this reason Deleuze was making a differnt point about identification and becoming, than let us say Hegel was. In fact, quite a different one.

  74. Thanks Kvond. I got intrigued by your post about private languages that you linked to early in the thread. Plus I get inspired by your relentless pursuit of a line of thought — as long as I’m not the one getting backed into a corner 😉

    This “not YET postmodern” idea reminds me of Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”:

    “The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.”

  75. I really found the connection between Gadamer and Augustine fascinating, but even more so between Augustine and Wittgenstein (a thinker who Wittgenstein feels he is at times correcting). Gadamer and Wittgenstein seem pretty firmly in the postmodern tradition. But it really was your own pushing for a possible space that caused me to remember what I had written. Before that I pretty much agreed rather loosely with Carl that Christianity = dogma, and PM = anti-dogma, both existing on some sort of contradictory extreme. Frankly, the conversation became rather more interesting when I gave up that easy, broadbrush stroke, and I thought you pointed out some rather decisive and insightful points in your longer post, why.

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  77. “Carl, sometimes I get the feeling that the subject of this thread is: Why I don’t like postmodernism, and why I don’t like Christianity, therefore there can never be a “postmodern Christian” (coupled with the ever-shifting justification of why).”

    Kevin, you’re reading me about as ungenerously as possible; including the part where you ascribe to me positions I’m reporting as characteristic of postmodernism (no wonder I seem to you to be ever-shifting), and the part where you clip a couple sentences you don’t like out of one of Duncan’s comments and attribute them to me. Twice. Therefore sometimes I get the feeling that the subject of your comments is: Why I don’t like what Carl is saying, especially the stuff he’s not.

    I won’t bother getting defensive about my likes and dislikes w/r/t Christianity and postmodernism. Some of my best friends, as they say, are either or both. That’s never been the point, but it’s interesting and uncanny to see everything I’ve said cast in that light by someone who’s generally pretty bright.

    In terms of a more productive dynamic of conversation and discovery, I happily acknowledge that I have set up a strong position on one edge of possible positions on this topic. I do this both because I think there’s merit in what I’m saying, and because a strong marginal position creates contrast and leverage to explore the rest of the space. This is how I roll, for better or worse. I agree that John has made some interesting gestures toward a more comprehensive and nuanced analysis. Rather than wasting time caricaturing and misrepresenting my position, I certainly encourage everyone so inclined to flesh out this analysis further, thereby progressively immobilizing my valid conceptual concerns in an increasingly dense network of consensus reality.

  78. Carl (and all) I have to admit that I’ve had problems reading this thread (that is, for some reason I read the authors as other than they are for some comments), so when I have addressed specific issues, I have misidentified the author, perhaps most of the time. And sadly, John, when I identified the post I thought was fantastic, it was Duncan’s and not your, but Duncan’s #60, which is superb.. It seems I am doomed when trying to relate to this new version of Dead Voles.

    If Carl you feel that I have misquoted or mischaracterized you, very possibly. As yet I’ve been unable to identify the substance in your criticisms of identification, or the proposed non-existence of postmodernists, or any of such.

  79. LOL. When I expressed thanks for the compliment, Kvond, I actually and literally expected you to reply “No, not you, I meant the OTHER John.”

  80. Ha. I have liked all your posts here, and the first response to Augustine was very, very fine. It was just that Duncan’s on the issue was striking. It seemeed very much in your style, but something a bit different too.

  81. Carl,

    I don’t really know which things I’ve wrongly attributed to you, but I went back through all your posts and have listed all the things you have said which I find distinct objection to (either outright, or the role the point was having in a larger argument). They are as following:

    It’s more of a loose coalescence of critical-thinking commonplaces unmoored from responsibility and pumped up by conjuncture with late capitalism. But I will say this: you can’t have postmodernism with[out] irony, preferably self-irony.

    As I’ve said, the actual conceptual apparatus of postmodernism is none of it new, but what is distinctive in pomo as such is a ludic celebration of chaos, that there’s nothing solid to plant on.

    At one point I decided that the most characteristic pomo critical tactic was what I call the ‘hidden God trick’. Find the thing your opponent is holding stable as a foundation for anything else they’re saying and deconstruct it.

    I’ve been assuming here that we’re talking about a Christianity that further wants to get some folks to Heaven through the intercession of Jesus, the Son of God, and other folks to Hell through some failure to earn that intercession.

    This is not an insult. As I keep saying, postmodernism is fun to play with but impossible to get anything done with, because it busily deconstructs any method and goal of doing.

    It’s post any attempt to settle a foundation, even conventionally (Wittgenstein is therefore a modern, not a postmodern).

    Look, if I say that a Krishna cult is a form of Christianity and the Gita is a Christian text because Krishna is basically the same sort of critter as Jesus, I’d be committing a category error, right?

    I keep saying everything useful about postmodernism was there before postmodernism.

    When people call themselves Christian nowadays it’s presumably because they see some point in remaining part of this family. If they’d like to do something radically different, a different name would seem to be in order.

    Now, I’ve defined postmodernism as that collection of critical strategies pushed to their absurd extreme and turned back upon themselves which, as its special mission and that which makes it ‘postmodernism’ rather than merely a collection of strategies available elsewhere in history in various contexts, seeks to make all such border work impossible.

    And what I’m saying is this: if you want to be Christian and have it mean something in particular; or Buddhist; or lesbian; or Black; or Marxist; or hungry; you cannot also be postmodernist, because postmodernism forecloses any such stable identification.

    Identity-as-becoming is in Montaigne, and Hume, and Hegel, and Marx. That’s not postmodern yet.

    Now, I have responded to all of these. It just seems that your treatment (or conception) of postmodernism is a little bit shallow. Sometimes you are just talking about Deconstruction (using the actual term), and sometimes you aren’t even talking about that, but rather some kind of pop-philosophy position. I personally find Wittgenstein and Deleuze both to be postmodernist thinkers, positions that involve, yes, critical or rhetorical strategies and anti-foundationalis, but certainly not reduced to it as such. And though there is some subtle forms of irony or celebration of the “ludic”, this is not core to either of their points. I place Rorty in there as well. Because these are very specific thinkers which I think contribute strongly to the possibility of a Christian position I have a very hard time of getting my hands on your argument.

  82. I also find this a little interesting Carl:

    “I won’t bother getting defensive about my likes and dislikes w/r/t Christianity and postmodernism. Some of my best friends, as they say, are either or both.”

    Of your best friends that are BOTH Christian and postmodernists, how is it that you feel their coincidence exists? Is it not a meaningful combination? At least to them? Are they simply not being responsible to their internal, logical contradiction? You seem to acknowledge that these friends ARE both (your friendship with such a Centaur a testament). Perhaps they would be willing to post here on what it means to be both Christian and Postmodern, that would be compelling. Are these friends just regular old Christians who sometimes engage in postmodern irony and ludic strategies?

  83. John, this was interesting as well:

    “At least three interesting implications follow. (1) Latour regards the truth procedures of religion and science as more similar than different. (2) He interprets scientific truth as a matter of invention rather than of discovery. (3) He implicitly blesses science as a field of endeavor inspired by the Holy Spirit. As Anodyne Lite observes in comment 50, Latour is hard on scientific naturalism, which revolves mostly around the discovery/invention distinction. I guess that’s not surprising, since Latour regards science as a particular kind of religious praxis not that different from the endless parade of inventive exegeses and commentaries on commentaries that collectively comprise Christian theologizing.”

    Kvond: This reminds me of something Rorty claimed (as meant to be a little bit shocking), something of the order of “Yes, we know much more about human anatomy or astronomy than we knew in the 2nd century, but we also know a whole not more about the Holy Spirit than they knew then.” His feeling was that the accretion of theological inventions through the centuries then DID represent increases in knowledge.

  84. Latour’s equating invention with the Holy Spirit allies him with Deleuze, doesn’t it? Deleuze proposed a primal force of difference that operates outside of science’s purview, a force that offsets the gradual wind-down and inevitable extinction of the universe via the second law of thermodynamics. Maybe for Latour, and perhaps shockingly for Rorty as well, science is the study of equilibration and homogenization whereas theology investigates invention and differentiation?

  85. Well, Rorty was no fan of beliefs in God, but he also refused the master narrative of Science. I can see the Latour/Deleuze connection, but as I don’t know anything else about Latour’s religiosity I can’t go further. Honestly, I don’t understand the big deal about Latour. He is lightweight as a philosopher, though a very nice and inventive sociologist.

  86. I sent Rorty an email once but he didn’t respond. Maybe I should try Latour, although I don’t have any reason to get in touch with him at this point.

  87. I sent several emails to Rorty over time, and he always responded with some detail, and even sent me unpublished versions of his work due to my interest. The one time he did not respond made me question whether I had outspent our communications, only to find that he had passed.

  88. That’s more what I expected — he seemed a generous sort of person by reputation and by personal presence (I heard him talk a couple of times). Hmm, now I have to self-reflect…

  89. He was very generous with me, careful to answer my questions, and I saddened when I learned he had died. I know he pissed some people off with his rhetorical powers of reduction, but he was a pretty cool philosopher in my book.

  90. Mostly I was giving Rorty a courtesy notice about citing him favorably in something I’d written, giving him the context, etc. There was no real need for him to reply I suppose.

    Apropos of this post-and-thread, I recently had a fairly long blog exchange with a self-styled Rortian Christian. His pragmatism was pretty crude I thought: I’m a Christian because Christianity works for me as a praxis. But he also upheld a pragmatic truth criterion for evaluating Christianity: it’s true for me if it works for me; it’s false for you if it doesn’t work for you. He proffered a curious interpretation of Jesus’ famous maxim, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” In effect, the act of gathering in Jesus’ name brought Jesus into existence in that gathering. As long as these gatherings persist, Jesus lives; if the gatherings cease, Jesus goes out of existence. But what, I asked him, if this particular gathering of two or more envisions Jesus differently from some other gathering? Do divergent gatherings generate different Jesuses? Yes, was his reply. So I guess that’s another way of being a pomo Christian, one that I hadn’t encountered before and that took me quite by surprise.

  91. This really wasn’t a new argument (though new in expression), as the first postmodernist Nietzsche ostensibly made the same argument about God. God was dead (famously), because in fact God once HAD existed (through the beliefs and practices of mankind), but now (well…then,) he is dead because those beliefs and practices no longer persisted – at least that was the general gist of it. I’m sure he felt similarly about Jesus Christ.

    But yes, a Rortian Christian would qualify as a postmodern Christian in my book, and seems to be something in the Latourian Catholic vien as well.

  92. One might say though to your Rortian Christian, it was Rorty’s passion to inform everyone that belief in God was a symptom of man’s immaturity, and that belief in the non-human origin/foundation of truth (whether it be God or the world that Science studies) was something human beings should give up as humanity matures.

    I don’t know how Rortian your e-friend was, but apparently not THAT Rortian.

  93. Right about Nietzsche. The “not that Rortian” qualifier applies to all atheistic philosophers, which gets back to the pick-and-choose bricolage method of doing pomo Christianity.

  94. I don’t know if you’ve run into her, but Nancy Frankenberry (great name) is probably the most prolific and careful Thestic-arcing Rortian. Her book Religion and Radical Empiricism is pretty insightful on the issue:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=u-YESDi3Dm8C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_v2_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

    I pretty much have enjoyed anything I’ve read by her.

  95. Here is a nice quote from her to give a flavor:

    “One may, with Hartshorne and other rationalist philosophers, press rationality to the point of postulating certain necessary truths for which we have no conceivable alternatives. Or, like Buddhist thinkers of many periods-and like Wieman, too-one may find in the very conditions of contingency a religious significance that informs the whole quality of life as lived. Contingency embraced without any nostalgia or yearning for necessary truth yields a different quality of life than contingency assented to as necessarily so in the absence of any conceivable alternative.”

  96. Thanks for the book recommendation; I’d not heard of Frankenberry.

    “belief in the non-human origin/foundation of truth (whether it be God or the world that Science studies) was something human beings should give up as humanity matures.”

    Of course now I’m revealing my hand, but my response would be that God exists only in the Nietzschean sense, inextricably embedded in The Correlation, whereas the world was here long before humanity showed up on the scene and in all likelihood will persist long after we’re gone. So I’d throw away the first card but hold onto the second.

  97. Someone might say, as long as you are playing cards, the game of cards can tell you something…something non-correlative, and perhaps something about a non-Nietzschean God.

  98. Contingency embraced without any nostalgia or yearning for necessary truth yields a different quality of life than contingency assented to as necessarily so in the absence of any conceivable alternative.

    Now that is a line I like a lot.

  99. Come on people. One more comment and this could be, am I right? the first 100-comment thread on Dead Voles. Who will step forward and claim the prize?

  100. Honestly, I seem to remember a +100 thread, probably having to do with Harman’s paperwriting. But let’s make it official.

    The one who deserves the credit of course is the one who posts the 99th post, as that makes it all possible.

  101. Thanks Chums! Yeah, I think we had one or two hundreds on the old site, but this is the first on the new Dead Voles. As always I appreciate the good conversation.

  102. And I’ll add a book recommendation–Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” which took the notion that humans gathered in worship of a deity are what bring the deity into being and played with it. It was great fun.

  103. I’ve never read anything by Gaiman, but I enjoyed the movie Coraline, which was adapted from a Gaiman novel. In that story too the human imagination brings fantasy to life. That fantasy includes unlimited consumer fulfillment and sensational spectacle, which arguably are numbered among the gods worshiped in our contemporary society.

  104. And, of course, there is always the later work of Robert Heinlein, starting with Stranger in a Strange Land.

  105. Oh yeah, read and reread all that Heinlein when I was a teenager. I wonder if it still holds up.

    OK, since we’re sharing, I haven’t read it yet but James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah looks good – God dies, falls into the ocean and starts to stink, so he has to be towed to the Arctic for burial.

  106. I finally got around to requesting Morrow’s book from the library. It’s mostly a seafaring yarn so far, mercifully lean on theologizing. Here’s a paragraph from p. 59 you might get a kick out of; it concerns a shipwrecked biology teacher:

    The wayfarers swooped down, squadron after squadron, brazen cormorants perching on her shoulders, bold gannets pecking at her hair. For all her terror and misery, she found herself wishing her students could see these birds; she was prepared to lecture about the Sulidae family in general and the blue-footed booby in particular. The blue-foot was a bird with a vision. While its red-shod cousin laid its eggs in a conventional nest built near the top of a tree, the blue-foot employed a picture of a nest, an elegant abstraction it created by squirting a ring of guano on the ground. Cassie loved the blue-footed booby, not only for its politics (the males did their fair share of sitting on the eggs and caring for the chicks), but also because here was a creature for whom the distinctions between life, art, and shit were less obvious than commonly supposed.

  107. A bit less than halfway through and it just gets sillier and sillier. I find myself skimming in search of some redemption, but now we’ve got the feminist biologist’s rich boyfriend, head of the Central Park West Enlightenment League, contracting with a WWII re-enactment club to sink God’s corpse to the bottom of the sea because HE (though dead) reaffirms Western patriarchy’s founding myth. I say back to the library with this book.

  108. Hey, what you got against silly? Also, what’s so silly about father gods reaffirming the patriarchy, MAN? Also, redemption? Hm…. 😉

  109. I gotta admit that my one-sentence summary makes the book sound better than it is…

  110. Carl, just a thought. It was nice getting the email about the latest addition to this thread, but I didn’t click through immediately and went I went straight to dead voles instead of going back to the email to click through I couldn’t find the discussion. Might have if I’d kept looking, but anyway, is there someway to return old conversations on which there are new comments to the top of the stack?

  111. Rachel says hi! She reread Morrow over the summer. She says he was pretty spiffy when she was a teenager from Maine who had never seen that kind of equal-opportunity fun-poking before, but now Morrow strikes her as a super-cranky old guy with a machine gun.

  112. Hi Rachel. A good description of Morrow. When the priest nudges the nun’s thigh while driving the Jeep toward God’s left nostril you know somebody has fed subtlety to the sharks.

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