Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Religion and "The Postmodern" (or, "I Use It Only When I Need to Draw a Crowd.")

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Religion and "The Postmodern" (or, "I Use It Only When I Need to Draw a Crowd.")

Article excerpt

Religion and "the Postmodern" (or, "I use it only when I need to draw a crowd."1)

Postmodern Theory and Biblical Theology: Vanquishing God's Shadow. By Brian D. Ingraffia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. xvi + 284 pp. $17.95 (paper).

Theology and Contemporary Critical Theory. By Graham Ward. Studies in Literature and Religion. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. x + 160 pp. $49.00 (cloth).

Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics. By Nancey Murphy. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997. xii + 228 pp.

From the work of deconstructive thinkers such as Mark C. Taylor and Charles Winquist in the early 1980s to the most recent "Religion and Postmodernism" conferences at Villanova University (1997, 1999), the "postmodern" in theological and philosophical contexts has been associated most closely with a mix of post-Nietzschean, post-Heideggerian, post-Freudian, and post-structuralist thinking that engages seriously not only the "death of God" in modern culture but also the critique and overcoming of the modern human subject who would have attempted to assume God's place (in a movement one can trace from Rene Descartes's definition of truth in terms of subjective certainty through G. W. F. Hegel's conception of absolute subjectivity to the consequences of Hegelianism in a humanistic atheism like that of Ludwig Feuerbach or Karl Marx). Emphasizing especially the inescapably linguistic and relational character of subjectivity, along with the deeply contextual and relative character of all meaning systems, such postmodern thinking tends to situate the human within a world of endless interpretation, which is always necessarily partial, perspectival, and ever-changing. Lacking the form of self grounding certitude or self transparency sought by the subject of modern philosophy, and abandoning all hope for such certitude and transparency, postmodern thinking can yield a model of human subjectivity as inevitably wounded and erring, humbled and unknowing-but therefore open, perhaps, to a distinctively new sense of the religious that would emerge in the wake of modernity's "death of God." Now, while the term "postmodern" has over recent decades assumed such a multiplicity of disparate meanings that it can often seem useless, its association in theological and philosophical contexts with the challenges of atheism, nihilism, and relativism has in fact remained fairly constant.

It is just this association, I think, that explains why the term "postmodern" can still draw a crowd among the religiously interested or inclined. In recent years and in recent works, that draw seems to exert itself increasingly over theological, primarily Christian, thinkers who want seriously to confront the postmodern without accepting the more radical conclusions of thinkers like Taylor and Winquist. Moving back in the direction of more traditional Christian concerns and ideals (witness the rise of the radical orthodox in recent years), these theological thinkers tend more and more to see confrontation with, and refutation of, the postmodern as a theological and ethical urgency.

Sharing this sense of urgency, and clearly responding to "the postmod ern" out of a desire for return to more traditional Christian forms, are three recent works by Brian Ingraffia, Graham Ward, and Nancey Murphy. While each of these works engages the question of religion and postmodernity in its own way, all three at the same time would agree that the forms of "postmodern" thinking dominant in writers such as Taylor and Winquist are exhausted and that the time has come for the renewal of a truly Christian vision. The first, Ingraffia's Postmodern Theory and Biblical Theology, sets a radical divide, indeed an "either/or," between "postmodern" theory and "biblical" theology in order to dismiss the former in favor of the latter; the second, Graham Ward's more nuanced Theology and Contemporary Critical Theory, while in basic ways sympathetic to Ingraffia's core theological vision, does not want simply to dismiss the field of postmodern theory in favor of a biblical theology, but rather to explore, along with its limits, the promise of such theory for a Christian theology that would both recognize and pass beyond the disenchantments of the modern world; and finally the third, Nancey Murphy's Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics, wants neither to dismiss nor to engage postmodern theory in its dominant Continental senses, but rather to redefine the term entirelymoving away from its association with 19th- and 20th-century German and French thought and more in the direction of a distinctively "Anglo-American" response to modernity. …

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