Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

The title for this blog comes from an accessible small book by the Reformed/Pentecostal scholar James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.[i] In this volume Smith argues persuasively that postmodernist thinkers of the 20th Century are allies and not enemies in our Christian witness. In light of the stated objective of SSCM to place Christian mission in its contemporary social and philosophical context [ii], I will endeavour to unpack some of Smith’s useful reasoning.

Smith makes the case for the difference between postmodernism, the writings of – mainly French – continental philosophers, and the culture spawned by that philosophy which has become known as postmodernity.

In pre-modernity (the Christian) God was in his heaven and the earth was at the centre of the universe. The modern period was ushered in when Galileo (1564-1642) declared that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and the modern age of rationality advanced when Descartes (1596-1650) shut himself in his room and vowed to only believe that he was a thinking person: hence his dictum  “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum).

Post-modernism is a child of the mid-20th Century when, rocked by two devastating world wars, Western thinkers turned away from the certainties of the scientific endeavour and began to question objectivity itself. Smith’s contention is that postmodern suspicion offers an opportunity to forge a Christian apologia in thought and ecclesiology, one which may turn out have more in common with our pre-modern forefathers in the faith. To do so he examines three postmodern writers:

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is considered the father of deconstruction when he (in)famously stated that “there is nothing outside the text”. Although ‘deconstruction’ is commonly considered a negative concept, Derrida’s intention was positive. Derrida wished to convey that there is always interpretation in our reading of the world: that is, we can never get behind or past texts. Smith contends that this approach deconstructs the scientific claim of empirical objectivity and allows for the interpretation of revelation which “informs our horizon” (p48). Smith argues that the horizon of revelation will not be just individualistic, but will take into account the interpretation of the believing community, both in time and in space: from church history as well as “in the voices of our global brothers and sisters” (p57).

François Lyotard (1924-1988) is best known for his scepticism of metanarratives. Although this may seem to negate the metanarrative of the Bible, Lyotard’s objections are aimed at accepted rationalist/humanistic metanarratives of social progress (Kant & Marx) and of the scientific enterprise. Smith writes “for the postmodernist, every scientist is a believer” (emphasis mine) (p68). Lyotard claims that all knowledge is rooted in narrative; or as Francis Schaeffer would have us believe, all claims to knowledge have presuppositions.  This, claims Smith, throws us back onto the ancient Augustinian ontology of revelation where faith precedes reason (p72), and gives us an approach to knowledge which signals new opportunities for public Christian witness.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) placed a study of prison discipline as a framework for his arguments that all structures – prisons, schools, hospitals, etc – function with power arising from privileged knowledge. Hence his famous dictum “power is knowledge”. Smith argues that Foucault is right in his suspicion of power, in the way such power is used to manipulate and shape people’s lives. Christian churches should then be wary of manipulation through knowledge, which is not only wrong, but feeds into postmodern suspicion. Nevertheless Smith takes issue with Foucault in that not all discipline is wrong, and says that some forms of (voluntary pre-modern) disciplines, such as prayer and fasting, should be encouraged and are genuinely post-postmodern.

Smith translates his arguments regarding postmodernism into some practical suggestions for the character and witness of churches in the age of postmodernity. These suggestions and more will wait for another blog.

Dr Alistair Macindoe
Tutor in Pioneer Ministry

[i] James K.A. Smith (2006), Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic
[ii] The SSCM handbook on Pioneer Ministry states “the Christian Church must consider itself as being in a pioneering and missional environment within a new social reality, resulting in the need to reflect upon the practices and presuppositions of both the church and its surroundings”