Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Part 2: The Church & Her Witness

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Part 2: The Church & Her Witness

My last blog post was based on the small book by the Reformed/Pentecostal scholar James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.[1] In this I outlined his analysis of three major philosophers who have shaped Western culture in the 21st Century. Once properly understood, Smith contends, they become allies of and not obstacles to Christian witness. I want to summarise Smith’s arguments for the Church’s opportunities in postmodernity.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is considered the father of deconstructionism, a term often understood negatively. Smith maintains however that Derrida’s intention is not destructive; rather it is to make the case for interpretation as the means by which we all – including scientists – perceive and understand the world. Derrida thus challenges the claims of empirical objectivity which have dominated Western Enlightenment culture from the 17th Century (Descartes and Hume) until the 20th Century (Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayer).
This opens a space for us to question all those current assertions which claim to be universal facts, not interpretations, and allows for the possibility of other constructions, including that of the Christian narrative. The postmodern loss of objectivity, says Smith, “does not entail a loss of boldness about the truth of the gospel” (p51), for our knowledge of God does not come from ‘proofs’, but from His self-giving (revelation) to us. Furthermore our witness does not rest on rationalistic persuasion, but on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit.
Derrida argues – in the light of deconstruction – that genuine interpretation comes from corporate sources, i.e it is something done in community, with others. This chimes with the Bible’s emphasis on that ‘host of witnesses’ (Heb 12:1) past and present, local as well as global, who continue to shape the Christian confession in conjunction with our prophetic voice.

The scepticism of François Lyotard (1924-1988) was aimed at the widely-accepted rationalistic/humanistic metanarratives of social progress (Kant and Marx), as well as those of the scientific enterprise which have dominated modernity. Smith cites the work of the American physicist/philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996), who argued that scientific knowledge depends on ‘paradigms’ which in themselves are forms of belief; a “matter of faith” (p71).[2]
Smith suggests that the suspicion of rationalistic metanarratives presents a unique opportunity for Christian witness (p70). The postmodern scepticism of autonomous reason allows us to promote the ancient Augustinian contention for “faith preceding reason” (p72). In other words, faith is the ground or basis of all comprehension, including that of scientific discovery.
Following Lyotard’s  argument for the narrative construct of knowledge, Smith reminds us of the narrative character of Christian revelation which should be repeated with joy in a ‘story-telling church’ in worship and in lives lived together; this in turn becomes a dynamic aspect of our witness.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984), in his study of prison discipline, aims a general critique at all structures – prisons, schools, hospitals, churches – in which privileged knowledge functions primarily as a means of power. Smith argues passionately that the 21st Century Christian church, so often the perpetrator of abusive manipulation, should strive to display the servant image of Christ: the “renewed image bearers of God” (p106).

I end with an illustrative story. A number of years ago I had the privilege of baptising a lady of 86. A member of the Communist Party in her youth and a convinced atheist all of her days, she came under the influence of a caring Christian house-group in her later years.  One day, looking around at her beloved small garden, she mused to herself “there must be a God: this beauty cannot be an accident”! At that moment “everything fell into place”, and was the beginning of a journey to Christ. It was not, as some might suggest, that she had capitulated to the irrational, but that by conviction of the Holy Spirit she realised another more plausible narrative was possible. The Christian narrative is one we can continue to tell and gain a hearing for in our postmodern society.

Dr Alistair Macindoe
Tutor in Pioneer Ministry

[1] James K.A. Smith (2006), Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic
[2] See also the writings of the Hungarian-British polymath/philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), e.g. Knowing and Being (1969), who argued that all knowing takes place within the context of personal commitment.