Discover more from Leaves in the Wind
What is Postmodern Theology?
From Theological Territories
I admit, this is something of a promotional posting, as well as something of a small celebration. Of late, I seem to be writing and publishing books at a slightly greater rate than I can read them. I have no doubt that part of the explanation for this is the immense nervous energy stored up over the course of fifteen months of being closed in and forced to maintain a necessary “social distance” from other human beings (to say nothing of the anxiety that pervaded every facet of life in the days before the vaccines became available); but I should also note that the trend began a good year before the pandemic settled over the globe. Maybe I was seized with a premonition of disaster.
In any event, one of these recent books—and the last to go into production before Covid-19 had altered the rhythms of daily life beyond recognition—was a large collection of lectures and essays entitled Theological Territories (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020), which has received more or less uniformly good notices and also a few awards. Well, two awards, at least: it was winner in the religion category of the Publishers Weekly Best Books Award for 2020, then it was the Gold Medal Winner of the INDIES 2020 Books of the Year Award. I had not heard of either prize before the book received it, but I choose to believe that both are staggeringly prestigious (especially the latter, if only because “Gold Medal” has such a nicely exclusive ring to it).
My publisher and I have agreed that it might be good to mark those awards, and to call attention to them for purely mercenary reasons, by publishing one of the pieces collected in the volume as a free posting here. The lecture I have chosen consists in remarks made to the great Catholic Czech philosopher Msgr. Tomáš Halik in November 2015, at a large colloquium convoked to discuss a research project he had undertaken when he and I were both fellows at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.
Tomáš Halik (Photo: Petr Novák, Wikipedia)
What is Postmodern Theology? Reflections for Tomáš Halik
I might, I suppose, confine myself—or, at the very least, devote the better part of my energy—to observations on all the ways in which it is profitable for theology today always to begin from what might be called a postmodern position. After all, my first reaction when asked for my thoughts on the concept of “postmodern theology” is rather like Gandhi’s reaction on being asked what he thought about “Western civilization”—to which he replied that it sounded like a good idea. For a truly post-modern theological grammar would be one no longer confined within, constrained by, or defined in terms of Western modernity’s understanding of itself. Such a theology would be one already situated on the far side of the recovery of a more classical conception of God and of revelation from both the metaphysics of early modernity (say, God conceived as the causa sui of “onto-theology”) and also the supposedly “post-metaphysical” dogmas of late modernity. I might also, I imagine, talk sympathetically about certain philosophers of the last half century who have much to contribute (at least, critically) to a theology so conceived. I might even pay tribute to a small handful of thinkers who could vaguely be identified as postmodern and who have provoked me to think more deeply about the task of theology: Badiou, Agamben, and so on. But I fear all of that would quickly devolve into insipid testimonial, of the most boring kind. So, instead, I have elected to spend the next half hour complaining peevishly about the things that, it seems to me, the standard “postmodern theologies” of our time get wrong. And I shall begin by confessing my suspicion of suspicion, and my consequently somewhat jaundiced view of this entire topic.
The term “postmodern theology,” of course, can be as nebulous as the term, well, “postmodern.” So let us start from the premise that modernity, understood at least as a kind of ideological project rather than just a cultural history, is a particular discourse regarding the historical fatedness of a certain understanding of civil identity and personal freedom: the story, that is, of liberation as such, the ascent of the individual out of the shadows of hierarchy and subsidiary identity into the daylight of full recognition, dignity, and autonomy. This is the modern world’s most powerful and attractive narrative about itself and its inmost principles, no matter how it is told: in Kantian or Hegelian or Romantic or Enlightenment terms—or even the tempered terms of a late democratic realism. Presumably, then, any postmodern theology worthy of the name will be one that, having fully absorbed this great narrative, nevertheless is willing to undertake at once both a critical appropriation and appropriate critique of its plot: a theology, then, capable of assuming an ironic distance from any naïve acceptance of that narrative in its own uninflected form, and of situating it in a far larger critical and historical context, while not rejecting it out of dogmatic reflex. But then, if this definition be granted, much of what has come in recent years to be the “orthodox” form of postmodern theology signally fails to be truly post-modern at all.
At least, in the Anglophone world in recent years, among those generally designated as promoters of a postmodern theology—say, Richard Kearney or John Caputo—the title has come to imply a kind of recognizable composite of the more easily assimilated themes provided by an earlier generation of continental thinkers: some Derridean post-structuralist bromides embraced within a broad Lyotardian claim to a suspicion of all “metanarratives” (except, naturally, the metanarrative of this post-metanarrative vantage on all metanarratives), somberly wrapped in a brooding atmosphere of mystically oblique, almost masochistically disinterested Levinasian ethical seriousness, framed within a Vattimo-esque salvific narrative of divine kenosis as the redemptive hermeneutical exhaustion of the transcendent in the immanent or (in more discursive terms) of every strong structure of being in the peacefulness of “weak thought,” the whole concoction bedizened with touches of Foucaultian genealogy or Nancyan diagnoses of transcendental violence or Deleuzo-Guattarian talk of original rupture…or something like that. Generally the guiding pretense is of a theology that has shed the encumbrances of something called “metaphysics” and all its putative pathologies: inherently “violent” essentialisms, hostility or insensibility towards “alterity,” and so forth; and what is supposed to emerge from this giddy confluence is a special piety—or, at any rate, ethos—that is tolerant of difference, peaceful and patient and unambitious and charitable.
I have to confess to something less than a tepid sympathy for this entire style of discourse. It may merely be fatigue on my part, but I have to say that to my mind the entire project of constructing a “post-metaphysical theology” is preposterous, rather on the order of producing “post-atmospheric air,” and that the notion that there is such a thing as the inherent “violence of metaphysics,” rather than the simply the relative violence or peacefulness of particular metaphysical regimes, is rather silly. More to the point, the claim to have escaped the metaphysical seems to me inevitably to reiterate (or maybe I should say “reinscribe”) the most imperious of classic metaphysical gestures: that of the transcendental vantage that has, through some sublime moral and dialectical labor of spirit, achieved the privileged vantage of a transcendental surveillance of all stories other than one’s own. To me, this is simply the repetition—albeit transcribed into a particular social and ideological key, and inflected with a particular sensibility—of the late modern story of an enlightened reason inhabiting no perspective at all and therefore entitled and able to dissolve all merely local narratives into provisional, mythical, tribal chatter.
In his preface to the Philosophy of Right, Hegel rather famously remarks that the owl of Minerva takes flight only as dusk is falling—which is to say that philosophy comes only at the end of an age, when it is far too late in the day to tell us how the world ought to be, and so can at most merely ponder what has already come to pass, and so begun to pass away. An epoch yields its guiding secrets to rational reflection only grudgingly, well after its profoundest possibilities have already been exhausted in the actuality of history; “when philosophy paints its gray on gray, a form of life has grown old, and cannot be rejuvenated…but only understood.” It is a winsomely tragic picture of philosophy, but not—as it pretends to be—a humble one. It may seem to reduce philosophy to an essentially reconstructive, rather than creative, labor, but in fact it is a picture that exquisitely captures philosophy’s deep and perilous ambition to be recognized not simply as an intellectual discipline, but as wisdom itself; for true wisdom, as we know, belongs properly to the very old. It also suggests that the greatest philosopher of all would be the one who could plausibly claim to have come most belatedly of all, and so to have witnessed the very last crepuscular gleam of the dying day and learned as no one else now can how the story really ends. The highest aim of philosophy, then, would be to achieve a kind of transcendental belatedness, an unsurpassable finality lying always further beyond all merely local or episodic philosophies. (Needless to say, Hegel entertained few doubts regarding just who that greatest philosopher might turn out to be.) And of course Heidegger, with a very different, supposedly post-metaphysical and therefore truly final finality, most vigorously took up the gauntlet Hegel had implicitly thrown down—the challenge of devising a grand philosophical narrative that might enclose all other philosophical narratives within its inescapable dialectical logic—by seeking to overcome the System, to escape the intricate capaciousness of its logic, and ultimately to enclose it in a yet more ultimate and comprehensive story. And it is this particular, very modern, and especially pompous form of metaphysical ambition that I see in any philosophy that imagines it has achieved that always more final station, there at the broad open mouth of the river of historical dialectic, where all the currents of the metaphysical tradition empty out into the infinite sea of difference.
Not that such a thing is really possible. To abandon any metaphysics of a real analogical relation of dependency between the transcendent and the immanent is, willy-nilly, simply to embrace a metaphysics of unmediable difference—or, as Deleuze so exquisitely phrases the matter, a metaphysics of the univocity of being and equivocity of beings. So, if I might match the “alarmism” of post-metaphysical discourse with some post-post-metaphysical alarmism of my own, it seems to me that this really is not a useful or particularly pacific approach to the pluralism and “globalism” of our late modern condition. For one thing, it seems to me that to assert the absence of any transcendental structure of being, or at least one we can reason about, and so to assert by implication the consequent absence of any analogical grammar by which to negotiate the differences and likenesses—the particularities and universalities—that exist among beings, is to make the ultimate measure of difference, inevitably, strife. Or, at any rate, a transcendental condition of alienation, of each being from every other, which can be alleviated by, at most, whatever fluid and accidental alliances might prove convenient at any given moment. Quaintly, perhaps, I think it better to ask whether it is possible to articulate an ontology of transcendent—and therefore inexhaustible—peace that, by its transcendence, allows for the harmonization of innumerably many differences, endless analogical mediations and reconciliations and accords.
And this is why I think that this form of postmodern theology offers very little in the way of a model for dialogue with other faiths. A transcendental surveillance of all differences under a rule of absolutely indifferent difference can provide only very particular rules of engagement: Dialogue can proceed only when all parties will consent in advance to a surrender of all claims to ultimate truth. Having thus been reduced to local or tribal artifacts of cultures now surpassed by both modern reason and postmodern suspicion, which are supposedly innocent of metaphysical ambitions, everyone can get along. This, I submit, is not very promising. Yes, traditions can talk to one another more fruitfully, honestly, and interestingly if they are willing to grant that approaches to truth are incalculable in their variety. But the representatives of those traditions are not really going to achieve much if they start from the assumption that truth as such has nothing to do with what they believe. In fact, to believe that truth as expressed in the finite possesses an incalculable number of aspects and inflections and forms is to believe also that there is such a thing as transcendent truth to begin with, which by its very absolution from the conditions of the finite allows for innumerable mediating forms of participation in its inexhaustible fullness. And it is to believe as well that the measure of that participation is one of analogical likeness in difference and difference in likeness, between distinct traditions whose terminus ad quem is one and the same transcendent horizon. To my mind, what we have come to think of as postmodern theology offers very little in the way of actual understanding across cultures; rather, it offers a way of reducing all cultures to a late modern Western narrative of the immanent rationality that starts from the assertion that there is no transcendent truth. There could scarcely be a greater impediment to intelligent and meaningful dialogue between religions.
Let me speak as someone who actually engages in interfaith dialogues at, I like to think, a fairly sophisticated level. All I can say is that I have found it wonderfully productive to engage in discussions with, say, practitioners of Vedanta and Bhakti in the unglamorously traditional form of comparative metaphysical and spiritual studies, repeatedly discovering remarkable conceptual and practical similarities and enlightening conceptual and practical differences, and proceeding all the while under the assumption that both those similarities and those differences indicate a horizon of transcendent truth that is at once approachable from the vantages of our several traditions but that, in its very transcendence, allows for a limitless variety of expressions: eternal truth, sanatana dharma. And, curiously enough, I have never encountered anyone among my Eastern interlocutors who (I believe) would really have felt I was honoring his or her tradition by claiming that it is every bit as irreducibly local and arbitrary and absolutely culturally contingent and historically exhausted as my own. Rarely have I met any serious religious thinker who would be content to grant that his or her tradition is best viewed as an exhibit in a museum. Nor do any of us have the right to expect as much. So it is worse than naïve to imagine that we will have much success in talking to persons of other faiths if we insist on beginning from a set of critical commitments that are really simply the same old modern Western triumphalist narrative of history, merely transposed into a postmodern key. The always looming absurdity of the post-metaphysical vantage is that, under the pretense of a tender regard for difference, it in fact converts every particularity into just another instance of the same meaninglessness: a univocity of vanity and equivocity of vanities. This is not hospitality to the other; it is conquest, if of an especially dissembling kind.
In the end, I have to say, my discontent with the “orthodox” form of postmodern theology is that, before all else, I find its professed fear of the “violence of metaphysics” to be both rhetorically hyperbolic and morally hysterical, while I take its complacency with regard to the post-religious rationalism of our age to be curiously oblivious to the extraordinary violence that has always been part of the history and the logic of secular modernity: the oceans of blood spilled by the wars of the emergent nation states, the nationalist and imperialist and colonialist adventures of early and late modernity, the racialist ideologies and totalitarian regimes incubated in the deep shadows cast by Enlightenment rationalism, the rise of early modern and industrial and late consumerist capitalism with all the evils—the rebirth of chattel slavery, the commodification of labor, the exploitation of impoverished labor markets, and so on—with which the whole history may justly be charged, the wars of terror we are willing to prosecute in the name of something called liberal democracy in order to protect the sacred space of that consumerist culture from any threat foreign or domestic, and so on. To my mind, no one has attempted with more generosity and geniality to create something that might genuinely be thought of as a postmodern theology than has Gianni Vattimo, and I deeply admire the essential kindness that animates his lovely lyrical tale of the twilight of metaphysical ambition as a fulfillment of the Christian proclamation of God’s self-outpouring in Christ’s historical humanity. And yet, even here, kindness can conceal a surprisingly sinister cultural imperialism. To follow Vattimo, one would almost have to imagine that secularism is of its very nature ontologically peaceful, and that it is only the persistence of metaphysical ambitions from earlier ages that sustains our prejudices, cruelties, aggressions, and ambitions. Vattimo’s avowed intention for going on twenty years now has been to unite the history of the decline of every “strong thought of Being” to the history of the Christian proclamation of divine kenosis, and thus show that the genealogy of philosophical nihilism belongs to the hermeneutical transmission of “salvation history.” But the result is an understanding of salvation that seems to be quite incapable of any sort of prophetic critique of the course of Western history as a whole—which is to say, an understanding of salvation that concerns not salvation from “this present evil world” of “principalities, powers, dominions, thrones,” and so forth, but what looks unsettlingly like resignation to its dialectical inevitability.
Let us recall that, traditionally speaking, the theology of Christ's “kenosis”—his relinquishment of the form of God for the form of a slave—is inseparable from an extraordinarily strong theology of the creature’s plerosis in him. The language of abasement has always been wedded quite indissolubly to the language of exaltation; the language of messianic hiddenness to the language of transfiguration; the story of crucifixion to the story of resurrection. And any attempt to prize one pole of this language free of the other, or to convert their indissoluble simultaneity into a narrative of the supersession of the threateningly transcendent by the redemptively immanent, effectively erases the entire logic of the gospel as a story of salvation and turns it instead into a tragic fantasy about God's redemption from his divinity. I have to say, therefore, that as far as the prophetic or redemptive power of such a vision is concerned I suspect it has little of consequence to offer. To make any sense of the language of redemption, it has always proved necessary to speak meaningfully of God’s transcendence. That is not to say, of course—and here I can be as postmodern as the next fellow at the bar—that we must speak in terms of the threatening vertical supremacy of the God of Being conceived as a hierarchy within totality, with the divine placed at the summit of its hierarchy, the founded and founding god of onto-theology, the speculative completion and surety of our world, which a kenosis would indeed exhaust; this is, after all, not really transcendence, but merely the metaphysical ground of immanence. Neither, though, should we speak in terms of the vacuous negative transcendence of “God,” conceived merely as the dialectically Wholly Other of something like the ethics of Levinas. Between the cataphatic and apophatic voices of transcendence there remains an open way of analogy: the discourse of a God who is most near in his otherness and most strange in his intimacy. In this open interval of the analogical, which never collapses into simple equivalence and so never reduces the action of God with us to the “fate” of God in us, God pours himself out in—without ever succumbing to—our history; and so there is, indeed, a history of salvation.
We obscure this hermeneutical truth when we choose to think of strength and weakness, or mercy and justice, or the form of the slave and the form of God, as merely the opposed terms of an antinomy; to speak only of weakness and say nothing of strength leaves us still within the logic of the immanent order of power—or the powers. After all, why does Vattimo imagine that a weakening of thought will always, even within the ambit of our Judaeo-Christian Überlieferung, simply weaken into charity? Does he imagine that charity is simply the ground into which all metaphysical ambitions must inevitably sink? After all, the testimony of history tells us something quite different: that where philosophy grows weak and surrenders its transcendental longings the nihilisms of the will grow strong, and become at times not only exuberant but boundlessly violent nihilisms. When philosophy evacuates its ivory towers and gorgeous palaces and enduring edifices of truth, cruelty and rapacity are often all too willing to take up tenancy in their vacant rooms. The decline of every strong structure of Being, as Vattimo (following Heidegger) is willing to grant, is a possibility of liberation within a condition of risk. But it is not clear to me that he or those who think like him have properly grasped how great that risk really is. What is it that the post-metaphysical order really invites us to become? Pure, punctiliar instances of acquisitive power and indeterminate appetite, gazing out upon a region of indifferent instances and occasions of the use of that power. History has delivered us, here at modernity’s end, to the market, which has its own internal hierarchies and values, its own orders of the visible and the invisible. And within this new order so many things can be reduced to a new invisibility: that which we have been taught to see as formerly we could not—the “slave,” the third-world laborer, the homeless person, the physically or mentally disabled, the destitute—can so easily be hidden again behind such visible and stable essences as the commodity of cheap labor, the economic burden of the unemployed, the irrelevance of those who lack the power of purchase. To equate the story of secularization with the history of salvation, or even to associate the two within a single hermeneutical transmission, all too easily allows one to forget the essentially apocalyptic element within the Christian proclamation, the summons to a Kingdom not of this world that, in its very transcendence, subjects every age of the world and every epoch of human ambition to judgment and (perhaps) healing. And so it is not mere metaphysical nostalgia to call always on that eschatological light—the particular history of God in Christ, seen from the vantage of Easter, a story of abasement and exaltation—continually to make the otherwise invisible irresistibly appear. One cannot do so, however, if one has surrendered a metaphysics of the difference between the transcendent and the immanent, the changeless and the mutable, the eternal and the fleeting.
Anyway, I am straying into the world of my own concerns, where it would be unkind to drag those who are present here today. Let me conclude simply by observing that it is of course quite a salubrious practice to attempt—again, critically and within a broader historical perspective—to free ourselves from the majestic mythology of the modem, to subject it to the judgment of the cross on all our triumphalist fantasies and ambitions, to allow ourselves the prophetic and ironic distance necessary both to appreciate what is truly liberating in the story of secular modernity, and even truly Christian, and also to deplore and deconstruct what is not. In this sense, all theology must now be “postmodern.” My complaint, however, is that for the most part what we call postmodern theology is nothing but the fabulous mythology and ideology of modernity recapitulated. And so it probably makes better sense to set the entire category aside and to speak instead simply of something like a post-critical naïveté: an attempt, that is, to preserve the metaphysical frames of all our traditions, but to do so from the vantage of those who have experienced and cannot forget the lessons of history. This means that we must certainly be willing (as the postmodern moralists among us insist) to approach our traditions anew with a sense of the plurality of human experience in a much larger world than our ancestors ever knew, but to do so also with a serious attention to their metaphysical claims as indispensable and proper grammars of dialogue, reconciliation, and healing. And this means reclaiming those traditions from the vast ideological system of “mature” modernity and “liberating” secularity, as well as from the residual habits of thought that that ideology has bequeathed to what we hopefully but dubiously think of as post-modernity.