Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1996)
`Postmodernism', `Deconstruction' and `Structuralism' are the buzzwords of the day for modern intellectuals, whether your focus is sacred or secular. I found this book when I was looking for a postmodernism introduction which would address an impact on Christian thinking. With a few reservations, this title is as good a starting point as many, but you will need a newer book with greater depth to really get some traction on the subject.
I shall note the weaknesses and move on. First is the date of publication. For such a topic, 15 years is a lifetime in the intellectual activity of a hot ticket subject, even if the book's star players are no longer writing. Second is the book's point of view on postmodernism and Christianity. The writer's position is evangelical, and he is unwilling to let any of that point of view slip from his grasp in the final analysis.
These aspects are offset by notable strengths. First, the author succeeds in offering an intelligible summary for the positions of four of the 20th century's most difficult thinkers, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. This admirable effort is preceded by a carefully crafted history of `Modernism'. The only thing one could have hoped for here is a few words on `pre-modernism'. To round out the picture, I will offer some thoughts to fill in the blank.
The pre-modern view may be best represented by pre-Alexandrian Mesopotamia and Egypt, where the ruling paradigms were mythmaking, authority, divination, astrology, and numerology. Mythmaking was the precursor to Greek metaphysics. Authority was the father of Roman laws. Astrology and numerology were the parents of Greek mathematical science and astronomy. It is important to note that the modern world has not fully outgrown any of these tendencies, even if most have receded to the back pages of newspapers.
Grenz astutely notes that the seeds of modernism were planted by several ancient Greek thinkers. He mentions Plato and Aristotle, but to these should be added the mathematicians such as Euclid and Pythagoras and the `natural scientists' such as Hippocrates and Galen. He also fails to note, therefore, that the power of reason did not die with the sack of Rome. It was adopted as a trusty tool in the Christian tool chest as early as 150 CE, and flourished in practice in the hands of all Christian doctors, most especially by the late medieval thinkers, Aquinas, Occam, and Duns Scotus.
Indeed, modernism bloomed at the hands of the `Modern' philosophers, after the first successes of empirical theories which defied naïve experience and after Europe regained the leading role in doing new mathematics. The primary figures were Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Gottfried Leibnitz, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. As an aside, it's interesting to note that the primary `day job' for most of these men was in mathematics, the law, economics, ethics, and history. These are all `systematic' disciplines whose life blood is the modern point of view on the primacy of progress in knowledge based on empiricism and reason. To anticipate just a bit, I think it's important to say that a `pragmatist' would point out that modernism succeeded over previous world views because it was more successful. It worked better.
Grenz identifies Friedrich Nietzsche as the fountainhead for postmodernism, a point I cannot dispute, as Nietzsche is certainly at the headwaters of Existentialism, the immediate precursor to `theoretical' postmodernism. But this raises an interesting observation. Nietzsche's original scholarly training was as a philologist, the same profession as The Brothers Grimm and J.R.R. Tolkien, the collectors and spinners of myth and fairy tales. This trend continues throughout the twentieth century. Martin Heidegger began as a theologian. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault worked from the point of view of literary criticism. Richard Rorty's primary credentials are in teaching literature. Only Wittgenstein's work sprang from a systematic discipline, mathematical logic.
Just as the `pre-modern' point of view never really died, in many disciplines, especially the sciences and law, the modern point of view is still alive and well, thank you very much. The irony is that `post-modernism' has breathed life into the virtually dead belief in and reliance on myth. No sooner have the theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer dismissed myth from Christianity and echoed Nietzsche's `God is Dead' motto, than Foucault, Derrida, and Co. have breathed life back into the old girl.
I would suggest here that Grenz' including Thomas Kuhn's analysis of scientific development and the success of probabilistic quantum theory does NOT signal a death of modernistic science. Instead, today's physics is a demonstration that the modern model still works in science, even if the results are surprising.
`Post-modernism' has been credited with several virtues for the secular world outside of religion. The most dramatic is to provide a theoretical framework for approaching all the world's faiths on an equal footing, and see where, for example, Hinduism and Buddhism may be better at some things, while the Abrahamic faiths may be better at others. Grenz is not willing to buy into these virtues of postmodernism, however much he is willing to see it as an ally in putting a new footing under Christian apologetics. While Grenz and postmodernism rejects the notion of both the objective truths of empirical science and the emphasis on Descartes' egoistic center, the human mind, he holds on to the faith in the absoluteness of Christian revelation.
There are three aspects of Grenz' point of view I consider especially valuable for us today. The first is healing the dichotomy between the soul and the body, which has been vigorously criticized by contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, especially in Gilbert Ryle's book, The Concept of Mind. This is ironic because so much of Christian theology, from Paul to Luther, depends heavily on this idea. I would dearly love to see a Christian theology which was based on discarding this split. The second is the resurrection of the doctrines of Pragmatism as a means of determining meaning and truth. I am convinced that Christians should dust off their copies of C. S. Peirce and start reading. For one thing, James' epistle reads like a 1st century treatise on pragmatism, as in `what good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?' The third virtue is the recognition of the multivalent sense and value of myth, stories, parables, and imaginative literature in general.
There are very good reasons why we still read and learn from The Iliad, Aesop, Job, Hamlet, and The Brothers Karamazov, and why Kierkegaard wrote so many good fables!
- Audio CD: 1 pages
- Publisher: Hovel Audio; Unabridged edition (1 October 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1596442921
- ISBN-13: 978-1596442924
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