Review of "Christianity and the Postmodern Turn" by Doug Groothuis
For about two decades, evangelicals have pondered and debated what approach they should take toward postmodernism. While many have conflated postmodern culture (or postmodernity) with postmodern philosophy (or postmodernism), this academically-oriented book sticks almost entirely to the philosophy of postmodernism.
Christianity and the Postmodern Turn collects six perspectives on postmodernism and its relationship to Christian thought. Three contributors are enthusiastic supporters of postmodernism (James K.A. Smith, Merold Westphal, and John Franke), two are strong critics of postmodernism (R. Douglas Geivett and R. Scott Smith), and one is situated somewhere between the both groups (Kevin Vanhoozer). Vanhoozer, who is more closely aligned with the critics than the enthusiasts, responds to all the other contributors, while the others exchanges consist of mostly J. Smith, Franke, and Westphal arguing against Geivett and R. Smith. (Geivett, R. Smith, J. Smith, and Westphal are philosophers. Vanhoozer and Franke are theologians. Vanhoozer evinces more philosophical acumen than Franke, who stumbles when articulating philosophical arguments, particularly concerning foundationalism, as Geivett and R. Smith note.)
Including this many authors—all of whom are called to respond to the other authors—makes for a bit of a jumble. This is a debate book with too many voices. Had there been only two or three contributors—one pro-postmodernist, one anti-postmodernist, and perhaps someone in the middle—it might have pushed further into the issues.
Given the plethora of perspectives, it is impossible to do justice to the arguments of each author. One can, however, chart two essential epistemological items of debate: realism and foundationalism. Geivett and R. Smith are realists in epistemology. They argue that language refers to and (when true) corresponds to an extra-linguistic realm through propositions. Both take this feature of language (there are, of course, other features) to be nonnegotiable for the Christian worldview and its rational defense. (I have defended these claims as well in Truth Decay.) They also defend a modest foundationalism: the theory that our knowledge is divided between basic (non-inferential) beliefs and those derived from them. Postmodern thought in its many forms is non-realist (or antirealist) and non-foundationalist in epistemology.
Geivett and R. Smith focus like laser beams on epistemology, carefully defending their own account of knowledge and critiquing those who oppose it. J. Smith, Westphal, and Franke accuse them of hitching Christianity to a defective modernist program and claiming a hubristic “God’s eye” view of the world that is impossible for finite, fallen mortals. We must rather, they claim, emphasize our contextual and enculturated situation and our immersion in language. Westphal, in an intemperate rhetorical flourish, even accuses Geivett of being like the Pharisee who “justified himself” before God instead of humbly admitting his sin (page 239). Of course, trying to justify a proposition about God intellectually is a far cry from trying to justify oneself morally before a holy God.
To my mind, the pro-postmodernists fail to demonstrate the compatibility of postmodernism with Christianity. This is largely because they fail to undermine realism or foundationalism. The claim that one must be postmodern to be epistemically humble is a non sequiter. Even realist/foundationalists admit the limits of knowledge and the defeasibility of many of their beliefs. Moreover, the postmodern perspective endangers knowledge itself, collapsing language and meaning into cultural contexts, thus rendering objective truth unattainable. The pro-postmodernists’ claims to the contrary are unconvincing.
Despite my philosophical agreement with the two strongest critics of postmodernism, I must state that the rest of the contributors are able exponents of their respective viewpoints. A careful reader of this volume—despite its overabundance of contributors and the ensuing over-stimulation—will come away with a solid acquaintance with the core issues at stake in this debate. One hopes she will also come away with a measure of wisdom as well.