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franciscan - September 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Out of control: Theology in a Postmodern Age

by Esther Reed

The term ‘postmodern’ is to be used with caution. It is somewhat faddish and has been superseded in Sunday broadsheet news-papers by speculation about a ‘post-postmodern’ age. Heaven help us! In what sort of age do we live? What forces are at work in western culture? Is theology immune to such forces and trends? How much notice should we take?

Consideration has to be given to possible meanings of the term ‘postmodern’, to discuss challenges to theology of certain contemporary trends and to suggest how we might discern and concentrate in new ways on God’s reality and presence within the cultural patterns of everyday life.

Postmodernism is a name given to cultural tendencies that are characterised by change and the need to leave behind redundant and false certainties of the modern era. Broadly speaking, the certainties of rational truth, enlightenment and progress can no longer be relied upon. The modern assertion ‘everything real is rational, everything rational is real’ was refuted once and for all at the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Communist beliefs in proletarian democracy were dashed as workers rose up against the Party, e.g. in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Established theories of economic liberalism fell apart in the crises of 1911 and 1929.

 Enlightenment values of instrumental or goal-directed reason and progress have resulted in a culture less marked by freedom than by the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy that Weber foretold. Jean-François Lyotard described in The Postmodern Condition the predominant feature of postmodernism as the eclipse of such ‘metanarratives’ of rationality and progress. By metanarrative, or master-story, is meant an account of reality that claims to explain and understand it totally. Postmodernism is an intellectual stance that chooses to abandon modern assumptions about unitary interpretations of reality. It is a stance characterised by difference, plurality and ‘otherness’ rather than unity, totality and sameness. Its adherents are interested less in structures and centralised authority than in the de-structuring of old orders and the weaving of new patterns of relation that are marked by eclecticism, choice and fluidity.

Where does Christian theology stand (or fall) amidst all this change? Should we welcome the collapse of modern confidence in human ability, with its dangerous implications that, through the exercise of reason, humankind shares in the same perfections and substance as God? Should we swim against the tide and hold on to emancipatory, fraternal and democratic values associated with Enlightenment reason? Such questions are not easy and carry enormous implications for how we do theology today.

All about us is a loss of confidence in old certainties and doubt as to the reliability of reason. Established centres of authority have been dislodged or decentred. Plurality and diversity slide easily towards fragmentation and confusion. Amongst some Christian people is a feeling of powerless-ness, closure and ‘blankness’ (these descriptive terms are used by Michael Welker in God the Spirit; his book is richly rewarding and I recommend it strongly). Old definitions of faith seem dry, dusty and unable to offer the spiritual refreshment we all need. The postmodern a/theologian Mark C. Taylor writes of wandering aimlessly without any map or compass with which to find a way ahead. In an essay, entitled Reframing Postmodernisms, he speaks of religion being in the desert or place of absence. In the desert or wilderness, the only appropriate actions are those of waiting, wandering and removing from our theologies all inessential baggage. He plays on the word ‘desert’ and ‘dessert’ to suggest that contemporary, theological experiences of barrenness are deserved because of theological complicity with false gods of modernity.

But wait! Before succumbing to the disillusionment that pervades much of our culture today, let’s think again. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from mistakes in the modern period. Perhaps new opportunities are emerging in which to look and listen afresh for the movings of God’s Spirit. As Michael Welker writes: ‘In constantly new ways, the Spirit leads people into communion with the resurrected Crucified One . . . The Spirit awakens enjoyment of the force fields of faith, hope and love which, in the midst of a fleshliness and a world assailed and marked by sin and death, make it possible to recognise and to attest to God’s presence and God’s will in constantly new ways.’

Welker’s repetition of, and insistence upon, the faithful and unchanging newness of God’s Spirit is testimony to the presence of hope in a changing, troubled world. There is no opt-out clause for theologians because no place, theory or problem lies outside the reach of God’s mercy.

As Bonhoeffer believed, worldliness does not separate us from but unites us to Christ, who stands wholly in this world. Prayer throws believers into contemporaneity at the very same moment that we contemplate the eternal. This does not mean that the task is easy. To the contrary, it involves trying to understand present day trends, as well as identifying past shortfalls in the theological endeavour.

The following are a few questions and suggestions that might prove useful along the way:

First, have we learned that God will not be squashed into humanly-constructed systems and theories? Systematised thinking of the worst sort can falsely reduce God to a factor within a human schema.
Second, have we learned that God might have new patterns of service which will not be associated with structures of hierarchical domination that confuse the proper authority of service with that of aggrandisement? The Spirit of God might have new patterns for our collaborative church life together that, as yet, are unforeseen by us.
Third, are we holding on to ideas that render God absent from our world in some distant and inaccessible realm beyond the limits of reason? Such ideas will render us blinkered and insensitive to the invigorating presence of God’s Spirit in the world.
Fourth, do we have a reduced doctrine of Jesus Christ as an ideal of humanity? If so, let us orient our lives to God again in worship, where it is possible to perceive the identity of Jesus without distortion.
Fifth, are we tempted to think that know-ledge of God is something fixed and static and are thus resistant to diversity and difference with our ecclesial and spiritual lives? The Holy Spirit of God is the giver of diverse gifts that nourish and enrich all God’s people in times and places that we might least expect.
Sixth, is our church life hindered by the paralysis that besets those who fear what the future has in store? God’s Holy Spirit brought new beginnings to the Israelite people and remains the Spirit of Life today.
Seventh, does our church life pander to modern notions of individual piety that divert us from the work of seeking justice and peace in our world. If so, let us open our ears to the prophetic once again.

These considerations combine to imply that a critique of Christian theology in the modern age, far from being an optional extra or risqué distraction, is indispensable to its health today. It might involve times of weeping and repentance. However, some aspects of the ethos of the ‘postmodern age’ might positively assist us in attaining the clarity that is necessary for constructively- critical work. In particular, we are reminded that theologians (i.e. those who pray to, talk about and worship God) cannot seek to control God (whom we worship) by any humanly-constructed means. The post-modern theologian cannot confuse human control with confidence in the promised reign of God. We cannot restrict God’s Spirit to any working hypothesis, structure of authority, ideology, ideal or economic force.

The Holy Spirit of God is, as Michael Welker says, ‘a force-field of divine power and presence’ that blows our human attempts at control away as it wills. Theology in a ‘postmodern age’ might be less predictable than might be desired for comfort. Old, rational certainties will perhaps be taken away. One thing, however, remains certain. God’s grace provides for new possibilities of blessing in every time and place. In this do we trust. f

Dr Esther Reed lectures in theology at Exeter University and is a member of the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church. She has just published: A Theological Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.


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