A Theological View of Philosophy

In my current philosophical wanderings through the thicket of faith and reason, I’m starting to see some themes emerge. The following is a gross over-simplification, but it may serve as a helpful theological lens through which to view the postmodern turn in philosophy.

The modern (Enlightenment) view of reason ignored the category of sin. The belief was that human reason could attain to objective knowledge if the right methods were followed; that we could sufficiently detach ourselves from our prejudices to reach pure reason. Humans were viewed as essentially good, with any deficiency of thought or character merely needing to be better educated. Indeed, humanity would continue to progress to more knowledge, more mastery of their environment and more harmony.

What I have described above is a myth. Not a myth in the sense of “untrue” (that notion of myth is itself a modern fallacy), but rather a story about the world that explains the world that we find ourselves in. Another word for myth that has gained traction in postmodernism is metanarrative. Postmoderns are incredulous towards metanarratives, as Lyotard famously said. They are suspicious that there is something lurking beneath the soaring claims of modernism; that something smells fishy.

Postmodernism has looked at the disparity between the sunny claims of modernism and the darkness produced in the modern period. Auschwitz and Stalin come to mind. So does Vietnam, Jim Crow laws and, most recently, the “freedom” being brought to Iraq. There are power plays going on in the use of reason, we have come to see. The myth of neutral reason has crumbled.

Theologically, this is a retrieval of the doctrine of sin as an epistemological category. That is, we see that our minds are prone to twist what we see and say to serve our own ends and to secure our position in the world—often at the expense of others. Indeed, postmodernsm often sees this as so pervasive that all claims to truth are actually oppressive power plays.

So, while postmodernism can be seen as a recovery of the doctrine of sin as an epistemological category, it does so in a way that has no hope of redemption; that has no prospect of finding a liberating truth.

I want to write something here to tidy things up; to point the way forward clearly and resolutely. I don’t think I can do that, at least not yet. The journey continues…

7 responses to “A Theological View of Philosophy”

  1. Well, just remember that that this is how I characterize it and that I haven’t heard any good “authority” put it like this, and that the way I’ve characterized things here will piss off Christians and postmodernists alike! :P

  2. Hey Matthew, cheers for the comment. Your blog is in my feed reader, so comments may be forthcoming…

  3. Yes, the journey continues, but I think you are well on the way! Here are a few suggestions for pushing forward:

    (1) Check out Kevin VanHoozer’s first chapter in the “Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology.” If I recall correctly, he discusses ways in which Christian theology anticipates certain positive contributions of postmodernism, and your epistemological point may be included there.

    (2) Check out the first half of Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics” 2.1. There you will find his theological epistemology, which is an attempt to apply the notions of ‘sola gratia’ and ‘solus Christus’ to epistemology. This certainly has resonances with your epistemological point about sin, and gives you quite a lot of material to digest and move forward with.

  4. WTM, cheers for the comments and the recommendations. My excursions into Barth will have to stay on hold for the moment, as I am currently exploring philosophy a little more explicitly than theology (even though the lines between them are always vague and questionable). My Barth day of reckoning will come, no doubt.

    As to Vanhoozer, I’ve read a bit and again, will have to hold off for the moment. From what I’ve read of him, he seems to take some (but by no means all) of the “sting” out of postmodern philosophy for its Christian appropriation, and I’m currently more interested in the less tamed end of things. But still, Vanhoozer does not seem to be escapable in the postmodern theological milieu.

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