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…