Interacting with Merold Westphal, Postmodernism, the Fall, and God’s Word

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Merold Westphal is a distinguished professor of philosophy at Fordham University.  Here is a summary of his article “Blind Spots: Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy.”

Postmodernists reject foundationalism on the basis that pure, objective or a God-like view of the world is impossible.  Westphal believes that instead of this disproving the existence of God, it actually proves the impossibility of the contrary.  Part of the modernist project was the emphasis upon authorial intent.  Authors were wed to their works in a similar manner as God was wed to the world.  The work produced by such, whether text or creation, carried the sovereign, intentional fingerprints of its author.  Postmodernists, however, reject the notion that authors have a truly autonomous sovereignty over their works.  Instead, authors bring presuppositions to their works that undergird and influence their intentions, unbeknownst to them.  Therefore, postmodernists believe it is impossible to exhaust the meaning(s) of any text through interpretation.

Postmodernists answer their own interpretive presupposition by deconstructing the text.  Even though they consider this a close reading of the text, they, nevertheless, believe it opens the interpreter’s perspective to many interpretive possibilities, even those which are contradictory.  Thus, the perspective of the interpreter is always human or finite which results in a “not-god-like” eye-view of the world.  Pluralism is the necessary result.

No knowledge is immune to the postmodern presupposition.  Even the natural sciences find themselves under scrutiny because finite knowing is perspectival knowing.  This “death of the author,” according to postmodernism, necessarily leads to the death of the subject as well.

What postmodernists fail to realize, and this serves as the main point of this article, is that their commentary on man’s relation to the world is a testimony of the Fall.  For example, even though Lyotard came against all metanarratives as told by the Enlightenment Dogmatists, there are three essential ways the biblical narrative is different from modernity’s metanarratives: 1) Metalanguage, the language of the Enlightenment, is a second-order discourse, a language about another language, but the biblical meganarrative is a first-order discourse.  2) Modernity rose from the ashes of premodern society, but is not self-justifying. It needs philosophers to tell grand narratives which justify the historical process.  The biblical meganarrative on the other hand speaks of the New Jerusalem, a world beyond this one, for which Christians should live while living in this “old Jerusalem” world.  The New Jerusalem judges this old Jerusalem.  3) Modernity’s metanarratives are told by philosophers while the biblical meganarrative is told by prophets and apostles.  Modernity appeals to reason, while the other appeals to revelation as the authority that comes from beyond ourselves.  Modernity’s philosophers are similar to what the Bible refers to as false prophets, since the true god of modernity is the self.

Finally, Westphal wants to point to the reality that all humans are finite and all interpretations are perspectival; however, this reality need not lead to relativism.  The Word of God is “other” than the product of mere reason.  It is God’s Word.  The autonomous subject must respond to God’s voice outside of himself.  This now brings us to the question of evangelism, for if there is nothing absolute about the gospel, how can we speak of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)?  The answer is by faith, for we only see through a mirror “dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12).  There are two potential errors for the interpreter: 1) The conservative error assumes they possess a type of modernist certainty about the gospel.  2) The liberal error assumes that postmodern critiques have destroyed the notion of an absolute gospel, yielding instead to cultural relativism.  Paul, however, was a postmodernist who rejected these alternatives as a false dilemma.

Westphal’s argument is the best I have heard against the charge that postmodernism leads to relativism.  He appeals to the transcendence of the Word of God and the believer’s responsibility to respond in faith.  Even though this is the best argument I have heard, it still has its inconsistencies: 1) Even though the Word of God is outside of Christians, it is also brought “inside” of Christians based on perspectival subjectivism.  2) What is “faith,” but a perspectival subjective definition created by the interpreter?  Regardless how much Westphal tries to bridge the gap between the subjective interpreter and the objective Word of God, he cannot separate the interpreter from his interpretation.  If the postmodern epistemic assumption is “true,” that all interpretation is received within specific social-historical contexts in a non-corresponding manner, then subjectivism is the only possibility.

For example, Westphal’s three essential ways modernity’s metanarratives are different from the Bible’s meganarrative, cannot be separated from the postmodern epistemic presupposition: interpretation does not correspond with the way the world really exists, including interpretation of authorial intent.  First, if the Bible is first-order discourse, interpretation is always second-order discourse to the postmodernist; which means that even this statement “Scripture is first-order discourse” is a second-order interpretation.  Second, if postmodern epistemology is true, then how does Westphal know that the “new Jerusalem” will judge this “old Jerusalem”?  Why is he sure of his interpretation if he has received it based on his own perspective alone?  Third, even if the Bible is God’s Word, if postmodernists are correct, then humans have no way to access this Word of God.  Furthermore, the Word of God is understood through the Holy Spirit, but this understanding is not divorced from reason, but on the contrary, it is through Spirit-illuminated reason and faith that Christians understand the Word of God.

Finally, Westphal argues that conservatives err by believing they possess a modernist certainty about the gospel and liberals err by assuming that postmodernist critiques have destroyed the notion of an absolute gospel, yielding to cultural relativism.  The questions that should come to the reader’s mind are, “Mr. Westphal, is there an absolute gospel or not?  If there is, do believers have access to it?  If they have access to it, is there such thing as orthodoxy?  If so, is there such thing as heresy?”  The list of questions is virtually endless because if there is no absolute gospel, and Christianity is not entirely subjective, and faith somehow bridges the gap between objective truth and subjective interpretation, then what objective epistemology makes such objective statements possible?  The answer cannot be “postmodernism” because it will not allow for even a semi-absolute epistemic assumption.  In other words, the only “truth” presented above by Wesphal is that God has truth, but humans don’t, and can never “know” that they do in this “old Jerusalem,” even with the Holy Spirit’s regeneration and illumination.

What are your thoughts?

Source: Westphal, Merold. “Blind Spots: Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy.” Christian Century 14 June 2003, 32-35.

This article was originally posted at my site. Only some of my articles are posted on SBC Voices. If you would like access to all of my articles, you can follow my feed here. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

Comments

  1. Blake says

    Jared, first of all thanks for interacting with this. Second, Westphal is actually a professor emeritus now. As for the content of your post, what is the relationship between faith in something (esp. a Biblical doctrine or interpretation) and whatever epistemic certainty one can have of the same thing? Also, are you presuming that subjectivity means the individual’s own mental processes on a given activity?

    • says

      Blake, thank you for the comment.

      Concerning the relationship between faith in something and whatever epistemic certainty one can have of the same thing, I advocate a soft-foundationalism. I actually believe in what postmodernists practice because they practice soft-foundationalism while arguing for nonfoundationalism. They levy proposition after proposition when making their arguments while claiming that fallen and finite humans do not have access to propositional truth (Even this is a propositional statement). I do not believe we can possess a “God-like” eye-view of the world that is as epistemically authoritative as God, but understand we’re talking about degrees of certainty based on laws of logic and various evidences due to the corresponding theory of truth. To summarize J. P. Moreland, “Truth only needs as much epistemic strength as the subject matter demands.” The degrees of certainty will vary, but we will never see the world totally as God sees it; however, we can indeed mirror God and understand this world enough to live in covenantal faithfulness by His grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone; at least that’s what Scripture claims and demands. When Jesus says that He is the only way to His Father, I know this to be true due to the various historical evidences, literary evidences, tangible evidences, the inner testimony of the Spirit, the perseverance of the church, etc. Furthermore, when I look at the amount of money in my bank account, $5.00 is $5.00, not $4.99 or $5.01. I can be reasonably certain. The author and subject are not dead (postmodernism), but flawed (soft-foundationalism).

      Concerning your next question, “are you presuming that subjectivity means the individual’s own mental processes on a given activity?” I mean that if the author and subject (interpreter) are both dead, which is what Westphal argues, then everything in life, though it may contain truth, is incapable of escaping the interpretation of a dead subject. In other words, nothing is “knowable,” only relative, and pragmatism reigns. The result is that Christianity is reduced to anthropology instead of theology. Christianity becomes the study of human beliefs about God instead of the study of God. Scripture becomes human beliefs (interpreters) about human beliefs (Scripture writers) about God.

      • Blake says

        Jared, while I haven’t read the article you’re summarizing I’ve read a few of Westphal’s books. While I’m not a scholar on him or am entirely certain of what theological positions he personally holds I have found myself in agreement with a lot of what I have read from him (as well as disagreement with some of it). He is, probably, my favorite living Christian philosopher.

        I say this to preface what follows, I’m not entirely sure he would disagree with you. I assume your philosophical education has come more from the analytic tradition. Mine has come from the continental tradition. While not many make the distinction within postmodernism, there is a difference between philosophers in the “postmodern” continental tradition whose thought is blatantly relativistic and deserving of much of the critique given by so many Christian apologists and those that wanted to find the true, the good and the beautiful, but more critical of the modernist project. Philosophers like Heidegger, Husserl, Gadamer and Merleau-Ponty would fit into the latter while Nietzsche, Sartre, Derrida and Foucault would fit into the former category. This seems potentially similar to your “soft-foundationalism”. Westphal is very indebted to Heidegger, Gadamer and Kierkegaard in much of his Christian philosophy, certainly much moreso than Derrida and Nietzsche.

        Maybe it is merely a matter of how much we emphasize the flawedness of the interpreter? I would agree that “we will never see the world totally as God sees it; however, we can indeed mirror God and understand this world enough to live in covenantal faithfulness by His grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone,” but my emphasis would frame it more like “we will never see the world even close to how God sees it.” I believe our fallenness and depravity make truth much more elusive than I hear most people talk about, but still not impossible.

        Could you clarify what Westphal says or what you think he means by the author being dead? Christianity would be just as dead if it were about theology as about anthropology. Christianity is more than its theological tenets (I’m reminded of Dave’s recent post on “Is Orthodoxy Enough?”). There is certainly a sense in which the words in the Bible can be dead to someone, but they can also be made alive again and are made alive to people all the time. In Westphal’s “Whose Community? Which Interpretation?” (disappointing in some of it’s conclusions and manners but otherwise solid) he made a big deal about the importance of community in interpretation. Certainly, we can not deny the importance of the Spirit-led community of believers in the process of the individual’s discovering the “living Word,” can we?

        • says

          Blake, I think by the death of the author, Westphal means, God has objective truth, but we do not and cannot due to being finite and fallen. All human authors are dead to the subject (interpreter), which means that the author’s intent cannot be “known.” Westphal distinguishes between epistemological foundations and ontological foundations. There are no epistemological foundations, but there is an ontological foundation: God. In other words, the truth is out there (God), but we don’t have it. Only God has the truth and we cannot access it in this “old Jerusalem.” We, however, accept it by faith.

          Concerning the importance of understanding the Word in local communities, I agree with its importance, but not in the same sense as Westphal. He wants to argue that all interpretation is perspectival, but should be understood in local perspectival communities. He thinks that this helps postmodern Christians avoid relativism, but the problems are numerous: 1) Who gets to define what a “community” is? 2 people, 100 people? 2) What happens when one person rebells against another community? Examples: Jon Hus, Martin Luther, etc. Who is correct? 3) When two communities disagree, who is correct? 4) Many of the heresies the Great Councils came against were forged in local communities. 5) Cults are communities. Islam is a community that interprets Scripture in addition to other books and tradition. 6) Is there anything that “unites” communities? In other words, is there an absolute definition of Christianity that excludes other communities who claim to be Christian?

          I appreciate the interaction.

          • Blake says

            Saying there are NO epistemological foundations is going too far. The phenomenologists recognize certain natural foundations that are inescapable givens. We have our senses and we have our language. We have no choice but to depend on those to accurately convey the base substance of meaning (e.g. sensory input, texts and speech). They argue that the problem is that whatever flaws in our knowledge of what is true comes from the necessity of our having to interpret that input. Our interpretations are flawed by our finiteness. Yet they do not give up hope that we can work to understand things more accurately. Gadamer spends a great deal of time discussing how we expand our horizons of meaning to battle our finiteness and thus better get at what is true and good and beautiful.

            You say, “All human authors are dead to the subject (interpreter), which means that the author’s intent cannot be “known.”” This is true, but unnuanced. It cannot be known with God-like objectivity and certainty. They can be “known” with lesser degrees of certainty and objectivity. Much of Westphal’s writing on this is a kind of polemical rhetoric to show that real, absolute relativism doesn’t exist and that the modernist philosophical presuppostions that undergird Christian fundamentalism are naive.

            Westphal’s disinterest in defining a community is not grounds to imply dismissal of his thesis. The problem with defining a community (numerically as you imply being the real issue) is that it can’t be anything but a nitpicky argument that no one will ever win. I think his use of the word community implies a basic trust that we share a basic understanding of what that term can mean and cannot mean by virtue of it being a word in our shared language. Trying to define it more precisely than this is only going to encourage pointless arguing between leaders of different size congregations.

            Jared, as to your questions in the second paragraph what is the point of asking these questions and how does it work as a foil to what Westphal is saying? What do you mean by “correct”? I don’t agree that the problems are all that numerous. I don’t think the problems are any more numerous than before. Doesn’t interpretting something in community avoid some relativism? All of your examples are of groups that came to particular beliefs in community. How many more sets of beliefs would there have been had there not been these communities? How many more heresies? If everything came down to the individual always wouldn’t we have 6+ billion interpretations of truth with varying degrees of heresy? If so, doesn’t that mean the communities did their job by eliminating many of the possible variations of interpretation or heresy? I’ve never read Westphal claim that communities will always get at the truth, but isn’t even 10 million interpretations better than 6 billion?

            A larger issue is whether or not those who read “postmodern” texts think they are being more prescriptive than descriptive. In my study of continental philosophy I think most apologists and Christian fear mongering towards postmodernism (not accusing Jared of this at all just a more general observation on the state of the debate in conservative evangelicalism) thinks that postmodern thinkers want more relativism in the world. I don’t believe this is the case. I think most “postmodern” philosophers are concerned with describing the way things are. This is what philosophers have done throughout the ages. The reason for the strong reaction against postmodernism is that if the comforts of easy certainty promised by the modernists are wrong then we have a lot more work to do and we all know how comfortable and lazy we like to be. ;)

  2. Christiane says

    Wow, JARED. Red meat.
    Thing is, most readers, including me, need to go ‘look up’ all the terms, then go back and read your post again, and then try to relate it to something that they already know about . . . which is not easy, but can be rewarding and also gives a good look inside the minds of today’s theologian-philosophers.

    In my faith, we have the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the ‘proofs for the existence of God’ from ‘reason';
    so, for some Christian people, there is no gulf between the truths of the faith and the truths of science, as the Author of all truth IS God.

    I suppose that the easiest entry into a discussing on post-modernism is to examine ‘what is truth’ for people of faith.
    And the responses to that are a bit more easy for bloggers to tackle than the hyper-philosophical discussions circling around people like Lyotard.

    So:
    ‘What IS ‘God’?
    ‘WHO is ‘God’?
    ‘What is truth’?
    What is faith?
    What is reason?

    How do Christian people defend the ‘meta-narrative’
    which is the Great Story’ that the Lamb reveals in Revelation when He (Our Lord) opens the scrolls that contains the great story of God for our understanding ?

    Those are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. Love your post.

  3. Frank L. says

    Jared, just for the sake of conversation I’m going to take a stab at your post. Please don’t take offense. I’m not very passionate about this topic

    I would challenge the idea that post-modernism does not lead to relativism. Much of this type of argumentation is semantical, so it would take a long conversation to establish terms. In the most simplistic argument, post-modernism IS relativism. Of course, there are as many varieties of post-modernism as there are post-modernists. Many post-modernists would not accept your parsing of terms.

    I have never heard of post-modernism as any kind of foundationalism. Of course, again, I’m sure there is some PM somewhere that holds some version of such a view.

    Of course, when you use an adjective such as “soft” with “foundationalism” I would see that as an oxymoron.

    Just some thoughts. As I said, I’m not really into the whole PM thing because it will of necessity fizzle out, or crumple under its own weight of abstractions. I prefer to deal with PM as it is most commonly held as an alternative to Absolutism.

    Also, any attempt at a consistent epistemic certainty would be to no avail. Otherwise, there is not place for faith.

    I hope this was not too boring.

    • says

      Frank, thanks for taking the time to respond.

      I agree that postmodernism is relativism.

      Concerning “soft foundationalism,” this just means that I reject The Enlightenment Project’s “sovereignty of the interpreter” mentality. Truth is knowable, but we are not sovereign, absolute interpreters. We are sinners. This does not mean that we cannot know God, it just means that we are flawed. We, however, can know God since He has revealed Himself. We can be reasonably certain depending on the clarity with which God has revealed Himself. God has spoken, and He expects us to respond in agreement with Him.

  4. Adam says

    Hey Jared thanks for your insights,
    Where might I find more information on soft-foundationalism?
    My thoughts are simple on the subject. We cannot KNOW anything, including the truth of the gospel. But we can choose to believe in God, the gospel, whatever…yes this means for me that I (as a Christian) cannot claim that my truth is better than any other person’s. (I use better here to mean more authoritative). That is I can’t tell someone they are wrong, only that I believe they are wrong and that we are both on an equal playing ground when making truth claims. Most importantly for me is what I call eschatological verification. At the resurrection and judgment we will all know that the claims of Christian orthodoxy were/are true.
    Is this too Liberal?
    Am I way off on something?
    Thanks
    Adam

    • says

      Adam, thanks for commenting. Understand that my response below is with a gracious tone.

      See Moreland, J. P. “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 1 (March 2005), 77-88. for a brief description of “modest foundationalism.”

      In identifying yourself as a “Christian,” what do you mean? What is a Christian? If you mean a follower of Christ, then ask yourself if Jesus KNEW He was right and the Pharisees were wrong when He called them hypocrites (Matt. 6, 15, 23). Then ask if John knew what Jesus meant when he recorded the Words of Christ (He was carried along by the Holy Spirit). If Jesus was fully man, then why are we incapable of understanding truth since we are men as well? At the end of the day, are you going to believe the self-attestation of Scripture, or are you going to believe the inconsistent philosopher who is a postmodernist in name only? Do you want a postmodern surgeon or dentist? Or, do you want someone who knows what they’re doing? Do you expect your children to obey you as postmodernists or based on certain foundations? Can I steal from you if it’s true for me?

      Furthermore, concerning “eschatological verification,” we will indeed know more then than we do now, but what’s the point of Scripture if we have no access to truth? The Bible claims to be God-breathed truth (2 Tim. 3:16). Throughout Scripture, God expected His people to respond in obedience, not based on their interpretation, but based on His identity. In other words, there’s not a single postmodernist in Scripture. If God expected Israel to respond in obedience, then we must respond to Scripture in obedience as well.

      Finally, if you apply postmodernism to Scripture, then you must apply it to every single aspect of your life. I’ve never met anyone who has done this. If such a person exists, he or she will be labeled a crazy person. Moreover, your comment above is full of propositional statements.

      Here are a few questions for you:

      1. Are there any moral absolutes if postmodern epistemology is true?

      2. Is there such thing as a non-Christian? If so, why, if postmodern epistemology is true?

      3. Is there a difference between love and hate?

      4. Does God love the world? Is this universally true?

      5. Does God sending Christ prove His love for the world? Is this universally true?

      The list of questions is virtually endless because the Bible claims to be true. God doesn’t ask us, “How do you feel about my Word?” He instead asks, “Whom will you serve?”

  5. Zack says

    Jared:

    Thank you very much for this post. This is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen on SBC Voices in a while.

    My response to Westphal’s position is relatively simple: He may very well claim that he relies upon his postmodern epistemology, but the structure of his argument appears no different than that which he argues against. Simply put, I always have trouble with postmodernists railing against the certainties of “modernist” epistemology while they themselves argue using their own certain, structured, absolute language. (On a side note, I use the term “modernist” somewhat sarcastically, because I feel that postmodernists tend to label every single argument for absolute knowledge as “modern,” which is simply not true.)

    Thus, the problem with Westphal’s argument is not unlike my general problem with postmodernism: If we apply the method of his own proposed understanding of scripture to his argument, then why should we believe him? It’s self-defeating. Should I also just have faith that Westphal is right?

    On a related note, Westphal’s argument fails entirely to address absolute claims made within scripture itself. What I mean by that is: 1) Westphal argues against an absolute, objective, attainable knowledge about the issues in the Bible; 2) yet the Bible itself makes claims regarding our own ability to know God objectively and absolutely; so therefore, 3) shouldn’t Westphal reject scripture outright as presenting (and relying upon) a false epistemology? If his only reliance is the concept of faith, then why would he have faith in a document which claims his own epistemology is wrong? Along these lines, your concluding comment about the work of the Holy Spirit is spot-on.

    Hopefully those thoughts aren’t too terribly rambling.

  6. Adam says

    Hey Jared
    Thanks again for the good thoughts. I will look for a way to access the article you mentioned. Do you know if the ETS journal is available online?
    In response to your questions
    Yes I believe Jesus knew all that he claimed to know.
    Do I know that Jesus knew all that he claimed to know? No. I believe he did. Do I trust in the self-attestation of the scripture? Yes in conjunction with the tradition/community from whence it came (that was a less than gracious way of pointing to the fact that the Bible does not include a self-attested table of contents). So yes I believe the Bible to be true. And yes I believe in Christian orthodoxy. Of course I want a dentist who is good at his job. But that really just means I want a dentist who practices by a set of common standards what he thinks about the nature of truth means very little to me (a bit of pragmatism I admit). Are the moral imperatives of scripture binduing? Yes I believe God will and has meted out justice according to our obedience to those imperatives. But the point is I BELIEVE not I KNOW.
    Thoughts?

    • says

      Adam, so, you “believe” murder is wrong, but you don’t “know” that murder is wrong? Am I understanding you correctly?

      Also, I don’t understand how you cannot “know” that Jesus knew all He claimed to know.

      I guess my question is, “Do you know anything, or is your entire life based on belief?” If it is, then how do you not reduce theology to anthropology? Instead of studying God, all is reduced to studying human beliefs about God.

      • Bill Mac says

        Jared: I think I see the way Adam is using his terminology, and I don’t think it is as suspect as you are thinking. I believe he is using he word “know” in a more scientifically empirical sense.

  7. Adam says

    Jared
    If your question is whether I know anything or if I live my life based solely on belief then the answer should be obvious. Maybe ours is a semantics issue. I wonder if we are using know in the same way. When I am saying I believe instead of I know I am using “know” in the classic sense of Cartesian certainty. I cannot prove so mug of what I believe so I say I don’t know those things I believe them. If someone honestly knows these things then what is the role of faith? If I know Jesus rose from the grave then I don’t excercise faith by believing it. If I know the BIble to be divinely inspired then was faith needed? Is faith not believing in something we cannot prove? Please be careful not to read some post modern straw man into what I am writing. I am simply sharing my honest thoughts on this junk. Thanks again for your thoughts
    Adam

    • says

      Adam, I suggest not reading a modern straw man into what I’m writing either :). You’re assuming most are classic foundationalists, and that’s just not the case today. Most are modest foundationalists.

      When Christians speak of knowing, do you really think they mean they know as God knows?

      Concerning the need for faith, if your definition of faith is true, then did the disciples possess faith in the risen Lord, since they saw Him?

      One more question, do you “know” murder is wrong or do you “believe” murder is wrong?

      My issue with what you’re saying is that the Bible says “Do not murder.” If the Bible is true, then murder is wrong. It doesn’t matter how we feel about what was written, it matters what was written. The author’s intent can be reasonably understood to where we can say, with honesty, “I know.”

  8. adam says

    my wife thinks that you want me to say that there is absolute truth and that there is right and wrong and basically make a list of foundational statements. So let me say this as eloquently as i can. i believe in these things (and i believe they will be proven true in the eschaton).
    is that good enough for government work?

  9. adam says

    sorry i posted right as you did so let me interact with the above,
    yes i believe the Bible to be true, and that its moral imperatives are binding. the disciples faith is an interesting point for me, i am reminded of thomas who needed to touch the scars. blessed are we who have not seen and believe.
    when i here christians say they know things it is usually in discussions such as these. they should be saying they believe, but rather they seem uncomfortable with the thought that they might be wrong and so they use a stronger word “know” which i am simply saying seems intellectually dishonest.
    thanks again (gotta go for now its bedtime where i am)
    adam