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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.