The Perils of (post)Postmodernism and the Joy of Incarnational Humanism

An ecumenical address
for Huron University College and
St. Peter’s Seminary, London, Ontario

Anyone interested in engaging contemporary culture for the sake of advancing a timely Christian apologetic, as you undoubtedly are, has for some time had to wrestle with postmodernism. This very broad movement covers a philosophical outlook and cultural attitude that generally implies an attack on rationalism and humanism. As such, postmodernism has done a lot of good in the world. It has helped Christians and non-Christians alike to appreciate the limitations of the various systems of thought put in place to explain reality without remainder.

More recently, the anti-humanist edge to postmodernism has dulled. This change is one sign that we have moved on to the next thing, post-postmodernism or what you will. For instance, already in the 1990s the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty called the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida a humanist. A few years later, the authors of an influential cultural studies book called Empire (2000) strove to rehabilitate Nietzschean thinker Michel Foucault as a humanist, though they had to ask the following question:

How is it possible that the author who worked so hard to convince us of the death of Man, the thinker who carried the banner of anti-humanism throughout his career, would in the end champion these central tenets of the humanist tradition? (Hardt and Negri 91)
How indeed. On a popular level, a recent movement has emerged in American music and art culture called “The New Sincerity.” This movement rejects postmodern irony in favour of, well, sincerity, and a return to the earnest belief in so-called socratic questioning that amounts to an attempt to affirm a basic humanist principle (“so-called” because it values questioning only for the sake of questioning, rather than seeking the truth of something, as inquiry did for Socrates).

All of these examples alert us that humanism is still an important reference point in cultural studies and intellectual debate. I want to urge you to take up humanism as a strategic point for engaging our culture theologically. The world is nostalgic for something it thought it had; and Christianity has much to say that is relevant to the search for a properly non-foundational celebration of human power and potentiality.

The good that postmodernism has done is to disabuse us of any false notions of detached rationality we may have harboured. We have it at hand to think about the relationship between secular universities and church colleges in this regard. There is uncertainty and ambiguity in the relationship between a church college and a university, ciphered variously as: the colleges offer a more developed sense of community; better teaching; excellent food (!). But part of the unease stems from the question of faith bias. A university is supposed to be a place of neutral, detached, rational inquiry, a bastion of what we think of as humanism. Positions of faith, personal or institutional, compromise that stance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humanism this way:

A variety of ethical theory and practice characterized by a stress on human rationality and capacity for free thought and moral action, and a rejection of theistic religion and the supernatural in favour of secular and naturalistic views of humanity and the universe.

In such definitions, rationality is isolated as a key feature. However, rationality itself proves to be difficult to pin down, at least when we try to restrict it to a purely immanent idea (“a rejection of theistic religion and the supernatural”). Research in the last century, stemming from the masters of suspicion Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, became obsessed with the ways in which rationality always seemed to leave something unaccounted for. Psychoanalysis, gender studies, marxist criticism, and other modes of inquiry all strive to show how various assumptions are always being made. No matter how objective or comprehensive one may try to be in their account of reality, something always gets left out. Something is always taken on faith. So the project of humanism, at least in some versions of what it is trying to accomplish, is very problematic.

To committed secular humanists like Graham Good, a professor at the University of British Columbia, such work under the banner of postmodernism is a betrayal. The immediate occasion of his book Humanism Betrayed: Theory, Ideology, and Culture in the Contemporary University (2001) was a disruptive legal case of identity politics and political correctness on the UBC campus. Good complained that postmodern ideas were responsible for crippling open intellectual debate. And it’s true that postmodernism has developed in ways that are very destructive. Yet it still offers instructive lessons and rightly chastizes self-contained systems.

The following clips from the movie Oleanna exposes the vulnerability of humanism and its potential complicity with oppressiveness and violence (film clips here). Oleanna - The Film Oleanna began life as a play written in the days of severe political correctness. Set in a university, with its wood-panelled walls (complete with moralizing message), classical bust, china tea cups and, especially, arrogant (male) professor, the movie conveys an aura of smug complacency. The scene in the clip moves seamlessly into sexual suggestiveness and ambiguous power relations as it shows that the apparently self-contained world of humanism is not so self-contained after all (symbolized by the shrill ringing of the telephone). This film exemplifies how postmodernism has effectively shown the limitations of modern humanism.

The Postmodern Critique and Christian Witness
The postmodern critique of rationality and humanism represents an opportunity for people of faith. Christian theology has always maintained that there’s more to rationality and certainly more to personhood than meets the eye. On the one hand, it says things like, “The heart is desperately wicked above all things,” so that one cannot fathom the deep and often contradictory reasons that generate what people do and fail to do. On the other hand, it teaches that rationality is defined by its object, and that faith is that form of rationality applied to God. The papal encyclical Fides et Ratio opens with the affirmation that “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (It’s important to recognize the organic unity in this image.) Contemporary criticism of humanism represents an opportunity for Christians to advance the claim that the self is only truly itself, only truly a person, in relation to others, to nature, and to God.

Life does not begin with the self in detachment; isolating the question of how we know inevitably privileges the Cartesian self. A great deal of humanist overconfidence stems from the modern view of the self. This view took shape with Réné Déscartes, a French philosopher who was trying to come up with a neutral authority to overcome religious warfare in Europe in the seventeenth century. He wanted to focus on Reason, and his program was based on the idea cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. The prevailing modern view of the self, even this questioning self, is problematic, not to say idolatrous. We are not self-contained and isolated individuals who build up a picture of the world from a starting point within ourselves. As Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, what we have in the movement from a premodern outlook to a modern one with Déscartes is two different pictures of human being: the porous self vs the buffered self. The porous self is interconnected with other aspects of reality; the buffered self is isolated, its own origin.

In practice, how does the porous self engage reality in a way different from the buffered self, where the latter has assumptions of a self-contained neutrality, objectivity, and rationality. One way to think about porousness is in terms of a relationship between reason and emotion. These terms can help one to see that relationality enables objectivity. Whereas modernity champions a split between facts and values, or dualism, love is a value that enables us to see things better:

There is, however, an even deeper relation between objectivity and ethics. Objectivity can mean a selfless openness to the needs of others, one which lies very close to love. It is the opposite not of personal interests and convictions, but of egoism. To try to see the other’s situation as it really is is an essential condition of caring for them….We tend to think of the subjective as pertaining to the self, and the objective to the world. The subjective is a matter of value, while the world is a matter of fact….Objectivity is not just a condition outside the self. In the form of self-knowledge, it is the pre-condition of all successful living. Self-knowledge is inseparably a matter of fact and value. (Terry Eagleton, After Theory 131, 137)

The writer of these wise words, Terry Eagleton, is a very significant literary theorist who has played a crucial role in championing postmodernism in English studies. A Marxist and some sort of Catholic, in 1983 he wrote a massively influential book called An Introduction to Literary Theory. This statement, however, comes froma more recent book entitled After Theory, in which he critiques the flippant relativism of postmodernism. He is a prominent example of someone who has been able to gauge both the strengths and the limitations of postmodernism. What makes his statement about objectivity so interesting is that he is not denying rationality or truth, as so many people assume we must in postmodernism. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who is surely one of God’s great gifts to the church at the present time, makes a similar point about relationality and knowledge:

My intellection is… “always already” addressed, impressed, illuminated; but therefore also acting upon, processing and transforming raw data. There is never a confrontation between those two mythological entities of modern epistemology – the innocent receptacle of the disinterested mind and the uninterpreted data of external reality. (Grace and Necessity 24)

In all of this the self doesn’t disappear any more than the object does. When one learns something, one simultaneously comes to know something about how one has been shaped in such a way that enables one to receive and to shape that which is beheld. In this self-knowledge we transcend ourselves. At one and the same time we have knowledge that we have been shaped and we give shape. Our knowledge is action and awareness that we are constantly acted upon.

Rationality and objectivity, then, are not the matters of detachment that they become in modern secular humanism. But neither does one need to abandon them, as postmodern relativism suggests. And if postmodernism is returning to humanism, Christian theology has all the more reason to do so.

Postmodernism and Christian theology make common cause, at least to a certain extent, in critiquing rationalism and humanism. This is the tack taken by Anglican theologian John Milbank, particularly in his early work. An Englishman, Milbank studied under Rowan Williams and together with others established a movement known as Radical Orthodoxy. His writings have inspired theologians and Christian cultural theorists as diverse as Anglo-Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals. I would like to sketch some of his ideas here, both his basic strategy and his engagement of a theology of nature and grace, in which he is much indebted to Catholic thinkers.

Milbank’s first book, Theology and Social Theory, had the important subtitle Beyond Secular Reason. It has been called a “bombshell” and one of the things it blasted was humanism. “The faith of humanism has become a substitute for a transcendent faith,” he wrote (2). His vision took its place among many different critiques of humanist rationality. If secularizing humanists indebted to Déscartes’ project were dismayed by the rise of postmodernism, they had all the more reason to find Radical Orthodoxy provocative. That, of course, was the point. Milbank had fashioned a discourse that could no longer easily be dismissed as irrelevant simply because it was theological. It might be postmodern.

At the same time, Milbank displayed an impressive mastery of those very postmodern approaches he seemed aligned with and offered a stunning critique of them. His was, of course, a theological critique, and part of what he critiqued was postmodernism’s indebtedness to violence. The film Oleanna illustrates the postmodern emphasis. Escalating in violence and ending in awful brutality, it suggests a vision that privileges violence as the backdrop or default setting for reality, against which people do their best to negotiate agreements. Formally, this default setting is sometimes referred to as an “ontology of violence.” Instead of such an ontology, Milbank articulated an ontology of peace. If his opponents marshalled non-foundational arguments, he could do the same. In many ways Radical Orthodoxy pushed the non-foundational arguments farther than their opponents.

In developing his theology Milbank has followed the lead of French Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac, among others. De Lubac had argued that the Church necessarily sets its own agenda and goes astray when it constantly tries to engage and rebut secularist claims. Milbank hints at this sense of internal authority in a recent article in which he locates the centre of contemporary theological debates within Catholicism: “The sense of crisis,” he tells us,  “and the need for a common Christian defence of basic values of our humanity has led to a far greater Protestant understanding of the Roman Catholic Church and even to a partial acceptance of the need for the kind of authority which it embodies” (“New Divide,” Modern Theology 26:1, 27, emphasis mine). The appeal to authority counterbalances the violence endemic in postmodernism. At the same time, Milbank gestures towards humanism with his appeal to “basic values of our humanity.” Here too he follows de Lubac, whom he summarizes as arguing that “‘Christianity is a humanism, else it is misunderstood. On the other hand, secular humanism is the absolute antithesis of the Gospel’” (Milbank, Suspended Middle 9). To understand this declaration, verging on paradox, requires an exploration of the mystical theology of nature and grace.

The perils of (post)postmodernism are at least twofold. It ultimately rests upon an ontology of violence; and secondly, in returning to humanism, it persists in denying transcendence. So why should Christian discourse have any truck with humanism? For two reasons. The fact that the world has revived its interest in humanism strongly suggests that it has looked into the abyss and blanched at what it has seen. It is not quite able to embrace sheer nihilism. In gesturing to humanism the world shows its regard for rationality, truth, beauty, and values. (The Christian apologist should not take much comfort from this, for contemporary culture continues to embrace “nihilism with a happy face,” namely materialism.) The second reason why Christians should continue to champion humanism is much stronger: it is a Christian invention.

The Theological Development of Christian Humanism
Theological humanism, incarnational humanism, Christological humanism – these are all terms that are being redeployed in the context of a theological critique of postmodernism. Such a humanism represents an alternative to the simulacra to which anti-humanists are returning. Humanism is historically enabled by Christianity and the development of its theological vision. Incarnational humanism, then, is the source of humanism and a manifestation of early theology pursuing its own agenda.

Far from restricting humanistic inquiries, the tradition of the Christian faith enables and provides passionate incentive for humanism: the affirmation of personhod, belief in rationality, investigation of the natural world for its own sake. The incarnation plays a key role in this regard. The incarnation is God’s free revelation of himself to humanity, for humanity, in humanity. It tells us that God is for man and man for God. Our understanding of personhood needs to be lifted up into the same reverence for mystery and paradox that we accord the incarnation. As a human being, Jesus participates in the being of God the Father and is in relationship with him. It is the sign of the inextinguishable presence of God in us and our proper self-understanding as having being only in God (yet being fully natural, so understood). We have, as Milbank puts it, an “ineradicable mystical bias” (Suspended Middle 16). Early Christian sayings such as “God became man that man might become God” and “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” encapsulate what becomes the doctrine of deification, which articulates the full confidence in human potentiality thought of as the preserve of humanism. Yet the doctrine of deification, or theosis, is fully developed together with christology and trinitarianism in the early centuries of the church. As Anglican theologian A.M. Allchin puts it, “our becoming partakers of the divine nature by God’s grace…is inseparably and necessarily bound up with the other two doctrines which stand at the heart of classical Christian faith and life, the doctrine of God as Trinity, and the doctrine of the incarnation of God the Word” (Participation in God 5). The early church worked out the understanding that the trinitarian God contained within himself and bequeathed to human nature a fullness of dynamic relationality.

Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls this period of unfolding doctrine “The Christian Invention of the Human.” The nature of the trinity and of God’s self-revelation in Christ meant that he was simultaneously free to be present in creation as well. As Hart has put it recently, “If all of God’s actions in the Son and Spirit are nothing less than immediate actions of God himself, in the fullness of his divine identity, then creation and redemption alike are immediate works of God” (Atheist Delusions 207). Christian humanism stems from its understanding of the relationship between Creator God and his creation. God creates us freely, without any need. He is not the First Cause if by that we assume that he is part of a chain of causality, for causality is a thing in the world. He is not constrained to be at the top of a philosophical hierarchy. God’s perfect freedom from limitation means that he can be both infinitely beyond and infinitely within reality.

The world is not distant from God, alien to him. It is not a distortion of something other and does not need to be abandoned if one is to seek the divine. The world is created good and has its own integrity. On the one hand the grace of God is entirely distinct from the natural order of creation; on the other, there is a continuous relationship between these realms. Catholic filmmaker Robert Bresson offers this rich formulation of our situation: “The Supernatural is the real in all its precision” (qtd in Milbank, Suspended Middle ix). Within a framework understood teleologically, in Christ all of creation participates in the divine reality and depends on grace for supernatural finality. Yet this grace is somehow intrinsic to it. Milbank puts the tension this way: “The natural desire cannot be frustrated, yet it cannot of itself be fulfilled. Human nature in its self-exceeding seems in justice to require a gift – yet the gift of grace remains beyond all justice and all requirement” (Suspended Middle 30). This is the way we have been made, for communion with God in love and freedom.

We have a natural desire for God, damaged but not obliterated by sin. In the language of Thomas Aquinas, we have a deep desire for the beatific vision that urges us onward, a yearning deeper than any response of the will occasioned by some outside grace eliciting something within us. This is not a matter of beholding the works of nature and finding that we have elicited in us a desire to know what has caused them. Rather, we have innately a desire to transcend ourselves, to respond to a gift already given. We find that we cannot be human, let alone fully human, without a supernatural going beyond. The grace of God is intrinsic to our make up; we were made for supernatural completion. For Aquinas, there is no true nature without such finality. In this vein there can be no human activity that is entirely natural either, that does not also require the grace of God for understanding what it is in and of itself.  As Milbank asks rhetorically, “If grace does not elevate nature in such a way that it further develops the natural (as not sufficient unto itself), then just what is grace after all? It would seem to be something emptily extrinsique” (Suspended Middle 22). If that were the case, Milbank argues, then grace would be bound up with violence, a nominal change in status by the decree of an arbitrary God. God retains his freedom, but human being does not participate in that being. The temptation is to think that God created humans as initially perfect, self-contained, a perfect being in a perfect world. Yet the perfection of man includes reliance on grace, self-transcendence, mystical self-loss. There is a mystical dimension built into the very fabric of life.

Two Features of Christian Humanism
I have waded into the deep waters of the nature—grace question. (I could not help but notice that in my handwritten notes “waded” looked a lot like “evaded”!) Rowan Williams has called this topic one of “formidable complexities” (Grace and Necessity 10). He has his own formulation of the paradox of nature and grace: “God makes a world in which created processes have their own integrity, so that they do not need Gods constant direct intervention to be themselves. At a deeper level…the integrity of a created process will, if pursued honestly and systematically, be open to God’s purposes” (Grace 9). Williams acknowledges that “this formulation conceals one of the bitterest debates of twentieth-century Catholic theology” (Grace 9). Perhaps, discretion being the better part of valour, it is better to consider the matter in its effects, which amounts to considering features of a Christian humanism. Two are particularly appealing: a style of engagement with the world; and a pronounced emphasis on joy.

Rowan Williams’s work embodies the nature-grace paradox especially well; it exemplifies cultural apologetics as Christian humanism. While Milbank has concentrated on producing works specifically in the field of theology and providing a robust theological response to postmodernism, Williams has offered readings of culture that more obviously invite secular engagement. I will outline some of these here and develop that description in a separate posting.

Williams has written essays on cultural bereavement (Lost Icons), a book on aesthetics, and another on Dostoevsky. He has engaged Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and charitably salvages Pullman’s attempt to savage belief in God as a reminder of the gods in which we ought not to believe. In his aesthetics book, he claims only that theology offers one way to make sense of art and that “theology has…a story to tell about artistic labour which provides a ground for certain features of it and challenges it to be faithful to certain canons of disinterest and integrity” (Grace 169-70). This is not just English understatement; it reflects a commitment to the inexhaustible nature-grace dynamic. His style suggests a twofold commitment: an expectation of being able to redescribe cultural work in terms of culture’s never-entirely-effaced participation in the divine ecology; and a reminder to secularists that theology offers explanations of phenomena in the natural realm consistent with integrity in the natural realm.

This outworking of the nature-grace phenomenon takes on quite luminous dimensions in the introduction to his study on Dostoevsky. The Christian author’s goal, he tells us, is not to try “to imagine a life so integrated and transparent that the credibility of faith becomes unassailable; it is simply to show that faith…adapts…by…stripping away…egotistical or triumphalistic expectations” (Dostoevsky 10). Furthermore, it will never be resolved whether that adaptation betrays “resourceful self-deceit or the power of truthfulness” (10-11). A good novel inhabits the space created by the paradoxical relationship of nature and grace.

The incarnational humanism I have been sketching is characterized by joy. For instance, Rowan Williams writes of art that it imitates the nature – grace question. On the one hand art has its own integrity – it tells us nothing, and the artist cannot set out to please, cannot pursue the production of beauty. She can only attend to what this work requires. On the other hand, however, a work of art, “if it is well and honestly made, it will tend towards beauty – presumably because it will be transparent to what is always present in the real, that is the overflow of presence which generates joy” (Grace 14). To focus on the work itself is to find yourself participating in the overflow of presence that is always present in the real. And this generates joy.

David Bentley Hart sounds the same note of joy in propounding “The Christian Invention of the Human.” In contrast to the modern mythology of the ancient world as embodying a golden age, he draws attention to the presence in ancient cultures of “a kind of omnipresent dejection that seems simply absent from the Christian culture of the Middle Ages” (Atheist Delusions 132). As we have seen, he locates a change in outlook associated with Christianity’s development of its christology, trinitarianism, and doctrine of deification. Its hallmark is joy: “The ‘new thing,’” he writes, “that the gospel imparted to the world in which it was born and grew was something that pagan religion could only occasionally adumbrate but never sustain, and that pagan philosophy would, in most cases, have found shameful to promote: a deep and imperturbable joy” (Atheist Delusions 145).

My third and final example comes from A.M. Allchin’s exploration of participation in God in the Anglican tradition. In a study that ranges from Hooker to Pusey, Allchin observes that “In all we are conscious of a movement of awestruck joy at the presence of God with us and in us, an experience of the dynamic joy of the kingdom which changes all things, overthrowing our customary ways of thinking of the relationships of God with man” (Participation in God 4). The author goes on to claim that “it is only when the joy of the kingdom finds its place again at the centre of theology that theology will be able in a constructive way to speak to the whole of the human situation today. For this joy is a sign of the gratuitousness and transcendence or the gift of God, which always goes beyond anything we could ask or think, yet at the same time really makes itself known to us, with us and in us, constantly surprising us by its unlooked-for fulfilment of the deepest longings of the human heart and mind” (Participation 5).

This is both the promise and the fulfilment of incarnational humanism. The grace of God, which is utterly beyond us, makes itself known to and in us, and is the supernatural finality that signals that we are fully persons, inexhaustibly participating in the divine with others. I want to suggest that a passionate engagement of humanism as an ongoing historical phenomenon and as a cultural desideratum can preserve theology from becoming ingrown and help it to discover within itself the resources for a true humanism. Perhaps only by taking up the question of humanism can theology ever be the “queen of the sciences,” the gift that heals the rift between faith and reason and answers the perennial charge of anti-intellectualism. Only by embracing the study of the world in its integrity can we sound the note that is the joy of our salvation.

Norm Klassen
St Jerome’s University

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