Thankfully, postmodernism has done away with all that modernity nonsense. Not only is modernity dead, but so is God, and postmodernism, apparently, is the one who killed God. “Postmodernism,” Eagleton writes in his article An Unbelieving Age, “may be the first age of ‘authentic atheism,’ thing first age God is truly dead. He spends most of his article explaining the dysfuctionality of trying to live as if God were dead while at the same time living as if God were not – that is, claiming a desire for a moral and just society. Postmodernism answers this cognitive dissonance by relativizing morality – “what’s true for me may not be true for you” – rather than resurrecting God.
So apparently, Nietzsche was wrong – our current age is when God dies, not 19th Century Germany, when he was writing, and certainly not 1st-Century in the Middle East. Except that, it seems to me, Nietzsche gets it almost right: God was dead – though it was not by philosophical declaration but by crowd-sourced Crucifixion. Eagleton writes, “One reason why postmodern thought is atheistic is its suspicion of faith. Not just religious faith, but faith as such.” It takes great faith to make such a statement. Or to locate the persistent and gratuitous ills of human life on faith, as postmodernists reportedly do: “Begin with a robust belief in goblins and you end up with the Gulag. Nietzsche had a similar aversion to conviction.” But – and it is here I take issue with the postmodernists – is the claim about belief-in-goblins-to-Gulag-pipeline anything less than a conviction? Start with a suspicion of faith and you end up with faith, albeit by another name: a faith-like commitment to doubt.
But “faith” and “certainty” are not synonyms even for the Christian. The deeper and longer I’ve gone into Christian faith, the more questions I have. This is not a flaw in faith: beyond what was mentioned Monday about (not) having all the answers, doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is. Nietzsche argues
the compulsion to believe is for those who are too timid to exist in the midst of ambiguities without anxiously reaching out for some copper-bottomed truth. The desire for religion is the craving for an authority whose emphatic “thou shalt” will relieve us of our moral and cognitive insecurity.
That last sentence is a doozy. People want religion – which is not to be equated with faith, by the way – because they want someone else to be in charge of their morality? That is one (valid) criticism of a potential fault of religion, but that is not what “religion” as a whole actually is. Even if it were, though, religion is not the same thing as faith. Faith is about a relationship with the living God, not the upkeep of an impossibly long list of precepts. Furthermore, it is a fallacy to equate faith with “copper-bottomed truth.” Having all the answers would not lead to faith but pride. Besides, anyone, Christian or otherwise, who thinks the God of Christian Scripture gives certainty and belief in this God is without ambiguities simply has not read the Bible and it is intellectually dishonest to dismiss God or Christianity on such grounds. The Bible is not a book, but a library and the conversation between the books is carefully nuanced, steeped in human cultures we have no access to anymore. It contains many and varied genres, – letters, poetry, narratives, parables, instruction, proverb, allergory, etc. – each with their own requirements for interpretation. What many of these genres do not require is an exposition of the times of their writing – poetry, parable and letter, being the main ones. For example, St. Paul does not explain his culture or the general goings-on beyond the occasion of his letter because it would be unnecessary: its recipients would have already known these things. We, however, do not and have no way to reconstruct them. The Bible is anything but “certain” to us from historical, cultural, even linguistic standpoints.
I get why the postmodernists resist their understanding of faith and turn instead to to ambiguity: this both seems to map more accurately to the world we have (quantum physics, anyone?) and that faith-as-certainty as bred all kinds of violence and tragedy. But one, not reaching for certainty is itself a kind of uncertainty. How is the “compulsion” to believe any different than the “commitment” to ambiguity? Second , just because conviction can breed atrocity doesn’t mean that a) it always will and b) one cannot simply dispense of faith because it causes trouble. It is, to understate just a tad, poor form to dismiss things simply because they are problematic, not least because philosophical/logical problems, like God, do not depend on your assent to them for their existence. Eagleton writes of postmodernism, “Indeterminacy and undecidability are accounted goods in themselves,” but the burden of proof is on those who profess that. Stating that ambiguity is itself a good thing is not a definition of ambiguity, it is an assertion that needs to be backed up. Conviction can steamroll violently and unfeelingly, but what is to stop indeterminacy from breeding relativity? In terms of morality, relativism is just as dangerous as tyranny.
Why Eagleton is, as I understand, ultimately critical of postmodernism is that its answer to modernity’s struggle to unite everything under a single, meaning-providing narrative is subtract meaning from life altogether, to relativize everything on the basis that everything is incoherent. Interestingly, “everything” is one of those universal words that postmodernism, on the surface rejects. One of postmodernism’s proud boasts, besides the death of God, is the death of universals – a universal narrative, a universal power, the “universe” as possible to understand at all. Is there truly no coherent, universal story that binds all things together? Not even the notion that there is no universal story? God is not, for me, just the universal story that ties everything together anyway, but even if God was, claiming that there is no singular narrative governing human history is not the same thing as saying God is dead. It is, beyond intellectually, culturally, and historically elitist, only the revelation of a deep desire to kill God. Alas, there is nothing new under the sun.
However, Eagleton’s response to postmodern uncertainty bothers me. He is rightfully critical of the capitalist system where, as he writes, “as long as people show up to work, pay their taxes and don’t hassle police officers, they can believe whatever they like.” For one, I may have mentioned something about this on Monday, but running a system that requires infinite growth such as unfettered capitalism (show me the regulations) on a closed loop is not only stupid, it’s suicide. For another, beliefs breed action. If you believe your job is meaningless or there is more to life than death and taxes, how long are you really going to cheerfully and unquestioningly show up to it?
Eagleton sees the New Testament is awaiting the imminent return of Christ. It thus fails to provide meaningful guidelines for societal and earthly life in the meantime. “The New Testament,” Eagleton writes, “has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship.” But is there anything more responsible than love, especially the love Jesus defines as laying down one’s life for one’s friends? This is not solely about being “citizens of heaven” partly because heaven is not in a different place than earth, it is the unseen side of it. The New Testament teaches that Jesus is King, which is as much about responsible citizenship as anything I’ve ever heard. Eagleton is correct in his assessment of the New Testament that “it is not greatly taken with standards of civic excellence or codes of good conduct. What it adds to common morality is not some supernatural support, but the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities.”
What postmodernism does in its championing of uncertainty and relativity is that it accepts the world the way it appears to them – messy, unintelligible, dark. In their intellectual snobbery, they fail to question the possibility that perhaps all is not right with the world, that even if it is messy, unintelligible and dark, this is not how the world was meant to be. I do not mean to suggest that *I* know how the world was meant to be. And I lament that the loudest faction of the “Christian” faith is currently extremist, inflammatory preaching that encourages hate and division in its arrogance of certainty about how the world is supposed to be. They get a lot of stuff wrong (and unfortunately proportional amounts of cultural airtime), but does that mean no Christian gets it right? Just because people mess things up does not mean they are not worth doing. And ultimately, what the gospel of Jesus preaches is not “make do with the mess you have.” It is not, “all is unclarity.” It is the kingdom of God: the undoing and remaking of the cosmos.