IMPACT OF POSTMODERN PHILOSOPHY ON THEOLOGY

Light of truth

Question: Mr. Cyriac Thomas, Bangalore

From a regular column by Vincent Kundukulam in the Light of Truth, I am coming to know that post-modern philosophy exerts great influence upon theology and Church. What, according you, are main impacts of post-modern philosophy upon theology and the life of the Church in India today?

Answer: DR. GEORGE THERUKAATTIL MCBS

Before coming directly to the main impacts of post-modern philosophy on theology and the life of the Church, let me state some of the main characteristics of post-modern philosophy. First of all, post-modern philosophy is mainly characterized by the process of deconstruction and end of meta-narrative. Deconstruction is exactly what the meaning of the word implies; it is the taking apart of texts [in our context mainly biblical texts] somewhat like the process of peeling away the layers of an onion. It is an intentional process. In the words of Jacques Derrida: It is a way of de-legitimizing the standard, accepted meaning of texts. It seeks to examine a text from all possible perspectives so that individual bits of information are extracted and separated from each other.

What this means is that every text at any given period of time is conditioned by a network or web of relations that in turn affects the meaning of that text. Therefore a tenet has no “once and for all time” meaning. Thus “deconstruction categorically asserts the absolute impossibility of attributing to any text one single ultimate meaning.” This is, in a sense, a rejection of a philosophical meta-narrative that formed the foundation for much of Western philosophy. A Second characteristic of post-modern philosophy is the subject, that is, the person is always part of a larger sociological matrix which includes history, culture, economics, religion, politics, and philosophical worldview. A third characteristic of post-modern philosophy is that it emphasizes praxis, that is, serious concern for the practical ethical aspects of human life. Post-modern thinkers have been especially harsh critics of the ‘underside’ of modernism whereby people of non-Western cultures have been exploited, and oppressed. This is why the contextual theologies from the non-Western world, as well as feminist, African-American, Hispanic, and other theologies from marginalized groups, place so much emphasis upon praxis. Theology is not only to be thought; it is also to be lived. Whereas philosophy has traditionally been the dialogue partner with theology, today it is sociology. Orthopraxis replaces orthodoxy. A Fourth characteristic, according to me, is a strong anti-Enlightenment stance. Some post-modern philosophers even call this stance as West’s attempts to make its values universal intellectual terrorism.

In effect, post-modern philosophy highlights the fact that history as it has been told to us is simply one version of facts we have at our disposal. It is the history of “victors,” of those who were in power and who left their mark on what we call civilization, (e.g. Eurocentric, male historiography following the criteria and interests of occidental rationality, etc.). Claiming the monopoly of truth, i.e., the only way to interpret reality, the victors have decided about the existence and non-existence of facts, events, ideas, cultures, and have neglected the “narratives” (we would say: versions of facts) of the “vanquished,” of those who have hitherto been excluded from this history – e.g., slaves, the poor, women, subcultures, etc. In the postcolonial age of “generalized communication,” the victors slowly lose power and the monopoly of truth. Finally, the “vanquished” may write and narrate their history.

Now, coming to your question of the influence or impact of post modern philosophy on theology, in a Festschrift aptly titled The Future of Theology, Johann Baptist Metz suggests that “Theologians are the last universalists.” This is an impact of postmodernist philosophy, because according to postmodernist philosophy, the universal is a ‘lie’; what really exists is the inviolable and vulnerable ‘concrete,’ the ‘individual.’ The individual lives in a narrative of life, not in abstraction and absolutes. God is not an abstraction; God is of life.

Today the postmodernist ethos calls for a return to the narrative to construct a new identity of human existence, inclusive, vibrant creative and innovative right in the reality of everyday life. So theologians who do theology as their vocation take Metz’s words seriously. Obviously, deconstruction has profound implications for theology, since “objective truth is to be replaced by hermeneutic truth.” This means that sacred texts, such as the Bible, do not have a single ultimate meaning nor are such texts necessarily authoritative. A traditional reading of the text and a post-modern deconstruction of the text will result in vastly different interpretations. To understand the impact of post-modern philosophy upon theology and the life of the Church all one has to do is substitute the word ‘religion’ for the word ‘culture.’

Post-modern notions of culture constantly ‘contest’ and question the believed or accepted understanding of culture and its value and traditions. The cultural becomes disorganized and less black and white. By questioning and contesting culture, people struggle to reinvent themselves, to make new choice or simply to survive. Many postmodernists deny the possibility of knowing truth.

They say it is impossible to distinguish between truth, rhetoric, and propaganda. They see truth claims merely as power plays by those whose interests they serve. The implication of post-modern understanding of “truth” in a wider cultural perspective has been that all is relative, nothing is sure, not fixed, all is in a flux.

It is in this context we speak of theology as something not “falling from the skies” but as something constructed within a complex of socio-cultural matrix. Theology, in this framework, arises out of the needs of the community within the ever-changing contexts of culture and history. Scripture, creeds and confessions, and ecclesiastical traditions are part of the ever-changing contexts of culture and history and cannot, therefore, serve as the foundations for theological life and work. Ethics rather than doctrine is central to the task of theological construction; hence doctrine emerges from ethics rather than ethics from doctrine as in traditional theology.

Today theology has become so wedded to specific socio-political interests that it is often impossible to tell where theology begins and politics leaves off. Non-foundationalism in theology would seek to minimize the importance of Scripture, creeds and confessions, and Church tradition. While it is certainly true that theology must be inculturated, it is also true that theology must stand in judgment over culture. Theology, at least as we understand it in the Christian sense, does have its parameters. Living between the times is never easy, and Post modernity places us squarely between the times of modernity and that which is yet to come and is yet unnamed. Therefore, Tissa Balasurria, a Sri Lankan theologian, has pleaded for what he calls a planetary theology. He says that we have to take a fresh look at the central core of the Christian message. This requires a direct return to the sources of revelation – the Scriptures – especially to the person of Jesus Christ as we see Him in the Gospels. We must purify our minds of the restrictive Christendom-centred theologies that have blurred the universality of Jesus Christ.

We have such an account of eye-witnesses of Jesus or of their immediate followers stored up in the Gospel and other writings of the New Testament of the Bible. In spite of several recent controversies with regard to the authenticity of the Gospels like the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels and the book like “The Da Vinci Code” and the claim of the discovering of “Jesus’ tomb,” according to many well-known scholars, the historical reliability of the Gospels of the New Testament is pretty sure, and the information the so called Gnostic Gospels provide would not change our understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth was and His identity. So, from the Gospels we are able to ascertain the person of Jesus, His identity and His vision of life. This is the soul of the Gospel which promises fullness of life. Jesus said, “I have come so that you may have life, life in its fullness” (Jn 10:10). Sharing this fullness of life in Jesus with people of all cultures beyond the boundaries of continents and nations is the Christian mission: Evangelization of cultures.

Thus, in consequence of the impact of post-modern philosophy, theology today presents Incarnation, the central event and doctrine of Christian faith, as involving the polarities of God and the world, Christ and culture, text and context, the universal and the particular. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” At various times and places in the history of the Christian Church, theology has moved toward one of these polarities at the expense of the other. It has then become necessary to call theology back to that central place of balance between the two polarities, back to a ‘Middle Way.’ So, doing theology in this post-modern age, requires keeping this balance in mind to avoid the excessive fragmentation of postmodernism.

Another point of departure in theology today due to the impact of post-modern philosophy is the socio-economic and political reflection on the contemporary world in diverse contexts. Christian commitment to social justice and liberation entails a lifestyle of engagement in the conflict and struggles of society. “Ascetic practices and mystical experience have to be thought within the concepts of struggle against the wrongs of socio-political structures and sacrifices and joys that struggle will entail.”

In the context of Post-modern mood—scepticism of absolute truth, scepticism of a discernable foundation for knowledge, and, in the end, scepticism of all meta-narratives (any overarching story that defines reality) – many of those immersed in the present Post-modern culture deny religious truth claims. Post-modern philosophy, as we have seen, refers to a renewed attention to “the other,” “the marginalized,” the slaves, the poor, women, subcultures, etc. This attention to the “the other,” “the marginalized” has led many postmodernists into a profound scepticism toward modernity’s assumptions about knowledge, truth, and reason. They have discovered that at the base of almost every truth claim is a story, a story that privileges certain groups and marginalizes others. Jean Lyotard, the French champion of many Post-modern themes, said that postmodernism requires a suspicion of the overarching stories (often called “meta-narratives”) that support our claims of truth. Any claim to know truth or any attempt to commend truth to others is likely to be just a power play and an attempt to impose one’s own meta-narrative in the guise of an absolute truth. In this way, postmodernism is relativist. But it is not relativist across the board, because it actually has a certain perspective, the perspective of the truth claims of the marginalized.

These characteristics of post-modern philosophy have exerted considerable influence upon contemporary theology which emphasize the importance of obedience for the understanding of truth, historical context and recognize the ideological conditioning of theology. The first point here touches on a key insight from liberation theologies of the past that coincided with other theologies that emphasized the practice of Discipleship as a precondition for the knowledge of God. This is illustrated by the way in which John Howard Yoder tackles issues of biblical interpretation in his books: Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel and his book Politics of Jesus focusing on two favourite themes of liberation discourse namely Exodus and the poor. Yoder demonstrates how the Exodus story in its context must avoid the ideological approach that dilutes its unique message of the seriousness with which it should take the centrality of the Hebrew canon which forbids our distilling from it a timeless idea of liberation that we would then use to ratify all kinds of liberation projects in all places and forms. God does not merely act in history. When God acts in history in particular ways it would be a denial of the history to separate an abstract project label like liberation from the specific meaning of liberation God has brought. Yoder then examines the biblical material about the poor and points out God in Jesus, has overwhelming bias in favour of the poor, in contrast with our sinful unconcern for the poor. Jesus saw poverty as the effect of unjust social structures and exploitative relations. By passionately committing to the cause of social justice, Jesus ended up on the Cross, condemned to death as a subversive. So Yoder concludes that, “Practical moral reasoning, if Christian, must always be expected at some point subversive.” At the same time Yoder stresses the fact that we must enter into a right relationship with God not only by seeking justice for the oppressed, but also by struggling with and by them and in so doing confessing our sins of unconcern for them. This entails suffering and sacrificing, like Jesus, the ‘crown’ and its effectiveness for the Cross.

The Impact of Postmodernist Theology in the Life of the Church in India
In the multi- religious context of India, Church in India is in a position to interact with other faiths. Today, in order to understand one’s religion, one should also know other religions. Surrounded by people of other faiths as we are in India, we must consider it an opportunity to interact closely with people of other faiths in order to deepen the knowledge of our own. When one grows in critical thinking and observes the diversity of faiths, the inability to understand one’s roots in relation to others may ultimately lead the person to complete faithlessness. But only when one is rooted in one’s own, one can explore other faiths; and then one deepens one’s roots in one’s own religion by trying to understand one’s faith in the light of other faiths. Aloysius Pieris identifies the twin realities of poverty and religiosity in India, which provide the form and content for doing theology in India and asks the Church in India to undergo the two baptisms of Jesus: the baptism at the Jordan of Indian religiosity and the baptism on the Calvary of Indian poverty. But caution is required when immersing in the Gnostic religiosities of India, with their spiritualities and theologies expressed in rituals and myths and ascetical practices that alienated human beings from themselves and their life situations in India. Mired in the cosmic religiosity and de-humanizing caste-system with its unjust structures of discrimination, a large majority of the people of India cannot recognize the real value of human life and dignity. Devaluation of the dignity of human person and discrimination in the name of class, caste, gender etc., continue in the Indian society with terrible consequences. The exploitation of the marginalized sections of the society, namely Dalits and Tribals by preventing the benefits of development reaching them as well as by looting the natural resources by multinational companies shows scant respect for human dignity and the inalienable right of human being to be to live an unfold as a human being.

Church in India from holding firmly to Jesus tradition will be enriched and completed by its dialogue with the positive elements of the Indian religious tradition such as the immanence of the Absolute order, the discovery of the Self within and its symbolic and contemplative attitude towards nature. The prophetic message of Jesus must enter into dialogue with the Indian religious sense of the oneness of the cosmic, the human and the divine.

Reflecting on the Gospel’s account of the person of Jesus, His vision and His kingdom values in our socio-political context of communalism created by caste, unprincipled party politics, disproportionate influence exerted by money, the domination imposed on people by bureaucracy, manipulation of mass-media, widespread corruption and the opportunism of individuals and groups, Indian Church should endeavour to build up a genuinely human community of persons, sensitive to the needs and aspirations of all human beings. Taking into account the political forces at work, Church in India should focus her attention on the human community as a whole and emphasize the real values that sustain it. In the light of Post-modern philosophy and theology, Church in India should affirm that God is not to be met not only in the written word of the Bible but also in the people’s history and their socio-political struggles. Church in India cannot be indifferent to politics, and if she takes the Gospel seriously in the light of post-modern exegesis and hermeneutics she has no other option than to identify herself with the cause of the exploited and the suffering masses of our Nation.

Traditionally, the Church in India has been involved in three areas for a better India: education through its mighty educational institutions; physical health through its huge health care network of institutions; and charity and development through its gigantic network of charitable institutions and development programmes. Are Catholic educational institutions a part of the solution or a part of the problem for a better India? Do they transmit the values of the status quo – upward mobility, ruthless competition, blind obedience, splendid isolation from the death-dealing struggles? Or can they become counter-cultural, communicating the values of social responsibility, disciplined creativity, enabling cooperation emanating from solidarity and social concern for the life-threatening struggles of the people of India? Is the health care network of institutions delivering healthcare to the doorstep of people, rather than having them come to the healthcare institutions? Is the emphasis of this whole network biased towards curative health rather than preventive health? Are charitable institutions and development programmes working on a service model that maintains the status quo? Are they moving towards a more liberating model where the people are empowered as the agents of their own destiny? Fundamentally, are they content to deal with alleviating symptoms rather than confronting causes? Is the fundamental problem of Indian society, poverty or injustice? Therefore, are we following only the Mother Teresa model or rather the Oscar Romero model or the human development model? Do our schools, colleges, hospitals, social service units and parishes become centres of mercy, especially to the marginalized ones of the society or are they kept at the periphery of our ministry? Do they focus on the empowerment of people?

Reflections such as these should lead the Church in India to rethink her corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry in India today would mean to feed especially those who suffer from poverty and drought; to give drink to the thirsty would mean to give drink especially those who lack clean, abundant water; to clothe the naked would mean to clothe especially those exposed to the cold of winter and the sting of indifference; to give shelter to the homeless would mean to shelter especially victims of earthquakes, storms; to care for the sick would mean especially to care those who have been poisoned by the wastes of our industries; to ransom the captive would mean to care especially those oppressed by our cruel economic and political systems.

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