Revolutionising Religion

POSTMODERNISM HAS IMPACTED on religion. While modernist concerns with falsifiability have undermined, some would say fatally, orthodox religions; the impact of the postmodern pluralist spirituality challenge to fundamentalism is particularly devastating.

Vanhoozer distinguishes ‘modern theology’ from ‘postmodern theology’ and describes the situation of theology within postmodernism. Modern theology is situated within the Enlightenment critical and scientific narrative, while postmodernity marks both the end of theology and new beginnings. Postmodernity lets the particulars speak for themselves without having to conform to prevailing ideology or political system.[i]

Arguably the most appropriate methodologies for postmodern discourse are phenomenology, existentialism and hermeneutics.

For example, Dan Stiver talking about theological method in particular, emphasizes hermeneutics in postmodern theology; the “intertextual” and “intratextual nature of postmodern theology; the pluralistic spirit and the situated nature of the theologian. Contrary to those who would deny a distinction between modernist theology and postmodern theology, Stiver argues that theology in modernity relied largely on a foundationalist paradigm. The basis for theology had to be “nailed down” first.[ii] However, it was largely on the defensive because theology could hardly measure up to public standards for rigorous certainty and unchallengeable methods.

Postmodern Spirituality

THE RENAISSANCE OF ‘SPIRITUALITY’ has been associated with postmodernism.


“Postmodernity as spiritual condition” is argued by Vanhoozer. The condition of postmodernity “is neither simply philosophical nor simply socio-political, but spiritual, a condition in which belief and behavior come together in the shape of an embodied spirit”.[iii]

Ecofeminist, postmodern theologian Carol P. Christ argues that together with “many spiritual feminists, ecofeminists, ecologists, antinuclear activists, and others” she shares “the conviction that the crisis that threatens the destruction of the earth is not only social, political, economic, and technological, but is at root spiritual”.[iv]

Frederick Mark Gedlicks argues that for “religious pluralism to flourish in a postmodern era, the predominant expression of belief must be spiritual, rather than fundamentalist”.[v] He distinguishes fundamentalism, metanarratives, discrimination and government power from postmodernism, religious liberty, nondiscrimination, government absence and spirituality. That the concepts of ‘spirituality’ and ‘postmodernism’ have both been linked in De Paul Law Review (2005), a secular law journal dealing with the laws of state and society, would indicate perhaps that both concepts have now ‘come of age’.

GORDON D. KAUFMAN (1925-2011), the renowned American liberal theologian whose research, writing and teachings had a profound influence on constructive and systematic theology – gives an early working example of postmodern spiritual theology. He places an emphasis on mystery, imagination, and imaginal construction. Kaufman maintains theology is, and always has been, an activity of “imaginative construction” by persons attempting to put together as comprehensive and coherent a picture as they could of humanity in the world under God.[vi]

For Kaufman theology as “imaginative construction” contrasts with the conventional conceptions of theology whereby the work of theologians is “understood to consist largely in exposition of religious doctrine or dogma (derived from the Bible and other authoritative sources)”.[vii] Rather than concentrating on traditional doctrines, dogmas and their systematic presentation in a new historical situation, Kaufman places emphasis on imaginative construction and the powers of the human imagination: ‘symbolic perspective’ and plurality.

Hence Christianity is just one of a plurality of world views. He stresses de-emphasizing traditional doctrines in new historical situations, and the de-emphasis of the importance of literal historicity. All this exemplifies a postmodernist theological perspective.[viii]

[i] Vanhoozer (2003) The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, xiii-xiv.
[ii] Dan R. Stiver (2003) ‘Theological Method’ in: The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, 172-179.
[iii] Vanhoozer(2003) The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, 23.
[iv] Carol P. Christ, ‘Rethinking Theology and Nature’,  in: Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ (eds.), Weaving the Visions – New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (Harper:  San Francisco, 1989), 314.
[v] Frederick Mark Gedicks, ‘Spirituality, Fundamentalism, Liberty: Religion at the End of Modernity’,  De Paul Law Review, (2005), Abstract. See ‘Social Science Network’: abstract id=634262.
[vi] Gordon D. Kaufman, In the Face of Mystery – A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), ix.
[vii] Ibid, 40.[viii] Cf. Sheila Davaney (ed.), Theology at the End of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991).

Setting the Climate

POSTMODERNISM SETS THE SCENE for an archetypal analysis of landscape. For this reason it is worth looking briefly at postmodernism and postmodern theology.

David Harvey defined postmodernity as the situation in which the world finds itself after the breakdown of the Enlightenment project. Modernity lasted from the latter part of the eighteenth century until well into the twentieth and it was aimed at getting all the world’s diverse peoples to see things the same way, that is, the rational way.[i]

Other writers on postmodernism have expressed similar views to Harvey. Kevin Vanhoozer, for example, notes that postmodernists reject the epistemological foundationalism of reason: “They do not reject ‘reason’ but ‘Reason’. They deny the notion of a universal rationality; reason is rather a contextual and relative affair. What counts as rational is relative to the prevailing narrative in a society or institution”.[ii]

Postmodernism calls into question ‘foundationalism’ and ‘methodology’. It is the result of the repeated failure of modernity to establish a secure foundation and a secure method built on this foundation.[iii] “Classical foundationalism” and “rigorous method” are characterized by “objectivism”; which as Richard Bernstein argues, “is the basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, reality, goodness, or rightness”.[iv]

The theory of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is regarded as an important precursor of postmodernism. Nietzsche:

“announces the death of modernity’s god. In doing this his work expresses both the final working out of modernity’s project and a postmodernism that will gather pace to become, finally, a culturally dominant force… With the death of God Nietzsche announces the overcoming of metaphysics, for he announces that there is no foundation, no ground, no origin that ultimately is not governed by a perspective, i.e., we, as human beings, desire and require it.”[v]

Similarly, the ideology of modernism was systematically challenged by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), a seminal, if not the earliest, advocate of postmodernism – “Although the term ‘postmodern’ was not used by Whitehead himself, the notion is implicit in his 1925 book Science and the Modern World”.[vi]

Postmodern Quantum Physics

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND POSTMODERNISM are inextricably linked as many philosophers since Whitehead have recognised. Both pose revolutionary challenges to traditional epistemologies, whether they be cultural, religious or scientific. The implications of quantum physics have given impetus to postmodern challenges to modernist epistemologies.[vii]

For physicist David Bohm a “postmodern world” and a “postmodern science” are not only feasible and logically consistent but amount to a revolution in world view and an imperative for survival.[viii] This is not to negate the successes and positive advances made by the modernist world view. As Bohm points out, the mechanistic reductionist program still provides the motivation of most scientific enterprise and has been very successful in certain areas, for example genetic engineering in medicine; but it is not the whole picture and, in fact, mechanistic reductionism has been “so successful that it threatens our very existence as well as to produce all sorts of other dangers”.[ix]

Theologian David Ray Griffin reinforces this view of constructive postmodernism as not being an anti-modernism: “The term postmodern, however, by contrast with premodern, emphasizes that the modern world has produced unparalleled advances that must not be lost in a general revulsion against its negative features”.[x] And postmodern science, according to Bohm “should not separate matter and consciousness and should therefore not separate facts, meaning and value”.[xi] Postmodern epistemology is situational, contextual, perception bound and composed of multiple realities. Postmodernism is inherently pluralistic. As Walter Anderson states:

“Seeing truth as made, not found – seeing reality as socially constructed – doesn’t mean deciding there is nothing “out there”. It means understanding that all our stories about what’s out there – all our scientific facts, our religious teachings, our society’s beliefs, even our personal perceptions – are the products of a highly creative interaction between human minds and the cosmos.”[xii]

[i] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change
(Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 27.

[ii] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity: A Report on Knowledge of God’ in: Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 10.

[iii] Cf. Dan R. Stiver, ‘Theological Method’ in: The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, (Cambridge University Press, 2003),170-173.

[iv] Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 8.

[v] Graham Ward (ed.), The Postmodern God – A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), xxix.

[vi] David Ray Griffin, ‘Reconstructive Theology’ in: The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (2003), 92.

[vii] Timothy E. Eastman and Hank Keeton (eds.), Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process and Experience, SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought (State University of New York, 2004), 260.

[viii] David Bohm, ‘Postmodern Science and a Postmodern World’ in: David Ray Griffin, ed., The Re-enchantment of Science (State University of New York Press, 1988), 57-68.

[ix] Ibid, 61.

[x] Griffin (1988) The Re-enchantment of Science, x-xi.

[xi] Bohm (1988) ‘Postmodern Science and a Postmodern World’, 60.

[xii] Walter Truett Anderson(ed.),The Fontana Postmodern Reader (London:Fontana Press, 1966), 8.