Postmodernism Can’t Be.

Theologian John Caputo, quoted at my friend Christopher Benson’s blog, with a rather unsatisfying explanation of “postmodernism.”

“Postmodernism thus is not relativism or scepticism, as its uncomprehending critics almost daily charge, but minutely close attention to detail, a sense for the complexity and multiplicity of things, for close readings, for detailed histories, for sensitivity to differences.”

We used to have another name for this besides “postmodernism.”  It was called thinking.  You don’t have to read very far in, say, the Summa Theologiae to find out that Tommy Aquinas paid “minutely close attention to detail, etc.”

But Caputo goes on with his description:

“For are not the modernists rather like the Shemites, furiously at work on the tower of Babel, on the “system,” as Kierkegaard would say with biting irony, and are not the postmodernists following the lead of God, who in deconstructing the tower clearly favors a multiplicity of languages, frameworks, paradigms, perspectives, angles? From a religious point of view, does not postmodernism argue that God’s point of view is reserved for God, while the human standpoint is immersed in the multiplicity of angles?”

Thanks for playing, Aquinas, but your construction of a “system” disqualifies you from the distinctly human activity of smashing things up.

Or is it distinctly human?  In a breathtaking moment, Caputo claims for the postmodernists that they are “following the lead of God” in tearing down the tower.  They very well may be.

Is it possible that the deconstruction (like the construction) might perhaps be better left to God himself?  The divine sanction that Caputo claims for the project potentially undermines his critique, if only because it turns into a project (“postmodernism“) akin to any other sort of totalizing human project.  The self-consciousness of the effort of deconstruction potentially borders on the sort of hubris that the moderns get so often accused of.

All this to say, the task of deconstruction is a valuable tool to have the in the intellectual toolbox.  It serves an important heuristic function, chastening and cautioning us against the pretensions of certainty.

But when it is turned against itself, it reveals the fundamental paradox of our late modern world:  postmodernism simply cannot be, at least not without preserving the substructure of modernity.

  • *sigh* I’m jumping into this and I don’t know why. Oh well.

    This is one of those issues where I think both parties can be right and both can be wrong.

    On the one hand, Matt, I think you have to agree that a good bit of the building being done by the moderns was idolatrous and sinful. And some of it led to some pretty catastrophic consequences. Obviously we can quibble over how much of the deeply destructive nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries (for example) was a product of modernity and how much of it was a product of something else, but if we use the language of plausibility structures – a modernist world makes something like WW2 more plausible. I don’t think that’s an unfair statement.

    Conversely, though, I think the post-modern error is to reduce everything to deconstruction and dismiss any attempts at systemic construction. Obviously that’s what it becomes at its worst (see, Derrida). But it’s good and proper to deconstruct the idolatrous systems of modernity (and they are many). Obviously the first tool we use to destroy them ought to be the scriptures, but I don’t think it’s wrong to learn from the thought of Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, or Irigaray as well.

    And, of course, this whole debate still annoys me to no end b/c anymore “post-modernity” and “modernity” are basically cant words that lead to semantic debates and little more. (Besides, I’d say that post-modernity is more modernity having a bad case of roid rage than something distinct and opposed to modernity.)

    And as usual, I now find myself squarely in the middle of the argument. :p

    • Matthew Lee Anderson


      I’ve read your comment twice trying to find where you actually are disagreeing with what I wrote above, and I can’t find it.

      The fault is almost certainly mine, but when it comes down to it, I don’t think there’s a defense of modernity per se in the above. I chose a “premodern” example of intellectual “systems” (Aquinas) for a particular reason, I affirm the heuristic value of deconstruction, and I suggest that postmodernism is borrowing the substructure of modernism (which I take it is fundamentally the same point as your “roid rage” aside).

      So, where do we disagree? : )


  • Fair enough. I guess my response was more a response to the accumulated post-modern v modern debate between you two. That said, I should’ve read your post more carefully b/c I think your last bit is really important and I didn’t give enough attention to it in the first comment. (Chalk it up to my life being a frantic mad house all week. :p )

  • No sighs here. I relish jumping into the fray with my friend Matt. First, as far as definitions go, I agree that the one provided by Caputo (he’s a philosopher and not theologian as described above) is “rather unsatisfying” because it lacks precision and complexity, but sometimes we need a one-sentence definition to stir conversation. Second, I agree that Caputo risks the presumption of systematizing modernists when he asks (rhetorically) –– not asserts (didactically) –– if postmodernists are “following the lead of God” in their deconstruction. But…. and herein we may disagree, I think deconstruction –– ” a valuable tool to have in the intellectual toolbox” –– should not be viewed entirely as negative (“chastening and cautioning”) but also as positive. The paradox of deconstruction is the Babel’s dismantling assembles an architectural eclecticism in human thought, characterized by “the multiplicity of angles.” Another point: I don’t think “the divine sanction that Caputo claims for the project potentially undermines his critique” because, first, he’s exercising some of Kierkegaard’s “biting irony” (a tone perhaps overlooked) and, second, he says that incredulity toward meta-narratives (and Christianity is NOT a meta-narrative according to Lyotard’s definition) is not “‘refutation,’ which would require a big story of its own, one big enough to refute them.” Finally, I think Caputo is right insofar as Christianity is not and has never been a system. In his “Journals and Papers,” Kierkegaard (wisely) observed “Christianity is an existence-communication…it is not an object of speculative thought; Christianity is to be kept existentially on the move, and becoming a Christian is to be made more and more difficult.” That’s my two cents, which isn’t very much. ;-)

    • Christopher,

      Great thoughts in reply. Couple points:

      1) I think the rhetorical question is tantamount to an assertion. It presumes the “yes” on behalf of the audience, and hence is only superficially dialectical. Which is why we call it “rhetorical.”

      2) The point about the positive aspect of deconstruction is interesting, but not ultimately persuasive (to me) as it seems to turn the public square into a void that is filled with competing claims with no substructure to unify them, rather than having a positive good standing beneath them all. The public square as negation and place of “toleration” versus the public square as place of peace. I’m just working this out on the fly, so go easy on me (I put it forward as hypothesis, and nothing more) but it seems like your point about the positive value of deconstruction is similar to the positive value that comes from (oh, the ironies) political liberalism.

      3) I’m not sure it’s successful as irony. He doubles down on the “religious point of view” in the final paragraph. But it very well may be your right, and i take that under advisement.

      4) “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” There’s a system here that precludes other systems from being true.


      • Matt: **“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” There’s a system here that precludes other systems from being true.**

        When you say “there’s a system here,” what specifically do you have in mind by “here”? Is it God the Creator? If so, I would never describe God as a system. God is God – however axiomatic that may seem.

        • Christopher,

          I take it that the creeds delimit a set of mutually interlocking beliefs that account for the actual working of God in history. To reject or to revise that system of beliefs is to leave Christianity behind.


          • Hmm…I asked you to clarify what you meant in point 4 but the follow-up doesn’t help me to better understand what you’re calling a system. Do you think God is a system? His creation? Christianity? As to your latest point, Christianity certainly involves a set of creeds, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it isn’t reducible to the creeds. Furthermore, I wouldn’t describe the creeds as a system when Caputo has in mind the philosophical definition of system that prevailed among rationalists and idealists, such as Hegel.

          • There’s a reason I chose Thomas as my example in the original post. And I’m responding to your claim that “Christianity is not a system.” To say that there’s *more* to Christianity than a system of beliefs is different than saying there’s *less* to it than that.

      • Eric E

        As usual I’m late to the conversation but I wanted to say a thing or two about deconstruction. Chris’s point about deconstruction not being purely negative is a good one. That is, despite popular usage of the term, deconstruction is different than destruction. To quote Derrida, “Deconstruction certainly entails a moment of affirmation. Indeed, I cannot conceive of a radical critique which would not be ultimately motivated by some sort of affirmation, acknowledged or not. Deconstruction always presupposes affirmation, as I have frequently attempted to point out …”

        Deconstruction is a view to what has been left out. It shows that something has been omitted. Jamie Smith calls it an “affirmative response to the call of the other” and he goes on at some length ethical foundation on which deconstruction stands. (See Smith’s Jacques Derrida: Live Theory especially.)

        Also, for what it’s worth, your critique of Caputo is not far off from the one Smith makes in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, calling his “religion without religion” an “extension of deeply modern sensibilities.”

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          Eric, thanks for chiming in, as always. Really helpful stuff.

          Glad to know I’m not alone in reading Caputo as I’ve had. I appreciate that.


    • pdve

      Kierkegaard (wisely) observed “Christianity is an existence-communication…it is not an object of speculative thought; Christianity is to be kept existentially on the move, and becoming a Christian is to be made more and more difficult.”

      I don’t know what this means. Can you elaborate?

      • pdve: You asked me to elaborate on a brief and somewhat cryptic statement from Kierkegaard’s “Journals and Papers.” I’ll take a stab at it. Keeping in mind the context, in which rationalists and idealists had turned Christianity into an abstract system of principles and arguments, Kierkegaard wants to more accurately and adequately redescribe our faith as an “existence-communication” insofar as it’s primarily about a way of life (discipleship) and a message (gospel).

  • Anonymous

    I think a really cautionary warning from Scripture regarding what we are seeing today through the rallying of post-modernists is 2 Thessalonians 2 regarding the “Man of Lawlessness.” In particular, verses 9 through 12 of that chapter point to something particularly interesting.

    The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

    What I’ve found among people who ascribe to post-modernism is that they’ve rejected the truth (as this passage points to). In their championing to obliterate the truth, God has given them up to lies. When we try to place our idea of self-sufficiency above our eternal need for Christ we bring judgment upon ourselves.

    To be clear, however, I do think Christianity does allow for critical thinking and careful examination, through the lens of Scripture – which is the embodiment of objective truth (an idea post-modernists out-rightly reject). God created a world for us to have dominion over and study – he gave Adam these tasks in the Garden. He commands us to study the Scriptures to show ourselves approved. He even inspires us to critically look at our own natures and relationships, in order that we might see how dependent we are on Him.

  • pdve

    If postmodernism on Caputo’s construal doesn’t imply relativism, then it implies other absurdities.

    Assume that there is a “multiplicity of angles” and we each occupy a distinct epistemic angle. Now assume that relativism is false. So, despite the fact that we occupy different epistemic angles, what is and isn’t true is independent of our epistemic angles. This implies something like the following: (a) some angles are better than others insofar as they see more truth and (b) some angles see truths that other angles do not see. So far so good. We ought to be so chastened and cautious. We ought to be charitable in our intellectual endeavors. But, here is where absurdity begins: we dare not attempt to collaboratively get a better picture of what is true by trying to systematize our angles. If we are so daring, then we engage in idolatry. We attempt to rebuild the Tower.

    I find this absurd. For me it comes down to this. I have a really hard time believing that God scatters glimpses of Himself all over the world, but then forbids us from sharing these glimpses with others to build a fuller, richer, and more beautiful picture of God and his creation.

  • From what I gather, you wrote all that to say,

    “But when it is turned against itself, it reveals the fundamental paradox of our late modern world: postmodernism simply cannot be, at least not without preserving the substructure of modernity.”

    Here’s the thing, in order for you to make that statement you used the system of modernist thought. Your system concludes that life is full of black-white answers. While I disagree with Caputo’s definition, I think you have a broader meaning of system then he does. ‘System’, by the standards of modernism may not be present, but that of course is, as you say, a system. That postmodernism says ‘yes’ to a question of ‘black vs. white.’

    While the ‘system to not have a system,’ may seem futile I think it only appears as such when viewed with the standards of modernism. You repeat the pattern of modernism by comparing modernism to postmodernism and modernism demands judgement.

    Just a few thoughts, thanks for the article.

    • James,

      Thanks for the thoughts and critical feedback. Very helpful. I may indeed have a broader account of “system” than Caputo, but I don’t think it’s one that is particularly “modernist” in its orientation. That is, I think, the thrust of my attempt to use a quintessentially *pre*modern thinker, Aquinas, as my example of someone who offers as robust a “system” for understanding the world as (maybe) the world has ever seen. Certainly it’s as all-encompassing as anything modernity has to offer.

      Which is to say, “systems” don’t seem to be particular to modernism (we might contrast the nature of Hegel’s system with Thomas’s, but they both have one). And even if they were, I think my critique is essentially that they are not as harmful as the postmodern critique suggests.

      You’re right that modernism must fall under judgment, though. But Biblical judgment involves both “yes” and “no,” and there may be aspects of modernism which we can happily affirm.



      • Thank you Matt.

        One thing I can’t quite understand with the modernism/postmodernism discussion is, what exactly are the timelines for these trains of thought?
        Until recently I was lead to believe that modernism came a long side the Age of Reason. I still can’t figure out where Plato->Rationalism-> Romanticism-> Existentialism, play into Modernism and Postmodernism.
        Would you say that modernism and postmodernism came along side, being more strongly connected into sociology and history, or do you think that modernism and postmodernism fit into a more cohesive grid as far as philosophy in history is concerned?

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          Thanks, James.

          I’m not quite sure I understand your question, as I think both modernism and postmodernism have sociological and intellectual dimensions. However, I do think that what’s often called “postmodernism” really is simply modernism repackaged and resold. I may say more about this at some point. I may have to! : )


  • I find the system conversation a bit amusing. Consider this example:

    I pastor in a Presbyterian structure where ordination happens at a regional (Presbytery) level and not at the local church level. So, floor examinations are conducted by fellow presbyters (elders and pastors). At a recent Presbytery, an examinee was asked the question for his “ordo salutis” (order of salvation). In the beginning of his reply, he said that humans invented systematic theology and so the endeavor was pointless, and therefore the question was meaningless. He even- oh brother- insinuated that systematic theology was a creation of a post-Enlightenment world. That’s amusing to the church history buffs who know that Justin Martyr wrote a systematic theology in the 2nd century, 2 generations after the apostles.

    Why the anecdote? Because the message of Christianity is the Gospel. And the Gospel is a system (it is more than a system, though. It’s a life-saving message). It’s pointless to talk about Romans’ definition of sin versus 1 John’s in an exposition of the Gospel. We talk about sin, and how it alienates us from God and makes us dead. If you agree with the prior sentence, then you agree with systematizing Christianity to help it make sense, because “deadness” and “alienation” are concepts that are found in different places in the Bible. Christianity is absolutely a system, otherwise it makes no sense.

    I like what Matt said: Christianity is more than a system, but it isn’t less than one.

    • Dave: I think you (and others) have misunderstood Caputo’s use of the word “system.” He’s not referring to pre-modern systems of thought or even systematic theology (e.g., Justin Martyr, Thomas Aquinas). Instead, Caputo has in mind the systems of thought that prevailed among modern philosophers, especially in the rationalist (Descartes) and idealist (Hegel) camps. Under that special definition, Christianity cannot not be accurately described as a system. We’re much better off with the Kierkegaardian corrective and calling Christianity an “existence-communication” insofar as it is primarily about a way of life (discipleship) and message (gospel). I simply don’t think it’s helpful or correct to talk about the Gospel or God or Christianity as a system.

      • Matthew Lee Anderson


        You’ve said a couple times now that Caputo’s use of “system” is different than how we’re using it. Could you specify HOW it’s different? What demarcates the devil in modernity?

        Because from my standpoint, there has been no more successful attempt at building the tower of Babel than the Summa Theologiae. : )


  • Post modernism is fundamental extra-Biblical. Any distortion of Biblical intentions is ipso facto heresy and should therefore be rejected as unsound. We dare not play with theology like we play with philosophy. Something Scripture refers to as “winds of doctrine.” Hebrews 13:8 addressed the subject once and for all. Our role as theologians is one of discovery not innovation. Post modernism has thrown us back into the primitiveness of reinventing new theologies to substitute for the permanency of the “old theologies” that were based on the inerrancy of Scripture.

    • Louis Tullo

      Preach it man! Post-modernism is indeed primitive because it undermines any intellectual discovery that came before it. Furthermore for Christians, it brings into question the authority of Scripture – which is indeed heresy as you note. How powerful would it be if more of God’s people who were blessed with intelligent minds used them to glorify Him rather than their own intellectualism. Gifts are no good if we just use them to be used. Ultimately they should glorify Christ!