TOWARD A THEOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF POSTMODERNISM
by Daniel J. Adams

    We are placed squarely between the times of modernity and that which is yet to come and is yet unnamed. Making the right choices is crucial.

    DANIEL J. ADAMS is a Presbyterian theologian teaching at Hanil Theological Seminary in Korea. His essay first appeared in the Spring-Summer 1997 issue of Metanoia, an international quarterly published in Prague.

Postmodernism is a term that is much in vogue these days in academic circles, and like all such terms and the movements associated with them, is exerting considerable influence upon contemporary theology. If we are to understand postmodernism and its significance for theological life and work, we must first arrive at a reasonably precise definition: just what is postmodernity? what is postmodernism? are they two different concepts or can the terms be used interchangeably? The first difficulty is that there is considerable confusion as to just what the postmodern is. Theologian Tyron Inbody compares it to "intellectual Velcro dragged across culture" which "can be used to characterize almost anything one approves or disapproves."(1)

Toward a Definition of the Postmodern

Theologians are not the only ones who are confused, for in contemporary literary and philosophical circles there are few terms as commonly used, and just as commonly misunderstood, as postmodernism. Umberto Eco, himself classified as a postmodern writer due in large part to his novel The Name of the Rose, has written of postmodernism, "I have the impression that it is applied today to anything the users of the term happen to like."(2)

The process of definition is further confused by the frequent interchange of the terms postmodernity and postmodernism. Social scientists tend to speak of postmodernity, while those in the arts and humanities prefer the term postmodernism. Postmodernity refers more to a cultural condition or state of being while postmodernism focuses more on a cultural movement or a plurality of movements within culture. We might say that postmodernity is the condition in which late twentieth-century culture finds itself; postmodernism is a reflection upon that condition and a response to it.

Perhaps the best that can be said of both postmodernity and postmodernism is that they are "more than anything -- a state of mind."(3) The postmodern is, to begin with, a way of naming the present socio-cultural reality by those who reflect upon such things. It is the philosophers, sociologists, literary critics, architects, and artists who have coined the term, and it is they who use it most frequently.

In addition, the postmodern is primarily a phenomenon of Western culture. One cannot speak of the postmodern without first speaking of modernity and modernism, for it is from within Western culture that the modern view of the world has arisen. The postmodern is, therefore, a movement which has arisen in reaction to the modernism of Western civilization. At the same time "it is a part of the broader and deeper changes going on in the world today."(4) This is because of the widespread influence of Western culture throughout the world and the fact that the process of modernization continues to bring capitalism, urbanization, technology, telecommunications, and Western popular culture to virtually every corner of the globe.

Although primarily a Western cultural movement, the postmodern is having an effect upon the intellectual life of many cultures, including those of Asia. In Korea, for example, the state television network KBS ran a two-part series in early 1993 on postmodernism and its influence. Included in the programming was reference to postmodernism's influence upon theology. In July of 1995 the same network featured an interview with Dr. C. A. Van Peursen of the Netherlands on the topic "The Postmodern World and Today's Culture." The interviewer was Dr. Song Bong-Ho, professor of philosophy at Seoul National University and a noted Christian philosopher and active Presbyterian layman. Many art galleries in Seoul have featured exhibitions of postmodern art and scores of books have been published on postmodern philosophy and critical theory. Although some critics assert that the postmodern has nothing to do with Asia since it is a cultural import from the West, its influence continues to be felt, especially in those countries where social change is most pronounced. These countries are, of course, where the modernization process is also the most advanced.(5) par

This influence of the postmodern should not be considered surprising, for the postmodern is a way of recognizing that the world is in a period of transition. It is a world "that has not yet discovered how to define itself in terms of what is, but only in terms of what it has just-now-ceased to be."(6) It is obvious that modernism as an ideology of Western culture is in serious trouble. At the present time, however, no one knows for certain what will arise to take modernism's place. The postmodern is the name given to this space between what was and what is yet to be.

Still another aspect of the postmodern is what one social scientist has called the "unsecularization of the world."(7) Not only are new religious movements coming into being, but even more significant is that traditional religions are experiencing revival and renewal. In the secular West, where such things are not very well understood, this revival and renewal of traditional religions is given the pejorative label of fundamentalism. In actual fact there is a direct relationship between the decline of modernism and the rise of traditional religions. In recent decades there has been both a decline and delegitimation of such quasi-religious movements as communism, secular nationalism, and the Western belief in the inevitability of human progress.(8) In the words of one observer, people "have seen these. . . . false gods fail. So now we have the old gods coming back."(9)

This recent movement toward religion has been viewed both positively and negatively within the context of the postmodern. Zygmunt Bauman asserts that "postmodernity can be seen as restoring to the world what modernity, presumptuously, had taken away; as a re-enchantment of the world that modernity tried to dis-enchant."(10) In other words, modernity brought with it the secular; postmodernity is restoring the sacred. Gabriel Moran, on the other hand, expresses caution in posing the question, "Is the postmodern world a return to the premodern world?"(11) For him the return of the old gods along with the rise of the New Age is a step backward rather than forward. No matter which position we take, it is obvious that religion lies at the very heart of the postmodern condition.

Four Characteristics of Postmodernity

The postmodern era can best be understood in terms of four major characteristics: the decline of the West, the legitimation crisis, the intellectual marketplace, and the process of deconstruction.(12) Indeed, we can say that these four characteristics define the meaning of postmodernity.

The first of these characteristics of postmodernity is the decline of the West. Western philosophy has reached the impasse of linguistic analysis, Western art is lost in the realm of abstraction, and Western science is suffocating on its own pollution. Western democratic political theory is being challenged by both Neo-Confucianism and Islam, communism has all but collapsed into chaos, and Western religion is caught between the horns of a dilemma with secularism on the left and personal piety on the right.

The modern worldview was shaped by the Western assumptions of the inevitability of progress, the invincibility of science, the desirability of democracy, and the unquestioned rights of the individual. It was assumed that "West is best" and that all other cultures of the world would eventually adopt Western values which would, with the passage of time, become universal. There was a built-in cultural superiority on the part of the West which assumed that development was a never-ending process. All this has changed, and "the certitude of yesteryear is now at best ridiculed as naivety, at worst castigated as ethnocentric."(13)

This new perspective is being elaborated through a rewriting of the history of the so-called modern period. Socio-political theologies such as liberation theology from Latin America and minjung theology from Korea, homeland theology from Taiwan, and the theology of struggle from the Philippines, are challenging the official histories of the past and their accompanying theologies. This clash of histories was brought to a powerful expression during the five-hundred-year anniversary celebration of the "discovery" of the Americas by Christopher Columbus.(14) It has become obvious that the modernity of the West meant the eclipse and destruction of other cultures. Today there is an attempt to recover the fragmented remains of these cultures as well as make certain that Western cultural hegemony comes to an end.

The second characteristic of postmodernity is what has come to be known as the legitimation crisis. So-called metanarratives, which in the past were accepted as authoritative, are now being seriously called into question. One such example is the metanarrative of unlimited development, which has been delegitimated, or deprived of its authoritative acceptance, by a number of factors. These factors include environmental pollution, the depletion of natural resources, fear of global warming and increasing depletion of the ozone layer, serious accidents at facilities such as chemical factories and nuclear power plants, increased poverty in much of the world because of unequal development, and the observation that developed nations seem to reach an optimum point in development at which economic decline sets in and the overall quality of life begins to deteriorate. In the postmodern era it is no longer taken for granted that development is unlimited or even that certain kinds of development are necessarily good.(15)

On what is perhaps a more personal level, within Western society the metanarrative of the Judeo-Christian sexual ethic has been delegitimated. There was a time not many years ago when chastity before marriage was accepted as a given. To be sure, there were those who did not always live up to that ideal, but virtually everyone accepted it as the ideal. College professors now report that there are students who do not even know the meaning of the words abstinence and chastity, to say nothing of the sexual ethic underlying these terms.(16) Sexual activity prior to marriage, living together without being married, and alternatives to traditional marriage such as gay and lesbian relationships are so common in contemporary Western culture that most people accept this new situation as a given.

The legitimation crisis reaches into virtually every area of contemporary life. When previously held metanarratives are deprived of their authority, what follows is a plurality of values. With no universally held values there is no way that any one particular value system can be universally legitimized and accepted. The result is a pluralism of values and value systems with each competing against the others. Furthermore, even within a given cultural value system there may not be enough moral and political support to ensure legitimation. In Western culture this has resulted in a fragmentation of society into special interest groups based on ethnicity, religion, and economic issues. This fragmentation has paralyzed the political process, destroyed the idea of the common good, and given rise to intense competition for increasingly smaller pieces of the political and economic pie. Significantly, this same fragmentation is taking place in the mainline denominations and in contemporary theology.(17)

The third characteristic of postmodernity is known as the intellectual marketplace. In the past, cultural and religious knowledge and value was effectively controlled by the intellectual and political elite. Parents controlled their children, teachers controlled their students, clergy controlled their parishioners, politicians controlled the citizens, and so on. Knowledge was power, and therefore the diffusion of knowledge was strictly controlled. 'Those who were responsible for the diffusion of knowledge often underwent years of specialized education and training and had to pass an examination of their peers before they were allowed to become practitioners of their particular speciality.

With postmodernity, however, comes a momentous change; no longer can cultural and religious knowledge and value be effectively controlled by the intellectual and political elite. Satellite television networks, computers, and fax machines have made both censorship and control obsolete. The "wiring" of all these technologies into vast networks including telephones and videocassette recorders only serves to enhance the significance of this marketplace. The so-called information superhighway is changing the way knowledge and value are diffused throughout society. In the United States it is not at all uncommon to be able to receive fifty television channels into one's home via cable TV. These channels cover a range from regular network programming to education, twenty-four hour news and weather, sports, entertainment, music videos, religious programming, children's and family programming, twenty-four hour movies, sexually explicit films, home shopping, and coverage of government meetings. Satellite television is even more influential throughout the rest of the world. Within Asia, for example, there are now very few places that do not receive Star TV from Hong Kong, NHK from Tokyo, and CNN from Atlanta. There are radio and television stations that broadcast in many different languages targeting various immigrant groups. Here in Korea one can choose a satellite television service based upon linguistic preference -- English, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, French, and German. The mass media have made available to the peoples of the world a vast marketplace of ideas, values, and products. Even in the most isolated areas of the world, one finds VCRs operating on car batteries or solar power, and satellite dishes in the most unlikely places.

The widespread use of computers has further enhanced this free diffusion of knowledge and value. Through the Internet and other computer networks one can access virtually every possible form of knowledge and value that is available. All one needs is a computer, a modem, and the right software; one does not have to be a member of the intellectual and political elite.

But who is to control religious knowledge and value? Televangelists challenge the theology of the mainline churches. MTV and pornography in cyberspace challenge traditional moral values. Videos watched in the privacy of one's own home challenge the values of polite, public society. Information gleaned from the computer networks challenges the culturally and religiously sanctioned view of things as presented by one's teachers. We live in an intellectual -- and spiritual -- marketplace.(18)

A fourth characteristic of postmodernity is what has come to be known as the process of deconstruction. Deconstruction is exactly what the meaning of the word implies; it is the taking apart of texts somewhat like the process of peeling away the layers of an onion. It is an intentional process. In the words of Jacques Derrida: "Why engage in a work of deconstruction, rather than leave things the way they are, etc.? Nothing here without a show of force somewhere. Deconstruction, I have insisted, is not neutral. It intervenes."(19) It is a way of delegitimating the standard, accepted meaning of texts, a method which goes straight to the heart of traditional understandings of authority.

Deconstruction seeks to examine a text from all possible perspectives so that individual bits of information are extracted and separated from each other. Michael Foucault calls these bits of information episteme:

    By episteme, we mean. . . . the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possible formulated systems. . . The episteme is not a form of knowledge. . . . or type of rationality which, crossing the boundaries of the most varied sciences, manifests the sovereign unity of a subject, a spirit, a period; it is the totality of relations that can be discovered, for a given period, between the sciences when one analyses them at the level of discursive regularities.(20)

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."(21)

Obviously, deconstruction has profound implications for theology, since "objective truth is to be replaced by hermeneutic truth."(22) This means that sacred texts, such as the Bible, do not have a single ultimate meaning nor are such texts necessarily authoritative. Indeed, the network or web of relations outside the text may determine both the meaning of the text and the nature of its authority. An example of this in the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition is the controversy surrounding sexual ethics and the ways in which different positions have been supported through interpretation of the biblical text. A traditional reading of the text and a postmodern deconstruction of the text will result in vastly different interpretations.(23)

There are undoubtedly other characteristics of postmodernity that could be mentioned, but the decline of the West, the legitimation crisis, the intellectual marketplace, and the process of deconstruction can be identified as so characteristic of the time in which we live that postmodernity is a socio-cultural state of being.

Taken together, these four characteristics result in a world of almost unlimited pluralism but provide us with no way of evaluating this plurality of ideas, values, and products. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says:

    The main feature ascribed to "postmodernity" is the permanent and irreducible pluralism of cultures, communal traditions, ideologies, "forms of life" or "language games". . . . or awareness and recognition of such pluralism. Things which are plural in the postmodern world cannot be arranged in an evolutionary sequence, or be seen as each other's inferior or superior stages; neither can they be classified as "right" or "wrong" solutions to common problems. No knowledge can be assessed outside the context of the culture, tradition, language game, etc. which makes it possible and endows it with meaning. Hence no criteria of validation are available which could be themselves justified "out of context." Without universal standards, the problem of the postmodern world is not how to globalize superior culture, but how to secure communication and mutual understanding between cultures.(24)

To understand the impact of postmodernity upon theology and the life of the church all one has "to do is substitute the word "religion" for the word "culture" in Bauman's comment.

Many of the cultures of the world are in part based upon religious traditions and value systems that are very different from the Christianity of the West. In addition, the secularization of the West is in reality somewhat of a minority situation among the world's cultures. The postmodernity of our time will involve a coming to terms with this reality as other nations, and their cultures, increase their economic, political, and military strength; "this will require the West to develop a much more profound understanding of their basic religious and philosophical assumptions."(25)

If postmodernity is the naming of the time in which we live, postmodernism is a movement which has arisen in response to this naming. The term postmodernism was first used in the 1950s and 1960s to refer to a movement in architecture that was a reaction against the austere linear forms of modern architectural styles.(26) It was soon broadened to include movements in literature, art, and a mixture of philosophy and sociology that has come to be known as critical theory. Because of the multiple applications of the term, "it is almost impossible to give a coherent definition or account of postmodernism."(27) This should not be surprising since pluralism is perhaps the most obvious result of the postmodern condition, and deconstruction eschews all forms of ultimate meaning. It can be said, however, that "postmodernism arises out of the disillusionment with the modern ideals felt by European intellectuals after World War II."(28)

Four Major Themes in Postmodernism

At least four major themes can be discerned in postmodernism.(29) The first is a rejection of classical metaphysical thought. This is, in a sense, a rejection of a philosophical metanarrative that formed the foundation for much of Western thought. The nature of reality is not found in objective truth but in the phenomenological linguistic event. Metaphysical objectivity is replaced by sociological subjectivity. In theology this rejection of classical metaphysics has taken the form of a shift from deductive theology to inductive theology.(30) This shift lies at the foundation of liberation theology and the numerous socio-political theologies now in vogue.

This sociological subjectivity leads to the second major theme which is a rejection of human autonomy. The subject, that is, the person, is always part of a larger sociological matrix which includes history, culture, economics, religion, politics, and philosophical worldview. Theology does not "fall from the skies" but is constructed within a complex socio-cultural matrix.(31)

These first two themes have led to a movement in contemporary theology known as nonfoundationalism,(32) which seeks to disassociate theology from objective foundations such as Scripture, creeds and confessions, and ecclesiastical tradition. 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 tradition 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.

A third theme in postmodernism is praxis, that is, serious concern for the practical ethical aspects of human life. Postmodern 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, womanist, 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.

The fourth major theme is a strong anti-Enlightenment stance. Some postmodernists even call the West's attempts to make its values universal intellectual terrorism.(33) Taken together, praxis and a strong anti-Enlightenment stance involve a rejection of the West, an attractive perspective for Islamic scholars.(34) There is in postmodern theology a decided turning away from the Enlightenment tradition with concurrent attempts to recover the insights of traditional cultures.

The result is a pluralism of theologies with no one perspective assuming a dominant position in the church. Theologically speaking, we live in an intellectual marketplace which includes not only postmodern theologies, but also those that are both premodern and modern in their basic assumptions. This theological pluralism is having a profound effect upon theology and mission within the Asian context.(35)

Some Concluding Thoughts on the Future of Theology

In a recent Festschrift aptly titled The Future of Theology, Johann Baptist Metz suggests that "Theologians are the last universalists" and that "The future of our own human world, a world whose conflicts are apparently being displaced increasingly into the spheres of cultures and civilizations, depends too greatly on preserving just this universalism."(36) Such a view runs contrary to the spirit of the postmodern age in which we are living. Yet we who do theology as our vocation would do well to take Metz's words seriously. Postmodern theology has fragmented to the point where it is now often easier to dialogue with people of other faiths than with those within our tradition. Theology has become so wedded to specific socio-political interests that it is often impossible to tell where theology begins and politics leaves off. Nonfoundationalism 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 enculturated, 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 postmodernity places us squarely between the times of modernity and that which is yet to come and is yet unnamed. Tissa Balasuriya, a Sri Lankan theologian recently excommunicated by the Vatican, has pleaded for what he calls a planetary theology.

    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-centered theologies that have blurred the universality of Jesus Christ. . .

    Another point of departure must be socioeconomic and political reflection on the contemporary world in diverse contexts. We should try also to relate them to the basic yearnings of the human person for freedom and personal fulfillment.(37)

The polarities of theology are clearly presented -- God and the world, Christ and culture, text and context, the universal and the particular. Indeed, the Incarnation which is the central event and doctrine of the Christian faith, involves both of these polarities -- "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" if you will. As we do theology in this postmodern age, we would do well to keep this balance in mind and avoid the excessive fragmentation of postmodernism. It may be that the time has come for theology to move a bit toward universalism in an attempt to recover that delicate but ever so important balance.

Notes

1. [Back to text]  Tyron Inbody, "Postmodernism: Intellectual Velcro Dragged Across Culture," Theology Today 57, no. 4 (January 1995): 524.

2. [Back to text]  Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (San Diego/New York/London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 65.

3. [Back to text]  Zygmunt Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity (London: Routledge, 1992), vii.

4. [Back to text]  William B. Kennedy, "Diversity in a Postmodern Context," Religious Education 87, no. 4 (1992): 506.

5. [Back to text]  See Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian, eds., Postmodernism and Japan (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989). Considerable serious work is being done concerning postmodernism and Buddhism. See Newman Robert Glass, Working Emptiness: Toward a Third Reading in Buddhism and Postmodern Thought (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995) and David Loy, ed., Healing Deconstruction: Postmodern Thought in Buddhism and Christianity (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996).

6. [Back to text]  Stephen Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 213.

7. [Back to text]  George Weigel as quoted by Samuel P. Huntington, "Civilization to Become Major Cause of Future Conflicts," Korea Herald (18 June 1993).

8. [Back to text]  "Religious Violence Rips India," Christian Century 109, no. 38 (1992): 1184.

9. [Back to text]  Ibid., 1184.

10. [Back to text]  Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity, x.

11. [Back to text]  Gabriel Moran, "Response to William B. Kennedy," Religious Education 87, no. 4 (1992): 517-18.

12. [Back to text]  These are elaborated upon in Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity, 35-52, 96-101. See also John W. Cooper "Reformed Apologetics and the Challenge of Post-Modern Relativism," Calvin Theological Journal 28, no. 1 (April 1993): 109-10.

13. [Back to text]  Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity, 96.

14. [Back to text]  See Enrique Dussel, The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of "the Other" and the Myth of Modernity, trans. Michael D. Barber (New York: Continuum, 1995); Roberto S. Goizueta, Liberation, Method and Dialogue: Enrique Dussel and North American Theological Discourse (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988); George E. Tinker, Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993); and Philip E. Wheaton, ed., 500 Years: Domination or Liberation? Theological Alternatives for the Americas in the 1990s (Managua, Nicaragua, and Ocean City, Md.: Skipjack Press, 1992).

15. [Back to text]  The process of modernization continues throughout Asia. The difference, however, is that it is now the industrialized states of Asia with their multinational corporations that are pushing the idea of unlimited development. As the West enters into a postmodern phase, most Asian countries are either entering or in the midst of the modern period in terms of development.

16. [Back to text]  Reported by Boston College professor William Kilpatrick; see Sue Browder, "Raising a G-Rated Child in an X-Rated World," Reader's Digest (March 1995): 169. Academic scholarship and the popular press suggest widespread ignorance of traditionally held cultural values. See Edward Farley, Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1996), 1-28.

17. [Back to text]  It is interesting to note that many books on postmodernism and theology refer to theology in the plural. See David Ray Griffin, William A. Beardslee and Joe Holland, eds., Varieties of Postmodern Theology (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989) and Terrence W. Tilley, ed., Postmodern Theologies: The Challenge of Religious Diversity (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1995).

18. [Back to text]  For a discussion of the role of computers in contemporary religious life, see Stephen D. O'Leary, "Cyberspace as Sacred Space: Communicating Religion in Computer Networks," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 781-808.

19. [Back to text]  From a letter by Jacques Derrida to Jean-Louis Houdebine, quoted in Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 93.

20. [Back to text]  Michael Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sherridan Smith (New York: Harper Colophon, 1972), 191.

21. [Back to text]  Ze'ev Levy, "On Deconstruction -- Can There Be Any Ultimate Meaning of a Text?" Philosophy and Social Criticism 14, no. 1 (1988): 18.

22. [Back to text]  Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London: Routledge, 1992), 35. For a Christian critique of this position see Roger Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation: Christian Faith and the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

23. [Back to text]  There is, of course, no "straightforward" reading of any text; all texts are interpreted. There are, however, many people in the church who think that their reading of the text is "straightforward" and that their interpretation of the biblical text is in fact "what the Bible says."

24. [Back to text]  Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity, 102.

25. [Back to text]  Huntington, "Civilization to Become Major Cause of Future Conflicts," 9. For a vigorous rebuttal of Huntington see Yeow Choo Lak, Christ in Cultures: With Reference to Samuel P. Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations" (Singapore: no publisher, no date).

26. [Back to text]  There is some debate about who first used the term postmodernism and in what context. As an identifiable concept the late 1950s is generally accepted, and as an identifiable movement the 1960s is accepted by most scholars.

27. [Back to text]  Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, 29.

28. [Back to text]  David E. Kleinre, ed., Hermeneutical Inquiry, vol. 1 The Interpretation of Texts (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 19.

29. [Back to text]  These are briefly outlined in Shin Kuk-Won, "Postmodernism and a Christian Response," Pro Rege 22, no. 4 (June 1994): 15-25. See esp. 17-18.

30. [Back to text]  See Daniel J. Adams, "The Paradox of Contextual Theology," Essays Presented to Timothy Lee on His Sixtieth Birthday (Taejon: Committee for the Celebration of Timothy Lee's Sixtieth Birthday, 1990), 248-79.

31. [Back to text]  See Georges Casalis, Correct Ideas Don't Fall From the Skies: Elements for an Inductive Theology, trans. Sr. Jeanne Marie Lyons and Michael John (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984).

32. [Back to text]  There is a growing literature on nonfoundationalism and theology. See, for example, John E. Thiel, Nonfoundationalism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991); Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, and Mark Nation, eds., Theology Without Foundations: Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994); Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1996); and Sheila Greeve Davaney, ed., Theology at the End of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1991).

33. [Back to text]  See Jean-François Lyotard, "Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?" trans. Regis Durand, Innovation/Renovation, ed. Ihab Hassan and Sally Hussan (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 82. For a critique of the concept of intellectual terrorism see Jürgen Habermas, "Modernity -- An Incomplete Project," Postmodernism: A Reader, ed. Thomas Docherty (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 104-6.

34. [Back to text]  See Akbar S. Ahmed, Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

35. [Back to text]  For a discussion of the impact of postmodernism upon theology and mission in Asia see the following articles by Daniel J. Adams: "Presbyterians, Postmodernity, and Missions: An American Perspective," Perspectives on Christianity in Korea and Japan: The Gospel and Culture tn East Asia, ed. Mark R. Mullins and Richard Fox Young (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), 199-209; "Asian Theology Between the Times of Modernity and Postmodernity," Theology and Society no. 9 (1995): 411-34; "Possibilities for Theology in the Postmodern Era," Asia Journal of Theology 10, no. 1 (April 1996): 89-104; and "From Certainty to Uncertainty: Doing Theology in the Postmodern Era," From East to West: Essays in Honor of Donald G. Bloesch, ed. Daniel J. Adams (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, forthcoming).

36. [Back to text]  Johann Baptist Metz, "The Last Universalists," The Future of Theology: Essays in Honor of Jürgen Moltmann, ed. Miroslav Volf, Carmen Krieg, and Thomas Kucharz (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 51.

37. [Back to text]  Tissa Balasuriya, Planetary Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984), 15-16.

 

A SENSE OF THE TRANSCENDENT
by Václav Havel

By once more taking nourishment
from their life-giving spiritual roots,
East and West can open an era of mutual inspiration.
The precondition is readiness to step beyond
dead habits and deadly prejudice.

  • VÁCLAV HAVEL is president of the Czech Republic. This article was first given as a talk to the National Press Club, Canberra, Australia, March 29, 1995. and is included in a new collection of his essays, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (New York: Knopf, 1997). An internationally celebrated playwright, he is also the author of Letters to Olga, Disturbing the Peace, Summer Meditations, and Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990.}

For virtually my whole life, with the exception of a brief period in the late 60s, I was barred from leaving my country. As the long decades went by, I got so used to this absurd situation that I simply assumed I would never get to see any other parts of the world. Needless to say, visiting a continent as distant as Australia was, I thought, absolutely impossible. In my mind, Australia was one of the those fabulous worlds beyond reach, worlds one cannot enter, just as one cannot land on a far-away star, or step into another country.

A few years ago, everything changed. The world opened up to us all, and I -- as head of State -- began to travel all over the globe. The most important thing I learned from this sweeping change was how small our planet really is, and how much closer together places are than I once believed. For this reason, I found it all the more astonishing that the people living on this small planet are incapable of living together, that they constantly wage countless wars and have innumerable conflicts. Sometimes it took only a few minutes to fly over a territory that has been the object of strife for centuries. Though on my official trips I travel by ordinary plane and not by spacecraft, I still feel I am beginning to understand the experience of astronauts to whom all earthly conflicts, when they look at our planet from outer space, appear to be only trifles, petty, and nonsensical.

In the light of this awareness, I would like to share with you certain thoughts that come into my mind when I wonder why people behave so badly, and where to look for the hope that they might behave better in the future.

For thousands of years human lived and evolved in different parts of the earth in fairly autonomous entities. Cultures and whole civilizations appeared and disappeared, cultures that -- seen from a modern perspective -- remained largely confined within their own territories, isolated from one another. If they knew about each other at all, their contacts were minimal. In those times, few if any events in the human world could have had a substantial and immediate impact on the world as a whole.

Nowadays, things are very different. Within a fairly brief period of time -- no more than a fraction of human history -- a global civilization has come into being and spread around the whole planet, linking the different parts of it together, absorbing cultures or spheres of civilization which had so long developed as autonomous units, and forcing them to adjust. A great many of the conflicts or problems in our world today, it seems to me, can be attributed to this new reality. They can be explained as struggles of different cultural identities, not against this global civilization but within themselves, for the survival and enhancement of what they are and the ways in which they differ from each other -- struggles for what they appear to be losing. Some say we are living at a time in which every valley wants to be independent. Sometimes this really seems to be the case. This desire for independence is an understandable reaction to the pressure to integrate and unify exerted by our civilization. Cultural entities shaped by thousands of years of history are resisting this, for fear that within a few years they might dissolve in some global cultural neutrality. If we mix all the colors together, we get gray. Cultures of different colors are apparently wrestling with the danger of turning gray in the melting pot of a single civilization.

How can we overcome this contradiction? Where can we turn for hope?

The solution certainly does not lie in putting our faith in the essentially atheistic technological civilization of today. We should not rely on the assumption that this civilization, supposedly more progressive than all the multifarious cultures and civilizations of the past, is more worthy than they are, or that it is justifiable to suppress and annihilate traditions in its name because they are believed to slow the victorious progress of history. Humanity includes its own past; fighting with the past would mean declaring war on humanity itself. On the other hand, rejecting the present civilization, abandoning all the good things it has brought and attempting to return to some bygone tribal life, is not a solution either.

The only wise course is the most demanding one: we must start systematically to transform our civilization into a truly multicultural civilization, one that will allow everyone to be themselves while denying no one the opportunities it offers, one that strives for the tolerant coexistence of different cultural identities, one that clearly articulates the things that unite us and can develop into a set of shared values and standards enabling us to lead a creative life together. I am happy to be able to reiterate this profound conviction here in Australia -- a country that could serve many others as an example of a working multicultural democracy that is trying to follow a course offering a way out of the maze of pitfalls in which humankind currently finds itself lost.

The main question is this: where should we look for sources of a shared minimum that could serve as a framework for the tolerant coexistence of different cultures within a single civilization? It is not enough to take the set of imperatives, principles, or rules produced by the Euro-American world and mechanically declare them binding for all. If anyone is to apply these principles, identify with them, and follow them, those principles will have to appeal to something that has been present in him or her before, to some of his or her inherent qualities. Different cultures or spheres of civilization can share only what they perceive as genuine common ground, not something that some simply offer to or even force upon others. The rules of human coexistence on this Earth can work only if they grow out of the deepest experience of everyone, not just some. They have to be formulated so as to be in harmony with what all of us -- as human beings, not as members of a particular group -- have learned, experienced, and endured.

No unbiased person will have any trouble knowing where to look. If we examine the oldest moral canons, the commandments that prescribe human conduct and the rules of human coexistence, we find numerous essential similarities among them. It is often surprising to discover that virtually identical moral norms arise in different places and different times, largely independently of one other. Another important thing is that the moral foundations upon which different civilizations or cultures were built always had transcendental or metaphysical roots. It is scarcely possible to find a culture that does not derive from the conviction that a higher, mysterious order of the world exists beyond our reach, a higher intention that is the source of all things, a higher memory recording everything, a higher authority to which we are all accountable in one way or another. That order has had a thousand faces. Human history has known a vast array of gods and deities, religious and spiritual beliefs, rituals, and liturgies. Nevertheless, since time immemorial, the key to the existence of the human race, of nature, and of the universe, as well as the key to what is required of human responsibility, has always been found in what transcends humanity, in what stands above it. Humanity must respect that of the world is to survive, To this day, the point of departure has been present in all our archetypal notions and in our long-lost knowledge, despite the obvious estrangement from these values that modern civilization has brought with it. Yet, even as our respect for the mysteries of the world dwindles, we can see for ourselves again and again that such a lack of respect leads to ruin. All this clearly suggests where we should look for what united us: in an awareness of the transcendent.

I have no specific advice on how to revive this awareness which was once common to the whole human race, on how to retrieve it from the depths to which it has sunk, or how to do this in a way that is both appropriate for this era and at the same time universal, acceptable to all. Yet, when thinking about it, no matter where or in what context, I always -- without intending to -- come to the conclusion that this is precisely where we should begin the search for the means of coexistence on this planet, and for the salvation of the human race from the many dangers to its existence that civilization generates. We should seek new ways to restore the feeling for what transcends humanity, for what gives meaning to the world surrounding it, as well as to human life itself.

Dostoevsky wrote that if there were no God everything would be permitted. To put it simply, it seems to me that our present civilization, having lost the awareness that the world has a spirit, believes that anything is permitted. The only spirit that we recognize is our own.

However different the paths followed by different civilizations, we can find the same basic message at the core of most religions and cultures throughout history: people should revere God as a phenomenon that transcends them; they should revere one another; and they should not harm their fellow humans.

To my mind, reflecting on this message is the only way out of the crisis the world finds itself in today. Of course, such a reflection must be free of prejudice and it must be critical, no matter who may turn out to be a target of that criticism.

Let me offer a specific illustration of this general idea.

The Euro-American world of modern times has developed a fairly consistent system of values for human coexistence, which is now accepted as a basis of international coexistence as well. These values include the concept of human rights and the liberties growing out of respect for the individual human being and his or her dignity. They also include democracy, which rests on separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, on political pluralism and free elections. And they include respect for private ownership of property and the rules of the market economy. I unreservedly subscribe to this system of values and so does the Czech Republic.

And yet, from different parts of the world, including the Pacific region, we hear voices calling these values into question, arguing that they are the creation of a single culture and cannot simply be transformed into other cultures. Naturally, such voices point out all the faults to be found in the West in order to make their case that these values are faulty or inadequate. One typical argument is that Western democracy is marked by a profound crisis of authority, and that without respect for authority as a means of ensuring law and order society is bound to fall apart.

The odd thing is, those who say this are right and wrong at the same time.

They are certainly right in saying that the Western world is suffering from a crisis of authority. As someone who is a fairly recent arrival in the world of high politics, and who has suddenly seen it from the inside, I have time and again experienced the odd fact that the public, other politicians, and the media as well, are far more interested in casting doubt on the authority of a politician that they are in whether it is desirable that he or she should wield authority in the first place. This is not something I mind personally -- for one thing, nobody can have as many doubts about myself as I can. But I am concerned about this phenomenon as a political reality. If politicians have no authority at all, the state and its various constituent parts cannot have any authority either. This, in turn, has an adverse effect on society.

But is this crisis of authority a product of democracy? And if so, does it not follow that an authoritarian regime, a dictatorship or a totalitarian system, would be preferable to democracy?

That is certainly not the case.

The present crisis of authority is only one of a thousand consequences of the general crisis of spirituality in the world at present. Humankind, having lots its respect for a higher authority, has inevitably lost respect for earthly authority as well. Consequently, people also lose respect for their fellow humans and eventually even for themselves. This loss of a transcendent perspective, to which everything on this Earth relates, inevitably leads to a collapse of earthly value systems as well. Humanity has lost what I once privately described as the absolute horizon; and as a result, everything in life has become relative. All sense of responsibility disintegrates, including responsibility for the human community and its authorities. This is a philosophical, not a political problem. However, even a decaying or diminishing democratic authority is a thousand times better than the thoroughly artificial authority of a dictator imposed through violence or brainwashing.

Democracy is an open system, and thus it is capable of improvement. Among other things, freedom provides room for responsibility. If that room is not sufficiently used, the fault does not lie with democracy, but it does present democracy today with a challenge. Dictatorship leaves no room for responsibility, and thus it can generate no genuine authority. Instead, it fills all the available space with the pseudo-authority of a dictator.

Potential dictators are well aware of the crisis of authority in democracy. The less that atheistic people today heed the challenge that democracy presents, the less they succeed in filling the room it offers by taking genuine and unquestioned responsibility, the faster a dictator, posing as the bearer of universal responsibility, will proceed to occupy that room until finally he will occupy it entirely. Hitler, Lenin, and Mao were typical examples of this species. Filling all the available room with a completely false authority, they closed it off, destroyed it, and eventually destroyed democracy itself. We all know where this leads: to hecatombs of the dead, the tortured, and the humiliated. In a word, while democracy paves the way for the creation of real authority, an authoritarian regime blocks that path with a terrible barrier, with the caricature of authority.

The chances for a successful existential revolution -- as I once metaphorically described the awakening of a deeper human responsibility -- are far better under freedom and democracy than under a dictatorship, where the only room offered to anyone who wishes to take responsibility is a prison cell.

The Western world cannot be faulted for sticking to democracy. Though democracy may surely take different forms, it is, today, the only way open to us all. What the West can be faulted for is its failure to understand and safeguard properly this fantastic accomplishment. Paralyzed by a general moral crisis, it has been unable to make use of all the opportunities offered by this great invention, and give a meaningful content to the space democracy has opened up. It is because of these deficiencies that unstable personalities have, again and again, managed to devastate democracy and unleash a variety of global horrors.

What conclusion should we draw from this? That there is no reason to fear democracy, or to perceive it as a system that destroys authority and tears everything apart. Another option is available to those who wish to prevent this destruction: they can take democracy as a challenge to demonstrate responsibility and to introduce -- or rather restore -- the spirit and substance democracy once had when it first came into being. This is a superhuman task; yet in the open system which is democracy, it can be accomplished.

In cultures where the roots of democracy are still shallow, or where democracy as not taken root at all so far, and where a free individual means virtually nothing while the leader is omnipotent, leaders often appeal to the centuries-old traditions of authority in their sphere, and seek to give legitimacy to their dictatorial rule by claiming to continue these traditions.

Again, they are both right and wrong. They are wrong in that what they present as the continuity of ancient traditions is in fact their negation. Though recalling the natural authority that leaders may possess in their cultural systems, they replace it with an unnatural authority. Instead of an authority emanating from charisma -- authority as an innerly perceived and widely accepted higher vocation, authority marked by a high degree of responsibility to its self-imposed task -- they establish the utterly secularized authority of the whip.

To put it in simplified terms, if the East can borrow democracy and its inherent values from the West as a space in which a reawakening sense of the transcendent can restore authority, the West can learn from the East what true authority is, what it grows from, and how it conducts itself. It can then be spread throughout the zone of human freedom which it has created. I think in this context of Confucius, who so ably described what it means to wield genuine authority. His standards have very little in common with those who rule today by the whip. For Confucius, authority -- whether for the father of a family or the ruler of a state -- is a metaphysically anchored gift whose strength derives from heightened responsibility, not from the might of the instruments of power that the ruler may wield. Moreover, a charisma is lost when a person betrays it.

Though many see them as opposites, both East and West are in a sense enmeshed in the same problem: both are betraying their own deepest spiritual roots. If they were to look back and draw from the roots more of their life-giving sap, each might not only do better for itself, but they might immediately begin to understand each other better than they do now.

This small example of what the West can give the East, and vice versa, may perhaps illustrate that a search for common principles and objectives can be useful for everyone, and that it may be pursued without anyone losing identity in the process. It also shows that such a search is unimaginable if we do not make contact with the original, long-forgotten transcendental roots of our cultures. In the moral world of antiquity, of Judaism, and of Christianity, without which the West would hardly have come to modern democracy, we can find more points of agreement with Confucius than we would think, and more than is realized by those who invoke the Confucian tradition to condemn Western democracy.

I realize that this is an oversimplified attempt to condense, in a few pages, some of my thoughts about the present-day world. I see the only chance for today's civilization in a clear awareness of its multicultural character, in a radical enhancement of its inner spirit, and in an effort to find the shared spiritual roots of all cultures -- for they are what unites all people. It is on this basis that we should articulate anew the standards and practices that will enable us to open up an entirely new era of mutual inspiration. The preconditions for this are genuine openness, the will to understand each other, and the ability to step beyond the confines of our own habits and prejudices. Identity is not a prison; it is an appeal for dialogue with others.

I invite you all most cordially to visit the Czech Republic, a small country situated in the very center of Europe. It is my hope that you will not have to go through any battlefields on the way, and that you will feel what I feel whenever I travel: that our planet is small, and a rather nice place to live, and that it would be the greatest absurdity of all if those destined to live together on it were to fail to do so, despite the fact that love for one's fellow humans is the central commandment of all our contending cultures.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1997-98, Vol. 47 Issue 4.