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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
11. [Back to text] Gabriel Moran,
"Response to William B. Kennedy," Religious Education 87, no. 4
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.
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
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."
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.
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:
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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