Kevin J Vanhoozer



Those who attempt to define or to analyze the concept of postmodernity do so at their own peril. In the first place, postmoderns reject the notion that any description or definition is "neutral." Definitions may appear to bask in the glow of impartiality, but they invariably exclude something and hence are complicit, wittingly or not, in politics. A definition of postmodernity is as likely to say more about the person offering the definition than it is of "the postmodern." Second, postmoderns resist closed, tightly bounded "totalizing" accounts of such things as the "essence" of the postmodern. And third, according to David Tracy "there is no such phenomenon as postmodernity."1 There are only postmodernities. Given these three points, the task of writing an introduction may seem to be well nigh impossible: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here!"

In fact, "postmodern" has become a gregarious adjective, and can often be seen in the company of such respectable terms as "literature," "philosophy," "architecture," "art," "history," "science," "cinema" - and, yes, even "biblical studies" and "theology." But what does the qualifier "postmodern" mean and how does it work? Does it carry the same force when linked to history as to theology, to art as to biblical studies? Typically, introductory studies of postmodernity take one of two routes: some follow its growth and trajectory in a single domain (for example, architecture, literature); others seek to give a theoretical account across a number of domains. With respect to the latter strategy, there is a further divergence: between theories that describe a process in the history of ideas, on the one hand, and socioeconomic processes, on the other.2

1 David Tracy, "Fragments: The Spiritual Situation of Our Times," in John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, eds., God, the Gift, and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), p. 170.

2 These distinctions correspond more or less to those of Steven Connor who distinguishes postmodernity as a name for (1) developments in the arts and culture (2) the emergence of

In order to avoid employing such hierarchical binary oppositions as explanations "from above" and "from below/' I shall resist describing postmodernity in either conceptual or cultural terms alone. I shall prefer, rather, to speak of the postmodern "condition" as something that is at once intellectual/theoretical and cultural/practical, a condition that affects modes of thought as well as modes of embodiment. Significantly, the first book to treat postmodernity as a distinct intellectual and cultural movement was Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, published in 1979.

A condition is something altogether different than a position. A position refers to one's location in space or, alternately, to one's opinion on a certain issue. The point is that a position, whether geographical or argumentative, can be plotted and specified more or less accurately. Positions are determinate - fixed, definite. A condition is altogether more diffuse, an environment in which one lives and moves and, in some sense, has one's being.

The postmodern condition. This phrase is susceptible of a number of possible meanings, of which three are especially relevant:

1 A set of circumstances that affect the existence or functioning of something or other (for example, working conditions; living conditions).

2 A state of being or fitness. Athletes, for example, are typically in "good condition." Conversely, the term may be used to indicate some ailment or abnormality (for example, a heart condition). One challenge in describing postmodernity is to judge which sense of condition applies: health (salus) or dire illness {krisis)?

3 A stipulation or requirement that must be fulfilled in order to do something else (for example, condition of entry). What, then, is the passport into the postmodern? What conditions does postmodernity impose on individual and societies, believers and churches? Most urgently: does postmodernity present us with enabling conditions and hence with new opportunities and possibilities, or does postmodernity represent a disabling condition, a condition of impossibility say, for discovering truth or for talking about God?

What does it mean to do theology in the postmodern condition, to do theology under the conditions of postmodernity? This, the governing question of the present work, implies three others: (1) is there really such a thing as a distinctly and uniquely postmodern condition? (2) If so, just what kind new forms of social and economic organization (3) a new theoretical discourse (see his "Postmodernism" in Michael Payne, éd., A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp. 428-32.

of a condition is it? (3) Is postmodernity a condition from which Christian theology can, and should, recover, or does postmodernity represent a net gain for Christian faith? To be sure, one characteristic of the postmodern condition is a suspicion of simplistic either-or contrasts. The answer to this latter question, then, may be "both-and" or "neither-nor."

The purpose of this introduction is to set the stage for the essays that follow by surveying the cultural and intellectual contours of the postmodern. The first section begins with an examination of the so-called "postmodern turn," which is as much a turn away from modernity as a turn to something else. Who is in a position to report on the postmodern condition? No one voice taken in isolation is adequate. No single individual nor discipline is equipped to take the full measure of what I am calling the postmodern condition. As Best and Kellner note, different accounts of the postmodern turn can be given by the various disciplines. Accordingly, in what follows I shall conduct a series of "reports" on the postmodern condition from representatives from a variety of cultural and academic traditions. Yet Best and Kellner also contend that, despite these differences, there is indeed "a shared discourse of the postmodern, common perspectives, and defining features that coalesce into an emergent postmodern paradigm."3 Accordingly, in the second section I suggest five complementary ways of characterizing the postmodern condition. No one of these descriptions, taken alone, is adequate, but together they make up a compelling composite picture, albeit one with blurred edges.

The third section puts theology in the picture in order to raise the explicit questions and issues addressed in subsequent chapters. How does postmodernity "condition" theology? For some, it means that theology need no longer do its work under the conditions of modernity. On this view, the postmodern condition results in the liberation of theology. For others, it means that theology must work under a new set of conditions, some of which may be as constraining, or as impossible, as their modern precursors. After exploring these possibilities, I shall go on to consider an alternative genealogy in which theologians tell quite a different story about the genesis of modernity and postmodernity alike. The moral of this counter-narrative is that postmodernity, instead of being a condition of theology, is actually a theological condition. I conclude with some thoughts on whether, and how, the postmodern condition ought to affect the mission of theology, and vice versa.

3 Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997), p. xi.


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  • Sofia
    Is kevin vanhoozer orthodox?
    7 years ago

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