This book by Paul Lakeland, professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, is part of a series put out by Fortress Press, 'Guides to Theological Inquiry'. Books in this series are generally brief introductions and surveys of the highlighted issue - in this case, the intersection of postmodern thought with Christian theology. This is a difficult topic in which to write a short piece, because precision and clarity are elusive by the very nature of the topic. 'The semantic implications of "postmodernity" mislead us if we think the word itself contains meaning.'
Postmodernity is the time in which we find ourselves, but this is a term and a time largely defined against that which has come before. Lakeland states that 'the postmodern elements in our contemporary world are all manifestations in one way or another of a breakdown of what have previously been taken to be "givens", fundamental coordinates of experience.' This can be seen in music, architecture, literature, science and philosophy, as well as theology. There are lots of non's - postmodernism defines itself largely in terms of what it is not - it is non-political, non-foundational, etc. Lakeland identifies three particular types of postmodern person: the first is the one shaped by popular culture and media, and the second is the one who views modernity as the primary enemy. The third is more difficult to categorise: those who are 'critically present in and to' the world, but not snap-judgmental in condemnation of what has gone before, nor automatically accepting of anything with a post-modern veneer.
Lakeland explores the landscape of postmodern thought by looking at issues arising from the Enlightenment, subjectivity, relativism, and otherness, and explores the renewed relationship between science and religion as both have now shed the historic posture of automatic hermeneutical superiority. 'On the other hand, what postmodern science uncovers is a world in which mystery is real, not synonymous with mystification.' From this overall foundation, Lakeland explores the particular area of religion and theology, and how postmodern ideas unsettle both traditionalist and modernist ideas (it is part of the irony of the postmodern project, which has a larger tendency to reject foundationalism, that it in turn supports many traditionalist objections against the modernist views of biblical interpretation). Lakeland also explores in some detail the liberation, postliberal and countermodern positions in Christianity. Lakeland describes these (and the overall status of Christianity) as being decentered, and looks to the various trends to reshape the role of Christianity in the community, and vice versa. In typical postmodern fashion, Lakeland comes to no particular conclusion in these works, but rather sets out the main lines of thought and inquiry.
The final chapter, however, does get more constructive in its tone. Lakeland attempts to bring the best of the postmodern ideas to bear on apologetic theology, which is distinct from foundational, systematic or practical theology (but bears closest resemblance to systematic theology). Certain understandings are called for - the recognition that no standpoint is neutral, metanarratives draw in others, society change comes from the bottom or grassroots, and postmodernity is not a panacea or utopian fix for society. Lakeland argues for a Christianity that bears more similarity in appearance to those biblical images such as 'salt of the earth, the leaven in the mass, the beacon on the hill, or the quasi-mystical and almost gnostic "community of revelation" ' - these are communities that influence rather than convert, that engage rather than dominate. Lakeland argues against the triumphal and exclusive nature of the expression Christianity has had in many times in the past, and argues more for a way of being that see the world beyond Christendom in terms broader than old historic images of otherness.
This is a fascinating text, and provides a good overview of some of the challenges of postmodernism for the ongoing project of theology.
on November 7, 2001
In "Being and Nothingness," Jean-Paul Sartre's postmodern classic, Sartre correctly proposes that in order to truly examine oneself at his or her foundation, one must be outside the self as it is examined. Unfortunately, Sartre rightly contends, this being-for-itself on its own is impossible, and there is always and unavoidably a prejudice when it comes to self-examination. In "Postmodernity," Paul Lakeland desires to examine what he calls a "fragmented age" from within its own confines. Though a valiant attempt, Sartre's allegation is proven true: Lakeland produces a flawed, though not entirely wasted, critique of the postmodern age.
The title of Lakeland's book suggests that he will attempt two different, though related, objectives. First is the identification of postmodernity. Second is the discovery of a Christian identity in postmodernity, this "fragmented age." He begins the book with a very interesting, though inadequate, look at popular culture in contemporary times. He postulates that contemporary attitudes toward technology, design, and ways of life have contributed toward a "breakdown of givens: time, space, and order" (2). His arguments are fascinating, from the hotel with its spacious lobbies sans clocks (4), to the computer in a globally connected age (5). They suggest that his original assertion concerning the collapsing of givens is correct. However, he has not fully developed these examples, nor does he give himself the chance to do so. Assuming that the reader will agree with his arguments, he moves on.
The next two segments, it would seem to me, are invaluable toward the development of his overall argument. Postmodern "sensibilities," and the philosophical thought that reflects the times are at the crux of any possible analysis to be made on postmodernity itself. Unfortunately Lakeland makes broad, sweeping statements with only rudimentary evidence to support them. He states, "the emotional range is narrow, between mild depression at one end and a whimsical insouciance at the other," (8-9) and while he may have accurately depicted the postmodern sentimental scale, he does little to provide examples of such a generalization. Here begins Lakeland's tireless objective of categorization. He attempts to simplify the complexities of postmodern identity by assigning tendencies to categories. For example, the first distinction he makes is between those in the postmodern culture who are given the task of subjective value-giving, but loathe the responsibility and instead allow themselves to succumb to the will of the many (10), and those in postmodern culture who recognize their predicament, enjoy it to some extent, but ultimately wish to return to an earlier time (11). Lakeland also identifies a third group as amorphous and unidentifiable (11). Here lies the problem with his categorization. When he attempts to identify the unidentifiable, he falls into the Sartrian dilemma; without an objective place from which to view the postmodern world, the author cannot hope to evaluate accurately and without prejudice.
In dealing with thought in postmodernity, he seems to accurately depict the landscape as a post-enlightenment reaction to Kant's critique of reason and placement of emphasis on the subject. To deal with the topic in such cursory fashion, however, is in many ways a crime unto itself. In order to briefly summarize the entirety of postmodern thought, Lakeland resorts to more categorizations, and oftentimes they appear to be flawed or woefully incomplete ones at that. He places Martin Heidegger, for instance, within the umbrella group of a "postmodernism of nostalgia" (17). This is unfair - Heidegger's project may have been to remind man of his being as Da-sein but it is in a new way, not by way of nostalgia. This iniquitous classification of Heidegger is but one instance of a larger problem of unmerited categorization within the realm of postmodern thought.
The second section of Lakeland's short work is titled "Religion," and it looks at postmodern attitudes toward the philosophy of religion itself. Again, Lakeland begins with four groupings within this section - the groupings seem fair at the outset but still fall short of their intended goal of bringing the reader to some understanding of the distinctions and similarities of the individual thinkers. He makes two strong points in this section; first, that a decentering within the world has taken place and irrevocably this decentering affects all people, Christians and non-Christians alike, and second, that there has not yet been a completely successful non-anthropomorphic view of God in the postmodern world, when one is sorely needed (at least in his view). The decentering, or self-alienation, of humanity in the world is a very common theme in postmodern deconstructionalism, and Lakeland does an excellent job summarizing this characteristic. The anthropocentricism which Lakeland uncovers as a problem in the human dialogue about God does present a problem - but it is an unsolvable one, humanity must analogically apply human characteristics to anything in order to communicate about it, even God.. Though Lakeland wishes to speak in non-anthropomorphic terms, he does not present a clear way to completely do away with the language of humanizing God.
When this discussion enters the final section of the book - an attempt at a postmodern Christian apologetics - Lakeland asks the question, "is there a place any longer in postmodern Christianity for God, Christ, and the church?" (85). However, from a Christian standpoint, this is the wrong question. To ask if there is a place for God in postmodern thought is to, in some way, do what Lakeland protests against - to make God a thing in the world, as opposed to a transcendent creator. Finally, Lakeland introduces a Christology of Otherness at the end of "Postmodernity" that fascinates the reader, though he does not develop it far enough for it to leave a lasting impression. In all fairness to Lakeland, his project is extremely ambitious. As a survey of postmodernity, particularly Christian postmodern thought, it serves as a partially adequate introduction, though ultimately an unsuccessful attempt at objective analysis of this postmodern era. Sartre may be hard-pressed not to say, "I told you so."
on March 6, 2001
This book is part of a series to mediate to the theological thinker the work of other segments of the academic community. A great undertaking. Lakeland, chair of the Religious Studies Department of Fairfield University, authors this key volume on the important but amorphous topic of postmodernity. He discusses its salient characteristics in terms of a breakdown of the coordinates of time, space, and order. He describes a range of postmodern thinkers from the radical postmodernist children of the coming age who cannot get enough of it, to the late moderns critical of but still committed to the project of modernity, to the countermoderns who really hanker for the good old premodern days. He looks at how various representatives of each of these positions approach three key problems: the disappearance of the subject, ethical relativism, and the character of otherness. In chapter two he looks at how a similar range of postmodern thinkers approach the three related religious problems of, respectively, the reconceptualization of God, the Christian community in a pluralistic age, and the relation of Christianity and Christ to other religious traditions. Then Lakeland points out the agenda for Christian theology in the postmodern world. The intrachurch self understanding of the Christian community will continue to be the work of systematic theology. But if a true interfaith dialogue with and within the postmodern world is to take place, it will devolve upon a Christian apologetics located somewhere between a philosophy of religion and a fundamental philosophical theology to do the job. And that will be the difficult job of seeking ways to present Christianity in categories amenable to the age, but not unfaithful to the tradition, to enter the discussion with one's faith behind rather than in front, as the context out of which one speaks rather than the condition of dialogue within which one speaks. In his final chapter Lakeland suggests, given what he has already shown postmodernity to be capable of comprehending, how the three issues of God, church, and Christ might be approached by such an apologetics. The book gives an excellent overall view of postmodernity specifically in terms of interest to the Christian theologian, and it is well and wittily written. Since it is meant principally for other scholars and draws on and critiques the work of some two dozen thinkers, usually using the vocabulary unique to each, it will probably be more or less accessible to general readers depending on their familiarity with the authors cited.