Postmodernism and the Ethics of Theological Knowledge. By Justin Thacker


Pp. xi, 141 , Aldershot , Ashgate , 2007 , $100.00.

The object of this book is to defend Christianity against the attacks made upon it by Richard Rorty and Jean François Lyotard. The author begins by situating Rorty and Lyotard within a broadly post-modernist framework, distinguishing their position from those of other postmodernists - as having a concern for the Other over against the self which is missing, for example, from Nietzsche and Heidegger. They attack Christianity not so much on theoretical as on ethical grounds, because they dislike what they take to be its moral and social consequences. Their main objection, according to the author, whatever may appear on a superficial reading, is not to ‘metanarratives’ as such, but to those which foster violence and oppression. Responses by theologians have too often focused upon epistemological rather than ethical issues, and it is the latter which are most relevant to the case.

What is needed for the purpose of a proper rebuttal, the author argues, is a reappraisal of the nature of theological knowing, or knowledge of God. Our cognitive relationship to God is one in which our humanity is caught up in the relationship of the Son to the Father; it is not abstract knowing which happens to have ethical consequences, but ethical through and through. Michael Polanyi's thought is laid under contribution to commend the notion that we become ‘focally’ aware of God only through a ‘tacit’ operation of our state of participation in Christ. Knowledge of God and love of the Other are indissolubly fused. ‘The root of both our knowledge of God and love of the Other is our participation in the rationality of Jesus Christ’; this is a rationality of humble love and service. The central flaw underlying Rorty's and Lyotard's aspersions on the Christian narrative is, that they have interpreted it as detached and speculative. ‘What they have rejected is the god-of-the-philosophers, but not the God-man Jesus Christ.’

I agree that it is a fine way of envisaging the ideal moral and social life of a Christian, as being drawn up into the inner life of the Trinity; and I think the author expresses this conception well. But I agree with little else in the book. To build being a good person, who as such attends to the needs of ‘the Other’ as well as herself, into one's definition of ‘Christian’, or of ‘person having knowledge of God’, seems to me to amount to intellectual sharp practice. It will not do, conveniently to define bad people who are Christians out of existence. By all accounts, Cyril of Alexandria was a scoundrel; yet very few have made more important contributions to the development of Christian doctrine, as agreed upon by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestants – so far as that amounts to ‘knowledge of God’. The proper reaction of the Christian theologian to postmodernism, with its assault on the rationality sponsored by medieval Scholasticism and the Enlightenment, is to refute it, not kow-tow to it. The ‘God of the philosophers’, and indeed of the ‘natural theology’ notoriously deplored by Karl Barth, does indeed have to be invoked, though that God will turn out, if the Christian apologist is right, to be none other than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Barth was a great man who made some great mistakes, especially in his aspersions on ‘natural theology.’‘Belief cannot argue with unbelief’, he said, ‘only preach to it.’ This at once expresses the essence of his theological position, and that of the present author; and is not only wrong, but dangerous. It was condemned by the First Vatican Council as ‘fideism’, and rightly so.

Thacker makes much of two ethical preoccupations which he attributes to postmodernists. On the one hand, we have the celebration of unlimited desire; on the other, the requirement to subordinate this to the needs of the Other. This sounds to me like a reissue, in misleadingly newfangled terms, of a problem in morality which is at least as old as Plato, and has been a notorious bone of contention between Utilitarians and Kantians; how to balance the happiness of the individual with fairness to others. I cannot see that the postmodernists have added more to the discussion than the stupefying rhetoric of ‘alterity’ and the rest of it; and in attacking, with such apparent success, the best of the ideals of the Enlightenment, they have done the rest of us a grave disservice.

‘Natural theology’, with its terminus either in atheism or in the God of the philosophers, is inevitable after all. If reason is not treated as an honest broker, dialogue between opposed positions on religion and Christianity, and on every other serious issue whatever, will inevitably be replaced with mere assertion and counter-assertion; resulting in the dismissive smile and shrug of the shoulders for what does not appear to matter, the guns and the thumbscrews for what does. (Why ‘the rationality of Jesus Christ?’ Why not that of the Koran, or the Vedas, or, for that matter, Das Kapital?) Good argument, which does not covertly assume what it ought to try to establish - the existence of God, the authority of the Church to preach, the divinity of Christ - is or ought to be an aspect of preaching. If Christianity cannot be commended, as I for one believe it can, on the basis of a kind of ‘rationality’ which is implicitly accepted by all enlightened people, then it had much better pack up its bags.