I first heard the submarine race joke before I was old enough to get it. I remember my grade school brain racing to try to figure out “where in Northern New Jersey would you go to watch submarine races? What lake in North Jersey has submarines? Are they going out to the shore to watch submarines? How could you watch them anyway because they are underwater?”
Grappling with postmodernity as applied to religion and theology is like trying to watch submarine races.
Defining post-modernity is a struggle in itself. My best understanding of the term (used often, but seldom agreed upon) is a suspicion that all meta-narratives are compromised by selfish motivation backed by power. History is written by the winners. Religion is the opiate of the people, pushed by those who wish to keep the from violent revolution.
NT Wright on Scripture and Postmodernity
NT Wright in his book “Scripture and the Authority of God” weighs in on the positive and negative consequences of Postmodernity’s influence on reading the Bible.
Modernism and its readings have, as I have already suggested, been simultaneously under a different kind of attack, from the postmodern movement. Postmodernism, by unmasking the power interests latent in texts and movements, not least those of the last two hundred years, has offered a sustained ideological challenge not only to many ancient and modern texts but to modernism itself—particularly the economic and cultural hegemony of the Western world which rests on the achievements of the Enlightenment. We have seen all kinds of fresh readings of biblical texts—feminist, post-Holocaust, ethnic, post-colonial, and so forth—all of which have discovered passages which have been used, and which some have suggested were intended to be used, as “texts of terror,” that is, weapons of oppression or worse.
Wright, N. T. (2011-03-01). Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (p. 97). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Such deconstructive readings, many will conclude, have done us a service by pointing out the ways in which texts can be heard, whether or not they were intended that way. They have also had the effect (in this respect simply increasing the force of modernist rationalism) of removing texts from the implicit canon, while sometimes offering alternative candidates for inclusion. In some cases they render whole books unusable because those writings are deemed guilty of what the postmodern Western world regards, in its new and highly self-righteous judgmentalism, as unforgivable ideological sins. Deconstruction of standard ways of reading texts is by no means always a negative or destructive thing to do; it may have the effect of jolting us out of comfortable half-truths to see something which is really there in the text and to which we had not previously paid attention.
Wright, N. T. (2011-03-01). Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (p. 98). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Wright gets more negative still…
Postmodernity’s effect on contemporary Western readings of scripture is thus, as with much else in the movement, essentially negative. Postmodernity agrees with modernity in scorning both the eschatological claim of Christianity and its solution to the problem of evil, but without putting any alternative in place. All we can do with the Bible, if postmodernity is left in charge, is to play with such texts as give us pleasure, and issue warnings against those that give pain to ourselves or to others who attract our (usually selective) sympathy. This is where a good deal of the Western church now finds itself. The fact that this position is merely assumed, not usually spelled out, makes it all the more potent, since postmodernity is currently what “feels right” in Western culture, and does not open itself to challenge by coming out into the open. Indeed, challenges are routinely dismissed as an attempt to go back to modernity or even premodernity, leaving us with a fine irony: an ideology which declares that all ideologies are power plays, yet which sustains its own position by ruling out all challenges a priori. Much criticism, both modern and postmodern, has thus left the church, after years of highly funded research in seminaries and colleges, less able to use the Bible in anything like the way which Jesus and the earliest Christians envisaged. This is the reason for the biblical vacuum at the heart of many of the so-called mainline churches on both sides of the North Atlantic and elsewhere. And this is why we are reduced to shouting matches about biblical authority.
Wright, N. T. (2011-03-01). Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (Kindle Locations 1447-1458). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
We cannot evade the problem, as fundamentalism does, simply by appealing to an a priori argument (“The Bible says…”). However, at the level of cultural movements, we are bound to take note both of the implicit cultural imperialism within modernism (which postmodernism itself has unmasked, but also in another way perpetuated by its implicit claim that only the postmodernists really see what’s been going on) and of the failure of postmodern criticism actually to do anything about it. As Nicholas Boyle has pointed out (Who Are We Now? [University of Notre Dame Press, 1998]), all that deconstruction achieves is a nihilism in which the only relief is a kind of hermeneutical narcissism, taking one’s pleasure with the text and letting the rest of the world go by unnoticed. It cannot successfully challenge real evil, since every challenge can itself be deconstructed into the hidden motivations of the challenger(s); and scripture itself is thereby muzzled into silent connivance with radical evil.
Wright, N. T. (2011-03-01). Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (Kindle Locations 1460-1467). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Cynicism Writ Large
At its worst Postmodernism can devolve into cynicism writ large. Dismissing every narrative, assertion and project out of suspicion that the offerings are corrupted by the motives of the presenters of the narrative leaves us with little. All that remains for us are the enjoyable experiences at the surface of the offerings with the full knowledge that there can be nothing more substantially binding down below. Submarine races are for our enjoyment but don’t ask more of them than be offered.
The Logic Beneath Cultures
You’d be hard pressed to assert that common working folk pay much attention to this kind of philosophical analysis but you’d be equally hard pressed not to admit that broad movements of culture whisper to the masses and shape our lives below the conscious level. We are children of our communities.
We are suspicious of larger ideals but eager to enjoy, experiment and explore the fruits of diverse traditions and religions. The metaphysical assertions of a religion are incidental to the immediate possibility of payout. We are suspicious that all are corrupt, but a cosmopolitan application of “whatever seems works for me now” is the order of the day. We embrace an image of karma for it seems to offer a universe of justice. Reincarnation likewise seems playful and intriguingly mysterious but when someone suggests that birth defects and child abuse are karma’s hand at evening past live’s scores we object.
Postmodernity can consume itself but like the gryllacrididae eating the contents of its own abdominal sack it is unaware and unconcerned about the source.
A hermeneutic of suspicion keeps us looking through and deconstructing and leaves us with little more than “what works for me today is the best that I can do.” We “know” that what lies below the surface disqualifies the grip of larger narratives but we’re happy for a trip to the water to watch the submarines race.