Thursday, January 03, 2008

History Lite: and postmodernism

The theological worldview survey has been quite popular. I did note that there is a range from 0 to 99% fundmentalist among my interlocutors. I found that quite inspiring because I do like to interact in some way with fundamentalism, although, by this, I mean the fundamentalism of 19th century Britain, not the fundamentalism of present day America.

But I felt a bit concerned at the frequent high scores in post modernism. Somehow I suspect a bias in the survey, or a least a loose definition of postmodernism. Here is the description,
    You are Emergent/Postmodern in your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don't think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church should help them to do this.
That doesn't sound too bad. Learning takes place through dialogue and in relationships. No one knows the whole truth.

However, Marty Foord posts on The Killing of History by Keith Windshuttle, HT Michael Bird. Windshuttle opposes some of the premises of postmodernism in the discipline of history. Simon Schama, the author of Rough Crossings, which I am now absorbed in, writes from a postmodern perspective on history,

    “The claims for historical knowledge, must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator."
Windhsuttle counters this with the following,
    The essence of history has continued to be that it should try to tell the truth, to describe as best as possible what really happened. Over this time, of course, many historians have been exposed as mistaken, opinionated and often completely wrong, but their critics have usually felt obliged to show they were wrong about real things, that their claims about the past were different from the things that actually happened. In other words, the critics still operated on the assumption that the truth was in the historian’s grasp.
    Today, these assumptions are widely rejected, even among some people employed as historians themselves. In the 1990s, the newly dominant theorists within the humanities and social sciences assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all. They claim that we can only see the past through the perspective of our own culture and, hence, what we see in history are our own interests and concerns reflected back at us. The central point upon which history was founded no longer holds: there is no fundamental distinction any more between history and myth.

I enjoyed reading this article by Kimball on The Killing of History. (I should add that I have a somewhat muted response to this article. Certainly one wants to be behind the search for objective truth, but I am not sure that I would agree with him on what that was.)

This entire discussion strikes at the heart of my questions about the scriptures when I first studied Greek and Hebrew in the Near Eastern Studies Dept. at the University of Toronto. If so many words are of unknown origin, and so many passages have multiple interpretations then how can we know objective truth about the scriptures.

I talked this over with Al Gleason, in the linguistics dept. and he recommended that I pursue canonical criticism. I think now in looking back he meant something closer to the history of Biblical interpretation, or what is sometimes called "reception theory" - the history of the reception of the Bible.

As I take another look at some of these issues, and ask myself the question, what do I know for sure, and how do I deal with facts, I note that I am still interested in objective knowledge as a focus of study but the questions are different. I no longer ask of a passage, what exactly does this mean, but rather, how did Chrysostom or Calvin or Bucer translate this passage. This is something that I can often discover as a fact. Certainly there is some doubt if I don't have a photograph of the first edition of that particular Bible. But, there are ways of finding these.

I was delighted to be able to hold the Pagnini/Beza 1579 Latin Bible in Toronto last fall and photograph parts of it. Now I can say with certainty that in 1579 this edition of the Bible had a certain phrase in it. I might even have a photograph. How cool is that!

One of the really interesting things that I have realized - and I know now this must seem as obvious as the nose in your face, is that the reformers used the Vulgate as the authoritative translation of the Bible. They quoted from it. The Bibles of the Reformation are the product of the Reformation, not the guiding texts of the Reformation. This makes knowledge of the Vulgate or the Douay-Rheims Bible in English an essential text of Reformation studies. Maybe everyone else but me knew this.

Back to postmodernism. I know I have a prejudice, and I am learning in dialogue, but I do want to ground my learning in tangible facts. This has been my strategy. I wonder approach others take.


scott gray said...


a reply to your postmodern thoughts.

someone once said ‘history is written by the winners.’ i think to some extent this is true. winners write excuses, explanations, agendas, and interpretations about events past and present. over a period of time, decades or centuries, of similar excuses, explanations, agendas and interpretations, history becomes about large over arching ‘meta-narratives,’ and whoever controls the pen, and access to publishing, reviewing, and the ‘academy,’ controls history. one of the meta-narratives currently being wrestled with is the inevitable superiority of, and preference for, some brand of liberal democracy as a political system for each and every nation.

there are two understandings (two among many) of postmodern thought: 1) an incredulity in the ‘truth’ of meta-narratives; and 2) an assumption that all communication is about power and manipulation. if history is written by the winners, then the questioning, challenging, deconstructing, and thinking in unexpected or non-linear paths, are postmodern ‘tools’ for a fresh look.

theology , at least faith documents, are written by the winners, too. once we’ve said that these writings are divinely inspired, and treat them that way over long periods of time, and control access to publishing, reviewing, and the ‘academy’ (which documents are in, and which are out, of the canon), we’ve made these the documents of the winners. and they’re full of excuses, explanations, agendas, and interpretations, all of which lead to meta-narratives, too, such as the idea of salvation history.

the same postmodern tools apply to these faith documents as apply to historical documents: the meta-narratives need to be questioned; and much of the communication contained within these documents is about power and manipulation.

but the methodologies for determining ‘truth’ are different for history and theology. historical truth is about what really happened. we look to high corroboration (lots of different sources reach the same conclusion about an event) and low collaboration (the sources were independent of each other and are diverse in world views). from a postmodern perspective, the excuses, explanations, agendas, and interpretations are part of the theory of what caused an event to happen, and what the event in turn caused to happen. postmodern thinking accepts the event, the facts about the event, but constantly challenges the cause and effect conclusions reached by historians. especially if there is low corroboration and high collaboration among sources.

theological truth is something else entirely. i’m not personally sure what theological truth is. some of the methodologies have to do with history, some with tradition, some with faith documents, some with personal or community revelation. the methods involving faith documents in theological methodology, of divine inspiration, rigorous canon, reified principles, testing of moral and ethical frameworks--all of these are under challenge from postmodern thinkers.

so in a large way, postmodern thinking is about deconstruction, which is a kind of analysis. but it’s also about synthesis, too; the recombining of ideas and sources, especially unexpected ideas and sources, and using the results of these recombinations to look at meaning and value. as one postmodern theologian said, ‘let’s rub two texts together and see what sparks.’ (it's what i try to do with the lectionary texts on my blog).

value, in my current wrestling, is about pleasure and survival. if something pleases you, it has positive value. if it causes you pain, it has negative value. if it enhances your survival, it has positive value. if it is a deterrent to your survival, it has negative value. historical ‘truth’ is about events that really happened. they have no value per se. historical reporting (historical documents), especially theories of cause and effect (resulting in meta-narratives), are about value. theological ‘truth’ is about value. (is there valueless 'truth' in theology?) theological reporting (faith documents), especially meta-narratives, is about value.

postmodern thinking applied to church would include deconstructing traditions and texts, questioning power structures (especially those that seem manipulative), and examining and reconstructing value ideas through relationships with others (egalitarian relationships in postmodernism).



Suzanne McCarthy said...

postmodern thinking applied to church would include deconstructing traditions and texts, questioning power structures (especially those that seem manipulative), and examining and reconstructing value ideas through relationships with others (egalitarian relationships in postmodernism).

I guess it seems like I am still at the deconstructing stage. I have been unwilling to admit that it really is about manipulation and power. I feel as if there was a tradition that I knew that was not about this. But, yes through building relationships and seeking the positive - that helps.

You have said a lot of useful thngs here.

scott gray said...


in my opinion, in a healthy postmodern parish (if there is such a thing), adult fellowship discussions before and after mass would give credence to your feeling that there is a tradition free of manipulation and power, and discuss that idea: its value, its nuances among the various members of the parish, a painting of a consensus vision of it, an implementation of it, and a constant examination of it.

scott gray said...


a couple of posts with an interesting idea or two:

as you can imagine, i have huge presupposition problems with both posts...

but the idea of 'irenic method' really appeals to me.

also, this conversation might be of interest, and you might wish to comment: