Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Meditation on Post-Modernity

In an earlier post, I mentioned one of my concerns about "post-modernism," that it has been used by scholars to justify their theological reconstructions as "historical," so that any number of truth claims about Jesus and early Christianity are being made now in the Academy, with little to no reasoned critical justification. Have post-modern observations been pushed beyond their intent, to conclusions a post-modern philosopher might find offensive?

Post-modernity is not really a separate thought-world from modernity - it is its extension I think. One of the fashionable "ideas" associated with post-modern thought is that all subjects are biased with regard to their observations. Now this is an idea that modernists certainly knew about, and it is one of the reasons that critical thinking and the scientific method came into being - to create a space for reasoned thinking that was not under the influence of theology. Post-modernism has taken this in a self-reflective sense, suggesting to us that this critical alternative is, in itself, not without its biases. This has led to a relativism and the observation that "truth" is a function of power and a function of the perspective of the observer. It is not an accurate description of an external "objective" reality.

I don't think I'm alone in my opinion that when this degrades to complete relativisim, the philosophy falls apart, becoming exceedingly superficial. It leaves us floating in a sea of nonsense, vagueness, even nihilism, especially in terms of ethics, but also in terms of "doing history." Just because all observers are biased, does not mean that all reconstructions of history are of equal worth historically, as some are trying to conclude. I think that this perspective is an unfortunate application of the post-modern observation to serve the needs and desires of some in the theological community who have felt their "histories" marginalized by modernists.

The historian's position is not without biases. But what should those biases be? To be as impartial as possible (and recognize when we aren't), to provide a reconstruction of history whose goal is to be as self-consistent with the general experience of humanity as possible, to be guided by critical thought processes and reason, and to be as fair and consistent with the sources as she can. It is these biases that I own as my own. It is from these that I operate. And it is my hope that more biblical scholars will self-reflect, and push themselves to become uncompromising in their historicism.


Bookdoctor said...

April, I think your comments are right on target. I appreciate scholars who are upfront about their biases and their critical methods. For what its worth, my criteria for judging historical reconstuctions is how well a particular reconstruction accounts for the data. If it cannot account for parts of the data, then clearly it the reconstruction has shortcomings, if not outright faults. I think this is especially important for text based interpretations and reconstructions.

Phil Snider said...

The irony here is that Christians have as much problem with post-modern scholarship as does Dr. DeConick here. Post-modernism looks to undercut all meta-narratives (narratives which claim to have universal application) so is corrosive both to the modern meta-narrative so ably set out on this blog and the Christian one. While some Christians embrace it, many are just as cautious about post-modernity's slide into relativism and nihilism as Dr. DeConick might ask.

What many Christians are doing (including me) is to use the post-modern critique of modernism to show it to be just another meta-narrative and that its claims to universality are either greatly exagerrated or,worse, intended to submerge other meta-narratives by taking the high ground. I don't have a problem with someone working within a modernist frame of reference. I spent a long time in grad school working in that way. I do have a problem when we start claiming that the only legitimate historical research can only come out of this tradition. That, I suggest, is manifestly untrue.

The other irony is that, excepting my usual quibble with the term, impartial (fair is a much less loaded word, I think), I have no problem with Dr. DeConick's program as presented in the last paragraph. We do need to know our own biases. We do need to use critical thought and reason against both them and our own research. We do have to be fair to our sources. However, this is not unique to a modernist program.


Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Excellent observations. To me the simplicity of the bias issue is lost when all biases are treated equal. The point of saying all observations are biased is just to say all observations stand on a point of view. It says nothing about whether the point of view is more or less accurate or more or less imaginary, fanstastic, or delusional.

If I stand and look as a mountain or touch a part of the elephant, I have a biased view of what it is like. But it may be an accurate view from that slant. However if I look at a mountain and see a volcano when there is none, or touch an elephant and feel dragon scales where there are none, then my view is not only biased but false. That is the difference where those with false views assert their views are just as credible as anyone else's because all views are biased or slanted based on the viewpoint of the observer.