In this post on “post,” I want to look briefly — that’s what I always say to myself — at the claim by postmodernists that they have surrendered a meta-narrative.
A meta-narrative is an all-encompassing explanation of all of life; it is universal; it is objective; it should work for all. Most postmodernists claim modernists operated with such a goal in mind, though I’m not sure there is all that much evidence of such a goal or that all that many actually thought in such all-encompassing terms. Still, the point is important: postmodernity put paid to the notion that humans, as a result of research and thinking, could come to terms with all of reality. They put paid to the idea that humans could somehow get out of their skin and describe things objectively as they really are.
The major reason they put paid to such an idea is that they believed there was no such thing as an all-encompassing explanation, or meta-narrative, that explained what was actually going on. Things are going on, but to suggest either that there is an explanation or that one has that explanation is both presumptuous and preposterous.
Examples of such meta-narratives that postmodernists now claim to be a thing of the past would be Darwinianism in either its biological or social theories, Freudian explanations of the human, Marxism’s dialectical materialism, or Toynbee’s theory of historical progress.
Well and good, mostly because none of these meta-narratives are sufficient anyway.
Immanuel Kant has done us all a favor. About 50% of those who claim they have read Kant are liars; about 25% fell asleep while doing so and woke up when they closed the book for good; and about 25% have actually read him. I’ve read parts, but what I read I remember and it goes something like this: knowledge of the phenomena (the real world, data, things we see and touch and feel and sense) is possible; knowledge of the noumena (final or ultimate realities — that sounds a little Platonic, so I could use some refinement here) is not possible.
The implication of the uncrossable line between noumena and phenomena is this: the only way to know the noumena is by divine revelation. The noumena, if you will, is coming into touch with the meta-narrative that puts the phenomena into perspective. The only way to come into contact with the noumena is if someone in the Noumena makes it clear.
Kant, it could be said, gave the postmodernists a foundation on which to stand (even though they eschew foundationalism). He places on the table the simple view that all we can know is the phenomena, and that has given to postmodernists the opportunity to exploit what we can actually know and to turn that knowledge into a feast of particulars and limitations. He gives them an opportunity, furthermore, to argue that even what we know is “constructed” by the knower and not necessarily (or even) an objective reality. Postmodernist knowledge is local, particular, and constructed.
The emergent movement knows the attractions of the postmodernist turn to language and limited knowledge. But the emergent movement also needs to recognize that Kant did provide for them an alternative, the alternative brilliantly explored by Lesslie Newbigin, and I will point here just to his latest, shortest, and clearest exposition in Proper Confidence.
That alternative is this: the Christian faith or following Jesus, whichever linguistic turn you prefer, is a meta-narrative. But it is not a modernist meta-narrative that is the result of scientific research, objectivist analysis, and indubitable certainties. Nor is it a postmodernist construction, but a “proper confidence” in the work of God in and through Jesus Christ who invites each of us to walk into the story of God and become a character in God’s story in this world. One could say the postmodernists have taught us that modernist truth claims might be more gently expressed today, by the Christian, as truth proclaims. One comes into contact with this “noumena,” not be science but by seeing it performed by the community of Jesus, and that all of this is work of the Holy Spirit, grasped by a faith commitment.