Let me tell you a story. It is a story about something that we consider insignificant, yet something that impacts us all--shopping bags. For years, grocers and retailers used paper sacks to send their goods and trappings home with our grandparents. They came in all shapes and sizes. Some of them had writing on them, and some of them had handles. Moms everywhere would use smaller versions of these containers to send PB&J, apples, and milk to school with their children each and every day. The brown paper bag became a symbol of America. Everyone from the town butcher to the town drunk used a paper bag for something.
However, something in American economy changed. Our society started becoming more conscious about production cost and environmental issues. Larger, national chain stores began using plastic bags, saying they were environmentally-friendly. In actuality, plastic bags are cheaper to produce. Paper sacks are bio-degradable; plastic bags are not. However, plastic bags can be produced in mass quantity quicker than paper sacks can be produced. Also, plastic bags are more convenient in quick-check and self-check-out aisles. And while the dribble about plastic bags being more environmentally-friendly proved to be false, plastic bags have more potential for being reused than paper sacks. Plastic bags can contain spills better than paper sacks. I, for one, have been reusing plastic bags as trash bags in my office for years. Yet, landfills are full of plastic bags full of plastic bags.
Then, someone had an idea, a truly environmentally-friendly idea. The idea was to use cloth bags that could be reused and were washable. They could be decorated with cool designs that rival many top-end purses and handbags. They could be used for advertising purposes. They are cheap to produce, making them cost-effective. Their sole purpose is to be reusable, which makes them green-conscious by default. For example, my family uses them all the time. From quick trips to the grocery store to overnight trips to the grandparents' house to airplane trips to California, we use reusable bags for just about anything. However, the truth about reusable bags is that they are inconvenient. We forget them in the car or we do not bring enough for what we are purchasing. Yet, they are a noble idea, one I hope catches on.
Uh, I'm a Little Confused
I'm sure that you are probably wondering to yourself what's with the story about grocery bags. Well, I tell this story for two reasons: First of all, it parallels the transition from Premodernism to Modernism to Postmodernism. Premodernism was a worldview that was readily accepted by everyone. It came in various shapes and sizes and had a "one size fits all" function, yet everyone recognized it as the accepted norm. Then, thanks to economic and technological developments, the plastic bag of Modernism replaced the trusted paper sack of Premodernism. Modernism claimed to be an improvement over the religion and magic of Premodernism. Yet, marketing gimmicks proved to be simply that--gimmicks. Thus, Postmodernism came along and gave us something that could actually change the world for the better--the reusable bag. It is simple, durable, functional, and stylish. Yet it is not without its own difficulties. Yet, what is life without a little inconvenience?
Second, our story parallels Postmodernism itself. Postmodernism asserts that there is a grander story at work, and that we all have our own story to tell within that grand story. Postmodern literary critics focus on the thread that is woven through our story that connects us to the larger story. In our fable about grocery bags, the thread that connects the story is the bag itself. The bag changes in the story, yet the purpose remains the same. In so doing, it forces us to confront our assumptions about reality.1
To call all of them types of postmodern theology is to imply that they all have something in common. To speak of varieties is to indicate that significant differences exist among them. Indeed, the phrase postmodern theology is suddenly being used for a very close set of programs. The differences among them are probably more obvious than their similarities.2
In reality, as my colleague Brian Baldwin says, there is no such thing as Postmodern Theology--there are Postmodern theologies. There are major forms of Postmodern thought and there are minor forms of Postmodern thought. There are constructional differences that separate them, yet they all share "a common view of the nature of modern theology and a common conviction that its era is over."3 As confusing as this is, I agree.
So, how do we define something that avoids definition? In truth, Postmodernism demands that it cannot be defined. This is seen in the fact that three different people are credited with conceiving Postmodernism--Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, and Richard Rorty. Yet, one could argue that the conception of Postmodernism goes as far back as Friedrich Nietzsche (writing in the late nineteenth century) or Federico do Onis (writing in the early twentieth century). Originally used as an architectural term, the term was officially coined by Leslie Fielder to describe anything that was considered radical from the Modern cultural norm.4 In essence, "postmodern" became a buzz-word to label anything that was considered experimental, counter-cultural and anti-Modern.5
The beauty of Postmodernism is found in the central concept of chaos theory itself--upset the established order and level the playing field. In Postmodernism, the economics of rich and poor are not redistributed but eradicated. In Postmodernism, the politics of conservative and liberal become truly bipartisan. In Postmodernism, religious diversity no longer divided mankind into factions but unites us as humans. When we break free of the oppressive restraints of Modernism, we accept that pluralism, in its purest form, is what defines the human condition.6 And our God is one who loves diversity. It would seem, then, that Postmodernism restores the initial concept of what being human was supposed to be about.
1. Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduciton to Theories of the Contemporary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 118.
2. David Ray Griffin, "Introduction: Varieties of Postmodern Theology," in Varieties of Postmodern Theology, David Ray Griffin, William A. Beardslee and Joe Holland, SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989), 1.
3. Ibid, 3.
4. Stanley A. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 29.
5. Connor, Postmodernist Culture, 204; Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, 16. See also, Ihab Hassan, "The Questions of Postmodernism," in Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism, ed. Harry R. Gavin (Toronto: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 117-126.
In terms of theology, Hans Kung is considered to be the spark that lit the match of Postmodernism's foray into Christianity. Although there were earlier sparks (i.e., the "Death of God" movement developed by William Hamilton and Thomas J. J. Altizer, contemporary Existentialism as propagated by Paul Tillich, John Cobb's Process Theology paradigm, and the liberal doctrine paradigm of Jurgen Moltmann and John A. T. Robinson), it was Kung who argued that any "immanent critique of modernity" and "sober, upright movement forward to the future" is "postmodern"; Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View, trans. Peter Heinegg (New York/London: Doubleday, 1988), 6.
6. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, 20-22; William A. Beardslee, "Christ in the Postmodern Age: Reflections Inspired by Jean-Francois Lyotard," in Varieties of Postmodern Theology, 64-65.