DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" ""> Abstracting Postmodernism, Pluralism, and Ethics

Abstracting Postmodernism, Pluralism, and Ethics

I’m chasing an interesting and abstract thought re: the philosophical relationship between postmodernism, liberal religious pluralism, and ethics. I’ll begin with a fantastic quote by Stanley Hauerwas. The following excerpt is from The Peaceable Kingdom:

“All ethical reflection occurs relative to a particular time and place. Not only do ethical problems change from one time to the next, but the very nature and structure of ethics is determined by the particularities of a community’s history and convictions. From this perspective the notion of ‘ethics’ is misleading, since it seems to suggest that ‘ethics’ is an identifiable discipline that is constant across history. In fact, much of the burden of this book will be to suggest that ethics always requires an adjective of qualifier - such as, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Existentialist, Pragmatic, Utilitarian, Humanist, Medieval, Modern - in order to denote the social and historical character of ethics as a discipline. This is not to suggest that ethics does not address an identifiable set of relatively constant questions - the nature of good or right, freedom and the nature of human behavior, the place and status of rules and virtues - but any response to these questions necessarily draws on the particular convictions of historic communities to whom such questions may have significantly different meanings.”

Got it. Ethical structure requires adjectives, or qualifiers, to contextually ground in time and space the particular convictions of the historic communities wrestling with big and evolving questions. Perhaps, it might even be proper to say that all ethical structures are inherently characterized by qualifying adjectives, consciously acknowledged or otherwise? I think so.

So then, if ethical structure requires qualifying adjectives, and/or are inherently characterized by as much already, as aspects of postmodernism suggest, then liberal religious pluralism, as an identity-diluting mix and mash, is not only realistically impossible, but also straight up contradictory to authentic postmodernism (which points to qualifying adjectives). This may not sound too interesting initially, but as one digs deeper into contemporary expressions of liberal religious pluralism one does not discover distinct identities engaged in authentic conversation, but an attempt at identity-diluting mix and mash and a wacky citation of foundation in postmodernism. This reckless citation of postmodernism by contemporary liberal religious pluralists is unmasked as incurably odd neither by their misuse of postmodernism and/or pluralism, which are both realities and arguably good things, nor by a lack of qualifying adjectives (they abound!), but by the practical results of a consequent program built upon these things as related to the reality of ethical structure itself. Ethical structure existing as multiple and separated identities in reality, as signified by obviously distinct and required qualifying adjectives, can not be dismantled and rebuilt into a single structure, into which all former qualifying adjectives are then forced. This vain attempt only results in a huge clash, or collapse, of authentic ethical structure. It becomes an attempt to be all things to all the people who know better to show up and/or remain there. It creates an unlivable ethical structure in which authentic application of qualifying adjectives is not possible. Sure, people will try to retain and apply many familiar-feeling qualifying adjectives, but the clash created in the foreign - or pseudo - ethical structure renders the attempt to retain and apply a vain one.

Ironically, the above attempt at religious liberal pluralism, in the name of postmodernism and pluralism, is actually just another exercise in modernity. Granted, it is the most clever exercise modernism has come up with, but it is still just modernism. It is a plate of leftovers still trying to make it a pomo banquet table. What else should one call the act of downsizing reality for the sake of control? Not sure? One thing is fact: it is not pluralism, and it is not postmodernism. The more I study, the more I learn about postmodernism, pluralism, and ethics.1 I think it is a huge mistake for Christians to distance themselves from these concepts. We should be talking about postmodernism, pluralism, and ethics. Knee-jerk reactions aside, these things are much more conducive to Christianity then was initially advertised.

I’m still chasing this one, feel free to chase it too. I think there is something in there, but it’s going to take a bit to flush it out and then articulate it so a ten year old can understand and express it.

1. ck, re: postmodernism, mea culpa.


  1. Thom Stark
    Posted April 8, 2007 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    On this subject see Doug Harink’s good book (with the exception of the tendentious and careless fourth chapter), “Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity.” Chapter five, “Religion and Pluralism in Pauline Perspective,” justifies your best insight here, that “these things are much more conducive to Christianity then was initially advertised.”

  2. Posted April 8, 2007 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Thom - Thank you for the suggestion! I’ll be putting that book on my shelf soon. It sounds very interesting. Thanks!

  3. Posted April 8, 2007 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Re postmodernism: Thanks, Shawn.

    Question - why can’t liberalism be a qualifying adjective for ethics like Hinduism, Christianity, et al?

  4. Posted April 8, 2007 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    The liberalism I’m talking about is of a religious sort, and it is an attempt to rebuild ethical structure in a way which actually minimizes or alters the need for authentic qualifying adjectives (identity detrimental mix and mash). This sort of rebuilding fails, as people still instinctively reach for familiar qualifying adjectives, as a result of an authentic ethical structure’s real-time persistence, in spite of weak attempts to rebuild it.

    So, if religious liberalism can discipline itself, and actually make a few decisions, then it might be capable of being a qualifying ethic. However, one should be very careful not to mistake the attempted rebuilding of ethical structure itself for a qualifying ethic. Too, a religious liberal should be very prepared to stop being all things to all people, and referring to this act as postmodernism and/or pluralism, because it is neither. It looks like modernism, at least from here.

    All of this to say, that when properly understood, postmodernism and pluralism can work very well in a Christian context, and the slippery slope that has become contemporary religious liberal pluralism can be totally avoided … thank God.

  5. Posted April 10, 2007 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Did you ever read Paul Rasor’s Faith without Certainty? He tackles liberal religion, modernism and postmodernism, and in the chapter I was looking at today specifically said that morality can occur only within the context of a defining community.

    His thoughts on the self emphasize Jurgen Habermas’ philosophy of intersubjectivity, and he argues that social justice is more than just another choice (I think you alluded to this in your decription of a “pomo banquet”) but coming out of seeing ourselves in solidarity with others in different circumstances.

    Naturally, I’m going to disagree with your characterization of liberal religion–no point rehashing that–but you might want to check out Habermas, at least, if not Rasor.

  6. Posted April 10, 2007 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the thoughts, ck. They are appreciated.

    I find your disagreement, coming from a Unitarian Universalist (liberal religion), whose “religion” is an attempt to rebuild ethical structure in a way that distorts and twists authentic qualifying adjectives, just a bit … odd. :)

    Rasor would be correct, as long as he then cites community specific qualifying adjectives to his moral/ethic; otherwise, he would just be blowing smoke.

  7. Posted April 10, 2007 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Oh yeah, one more note: the thing I’m trying to get at is liberal religious folk then call what I cite in the above comment “postmodernism” and “pluralism”. I don’t think it is either, honestly. I think it is modernism in a cheap suit.

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