Two Cheers For The Reformation … Well … Sorta … Kinda … Part III: Postmodern Nihilism And The Reformation

In a couple of instances over the years – like here  and here – I have alluded to Mark Twain’s possibly apocryphal statement that, while history does not repeat, it often rhymes. Upon re-reading my two “Skeptic’s” columns on the Protestant Reformation, I realize now that I could have added a third instance of history rhyming. For the Reformation was about 500 years ahead of its time in anticipating some of the most crucial principles of postmodernist nihilism. In fact, conservative Protestantism may be understood as postmodernism born out of due season.  In particular, strictly as a representative sample, consider the following motifs of conservative Protestantism, each of which has its counterpart in the ideology of postmodernism:

o “Democratization” of interpretation and exegesis

Beginning with Martin Luther, the Reformers all insisted that each individual Christian was permitted – even obligated – to interpret the biblical text for herself. In the Catholic Church, only priests – actually, only the senior members of the Church’s episcopal leadership (Popes and ecumenical councils) – were allowed to interpret the Bible authoritatively. Luther and the other Reformers appropriated this sacerdotal prerogative for individual lay Christians in the church pews. Anyone – literally anyone – was free to interpret the Bible according to the dictates of the interpreters’ individual conscience. Of course, that conscience had to be disciplined through prayer, reflection, the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and a careful reading of the biblical text, but at the end of the day, even these qualifications were subject to the demands of the individual’s conscience. Luther referred to this as “the priesthood of all believers,” a phrase often heard to this day in many conservative / Reformed Protestant churches. The primacy of the individual’s conscience took precedence over all magisterial pronouncements of the official Church. Each individual Christian therefore was a Magisterium of One.

"Luther before the Diet of Worms" ... Anton von Werner
"Luther at Erfurt" ... Joseph Noel Paton, 1861

One encounters the postmodernist equivalent of “the priesthood of all believers” in the postmodernist principle of what Derrida has termed la jouissance de la signification libre (“the joy of free signification”) and Lacan’s theory of jouissance as including yet transcending Freud’s “pleasure principle”, and Felix Guattari. (See also Roland Barthes’ Elements of Semiology.) In particular, postmodernism’s insistence on the absence of a “transcendent Signified” to stabilize lexical meaning constitutes a modern-day dialect of Protestantism’s repudiation of the authority of Magisteria and the substitution of the individual conscience of the interpreter. In orthodox Christian theology, the transcendental Signified that served to anchor and to guarantee the meaning of the biblical text – actually, all texts, biblical and otherwise -- was the transcendent Word, i.e., Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God. This is why postmodernism in all its forms, and as exemplified by all its advocates, is always at least implicitly, often explicitly, atheistic:  to stabilize lexical meaning and the ascertainment thereof, one must appeal to some transcendent Signified, i.e., to God. If there is no transcendent Signified, then there is – there can be – no God.

This parallel between postmodernist interpretive nihilism and Protestantism should – evidently does not, but should – make Protestant Christians much more uncomfortable than it apparently does. If there is no magisterial authority, even any de facto such, to stabilize meaning, and if there is no way to coherently say that some interpretations and teachings are right and others are wrong, then Protestants implicitly deny the existence of a transcendent Signified fully as much as contemporary postmoderns, i.e., there is no God. Many Protestants on the (political and theological) left even positively celebrate this absence of a transcendent Signified as a form, perhaps the form, of healthy diversity. No one is really right. No one is really wrong. It is, instead, just a matter of telling your own story from your own idiosyncratic experience -- which is just another way of repeating Luther's assertion of the prerogative of individual, hence subjective, interpretation.

Michel Foucault
Jean-Francois Lyotard

o Skepticism about science and even about Reason itself

One of the most crucial commonalities shared by the ideological DNA of conservative (especially Reformed) Protestantism and postmodernist nihilism is a shared skepticism about science, even to the point of skepticism about Reason itself.  This is more than merely a matter of quoting Luther’s classic excoriation of “the Whore Reason”:

Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God,

which is most likely a quote from Luther’s informal “table talk” lectures to theology students. (In Luther's defense, the author of the linked article compares the role of the mind in religious belief to the role of the mind in learning to swim, which actually illustrates the opposite position:  there are objective, value-free criteria for learning to swim, so one may ask what the corresponding criteria are for determining the truth-value of religious belief.) The lineage of this skepticism about Reason extends down to the present day, assuming the contemporary form of skepticism about science and the value of Enlightenment-centric, rational discourse in general. Indeed, there is a straight line, historically, connecting Luther's skepticism about Reason with Christian fundamentalism with skepticism about climate change with Secretary Ben Carson's rage against evolution and the Big Bang ... and culminating in Sen. James Imhofe purporting to refute climate change by waving a snowball in the well of the US Senate.

Denominational tree

Contemporary postmodernist thinkers like the late Jean-Francois Lyotard and the late Michel Foucault have both expressed a searching skepticism about science as merely one “meta-narrative” among many others, like the Christian meta-narrative that preceded it. The Christian meta-narrative, so the critique goes, understood history and individual experience in terms of the great over-arching cycle of the Christian myth of Creation, Sin, Incarnation, Resurrection, and Redemption, in other words, in terms of all-encompassing, “archetypal” sub-narratives. The Christian meta-narrative was replaced by science, which understands history in terms of mechanistic and probabilistic natural law, i.e., in terms of material and efficient, not final, causes. But the point aimed at by Lyotard, Foucault, and their postmodernist siblings is that science has no greater claim to validity than Christianity, or, indeed, any other culturally and historically conditioned paradigm. The difference between Carson, Imhofe, & Co., on the one hand, and Lyotard, Foucault, & Co., on the other, is only a matter of degree. On matters scientific, most postmodernists are cognates of Christian fundamentalists ... and about as knowledgeable about science.

"Still Life with Bible" ... Vincent Van Godh

In fact, many conservatives, especially conservative Reformed Protestants, go Lyotard, Foucault, & Co. one better and assert that, in some crucial respects, the Christian meta-narrative – the Christian understanding of “life, the Universe, and everything” – is positively to be preferred to its scientific counterpart.  And not just about science. There is no room in the latter, they argue, for morality. Because Reason has been hopelessly compromised by sin, humans only know right from wrong through Divine intervention, as revealed to the human moral conscience. So there is no possibility that human beings can formulate moral guidance purely on the basis of unaided Reason. One finds this belief the norm, in fact, in conservatism as such, irrespective of any religious accompaniments.

o Conservative devaluation of the university

But beyond even this, many political and religious conservatives also go Lyotard & Co. one better in an additional sense, in that they devalue the effects of the university on the health of a society. (Lyotard and Foucault, on the other hand, are both congenitally creatures of the Academy. Ditto Derrida, Barthes, Lacan ... you name it ... ) This attitude has led to a pernicious "race to the bottom", vis a vis the evaluation of a university education in general, in conservative circles, and it seems that the more conservative one is, the faster toward the bottom one races. This is substantiated by poll numbers from Pew Research, Business Insider (no bastion of bleeding-heart welfare-state-ism, that!), Bloomberg, and Gallup reflecting whether conservatives consider the university to be a constructive or destructive influence on society. By rather substantial margins, conservatives opt for the latter. (It should not be surprising that Republicans do see one bright spot about universities:  preparing people for work and professional life as technocrats in the late-capitalist Corporate State.) In a very deep sense, this is to be expected:  both Protestant Christianity and, ultimately, post-modernism share the pessimism about Reason codified in Augustinian Christianity, and its reliance on the spontaneous irruption of Divine Grace as the only means of salvation. (At this point, it might be instructive to recall that Martin Luther himself was an Augustinian monk.) But the two strands -- Protestantism and postmodernism -- critically diverge, in that, whereas Protestantism is Augustinian pessimism taken to its logical conclusion, postmodernism is actually Augustinian Christianity without God.

Ethiopian Bible

There are two concerns here about the evident surrender of conservative / Reformed Protestantism to postmodern nihilism. One concern is more or less pragmatic:  how does an advanced, "First World", technological society sustain itself when overtaken by a prevailing attitude of skepticism and almost superstitious hostility toward Reason and science? If the Mayan Long Count calendar is ascribed the same level of credibility as Kepler's laws of planetary motion, what does such an appraisal say about the long-term prospects of science? The other concern is what may be broadly and inclusively described as "spiritual":  human beings are historically exploring beings, beings who are passionately curious about what is over the next hill, across the next ocean, orbiting the next star ... even when such curiosity serves no practical purpose. We simply want to know.

At one point, the movie Interstellar touches on this issue. Matthew McConaughey, a member of the next-to-last generation inhabiting a dying earth where the sole concern has now become just the raising of corn, says to his father (John Lithgow) -- the following is a close paraphrase -- "I remember when we looked up at the sky and wondered about our place among the stars; now we just look down and wonder about our place in the dirt".

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36, KJV)

James R. Cowles

Image credits Ethiopian Bible ... University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History ... Public domain
Denominational tree ... Protestantbranches.svg ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic
"Luther at Erfurt" ... Joseph Noel Paton, 1861 ... Public domain
"Luther Before the Diet of Worms" ... Anton von Werner ... Public domain
"Still Life with Bible" ... Vincent Van Gogh ... Public domain
Jean-Francois Lyotard ... Bracha L. Ettinger ... CC by SA 2.5 Generic
Michel Foucault ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain

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