Carl Trueman, Postmodern Theologian?

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Architecturally, Westminster Theological Seminary is a peculiar place. Located north of Philadelphia Pennsylvania on an old estate, at the center of the campus stands an old stone mansion, an homage to bygone days. Wrapped around the mansion--which houses an assortment of dormitories, staff rooms, and offices--an array of driveways and parking lots circle, bewildering and disorienting visitors. Classes aren't held in the central mansion, but in a peculiarly ugly brick building thrown by its side. As one's eyes scan the campus from stately stone mansion to brick square classroom building one senses the fragmentation of our postmodern society resides here too. This diagnosis seems to be borne out by the school's weekly newsletter, titled "Brute Facts," a joke playfully alluding to the teachings of one of the more prestigious former professors, Cornelius Van Til, who taught that there are no such things as "brute," uninterpreted facts. Rejecting modernist epistemological foundationalism, his teaching instead (in striking analogy to much of postmodern theology) attempted to reach back to pre-modern modes of thinking. Carl Trueman, like the other professors who teach here, would resolutely deny that his theology has anything to do with postmodernism. However, we must ask, would his denial in fact deconstruct itself?

Of course, in order to ask if Carl Trueman is a postmodern theologian, we first have to know what postmodernism is. Is that, however, the wrong question? Will whatever answer we give in fact deconstruct itself as well, revealing that we have slipped an unwarranted false assumption into our question? In fact, does the question of what postmodernism is in fact reveal that we have been clinging to a metaphysics of presence which will, like all metaphysics of presence, unwind until we are left with a long string of nonsense fit only for a cat's plaything? It is not that we can simply deny that postmodernism is anything at all. That would only reverse our first dilemma. Instead, we must ask the question, but as we do so we must cross out the "to be" verb as a warning, a sign that our answer will be inevitably incomplete. So, we must ask, "What is postmodernism?" 

What postmodernism is, however, like all "isms" turns out to be as allusive as we might expect--in fact it may be the most monstrous "ism" of all. According to some, the umbrella of postmodernism covers everything from Quentin Tarrantino to Michel Foucault to hamburgers at McDonalds--but in that case postmodernism begins to look suspiciously like a synonym for "anything that happens in an advanced capitalistic democracy." While useful for some purposes, this definition probably won't help us to determine if we can meaningfully refer to Carl Trueman as a postmodern theologian. Under this definition Carl Trueman and everyone else living in the United States would seem to be postmodern. But what if we take the case of a Somalian refugee living in Burlington, VT? (Surely a postmodern culture if there ever was one). At what point did that refugee become postmodern by inhabiting an advanced capitalistic democracy? Was it the moment he stepped off the airplane onto American soil? That seems to give an inordinate amount of power to airports. Or was it sometime later? Could the refugee have chosen somehow to not become postmodern although living in Burlington, or is postmodernism some blind sinister force crushing everything in its path?

Others would propose a more philosophical definition of postmodernism: postmodernism is questioning all metanarratives. It isn't very clear, however, what this statement actually means. Does it mean that postmoderns embrace relativism? But it isn't clear to me that any postmodern philosopher has actually done that. Most, like Derrida, would firmly deny that they are relativists, and a postmodernism without Derrida sounds like a very poor beast indeed. Derrida, in fact, has his own metanarrative about "différance" and how all language deconstructs itself and leads to (yes, you guessed right) postmodernism. Perhaps, therefore, this definition instead should refer to a willingness to play, to have fun with all metanarratives. Now Derrida at least would be back in the fold, but then, who doesn't like to have fun sometimes? "Play" indeed is often what we do with those things that we hold dearest. Take the medievals who made great fun out of the theatre of the mass. In one town in Germany for example, as historian Diarmaid MacCulloch tells us, on Easter morning "a solemn procession with crucifix customarily tried to make its way out of the church, only to find its path barred by a crowd of local youths dressed as devils. After a series of ritual challenges and a vigorous mock fight with plenty of noise and slamming of doors, the devils fled the scene, throwing down their flaming torches, representing hellfire, in front of the victorious cross-bearers." But of course, this hooliganism doesn't represent skepticism, but rather comfort with the patterns of medieval Christianity. So, it seems, we're still left scratching our heads about what postmodernism is (OK, I've given up crossing out the "to be" verb, and I was never consistent anyways).

Perhaps we could dispense with our quest to define postmodernism, and instead easily rule Carl Trueman out of being postmodern without worrying about where the boundaries of postmodernism actually are. Many, it seems, believe that postmoderns are concerned with particular ethical and political stances. Postmoderns, many would say, deny that there are essential differences between men and women. Postmoderns argue that heterosexuals define themselves in opposition to and thus dependence on homosexuals, that cross-dressing is the same as dressing "normally," that regular jeans define themselves in opposition to skinny jeans (again, demonstrating the equality of skinny jeans wearers), that we should support gay marriage, and even "self-marriage" (unless the postmodern in question doesn't support marriage at all). Now, as far as I can tell, Trueman doesn't support any of these things (especially wearing skinny jeans). However, is this really what postmodernism is? If postmodernism is all about dialogue and peace and respecting everyone's identity, what about Heidegger, the Nazi and darling of postmoderns? Perhaps he wasn't a postmodern himself, but certainly Paul de Man was at the center of postmodernism while he was alive, and he too during WWII wrote anti-semitic articles in defense of the Germans. So, apparently, advocating the slaughter of millions isn't in opposition to postmodernism. Perhaps, then, believing that men and women are different also wouldn't bar someone from being truly postmodern. 

Could we more positively place Trueman in the postmodern camp? I can't help pointing out that his taste in music--including a love for British classic rock and a cappella psalm singing--smacks of postmodern eclecticism. At Westminster Carl Trueman teaches on every era of church history, except for the modern era. Coincidence? Or does this go along with his vigorous critique of modernist mega-church practices? Of course, Trueman also vigorously critiques postmoderns and emergent church types, but what postmodern wouldn't critique other postmoderns? Indeed, every new generation of postmodernism seems set on sinking the one that went before. Perhaps this would then make Trueman a post-postmodern, or, since this title has already been taken, a post-post-postmodern, or, since I think that title might be taken too, a post-post-post-postmodern. That, however, as Trueman would say, is "absolutely bonkers."

In conclusion, is Carl Trueman a postmodern theologian? Maybe, or maybe not, but I'm not sure I know what truth is anymore.

Bryce Adamson

Posted November 27, 2013 @ 9:00 AM by Derek Thomas
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