God As A Postmodern

  • Christian faith has long endured the chipping away at authority that is the hallmark of modern academia. But church and campus have never seemed as estranged as they have since the advent of postmodernism, the notion that there is no universal truth, merely competing "narratives" jockeying eternally for supremacy. That is, until 1990, when a young British professor named John Milbank pioneered what The Chronicle of Higher Education has suggested may be the "biggest development in theology since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door."

    Milbank opted to cite (if not love) his enemy. By exposing the nihilism of secular thought, he writes, postmodernism freed Christian theology from the need to "measure up to...standards of scientific truth and normative rationality." Thus unburdened, he suggests, it enjoys several advantages over secular competitors. Long before postmodernism, Christianity accepted unknowableness as part of God's nature. The Christian "story" is dense with associations and can be applied universally. In fact, he writes, its central dynamic of ever unfolding divine love places it outside--and above--postmodernism's conviction that each contending world view is rooted in and sustained by violence.

    Milbank's conclusion: Christian theology can now reclaim its medieval position as "queen of the sciences," before which disciplines like sociology, philosophy and economics must bow down. He and colleagues dubbed their movement "radical orthodoxy" and began a giddy exploration of theology's vast, recovered social responsibilities.

    The effort made them academic stars--Milbank, 49, occupies a prestigious chair at the University of Virginia--and drew fierce fire. He notes that "I would not expect Muslims or Buddhists to buy this wholly, at all." Even some fellow believers find it hard to square his vision of a peaceful, all-embracing Christianity with the religion that burned heretics and launched crusades. Besides, not everyone is a postmodernist. Conservatives cringe when he says that discussions of the actual physical reality of the resurrection have "no place" in his theology. But at the very least, he has cleared a way for theologians to reclaim their place at the academic table, ending decades, if not centuries, of marginalization.