The new German awakening
Unbeknownst to most of us who try to keep albreast of these things, Germany – the largest nation in the European Union, the site of the Protestant Reformation, and the historical homeland of modern theology itself – is stirring and awakening when it comes to what is distinctively Christian as well postmodern. The main reason this development is largely off our radar is because the German-speaking churches and the German universities have not exactly been pace-setters in the postmodernist movement over the past three decades. In addition, most of the blogging, publishing, and other forms of “conversation” is in German, which American academic read less and less (don’t we all speak English and French?)
But in Karlsruhe on the Rhine a few weeks ago Alan Hirsch, one of the most familiar faces of the global postmodern church movement, keynoted a the second annual Novavox conference that drew the largest ever audience from Protestant, Catholic, and the German “Free Churches” around Germany. So-called “emergent cohorts” have sprung up all over Germany in recent years, most notably in such cities as Marburg and Erlangen. As one Novavox conference attendee put it, “now I’ve got all the buzzwords and the concepts.”
When we say "postmodern" we don't tend to think of the Germans. Even though virtually all the streams of postmodern philosophy cascade directly down from the intellectual heights dominated by the great German philosophers Kant, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, it was the French "post-structuralists" who, starting in the 1960s and commandeered by Derrida and Deleuze, cleared and built out the vast terrain with which most of us in the academy and in the church are now familiar.
The word "postmodern" itself was minted by the French academic Jean-Francois Lyotard in the early 1980s in an effort to assess the changes in the culture, values, and education of the Francophone peoples in the wake of the social upheavals of the Vietnam era. But it was the "ontology" of Husserl and Heidegger, to which Derrida reacted during this early period,and which he sought to de-Teutonize in order to accomodate the new forms of cultural and social-psychological critique that had emerged with figures like figures like Louis Althusser, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Lacan and to re-invigorate the deeply embedded tradition of structural linguistics, invented by Ferdinand de Saussure, in France as central to philosophy.
Most of what we know as "deconstruction" had this largely linguistic, neo-Marxist, anti-phenomenological, a-theological origin. As a footnote it is highly ironic that what in the past decade has become known to theologians as "postmodernism" tends (with the exception perhaps of Žižek) tends to be highly idealistic, phenomenological, anti-linguistic, anti-psychological, and a-political.
The tables have been turned completely, and your typical reader of this blog would have little knowledge of, or interest in, the early French figures that pioneered the phenomenon. So much of the "theological turn" in philosophy, which has generated what we know as "Continental postmodern theology," is influenced largely by French thinkers such as Jean-Luc Marion and Jean-Luc Nancy, but the tradition of French phenomenology going back to Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Maritain, to whom these thinkers belong, has a solidly Germanic coloring and background, which the early "deconstructionists" thoroughly rejected.
While French ideas and trends have largely shaped postmodernism, the now vaguely defined "postmodern church" is almost strictly a product of the American evangelical identity crisis that surfaced in the mid-1990s. Trends in youth culture were the catalyst during this era, but it was the presumed "authority" of figures such as Derrida in challenging the authority of the kind of inerrantist fundamentalism that had overshadowed the evangelical agenda for a generation that drew interest from progressive-minded church leaders.
Of course, Derrida himself was always far more far complicated and opaque than he was understood to be as the would-be icon of the new, typically American anti-authoritarianism. Even those semi-academic types who helped make the master of deconstruction a household name among pastors as he had been earlier among humanities scholars barely realized that Derrida himself had emphasized repeatedly that deconstruction was not the same as critique and that it had much more to do with how we read texts while unlocking the signifying power of the seemingly unsignifiable in our thinking (e.g., God as the "not-God" of negative theology, the messianic or the unrepresentable that is "to come").
Postmodern Christianity and American anti-authoritarianism
It has been said wryly that since the American project started (not counting the Puritans) in the seventeenth century as the true revolution of the subject whose insignia were always the "axe and the Bible," the Bible became the true canon katholikon that was never ever really challenged, even after the Scopes Trial in the late 1920s. The axe was really not turned against the Bible in mainstream Protestantism until the late 1960s and against "fundamentalist" evangelicalism only at the end of the millennium.
But the result of this anti-authoritarian and anti-fundamentalist revolution, or "reformation", even in the churches, was a pure rootless and largely contentless subjectivity that could be sustained only by endless variations (including "spiritual" versions) of the old Romantic idea of limitless freedom and the inexhaustible possibilities of "personal liberation" and lifestyle choices, which back in the 1980s were dubbed "New Age;
American postmodern Christianity, while it seeks nowadays to be "socially engaged" and "missional-minded" in current parlance, has always been a form of "me-Christianity," a sophisticated Christian-tinted personal experientialism.
That is not to say the old evanagelism was not that much different. 'Seeker-sensitive" megachurches followed the same pattern with a different appeal to a different generation. But if the "missional turn" in American postmodern Christianity is ever really going to happen in substance more than in rhetoric, there will have to be a serious prophetic challenge to the kind of cultural DNA church structures in this country that forever configure the Gospel as a form of personal self-enrichment, not so much in terms of wealth but in terms of distinctive Christian cultural or intellectual "experiences."
In the American and (to a lesser extent) the British scenes, where postmodern Christianity as we know it has both its roots and its contours, there is a significant disconnect between theology, philosophy, and Christian praxis. Pastoral types, with the exception perhaps of those who read this blog, don’t pay that much attention to serious philosophical trends and ideas, and when they do often become involved in The Conversation, they make the familiar point that they are doing so for their own self-improvement and are frustrated by the utter lack of interest in these topics on the part of the Christian communities – even the most hip – that they work with.
I’ve lost count of how many inquiries I, as a professor of religious studies at a major university in this country with a significant PhD program in philosophy and theology, have received even in the past decade from “burned out” pastors who are tired of ministering and “just want to study and teach exciting ideas like you do.”
In the more distant past theological revolutions in the American church have more often than not been imported from Germany. That was true not only in the nineteenth, but also throughout the twentieth century. Since the 1970s, however, the flow of philosophical and theological products for import has been coming from France and the UK (the Germans at one time gave us “neo-orthodoxy”; then the Brits invented “radical orthodoxy”). But it was always the genius of German theology that it could be theoretical and practical at the same time (look at what happened to neo-Kantianism up until the First World War).
However, in recent years most of the postmodernist agitation in the churches of Germany, which is still statistically the most “religious” EU nation, if one does not count the cultural Catholicism of Italy and Spain, has come from American groups who want to “evangelize” those neo-pagan Europeans. The Novavox conference itself was co-sponsored bv a California-based “missions” organization. American groups often try to persuade the Germans to adopt their own version of fad-driven, practical, pop theological approaches for the primary purpose of “planting and growing” churches, but the results are not very effective. Germans prefer their Christianity heavier and stronger than we do, like their beer.
From deconstruction to "globopomo"
When it comes to current philosophy, however, Germans are not all that interested in “deconstructing”. The well-known, early putdown of Derrida and Derrideans by Jürgen Habermas during the 1980s left long-term marks, even though the two philosophers eventually became good friends and collaborators. But there is another key underlying condition – a Grundzustand, as the Germans would say – that explains this reluctance. Hitler and the Holocaust essentially deconstructed the entirety of the German conceptual landscape. The postwar German theological preoccupation has been the task of coming to grips with its monstrous, recent political and cultural past. Germans never really needed to “postmodernize” in the loose sense of having to problematize modernist progressivism and rationality, because history did it for them.
But this now more-than-half-century of self-doubt, self-pity, and endless national self-reflection is coming to an end. Germans are looking outward and pondering what one scholar privately referred to me as a “new global Christian thinking” that is radically and globally engaged at the same time it is disengaged from all parochial, cultural, and identity-obsessed forms of purely “critical” postmodernism. There are no German Derridas yet on the scene, though the so-called “public philosopher” Peter Sloterdijk, who himself is based in Karlsruhe, late in his career is starting to gain a certain European notoriety for his own distinctive take on postmodernity, globalization, and the current world financial crisis.
Sloterdijk in his own way is challenging Germans, and his readers outside Germany, to think beyond the kind of self-referential postmodernism that through new media fosters a hypersubjectivity and esthetic inwardness that effectively cancels the earlier globalist thrust of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism toward a unified sense of humanity. Today’s apparent new “cosmopolitanism” is one in name only, he insists, because it is constituted primarily by the intricate and patchwork parochialisms that together make up what he dubs das Weltinnenraum (the “world private space”), which global consumer capitalism has seeded, “malignantly” perhaps, in religion, ethics, the arts, and philosophy.
Sloterdijk’s theory of a “mediated” cosmopolitanism, which like Gilles Deleuze’s earlier theory of nomadology represents an effort to map all concepts and signifying processes in terms of spatial relationships and spatial flux, confronts the runaway differentialism of postmodern thinking along with the very hypersubjectivity that in age of collapsing global consumerism may be on the verge of extinction.
Since late last summer I have been in conversation with a German academic, who is also a pastor, in Marburg named Tobias (“Toby”) Faix, who can be considered one of the leading lights of the indigenous German-speaking “new wave” of Continental Christian postmodernism. We have only exchanged a few thoughtful emails, but I have been tracking down and reading his blog posts, essays, and books, all published in German, which are both extensive and provocative.
Whether he has read or been influenced by Sloterdijk is immaterial, because Faix has much of the same take on the global as the latter, albeit from a Christian theological perspective. Faix is currently Dozent or Lecturer in Practical Theology and Sociology at the Marburg Bibelseminar, a state-accredited professional school for pastors that corresponds to the American version of the theological seminary, as well as director of Empirica, a research institute specializing in youth culture and religion.
In his institute’s most recently published volume entitled Zeitgeist 2: Postmoderne Heimatkunde (“Zeitgeist 2: Postmodern Local History”, Francke, 2009), Faix and his co-contributors asks the question where the postmodern Christian can find a sense of place with which to identify themselves, a site of particularity, a Heimat or “homeland.”
Contrary to the consumer-based “identity politics” or “identity religion” that has been the hallmark of global consumerism, the authors argue in different ways and with differing rhetorics that our only “homeland” is the world and its openeness, what in The Creation of the World, or Globalization Nancy terms “the world of singularities, without their plurality constructed as a unitotality.”
Instead of seeking a “private space” of singularity as a point of retreat in our radically “disenclosed” world, as Nancy would say, the Christian finds his or her singular, or heimatlich, identification in the world-historical purpose of God through missional service both in our immediate communities and abroad. That is the kind of Christian postmodernism that I have written about in my own book in this series entitled GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008), a Christianity that is not only "postmodern" per se, but "globopomo."
Challenging comfortable Christian "identity theology"
In his most recent email describing the pastoral situation in Germany, Faix notes that the recession of the past year, which has produced massive unemployment in Germany as elsewhere, has generated a crisis for the comfortable “postmodern pluralism” of Western nations, including Germany itself, whose complexion has been altered irremediably by immigration and the democratic mingling of peoples and cultures. Suddenly the presence of economic stress everywhere, not just among the marginalized but among the once well-established middle class, reveals the “otherness” of the other in our midst rather than as a piece of a pretty pastiche of society’s “diverse” elements.
The crisis, according to Faix, has also exposed the the white middle classiness of the church, even that part of the church which is theoretically conscious of the need to serve the other. This kind of “social change brings with it [the need for serious] theological change,” Faix writes in his email, a change that may have “painful” (schmerzlich) side effects.
The pain of the new world disorder we are facing today will force sweeping theological change throughout the theological spectrum of the West, even the postmodern sectors of it. As it has been said, there is no gain without pain, and of course no change without pain either.
If Faix’s typically German practical-theoretical vision for the current need to re-invent theology, the country that has experienced much historical pain – unlike America – may be the place where it will begin to happen.
Note: photos above are those of Peter Sloterdijk and Tobias Faix, respectively.