Postmodern “Violence”: A Case Study in Stretching a Word to the Breaking Point
by Roger Olson
July 9, 2013
For the past few years I’ve been reading a lot of postmodern philosophy—focusing especially on its implications for Christianity. I taught a course on “Postmodernity and Christianity” and included a section on postmodern theology in my forthcoming book The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (InterVarsity Press). And I have participated in a book discussion group that reads primarily books related to postmodern thought and its implications for Christian theology, ethics and church life. Still, I feel that I have only scratched the surface of the subject.
I’ve learned a lot from my recent studies of postmodern thought. One thing I’ve learned is to be suspicious of all totalizing metanarratives—ideologies, worldviews, systems of thought that claim to explain everything and also exclude all dissenting perspectives and voices. Under the influence of postmodern thought I’ve also moved away from all forms of foundationalist epistemology although I still believe in the importance of logic in persuasive discourse.
My study of postmodern thought has revealed diversity within it. Not all postmodern philosophers are cognitive nihilists or relativists; some of the best known ones believe in absolutes. They just don’t believe in the “presence” of absolutes or direct apprehension of them. But one cannot read the later Derrida, for example, without realizing he believed in justice, for example, as absolute (although he preferred the term “undeconstructible”)....
One thing I have learned from my study of postmodern thought is that there is a continuum between unwarranted exclusion (e.g., tribalism) and violence and even between totalizing world views and violence. I have learned to be suspicious of attitudes and behaviors that try to “normalize” Others by making them the “Same.” (I recently observed a white male interacting with an African child and commenting on her “beautiful blue eyes”—which she didn’t have. It was clearly an attempt to normalize her—to bring her within his orbit of what he could relate to. Without my study of postmodern thought I probably would have had no idea what he was doing. And the point is not to judge him but to try to avoid such behavior and the attitudes underlying it myself.)