Thursday, February 22, 2007

Is Kung Really Postmodern?

I had a silly argument with a professor today - the kind I really should avoid, I suspect. In my Paradigms of Christian Mission class the professor criticized one of the texts for "failing to interact with or account for postmodernism." It was a valid criticism. However, I interjected with something like this:

"But the author does borrow his paradigm framework from Hans Kung's work, and so at least in that respect interacts with something postmodern."

The professor then replied with something like:

"Hans Kung is decidedly not postmodern. He is a thoroughly modern theologian, and that fact is borne out by his global ethic, which tries - like a Western imperialist - to impose a single global ethic on all peoples regardless of their cultural situation."

Arrogant as I am, I thought that comment didn't reflect a very good understand of Kung, nor much of a knowledge of his work. That the professor then confessed to not having read much Kung irked me more. In fact, she confessed, I almost was almost certainly better acquainted with Kung's work. Nevertheless, she simply couldn't see how I could claim that Kung was postmodern.

After class, like the young fool that I am, I gave her a brief primer in the postmodern aspects of Kung. Thankfully, she is a kind and gracious women, and our conversation was constructive. At the end of it she asked for the titles of some books that she should read to better understand the extent to which Kung's historical and contextual approach to systematic theology can be considered postmodern.

Of course, along with her lack of knowledge of or interest in Kung, the amorphous nature of the word "postmodern" contributed to our disagreement. It is possible that every person who has ever used the term has meant something different by it. It may be appropriate that a world-view that denies the possibility of any non-contextual, over-arching world-view cannot be given a broad definition. After all, if it is anything, postmodernism is the rejection of such broad definitions or grand narratives.

In any event, our conversation got me wondering what exactly we mean when we say that something is "postmodern," and whether or not that term can be properly applied to the work of Hans Kung. I don't think I can answer either of those questions satisfactorily, but in my quest to come up with a halting answer I did get to read a paper that I wrote in an undergraduate Philosophy of Religious course on a section of Hans Kung's Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View (first published in German as Theologie im Aufbruch).

When nominating that book for Patrik's Best Contemporary Theology Meme I wrote:

This could be the magnum opus of postmodern Christian theology...

The following paper should make it clear why I - despite my professor's opinion that Kung is more modern than postmodern - would say something like that:


Hans Küng’s book, Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View, outlines his vision for the direction of theology and the Catholic Church (in the truest sense of the word ‘catholic’) in the “postmodern” world. This paper is primarily concerned with part of an introductory section of this book, titled “The Function of Religion in Postmodernity,” in which Küng argues that changes in the way that people view the world, and their place in it, have profound implications for the role of religion in the human experience.

This is, of course, not a novel idea. Religion is a profound part of the human experience. Changes in the human experience ought to have some impact on both the content and role of religion, if religion is to be in any way ‘relevant.’ If, in fact, the human experience is changing, then the human experience of religion, and the role of religion, should be changing as well. And so, Küng outlines his theory on the way that religion (particularly Catholic theology) is changing, and the ways in which it ought to be changing.

Hans Küng is often referred to as a ‘historio-critical’ theologian, which means that his theology is based on, and concerned with, history. As such, the arguments that he builds in his writings can be difficult to follow for someone used to abstract philosophic arguing, because they often depend on historical developments and interpretations of those developments, rather than pure reason and logic. The task here, then, is to pick the main arguments out of his line of historical references, and evaluate them on their own merits. But, before we can do that, we must first discuss an underlying assumption, on which Küng’s entire argument rests.

Hans Küng, writing in 1987, assumes that we are living in a new time, a new age; an age characterized by the “intellectual crisis” of the failure of ‘modernism,’ which became evident after World War I. He, like many others, refers to this age as a ‘postmodern’ age. It is an age which recognizes the limitations of the ‘modern’ world, with its emphasis on human reason, science and technology, and attempts to get past those limitations by approaching problems in a new, more holistic, way.

Küng argues that the ‘modern’ approach to religion is still evident in the writings of “so many pioneering thinkers from Heidegger through Popper to the New Left” which “bracket (italics his) the question of religion.” Instead of this approach to religion, which quarantines religion from the whole of human experience, Küng insists that “we must consider it along with everything else, in a postmodern fashion. (italics his)”

Based on his assumption that we are living in a new time which approaches problems in a new, ‘postmodern’ way, and based on the assumption of that age that all aspects of human experience should be considered more holistically rather than being taken out of their natural environment and analyzed “objectively” and “scientifically” (hallmarks of the ‘modern’ age), Küng makes a number of points which convey his vision for the role of religion in a ‘postmodern’ world.

The first point that Küng makes, then, is that understanding religion, in ‘postmodernity,’ is central to understanding human beings. He says that “without diagnosing and solving the religious (italics his) crisis, no diagnosis and solution of the intellectual situation of our age can be successful” because “the intellectual crisis (italics his) of our time... is decisively co-determined by the religious crisis” evident in the ‘postmodern’ world. This initially seems to be an unargued assumption. He does not defend it philosophically, by building a reasoned argument about the role of religion in individual lives. Instead, per his style and its emphasis on historical developments, he defends this point by bringing up his next point.

Küng insists that “the death of religion expected in late modernity has not taken place (italics his),” but, in fact, contrary to expectations, religion, historically speaking, has become more important to people in recent years. He says, “[n]ot religion, but its dying off, was the grand illusion. Religion is present once more in Western societies and in public too (contrary to all the functionalist theories of the privatization of religion). East and West, North and South, in cultures and subcultures, in scholarly discussions and in the media, in small groups... and in great religious-political movements” religion has become more visible in the ‘postmodern’ age. This is, to Küng, a historical fact which contradicts the modern view of the role of religion in Western/scientific society. “The scientific world picture and the religious orientation to reality, political commitment, and religious faith are,” contrary to the ‘modern’ view of religion, “no longer perceived as incompatible.”

So, according to Küng, religion is essential to understanding the human experience, because religion is vital to the experience of being human. This is demonstrated by the revival of religious expression in postmodernity, a revival which came on the heels of the notion that God, along with religion, is dead. Neither of these points, however, is very profound, and I expect that few people would disagree with them. They are important only for the question that they raise, which is this: what is the role of religion in postmodernity? Or, rather, what direction should religion and the study of religion take in the ‘postmodern’ world?

First, Hans Küng argues that religion should look forward, not backward. It should not take the demise of modernism in society as license to go back to a pre-modern theology, but rather to seriously consider the objections raised by ‘modernism’ and to move past them. He says “[w]e must unhesitatingly resist the global antimodernism, the programmatic Counter-Enlightenment that one sees people today – and not only in the Church – seeking again to promote with every means at their disposal. The theologian will be careful not to take belated revenge for the watchword ‘the death of God’ (now gone out of fashion) with the watchword, ‘the death of modernity.’”

This is an excellent point. While the ‘modern’ view of the world, according to Küng and many others, is no longer sufficient, that it is no longer sufficient does not mean that it was or is entirely wrong. The objections that modernity raised about religion and religious expression are often still valid. Küng’s own theological approach, with its emphasis on history, came out of the modern paradigm, as did biblical criticism. Modernism challenged religion to be, if not exactly ‘reasonable,’ at least not ‘irrational.’ But the modern paradigm did not only criticize the method of religion, it also challenged the results of religion, and that challenge is also still valid. Marx and others were concerned that religion, in their own cultures, served as a means for economic exploitation. That criticism, even after the much ballyhooed “fall of communism” (at least in Europe and the West, if not yet in China), is still a valid one. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, should not use the demise of the modern view of the world as an excuse to retreat to the pre-modern theology that was so successfully criticized by modernity.

So, how, according to Küng, is religion to move past modernity without moving backward? Simply put, we must treat modernity “as a paradigm that has grown old and that must be built up anew,” To do this, we must evaluate ‘modernism,’ keep what still works, and discard what no longer works. First, we must “preserve the critical power of the Enlightenment” while getting rid of “social exploitation and intellectual obscurantism of every sort.” Then “[w]e must deny... the reductionism of modernity, with respect to the deeper spiritual levels of reality. We must also deny modernity’s superstitious faith in reason, science, and progress, along with the self-destructive forces that this faith has unleashed (including nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism) in the course of history… Finally, we must transcend and move beyond modernity, we must sublate it into a paradigm of postmodernity, in which repressed and stunted dimensions” including religion “aim to produce a new, liberating, enriching effect.”

The first of these three suggestions is obvious, and does not need explanation or defense. It seems obvious (to most) that the “critical power of the Enlightenment” still works. However, the second point is less obvious, and rests on a number of assumptions. Küng calls modernity’s “faith in reason, science, and progress” a “superstition,” not unlike the religious superstitions so soundly criticized by the Enlightenment. But is this faith such an obvious superstition that it can be claimed so without additional argument? I imagine that Küng would argue that the answer to that question is undeniably “yes.” After all, he might argue, there is no reason to suppose that human reason is limitless, or that science and technology are the keys to “progress.” In fact, he could say, our faith in this view has led us into a number of problems. In taking dominion over nature in the name of scientific progress, we have done irreparable damage to our natural environment. In developing technology without limit we have designed, in nuclear weapons, devices that could destroy almost all life on the planet, including ourselves. Human beings have obvious technical limits, in that, contrary to the “superstitious faith” of modernity we cannot design devices to do anything and everything, but we are not just limited by our technological capacities. We are also obviously limited by our lack of vision, and this, Küng could argue, is the greatest evidence of the failure of the “superstitious faith” of modernity. We cannot accurately predict the results of our actions, and so we cannot know that what we call “progress” is really “progress,” in the sense that it is moving in the “right” direction, producing positive rather than negative results.

And so, religion must, along with keeping the criticism of the Enlightenment, deny both the reductionism of modernity, which brackets off the human experience into artificial categories, and the “superstitious faith in reason, science, and progress.” This does not mean that reason or science is entirely invalid, but it does mean that they are not the exclusive determiners of what is true. Rather, they must be governed by something else, be it faith, ethics, spirituality, or whatever, so long as it checks the dangerous and destructive assumptions of modernity.

In picking between what from the modern paradigm works, and what doesn’t work, we are moving “beyond modernity,” incorporating it into a new, postmodern paradigm. Establishing these, Küng can finally lay out the project of his whole book (not the subject of this essay) which is the project he sees for theology in the postmodern world: that is, addressing “classic conflicts” (which are the major theological problems throughout history) gaining “future perspectives” (which entails, in addressing those “classic conflicts,” coming up with new theological perspectives) and moving “toward a theology of the world religions” (which will account for the variety of religious beliefs in the world.) Doing this, according to Küng, will make religion and theology relevant to the postmodern human experience.

Whether or not Küng’s suggestions for the direction of religion and theology in the postmodern world turn out to be helpful is not the subject of this paper, and, at this point, it is probably impossible to tell. However, it should be clear from this paper that Küng clearly diagnoses some problems with the modern paradigm, and its approach to religion. Insofar as he outlines his vision for a postmodern theology, that vision is very attractive to me and many others. While his arguments do not use pure reason, they are reasonable, and, more importantly given his theological perspective, they are grounded in history.


Brian said...

Like your professor, I have read little to no Küng. In fact, most of what I know about him comes from reading this post and other posts here at your blog! Having said that, it sounds to me that you (and Küng) and your professor might be disagreeing, not so much about the semantics of the word "postmodernity," but more over what "modernity" is (and thus, what it means to be "post-" modern, that is to say, beyond modernity). Your professor seems to take ethical universalism as the signature hallmark of "modernity", such that being postmodern means presumably having a reflexive distrust of ethical universalism. On the other hand, you seem to view the hallmarks of "modernity" as insensitivity to history and cultural particularity, as well as a broadly scientistic and reductionistic attitude towards explanation. While all of these may be hallmarks of thought in the "modern" period in Europe, it's unclear that as theoretical commitments or orientations they are inherently interrelated; one might maintain some without maintaining others.

For instance, one can be sensitive to history and cultural particularity (and the contingencies of interpretation these bring about) without giving up universalism. Often universalist claims are bound to essentialist claims about human nature and/or experience. For instance, this claim from your Küng paper is patently essentialist:

"[A]ccording to Küng, religion is essential to understanding the human experience, because religion is vital to the experience of being human."

It seems that Küng's effort to "sublate" modernity and its inherent tensions (a very Germanic, Hegelian move!), rather than simply to "change the subject" on modernity (like Richard Rorty once advised everyone to do), is tied to this notion that the problem with modernity was not its universalist and essentialist aims.

Frankly, I don't think that "postmodernism" was ever a coherent program to begin with, and even as an intellectual fashion, it's beginning to fade. That's not to say that criticisms of essentialism and universalism aren't still important, but the rather overblown way in which avowedly "postmodern" authors launched them are, I think, blessedly on the wane.

PamBG said...

Hans Küng, writing in 1987, assumes that we are living in a new time, a new age; an age characterized by the “intellectual crisis” of the failure of ‘modernism,’ which became evident after World War I. He, like many others, refers to this age as a ‘postmodern’ age. It is an age which recognizes the limitations of the ‘modern’ world, with its emphasis on human reason, science and technology, and attempts to get past those limitations by approaching problems in a new, more holistic, way.

I'm not sure this is at all helpful. I read Küng in the late 1970s (and not in the 1980s, when I'd decided that Christianity wasn't for me), and Chris' statement above doesn't surprise me at all. There was a huge discontent with the modernist paradigms of theology in the 1970s and, in my perception, Küng was in the forefront of that discontent.

I can absolutely and totally relate to what you've said in the quoted paragraph, Chris, and this is precisely the way that I view post-modernism. PoMo has contributed some unhelpful things, but if it weren't for this movement in the 1980s, I don't think I would have been a Christian today. Even in the 1970s, modernism looked inadequate to me, but I didn't have a clue with what to replace it - certainly not at the age of 18 and 19!

This has totally not answered your question, but I also believe in the value of understanding history and I can share a bit of "living history" with you in this case. (After I get up off the floor from being blown away by Brian's comment! ;-))

Jeff said...


I think you capture the spirit and thrust of Kung's Theology For The Third Millenium very well.

A problem for me is that I'm not really sure what postmodernism is supposed to mean. I find that progressives and traditionalists both seem to have a way of drawing their own boxes around what the definition of the word encompasses.

If I were pressed to define it on my own terms (as I understand them), I'd say the world right now is in a state of great tension and flux. Due to the explosion of technological and medical advances, we are faced with new challenges we could have never even dreamed of before. With the unanticipated collapse of Communism, laissez-faire capitalism is sweeping the world, and globalization of the world’s economy is causing tremendous upheavals. The nation–state is weakening, and people are adrift and powerless in the face of huge forces outside of their control and are looking for new ways to define community. Half of the world is looking to draw itself further into utilitarianism and the Personal Liberty Principle (I can do whatever I want as long as I don’t “hurt” anyone else) of modernism, and the other half is heading towards tribalism and fundamentalism in order to find an anchor in an uncertain and threatening world. Since we are all impacted by the whipsaw effect of these trends, we have to say that this neo-fundamentalism is just as postmodern as emerging forms of progressive Chrisitianity.

I think Kung is a brilliant thinker with pround insights, but I sometimes wonder if he has allowed himself to become a prisoner of the controversies that have surrounded him. He may have once been cutting edge, but may be a bit behind things now.