A Postmodern Christianity?

The instantiation of postmodern preferences has had varying effects on ecclesial communities, and has even given rise to new religious groups.

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong,  “Tower of Babel” painting, Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo 

The salient characteristics of postmodern philosophy can be seen in many aspects of contemporary culture. In particular, the “flight from being (or truth)” is particularly evident in the areas of politics, ethics, and religion and is not constrained by the principle of non-contradiction. The rejection of grand narratives, fragmentation of knowledge, loss of the human subject, and so-called “death of man,” have had particularly devastating consequences on both the academic study of theology, and the practice of religion. Philosophers, theologians, and indeed entire ecclesial communities have attempted to adapt the Christian faith to this new perspective.

The instantiation of postmodern preferences has had varying effects on ecclesial communities, and has even given rise to new religious groups. Due to the absence of a Magisterium, the Protestant mainline has been greatly weakened, and the religious culture of the United States profoundly changed, by postmodern influences. New groups have also emerged that explicitly appeal to the postmodern mind, such as the so-called “Emerging Church.” With the formation of the Unitarian Universalist Church in 1961, the postmodern project finds an even more profound realization. Finally, one encounters the most extreme instantiation of the postmodern preferences in the pensiero debole (weak thought) and teologia debole (weak theology) of the Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo. Nonetheless, whatever the approach may be, any endeavor to marry the postmodern preferences to Christianity will be deleterious to encountering the central message of the Gospel summed up in the ancient acronym:  ΙΧΘΥΣ—Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior 1—“for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 RSV)

The Postmodern Project
Postmodernity is not simply a philosophical movement that follows modernism, but rather is a reaction to it. The Italian archbishop and theologian, Bruno Forte, offers the insightful metaphor of light and darkness: “The night is that which follows the setting of the light. If the light is the metaphor of the modern spirit, the night is the metaphor of postmodernity, that is, of this time in which the strong reason of modernity is rediscovered as a weak, uncertain, and restless reason. The night is a time of shipwrecks.” 2

Archbishop Forte draws from a commentary by the German philosopher, Hans Blumemberg, on the work of the ancient Roman writer, Lucretius, entitled De Rerum Natura. According to Blumemberg, the Epicurian mentality of ancient Rome could be understood in the story of a spectator who observes a shipwreck. While he is filled with terror witnessing the disaster, he takes consolation in the fact that his feet are firmly rooted on the land. He might have the thought, “Poor fellow…well…at least it isn’t me.” The postmodern man though finds himself on the sinking ship. He must seek to gather the remaining pieces of the ship and build another boat in order to survive.

In the darkness, in the midst of the shipwreck of contemporary thought, “that which is put in crisis is not so much ‘meaning’ (senso), but the quest (ricerca 3) for meaning.” 4 The struggle with modernity was the quest for hope and meaning in a world dominated by cold reason and calculation. However, in the “great drama” of the night of postmodernism, one must confront an attitude of indifference in which everything is “dim, ephemeral, fleeting….The crisis of postmodernity is, in sum, the loss of the taste of seeking the meaning to live and to die.” 5

The conditions for the emergence of postmodernism can be traced back to the existentialism of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, as well as the atheism and nihilism of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. While modernism fell into the error of asserting that “being” is posited by cognitive consciousness, postmodernism suggests that any subjective foundation which is achieved can be the object of a more radical deconstruction. Therefore, the modernist foundation of cognitive consciousness may be further resolved into social praxis, history, literary criticism, language, or aesthetics. In opposition to modernist humanists who focused on man’s consciousness and free will as the source of his thought and action, the human subject itself is deconstructed by postmoderns and no longer the receiver of meaning or a being of central importance.

Postmodern thinkers suggest that the unconscious mind is the dominant force in man, and that consciousness is severely constrained by the constructs of human language with which man attempts to “create reality.” It is not surprising then that this radical deconstruction creates hostility to any truth that is “suspiciously” given without the receiving subject assigning it meaning. This phenomenon is referred to as postmodern paranoia, and ultimately fosters a loss of the human subject—the “death of man.” While Nietzsche intended the “death of God” to be an impetus for man to rise up and be the one who proclaims what is good and what is evil, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault devalued this “victory” when they radicalized this concept even further by proclaiming the “death of man.” The American philosopher, Joseph Rice, brilliantly captures the distressing consequence of this death: “Even if we trans-value all values, we do it within a culture centered on man. If man is dead, there is no cultural center, and it is possible to overturn the very idea of culture itself.” 6

In his commentary on Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, the Baptist theologian and literature scholar, Ralph C. Wood, points out that:

Chesterton rightly discerned that Nietzsche was the ultimate exemplar of the turn to the subject that began with Kant—indeed, that he would be the philosophical father of the postmodern and irrationalist century to come. Though in 1908, Nietzsche had just recently been translated into English, Chesterton saw immediately that he would inaugurate the triumph of will over reason. With remarkable acuity, Chesterton goes to the heart of the matter: “Will, they say, creates. The ultimate authority, they say, is in will, not reason. The supreme point is not why a man demands a thing, but the fact that he does demand it … They say choice itself is the divine thing.” Whereas the real was once the rational, it is now the chosen and the felt. 7 {emphasis added}

While the medieval philosophers began their ricerche with metaphysics, i.e., speculative access to being, and modernist thinkers gave priority to ethics, i.e., practical access to meaning, the postmodernist believes that aesthetics is foundational. Through emphasizing “style,” postmodernism denies meaning as part of its flight from truth.

Postmodernism also gives emphasis to conflict as a positive value. This is in stark contrast to Aristotelian philosophy, which sees contradiction as a dead end. Postmodern philosophy goes beyond the Hegelian Dialectic to make conflict a first principle. “Ultimate resolution is not the goal.” 8 In this spirit, postmodern thinkers also express a disbelief and rejection of grand narratives. As Wood points out:

If objectivist reason gone mad is the perfect description of modernity, the subjectivist denial of reason is the dementia of postmodernity. François Lyotard famously defined postmodernism as the suspicion of all meta-narratives: of all totalizing and exhaustive explanations, whether in the Copernican and Newtonian science of the Enlightenment, or in the Christian creeds that narrate the story of the entire cosmos. 9

The modernist grand narratives of the triumph of science and engineering, as well as the spread of democracy and liberty, were not taken seriously.  Suspicion and disbelief filled the void, and interdisciplinary research possibilities and systematic knowledge were deemed impossible:

The central postmodernist premise is that multiple viewpoints and multiple interests enlarge our comprehension of the finally incomprehensible universe, whereas a singular and definitive perspective denies this irreducible multiplicity of viewpoints. As with rationalist modernism, so with irrationalist postmodernism: There is much truth in it. All our seeing is indeed subjective and culture-bound. We behold the world through the lenses of our own conceptions and assumptions. All truth is filtered and sieved, all understanding rooted in time and place and community. There is no view from nowhere, no godlike perch from which we can view the world neutrally—as if it were God’s own view. But from the valid premise that there is no such thing as naked knowledge, postmodern relativists and emotivists reach invalid conclusions. They hold that we can make no comparative moral judgments, engage in no time-transcending religious arguments, allow no privileging of certain cultures—for example, cultures that dignify women over cultures that demean them, or even governments that enhance democratic freedoms over those that destroy them. 10 {emphasis added}

The Roman Catholic theologian, the Rev. Isaías Díez del Río, O.S.A., identifies postmodern preferences, which perhaps, more than any other description, capture the essence of postmodern thought.  Postmoderns prefer 11:

  1. The individual to the universal
  2. The psychological to the ideological
  3. Communication to communion
  4. Information to knowledge (truth)
  5. Diversity to homogeneity
  6. Permissiveness to coercion
  7. Multi-criteria to norms and dogma
  8. An eclectic approach to a systematic one
  9. What is vital and existential to what is logical and reasonable
  10. Opinion to ideas and thought
  11. Sentiments to reason
  12. Artisanship to art
  13. Aesthetics to ethics
  14. Syncretism to unity of belief
  15. Multiculturalism to culture
  16. Complete irrationalism to absolute rationalism
  17. What is particular to what is universal or cosmopolitan
  18. What is private and personal to what is public and social
  19. Egoism to solidarity
  20. Subjectivity to objectivity
  21. Personal impulses and instinctual feelings to objective norms and values
  22. Pleasure to asceticism and violence
  23. Options to obligations
  24. Frankness to secrecy
  1. Human needs to technological demands
  2. Multiplicity and difference to uniqueness and uniformity
  3. Micro to macro
  4. Minorities to majorities
  5. Local/concrete contexts to global contexts
  6. Marginal dissent to global consensus
  7. Micro-groups to macro-communities
  8. Emotional, sectarian communities to ecclesial communities
  9. Spontaneous leaders to legal or traditional  leaders
  10. Personalism to authority
  11. “Deconstruction” of the inherited world to its affirmation
  12. “Decolonization” to colonization
  13. The people, and ethnic groups, to the nation
  14. Adolescent immaturity to adult maturity
  15. Ambiguity to clarity and distinction
  16. What is weak to what is strong
  17. What is frivolous to what is serious
  18. What is ephemeral, unstable, and transitory, to what is firm, stable, and lasting
  19. Leisure and partying to work
  20. Consumerism to production

The instantiation of these preferences in the Protestant mainline, the “emerging Church,” the Unitarian Universalist Church, and Vattimo’s post-theist “Christianity” will be identified in the subsequent analysis.

Postmodernism in the Protestant Mainline
Mainline Protestantism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been saturated with postmodern thought. In particular, the postmodern preference of the individual over the universal has been devastating to liberal Protestantism. When an ecclesial community no longer maintains a shared belief system, what remains? The American philosopher, Joseph Bottum, answers the question:

Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran—the name hardly matters anymore. It’s true that if you dig through the conservative manifestos and broadsides of the past 30 years, you find one distressed cry after another, each bemoaning the particular path by which this or that denomination lost its intellectual and doctrinal distinctiveness. After you’ve read a few of these outraged complaints, however, the targets begin to blur together. The names may vary, but the topics remain the same: the uniformity of social class at the church head­quarters, the routine genuflections toward the latest political causes, the feminizing of the clergy, the unimportance of the ecclesial points that once defined the denomination, the substitution of leftist social action for Christian evangelizing, and the disappearance of biblical theology. All the mainline churches have become essentially the same church: their histories, their theologies, and even much of their practice, lost to a uniform vision of social progress. Only the names of the corporations that own their properties seem to differ. 12

Without a Magisterium, no sure mechanism is in place to prevent Protestant leaders from teaching ideas radically contradictory to their own tradition, e.g., the extreme case of the Episcopal bishop, John Shelby Spong. While Spong is certainly not a typical Episcopal clergyman, it is shocking that he would be elected by the Episcopal clergy and laity of northern New Jersey to be their spiritual leader because he rejects theism itself. He also denies the theological value of the biblical story of creation, the fact of virgin conception of Christ, all biblical miracles, the sacrificial and redemptive value of the Cross, the Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension of Jesus, biblical morality, the value of prayer, and the fact of eternal life.  13 Spong served for 24 years as an Episcopal bishop, and remains in good standing, albeit retired. The postmodern preference for personal impulses and instinctual feelings to objective norms and values is obviously present here.

Not surprisingly, the liberal religion project has not been a fruitful one, and appears to be destroying itself. An illustrative case comes to us from the influential German Reformed theologian, Jürgen Moltmann. “Liberation theology, secular theology, feminist theology, eco-theology—Jürgen Moltmann lent a measure of Germanic gravitas to them all,” 14 said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus. In Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place, he recounts a significant theological conference in 1971: “The discussions were hard but heartfelt, for our common concern was the one common truth. The conference was one of the last of its kind, before postmodern arbitrariness set in, and everyone was content with his own truth.” 15  As usual, Neuhaus’ comment is incisive:

That last sentence is poignant. A Broad Placeis the story of a greatly gifted man who has lived robustly, and is touchingly grateful for friends and honors. It would have been a more interesting book had the author reflected self-critically on his contributions to the circumstance of liberal theology that made that conference “one of the last of its kind.” 16

The postmodern preference of diversity over homogeneity apparently spelled the end of this gathering of theologians.

The adoption of postmodern preferences by the mainline has not only led to a loss of identity, but very likely has also contributed to a severe drop in membership. While extensive social science studies would be required to conclusively determine all the causes for declining numbers, preferences for permissiveness to coercion and options to obligations are certainly not conducive to encourage regular Sunday attendance and, ultimately, continued membership in an ecclesial community. Perhaps, the most extreme example can be seen in the Episcopal Church. In 1959, the Episcopal Church’s membership hit an all-time high of 3,444,265. This level was maintained until about 1967, when a decline began, bringing the membership down to 2,057,292 in 2008—a loss of 40 percent! 17 According to the Anglican journalist, David Virtue, the future of the Episcopal Church does not look hopeful. Virtue analyzed the average Sunday attendance of the 6,825 Episcopal parishes in the United States.  He found that 4,597 parishes have 100 or less parishioners per Sunday! 18

The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 as a result of mergers of like-minded Methodist communities, beginning with 10,990,720 members. By 2007, the UMC membership had dropped to 7,853,987—losing 28 percent of its members. Similarly, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was the fruit of another merger in 1983 and began with 3,122,213 members. By 2008, membership had declined to 2,844,952—a loss of nine percent.  Finally, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was formed from a 1988 merger, beginning with 5,251,534 members. Within 20 years, membership in the ELCA had dropped to 4,633,887—a loss of 12 percent. 19

The Catholic laity is not immune from the influences of the larger, postmodern culture of America, and many parishes have experienced declining numbers on Sundays mornings.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that from 1998-2008, membership in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, a denomination which has not allowed the postmodern preferences to affect its doctrine, law, and liturgy, grew 22 percent to 67,117,016. 20 While many factors affect Church membership numbers such as immigration, exogenous cultural influences, etc., the stability of the Church’s teaching on faith and morals has no doubt kept it from drifting into postmodern insignificance. Similarly, the constancy of doctrine, at least in the area of morals, has been a stabilizing factor in evangelical congregations. The tradition of pastors rebuking other pastors, sometimes quite strongly, who are perceived to be deviating from an evangelical interpretation of Scripture, mitigates postmodern influences as well.

The “Emerging” Church
The Anabaptist New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, offers a summary of the common perception of the Emerging Church (EC): 21

It is said that emerging Christians confess their faith like mainliners—meaning they say things publicly they don’t really believe:

  • They drink like Southern Baptists—meaning, to adapt some words from Mark Twain, they are teetotalers when it is judicious.
  • They talk like Catholics—meaning they cuss and use naughty words.
  • They evangelize and theologize like the Reformed—meaning they rarely evangelize, yet theologize all the time.
  • They worship like charismatics—meaning with their whole bodies, some parts tattooed.
  • They vote like Episcopalians—meaning they eat, drink, and sleep on their left side.
  • And, they deny the truth—meaning they’ve got a latte-soaked copy of Derrida in their smoke- and beer-stained backpacks.

While this characterization is obviously intended to provoke the reader to laughter, it is a helpful introduction to the complexity of this movement. More seriously, McKnight identifies five themes that are useful to understand the Emerging Church.  It is:

  • Provocative
  • Postmodern
  • Praxis-Oriented
  • Post-Evangelical
  • Political

McKnight is upfront with the fact that the “prophetic” stances and techniques of EC pastors and writers can be divisive and end up doing more harm than good. With regard to postmodernity, he explicitly rejects the “denial of truth” but welcomes the rejection of meta-narratives. McKnight borrows three categories from the EC pastor, Doug Pagitt. Pagitt suggests that there are EC pastors who “minister to postmoderns, others with postmoderns, and still others as postmoderns.” 22 The Norwegian theologian, F. LeRon Shults, would certainly self-identify with the latter type:

From a theological perspective, this fixation with propositions can easily lead to the attempt to use the finite tool of language on an absolute Presence that transcends and embraces all finite reality. Languages are culturally constructed symbol systems that enable humans to communicate by designating one finite reality in distinction from another. The truly infinite God of Christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping, as all the great theologians from Irenaeus to Calvin have insisted, and so the struggle to capture God in our finite propositional structures is nothing short of linguistic idolatry. 23

Behind this statement, there seems to be the postmodern preference of subjectivity to objectivity, and a latent Kantianism that emphasizes the constrictive conditions placed upon the subject, and the resultant inability of penetrating to the “thing in itself.”  While Shults is correct that God’s existence cannot be completely captured, conceptually or propositionally, both concepts and propositions can tell us something about God himself, and his loving plan of salvation. If they could not, then the Church’s entire understanding of revelation and dogmatic truth would collapse. It is for this reason that analogical language has played such a significant role in Christian theology. A presumptuous subjectivity, whether purely Kantian or distinctly postmodern, leads inevitably to relativism. On the other hand, an unbalanced objectivity does not acknowledge the historical, cultural, and linguistic limitations that are associated with every human formulation. Therefore, the Christian theologian must recognize and understand such limitations, while still showing that these do not exclude the attainment of universal truth. 24

The Roman Catholic theologian, Msgr. Patrick Burke, sums up well the postmodern approach to religion: “The essence of (post)modernism is that every human being has already a subjective religious experience which is more fundamental than any objective dogmatic propositions. Subjective experience precedes the objective. There is no such thing as objective truth.” 25 The neo-scholastic understanding of faith as an assent to propositions which come to us from the Magisterium is rejected in this system. Given this system’s success in sustaining Catholic orthodoxy, it is no surprise to see the position of Shults and others in the Emerging Church movement who seek to be liberated form the “constraints” of language and concepts. However, not all those associated with the Emerging Church would go as far as Shults. For example, Brian McLaren, a prominent leader of the Emerging Church movement, describes early postmodernism as “chemotherapy” against the “cancer” of the absolutism of the past. 26 In his approach, the challenge is to further appropriate postmodernism for a contemporary expression of Christianity relevant to 21st century man.

McKnight’s research on the Emerging Church reveals a great emphasis on the role of praxis in Christian life. This focus on orthopraxis leads to a new ecclesiology that expresses itself in worship and evangelization. Interestingly, some EC communities are reversing the reforming trend of Martin Luther and John Calvin in the liturgy. Contrary to some of their traditional evangelical cousins, EC worship may incorporate incense, bells, and candles. An attempt is made to create a sacred space in which Christian ritual may be practiced. Unfortunately, the emphasis on orthopraxis, right living, comes at the expense of orthodoxy, right praise/belief:  “The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes.” 27  Finally, the perspective on evangelization and mission departs from traditional Christianity.  Instead of placing an emphasis on the salvation of souls, the EC seeks primarily to build up the Kingdom through social justice and societal reform.

The Emerging Church is post-evangelical in at least three ways. First, it is “post-systematic theology.” The number and diversity of contradictory “systems” leads them to reject the ricerca of a methodical and organized understanding of God and his Church. EC leaders are content to remain at the level of a narrative theology which is not fixed and always open to discussion. Therefore, the leaders of the emerging Church will not even draft a “Statement of Beliefs” as most denominations and autonomous evangelical churches have. Second, it rejects the “in versus out” attitude of evangelicals, i.e., you are either in the Church and saved or out and damned. Some EC members express this belief through classic universalism, while others are content to merely express their satisfaction with those who love God and neighbor in their own way, even if it excludes Christ, without getting into the “last things.” Finally, the EC is post-evangelical in its political orientation. While most evangelicals would vote Republican and can be very concerned with matters such as the Right to Life and the defense of traditional marriage, the emerging Church is decisively Democrat and is aligned with the party’s emphasis on enlarging the federal government to attain social justice aims. 28

Unitarian Universalism
Universalism is the Christian heresy which teaches that no human soul will be sent to eternal punishment in hell. Unitarianism is another ancient heresy which teaches that God is not triune. Although Unitarianism first emerged in a formal way in the post-Apostolic period, the American manifestation comes from early 19thcentury New England Congregationalism. The Unitarian Universalist Association (U.U.A.) was created in 1961 through the merger of the North American Universalists and Unitarians. It describes itself as:

A liberal religion with Jewish-Christian roots. It has no creed. It affirms the worth of human beings, advocates freedom of belief and the search for advancing truth, and tries to provide a warm, open, supportive community for people who believe that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion. 29

For the UUA, “flexibility, freedom of conscience, and local autonomy are prime values. No minister, member, or congregation ‘shall be required to subscribe to any particular interpretation of religion, or to any particular religious belief or creed’.” 30 “Unitarian Universalists include people who identify as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and others.” 31

Clearly, the principles of the U.U.A. implement the postmodern preferences of individual over universal, communication over communion, information over knowledge (truth), diversity over homogeneity, multi-criteria over dogma, opinions over thought, syncretism over unity of belief, what is private and personal over what is public and social, subjectivity over objectivity, options over obligations, multiplicity and difference over uniqueness and uniformity, and personalism over authority. But what of revelation 32 In the Christian tradition, divine revelation is:

…nothing less than God’s unveiledness, His free, gratuitous self-manifestation to us. While it is certainly true that this manifestation is always filtered, by necessity, through human concepts, symbols, linguistic conventions, and historically and culturally conditioned perspectives, this does not distract from the fundamental Christian conviction that it is God himself who has entered into a loving relationship with His creation and freely manifested something of His own inner life. 33 {emphasis added}

How can individualism, mere communication and information, diversity, anti-dogmatism, opinion, syncretism, privatism, subjectivity, options, difference, and personalism receive such a gift when the Giver said, “I am the way, and the Truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”  (John 14:6 RSV)? {emphasis added}

The Weak Theology of Gianni Vattimo
Gianteresio (Gianni) Vattimo was born in Turin in 1936 and earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy from L’Università degli Studi di Torino in 1959. He pursued doctoral studies at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, studying under Karl Löwith and Hans-Georg Gadamer, and then returned to Turin to begin his academic career in 1964. Vattimo is an internationally recognized expert in the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger and has been awarded visiting professorships at Yale and Stanford. He is also a Communist politician, being a member of the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani and having served in the European Parliament from 1999-2004. 34 Vattimo is well-known in Europe for his promotion of homosexuality and his stance that Hamas is not a terrorist organization, but a legitimate voice of the Palestinian people.

Gianni Vattimo’s recent work expresses a great interest in religion in general and Christianity in particular. Some titles include: Credere di Credere (1996), Per un Cristianesimo Non Religioso (2002), Il Futuro della Religione, Solidarietà, Carità, Ironia (2004), Cos’è la Religione Oggi with Filoramo and Gentile (2005), Dopo La Cristianità, Verità e Fede Debole: Dialogo su Cristianesimo e Relativismo with Girard (2006), and Atei o Credenti?:  Filosofia, Politica, Etica, Scienza with Arcais and Onfray (2007).  Vattimo is an intellectual of particular interest because he takes postmodern thought to its logical conclusion, and his message taps into the postmodern mentality of many contemporary Europeans and Americans. Gianni Vattimo defines postmodernity as “the time of contamination, everything is contaminated, nothing has value, nothing has meaning.” 35

A true disciple of Nietzsche, the key to understanding Vattimo is his so-called “discovery of the ‘lie,’ the discovery that alleged ‘values’ and metaphysical structures are just a play of forces.” 36

The Roman Catholic theologian, the Rev. Thomas G. Guarino, has entered into a dialogue with Vattimo through his 2009 book, Vattimo and Theology.  Guarino points out that despite the initial theological concerns one has with Vattimo’s thought, he cannot be ignored:

Is it not true that large swaths of society are convinced that, in a world of countless interpretations about the meaning of life, the nature of truth and the existence of God, what actually counts for religious truth is tolerance and charity toward the ‘other’?  Do not many accept the propositions that the passion for religious truth leads, all too often, to smug intolerance?  And that aggressively held dogmatic beliefs are the cause of violence, both spiritual and physical? 37

The foundation of Vattimo’s work in the philosophy of religion is his pensiero debolePensiero debole is to be contrasted with the pensiero forte, i.e., strong, assertive claims to truth. Pensiero debole is Vattimo’s “attempt to reconstruct rationality in a postmodern, post-metaphysical way.” 38 It is a complete rejection of the modern ricerca for the “certainly true,” “really real,” or “absolutely objective.”  “The modern philosophy sought to discover a world that was ‘given’ to us as pure, un-interpreted, unmediated reality.” 39 In fact, in many ways, this is still the goal of empirical science, notwithstanding the challenge posed by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Vattimo’s claim, like so many postmoderns that came before him, is that reality is “given” to us as an “always-already interpreted reality.”40 All experience and knowledge is deeply connected with a human subject, and there exists no way to step outside of human understanding to find objective knowledge. Vattimo therefore concludes that it is completely illegitimate to claim knowledge of “truth, finality, objectivity, and absolute knowledge.” 41 We must settle with weak thought.

In Vattimo’s forays into “theology,” he attempts to develop a teologia debole based on pensiero debole. While a complete exposition of his thought is beyond the scope of this paper, it is helpful to present one key aspect of the teologia debolecaritasCaritas, or ἀγάπη (agape) in Greek, is one of the three theological virtues, along with faith and hope.  St. John tells us that “God is love (Deus caritas est), and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16b RSV)  Caritas is a pure, unselfish love, modeled by Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. It is distinct from the intense desire that characterizes ἔρως (eros) or even the natural, virtuous love of family and friends expressed in φιλία (philia).

Vattimo believes that caritas is one of Christianity’s greatest contributions to mankind and that a “purification” from pensiero forte will lead humanity to a new era of tolerance, solidarity, and fraternity. However, Vattimo’s caritas is not the caritas of the New Testament. Rather, it is an appropriation of a Christian word to mask almost all forty-four of the postmodern preferences identified by Isaías Díez del Río, e.g., personal impulses and instinctual feelings to objective norms and values, syncretism to unity of belief, etc. While Vattimo claims that this “nonreligious” Christianity is the best way to keep Christian values relevant and effective in the public square, a teologia debole can never be reconciled with the teachings of Christ and his Church. 42

When all is said and done, the postmodern mind no longer perceives reality but interprets it to no end. That which postmodern thinkers do not realize is that anything that isn’t realism is simply an intellectual option or commitment: there is no such thing as a naïve postmodernism, just as there is no such thing as a naïve idealism. The great French Thomist, Étienne Gilson, described well the situation: “We have always been realists, and those who say they think differently think as realists as soon as they forget to act the part. If you ask yourself why, your conversion to realism is all but complete.” 43

While Christian philosophers and theologians must engage non-foundationalist thought and the currents of postmodernism which are so prevalent in contemporary society, Thomas Guarino sums up our fundamental commitment as disciples of Jesus:

…revelation and Christian faith cannot chain themselves to any philosopher whose thought is essentially non-foundationalist or who finds metaphysics…inappropriate. To cast one’s philosophical and theological lots in this direction is to either lose the intelligibility associated with faith’s claims or to abandon the material unity and continuity of faith that is essential to Christianity’s self-understanding. 44

The attempts by the Protestant mainline, the Emerging Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and the “nonreligious” Christianity of Gianni Vattimo to reconcile the teachings and mission of Jesus Christ with the preferences of postmodern philosophy have been an extraordinary failure.

In an attempt to be “relevant” to postmodern man, the historic Protestant communities have transformed themselves in such a way that many Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian families no longer feel the need to attend Sunday services. After all, options trump obligations. The Emerging Church remains a small movement largely of disaffected evangelicals with little concern for preaching the unicity of Jesus as Lord and Savior. In the more extreme instantiations of the postmodern preferences, as have been expressed in the Unitarian Universalist Church and the post-church “Christianity” of Vattimo, one finds even less interest from cercatori di Dio (seekers of God). If there is no such thing as objective truth and God has not definitively revealed himself through his Son, why rouse yourself for morning “worship” at a Unitarian Universalist Church?  All that remains is the man, alone on the sinking ship in the dark of night, clumsily trying to build a post-human, post-Christian lifeboat.

  1. Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ.
  2. Bruno Forte, “Parola e Silenzio nella Riflessione Teologica,” Settimana di Camoldi 2001: www.nostreradici.it/parola_silenzio.htm accessed February 29, 2012.
  3. The Italian word, ricerca or ricerche (plural), is used in the sense of an intellectual quest.
  4. Forte, “Parola e Silenzio.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Joseph Rice, “History of Philosophy III,” (class lecture, Seton Hall University, November 4, 2008).
  7. Ralph C. Wood, “Orthodoxy at a Hundred,” First Things (November 2008):  42.
  8. Rice, “History of Philosophy.”
  9. Wood, 42.
  10. Ibid.
  11.  Isaías Díez del Río, “Postmodernidad y Nueva Religiosidad.” Religion y Cultura, 39 (184), 55-91.  Translation by Joseph Rice for the author.
  12. Joseph Bottum. “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline.” First Things (August/September 2008): http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/08/001-the-death-of-protestant-america-a-political-theory-of-the-protestant-mainline-19 accessed November 7, 2008.
  13. John S. Spong “A Call for a New Reformation.” The Fourth R, 11(4): http://www.westarinstitute.org/Periodicals/4R_Articles/spong_theses.html accessed October 1, 2012.
  14. Richard J. Neuhaus, “What We Can’t Not Know,” First Things (October 2008):  http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/09/what-we-cant-not-know-38  accessed October 2, 2012.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. “The Association of Religion Data Archives.” http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/families/index.asp  accessed February 26, 2012.
  18. David Virtue, “The Raw Numerical Truth about the Episcopal Church,” Virtue Online (23 August 2011): http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=14783#.T6eDHuuP-Sq accessed  May 7, 2012
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church.”  Christianity Today (February 2007): http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/february/11.35.html accessed 2 March 2012.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Original statement widely distributed on the internet and cited in Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2008), 234.
  24. Thomas G. Guarino, Foundations of Systematic Theology (New York:  T&T Clark International, 2005), 209-268.
  25. Patrick Burke, “Paradigmatic Shifts in Twentieth Century Thomism,” (class lecture, Pontifical Gregorian University, 1 October 2012).
  26. Terry L. Heaton, “10 Questions for Brian McLaren,” AR&Dhttp://www.thepomoblog.com/papers/10Q7.htm accessed 2 March 2012.
  27. McKnight, 2007
  28. Ibid.
  29. “About Our Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.” http://www.uua.org/association/ accessed 20 February 2012.
  30. F.S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill, and Craig D. Atwood, Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2005), 371-372.
  31. “Our Principles” http://cvuuf.org/principles.php accessed 20 February 2012.
  32. “It is indeed thanks to this divine revelation, that those matters concerning God which are not of themselves beyond the scope of human reason, can, even in the present state of the human race, be known by everyone without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error. It is not because of this that one must hold revelation to be absolutely necessary; the reason is that God directed human beings to a supernatural end, that is a sharing in the good things of God that utterly surpasses the understanding of the human mind; indeed eye has not seen, neither has ear heard, nor has it come into our hearts to conceive what things God has prepared for those who love him. Now this supernatural revelation, according to the belief of the universal Church, as declared by the sacred Council of Trent, is contained in written books and unwritten traditions, which were received by the apostles from the lips of Christ himself, or came to the apostles by the dictation of the Holy Spirit, and were passed on as it were from hand to hand until they reached us.”  Dei Filius Chapter 2:3-5.
  33. Guarino, Foundations, 1.
  34. Thomas G. Guarino, Vattimo and Theology (New York:  T&T Clark International, 2009), 2.
  35. Forte, “Parola e Silenzio.”
  36. Gianni Vattimo, The Adventure of Difference: Philosophy after Nietzsche and Heidegger trans. Thomas Harrison and Cyprian P. Blamires (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 93. This is a translation of the original Le Avventure della Differenza (Milan:  Garzanti, 1980).
  37. Guarino, Vattimo, 4.
  38. Ibid., 9.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid
  41. Ibid.
  42. Instead of a purification of Christian doctrine from pensiero forte, Christians would do well to follow the teaching of Blessed John Paul II who said that:  “…faith purifies reason. As a theological virtue, faith liberates reason from presumption, the typical temptation of the philosopher. St. Paul, the Fathers of the Church and, closer to our own time, philosophers such as Pascal and Kierkegaard reproached such presumption. The philosopher who learns humility will also find courage to tackle questions which are difficult to resolve if the data of Revelation are ignored—for example, the problem of evil and suffering, the personal nature of God and the question of the meaning of life or, more directly, the radical metaphysical question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’.” Fides et Ratio 76
  43. Étienne Gilson, Methodical Realism: A Handbook for Beginning Realists, trans. Philip Trower (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 2011), 93.
  44. Guarino, Foundations, 339.
Rev. Joseph R. Laracy About Rev. Joseph R. Laracy

Rev. Joseph R. Laracy is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark and licentiate student in fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He studied ecclesiastical philosophy at Immaculate Conception Seminary in New Jersey and entered the theologate at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, earning the STB degree from the Gregorian in 2012. Father Laracy has a MS degree in engineering systems from MIT, and a BS in computer engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His recent articles have appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review and Faith magazine.


  1. Father—this was outstanding so thank you for your fine effort. Not being steeped in the philosophical underpinnings of post modern man, I have reduced, hopefully without insult to you, a simple man’s view of this tortured outlook. I view modernity as the secular attempt to deceptively pit reason against faith. Post modernity is reason consuming itself….reason completely unhinged from faith as a consequence flowing from its parent modernism. Thus, post modernity has its own lexicon—choice, tolerance, diversity, etc, and its own institutions—-statism, corporatism, consumerism and nihilism.

  2. Avatar Charles E Flynn says:

    I wonder how this impressive article compares with the contents of ISBN 0192802399.

    In my experience, people who profess to believe in post-modern subjectivity put aside their belief system and begin to demand verifiable empirical evidence when confronted with:

    1. A plan to treat a serious, or at least a very annoying, illness that affects them or someone about whom they care deeply.

    2. A long-term investment dilemma.

    3. The potentially embarrassing decision regarding the purchase of knock-offs as opposed to the authorized production of the acknowledged (by the authorities) masterpieces of twentieth-century furniture and other industrial design objects.

    4. The need to decide upon and act upon a backup strategy to protect their computer data.

  3. Fr. Laracy, Thank you for your article. I need to respond to a part of it concerning the effects on the Catholic Church in particular. You wrote,
    “The Catholic laity is not immune from the influences of the larger, postmodern culture of America, and many parishes have experienced declining numbers on Sunday mornings.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that from 1998-2008, membership in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, a denomination which has not allowed the postmodern preferences to affect its doctrine, law, and liturgy, grew 22 percent to 67,117,016. While many factors affect Church membership numbers such as immigration, exogenous cultural influences, etc., the stability of the Church’s teaching on faith and morals has no doubt kept it from drifting into postmodern insignificance.”

    Several points:

    First, the Church in the U.S. is holding its own in membership solely because of immigration. The Catholic Church in the US is losing American-born members. In America, out of those adult Catholics born and raised in the Church (“cradle Catholics”), only 68% remain. Of the 32% who left the Church, 18% converted to some other religion and 14% abandoned “church” altogether. The recent Pew Forum “Landscape Survey” of religious affiliation in the US reports a troubling analysis:
    “An analysis of changes in religious affiliation … finds that Catholicism has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group. These losses, however, have been offset partly by people who have switched their affiliation to Catholicism, but mostly by the significant number of Catholics who have immigrated to the U.S. in recent decades, primarily from Latin America.”

    Second, In my observations, the “stability of the Church’s teaching on faith and morals” has been mostly hidden from the laity, and for that reason has not driven even more post-modernists in the pews away from the Church – not yet, anyway. Catholic adults are woefully ignorant and inarticulate about Catholic faith and morals. Why this shameful ignorance, in spite of the “New Evangelization,” and the “Year of Faith”, and all the magisterial documents urging substantive adult catechesis? Because such catechesis is not happening, regardless of the many words urging it. It is not happening.

    The “stability of the Church’s teaching on faith and morals” is hidden from the laity by silence from the pulpits, by lack of funding and support of adult catechesis in parish budgets, by lack of promotion of and interest and leadership in adult catechesis among the clergy – and perhaps even by fear of offending the postmodernists in the pews and the effect that might have on the collection plate.

    As postmodernism grows in our culture, it becomes darker, more threatening and problematic. The Church is sent to be light in such darkness, and yet we seem to be hiding and in denial. Thank you for your article. The problem needs to be taken much more seriously, and realistically, than it has.

  4. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Father Laracy, this paper is right on target and presents the true facts logically about relativism, subjectivism, and irreligion. In opposition stands the Roman Catholic Church with its solid bedrock of Faith and Morals centered in the Papal magisterium and the Extraordinary Episcopal Magisterium. God bless us.


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