From Monologue to Dialogue – Some PoMo Words Defined

Backloading Postmodernism

Recently, The Gospel Coalition announced that it is offering a course on the poststructuralist/postmodernist philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault titled “Derrida, Foucault, and the Bible.”1 They state that the “course will help [students] see what Derrida and Foucault are really saying, and show [students] how [they] can bring their thought into conversation with the Bible.”2 Sadly, many today don’t recognize the “conversation” language as specifically postmodern because it is so prevalent in our society. The same is true for terms like “dialogue,” “community,” and “spaces.” These are, of course, common terms, but they are loaded when placed in contexts such as the above mentioned intro to a course on poststructuralist/postmodernist philosophers. The point of this blog, then, is to point out some loaded terms that Christians should be aware of when we are speaking with proponents of social justice, critical race theory, and cultural Marxism.

Such language is reflective of an underlying worldview that is at odds with the Christian faith. For instance, when a postmodernist states that we should bring x into conversation with y, this implies that neither x nor y “has all the answers” regarding the subject matter of which they speak. For the postmodernist, there is no overarching theory or story of life, no meta-narrative, and so x and y do not emerge from a more general epistemological structure against which they may be evaluated for consistency, cogency, or approximate distance from the truth. Instead, x and y have emerged from different epistemological backgrounds that may be attempting to deal with a particular question or concern of philosophy or anthropology or science or religion, etc, and they are, therefore, related to one another as different approaches to obtaining knowledge. They may be compared and contrasted, as well as heuristically combined in order to further each individual approach, but they are separated from one another at the epistemological root. Bringing a text into conversation with another, therefore, does not mean simply comparing and contrasting different texts, but doing so under the guiding assumption that neither text has “the” “T”ruth, but only articulates, because it is only capable of articulating, a partial and perspectival set of relatively important “t”ruths.

Similarly, the postmodernist privileges dialogue over and against monologue, seeing as no one text can be said to have the Truth to the exclusion of other texts. In postmodernism, monologue is regarded as a totalitarian form of communication, a means of enacting ideological and metaphysical violence in which the voices of those who do not have power are suppressed and marginalized as wrong, incorrect, untrue, or aberrant. For the postmodernist, dialogue places individuals on level ground, where they can exchange ideas with one another in an open-ended format of communication. The assumption, again, is that there is no top-to-bottom communication that gives us an absolute standard against which we may compare and contrast ideas in order to see which are better or worse, more or less conformable to the truth, and true or false.

Given that there is no single unifying narrative, delivered in the form of a monologue, that provides an objective basis for the veridical and axiological evaluation and analysis of ideas, it follows that there are no individuals who are completely isolated and sovereign Subjects capable of obtaining those ideas on his or her own. Thus, the postmodernist privileges the many over and against the one, i.e. the community over and against the individual. Everyone belongs to a community, therefore, without which he or she would be unable to be what they are; thus community is privileged over and against the individual.

Lastly, the notion of “space” in postmodernism follows the same line of reasoning. Rather than viewing social relations as really being hierarchical in nature, postmodernism views them as relative to one another on a horizontal plain. Thus, postmodernist philosophers and theorists will speak of “making space” for marginalized concepts, persons, practices, etc. This is an implicit rejection of transcendence and its necessary consequence – hierarchical arrangement. Implicit in this notion of space, then, is the assumption that the occupation of space by individuals is not due to any divinely or naturally ordained set of circumstances (e.g. fate, predestination, mechanical determinism, psychical determinism, etc), but to human agents actively negotiating the boundaries that separate them from one another.

Concluding Remarks

This short list is by no means complete, but it covers some of the more extensively used language taken directly from postmodern philosophy. Listen to a podcast and you will likely hear phrases such as the following –

“This is the conversation we need to be having in our institutions…”

“We need a dialogue, not a monologue, if we are going to make any progress…”

“Those of us within the Christian [or Gamer, or Black, or White, or Asian, or Hindu, or Technological, or – take your pic!] community…”

“Marginalized people need to know that we are making a safe space for them to be themselves…”

And you might even come across a statement like this one –

“Our community is open to having conversations about how to carve out spaces” for underrepresented communities, with an eye toward having a healthy dialogue about subject x.”

When these words show up in particularly postmodernist influenced contexts, or when they appear within a cluster of other postmodern specific terms (e.g. decentering, centering, the Other, othering, et al), be careful to actually hear where the speaker is coming from. Understand that the postmodernist is saying something very specific that only bears a superficial resemblance to what you, as a Christian, may mean.

Until next time,
Soli Deo Gloria

If you want to read about more of these terms, check out my article at the Facebook Biblical Trinitarian page, Social Justice “Buzz Words” and Why You Should Not Use Them.

2 ibid. (emphasis added)