Postmodern Christianity: Doing Theology in the Contemporary World, by John W. Riggs (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2003).

192pp. $19.00 pb. ISBN: 1-56338-364-0.

What are the prospects for Christian theology and proclamation in what is described as our “postmodern” world? Identifying the core of postmodern insights as an emphasis on context, Riggs sees two problematic responses to this question: on the one hand, a complete succumbing to context that would dissolve into a complete relativism or perspectivalism that sacrifices any notion of “universal” truth; on the other hand, a retrenched dogmatism that appeals to a positivist external authority. Riggs’ goal is a “middle ground” or third way that he describes as an “inclusive liberal theology” which draws on two primary resources: liberationist theologies (p. 7) and the process theology of Hartshorne (pp. 112-114). The relationship of this inclusive liberal theology to postmodernism is two-fold and dialogical: first, because Riggs (mistakenly) construes liberation theologies as an “effect” of postmodernism, he takes the liberationist emphasis to be a postmodern theme; second, and in the other direction, he sees Christian theology offering to postmodernism a kind of moral foundation, preventing it from sliding into a sheer relativism. But in the end, what we get from Riggs is just a contemporary restatement of liberal theology after passing through a dialogue with Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Foucault (pp. 73-80). In other words, there’s nothing post-modern about this project: Riggs’ liberal theology is the consummation of an Enlightenment notion of “universal” religion. This is confirmed in several ways: by the basic

reduction of Christianity to morality, and more specifically, a liberal democratic morality which prizes individual autonomy, or what he calls “creative selfbecoming” (pp. 118-131); by his appeal to deeply modernist theologians such as Hartshorne and Ogden (pp. 112-114), and by his assertion that we rehabilitate the project of “natural theology” (pp. 103-106). This last point demonstrates Riggs’ failure to really grasp the postmodern critique of Enlightenment rationality. He persistently claims that postmodernism eschews any “claims about the nature of reality,” and in the face of this, argues for the rehabilitation of a kind of Enlightenment universal rationality which will provide criteria for “adjudication” between communities (pp. 104-105). But he’s wrong on both counts: postmodernism (or at least the philosophers he engages, such as Derrida) do not deny that we can make claims about the nature of reality; what they reject is precisely the notion that such claims could have a universal “grounding” (as Riggs wants, p. 104). Insofar as Riggs still longs for universal criteria, he remains haunted by the ghost of modernity. While the book engages important questions, and provides helpful summaries of figures such as Mark C. Taylor and the Yale School, Riggs’ misdiagnoses both postmodern theory and postmodern culture and gives us only more modern Christianity.

James K.A. Smith, Calvin College

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