by Vern S. Poythress
[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 65/2 (2003) 392-96. Used by permission.]
Stephen Prickett: Narrative, Religion and Science: Fundamentalism versus Irony, 1700-1999. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. viii + 281. $65.00, cloth; $23.00, paper.
Stephen Prickett, Professor Emeritus of English at Glasgow University, has given us a wide-ranging and thoughtful exploration of the place of narrative in the history of ideas. But his purposes are not merely historical. The journey through Western thought in the last three hundred years leads to engaging postmodern concern for narrative, including postmodern suspicion of “metanarrative,” that is, any grand story that offers an integrative view of the world.
Prickett shows for one thing that the pluralism of the postmodern condition is not so completely new as is sometimes supposed: “Even by the seventeenth century we are already looking not at a single narrative, but a profusion of incompatible and competing ones” (p. 132). In fact, had he cared to, Prickett could have pointed to the pluralism of competing religious, philosophical, and political movements in the first-century Roman Empire, or the religious pluralism in the time of Gideon!
In telling the story of the past Prickett shows admirable sensitivity not only to the ebb and flow of ideas and intellectual movements, but to tacit assumptions and mind-sets and word-meanings that shift and change with cultural development. Along with postmodernists, Prickett is aware of human finiteness and the “historicity” of human knowledge. But he is not a relativist or nihilist who has ceased to believe in truth. Our grasp of truth is tentative and partial, but points beyond itself to a reality. Using the perspective of history, as well as the perspective of literature, Prickett trenchantly criticizes the overarching claims from some postmodernists that deny “truth” or transcendence.
For example, he takes on Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity:
… we can see that Rorty’s theory of language (one is tempted to call it the Rorty Theory of Everything) solves the problem of pluralism with which we began by cutting at a stroke the Gordian knot. If there is no truth, but only description; if there is no human centre, but only linguistic self-construction; if there is no argument, but only progressive shifts of vocabulary; there is no pluralism either. (p. 199)
Prickett proceeds to show the historical problems in Rorty’s claim, in that Rorty misappropriates Thomas Kuhn and Donald Davidson and misunderstands the functions of literature (pp. 200, 205). Prickett also shows the logical problems in apparently making a truth-claim about language while at the same time denying that there is truth (pp. 200-1). He climaxes by observing that Rorty is a “fundamentalist”:
Thus statements by astronomers about the size, age or structure of the cosmos tend to be ironic in the sense that they represent ‘today’s truth’. Any such statement contains the recognition that tomorrow we may know differently. The fundamentalist, by contrast, is the person who claims to know the final, fundamental truth about the cosmos—usually because of what he (or, as Rorty carefully says, ‘she’) takes to be divine revelation.
Rorty, of course, does not claim divine revelation. Far from it. But his own argument involves reference to what he calls ‘final vocabulary’. … My claim that Rorty is a fundamentalist rather than an ironist is because he does not recognize the possibility that his own final vocabulary may be wrong. (pp. 203-4)
Prickett observes that there can be no irony in Rorty’s position:
There is no hidden meaning to be implicitly drawn on, because there is, in his view, nothing to be hidden. There can be no implicit conflict between various versions of reality; there can be no gap between what is asserted and what we all know to be true; all is surface, there is no depth. (p. 204)
Prickett then tackles a similar “nominalist” view of language offered by theologian Don Cupitt in After God: The Future of Religion. Cupitt denies that there is a grand narrative and calls for a new “poetical theology” imitating the symbolism and allegory of the medieval world (p. 208). Prickett once again shows that Cupitt is historically and literarily simplistic (pp. 210-13, 215, 216), and in addition takes him to task for fundamentalism:
Cupitt, however, has other, more curious gods. ‘When people cease to believe in God’, G.K. Chesterton once remarked, ‘they do not believe in nothing; they begin to believe in everything.’ Still an ordained Anglican priest, Cupitt has ceased to believe in God, and now believes in the Zeitgeist instead. He is a fundamentalist not in the sense of having a revealed and unquestioned religious dogma, but in the opposite sense that he has unquestioningly embraced the spirit of the age. He now seeks not an eternal Rock of Ages, defying the flux of human existence, but a religion expressing our times, where moral values ‘swim or sink, in our daily converse, exactly like and along with economic values’. (p. 213)
In contrast to these postmodern reductionists, Prickett himself suspects that we cannot avoid a sense of transcendence. He quotes Roland Barthes on ‘The Death of the Author’:
literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, … liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law. (p. 218)
Within the space of two pages, Prickett succeeds in turning Barthes’s irrationalism on its head:
Certainly it would be hard to offer a more powerful defence of theology, in its very simplest signification of ‘a sense of God’. If, so the argument seems to run, we push meaning back far enough, even beyond the practical everyday dictates of reason, science or law, we encounter only Humean scepticism or metaphysics—in other words, God. If, as both Stein and Hart seem to concur, meaning is ultimately guaranteed by God, we do not need that theologians’ holy grail, a ‘proof’ of God. The concept of ‘proof’ itself is meaningless without God. (p. 220)
Prickett’s observations show an uncanny similarity to Cornelius Van Til’s transcendental apologetics.1 God is guarantor of meaning and proof, rather than being in need of being “proved” by something more certain and more ultimate. But lest we too quickly approve, note what Prickett says in the very next paragraph:
There is, however, an important caveat here: the ‘God’ so invoked is a logical figment only. In Kantian terms he is ‘regulative’ not ‘constitutive’. Though such a hypothetical god of the grammarians is certainly not inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible, we cannot deduce such a figure from this argument. Nor, in my opinion, should we try. (p. 220)
What has happened here? Under the pressures of the antinomies of non-Christian thought, Prickett seems to have tiptoed up to the very brink of genuine Christian belief, only to have stepped back from the abyss at the last moment.
For the topics that Prickett considers, I suggest that Cornelius Van Til’s discussion of rationalism and irrationalism still proves illuminating. The problems of rationalism and irrationalism that Van Til explored have now been transposed into another, more literary key. Rationalism has become “fundamentalism,” that is, the claim or conviction that one has arrived at some final or indubitable truth. Irrationalism has become “irony,” the suggestion that something lies behind or beyond the surface claims, and that what is beyond may even relativize or transform the present surface.
Prickett traces the relation between fundamentalism and irony in the West, not only in literature, but in science, religion, and general culture. Irony has grown with the growth of pluralism and fragmentation of knowledge and culture, because the cultural changes make us more aware of potential limitations in any one arena. Even science in some ways has shown irony: its results are always provisional; Thomas Kuhn’s thinking about scientific revolutions has questioned the finality of any particular “paradigm”; and quantum mechanics points to realities that we cannot easily conceptualize.
Postmodern awareness of the ironic tempts some people to become skeptical about the whole project of knowledge and the desire for truth. But ironically (!), when one takes this route, which at first looks like wholesale irony, it plays out into its opposite, the fundamentalism of Rorty and Cupitt. Prickett sees the unfortunate endpoint. He therefore wants us to live with the inevitability of the ironic, as well as the reality of meaning, and not to try to cut the Gordian knot with a new fundamentalism.
The original fundamentalism of Christian belief, which tends to be the model on which modern fear of fundamentalism is based, contains within itself an affirmation of both rationalism and irrationalism, or, in Prickett’s transposed terminology, meaning and irony together. God is transcendent and incomprehensible, which leads to a Christian “irrationalism.” God cannot simply be captured and domesticated by human rationalist demands that he conform to our expectations. He exceeds our grasp. Good human theologizing is always humble, acknowledging its own provisionality. Or, to put it in Prickett’s terms, human theologizing is ironic, in the sense that it does not claim to exhaust who God is, but points beyond its own formulations to the plenitude that God knows in knowing himself.
Simultaneously, Christian belief is “rationalist.” We believe that God has spoken to us in Scripture, and that through his word we know the truth. In fact, we know the absolute Truth, as it is found in Christ the transcendent and immanent Word (John 14:6). In fact, this Truth is, in Prickett’s words, “the final and fundamental truth about the cosmos” (p. 203; see Col 1:17; Eph 1:10). We know, not because we have intellectually or hermeneutically succeeded in probing everything to the very bottom, but because we trust the Father and the Son who know all things (Matt 11:27). The “irrationalism” of a truly transcendent God actually supports the “rationalism” of firm and confident claims to knowledge.
John 14:9 represents a good example of this interplay. Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And two verses earlier, “From now on you do know him [the Father] and have seen him” (John 14:7). These statements are meaningful rather than nonsensical; and they promise that we have genuine knowledge of God the Father through Christ. But in the context of John 14 the statements are also clearly ironic, because Philip, even in “seeing” Jesus, fails to know and understand as he might:
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:8-9)
The interplay between open meaning and ironic depth depends on the mystery of the Trinity. Jesus in his incarnation opening manifests who God is, and gives us true and accessible meanings about God. At the same time, he does this as the Second Person of the Trinity in whom dwells the Father by the mystery of coinherence of Persons. And he does so as the Incarnate One: one Person in two natures, divine and human. So the entire process of revelation rests on incomprehensibilities.
As Van Til so effectively reminds us, a Christian doctrine of God must go together with a Christian doctrine of the Fall and of sin. Sin contaminates the efforts of Christians, including their theological and hermeneutical and exegetical responses to the word of God. The wide-spread negative reaction to Christian “fundamentalism” is not wholly the fault of non-Christians, but also of Christians who exhibit pride and arrogance that others can sometimes see better than themselves. Yes. Prickett offers something for us to learn about the complexities and depths of Scripture, over against rationalist-fundamentalist attempts to domesticate it.
But sin also contaminates the understanding of non-Christians. Prickett claims that the ‘God’ who guarantees meaning is “a logical figment only” (p. 220). Why? God may seem to be a figment, but only because our sinful suppression of the truth (Rom 1:18-21) has blinded our eyes to his presence not only in meaning, but in our very selves as creatures in his image. Prickett may have given us at least a hint concerning one of the points of resistance: “we cannot deduce such a figure [God] from this argument” (p. 220). It depends on what “deduce” means. In the hands of a non-Christian, deduction would mean non-Christian rationalism, reducing God to the dimensions of non-Christian standards of what can and cannot be. It would already be a denial of the true God. In that sense, God cannot be an object within this world, which we may manipulate and control for our own use. But within a non-Christian framework the reaction to a failed rationalism always ends up with non-Christian irrationalism, as when Prickett suggests that his observations about meaning may open a route to “negative theology, that is a very long way indeed” (p. 221). The “very long way” suggests non-Christian irrationalism, rather than the short but painful way of coming to repentance and belief in Christ.
Many a reader may tempted to read Prickett’s reflections as further support for non-Christian forms of rationalism and irrationalism. But I am not sure that is the whole story. Consistent with what Prickett says, he is himself an ironical writer. There is more than meets the eye. Later on in his discussion, Prickett finds the Christian story of redemption more true to human nature than the overweening Darwinian materialist stories of humanity and its problems (pp. 225-233). Is he here inviting readers to abandon the “logical figment” god of rationalist deduction and the inaccessible god of negative theology–in favor of the available, personal God of the cross and resurrection? Maybe so. It is hard to say. One can learn much from him, and use much of what he says within a Van Tilian transcendental framework. But it must be redigested, because Prickett does not clearly distinguish between Christian and non-Christian rationalism and irrationalism, or, as we may now say, between Christian versus non-Christian literalist-meaning and ironic-multivalence.
Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary
1 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (2d ed.; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955); Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (n.l: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1969); and other works; for a readable introduction to Van Til’s apologetics, see John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994).