1 The ‘post-’, the modern, and the postmodern
The term ‘postmodern’ is a problematic if not enigmatic one. It is at best a shorthand for a series of philosophical motifs and positions, at worst a quasi-meaningless term, or even an enigmatic paradoxical ‘indefinable definition’ or ‘definition without definition’ (see section 3). In Jean-François Lyotard’s oft-quoted definition in The Postmodern Condition (1979), the ‘postmodern’ is famously defined as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’, which are overarching or even totalising ‘master narratives’ (such as Marxism) which orient the structures and production of all meaning and knowledge as well as our interpretation of history and experiences (Lyotard 1984: xxiv). Following the spirit of Lyotard’s ‘incredulity’, one might by extension say that the truly ‘postmodern’ thinker must reject any single ‘master’ definition of the ‘postmodern’ which seeks to define – or indeed ‘master’ – all modes of thinking and theorizing that may be deemed ‘postmodern’. Indeed, describing Lyotard’s definition as a ‘gesture of conceptual mastery that groups together a set of positions under the postmodern, that makes the postmodern into an epoch or a synthetic whole’, Judith Butler (1994: 156) argues that ‘[i]t is paradoxical, at best, that the act of conceptual mastery that effects this dismissive grouping of positions under the postmodern wants to ward off the peril of political authoritarianism’. Instead of venturing into the ‘paradoxical’ and perhaps impossible task of defining the ‘postmodern’, the following offers an overview of some of the theoretical motifs and sensibilities associated with ‘postmodern’ philosophy which have significantly shaped many recent developments and trajectories in contemporary Christian theology.
While this article will focus on the influential works of Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), and Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) – essentially following Judith Butler’s (1994: 157) recommended approach of understanding ‘postmodernism’ primarily in terms of ‘poststructuralism’, ‘the postmodern’ label is also often used to describe the American ‘post-analytic’ philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007). Moreover, the term is sometimes associated with other adjacent ‘post-’ theoretical trends, such as postcolonialism, postliberalism, and posthumanism, which have certain affinities with postmodernism and poststructuralism. For instance, postliberal theology shares a similar non-foundationalist stance on epistemology with postmodernism and poststructuralism, while posthumanist critiques of anthropocentrism often draw theoretical inspiration from works by Deleuze and Guattari (1987), Derrida (2006), and Foucault (1966).
One commonly shared interest among these different ‘post-’ theoretical trends, and indeed among various postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers, is to call into question the values and beliefs presumed by modern philosophy (e.g. anthropocentrism or foundationalist epistemology). The ‘post-’ in the ‘postmodern’ thus refers not simply to the fact that ‘postmodern’ thinkers and ideas come chronologically after a historical period which one might call ‘modernity’, but moreover ‘post-modern’ thinking calls for ‘meta-modern’ reflections and evaluations of the very meaning and ideals of ‘modernity’ as such. To the extent that ‘modernization’ and ‘modernity’ are often associated with ‘secularization’ and ‘secularity’ (see Bruce 2011; cf. Charles Taylor 2007), to call into question some of the assumptions of modernity is to further challenge the secular outlook that many academic disciplines take for granted – and perhaps even expose some of the ways in which theological and religious reflection may have been implicitly influenced by secular modes of thought (see Milbank 2006).
This ‘post-secular’ ethos to challenge secularist values or to think ‘beyond secular reason’ has resulted in a number of theological attempts to present pre-modern (especially patristic and medieval) theology as a non-modern or even a potentially genuinely post-modern alternative to modern ways of understanding and interpreting reality, including works by theologians associated with the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ of John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, as well as sympathetic (somewhat more public-facing) projects by David Bentley Hart and James K. A. Smith (see Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward 1999; Hart 2003; Smith 2004; 2006). However, the term ‘postmodern theology’ may also refer to theologians and religious studies scholars, such as John Caputo (1940–), Mark C. Taylor (1945–), Catherine Keller (1953–), and many so-called ‘Radical Theologians’ who incorporate insights from postmodern philosophers such as Derrida or Foucault to critique and refine ideas and doctrines in the Christian tradition (see Caputo 2020; Mark C. Taylor 2007).
The first approach seeks to deploy pre-modern theology in a ‘post-modern’ or even ‘post-secular’ guise to critique modern ‘secular’ philosophy and theologies informed by modern secular values. Conversely, the second approach implements concepts and perspectives from ‘secular’ post-modern philosophy to critique many Christian ideas and values often inherited from the pre-modern Christian theological tradition, on the assumption that modern ‘master narratives’ are but secularizations of earlier religious ones. These two ‘postmodern’ approaches to theological thinking will provide the basic framework for this article’s following discussion of various motifs in postmodern philosophy and their reception in Christian theology.
One notable way in which postmodern thinkers have called attention to, or even called into question, the contingency and peculiarities of modernist assumptions is through the critical method known as ‘genealogy’, most famously deployed by Michel Foucault. The genealogical method, as Foucault (1980) himself acknowledges, could be traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) critique of Christianity in the Genealogy of Morals (1887). However, just as one can never arrive at a definitive definition of the postmodern, for Foucault (1980: 140), genealogy is a mode of critique which ‘opposes itself to the search for “origins”’ and ‘rejects the meta-historical deployment of ideal significations’. Thus, genealogically speaking (at least as understood by Foucault), there can be no ‘ideal’ origin of the genealogical method or some ‘original’ archetypical genealogy. As such, in contradistinction to the so-called genealogies of Christ in the synoptic gospels, which seek to connect Jesus of Nazareth to Abraham the ‘original’ patriarch of God’s people (Matt 1:1–17) or indeed to Adam the ‘original’ man (Luke 3:23–38), Foucault’s genealogy is one which emphasizes not connections or successions, but rather seeks to highlight ruptures and discontinuities across history:
Genealogy does not pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates beyond the dispersion of forgotten things; its duty is not to demonstrate that the past actively exists in the present, that it continues secretly to animate the present, having imposed a predetermined form to all its vicissitudes. […] On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations – or conversely, the complete reversals – the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us. (Foucault 1980: 146)
For Foucault, as for Nietzsche, the genealogical method is a way to expose the historically contingent nature of many ideas and beliefs we often take for granted (for instance, the ideals and values of modernity), and in turn call into question the legitimacy of these assumptions and more broadly our habits of thoughts.
Given that Nietzsche’s genealogical critique of Western morality was largely aimed at Christianity, and that in his later works Foucault himself also engaged closely with Christian theological ideas and religious practices (see Foucault 1976; 2004; 2018), it is understandable that many Christian philosophers and theologians such as Alasdair MacIntyre (1929–) have been keen to provide ‘counter-genealogies’ to Foucault’s and Nietzsche’s (see MacIntyre 1981). In Theology and Social Theory (1990; second edition 2006), John Milbank (1952–) suggests that Augustine’s critique of pagan virtues in the City of God provides a counter-genealogy to Nietzsche’s (and Foucault’s) genealogy which focuses on the analysis of power-relations regarded as ultimate (see Milbank 2006: esp. 289, 391–392). As opposed to the Nietzschean-Foucaultian genealogical focus on the power structures of the state and politics which Milbank argues is based on an ‘ontology of violence’ (which Milbank reads in terms of what Augustine calls ‘the earthly city of man’), Milbank (2006: 382–442) proposes that ‘the other city’ – the heavenly city of God – envisioned by Augustine (which Milbank associates with the peaceful community of the church) presents an alternative way of conceiving human relationships and social order. Against ontologies of violence which postulate that human society exists to coercively protect human beings from each other (and which Milbank associates with modern secular political liberalism), in his reading of Augustine Milbank argues that the true purpose of society is to reconcile human beings to each other and indeed ultimately to God himself. By way of contrasting the ‘ontology of violence’ of secular modernity with the ‘ontology of peace’ of Christianity (modelled after Augustine’s twofold typology of the two cities), Milbank argues that Augustine’s City of God does not only provide a counter-genealogy which exposes the contingent assumptions of modern secular reason that underlie the genealogies of Nietzsche and his postmodern followers. For Milbank, Augustine’s ‘other city’ moreover presents a ‘counter-ontology’ that is more compelling and persuasive than the secular equivalents which continue in one way or another to assume an ‘ontology of violence’ (Milbank 2006: 236, 331, 429–440), as further discussed below (sections 4 to 5).
In contrast to this ‘counter-approach’ to Foucauldian genealogy found in the works of Milbank and MacIntyre (see MacIntyre’s  critique of neo-Nietzschean genealogies), recent theology and biblical studies have also witnessed uses of genealogy in the style of Foucault (and Nietzsche) to critique and subvert the traditional Christian orthodoxy or even the very idea of orthodoxy itself: that the Christian tradition’s claims to ‘orthodoxy’ and absolute spiritual truth are but ‘regimes of truth’ underlaid by power-structures to sustain systems of control or oppression (cf. Foucault 1979). For instance, the influential scholar of early Christianity and biblical studies Karen L. King (2003: 218–219, 234–235, 239–241) has drawn on Foucault’s genealogical approach to question the assumed distinction between ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ in her studies on Gnosticism. Following Foucault to assert that ‘[h]istory is not about truth but about power relations of domination’ (King 2003: 235), King argues that there is no ‘original’, ‘true’ version of Christian orthodoxy, and that ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ are but
terms of evaluation that aim to articulate the meaning of self while simultaneously silencing and excluding others within the group. The power relations implied in the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy are firmly embedded in struggles over who gets to say what truth is: the orthodox are the winners; the heretics, the losers. (King 2003: 24)
To the extent that Foucaultian genealogical analysis calls for interpretations or narrations of history not to be centred on conformities to – or continuities with – some historical or chronological ‘origin’, but rather to attend to discontinuities and marginal(ized) positions deemed deviant, ‘abnormal’, ‘other’, or indeed ‘different’, John Caputo (2004: 117, 131) argues that Foucault’s approach to historical interpretation constitutes a ‘hermeneutics of difference’ as opposed to a ‘hermeneutics of identity’. For Foucault, and for postmodern philosophy more broadly, ‘the effort to think one’s own history [is to] free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently […] instead of legitimating what is already known’ (Foucault 1990: 9). Indeed, this affirmation of ‘difference’ and the task to ‘think differently’ is not only key to the postmodern deployment of genealogy as a method of critique, but moreover, as further discussed below (section 4), one of the hallmarks of postmodern thinking as a whole (cf. Lyotard 1983).
The rejection of the search for ‘origins’ in Foucault’s genealogy is a motif which also appears in Derrida’s well-known account of différance: ‘There cannot be a science of difference itself in its operation, as it is impossible to have a science of the origin of presence itself, that is to say of a certain non-origin’ (Derrida 1974: 63). For Derrida, meaning is not fixed or static, but rather constituted by a dynamic movement which Derrida names ‘différance’ – a notion which can only be read and not heard when différance and différence are pronounced in French (which is connected to Derrida’s critique of the alleged ‘phonocentric’ privileging of the spoken word over the written word in Western philosophy; see the next paragraph). Derrida’s ideas and writings are notoriously intricate, but to explicate his notion of différance in simplified terms, he argues that all meaningful signs or words (e.g. the word ‘tree’) do not have meaning in themselves but always defer to things which they signify (e.g. actual trees) or to other signs which explicate them in an unending process. At the same time, the very fact that words and signs always defer to entities that are other than them (for actual trees are not words) means that there is always some difference between signifying words and the signified objects, between word and word, and between object and object. As such, words and signs always simultaneously defer to and differ from other things and signs: for Derrida, différance is the structure which names this simultaneously double movement of signification. However, while différance is a movement that underlies or even constitutes all meaning, Derrida (1982: 11) insists that différance cannot be said to be an ‘original’ structure or ‘originary’ source of all meaning: ‘Différance is the non-full, non-simple, structural and differentiating origin of differences. Thus, the name “origin” no longer suits it’. One reason for this is that the very idea of ‘origin’ itself defers to something from which it differs, namely things which originate from it.
Underlying Derrida’s construal of the twofold movement of deferral and differing in différance is an interrogation or even ‘deconstruction’ of our habit of conceiving things primarily in terms of ‘presence’ instead of ‘absence’ (which Derrida [1967; 1974] calls ‘the metaphysics of presence’). For Derrida, this is correlated to the alleged privileging of the spoken word (which requires a present speaker and listener) over the written word or sign (which often presupposes an absent author) in Western culture (what Derrida calls ‘phonocentrism’, which is the target of critique in Pickstock’s (1998) argument for the philosophical significance of liturgy as a spoken practice). To quote Derrida:
The sign is usually said to be put in the place of the thing itself, the present thing, ‘thing’ here standing equally for meaning or referent. The sign represents the present in its absence. It takes the place of the present. When we cannot grasp or show the thing, […] we signify, we go through the detour of the sign. We take or give signs. We signal. The sign, in this sense, is deferred presence. (Derrida 1982: 9, emphasis added)
Insofar as a word or a sign is usually ‘put in the place of the thing itself’, it is the present signifier of the thing which is absent (e.g. the word ‘tree’ is present in the room, signifying – differing to and differing from – the actual tree in the forest that is absent from the room). Signification, or indeed différance, thus highlights not only a co-belonging of deferral and difference but also of presence and absence. Thus, there is an intricate aporia – or what Derrida calls an ‘undecidability’ – of absence and presence which underlies all meaning and signification: all words and signs are structures which present things in their absence, they are the presence of things that are not present, a kind of ‘presence without presence’.
This enigmatic paradoxical structure of ‘X without X’ is a motif which permeates Derrida’s project of deconstruction. Indeed, the very notion of ‘deconstruction’ is itself such a structure: just as a sign or word is a kind of ‘present absence’ or ‘presence without presence’, so de-construction is an ‘undecidable’ aporetic interplay of construction and destruction, a paradoxical process of construction through destruction. Derrida’s notion of ‘deconstruction’ is indebted to Heidegger’s notion of Destruktion, which is in turn indebted to Martin Luther’s use of the Latin destructio to translate the Greek apolo in 1 Cor 1:19 (which in turn is a reading of Isa 45:15; see Derrida 2000: 74; cf. Nancy 1998: 511–512; Caputo 2019: 71–76). A number of important and interesting concepts became subject to Derrida’s deconstruction across his vast oeuvre, including his famous treatments of ‘the trace’ and ‘the supplement’ (see Derrida 1967; 1974; 2005). But for our current discussion, perhaps it is most appropriate to illustrate the Derridean approach of deconstruction by examining one particular object of deconstruction that has received much attention in recent Christian theology: namely, the gift (la don) (cf. Derrida’s [2001; 2001] account of the related notion of ‘for-giveness’ [la par-don]).
According to Derrida, a ‘gift’ is something given by a giver without the expectation or possibility of receiving something in return from the recipient. In Derrida’s view, to receive something – some ‘counter-gift’ – back from the recipient would constitute a mode of contractual or economic exchange which he deems incompatible with true and pure gift-giving:
If there is gift […] it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, […] the gift must remain aneconomic. […] For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt. If the other gives me back or owes me or has to give me what I give him or her, there will not have been a gift. (Derrida 1994: 7, 12, original emphasis)
In other words, for Derrida, gift-giving is formally speaking strictly incompatible with any form of exchange or reciprocity, which he believes would entail ‘the annulment, the annihilation, the destruction of the gift’ (Derrida 1994: 12). In his view, even the simple recognition or acknowledgement of something as a ‘gift’ (e.g. to merely say ‘thank you’) would already count as a mode of returning – giving-back – a ‘counter-gift’ (e.g. the ‘counter-gift’ of expressed gratitude or indeed thanks-giving) which would annul the given thing’s status as a ‘gift’ (Derrida 1994: 14–15). Thus, for Derrida, it is formally speaking impossible for a gift to be identified or recognized, since any recognition or even perception of the ‘gift’ would automatically constitute a minimal form of exchange which would compromise and contaminate the purity of gift-giving: it is for this reason that Derrida argues that ‘the gift’ is an impossible phenomenon.
Derrida’s discussion of the gift has received much attention in Christian theology, from thinkers who broadly follow and affirm Derrida’s unilateralist definition of gift-giving (Marion 1997; Caputo 1999; Horner 2001; cf. Tanner 2005) while nonetheless defending its possibility in an extreme mystical guise. Some, however, reject Derrida’s conception of ‘the gift’ as inimical to mutual exchange and therefore impossible in the everyday (Milbank 1995; Milbank 2003; Barclay 2015; cf. Hart 2003: esp. 260–268). For his theological critics, Derrida’s unilateralist conception of the gift is based on a peculiar modern assumption which breaks with accounts and practices of gift-giving found in premodern societies – a critique reminiscent of the genealogical method mentioned above. To quote John Barclay:
[Derrida’s definition] is a modern construction, not a natural or necessary construal of the gift. The pure gift, free of interest and unsullied by return, is an extreme ‘perfection’ of the gift, reflecting a modern ideological polarization between freedom and obligation, interest and disinterest. […] Taking a long historical and anthropological perspective, one might even retort that Derrida’s treatment of the aporia of the gift ‘speaks of everything but the gift’. (Barclay 2015: 63)
As opposed to this Derridean or indeed modern conception of the gift, and drawing on anthropological studies of premodern practices of reciprocal gift-exchange, Barclay (2015) argues that we ought to understand St Paul’s notion of grace in terms of ‘unconditioned’ but not ‘unconditional’ gift-giving: that God’s gift of grace does not require the fulfilment of prior conditions for it to be received (‘unconditioned’), but it is given in anticipation of a response from the recipient (not ‘unconditional’). Barclay’s critique of Derrida is partly indebted to Milbank’s earlier counter-Derridean theology of the gift. Drawing on the biblical name of the Holy Spirit as ‘the gift’ (donum) famously identified by Augustine (see De Trinitate iv.29, v.12, v.16–17, xv.29, xv.33–36; cf. John 4:10; Acts 8:20), as well as the Augustinian designation of the Holy Spirit as the exchange of mutual ‘love’ between God the Father and God the Son (De Trinitate vi.7, v.12, xv.27), Milbank (2003: x) argues that what we find in the doctrine of the Trinity is an account of ‘perpetual gift-exchange’, which has important implications for Christian ontology:
[F]or a Christian ontology […] Being itself, as bound in the reciprocal relation of give-and-take, is for-giving, a giving that is in turn in the Holy Spirit, the gift of relation. And if the created interplay between Being and beings […] participates in the constitutive distance between Father and Son, then we, as creatures, only are as sharing in God’s arrival, his for-giving, and perpetual eucharist [i.e. perpetual ‘thanks-giving’]. (Milbank 1995: 154, original emphasis)
In contradistinction to the Derridean declaration of the impossibility of the gift, according to Milbank’s ‘trinitarian ontology’ (as further discussed below), all of creation – all that exists – are gifts from God:
Divine giving occurs inexorably, and this means that a return is inevitably made, for since the creature’s very being resides in its reception of itself as a gift, the gift is, in itself, the gift of a return. […] The Creature only is, as manifesting the divine glory, as acknowledging its own nullity and reflected brilliance. To be, it entirely honours God, which means it returns to Him an unlimited, never paid-back debt. (Milbank 1995: 135, original emphasis)
For Milbank, the theological conception of creatures in terms of ‘gift’ in the doctrine of creation is intrinsically correlated to the understanding of the Holy Spirit as the reciprocal ‘gift’ between God the Father and the Son in the doctrine of the Trinity (see Leung 2022). As such, Milbank’s theology of ‘the gift’ is a trinitarian ontology of analogical participation:
[O]ne has to speak of Creation in terms of participation and of analogical likeness of the gift to the giver. […] Because [all] gift is gift-exchange, participation of the created gifts in the divine giver is also participation in a Trinitarian God. (Milbank 1995: 154)
While Derrida speaks of the gift as an impossible phenomenon, he does make a qualification: the only marginal case where gift-giving is possible is when the gift-giver immediately dies after giving the gift, so that it is no longer possible for the recipient to give anything back in return (Derrida 1995: 30–31). If this is applied to the doctrine of creation, then it would mean that creation could only be understood as a gift from God if God dies as creation comes into being – that God needs to sacrifice himself in order to allow the created world to be. As such, as opposed to Milbank’s ‘analogical’ ontology of the gift, this Derridean position may be described as a ‘disjunctive logic of radical univocity: either God, or World’ (Bielik-Robson 2020: 123, original emphasis). While most Derridean postmodern theologians do not fully subscribe to this ontology of ‘radical univocity’ according to which the very being of the created world would imply the death of God (cf. Altizer 1982), the ‘death’ of a certain conception of God is often found in the works of postmodern theologians inspired by Derrida – who Caputo (1997: 134–139; 2006: 12, 235) notably calls ‘Saint Jacques’. Instead of envisaging God in terms of an almighty omnipotent sovereign figure, postmodern theologians such as Caputo (2006) call for a re-conception of God and theology in terms of what St Paul calls the ‘weakness of God’ (1 Cor 1:25). This in turn fosters a new conception of a weak theology which no longer centres around strength and power, ‘a “theology without theology” that accompanies what Derrida calls a “religion without religion”, as a “weak theology that accompanies [Gianni] Vattimo’s “weak thought”’ (Caputo 2006: 7; cf. Derrida 1995: 49; Vattimo 2002; Caputo and Vattimo 2007; see also Mark C. Taylor’s [2007: 313–347] ‘religion without God’).
As opposed to being a ‘master narrative’, such an account of ‘weak theology’ is one which takes into account postmodern concerns about the all-compassing ‘master narratives’. In this account, ‘God’ is no longer upheld as a master conceptual structure which orients all thought and meaning, but rather is understood in terms of what Caputo (2006: 269, 272, 277–278) calls a ‘holy undecidability’ or even a ‘God without God’, which destabilizes and subverts existing normative assumptions of the status quo or indeed any ‘strong’ claims to political sovereignty or even definitional mastery.
In Writing and Difference, one of his three major books published in 1967 (alongside Of Grammatology and Voice and Phenomenon), Derrida writes:
Theology, the thinking of the existent-God, of the essence and existence of God, thus would suppose the thinking of Being. Here we need not refer to Heidegger in order to understand this movement, but first to Duns Scotus, to whom Heidegger had devoted one of his first writings, as is well known. (Derrida 2005: 409, note 84)
In Derrida’s reading, Heidegger’s critique of the so-called ‘onto-theological’ association of ‘God’ and ‘Being’ – of ‘God’ as ‘the Being of beings’ which in turn mistakes ‘the Being of beings’ as a being – is very much influenced and anticipated by the doctrine of the ‘univocity of being’ of John Duns Scotus (1266–1308). According to Duns Scotus, ‘being’ is said to be a common and indeed univocal term for both God and creation: that God’s being and creation’s being are referred to in one and the same sense – as opposed to an analogical participatory account of being where God’s being and creation’s being are said to be ‘analogical’ insofar as creation only has being by ‘participation’ in God’s uncreated Being (see Oliver 2009: 13–24).
In direct contrast, and in what is sometimes called ‘the Scotus story’ put forward by theologians within Radical Orthodoxy (especially John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock), Duns Scotus is held responsible for the emergence of modern secular reason (see esp. Pickstock 2005; 1998: 121–131; Milbank 2014: 29–37, 50–66). According to Radical Orthodoxy’s ‘Scotus story’, Scotist univocity of being opens the door to secularity by making ‘being’ something that is shared by both God and creation, as if ‘being’ occupies a conceptual space that is ‘above’ God – that both God and creation are subject to this ‘higher’ principle of ‘being’ that is conceptually above God. Echoing the French philosophical reception of Duns Scotus following Étienne Gilson’s (1884–1978) important 1952 study (Gilson 2019), Radical Orthodoxy argues that the ‘onto-theological’ paradigm rejected by Heidegger, Derrida, and other postmodern thinkers was in fact derived from Scotist univocity of being, which renders the science of God regional and yet paradigmatic as the object of ‘special metaphysics’ (or ‘natural theology’) within ‘general metaphysics’ or ‘ontology’ (see Boulnois 1995, 1999, 2013; Courtine 1990; Marion 1982).
Formally speaking, what this means is that one can make direct references to ‘being’ without necessarily also referring to God at the same time. As such, the univocity of being opens up the conceptual space where one can freely think about reality and being without God, thereby inaugurating what may be called ‘secular reason’. While Radical Orthodoxy’s ‘Scotus story’ has been hugely influential not just in theology, but also in the broader academy as well as popular books (see Eagleton 2012: 11–13; Gregory 2015: 36–38; Barron 2007: 12–15; George 2009: 10–11; cf. Charles Taylor 2007: 774), this interpretation of Duns Scotus and his account of ‘univocity’ remains controversial, especially amongst Anglophone scholars. Rather than considering whether this story corresponds to Scotus’ original medieval account in itself, the following will focus instead on how the Scotist account of univocity is understood in relation to postmodern philosophy and theology – especially given that many if not most critics of Radical Orthodoxy’s ‘Scotus story’ (e.g. Cross 2005; Williams 2005) often fail to recognize the way in which Radical Orthodoxy is engaged in postmodern philosophical debates on univocity and analogy.
In a sense, the discussion of ‘univocity’ in postmodern philosophy and theology brings together both the aforementioned motifs of ‘genealogy’ and ‘difference’. According to Deleuze (1994: 59), Western metaphysics has long sustained a ‘subordination of difference to the powers of the One’. In Deleuze’s view, this has not only privileged oneness, identity, or sameness over multiplicity and difference, but also fostered a prejudice against or even oppression of those who are ‘different’, ‘marginal’, and ‘other’. Against this dominant philosophical outlook, Deleuze (1994: 39–42) traces a genealogy of thinkers whose alternative line of ontological thinking he believes can truly affirm difference. While Deleuze did not dedicate a book-length study to Duns Scotus – as he did with the figures of Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) and Nietzsche, who he also includes in this genealogy (see Deleuze 1962; 1968; 1981) – Deleuze noted that the medieval theologian occupies a prominent position in this philosophical lineage in his 1968 ontological treatise Difference and Repetition (see also MacIntyre 1990: 207–208). To quote Deleuze:
There has only ever been one ontological proposition: Being is univocal. There has only ever been one ontology, that of Duns Scotus, which gave being a single voice. We say Duns Scotus because he was the one who elevated univocal being to the highest point of subtlety […] from Parmenides to Heidegger it is the same voice which is taken up, in an echo which itself forms the whole deployment of the univocal. A single voice raises the clamour of being, […] a single ‘voice’ of Being which includes all its modes, including the most diverse, the most varied, the most differenciated [les plus différenciés]. Being is said in a single and same sense of everything of which it is said, but that of which it is said differs: it is said of difference itself. (Deleuze 1994: 35–36)
According to Deleuze, the Scotist doctrine of univocity represents an equal distribution of ‘Being’ to all beings – even to ‘the most diverse’ and ‘the most varied’ beings: ‘univocal Being […] is immediately present in everything […] whether they are large or small, inferior or superior, none of them participates more or less in being, nor receives it by analogy. Univocity of being thus also signifies equality of being’ (Deleuze 1994: 37, emphasis added). As such, for Deleuze, the univocity of being undermines the traditional metaphysical schema of ‘the hierarchy of being’. In this hierarchy, beings are ordered according to their proximity or indeed similarity to God, ‘the Good’ or ‘Being’ itself. For Deleuze, this metaphysical schema fosters a privileging of sameness or identity over difference, for things which are more similar to God (e.g. human beings as the ‘image of God’) are said to participate by analogy more in God or ‘Being’ than ‘lesser’ beings such as trees and rocks.
For Deleuze, the ontology of participation and the analogy of being we find in Christian theology are thus part of a hierarchical metaphysical outlook which contributes to the marginalization, or even oppression, of ‘the most diverse’ and ‘the most varied’ who are deemed to be furthest away from God or the Good. As opposed to ‘analogy [which] has always been a theological vision’ that affirms sameness and suppresses otherness (Deleuze 2004: 205), Deleuze argues that the univocity of being presents an ontological framework which does not begin with identity or sameness, but with difference:
Univocity signifies that being itself is univocal, while that of which it is said is equivocal: precisely the opposite of analogy. […] Being is said ‘in all manners’ in a single same sense, but is said thereby of that which differs, […] it is said of difference itself. (Deleuze 1994: 304)
While the terminology of ‘univocity’ and ‘difference’ appears in Deleuze’s later collaborations with Félix Guattari in terms of ‘immanence’ and ‘multiplicity’ (see especially Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 254–255), the notion of ‘chaos’ remains constant throughout Deleuze’s early and later works (see Deleuze 1994: 67–69, 123–124, 280–281, 299; Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 6, 311–313, 320–322, 337–340, 346, 502–503; Deleuze and Guattari 1996: 42–43, 49–51, 75, 117–123, 201–218). Instead of understanding the world as a hierarchically ordered ‘chain of being’ (which he attributes to the Christian metaphysics of creation ex nihilo), Deleuze seeks to conceive of reality in terms of chaos, difference, or becoming. For Deleuze, the world or cosmos is always in a process of flux and differentiation, always already becoming different from itself – what Deleuze calls a ‘chaosmos’ (Deleuze 1994: 57, 199, 219, 299; Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 6, 313; 1996: 204–208).
According to Milbank (2006: 4), this ‘postmodern’ affirmation of chaos and difference is the culminating expression of an ‘ontology of violence’ that is ‘complicit’ with a secular interpretation of the world inaugurated by the advent of modernity – or even, Milbank (2006: 305–306) contends, by Duns Scotus’ sharp separation of God from Being, which formally makes possible the conceptual space for modern ‘secular reason’. However, despite his critique of Deleuze’s (and Derrida’s) ‘ontology of violence’ – Milbank deliberately reads ‘Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida as elaborations of a single nihilistic philosophy’ (2006: 268) – Milbank acknowledges that the postmodern endeavour to develop an affirmative ontology of ‘peaceful’ difference is a crucial theological task if Christian theology is to respond to the challenges of secular reason. In Milbank’s reading, ‘there is a transcendental assumption of a negative relation persisting between all differences’ in secular reason, according to which ‘difference is defined as oppositional difference, a difference which enters the existing common cultural space to compete, displace or expel’ (2006: 290). As opposed to this ‘violent’ ontology of difference that he finds in postmodern philosophy, Milbank suggests that Christian theology provides ‘an alternative possibility of reading reality as of itself peaceful’ (2006: 297). In particular, Milbank argues that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity provides a ‘counter-ontology’ as an alternative to the ‘violent’ and ‘nihilistic’ ontological articulation of difference championed in postmodern and late modern philosophy (2006: 429–440).
In Milbank’s reading of trinitarian ontology, the Christian God who is both one and three reveals a metaphysical coexistence of unity and difference: ‘The God who is, who includes difference, and yet is unified, is not a God sifted out as abstract “truth”, but a God who speaks in the harmonious happening of Being’ (2006: 438). Unlike the Plotinian One, for Milbank (2006: 381, 429–438) the interpersonal difference within Christianity’s triune Godhead provides Christian theology with an account of originary difference, which allows it to understand difference not as a by-product of, or deviation from, unity but something that can be intrinsically good and harmonious – or indeed ‘peaceful’. Milbank’s reading of Christianity as an ‘ontology of peace’ may be contrasted with the inharmonious, dialectical, or even ‘violent’ relation between the metaphysical realms of Being and becoming in pagan metaphysics (see Hart 2003: esp. 35–40, which applies Milbank’s framework to pre-modern pagan metaphysics) or the immanent ontologies of pure becoming and chaos (which Milbank associates with the postmodern ontologies of difference articulated by Deleuze and Derrida). For Milbank, the ‘ontology of peace’ presented by Christian trinitarian theology not only posits a harmonious – what is sometimes called ‘non-competitive’ – analogical relation between God and creation (or the realms of Being and beings/becoming), but moreover a peaceful ontological vision of the transcendent Good which can be affirmative of all difference without the danger of ‘violently’ imposing unity onto finite realities. In Milbank’s words, the Christian metaphysics of ‘the doctrines of creation and Trinity posits an “original difference” without usurpation or rivalry’ (2009: 129), an ontology of peace which can understand and affirm ‘difference’ not as deprivation or conflict but as a virtue (2006: 327–381). Following this portrayal of Christian metaphysics as an ontology of peace, which does not claim superiority over the different but rather celebrates difference itself, Milbank argues that Christian theology provides a uniquely unoppressive alternative to what he sees as the ‘nihilistic’ rejection of all master narratives in postmodern philosophy. As he puts it, ‘only Christian theology now offers a discourse able to position and overcome nihilism itself. This is why it is so important to reassert theology as a master discourse; theology, alone, remains the discourse of non-mastery’ (Milbank 2006: 6).
While the ‘Radical Theologian’ Catherine Keller (2003: 37–38, cf. 159, 163–165) acknowledges that she shares with Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy the task of constructing a theological ontology which responds to Deleuze’s and Derrida’s postmodern accounts of difference, she is unhappy with the ‘shallow dichotomies of order vs. chaos, solidity vs. flux’ or indeed ‘Christian theology vs. postmodern nihilism’ drawn by Milbank. Inspired by Derridean ‘undecidability’ (in a not dissimilar way to Caputo’s weak theology), Keller develops a theological ontology of becoming which problematizes any neat binary oppositions or indeed ‘shallow dichotomies’. Following a certain line of reasoning often found in ecofeminist theology, Keller believes that binary oppositional thinking is most fundamentally expressed in the ontological difference between God and creation posited in traditional theological metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo (see Keller 2003: 18–24; cf. McFague 1987, 1993). Drawing on modern biblical scholarship, Keller (2003: 86) argues that the traditional church doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is in fact ‘nonbiblical’:
As Jon Levenson [1988: 121] summarizes the situation: ‘the overture to the Bible, Genesis 1:1-2:3, cannot be invoked in support of the developed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.’ Among biblical scholars there has existed on this matter a near, if nervous, consensus for decades. (Keller 2003: 4)
Referring to notion of ‘tehom’ (תְּהוֹם; usually translated as ‘the deep’) in Gen 1:2 as the primordial waters or primal chaos out of which God creates all things, Keller (2003: esp. 2631) argues that the traditional doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is a ‘tehomophobic’ position which seeks to suppress ‘biblical’ chaos mentioned in the second verse of the Bible.
Against the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, which allegedly gave rise to the various dualist metaphysical dichotomies, Keller presents and affirms a ‘biblical’ ‘tehomic’ theology of creatio ex profundis (creation out of ‘the watery depths’ mentioned in Gen 1:2) which draws its inspiration from Derridean différance as well as Deleuze’s ontology of difference, chaos, and becoming (see Keller 2003: esp. 167–171). Drawing on Deleuze’s notion of the ‘chaosmos’, Keller’s (2003: 170) ‘tehomic’ theology conceives of God and creation as one continuous and indistinct process of becoming – as opposed to the traditional account of God as immutable and eternal Being itself and the metaphysical origin of a cosmos that is rationally ordered and created. Thus, not unlike Milbank, Keller also seeks to develop a theological ontology of difference. However, as opposed to Milbank’s identification of ‘original difference’ in God the Trinity, Keller argues that God is in fact preceded by a ‘dark difference’ that pre-exists both God and creation. She elaborates, ‘tehom precedes the ontological difference of a Creator from a creation produced from nothing […] the dark difference of tehom within “the beginning” disrupts the origin just by being always already there’ (Keller 2003: 163, original emphasis; cf. 159).
Unlike the traditional account of God as the origin of all things according to the theology of creation ex nihilo, the tehom of Gen 1:2 is not a metaphysical origin or arche, but an ‘originary non-origin’ in the fashion of Derrida’s aporetic undecidables (Keller 2003: 163, 180):
To a theology of becoming, this radical genesis divines the potentiality of the tehom. Its creativity does not create by itself. By itself it makes no difference. Difference itself could remain wrapped in its bottomless layers churning in an eternal undecidability. (Keller 2003: 180, original emphasis)
For Keller, it is not God who is eternal. Rather, the tehom is the eternal ‘originary non-original’ undecidable difference underlying and ontologically constituting both God and creation. Referring to the tehom as ‘chaosmos of Genesis’, Keller (2003: 13, 40) posits that both God and creation are part of – or even ‘entangled in’ (Keller 2014) – an infinite chaotic process of self-differentiation. In Keller’s account, God does not create creation out of nothingness. What happens in Genesis is rather the self-differentiation of the chaosmos into God and creation, as well as the difference (or even différance) between God and creation (Keller 2003: 9–10; 2014: 188–195). As such, as Keller (2003: 140, 218) herself describes it, the ‘tehomic’ theology of becoming she seeks to develop is nothing other than a ‘process panentheism’.
5 The believer, the community, and ‘truth’
In the view of Keller and her sympathizers (e.g. Caputo and Crockett 2018: 29–30), this ‘tehomic’ ontology or cosmology is not only more faithful to the Bible than the classical Christian metaphysics of creation ex nihilo, but also better equipped to address many contemporary intersectional political concerns held and professed by members of the certain Christian communities:
A tehomic discourse grows in the interstices of a maturing (but far from senile) tradition of unruly, disunited beginning-theologies (the liberation, political, feminist/womanist/mujerista and ecological theologies, the postcolonial hermeneutics). (Keller 2003: 6)
As one may note from her juxtaposition of the ‘tehomic’ against the ‘tehomophobic’ (see Keller 2003: 22–23), Keller pays much attention to issues pertaining to queer theology in addition to the various strands of liberation theologies mentioned in the quote above. Indeed, as Keller acknowledges, her tehomic theology of becoming is by no means a straightforward – or to mimic Keller’s postmodern wordplay, a straightforward – feminism, but a self-professed ‘perverse’ one:
This is […] the attempt to theorize the complexity of our relations that results in an increasingly queer, postcolonial, polymorphous and possibly perverse feminism. In this case, however, the diffusion resembles the ‘dissipative system’ of chaos theory: greater complexity amidst chaotic turbulence. (Keller 2003: 35)
Keller’s allusions to the scientific theories of complexity, chaos, and entanglement are somewhat reminiscent of many contemporary works in so-called science-engaged theology, which draw favourably from process theology and panentheism (cf. Keller and Rubenstein 2018). But, as we can see from the quotes above, Keller’s critique of Christian orthodoxy and her panentheistic reconstruction of the ontological difference between God and creation is not informed primarily by science but by politics. Ultimately, Keller’s appeal to ‘the sciences of chaos’ is motivated by the fact that ‘the trope of the chaosmos has political significance’ (2003: 12). This is because scientific concepts such as ‘the infinite- and inter-dimensional space of chaos theory [can] offer a relational, nonsubstantial logic unavailable to classical Christianity’, which can in turn facilitate liberationist politics (Keller 2003: 81–82; cf. 188).
Just as ‘God’ is an ongoing process of change and becoming for Keller, theological discourse is engaged in politically – and ‘poetically’ – reimagining or indeed ‘making’ and ‘creating’ this God: constructive theological thinking becomes a ‘theopoetics’ or theo-poeisis as ‘god-making’ or ‘god-creating’ (Keller 2013: 181; 2014: 25). The conception or even ‘poiesis’ (‘making’ or ‘creating’) of God as process in Keller’s process panentheism thus allows for a malleability or theopoetic re-narration of ‘God’ to suit and substantiate one’s political views: ‘In our politics we have experimented all along in a new poiesis of the divine itself – making God Black, female, poor, queer, animal, and so on’ (Keller 2017: 112). Moreover, the panentheistic ontology of Keller’s process panentheism highlights the way in which theological discourse or ‘theopoetics’ is inherently bound up with the political task of changing or indeed re-making ‘the world’. Appealing to A. N. Whitehead’s process philosophy, Keller notes:
It is ‘as true that God creates the world as that the world creates God’ [Whitehead 1978: 436]. Cosmic God-making. So then theopoiesis takes on a new and risky double meaning: We are at once making ourselves God and making God, […] theopoiesis is cosmopoetic: world-creating. (Keller 2017: 110, 114; cf. Caputo 2013a)
While there are certain parallels between Keller’s ‘theopoetics’ and the ‘postmodern’ ethos of Karen King’s aforementioned Foucauldian claim that ‘history’ or even ‘discourse’ is ‘not about truth but about power relations of domination’ (King 2003: 235), Keller’s ‘theopoetics’ does not want to simply abandon the notion of ‘truth’. For Keller, ‘theopoetics’ is unlike traditional approaches to theology insofar as
it is a matter not of believing but of making, materializing God. Doing God. Do the truth, it will set you free. […] Perhaps theopoetics, because it knows that it is making its gods up, does not go down with the really existing God. (2013: 117)
A similar emphasis on the ‘poetic’ dimensions of truth is also found in Radical Orthodoxy’s critique of modern foundationalist or representationalist conceptions of ‘truth’ (see esp. Pickstock 2020), which is contrary to Keller’s (2013: 187) account of ‘the constructedness or poiesis of God as signifier’. Nevertheless, Radical Orthodoxy very much adheres to a traditional metaphysical realist commitment to the understanding of ‘truth’.
Yet despite the important differences between Radical Orthodoxy and the theopoiesis of Keller’s and Caputo’s ‘Radical Theology’ (see Caputo 2013b), poiesis is notably identified by Milbank as not only ‘the key […] to a post-modern theology’, but moreover ‘an integral aspect of Christian practice and redemption’ (1997: 32). While Milbank sees much of his work ‘in keeping with traditional attempts to elaborate a specifically theological ontology’, he notes that his work departs from them inasmuch as it ‘fully recognize[s] the inescapability of culture: the way we make signs, yet signs make us and we can never step outside the network of sign-making’ (1997: 2). It is this ‘postmodern’ cultural attention to human beings as sign-making or indeed ‘poetic’ beings which underlies Milbank’s attempt to develop a theological ontology in which human beings as creative poetic beings are said to participate in God’s divine creative act – God’s divine poiesis – of creation ex nihilo (Milbank 1997: 2, 79; cf. 124–134). Similarly, following this ‘postmodern’ attention on the cultural and the poetic, Milbank notably submits that Christian theology’s response to ‘secular reason’ cannot be made purely on the grounds of rational argument – on the grounds of ‘secular reason’. Rather, the only way theology can ‘refute’ or even ‘out-narrate’ secular philosophy is through an appeal to people’s inherent ‘literary taste’, because ‘Christianity offers a much better story’ than secularity: its ontology of peace is intrinsically more aesthetically compelling than any of its rival secular ontologies of violence (Milbank 2006: 331).
This ‘traditional’ but ‘postmodern’ Radical Orthodox account of the human being’s participation in God’s divine ‘poetic’ act – or even theo-poiesis – not only has important consequences for the way in which Christian theology is to ‘persuade’ (as opposed to ‘argue against’) people in its engagement with secular discourse (Milbank 2006: 331). It also has theological implications for the way in which Christian believers understand both their relationship with God and how they are to conduct their lives (Ward 2009: 200–202). Commenting on the Epistle of St James, in which the only use of the Greek noun poiesis in the New Testament is found (Jas 1:25), Graham Ward suggests that this participatory notion of poiesis pertains to ‘theology’ both as an intellectual discipline and as an engaged spiritual practice of faith:
Theological writing is itself a making, a creative composition, a poiesis; but of a secondary and derivative order. […] [This] secondary or derived poiesis participates, in its own creaturely way, in its own creaturely responding, to that theo-poiesis. […] [However,] our doctrine lives only in and as that communication that we may be, in the words of the Epistle of St. James [1:22], ‘doers of the word [poietai logou]’. […] The theological task has to be recognized as a practice of faith in the formation of virtue – where virtue to conformity with Christ. […] Theological poiesis is not then just a ‘second order’ reflection; as an activity of faith it does not simply operate in a realm distinct from holy teaching itself. (Ward 2016: 166, 170–171)
To the extent that theology involves the imitation of Christ as the divine Logos – or indeed the ‘doing’ or poiesis of God’s Word the theo-logos, who is also ‘the Truth’ – Ward argues that ‘theology’ cannot be limited to ‘second order’ intellectual reflection. He explains, ‘the treatment of truth involved in theology as poiesis is not just a theoretical or speculative one; it is also, profoundly, practical. […] Theology as poiesis is salvific’ (Ward 2016: 187). Furthermore, given that theology as poiesis is intrinsically concerned with one’s relationship with God, to understand theology in terms of poiesis is also to understand it in terms of prayer:
Any knowledge of what we are as human beings and what God is as God can both only emerge in the pursuit of the theological relation itself – the ongoing theological communication that is a theo-poiesis in which, as human beings, we are called by that theo-logos to participate. Theology as such then, even dogmatics, is a genre of prayer, […] every engagement with theo-poiesis, every theological enterprise as derived from that poiesis, mediating and participating in it to the extent that is possible as creatures, is constituted in and as prayer. (Ward 2016: 173, 177)
Additionally, insofar as the Church is the body of Christ to whom the believers are called to creatively – or even poetically – conform themselves (cf. Ward 2000: 97–116), the community of the Church is where theology as poiesis finds its most proper place: ‘Theology as prayer, theology as bound up with theo-poiesis, theology as itself an act of faith and a recipient of grace, is a theology that has to find its place within the double-braiding of Scripture and Church’ (Ward 2016: 205).
As opposed to Keller’s (2021: xv) ‘theopoetic’ assertion that ‘truth’ is ‘not something fixed in advance’ or something that can be ‘true at all times in all places for all people’, but rather something which ‘invites questioning’, Ward (2016: 245) emphasizes that theological poiesis is ‘the engagement with truth, with the aim of being conformed in, by and to that truth’. While there are many other theological responses to postmodern philosophy, the difference between Keller’s and Ward’s understanding of theopoiesis – and the differences between the approaches of Radical Theology and Radical Orthodoxy more broadly – exemplify two divergent ways in which contemporary Christian theology has engaged with postmodern philosophy. Whereas some ‘postmodern theologians’ have sought to appropriate theology or indeed the conception of ‘God’ to postmodern theory or political sensibilities (cf. Keller 2018; 2021), other theologians have sought to conform (and sometimes to transform) postmodern ideas and motifs to theological use and to defend the place of theology in the contemporary world. Although these two different ways of engaging with philosophy are by no means new to the theological tradition, the ‘postmodern’ questioning of the nature, ‘foundation’, or ‘origins’ of truth can sharpen our reflection and understanding of the task of theological inquiry and its relation to ‘truth’.
With the emergence of what may be called ‘post-postmodern’ or ‘post-continental’ philosophy (Mullarkey 2006), recent continental philosophy has called into question many of the key features of postmodern thought. Such features include postmodernism’s sceptical stance towards universal claims (as found in both Foucauldian genealogies as well as Lyotard’s rejection of ‘master narratives’) as well as the (de)construction of language and meaning (associated not only with Derrida but also the broader movement of ‘the linguistic turn’). However, one aforementioned feature of postmodern philosophy has remained central to ‘post-postmodern’ or ‘post-continental’ philosophy: namely, the affirmation of ‘univocity’ and opposition towards ‘analogy’, which are sometimes also rendered by Deleuze (1968; 1995) in terms of the affirmation of ontological ‘immanence’ and rejection of ‘transcendence’ (see Mullarkey 2006). Indeed, Milbank’s critical identification of ‘univocity’ and ‘immanence’ as the key to Deleuze’s philosophy in Theology and Social Theory (1990; see Milbank 2006) is notably later echoed by Alain Badiou (1937–) in his influential but controversial study of Deleuze (Badiou 1997a; see also Agamben 1996). Moreover, Duns Scotus and the univocity of being also feature prominently in the atheistic ontological works of leading contemporary continental philosophers such as Badiou and Giorgio Agamben (1942–) (see Badiou 2000; Agamben 2014: 204–210, 216–218, 342–343), who have produced interesting and influential philosophical commentaries on St Paul (Badiou 1997b; Agamben 2000; see also the discussion in Barclay 2015: 175–179). Just as there are many theological responses to postmodern thought that are beyond the scope of this article’s consideration (including feminist theologies, which take much inspiration from postmodern philosophers such as Luce Irigaray [1930–] and Julia Kristeva [1940–]), there are also significant philosophical successors to postmodernism other than those mentioned here. However, what this all too brief discussion of the ‘post-postmodern’ works of Badiou and Agamben suggests is that the philosophical interest in the Christian tradition – be it the Pauline epistles or theological metaphysics – is likely to continue even if or when the ‘postmodern’ label is no longer in fashion (see Leung 2021). As this article has sought to demonstrate, not only can Christian theologians find much generative inspiration from engaging with contemporary philosophy, Christian theology also has much to offer for philosophical inquiries into the reality in which we find ourselves or even into the very nature of ‘truth’.