Understanding Lyotard on the Metanarrative

Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity – 1

One of the key issues in responding to postmodernity is to understand what postmodernity means by the “metanarrative.” Jean-François Lyotard wrote in 1979, “Simplifying in the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” Ever since, this concept of the “metanarrative” has leaped front and center in discussions on postmodernity in Christian circles, for it seems to give us a simple definition that we can easily grasp. However, Lyotard’s conception of “metanarrative” has taken on a life of its own beyond his original intention. James K.A. Smith explains in an essay (which originally appeared in Faith and Philosophy journal and republished in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn) that what Lyotard meant by “metanarrative” is a distinctly modern phenomenon in which people create grand stories and seek to legitimate them via an appeal to universal reason. Lyotard’s point is that, in the view of postmodernity, there is no such thing as an objective, neutral rationality beyond narrative. Therefore, any narrative that appeals to this “phantom Reason” to legitimate itself must be seen with incredulity.

When you think about it, Lyotard is almost Augustinian in his demand that faith always precedes reason—that we believe in order to understand. According to Lyotard, the problem with universal narratives is not their scope (that they are big stories) but that they seek to prove they are valid by way of Reason as the ultimate arbitrator. As I understand Lyotard, he is arguing that the Enlightenment belief in Reason is as much faith as is any other religion, only it denies it the whole time, deceiving everyone that buys into it. James K.A. Smith’s analysis of Lytoard is that he believed that Postmodernity rightly shows us that we play “language games” in order to legitimate what we want to believe—the ultimate language-game is modernity’s appeal to “Reason.” As Smith writes, “Postmodernism is not incredulity toward narrative or myth; on the contrary, it unveils that all knowledge is grounded in such.”

This, I submit, is not antithetical to Christian faith; rather, it is antithetical to modern philosophy (with its grounding in “Reason” as the basis for all knowledge, as if “Reason” existed outside the parameters of any person’s belief system).

What many Christians are reacting against in postmodernity is not Lyotard’s definition of postmodernity, but a Neo-Lyotardism that takes this rather complex understanding of “metanarrative” and simplifies it to just meaning "we must be suspicious of all grand stories." This neo-Lyotardism is indeed a challenge to the grand story presented in the Bible, for it has crept into the public consciousness and is expressed by some “postmodern critics” of Christianity.

There are a number of possible Christian responses to neo-Lyotardism (I will offer a few posts coming up on this), but the first response is this: Let’s get Lyotard right!
Christians can point out that his definition of postmodernism is not against the grand story just because it is big and seeks to explain all of life; rather, he said that postmodernity, ultimately, is skeptical when anybody presents a grand story and then says it is true because Reason proves it to be so. He actually is saying that all of life is explained by narrative and myth, that the only way to understand reality is through story and faith in those stories.

And Christianity is a story—a narrative that needs no appeal to “Reason” for it to explain what is true. It is a grand narrative accepted by faith as you immerse yourself into the story—the story found in the Bible and its continuation found in today’s Body of Christ.

Index of this series: Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity



lyricano said...

You are mostly not incorrect with Lyotard (although he allows that what he wrote will be interpreted according to our own subjectivities/standpoints and that his text is also merely a text). Lyotard is a strong critic of Reason (both modern and ancient) as just another "faith", but this leads to the conclusion that no "faith" should be privileged over others. Yes, he makes room for a-rationality (and other subjective truth-creating epistemologies), but only because there is no objective truth out there (only our perceptions of ever shifting and interrelating subjectivities). Lyotard (and others) make room for Faith & Reason to exist together precisely because there is no objective truth. Aquinas tried to bring them together (like contemporary IDers), but of course Faith and Reason are antithetical. So, whereas you are draw to Lyotard's reaffirmation of Augustinian Faith (anti-Reason), you must also reject objective Truth if you are going to come over to the dark side of postmodernity (or else you are simply a later-day Augustinian).

Not that there is anything Wrong with that. ;-)

Scot McKnight said...

Nice use of Neo-Lyotardianism for what passes as the denial of all metanarratives.

Scot McKnight said...

Lyricano's first statement is a twister so I'm not sure what he means. But, many use Lyotard as one who denies metanarratives, and Jamie Smith shows that it is more nuanced than that.

I don't see that you have said Lyotard affirmed some truth. He affirmed metanarratives, not their truth -- at least as I see him.

lyricano said...

apologies for the jumble-speak post. I think my point is that evangelicalism's claim that its metanarrative is true is precisely what Lyotard is warning against. Faith is all well and good, so long as we recognize that other faiths are okay too.

Macht said...

But, lyricano, Smith's point was that when Lyotard talks about "metanarratives" he isn't talking about just any "grand story" but only those stories that are legitimized through reason. If Smith is correct, then the grand Biblical story doesn't even qualify as a metanarrative.

lyricano said...

Good point Macht. However, the Modern project of metanarratives that Lyotard critiques share with medieval Christianity a belief in objective Truth. What I want to press Bob on is: it seems all well and good to embrace postmodernity's problematizing of Enlightenment Reason and the epistemology of science, but he is fundamentally observing that its all myth. There is not an objective reality, but rather stories that give us a sense of meaning. As a narrative Christianity is equal to any other narrative in that it gives meaning to people's lives (not that it is better/worse at explaining Reality).

Bob Robinson said...

Today, Bruce Ellis Benson (at the blog-book, A New Kind of Conversation) writes this helpful summary of Lyotard's ideas:

Given this more humble view of reason in postmodernity, it is hardly surprising that Jean-François Lyotard has defined the term postmodern as "incredulity toward metanarratives." Even though Lyotard qualifies this definition by saying he is "simplifying to the extreme," many have (unfortunately) taken this phrase to be the "essence" of postmodernism. What is important about Lyotard’s idea of a "grands reçits" [literally, "big stories"] has to do with both its their encompassing nature and their claims to being able to legitimate itself. To be postmodern is to have "incredulity" toward such stories precisely because they are too encompassing and make claims of legitimation that prove difficult—if not impossible—to substantiate. Note that Lyotard is not talking about "narratives" (which are just stories) but about "meta-narratives" (which are stories about stories). The meta-story is one designed to legitimate the story. So is Christianity such a narrative? There can be no simple answer to that question. Certainly it is a "big story"; yet, since only Christians accept it as true, it is not a "universal" story (even though it is meant as a universal story). Further, to the extent that Christianity is taken to be "faith," then it is a story. But, to the extent that Christianity thinks it can legitimate itself, then it is meta-story. In other words, we have the pre-modern or postmodern version of Christianity versus the modern version, in which there is evidence that demands a verdict that can be rendered—so the assumption goes—simply by inspecting the evidence. In contrast, the postmodern conception of Christianity (as the pre-modern) takes Christianity to be a faith, and therefore not subject to kind of scientific legitimation Lyotard has in mind. That does not mean, though, that one has no reasons for believing, but postmodern Christians recognize that these reasons cannot pass a test of "universal reason."

Bob Robinson said...

I commented at A New Kind of Conversation to Bruce Ellis Benson, basically repeating what I wrote here on this post.

He replied with the following:
To Bob Robinson: You call for getting Lyotard “right” and I think you’ve done it! When you write “postmodernity, ultimately, is skeptical when anybody presents a grand story and then says it is true because Reason proves it to be so,” you’ve accurately described what Lyotard is saying. The repudiation of narratives, of course, is simply impossible: even the repudiation of narrative would prove to be a narrative. So the question is not whether we should have them but rather what kind of justification we think we can give them.

Joel Haas said...

...but of course Faith and Reason are antithetical.

I think Kierkegaard could shed some light on faith and reason for you. (and not the way most scholars misinterpret him...) Faith is above reason. It cannot be understood or attained solely by the light of reason, but is not in opposition to it.

Bob Robinson said...

From Scot McKnight, over at Jesus Creed:
"Some EM thinkers toy with agreeing and not agreeing with this understanding of postmodernity and suggest that the Christian faith is one such “metanarrative” that can’t be proven true. Well, there is something dangerous and something healthy in such a claim. It is dangerous if it means Christian faith is just a preference rather than the truth, but it is healthy if it means (as many Christian theologians think it does) that Christians have to accept their fallenness and their limited grasp of truth and live with less than certainty on many issues."