Modernity tended to have an optimistic view of humanity: It emphasized universal and reliable human reason, human goodness, and human perfectibility. It also emphasized universality in its anthropology — according to modernity, humans have a common mental and moral make-up. In such a context, questions of righteousness were relatively easy – if humans weren’t already innately good, they were at least able to clearly identify the good and then pursue it.
Postmodernity instead emphasizes human limitations and particularity. Humans are, according to postmodernity, imperfectly reasonable and imperfectly good. Their understanding of reason and the good is limited by their particularity: their culture, gender, class, life experience, etc. Thus, universal standards of reason or morality take a big hit with postmodernity. Furthermore, any student of history must at least admit that postmodernity is right in naming human variation. Humans have and do believe greatly different things and act with greatly different standards of what constitutes right.
Such a postmodern anthropology has serious implications for a doctrine of righteousness. The question of how it is that we can be considered righteous (conforming to the standards of the good and acceptable in the eyes of God) is one at the heart of Christianity. Questions about justification often revolve around humans’ ability to do good, but postmodernity raises even more fundamental questions. If humans can only ever imperfectly know the good, how could we do that good, even if we were capable? In a limited and particular world, how can we undertake the quest for righteousness?
There are several responses to this problem, it seems. The first is accept that the relativist thrust of postmodernity makes the pursuit of righteousness impossible and abandon the quest, focusing instead on some other aspect of religion. This approach, however, seems to me to be letting go of one of the traditional pillars of Christian theology, something I am unwilling to do.
Another approach is to reassert universality and attach the pursuit of righteousness to that universality. This approach can come in a strong form of rejection of postmodern critiques of universality. I find such an approach undervalues not only the intellectual weight of these postmodern critiques but also the real existence of human variety, both across contemporary cultures and historical periods.
This approach can also come in a weaker form in which postmodern emphasis of particularity is acknowledged, but it is asserted that despite such human variation, we can still identify some moral precepts that the vast majority of humans agree upon. For instance, everyone agrees that murder is bad. This approach, however, seems to me to lead to a lowest common denominator version of morality and the good. Is everyone who doesn’t murder really righteous? Is righteousness just being nice? Christianity has often answered “no”, drawing on (among other things) Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said [such and such a commandment], but I say to you [some more stringent requirement]“. Furthermore, such an approach undermines a quest not just for righteousness, but for justice. Justice is rarely a universally agreed upon quality, yet it is a critical one for Christianity.
A third approach is to take the attitude of “to your own self be true”. We may be unable to determine universal standards of righteousness, but in absence of those universal standards, we should be as true as we can to whatever particular standards we have inherited or fashioned for ourselves. This may be viewed as a reassertion of the classic medieval doctrine of “facere quod in se est (do what is in you)”. Do the best you can with the knowledge and ability you have, and God will accept the result. I find a lot to recommend about this approach, and I think it may be the best grounding for postmodern ethics, as long as some provision is made for critiquing one’s understanding of the good through interaction with others.
Yet, as a Protestant, I don’t find this approach (with is frequently the Catholic approach) fully satisfying. Instead, I would suggest that postmodern anthropology and the challenges it poses for the question of righteousness is a chance for Protestants to reassert the doctrine of justification by faith. We are righteous, not because we are able to discern what God’s standards of righteousness are and are able to follow them, but because God has, through God’s grace, regarded us as righteous. This reassertion of justification by faith must define faith not in the confessional sense of assent to right propositions (for, as I’ve been saying, postmodernity poses too great a challenge to epistemology for us to be totally secure that we’ve got the propositions right). Instead, it must define faith (as Luther did) in terms of relational trust (a securer move, since postmodernity is less critical of our ability to be in relationship with each other than it is of our ability to have correct knowledge). We must trust God; we must have faith that God is loving enough to accept us despite our limited and particular nature.