At the beginning of John Updike’s new novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, a Presbyterian minister, trained by the Princeton Fundamentalists in the early years of the 20th century, is reading a book by the popular agnostic Robert Ingersoll when he suddenly loses his faith. Brian Ingraffia’s Postmodern Theory and Biblical Theology puts secular clerics at the end of the century, secure in their atheism or agnosticism, in danger of the opposite fate. Postmodern theorists are at risk here of losing their doubt. At least they are in danger of losing their confidence that Christianity need not be taken seriously since Nietzsche announced its demise and Heidegger and Derrida elaborated its obituary.
Ingraffia is straightforward about his intentions. “In this study I seek to analyze critically the antipathy exhibited in postmodern theory toward theology,” he begins. “Whereas modernism tried to elevate man into God’s place, postmodern theory seeks to destroy or deconstruct the very place and attributes of God” (p. 1). Ingraffia focuses on Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida, arguably the three most rigorous and original philosophers of what has come to be known more loosely as postmodern theory. He analyzes the development of each writer’s critique of Western metaphysics in its own right, but he also attends to the genealogy of subversive genealogies among them—in Heidegger’s critique of the residual metaphysics of Nietzsche, for example, [End Page 184] and Derrida’s attempt to deconstruct, at times by appealing to concepts from Nietzsche, the residual ontotheology of Heidegger. “By deconstructing the metaphysics of presence, these thinkers all claim to have deconstructed ontotheology, [that is,] both Greek metaphysics and Christian theology,” Ingraffia concludes. But as he has argued in different specific contexts throughout his persuasive book, “the logos of biblical theology is radically different from the logos of Greek philosophy and modern rationalism,” these being the real sources or substance of the ontotheology that postmoderism is so dead set against (p. 237). In planting a headstone over Christian theology, in other words, postmodern theory has got the wrong grave.
The genuine “biblical theology” Ingraffia counterposes to the misrepresentations of Christianity by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida is found first and foremost in the New Testament letters of Paul. It is one of the striking features of the book that it brings a powerful voice from the first century into conversation and controversy with these powerful voices from the modern era. “The inventor of Christianity,” as Nietzsche labeled Paul in one of his many bitter aphorisms, is the central spokesman for the Christian understanding of truth that postmodernism has, deliberately as well as misadvertently, according to Ingraffia, misconstrued. Thus Paul’s doctrine of “the redemptive-eschatological separation between the present world and the world to come” (pp. 62 ff.), especially in the Letter to the Philippians, is set against Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence; Paul’s discrimination of “flesh and spirit,” with a salutary attention to the koiné Greek meanings of these terms and their cognates in the Letter to the Romans, is opposed to Heidegger’s doctrine of the authentic self. And in the most original of Ingraffia’s Pauline probes, Paul’s distinction between the “letter” (gramma) foolishly grasped and the “Scripture” (graphe) spiritually apprehended in the Second Letter to the Corinthians is counterposed to Derrida’s grammatology, where arche-writing effectively levels all hierarchies and distinctions.
The strength of Ingraffia’s argument lies in his clear and, on one level, sympathetic exposition of the different but related projects of these three thinkers. This is not the kind of defensive dismissal of “secular humanism” or “godless philosophy” that evangelical Christianity has sometimes made from behind the barricades of its antimodernist revolt. With lucid expositions of crucial turns of their arguments and judicious appeals to current scholarship on each figure, Ingraffia shows how Nietzsche and Heidegger, “theology students turned philosopher” (p. 47), derive important concepts by borrowing from Christian theology on the one hand and by distorting essential features of that theology on...