Thursday, August 25, 2005

Here's how I would explain Postmodernism to a Modern Christian

Here's fair warning: This is a really long post. If you don't care to read it I won't be mad (I don't read some of your really long posts). My list of songs (as it were) is below so scroll-scroll-scroll to see the fun that is blogsongtagyou'reitnowtagsomeoneelse.

If you do care to read it, please offer some critique. I'm trying to refine this to be as brief and complete as possible.


There are a few fundamental questions that all cultures have sought to at least address:

How did the world/universe come to be?
What is the meaning of life?/Is there
meaning to life?
What is the meaning of pain?/Is there meaning to pain?

Philosophies are built around human attempts to answer these questions. These philosophies then grow to encompass more and more of human existence until they shape nearly everything within a culture. Shortly after that time they are found to be lacking; they cannot fully answer the fundamental questions. That lack leads people to critique and attack the dominant philosophy until it inevitably collapses. Out of the collapse of one philosophy is another one born.

In or around the 1500’s AD people began to question the dominant philosophy of their culture. They began to reject the assertion that all truth proceeded from the clergy and nobility. Martin Luther began to tear down the authority of the Church and replace it with the authority of Scripture. Copernicus risked his life to show that the earth was not the center of the universe, though this contradicted the “truth” handed down from the church. What he had seen contradicted what he had been taught.

The Enlightenment was the intellectual revolution that placed human observation and reason above all other means of achieving knowledge. Francis Bacon and John Locke codified their scientific method of observation and experimentation. The world was fresh and new, for now anyone could, by their own reason and observation, reshape the frontiers of science, politics, and even religion. The Enlightenment philosophy gave rise to the industrial revolution, democracy, and the concept of individual freedom. The United States was founded based on this Modern thought.

At roughly the same time Alexander Campbell began to apply Modern thinking to the church and rejected the assertion that theology was the realm of only the clergy. Every person could, by their own reason and observation, form their own theology. The creeds of the ancient church were nothing but the constructs of the clergy. He sought to restore the forms and practices of the first century church through the application of logic and the observation of Scripture. The Churches of Christ (among other groups) were born of this restoration movement.

Just as the medieval philosophy was found lacking and was replaced by the Enlightenment/Modern philosophy, so now the Modern philosophy is being found lacking. Science has moved beyond what is observable and rational. Quarks and String Theories and the Uncertainty Principle are hypothetical constructs that cannot be observed or experimented with. The Modern emphasis on the ability of the individual has led to a culture that is largely devoid of community and relationship. The politics that claim that all people have a need for individual freedom and democracy are withering in the desert heat.

The rejection of nearly all of Christian history has left believers adrift with no anchor or safe harbor. Christianity has been run like a democracy, which is an adversarial process. The individual Christians have been epistemologically cut off from their community of faith. One then wonders how it is possible to restore the practice of first century Christianity without acknowledging anything that has happened between now and then.

The Enlightenment promised to answer the fundamental questions through the exercise of observation, reason and logic; it failed. The philosophy of Modernity has been found lacking; a new philosophy has been born. There is no name yet for this new philosophy, it’s still too new. It is only know by what it is not; it is not Modern. It is currently called Postmodernity, though I expect that to change with time. Just like Modernity and the Medieval philosophy before (and on back through history), Postmodernity cannot answer the fundamental questions. It is a philosophy of human beings and therefore incapable of answering those questions.

I cannot hope to simply define a philosophy that is both so new and so voluminously documented. I can point to good resources (A Primer on Postmodernism by Stanley J. Grenz, Things Unseen: Churches of Christ In (and After) the Modern Age by C. Leonard Allen, A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, etc.). And I can, I hope, sum up the Postmodern philosophy under two very broad categories. Postmodernism is communal and experiential. This is, I believe, an antithetical position to the individual and rational nature of Modernity.

Postmodernity is communal in several different ways. It focuses on the way that truth is expressed within the context of a community. A communal focus sees the web of relationships between all people that cause us to be who we are. No one is an objective individual, but an essential part of the whole community. The community creates its own language that is unique to itself; the stories of each person in the community merge to create a context that can only be understood by its members. They are also a part of the community of all humanity and so they are affected by the joy and suffering of all people, in fact they are in community with the whole world and are responsible for the earth and all its inhabitants.

Postmodernity is experiential. There are phenomena for which there is no rational explanation, yet they still exist. This causes the Postmodern to reject reason and focus on the way that one can experience knowledge more than how one comes to know. Reason and logic are not completely rejected, but they are only one means by which knowledge can be attained. Intuition, experience, spiritual experience, and relationship all stand next to reason as means of attaining knowledge.

Though it lacks the ability to answer the fundamental questions, Postmodernity is, more and more, the language of the American culture. Secular Postmoderns pursue this philosophy because they think that it will succeed where Modernity failed. Christians cannot fall into the same trap. Modernity failed to answer the fundamental questions, so too will Postmodernity. Christianity, however, speaking the language of Modernity was able to offer answers; Christianity, speaking the language of Postmodernity will be able to offer answers in the future.

Modernity failed with its plea for individual reason as the fount of truth. Postmodernity will fail with its plea for communal experience, but it is through the language of community and experience that Christians need to reach the Postmodern world. Insofar as the Postmodern philosophy is in line with biblical teaching Christians should embrace it. But we must reject any philosophy of this world (Colossians 2:8) that does not align with the Bible.

15 comments:

Justin said...

James, I was always under the impression post-modernity was individual with the rejection of the community. Rules in community can be overthrown by individual assertion, with the main question "can we know absolute truth," instead of making the statement there is no absolute truth.

Dwayne said...

Not to detract from Justin's comment, but I had to say I appreciated the meshing of Restoration history into the explanation about post-modernity. Obviously, they fit into a big picture quite well.

Back to Justin's question...

James Wood said...

Ah, Justin.

Your, ever cryptic, sense of humor never ceases to amuse.

Justin said...

I agree that my sense of humor is wonderful, however I thought my question was engaged without it, do I need to add clarification?

Tim Lewis said...

Perhaps another way to look at it is to say that one cannot come to a greater understanding of existence and truth without community. To assume one can gain absolute truth alone returns to the follies of modernity.

James Wood said...

Justin,
I am really confused. I read your question a dozen times and the only way I could understand it is as a joke. It seems that you are stating the exact oposite of PoMo philosophy (as I understand it).

I'm working more out of overviews of PoMo philosophy (i.e. the books listed below). I admit that there are specific PoMo philosophers who would reject the importance of community, but my goal is to sum up most of PoMo thought as it has come to prevail among the majority of younger people.

I really wish there was a better term than Postmodernism - it's so confusing to lump Neitche and McLaren in the same camp.

Justin said...

Speaking strictly from a CofC perspective on this topic - one of the greatest areas in our faith heritage that we have missed the boat is in community. Sure we have home groups/small groups and to a degree, some of those go straight to the heart of what community is about. But how many practice authentic Christian community? I believe that without christian community my relationship with Christ will never be whole.
James, I appreciate your statement that as Modernists we failed in our plea for reason leads to truth; similarly as Post-modernists we will fail in our plea for community and experience as the way to truth. The reason for that is we (humans) will never know the mind of God. McLaren talks about this in his book "More Ready than you Realize".
It is important that you note that it is through community and experience that we will reach the post-modern culture. Another piece to post-modernism is holism. Not only are community and experience the language of post moderns, but so is living a holistic life. So this is really long, but how, as members of a very modern church in the midst of a pomo culture can we remain "salty" or relevant?

tabitha jane said...

mcclaren says, and i agree, that there are positive and negative components in every world view and i keep having to remind myself of this as i get more and more excited about the emerging postmodern culture and postmodern approach to christian spirituality. i guess my excitement stems from the relavance it seems to have on today's culture and worldview in general. it is putting to words all of my feelings and questions and validating them in a way i thought would never happen.

i was just having a conversation with a co-worker today about the bible's way of answering the "questions of life" (where do we come from? is there meaning? yada yada) and we both came to the conclusion that genesis is a recording of a verbal tradition passed on by a certain community as their mythology of how to answer those questions ("mama, why is there pain and death?" "well, little one, let me tell you a story"). but does one neccesarily need to believe to a T what that verbal tradition says or is it more about the heart of the story and what that story teaches us about how we view the divine?

i am excited about adding this new communal and experiential aspect of spirituality to my life . . . we have really been needing it and i think we might finally be getting it . . .

Justin said...

That is the thing james, you and I view the term in completely opposites. You are write though there needs to be a better term. We have chosen to lump anything that is not modern into the post modern realm. I suppose i have a hard time because I view the rise in community and the interaction of consentric webs as post-libral. Which I suppose you can also lump into post modernity but why would you. The term is a catch all that is why consensus is impossible. I think of it in debates with classic post moderns and people like Christopher Seitz. If you were to walk on campus at various post-modern universities Seitz' name is a bad word, yet according to the definition given he is just another post modern, and I don't think he is.

Ellen Charry approaches theology from a perspective of the pre Critical. Looking at Augustine, Athenasius, and Basil in a way to inform one about God and who he is, as opposed to simply taking it apart or reader response, allowing the reader to interpret as he pleases. This is also not post modern but lumped into it.

Of course you will be write when you tell me that what we are trying to deal with is the way people our age view this stuff. And in that case they will say that anything not modern will be post modern.

Of course I might be full of it too, I have been wrong once or twice before this could be three.

rebecca marie said...

here's a secret. i glaze over when people start in with "postmodernism" talk. i'm just a christian. just a disciple of my savior. just.

Justin said...

I don't know if it is possible to be "just a christian" meaning that there would be absolutely no cultural, historical or geographical influence on your faith or worldview.
The thing is, americans have a different worldview than other parts of the world (and visa versa) which colors our view of scripture, church and spirituality. The list could really go on for a long time.
Campbell thought he could be "just a christian" and that he could read the bible like he had never read it before, but he missed the fact that he had a whole lifetime of experiences and ingrained thought process which led him to certain conclusions meaning he wasn't just a christian, but a 18th/19th century, modern-restorationalist christian.

rebecca marie said...

i guess what i meant by that, (and this is the third time i've started this comment, i'm having a hard time choosing my words) is that i don't like labeling myself a postmodern, even though it's probably what i am. i've never really gone with the grain, unless the grain, in my view (which has been tainted by my culture), coincides with scripture. all i meant was, i find my peace in the Lord, and following His ways, and if in my journey, i offend someone with my style (giving my small children communion, because they, too, should be remembering Christ's body and blood, women praying, etc.) then so be it, all i'm doing is following my Savior the way i know how. i was born and bred c of c and i question nearly everything. call me postmodern, or call me a rebel if you will, just call me a christian, too.

Justin said...

Ahh, the CofC needs more rebels - or at least open minded people who are willing to look at things through the lens of Jesus. We can form an underground rebel cofc and we can call ourselves la resistence.

James Wood said...

I want to reply to everything that's been said - I just don't have the time right now.

Justin B.: I agree that holism needs to be a part of the discussion. I'm going to replace experiental with holistic since that covers all the experiental stuff and then some.

Tabitha: It has been so crippling to view scripture as a fact-book. It was written to be poetry and story and myth (myth doesn't mean make-believe, just a story that explains why things are the way they are). It's nice to let the Bible be what it is, a book that doesn't so much tell us the truth as point us to the Truth.

McJustin: I don't quite know how to answer you. We are defining the same word differently based upon different sources. Sorry . . . ?

Rebecca Marie: Rebel all you want! Question the status quo and rock the boat. Yeah!

tabitha jane said...

i questioned everything so much growing up that my mom told me she sometimes couldn't sleep at night.