Postmodernism is discussed and debated in almost every church-related setting in our day. Part of me wonders if this is simply the church catching up to a philosophy that has come and gone. Another part of me, the part that believes something significant has clearly shifted in Western thought, believes postmodernism is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

What is postmodernism? This is part of the problem. It is notoriously hard to define but I would say that it was a term first appropriated by German and French philosophers to designate the criticism of reason which had come to be regarded as a universal and certain foundation for knowledge and morality in modern culture. (The target of postmodernism appears to be the thought of Kant.) What postmodernism deeply questions is whether or not reason can establish a complete and coherent system of thought.

What does this have to do with the Christian gospel? Many suggest that it means postmodernism is the avowed enemy of the gospel in every possible way. I am not so sure. I am not a champion for postmodernism but I think it can be used to help us rethink our way of thinking and stating Christian truth claims. The gospel is an unchanging message for sure but the way we understand the gospel is not unchanging, thus I am inclined to believe that postmodernism can be used to help us understand the gospel in new and fresh ways. If modern culture distorts the gospel, which most agree that it has, then postmodernism can actually help us see some of our modern blind spots. But those who jump on this bandwagon need to understand that this new way of seeing is itself flawed. Newer ways of understanding and seeing reality are sure to come along. In any event, there is no room for hubris.

When I say we can learn from postmodernism how to better understand the gospel I mean simply that the postmodern critique of the limits of human knowledge is extremely valuable to gospel people. I grew up in an era that taught me that all my questions about the Bible and God’s reality could be answered through science and reason. For conservative Christians this meant that theology and Bible study could bring me to perfect knowledge. But as a limited and finite person I do not see all things the same way. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that I can only “see through a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12). My fallibility makes me question some things that I once thought I knew with certainty. I confess that I have a strong tug in my soul towards conceptual idolatry. It is this tug that many of the Christian leaders in my generation deny, or so it seems to me. In defending the gospel we conclude that we know the truth and by knowing the truth we stand with utter certainty against those who deny the truth we know. Having been the recipient of continual criticism from some who employ reason in this way I can tell you it divides the church, harms the soul, and creates “good guys and bad guys” in ways that are unlike the spirit of Christ.

Postmodernism is teaching me how to listen, how to question my previous assumptions and how to grow both intellectually and spiritually. I am not less certain of my faith in Christ, or maybe I could better say, I am not less certain of his life, death, burial and resurrection for me and for my faith. “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” still rings in my soul with very deep assurance.

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  1. Adam Shields November 15, 2006 at 8:40 am

    For me the two biggest points of post-moderism for Christianity is the limits of knowledge and the resulting humility about that knowledge. What most frustrates me about traditional Christians (modern) thought is that if we don’t have humility about our knowledge and don’t start with the idea that there is a limit to knowledge (i.e. we may not have it all) then we can not have a conversation with others (whether they be other Christians or not) because it will always degenerate into my knowledge is better than your knowledge. Obviously there are weaknesses with postmodernism (lack of confidence in our salvation for one), but I think all in all it is a needed corrective.
    Thanks John for putting your thoughts down and leading to such good conversations.

  2. Martin Downes November 18, 2006 at 11:37 pm

    Hello John
    Could I ask you three questions in relation to this post? (That wasn’t one of them by the way).
    1. Has you view of heresy changed (as a theological concept I mean, not your views on particular heresies)?
    2. Do you see Galatians 1:6-9 as really in the “spirit of Christ” given your move away from utter certainty about the truth that we know?
    3. Why are you so hard on “many of the leaders of your generation” when you may well no longer know with such certainty that they are wrong?
    Those are face value questions that I would be interested to hear you comment on.

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