Yesterday I suggested that the words postmodern and postmodernity are being widely used by Christians these days. They are quite often used in pejorative and unhelpful ways. When I am asked if I am sympathetic to postmodernism I am not sure how to answer since I have no idea at all what the questioner means?

If the person asking me the question means, “Do you reject truth claims and moral absolutes and embrace relativism?” then my answer is unashamedly negative. But if the person means, “Do you believe Christianity is entering a new time in history when the way that we do theology, mission and ministry will change rather dramatically because the methods we will use to discover truth are changing?” then my answer is an unashamedly positive.

harvey2 To understand this we need a working, but very simple, grasp of modernism itself. Modernity refers to the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was the world in which belief in enlightenment through science arose. This way of thinking taught us that the world was an orderly place and this orderliness followed laws. These laws were precise and could be studied and formulated into postulates or propositions that were a lot like mathematics. This new science could study the evidence, all the data, and then form a statement that was (in itself) the truth. Over time this approach became the way people in all areas of thought conceived of the world that God had made. (Of course many scientists and philosophers began to question if God had even made the world.) But the point here is important. Theists brought the same approach to thinking about the world to theology. Eventually Christian theists did the same, both liberal ones and conservative ones. According to science this new method should be used so we would get closer and closer to utopia. Progressive Christians joined this idea with their social gospel message, minus a lot of important biblical material, and then conceived of the twentieth century as the ultimate goal of human progress. Conservative Christians reacted against all this but they used the exact same method to form this reaction. They argued against the liberal agenda and reasoned that if you used the Bible correctly, studying the text of Holy Writ with a proper (scientific) method, then you would get the very mind of God about every thing that you could discover in this treasure house of divine (inerrant) revelation. The whole debate about Scripture, both its use and its nature, shifted into this scientific form. Various postulates were set forth, debated, shaped and reshaped. In time we had a Bible that we could use like a deep mine shaft. What we needed were experts who could take us down into the mind shaft so that we could see the gold for ourselves. Some theologians even began to argue that we could know God’s mind precisely and perfectly if we could form a perfect theology. Some believed they got very close. (I’m not making this up, though I am intentionally not quoting the noted scholars who argued this way because it is not important to my point.)

What brought this confidence in modernism to an end in my lifetime? In short, the events of the twentieth century killed all dreams of utopia and precise certitude. The difference for conservative Christians was that they had already embraced the fruit of modernity in their schools and texts and married all of this to a type of millennialism that saw the future in terms of catastrophe and escape. Then after this project failed they turned to power and politics in the last part of the 20th century. 

The point is this—the Enlightenment project failed. People began, in the second half of the last century, to search for answers to the way that we could live today and reject the scientific method of the past. They still want to use the benefits of science, and scholars still do hard science, but people have increasingly rejected the scientific worldview, at least as a meta-narrative that can explain life and give us meaning. They know one thing: science does not hold all the answers! With this conclusion people no longer “believe that knowledge must be objective and mathematically or scientifically precise” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, Danaher, xiv).

What does this mean for us as Christians? I think this is more good news than bad. But this is where the Christian is left in confusion by the present debate and the way postmodernism is being presented by so many. Why do I say this?

Simply put, a Christian knowledge of God rests not on precise understanding or biblical equations but on personal knowing. We come to God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, based upon a personal relationship with the risen and reigning Christ. Yes, we hear the good news and our minds are involved in processing what we here. But by hearing we “see” and receive good news. God cannot be discovered through the methods of science, the very methods that produced most of what we call systematic theology since the Enlightenment. God is not revealed to those who possess great knowledge or great intellect but rather to the weak, to those who hear by faith. Paul says, “So where does this leave the philosopher, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:20-21, NLT).

God cannot be discovered, nor his purposes personally known, through the scientific method. This is true even if the method is used to serve theology as some kind of special academic discipline.

James Danaher concludes:

The Enlightenment gave us the science and technology that runs our contemporary society, but it is not capable of leading us to the kind of truth and meaning that lie at the base of Christian life. It certainly is not an appropriate model for intimately knowing a personal God, for it tells us that we should rid ourselves of all bias in order to discover an objective truth untainted by our own prejudice (Danaher, xiv).

You may still say, “What’s so wrong with using this method to study the Bible and arrange theology?” And some will add, “God is, after all, logical and consistent and operates according to his own laws.” Well, yes and no. God is not illogical nor does he exist in any form of contradiction. But, and this is hugely important, the gospel tells us that we are to bring “the prejudice of faith to every circumstance” (xv).

Modernity gave us confidence in our method. It told us that we could have precise understanding about every mystery that we encountered in the revelation of God. But the gospel calls us to place our total confidence in Christ, not in a system. Our understanding is founded upon “divine beauty” and held in “humble awe” (xv). In modernity we figure something out and get hold of it. In the gospel someone gets hold of us and reveals himself to us. This truth moves us from confidence in ourselves to total confidence in the person of Jesus Christ. And this person is a loving, reconciling, forgiving Savior.

Scientific reasoning is not all wrong. It simply cannot represent the universal form of reason. If we grasp this then we are free to be rational but to pursue a rationality that is in conformity with the gospel, a truth that is more personal and mysteriously beautiful than objective and mathematically precise (Danaher, xv).

So the present postmodern shift does not mean that everything will come down and all truth will be lost to relativism. No, what this actually means is that a crack has now become a fault line in the modern world. This means that a new opportunity lies ahead of us. We are more free to explore meaning, to seek order and to retain both beauty and mystery. I believe with Danaher that “with the end of modernity, we now have an ever-greater opportunity to order our lives, not based on an understanding of some universal, objective truth, but rather on an intimate understanding of a truth that is personal—indeed, a truth that is a person (John 14:6)” (xv).

Now you know why I find all the hand-wringing by Christians about the rise of postmodernity ill-advised, if not positively wrong-headed.

Tomorrow: How shall we respond to this postmodern context?

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  1. Joe Schafer October 13, 2010 at 7:08 am

    John, I deeply agree with what you wrote in this column and the last one. A few years ago, it began to dawn on me that my own way of thinking — my so-called “Christian” worldview — was more strongly influenced by modernism than it was by Scripture. And I found that my ability to have a personal relationship with God had been truly stunted by my modernist mindset. If anyone out there thinks that this discussion is just some overly intellectualized mumbo jumbo with no implications for real life, I want to assure them that it is not.
    I too am saddened when I hear Christians speak of postmodernism as an enemy to be defeated. Why do we have to turn this into another culture war? Yes, there are some wrongheaded ideas in postmodernism. But there are also some good ideas that can help us to correct the ideological excesses of modernism, excesses which had kept me from experiencing the real presence and influence of God in my life.
    Postmodernism is not our enemy. Modernism is not our enemy. Our enemy is the evil one who is clever enough to embed false ideas and distortions into any human ideology, culture or value system. Salvation comes in the form of a relationship to a real, living, personal God who is waiting for us to stop clinging to abstract principles and simply come to him as we are.

  2. Ed Holm October 13, 2010 at 7:38 am

    John, once again you have hit the nail on the head with precision and clarity. I have for a long time had the same thought but was unable to articulate it properly that the realm of scientific methodology is perfect for exploring its realm and spirituality reflection along with its own tools and methodologies are appropriate for those inquiries. Scientists will no more find the reality of God by discovering “the God Gene” than believers will discover God’s heart by applying the rules of chemical analysis to Biblical reflection and developing a hermeneutic. I suppose by saying this I am supporting a sort of material/spiritual dualism but it is the best I can do. Thanks again for your splendid thinking.

  3. Chris Criminger October 13, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Hi John,
    Again, some sanity in the midst of a conversation that often borders on the extreme. Lyotard is the guy to look at on postmodernity and Polanyi is a social scientist that many years ago spoke about the need for personal knowing over just objective knowing.
    It seems to me that the way that conservatives and liberals follows much of contemporary politics, I see similar trends in Evangelicalism.
    Conservative Evangelicals often demonize postmodernity with charicatures and anathemas and progressive Evangelicals often hitch their band wagon to whatever fad or whatever direction the wind is blowing (in this case postmodernism) and anathemitize anything and everything from the past.
    Ironically, there is an overconfidence of conservative Evangelicals on their supposed knowledge of God and there is an overconfidence by moderate Evangelicals on their fuzziness and what we can’t know or don’t know about God. Both condemn and see things in the form of “sides.”
    Surely, a missional ecumenism would have people pause and reconsider this whole notion of taking sides in the church which has always been counter-productive and destructive.

  4. John Rowland October 13, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Years ago, I heard a Wichita State University professor, Dr. Paul D. Ackerman tell the story about his encounter with the Living God.
    Dr. Ackerman was a committed behaviorist and evolutionist who had the misfortune of watching his child ride his bike into the path of a car. The child died and to summarize Dr. Ackerman’s story, he realized that his view of reality was horribly inadequate. This led him to a relationship with God.
    It was a story I will not forget. He was not converted by a bunch of “proofs” but rather by a totally life-altering situation.

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