Is Postmodernism a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

Lael Arrington's picture

In this series on the emerging/emergent church I’ve often referred to the "postmodern sensibilities" of the younger generation. What does "postmodern" mean? And, biblically speaking, is it something to embrace or avoid? That depends on who you ask. The emerging/emergent church tends to see postmodernism as a good thing. The traditional church tends to see it as a bad thing. Why?

(Forgive me for cramming centuries of intellectual history into a few short paragraphs, but perhaps this summary will be helpful to a Mom with cynical teens or college students. To someone who wants to love God with all her heart and her mind.)

"Postmodernism" describes a culture that has rejected or gone beyond "modernism." And what is modernism? Historically it’s the rejection of the age of faith in medieval times and the embrace of reason and science which began in the Renaissance and rose to full strength in the Enlightenment. Modernism values individualism, rationalism, nationalism and pragmatism-the four pillars of the Enlightenment.

Rationalism is woven into the very fabric of our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." It was believed that through reason and sense experience and science we can discover knowledge and truth on which reasonable people can agree.

But what has happened in the decades since the 1700’s and the rise of the Enlightenment? Are we more united in our knowledge of justice, virtue, evil, compassion, of what it takes to live well and have good relationships? Actually, the more we’ve relied on our own reason and sense experience and Science to provide these answers the more divided we have become as each individual relies on his or her own reason and experience to live as he or she pleases or deems best. Radical individualism leads to radical relativism. Rationalism has not delivered in its promise that reason and science would solve our problems.

So today’s leading secular thinkers have rejected modernism. They believe the Enlightenment has failed. They are in that sense "postmodern." Truth is not self-evident. Truth is not a universal principle "out there" waiting to be discovered. There is no transcendent truth/source of knowledge. No such thing as the certainty of knowledge, especially moral or spiritual certainty. My reason and experience leads me to believe X, Y, or Z…whatever works for me. Truth is relative. Truth is subjective.

There is no larger story that makes sense of reality. There is only a "tournament of narratives." Only my smaller story or the story of my group. So let’s each live in our own small story and try to make it as interesting as possible.

What do you think…is this a biblical view of truth and reality?

What would you say if I said that many in the emerging/emergent church embrace postmodernism?

Many in the traditional church see postmodernism as the hyper-extension of modernism. Radical individualism left to each one’s reason and experience to find a foundation for knowledge results in tossing truth, knowledge and certainty out the window. All that is left is relativism/subjectivism. As I first began to study postmodernism this was my view. All I could see was the danger posed to truth.

While those in the traditional church see postmodernism as radical relativism, and therefore bad, Brian McLaren and other pomo writers see postmodernism as a rejection of modernism, a complete break w/ the Enlightenment. And a good thing, a welcome alternative to the idea that reason, individualism, nationalism and pragmatism can provide the certainty of the knowledge we need to live and love well. They focus on relationship with Jesus and telling his stories as the pathway to faith, rather than a rational, evidential approach.

In his book Deep Church: A Third Way between Traditional and Emergent, Belcher and many others in the Traditional church agree with the postmodern/emergent rejection of foundationalism. What is foundationalism? An attempt to justify one’s beliefs to the point of certainty based on logic, reason and evidence. To build beliefs on a foundation that cannot be assailed.

Moderns are foundationalists. And this is why moderns rejected God. He couldn’t be proven. And they brought every scientific argument and evidence to bear against the reality of God and his revelation. Christians within the church have adapted Modernist methods, trying to prove God and the truth of his revelation through the sciences of textual criticism, archeology, history, and philosophical reasoning. (I think Rick and I began our radio show, The Things That Matter Most, with a very evidential mindset, perhaps a little too confident in the case we could make for faith from reason, science and facts. In our interviews we began to discover that so many people believe what they want to believe. That they would interpret the evidence to fit their values and worldview.) 

Belcher and others would agree with postmodernists that the Enlightenment quest for certainty based on unassailable reason and science is a dead end. Science and reason can never give us irrefutable proof of God. They would agree with postmodern/Emergent thinkers that foundationalism has deeply impacted the traditional church which has used the tools of the Enlightenment, reason and science, to prove the Bible is true. This reliance has led to over confidence and a triumphalistic spirit. Foundationalist pastors can come off mean and arrogant.

However, Belcher and others would differ with the pomo/emergent thinkers. Emergent leader Tony Jones argues that all reality is interpretation. We can’t know reality apart from what the individual or community comes up with. Because they reject an epistemology based on foundationalism they believe they can have no certainty in understanding reality.

Belcher and others would argue that, as Christians, we *do* believe in reality There is objective reality and we can attain true belief in that reality. Reality is there. We can see it. Even non-Christians can see it. And we have an outside authority, God’s Word, that reveals it. And because we believe in reality we don’t have to be foundationalists.

We can, I believe, with a proper view of reality, hold on to confidence in knowing truth. We can value reason and evidence, knowing that they will never prove God or provide an irrefutable foundation for our faith, but, like stepping stones, they can lead us to confident faith. For many, this kind of evidential study affords them "permission" to believe. Faith is the final step in the direction that the evidence leads. I affirm the truth of God’s word. The message of the gospel and how to walk with God is wrapped in words instead of visions for a reason. Jesus was the Logos and his embodiment of Logos shows again how God places a high value on Words and meaning to convey truth, reason and meaning. Jesus came to fulfill the written word. However, on this both traditionalists and emergents can agree: a life, the living Christ and his story captured in the gospels, is the highest expression of the heart and mind—the radiance, of God.

It is good to embrace "cognitive humility" and affirm that reason and evidence do not afford us an unassailable foundation for our faith. Ultimately truth is a person known in relationship. It is not good to take that view to an extreme that denies truth and posits that reality depends on our perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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