Postmodernism: The 'Spirit of the Age'
We live in strange times. When I was in college twenty years ago, Christianity was under fire because it was thought to be unscientific - and consequently, untrue. Today, Christianity is widely rejected, not because it was critically examined and found wanting, but merely because it claims to be true. Increasingly, American academics regard claims to objective and universal truth as intolerant and uninformed. What accounts for this bizarre and growing consensus? It's called postmodernism. Postmodern ideology rejects the authority of reason and views all claims to objective truth to be dangerous. For these enormously influential thinkers, truth is political and created by "belief communities," not discovered rationally and objectively. That the academic community is experiencing a major ideological revolution is beyond doubt.
Like all intellectual movements, postmodernism deeply effects the broader culture. In this article, I will show how popular religious views mirror academic postmodernism, then clarify the challenge of this new consensus for the church.
Abigail Van Buren has provided America with practical advice on almost every problem imaginable. No where does her advice reflect the spirit of the age more than with religion. A few years ago, "Dear Abby" provided advice about how to handle religious disagreements. In it, Abby entertains the following criticism of a previously published column:
Your answer to the woman who complained that her relatives were always arguing with her about religion was ridiculous. You advised her to simply declare the subject off-limits. Are you suggesting that people talk about only trivial, meaningless subjects so as to avoid a potential controversy?...It is arrogant to tell people there are subjects they may not mention in your presence. You could have suggested she learn enough about her relatives' cult to show them the errors contained in its teaching.
In my view, the height of arrogance is to attempt to show people the 'errors' in the religion of their choice.
Abby's response captures a growing consensus about religious tolerance and faith commitments. Two principles implicit in her comment show how thoroughly the postmodern hegemony in academics is fueling cultural attitudes. First, entering into religious controversy is, in her words, arrogant. Second, personal choice is the ultimate basis for spiritual truth. Understanding these new, broadly held convictions, is essential both for reaching non Christians in our culture and for the ongoing vitality of the Christian church.
Why Debating Religious Truth is Arrogant
Rule number one, it's arrogant to suggest that someone's religious beliefs might be wrong. By arrogant, most people mean intolerant--a term that has come to have a whole new meaning in recent years. Intolerance used to refer to bigotry or prejudice. That is, judging someone or excluding them because of who they are. In this sense, intolerance is offensive. But now, intolerance means that simply disagreeing about beliefs is wrong.
The recent movie "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" illustrates this point. In a conversation between an Amazonian Indian and a Christian missionary, the Indian says, "If the Lord made Indians the way they are, who are you people to make them different?" This is one of the defining sentiments of our day. Attempting to convert is unacceptable because it implies standing in judgment over others' beliefs.
The only exception clause to today's code of tolerance is criticizing what is pejoratively labeled "fundamentalism." Fundamentalism doesn't mean what it did in the early decades of this century. Nor does it refer to religious extremism, like the Shiites' holy war against the West. Today, fundamentalists are those who believe that religious truths are objective and therefore subject to rational investigation.
Postmodernism Means the Death of Truth
We are witnessing a broad based backlash against reason in our culture. This backlash is widely promoted in contemporary higher education. The argument is that every time somebody claims to be in possession of the truth (especially religious truth), it ends up repressing people. So its best to make no claims to truth at all.
Rejecting objective truth is the cornerstone of postmodernism. In essence, postmodern ideology declares an end to all ideology and all claims to truth. How has this seemingly anti intellectual outlook gained such wide acceptance in history's most advanced civilization? That question requires us to understand how postmodernists conceive the past three hundred years of western history.
Postmodernism abandons modernism, the humanist philosophy of the European Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinking is based on the authority of French philosopher Rene Descartes' autonomous man--the one who starts from his own thought ("I think, therefore I am") and builds his world view systematically from reason alone. Naively, postmodernists charge, modernists assumed that the mind was a "mirror of nature," meaning that our perceptions of reality actually correspond to the way the world is. From this presumption, modernists built a culture that exalted technological achievement and mastery over the natural order. Expansion-minded capitalism and liberal democracy, outgrowths of modernist autonomous individualism, subjugated the earth to the eurocentric, male dominated paradigm.
But modernism planted the seeds of its own undoing. As arrogant, autonomous modernists conquered the globe and subjugated nature in the name of progress, oppressed and marginalized people have responded. "Progress toward what?" they cry. Postmodernists say that the idols of autonomous reason and technological proliferation have brought the modern age to the brink of disaster. The "myth of progress" ends up in a nightmare of violence, both for marginalized people and for the earth.
Enter postmodernism. Postmodernism rejects modernism's autonomous individualism and all that follows from it. Rather than seeing humanity as an ocean of individuals, postmodernists think of humans as "social constructs." We do not exist or think independently of the community with which we identify. So we can't have independent or autonomous access to reality. All of our thinking is contextual. Rather than conceiving the mind as a mirror of nature, postmodernists argue that we view reality through the lens of culture. Consequently, postmodernists reject the possibility of objective truth. Reality itself turns out to be a "social construct" or paradigm. In the place of objective truth and what postmodernists call "metanarratives" (comprehensive world views), we find "local narratives," or stories about reality that "work" for particular communities--but have no validity beyond that community. Indeed, postmodernists reject the whole language of truth and reality in favor of literary terms like narrative and story. It's all about interpretation, not about what's real or true.
Postmodernists hold that the pretense of objective truth always does violence by excluding other voices (regarding other world views to be invalid), and marginalizing the vulnerable by scripting them out of the story. Truth claims, we are told, are essentially tools to legitimate power. That's why in postmodern culture, the person to be feared is the one who believes that we can discover ultimate truth. The dogmatist, the totalizer, the absolutist is both naive and dangerous.
A growing number, especially among the emerging generation, believe that reason and truth are inherently political and subversive. That's why they are often so cynical. According to the voices in contemporary culture that shape "Generation X" thinking, claims to truth are clever disguises for the pernicious "will to power." Consequently, rather than dominating others with our "version of reality," we should accept all beliefs as equally valid. Openness without the restraint of reason, and tolerance without moral appraisal are the new postmodern mandates.
European history is mixed. Postmodern critics of Enlightenment humanism accurately draw out the legacy of autonomous (and fallen) human beings. But at the same time, it's hard not to be struck by the shallowness of the postmodern line of argument. If tolerance means that we can't offer criticism of others' beliefs, then invectives directed toward those who believe in objective spiritual truth seem out of bounds too. Common assertions that Christians are "arrogant" for accepting the universality of biblical truth turns out to be profoundly intolerant.
Personal Beliefs Define What's True
Rule number two, you can't separate the belief from the believer. Anymore, rejecting the content of faith means rejecting the person holding it, because truth now means personal preference and personal empowerment. It's no more appropriate to question the validity of a person's belief than to critique their choice from the dinner menu. Simply believing is justification enough. Striving together to discover spiritual truth through debate and spirited discussion is out, because no real difference exists between what a person chooses to believe and what is "true for them."
Consider current opinion about the religions of the world. Few people understand much about them. Yet conventional wisdom is that they all teach pretty much the same thing. The real concern is finding spirituality that "fits." George Barna's research shows that,
About four out of every ten adults strongly concurred that when Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others pray to their god, all of those individuals are actually praying to the same god, but simply use different names for that deity. Only one out of every six adults strongly disagreed with this view.
America is a religious smorgasbord. The only question seems to be "what are you hungry for?" And taste is more important than substance. That's why people are largely unmoved when it is pointed out that their beliefs are often hopelessly contradictory or that they live inconsistently with them.
For most people, the postmodern outlook I've described is more "absorbed" than thought out. An impressive majority of Americans believe that truth is relative. But few know why they think that way. Still fewer have any clue about how their beliefs practically relate to their own lives. In general, people are more ideologically confused than deeply committed to their convictions. So while we hear the rhetoric of openness to everything and tolerance for everyone, it's rare to find someone who really understands what this means. It's just the socially appropriate attitude to have. Postmodern ideologues have been successful in transforming ideology into popular zeitgeist.
Ironically, in an age of anti-dogmatism, this radical subjectivity leads to the dangerously arrogant inference that no one can ever be wrong about what they believe. If we are free from the constraints of rationality, nothing separates truth from self-delusion. The age of anti-dogmatism ends up being the age of anti-intellectualism. The tyranny of truth has been replaced, even among academics, for self empowering stories. And these stories typically function at the expense of truth.
Christians need to be respectful of what others believe and of the traditions and experiences that form those beliefs. But the postmodern demand to uncritically accept all religious beliefs as true (at least for the person who believes them) is fanatical. Beliefs formed in the postmodern climate of openness and tolerance create a firewall against genuine and substantive dialogue about spiritual and moral truth. History offers sobering testimony to the high price such anti-rational dogmatism.
Significantly, postmodern subjectivism also inhibits a deep commitment to one's own beliefs. Since faith is rooted in the practical matters of personal taste and experience, the tendency is to adopt and abandon beliefs according to the demands of the moment. Remember, truth is a human creation, not something we discover independently of ourselves. So if a truth no longer satisfies, just move on to something new. How tragic it is when we are told by friends and neighbors that, "I tried Christianity for a while, but it just didn't work for me."
Postmodern Spirituality and the Church
This new conventional wisdom has enormous implications for the future of evangelical Christianity in America.I see two disturbing indications that the church is increasingly being conformed to the culture's postmodern mold, as an educator and pastoral leader.
First, while the culture is more open to spirituality now than in the past several decades, the church is substantially unprepared for effective evangelism. Evangelicals have been slow to discern the "spirit of the age." Consequently, many in our own community approach spirituality from the postmodern perspective. It's disturbing to note, regarding Barna's survey on religious syncretism cited earlier, that
Larger proportions of born again Christians and people who attend evangelical churches concur with this sentiment [all religions are equally valid paths to the same god] than reject it.
So what about the task of evangelism? If all religions are simply culturally conditioned avenues to the same God, then no one is really lost. Spiritual darkness is not really darkness, but merely a different shade of light. Barna notes that the logical extension of this syncretism is a growing lack of interest in evangelism. He states,
It was instructive to discover that less than half of the born again Christians and those who attend evangelical churches strongly agreed that they have such a responsibility [to reach the lost].
I don't know of any evangelical scholar or pastors who teach universalism. And the hallmark of the evangelical church is a passionate commitment to evangelism. So how have so many evangelicals come to think this way? Much like everyone else-- it's absorbed through uncritical participation in postmodern culture.
Nowhere has this absorption of postmodern ideology been more evident than with the emerging generation. Thoughtful Christians recognize that this generation lacks meaningful exposure to the gospel more than any previous generation in American history. But without the unwavering resolve of the church, fueled by a deep conviction that the gospel is absolute truth, young women and men will not be reached for Jesus Christ. The last thing this generation needs is for the postmodern consensus to guide the church.
In my dealing with college students (arguably some of the most cynical people I've met), I have found that their relativism and postmodern critique of culture are less convictions and more like the "party line" they've been indoctrinated with. Working with them is like peeling back the layers of an onion. I hear all of the reasons why truth is dangerous and how reason is merely an oppressive Western "construct." But in conversation, sooner or later you get to a core of deeply held beliefs that they accept as objectively true. For all but a deeply committed few, postmodern ideology is a veneer. Understanding postmodern reasoning and having thoughtful responses to it enables Christians to effectively communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have a second concern about evangelicals today. While the church is distinct from the culture in terms of its values, we are very much like the culture in terms of how we think about those values. It's good that the church instills biblical morals. But what grip do we have on them? When a substantial percent of our congregations reject spiritual absolutes, what sustains our attachments to moral absolutes? It seems likely that for many Christians, values are merely a part of their identity with the Christian subculture.
There is a necessary connection between spiritual truth and moral absolutes. Because God is the infinite, personal Sovereign of creation, his nature is the only objective foundation for ethical values. To the extent that truth about God is cast in terms of culturally relative beliefs, biblical morality must follow. And there is indication that the erosion of objective values is suffering the same decline in the church as objective spiritual truth. Columnist Cal Thomas notes,
Surveys have shown that Christians are divorcing at the same rate as non-Christians. So much for "family values." People who say they are Christians are getting abortions at a rate as high, or higher, as those who profess a different faith or none at all.
As this observation indicates, we are paying a very high price for being engulfed by postmodern culture. But the solution to the challenge of postmodernity is not to run from secular society. That's really not an option since it is neither possible nor biblical. Abandoning truth is not an alternative either. At a time when the culture is enamored with the idea of personal empowerment, evangelicals need to gain an appreciation for the power of ideas-- and the skills needed to take them "captive to the obedience of Christ."
The church has been appropriately sensitive to the personal damage incurred by people living in a socially and morally fragmented age. Christian therapy and pastoral counseling are a mainstay in most evangelical churches today. But for the sake of the ongoing effectiveness of the church with this culture, we also need to attend to the way people approach matters of truth. Having a solid grasp of postmodern ideology and a coherent, biblical response to it are now imperative for reaching the lost and raising women and men to spiritual maturity.
Remember the wisdom of the Apostle John in a very similar age,
I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth. (3 John 4)