The Church in a Postmodern World
In the ancient and classical world, the universe and cosmos were seen to be a fixed, orderly system designed by the Creator. Your task was to discover how your life fit into the cosmic structure, the design that had been divinely given to you. This meant that the “good life” was found in a life of virtue—you conformed your life to submit it to God’s design. With the coming of the age of Enlightenment (modernity) in the 1700’s and the scientific revolution in the 1800’s, the goal of man was no longer to submit himself to the God-given design, but instead was to only submit so far as seemed reasonable to him. God was no longer the final court of appeal, but man’s reason (Descartes) and sense-experience (Locke) became the measuring stick that would prescribe the measure of our consent to God’s design. So, the “good life” was found in a life of rationality—you lived life in accordance with what your reason and sense-experience told you was a good life.
As the tumultuous and bloody 20th century tumbled forward the West began to move beyond the scientific and rationalistic confidence of modernity. Two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and a whole host of other scandals led the intelligentsia to begin to be skeptical of the Enlightenment’s promises and moved into what is now known as postmodernism.
What is postmodernism? If the classical worldview (or premodernism) said that something was true because God had revealed it to be so, and modernism (or the Enlightenment) said that something was true because our rational faculties and scientific method had determined it to be true, postmodernism says that the concept of universal “truth” itself is suspect. The question for a postmodern isn’t, “What is true?” but rather, “What is true for me or my community?” There is no grand metanarrative of religion or science that can give us absolute truth about morality, identity, or even logic.
In premodernity, truth was revealed.
In modernity, truth was discovered.
In postmodernity, truth is created.
The French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, summarized the worldview well in his pithy maxim: “existence precedes essence.” That is, since there is no “essence” (no design) innately given to us at birth by some Creator, we are now free to simply decide what we want our essence to look like; what we want to be “true”, who we want to be, and what we believe is right or wrong is ultimately up to us. And no outside standard can tell us otherwise (unless, of course, we consent to let it do so). This worldview has been immortalized by supreme court justice Anthony Kennedy in his 1992 majority opinion in the Casey vs. Planned Parenthood case: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Therefore, in the postmodern world, the most important virtue to be pursued is that of self-expression, self-discovery, and self-love.
Friends, this is omnipresent in our culture today. This is in our children’s movies, our music, our schools, our concept of justice and morality, and our political discourse (on the right and the left). Don’t let anyone tell you who you should be, you have to decide that for yourself, be true to yourself, believe in yourself, love yourself. You, more or less, are an island to yourself—and you will allow different ideas, worldviews, or people into your life so long as they help you on your path of finding/loving/expressing yourself.
What should a Christian think about this?
Paul warns the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ,” Col 2:8. He also explains to the Corinthians, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,” 2 Cor 10:5. So how has the church in the West done in responding to a drift into modernity and postmodernity?
While the church might blanch at the moral relativism of postmodernism, it has in many respects co-opted much of its worldview through its appropriation of pragmatism. What is pragmatism? It is, to put it crudely, a worldview that determines “truth” by whether or not something is deemed to be useful. Whereas philosophers and theologians of yesteryear were committed to reorienting their life and priorities around what they deemed to be universal, inviolable truths that were timeless and unchanging, pragmatists view “truth” to be a more flexible term. “Truth” is determined by something’s cash-value, marketability, functionality, or persuasiveness. Does it get you what you want? Does it work? Then it must be “true.”
Now, of course, this is a dramatically oversimplified perspective on pragmatism. If you crack open your philosophy textbook from college and study John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism or John Dewey’s pragmatism (or *gulp* Rorty’s neopragmatism) you will find a much more nuanced explanation. But most of the pragmatism that is practiced in America today—and especially in the church—is not coming from a disciplined study of philosophy. It is just the byproduct of living in a highly commercialized, market-driven, corporate America that worships the bottom line and hates being told “no”.
So how has the church fallen prey to this ethos of postmodernism and pragmatism?
1. By preaching a gospel of self-love, rather than self-denial.
2. By (functionally) denying the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in conversion, the power of prayer, and the sufficiency of the gospel.
3. By allowing the priorities and values of secular culture set the church’s priorities and values.
4. By assuming the Bible doesn’t set guard rails for the church’s methods of ministry. (Asking “what works?” before asking “what does the Bible require?”).
5. By emphasizing feeling over truth.
6. By emphasizing technique over virtue.
7. By ignoring the horrors of Hell and the splendors of Heaven.
In time I hope to write at length on each of these points, coloring each one in with more clarity. But for now we can rest assured that although the world around has been saturated with the fog of postmodernism, God’s truth still stands, and He honors those who will not be conformed to the thinking of this world (Rom 12:2). Though others claim that they are the potters, and “truth” is their clay, we know better. Our true joy and satisfaction is not found in creating our own meaning, but in submitting to the divine design our loving Maker has laid out for us.