The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology


Post-modernity and the Church’s Mission

by Stephen Walton

I was trapped in a windowless, limitless artificial world. Thousands pressed around me, yet I was alienated from them. We faced a bewildering myriad of choices, which reduced me to a state of cognitive confusion. Yet despite this overwhelming opportunity, people followed predetermined paths, manipulated into choosing a definite look and style. I began to panic as claustrophobia closed in - I wondered if the outside world was illusory, or if there was only this Aladdin’s cave, and we were consumer shadows. I was in Ikea on a Saturday afternoon, trapped in a hyper-reality and experiencing post-modernism.

Postmodernity is the latest manifestation of the Church’s perpetual crisis. It is fundamentally antithetical to the Gospel, but also offers significant opportunities. Post-modernism, and its difference from modernism, are notoriously difficult to define (the latter might be the difference between Morecambe & Wise and Monty Python). But for the former we may take Lyotard’s words "simplifying in the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narrative". In post-modernity overarching theories, claiming to explain reality and give it value, are no longer believed. For 200 years the West told the story of modernism. Here European man (always a man) liberated himself from the Christianity’s false story on a quest for knowledge. Progress was inevitable as his intellectual and technological ability grew - he was building the New Jerusalem. But the deluge of horrors we call the twentieth century has made this dream look hopelessly naïve. The narrative justified oppression of those who did not fit into it. Thus Foucault argues that truth claims are automatically acts of violence against dissenters; meta-narrative is inherently oppressive. Post-modernism is committed to philosophical pluralism, to listening to the marginaliseds’ stories, and to a refusal to see any meta-narrative as normative.

This is supported by a radical epistemology. Modernism was built on the assumption that reason was epistemologically neutral. Positivism has now been shown as a myth- a fictitious story that justified the existence of certain institutions. Too many of its assumptions rested on the Christian worldview that it rejected. Instead of the known, Post-modernism emphasises the knower. This is carried to the extreme in Derrida’s deconstructionism. Deconstruction dismantles language, showing its ambiguity, and inability to describe the world. Instead we have a shifting sea of "language games", which are merely expressions of personal viewpoint. Some post-modern thinkers (e.g. Cupitt) doubt if there is anything for language to refer to refer to; they see it as fundamentally self-referential. Baudrillard asserts that "the gulf war didn’t happen"- it was a construct of television. This has several consequences, especially the devaluing of rational thought, and the death of value. In post-modern culture "value judgement" is a pejorative term (implying of course a value judgement!). "Meaning", "value", and "morality" have no significance as public truth. Instead we only have personal preferences. "I feel" replaces "I think"; "I am unhappy with that", "that is wrong"; "I would want to say," "I believe"". Knowing is not an attempt to mirror reality in language. Instead we construct reality for ourselves- the world is what we want it to be.

This is a heady, intoxicating experience. Post-modernism’s predominant images are ‘carnival" and "play". Freed of reality’s shackles, we live in a shifting kaleidoscope of images and experiences, taking whatever role we fancy, as we weave through life’s dance. However in post-modernism the self must create its own meaning. But with no fixed values, what is the self? It must create itself- but from what? Post-modern culture is thus characterised by a deep anxiety and loneliness, the "weightlessness" of the self. The post-modern self, with no deep reserves of identity and character to anchor it, is vulnerable to manipulation by consumerism. In this culture image, how one presents oneself to others, becomes a substitute for character. We have produced the "narcissistic" personality "hollowed out, deprived of the internal gyroscope of character…with an exaggerated interest in image as opposed to substance". Despair’s only alternative is to construct "hyper-realities", all-enveloping artificial worlds, notably cyberspace. Here we can escape- temporarily. But the clash between hyper-reality and the reality we cannot quite escape sets up a terrible cognitive dissonance (and also offers an opportunity for the sort of "pre-evangelism" described by Schaeffer).

Post-modernism is in its infancy. It has been conceived among the baby-boomers, and is being born among generation-x, and we do not know what its consequences will be. Few hold to it as a fully developed position, but we all live in a partially post-modern culture. It is seen in surreal humour; in the Discworld novels (god’s are creations of belief), and in Tarantino’s amoral violence. By concentrating on fleeting images, TV makes it harder to follow a coherent argument. Everyone doing University humanities course encounters post-modern ideology (creating major problems for student evangelism) and these will go on to control the media- and spread post-modernism. In bible study groups the refrain "that’s just your interpretation" is becoming common. Such groups become opportunities for people to share their reactions to the text, rather than searching for God’s will. Post-modern obsession with image, not substance taints evangelism. I worked on a youth camp, where we put great effort into preparing exciting audio-visual presentations of the gospel, but very little thought into their content- this was driven by the presentation’s style.

Evangelical responses have been mixed. Rebuilding old idols will not do- postmodernism has done us service in exposing them. The choice lies between the approaches of Tomlinson and Wells. Tomlinson wishes Evangelicals to embrace post-modernism as the only to speak the gospel to our culture with compassion. Wells is sceptical about post-modernism as "really just modernity stripped of the false hopes that were once supported by the straw pillars of the enlightenment…the beast, now sickened and deranged, has fallen and begun to consume its own innards". He wants Evangelicalism to repent of worldliness (in accepting modernism) and return to a theocentric vision. For Wells, post-modernism is essentially negative: "Post-modern authors have made the Christian critique of modernity easier, but on the other hand their virulent attack not merely on Enlightenment meaning but on all meaning has made Christian faith less plausible in the modern world."

Tomlinson leads to dead end. The way forward lies in a modified form of Well’s vision. We must see post-modernism as another way in which "the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers". We need an apologetic that will tackle post-modernism head on, whilst taking post-modern concerns seriously. But the response must not be solely intellectual. It must be a holistic response in which believers demonstrate God’s love and holiness in their lives.

Our deconstruction of post-modernism begins with its’ complex relationship to modernity. It is parasitic on modernism. Wells suggests that whilst modernism may be dead intellectually, but sociologically at its noontide. As we shall see, post-modernism covertly shares many of modernity’s assumptions. This has lead many to suggest that we should talk of "late" or "hyper" modernity. We will retain "post-modernism" to express the radical epistemological shift. But this shift obscures the fact that post-moderns are telling a story- a meta-narrative. It has heroes and villains (the latter often Christian); and leads to oppression. This is inevitable. Post-moderns retain one value- oppression is wrong. But why, if values are constructs? We must also realise that post-modernism is not a new phenomenon. Wells roots it in modernisation’s destruction of the family, which inhibited the transmission of values. It can also be seen as part of a recurring reaction to the enlightenment, like that of in 1920’s Germany. It’s moral vacuum was filled by the irrational power ideology of Nazism. We could go the same way.

Wells sees modernity consisting of the processes of modernisation and secularisation, with their accompanying worldviews modernism and secularism. Modernity is urbanised, with an accompanying break down in traditional institutions and values. Modernity is a world where technology apparently worked, giving us vast opportunities for pleasure and self-fulfilment. But God has been marginalised. We may believe in him, but he does not effect our lives. Wells argues that Evangelical churches have sold out to modernism. Instead of concentrating on what God requires, they concentrate (both in evangelism and spirituality) in servicing peoples felt needs. Tomlinson is a good example. God is conspicuously absent from the post evangelical- he concentrates on fulfilling the needs of religious consumers. The modern world is exhilarating, but also frightening. So post-moderns turn to managers and therapists to control the chaos in their outer and inner worlds. Again, Wells argues that Evangelicals have sold out by seeing ministry like this.

As the modernity strips us of meaning we turn inward to the self to find meaning, we leap above the "line of despair" into the irrational. The emphasis on the self as the source of meaning is typical of post-modernity. Many live in several different worlds. In public life, they may be engulfed by modernity. But in private they turn inwards and are post-modern. Wells believes evangelicalism has pandered to this turn to the self, and is transforming itself into a form of self-fulfilment. Evangelism now caters to peoples’ felt needs, instead of proclaiming the reign of God, and humanities need for salvation. In doing so the gospel loses its’ character as public truth. The disjunction of public and private worlds was seen in a key post-modern the trial of Bill Clinton. Clinton’s defence was that private failings had no relevance to public efficiency. The public believed him; in their story, the villain was Ken Starr, who was attempting to impose a moral meta-narrative on public life. This is the moral climate in which we evangelise.

In postmodernity the cultural ‘structure of plausibility" makes truth claims difficult to sustain. An Evangelical response cannot be limited to rational apologetics. We must provide alternative structures of plausibility. This means creating churches in which we demonstrate that belief in the Christian story is not oppressive. In these communities, relationships must mirror the Trinity, where there is authority without oppression. As we submit to one another, following one who ‘did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" we make a powerful response to post-modernism. These communities must also rediscover justification by faith in all its liberating power. Then we will have less of the casualties that Tomlinson is (rightly) concerned for. Such communities will be typified by joy, and by the gentleness with which they welcome post-modernism’s wounded. Schaeffer was an effective evangelist to early post-modernism because his apologetics was backed up by the example of L'Abri. The charge that Christianity is oppressive ‘can only be answered by the concrete, non-totalising life of actual Christians."

But this will be ineffective unless we directly challenge post-modernism. We must expose two of its basic assumptions as very modern. First, post-moderns still believe in progress. This is the shown by the prefix "post-"; it reflects the "assumption of an ability to move from one of achievement to another...The need to be in motion driving towards the future". Post-moderns tell a story about how they have liberated themselves from a dark past and are progressing towards a bright future. This meta-narrative, of post-modernism’s inevitability, permeates the post evangelical. Christians must expose this myth of progress as a residue of the enlightenment, and instead offer the biblical story as a better basis for hope. Here is an opportunity- post-modern belief in progress exists alongside pessimism, and unease about technology. Middleton & Walsh suggest that the biblical story deals with post-modern fears about the violence supposedly inherent in all meta-narrative. This story undercuts all idolatrous attempts at power and oppression in the name of a God who is sensitive to suffering, who does not oppress, but cares for the poor. It portrays a world that was created good, a universe that is ultimately beneficient.

We must also resist the second inheritance from the enlightenment, belief in human autonomy. Post-modernism concurs with Descartes in seeing the individual as the ultimate arbiter of what is true and good. Again evangelism must expose the despair this leads to, and to offer an alternative way. Gunton believes that our era’s problem is seeing personal freedom as something to be grasped, not to be received as a gift. But this will always be freedom as power over others. Post-modernism operates with the same concept that was responsible for modernism’s worst excesses! But Christians proclaim a different concept of freedom that "we are truly ourselves when we are constituted by our relation to the other"; we receive our freedom as God’s gift.

Post-modernism’s critique of Cartesianism gives the opportunity to offer an alternative. We must show that post-modernism’s "rejection of explanation is a direct result of the failure of enlightenment reason to provide justification". We can agree that the subject is not neutral, and that knowing is warped by sin. In evangelism we must stop pretending that reason is neutral. But we cannot follow post-modernism in its rejection of objective truth; if we reject the enlightenment there is no reason to do so. An alternative is the "critical realism" suggested by Middleton & Walsh, and by Tom Wright. But we must ground this in belief in the God who is there and is not silent, and in faith seeking understanding. We have an incredible opportunity for presuppositional apologetics. Most post-moderns continue to live as if the world was rational, and discourse possible; their despair lies in the fact that they have no reason to believe this.

Our response must be theological. Wells argues that modernism has robbed theology of its place in the church, leaving it to service the needs of religious consumers. For past 50 years, evangelicals have produced excellent theology, but it is not heard in the pews. Evangelicalism must define itself confessionally- God’s word must not only be acknowledged as true, it must function as central. We must not accept the post-modern paradigm, and dispense with propositional, "objective" truth and the correspondence theory, as Evangelicals such as Kenneson, McGrath, and Grenz have done. Without a true story, we have no Gospel- God becomes a prisoner of our language community. This means that we cannot accept Middleton & Walsh’s concept of biblical authority, which allows them to contradict the bible whilst claiming to be faithful to it! Their presentation of the biblical story is good, but it neglects the images of God as king, judge, and warrior, and the themes of sin and wrath. This is another example of adapting the gospel to human felt needs as a form of therapy.

Above all we must turn from our post-modern narcissism, and recover a sense of God’s transcendent holiness. "It is God the church needs most, God in his grace and truth, God in his awesome and holy presence, not a folder full of hot ideas for reviving the church’s flagging programmes". The future is in Christ. Not Ikea.

Steve WaltonAbout the Author

Steve Walton is Vicar of Marbury, Tushingham, and Whitewell in the Diocese of Chester (England).