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postmodern challenges

November 21st, 2003 by Jason · No Comments

I won a book, The Emerging Church , while at the L.A. Urban Youth Workers Conference (which was great). The book is about the intersection of postmodernism and the church. It piqued my curiosity, since postmodernism is a continued hot topic in my theology classes, but I am still looking to see how it will answer some of the tough questions postmodernism poses to the church and how actual ministry can look different.

The question of relativism raises its old head again in this book. The author concentrates on postmodernity’s willingness to accept contradictions. Modernity sought to find a single world view which would explain everything and which everyone could agree upon. The long and ugly religious wars of the middle ages galvanized philosophers to try and find a system of beliefs that would unite rather than divide, and thus stop people would stop killing each other over convictions (who needs those right ;). That project obviously failed (just survey the wars of the last 100 years as evidence), leading postmoderns to reject the quest for the universal worldview. Furthermore, postmodernism reminds us that every view comes from a viewpoint, and thus can’t be true for all people at all times. Contradictions, then, are part and parcel in postmodernism. And that’s true in spiritual matters as well. Many today would have no problem believing that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead and practice Wicca at the same time. This obviously complicates matters for the church, which has long held that following Jesus means forsaking all other gods.

An additonal problem that postmodernism presents to the church is that of an experience-based faith. In modernity what came first were the facts grounded in reason (i.e. Jesus’ resurrection, the inspiration of the Scriptures, etc.) which led to a change in beliefs which led to a change in action. In postmodernity, people are much more interested in an experience. “Facts” are just one person’s way of making a strong statement. What validates something as “true” is an experience of its power, goodness, beauty, etc. Instead of reasoned facts, it is heartfelt experience that undergirds one’s beliefs.

The church can certainly adapt to these challenges. It may switch from preaching about the need to repent because you’ve been shown that you’re a sinner and in need of salvation via a few prooftexts to services that bring the hearer into the story of the gospel so that the the hearer experiences the need for a savior. The service may incorporate art, architecture, and worship more prominently so that people can experience the living Christ.

However, the problem still exists of whether converts need to be shown that it is more than experience that undergirds their faith. For what happens when the service is dull, the pastor drives you nuts, or the person next to you is a hypocrite? Are we elevating postmodernism over the gospel if we abandon trying to convince people that the faith is true whether they experience it is or not? Or is it just a holdover from modernity when we try and convince the congregation that relativism is antithetical to the Christian faith? Does it matter if one believes other religions are true, so long as one is following Jesus?

I think the questions themselves are flawed. There must be another way of looking at this whole issue of truth that is neither modern nor hyper-modern (which I think describes relativism. Relativism has given up hope that the golden “universal truth” of modernity will ever be found, so it abandons the quest. But it is still seeking truth according to the rules of modernity). However, seeing the “rules” of truth in any way other than the way modernity posed them isn’t easy for me. Right now it feels like trying to conceptualize a 4th dimension when I’ve lived in a 3 dimensional world all my life.

Tags: theology