Postmodernism 102

Paul Lakeland, in Postmodernity (see left for a link to the book), describes four phenomena that could signify a collaborative definition of postmodernism. The first one, incredulity towards meta-narratives, we have already discussed. The next three include: the awareness that a society which depends upon rationalization comes at a cost, the proliferation of information technologies, and newly emergent social movements. Each of these three phenomena impacts the church differently, and as with the incredulity towards meta-narratives each provides promises and pitfalls.

First, let us deal with the pitfalls and promises of a rational society. I believe rational is meant to describe a way of knowing. When we think of rational, an image of the calm serene scientist working her way through a mathematical proof or titrating a solution in a lab comes to my mind. Rational has, in some ways, become synonymous with the cognitive and/or with scientific ways of knowing. In the modern era there has been a preoccupation with finding, through science, the ways in which we are all the same. Science, in essence, has attempted to prove the meta-narrative in order to unity humanity under one banner. Moreover, rationality has attempted to transcend cultures and societies (and even religions) in order to posit the things that are good for all human beings. Any over-reliance on one way of knowing comes at a cost. Furthermore, over-reliance on rationality is detrimental to the structure of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

I want to take a moment and work with that last statement concerning the detrimental nature that an over-reliance on rationality has towards Christianity. In the modern era, a lot of time was spent proving that Christianity was the one true religion of God. There were (are) the attempts as proving the creation story, expeditions to find the Ark of Noah, scientific attempts at proving the validity of the Shroud of Turin. Furthermore, there are numerous archeological attempts that seek to prove that every word, every situation, indeed everything in the Bible is factual. What is forgotten in these attempts is the role of faith and mystery in the life of Christians. Let me offer an example.

When I was in high school I attended a conservative Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida. On one occasion I heard a sermon preached on the crucifixion entitled "Jesus died of a Broken Heart." The illustration that I remember from this sermon was the minister's discussion with a doctor about the Bible's mention of blood and water flowing from the wound inflicted by the soldier. The minister proceeded to give a medical account explaining how this was possible and the medical reasons why what the Bible says happened was factual.

In a modern world this was a perfectly acceptable way of preaching this text. It appealed to an educated congregation and brought a sense of rationality to the text so that it might inform faith. If we accept the definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding" then this attempt at theology fails. It overemphasizes a rational proof of the text, and while it seeks understanding it leaves little room for faith. In the postmodern world, the response to this type of sermon would generally be a resounding "who cares?"

Instead, a postmodern approach might look at the different meanings of blood and water and the possibilities that each of them has for life giving and life sustaining. This sermon, instead of describing the medical "facts" might seek understanding through experiences with water and blood, through theological constructions of baptism and communion through the mingling of these two substances. Ultimately, a sermon would seek to say much with out telling much. That is, it would seek to describe multiple meanings without giving credence to one particular interpretation. This allows the listener to discover their own experiences of the text through the lenses they bring with them. Furthermore, the postmodern preacher uses the text to build faith through the multiple understandings present in its words, rather than an empirical attempt to prove that lack of faith in the words is incorrect. This approach gives credence to the mystery that is built into every text, allowing people from multiple backgrounds and experiences to work with the ambiguity of faith.

Finally, this turn from rationality poses some unique pitfalls for Christianity, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists. First, my impression of the evangelical church is that it fundamentally desires that the Bible be interpreted as factual. I will admit my lack of experience in the evangelical world (despite spending my high school years in what I would consider a theologically conservative church). However, with an emphasis on inerrancy the evangelical worldview runs into some problems with this multiplicity of meanings approach that eschews certainty through rationality. My experience of many evangelical worldviews (even more so in fundamentalist churches) is that they want everything to be true in the Bible down to the letter.

The emergent church is the latest incarnation that seeks to blend evangelical theology with postmodern phenomena. From my reading, this "movement" was built as a reaction to the consumer mentality of the modern mega-church. There was a sense that true community and faith was lost in the impersonal world of "cappuccino churches" and their homogenous and bland forms of Christianity. The emergent movement seeks diversity in thought and experience to enrich and inform its faith. However, there is still some resistance to a postmodern worldview and the multiplicity of meanings method of faith.

While the worship style incorporates multiple forms of interaction and learning, the theology lacks mystery and elasticity. Most of the leaders of the movement are white men from middle class upbringings. There are very few evangelical females or minorities in leadership positions who theologically inform the emergent community. Rather, the emergent movement seems, to me at least, to be a return to premodern ways of knowing using technology to enhance the experience. Premodern Christianity was marked by its dependence on spiritual ways of knowing and explaining the world. It was run by a male hierarchy who consolidated the power of the church and dictated meaning rather than embracing diversity. I am not implying that the emergent church discounts diversity; however, what remains to be seen is the active seeking out of, engagement with, and incorporation of multiple theological points of view and experiences into their view of the world.

I will work with the final two marks of postmodernity next week, but leave you with a couple questions. Can a church (theology) accept and incorporate scientific methods in order to prove its premises, while at the same time rejecting the ways that the world uses the same techniques to prove itself?

grace and peace...



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