Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Postmodernity Makes Theologians of Us All -- Transforming Christian Theology ch. 4

Transforming Theology Project Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Postmodernity Makes Theologians of Us All
Chapter 4

Maybe you’ve heard that we have entered a postmodern age. You may be wondering what that means. It almost sounds apocalyptic, as if we’ve reached the end of the world – what is there after modernity? But, there is a growing consensus that the principles of modernity have failed to deliver and we are now heading into a new age. In part it’s postmodern, because we’re not sure what it will be. The definitions of this age a re so varied, it’s hard to pin down. So, usually we start the conversation by listing the assumptions of modernity, and asking if they hold any longer.

So, what is modernity? Well, according to Philip Clayton, there are three primary features. Ask yourself as you read these, if these describe the way you think of your faith.

  1. “The powers of human reason stand at the center of the picture.” We decide, by way of reason, what is true and right.
  2. “Modernity was characterized by what scholars call melioristic optimism.” That is, there is the assumption that we are on the right track and that because of human ingenuity and willpower we can perfect this world we live in. Should it surprise you that a postmillennial vision of God’s kingdom was prominent in this age. Alexander Campbell, a founder of my own tradition, published a journal called the Millennial Harbinger, and this was not a pessimistic dispensationalist tract, no, he believed that the American system was a harbinger of what could come as the Kingdom of God made itself felt in the world. The 1940s kind of dashed this vision.
  3. “An either/or choice between absolutism and relativism.” It’s all or nothing – everything is true as written or it’s all relative. It’s fundamentalism or relativism, nothing in between. This is the vision that folks like Sam Harris and Al Mohler have. No middle ground here! (p. 28).

As you read these features, do you find that they simply don’t work anymore? Reason isn’t sufficient and the world isn’t getting better – which is why Karl Barth broke with the liberalism of his day, and do you find the either/or choices simply unworkable?

Now, if you’re a Protestant these questions are of great importance, because Protestantism is a movement that was born just as the Modern Era was being born. If you look at this period from a simply historical perspective, you will notice that this period is known as the Early Modern Era – the Enlightenment hasn’t broken out yet, but the printing press, among other things, has changed the dynamics, and a modern age is breaking out. But, could the decline of Protestantism in our day be linked to the decline of the Modern World view?

If the modern world is fragmenting, what are the features of this new age? Well, of course it depends on whom you ask. Clayton points us to a couple of possibilities. Derrida, for instance speaks of the demise of “stable structures of knowledge.” Lyotard speaks of the demise of metanarratives, and still others speak of the birth of a global consciousness. What are these features saying? Well, it seems that there is no longer one impervious narrative that explains everything – whether religious or scientific. The modern age was very much a Western European creation. We looked at the world through Euro-American eyes – indeed, through “Christian eyes.” We had the answers and by Jove the world needs these answers and we will share them. Clayton doesn’t use the term “manifest destiny” here, but I think it fits.

In this new age, we are called to be “pragmatic idealists.” That is:
They [postmodern Christians] want their faith to make a difference in the word, but they also know that the process will have to be interactive and dialogical, that they can’t start with ready-made doctrinal systems and deduce all further steps from there. (p. 31)
Discipleship, in this new age, means participating “in God’s bring about the kingdom of God in ways that reflect Jesus’ transformative responses to the situation is he encountered in his ministry.” This requires interpretive work, of course, because our world is very different. There isn’t a one-to-one correlation (pp. 31-32).

So, what does this mean for the church? Well, as we live into this new postmodern age, we will be 1) focusing in Christian practice, learning, as it were, on the job rather than starting with a full-blown set of principles that we must follow without question – this is why we are all theologians! 2) Our optimism will be colored by pragmatism. There may be a difference, in the end, between what we envision, and what we can accomplish. So, set the bar high, push toward it, but recognize that the actual end may be different from the vision. 3) Be comfortable in a pluralistic setting. Let go of the either/or mentality. It’s appropriate to hold your beliefs dear, but not in a way that is either/or – I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s no longer a “zero sum” game.

We are living in a new age. We may not understand all the implications yet, any more than the folks at the beginning of the modern age would have. But, here we are, and the church must respond – adapt to a changing situation where many of the old rules no longer hold!


John said...


Based upon your limited attention to it, I think you have underestimated the significance of the modernist hallmark of optimism and implications for the loss of optimism in the post-modern era.

Prior to the modern age I believe most folks accepted the conditions of life as it was with the assumption that it would always be so; change was sporadic and non-linear, whether in science, politics or quality of life.

In the modern age optimism marked everything, from politics, to colonialism, religion, science and anthropology. Darwinism presumed boundless generally positive evolutionary adaptation. Communism assumed the inexorable march of history towards a Utopian future. Medicine presumed a cure for all maladies. Science presumed that the growth of human knowledge and increase in human abilities was limitless. Christianity confronted the newly discovered rest of the world as a fertile ground for spreading God's word.

Within the first 50 years of the twentieth century all of those optimistic presumptions failed, utterly. We learned that neither history nor evolution were automatically geared toward progress or positive outcomes. We learned that science was as likely to be perverted towards death and destruction as toward growth and healing. We learned that God may not stop us from destroying his creation. We learned that while we become more adept we are at manipulating the building blocks of creation, we have not become more adept human beings. As we become stronger, the demons within keep pace. And we learned that God speaks in a variety of forms, not just through the idiom of Christianity.

The challenge of Post-modernism is how to come to terms with the death of optimistic presumption. Optimism has become a philosophical and spiritual choice, and no longer an "a priori" condition of life.

To chose optimism, one must support that choice with a foundation capable of delivering. In a world where agnosticism is fast becoming the default spirituality, the task of, and the opportunities for Christianity should be clear.


Steve said...

Bob, I do not envy you looking out on the likes of John and David on Sunday mornings and having to preach. On the other hand, what a marvelous challenge to know that clear thinking is out there and they are listening carefully.

John, this was an especially helpful summary of the challenge to our faith that is the loss of optimism. I don't think you give enough credit to Bob, however, as our many face-to-face conversations convince me he is well aware of this challenge and, like most of us, is hard at work to articulate a convincing response. Whoever gets there first, PLEASE SHARE!

Anonymous said...

Hey John,

We sure learned a lot (referring to your list). That's progress. Ignorance isn't bliss. That's the lesson.

Gee Steve, I thought you would have been jealous!? I could come Sunday in a trance but that’s no fun anymore. You should be a fly on the wall during our bible studies. We’re pretty censored on-line ;)

I give Bob credit for not screaming, even once! Kidding, I know he's cool.

David Mc