In the last article in this series about faith and postmodernism I introduced the shift from modernism to postmodernism and discussed how learning how to interface with a postmodern culture is going to be one of the keys to effective ministry in the West for some time to come. Like it or not, postmodernism is here for a while, and as the church, we need to figure out how to engage people with a spiritual journey that resonates with a society that feels at home with a world that on the whole feels very foreign to the church.
We may not like postmodernism (in my experience many believers don’t), but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to wrestle with it and figure out how to engage with people coming from that perspective. It seems to me, the strategy that is nearly guaranteed to fail is to try and convert people from postmodernism to modernism, then introduce them to faith. Instead, we need to figure out how to wrestle with the journey people are already on and ask what it looks like for people to find Jesus on that road.
A Conflict over Truth
One of the facets we explored a little bit in the previous article is how postmodernism wrestles with the nature of experience and truth and comes to different conclusions than modernism does. Where modernism embraces the idea of discoverable, absolute truth, postmodernism sees truth as more subjective. The notion of “absolute truth” is largely discarded in favor of a more relativistic picture: “your truth” and “my truth” and so on.
This subjectivity plays against two elements frequently expressed in Christianity:
- Absolute truth does exist, and it exists in God. Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
- Because God is the source of absolute truth and he reveals his moral ways, that implies that morality is not subjective: there do exist different understandings of morality that are closer or further from what God articulates as moral.
As someone wrestles with faith and postmodernism (whether they are a person of faith wrestling more with postmodernism or someone who is postmodernist on a journey towards faith in Jesus), these disagreements often frame the conversation. The discussion becomes about whether absolute truth does in fact exist, or whether morality is indeed subjective.
On the whole, this strategy seems doomed to fail, because postmodernism is a reaction against modernism. It sees itself as moving past the limitations of a modernist perspective, so trying to re-establish some aspects of the Christian perspective that resonate with the modernist point of view is almost certainly going to be seen as trying to walk the person backward. Draw the line in the sand there and you’re just about guaranteed to be seen as out-of-date or intellectually simplistic. (Sounds familiar, right?)
In my opinion, the mistake this approach takes is a framing one: rather than trying to explore what Jesus might mean to a postmodern perspective, the conversation is framed as if the way to find Jesus is through the tools that modernism finds comfortable. This need to engage within the “frame” of the modern perspective mostly disqualifies us from meaningful conversation before it’s even started. Like it or not, if someone wants to frame the conversation within postmodern values, that’s the ground we need to be willing to engage with them on.
Here is the million-dollar question: do we believe that Jesus is big enough and good enough that he is able to reach postmoderns through the values they find compelling? I believe he is. We celebrate people like Lee Strobel and his journey to faith that came through walking the modernist path to its conclusion that Jesus is absolute truth, and rightfully so. Could Jesus do the same with a postmodern quest? I think he could. Now to be sure, this is not a guaranteed road (nor was it through modernism, just look at Richard Dawkins), but it does seem to me to be likely a far more effective method of engagement than the alternative.
What Postmodernism is Trying to do with Truth
Let’s back up and try and consider what postmodernism is trying to do with truth. Postmodernism reacts against the near-worship of “objective truth” that came through modernism and pushes back, arguing that truth is known experientially, and as such our understanding of truth isn’t separable from our humanity. Truth is always connected to a certain point of view (how one is “situated”) and these points of view are known through our stories (“narratives”). One of the things that I think is really valuable to realize is that postmodernism is trying to do a better job of wrestling with how we as human beings come to knowledge. It takes at the beginning a more humble posture; that we are human, and we cannot divide off our humanness, we are forever trapped in our human point of view, and as such our finiteness always informs our knowledge.
In honesty, I think this step is a good step. The fact is, we do always know from a reference point, and that reference point informs what conclusions we come to as we wrestle with the world around us. Acknowledging this reality and working it through to our perspective is being more honest than we were with the Enlightenment, where we supposed that with the right methods we could divine absolute truth and cast of our finite way of knowing the world.
Paul echoes this type of thinking in his first letter to the Corinthians:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12
The best we can ever do in this world is a dim reflection of knowing the full story. This is a fundamental part of the human condition, but what Paul suggests is not that we should then give up and conclude that all narratives are equal, but rather to rejoice in the hope that our current limitation is not going to last forever:
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 1 Corinthians 13:9–11
Postmodernism’s wrestle with the truth is legitimate, it is just that to a Christian the resolution is different. Without the Christian story, postmodernism’s conclusion is that it unravels; without any anchor to hang anything else on, the acknowledgment that our personal experience of the world is always situated in our context, the tenable conclusion left is that all contexts, and hence all truths must be equivalently valid. This is a circular and self-defeating argument (the “truth” that postmodernism is accurate is equally valid as the “truth” that postmodernism is completely flawed and in error), but the beauty is that is all that is left. At the end of the exploration, the conclusion is that there is no hope that exists which belongs natively in this world.
Now to be clear, there has been and will continue to be a lot of collateral damage as people live out their distinct moral truths. This isn’t something I’m excited about and it is something pray the Lord restrains in our world by his grace. It is the playing out of the hopelessness that comes from a world that has come to the end of itself.
Coming Full Circle
What’s fascinating to me here is the way that postmodernism brings the modernism project full-circle, and how I believe it will play into our hands if we have the eyes to see it. Before modernism and its value for absolute truth and its naturalistic approach to the world, truth was understood to be something that didn’t entirely come from this world. Revelation was understood to be the transmission of truth from another world to this one because this world didn’t have the full story. With the Enlightenment and modernism, the focus shifted from another world (God’s world) to this one, and it was assumed that absolute truth could be known naturally. After a few hundred years, the modernist project collapsed and postmodernism is all that’s left: a cul-de-sac of philosophy that tells us that we don’t have the answer and can’t know it. The only way out of the trap is to begin to obtain truth from another world – hence postmodernism’s swing towards mysticism.
But this is already territory that belongs to us as believers. Look at this conversation Jesus has with Pilate (who appears to be a confessing postmodernist):
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” John 18:36–38a
Jesus locates truth as something from another world that he has come to bear witness to. Something that doesn’t fit and fully belong here, but comes as a part of his (inbreaking) kingdom. In Jesus, truth flows from the world it does belong into this one. The Christian story is perfectly set up to speak into the dead-end the West has been marching into for the last four hundred years, as long as we don’t play the game that it framed for us two hundred years ago. We have to step back further than that and return to the story of truth as a mystery that God is revealing to the world that will always see and know in part until we join that world and know fully, even as we have been fully known now.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman