A few weeks ago I saw a Facebook post which read something along the lines of “Post-modernity is the biggest current threat to Christianity.” This person had quoted the statement from a book, though I remember neither the book title nor the author. Nonetheless, I thought it was a rather interesting sentiment for several reasons.
It implies that the only way to be a legitimate Christian is to think in a “modern” way … which is completely not true! Christianity existed before the modern era. Serious men and women of God existed before the modern era of technology, industrialism, reason, philosophy. and so forth. We, somehow, are not more Christian than them. To think that we can somehow be more loving of God and more loving of other people simply because we exist in a period of time we have labeled as “modern” is actually an arrogant statement! It needlessly diminishes our beloved Church’s rich history of demonstrating love to humanity and those in need (granted, there are some black spots, but the good far outweighs the bad).
Moreover, there are even some pockets of the world that could still be considered “pre-modern”; yet they have still received the gospel and are attempting to live in Christ-like ways. The gospel and modernism are not synonymous, nor should they be. A lot of evil and oppression from the “modern” world onto places perceived as “not modern” has occurred (“not modern” typically defined by the western world). This has usually involved forcing many to abandon their cultures and embrace aspects of the western world, typically to support that western culture and location while keeping their way of life subservient. For example, a lot of the chocolate industry is on the backs of slave labor in third world countries. More recently, we have the example of “blood” minerals from Africa, used in our electronics.
Perhaps, in considering this, Christians should not be so quick to defend modernism.
The reality is that God has existed before modernism. Believe it or not, people worshipped God with all their heart, mind, and strength before 18th century Europe existed. The stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the time of Christ, the medieval period, etc. – people still worshipped God.
In scripture, we learn how God has revealed himself over time through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have grown and learned to recognize God’s truth and respond to God’s revelation in love.
God has existed since before the first moment of creation and long before the first humans. God has existed eternally in the past and will exist eternally in the future, no matter what label we, as his creation, attempt to put on a specific time period. And people will continue to worship God in truth and love, no matter what label we will use in the future to brand an era.
We are moving into a post-modern world. That is really just the bottom line. To try to hang on to modernism is like trying to hang onto a slippery rope; it is futile. Modernism is passing into history. The world’s systems of thinking are moving on, whether you are with them or not.
Many times, post-modernism is meeting scattered pockets of pre-modernism and skipping right over modernism!
Modernism is typically marked as a product of the enlightenment (which was actually a fairly anti-Christian movement in and of itself – ironic for the Christian defending modernism) and the industrial age. We have tight systems of philosophy and rationale, often closed off to new and different ideas, so that they can be presented as a complete, everything-comes-with-it, package.
Within Christianity, we have adapted (rightfully so) for the purposes of missionally presenting God within this type of modern culture. We’ve attempted to show Christianity as a complete, everything comes-with-it, package. While that is perhaps a start to demonstrating God, it is only a start, probably even a misguided start, because the truth is that we can never fully understand God and present him as a philosophical system of thinking that is a completely understandable yet complicated package!
That implies that we’ve somehow got God totally figured out, which is definitely not true.
Post-modernism throws much of that out of the window. It says that maybe we don’t have everything figured out and that there might be some other ideas that can help us better understand the big picture. But it also says that we will never completely understand the big picture, but we can still always learn more about it; this is both a pre-modern and post-modern idea. It’s like a puzzle, constantly rearranging itself, in an attempt to move towards the goal of completion, yet realizing it will never be completed. These are all actually Christian ideas!
I can understand why modernism, which likes to remove threats, would react against post-modernism, especially within Christianity. The modern says, “This is the way it is with God.” The post-modern says, “Maybe that’s not exactly the way it is with God, but maybe God could be like this as well.” While both are seeking to find a fuller truth and still be faithful to God, the modern may think that they have the truth, or the system for finding that truth, already figured out. The post-modern may think that maybe this truth really isn’t completely figured out after all, or that a system doesn’t necessarily work, but we can still learn how to get to that truth and be faithful to God by thinking in some other ways.
Ultimately though, both are seeking after the same truth, which is the truth of God. Moderns should be aware, because they will inevitably come upon a “post-modern” idea that actually helps them understand God a little more!
In understanding this, it’s quite easy to figure out why an author would write, “Post-modernity is the biggest current threat to Christianity.”
What the author should really say is, “Post-modernity is the biggest threat to an established and comfortable way a certain group of people (which is actually only a sect within the broader population of Christianity) has thought about Christianity within relatively recent history.” Like I mentioned before, Christians have lived and worshipped in truth and love before modernism without committing heresy. Christians will do the same after. Whether we realize it or not, the story of God does not revolve around Christians living between the 18th and 20th centuries in the western world.
Besides simply recognizing the reality of the era we live in, post-modernity is rather freeing. With the rise of pluralism, Christians are free to say, “Yes, I’m a Christian and I can learn to live with many other groups of people who think differently than me. But because I’m a Christian, I’m also free to think like a Christian, act like a Christian, and live like a Christian. Perhaps others can also learn to live with groups of people who think differently than them!”
Relativism, the idea that one would say that all religions are simply the same, should not be a threat in true post-modernity. What post-modernity says is that religions are different (honestly, to say that all religions are the same, while it may sound like ‘enlightened’ thinking, is incredibly simplistic, demonstrates a lack of understanding between religions, and is actually insulting to all religions). And with that, one can embrace their religion without having to say that another religion is the same as theirs! The Muslim, the Jew, the Christian, the Buddhist, or the Hindu does not have to feel pressure to make their respective belief systems relativistic or equal to others.
A true post-modern would recognize the difference in religions, and therefore, respect the beliefs of those practicing their religion, without having to feel like they need to attack another’s religion. But this does not mean that we cannot have intelligent and informed conversations regarding one another’s religion and the search for truth. Unfortunately, though, we can also expect that the popular, often non-religious world, will completely misunderstand the intent of these conversations, both between religions and within a religion.
We have the freedom to embrace post-modernity within Christianity, which means we have the freedom to practice our religion and worship God in a Christian manner in truth and in love. We can critically examine our beliefs as Christians, freely say that a belief in Jesus Christ really is what we believe after examining why, further examine new and different ideas to see if they help us grow in our relationships with Christ, and examine how we are demonstrating the love that God calls us to show to people in our lives.
Perhaps, most of all, people in a post-modern world aren’t necessarily looking for a philosophical system of thinking that is a completely understandable yet complicated package. Rather, while a post-modern is still always wanting to learn more intellectual information, but still trying to make sense of it in a complicated world (which should never be forgotten!), they are more importantly looking for a religion that backs up that intellectual information with actions that agree with those beliefs. This may give us the most freedom to embrace post-modernity within Christendom – the freedom to missionally demonstrate to others the love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness which Christ commands of us.