Embracing Post-Modernity within Christendom

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.

At the Edge of Science and Theology: ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology’

Just about a year ago, I read C.S. Lewis’ classic books known as ‘The Space Trilogy.’   Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength are, without a doubt, essential reading and some of his best work.   While they can be considered Christian science fiction, Lewis makes some truly great theological points.   And granted, while they are written from the scientific perspective of a mid-20th century knowledge of the universe, Lewis provides the very beginnings of a foundation for our own future theological understanding of life outside earth.   Not only did he begin to speculate on the theological implications of worlds outside our own planet in ‘The Space Trilogy,’ but he also raised similar questions in several of his short stories and in an unfinished work titled The Dark Tower.

Today, and in the decades and centuries to come, our knowledge of the universe will turn from what we once thought was simply science fiction into a very tangible reality.   CNN just recently featured an article stating that there are at least five known planets that could potentially allow for life to exist: Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f, Kepler-69c, Kepler-22b, and Gliese-581g.   The number of these ‘earth’-like planets will only increase as technology improves; a more in-depth list of potential life-sustaining planets can be found here.   With these discoveries, the probability that we will not only discover planets that allow for basic life, but also for intelligent life, will increase as well.   It could definitely be the case that there are other planets out there with human-like creatures with similar cognitive capabilities!

That is exciting news!   But it also means that we are not at the center of the ‘intelligent-life’ universe.   Centuries ago, Galileo challenged a common assumption of the Church; today, and in the decades and centuries to come, we as the Church might need to come to grips with the possibility that God created other intelligent life-forms which inhabit many other beautiful, lush, life-filled planets in our universe.   Perhaps these creatures live on one of the Kepler planets listed above; perhaps they don’t.   But perhaps they also live on one not yet discovered.   Scripture explains the story of God and humanity on earth; it is silent on the story of God and possible intelligent life on other planets.   However, it does discuss the story of creation and God; the universe is God’s creation.   But how God has interacted with other possible intelligent life on other planets, we honestly don’t really know.

If we believe that God is the God of the universe, and if we believe that God’s actions have cosmic implications, then at the point in the future when we discover another intelligent form of life in the universe, and we have not allowed for that possibility, we will be asking ourselves many, many, many tough questions.   Those will be questions that we could be thinking about now.   It’s better to be prepared for the future rather than end up decades or centuries behind; lagging behind is a place where the Church has often unfortunately been.

If our theology doesn’t account for at least the possibility of other intelligent life forms and the ability to begin to understand their context in God’s story, there is the potential for a lot of negative and unwanted consequences.   In the past, unneeded and unnecessary pain and death has resulted from not properly anticipating and wrestling with the theological and ethical questions of discovering the new ‘world’ on our own planet (i.e. the discovery of the Americas and the horrible treatment of indigenous peoples); we have the opportunity to avoid those same mistakes as Christians today.   Entirely new dimensions of both ethics and missions could be opened!

Since we only know what we know about the possibility of life on other planets, and we don’t know what we don’t know (and what we don’t know is a lot more than what we know – and I know – these are obvious statements), I have started to call this area, located at the edge of both science and theology, ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology.’

Paul writes in Romans 8:22 “…that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”   The universe, other planets, and other intelligent forms of life are included in ‘the whole creation.’   Questions to consider are: how might sin affect alien life forms, alien creations, and alien worlds? What could ‘fallenness’ look like for alien creations living on worlds that have different systems of physics and laws of nature?   I don’t think Paul, as a first century Jew, was even remotely thinking about these types of questions; nonetheless, they are questions that we, as 21st century followers of Christ, should probably begin to think about.

C.S. Lewis suggests in ‘The Space Trilogy’ that it is just earth that is affected by original sin; we could call this ‘The Silent Planet Theory.’   Could there be a ripple effect, almost a shockwave, that diminishes in strength as it extends out from earth, the focal point of original sin and the center of the breaking of creation?   And if so, would planets that are farther away from earth be less affected by original sin than our own planet?   We could call this ‘The Ripple Effect Theory.’

If we ever came into contact with intelligent life from other planets, would our own sinfulness and selfishness completely destroy their world in the way that it ravages our own earth?   We have been conditioned by Hollywood to believe that aliens are evil; but what if we, in our sinful state, are the evil ones who will destroy other planets when we finally interact with them, and in that sense spread the effects and consequences of original sin to worlds that have not had to deal with it?   Again, Lewis suggests these ideas in ‘The Space Trilogy.’

Or what if the damaging shockwave sent out from the moment of original sin remained equally strong the entire time, and other other intelligent life is just as sinful and selfish as we are apart from Christ?   This could be called ‘The Dark Tower Theory,’ based on Lewis’ unfinished work.

I tend to think that in some way, the entire universe is affected by the compounding effects of sin and original sin.   However, we don’t know exactly how and to what extent sin has affected other worlds.   Until we learn more in the decades and centuries to come about other planets, we can only speculate; this area of theology could today be called ‘Cosmic Speculative Hamartiology.’

And what could the work of Christ mean for other worlds and creations in the universe?   Paul alludes to the point that it is through Christ that all of the creation is saved and redeemed.   Christ’s life, death, and resurrection most likely have implications and consequences for the universe that are completely beyond our knowledge.   This could be called ‘Cosmic Speculative Soteriology‘ or ‘Cosmic Speculative Christology.’

The questions and the list of areas to think about goes on; you get the idea.   Nonetheless, all these areas are connected.   And still, while I label them as ‘speculative’ for now, and even though we don’t know the answers today, it is still an important area to consider.   Centuries or millenia from now, after a lot of study, and if Christ has not yet returned, we might finally be able remove the word ‘speculative’ from these areas.

I am well aware that for many people, the ideas I am discussing will not even be thought of as relevant or critical to theology today, or for that matter, ever.   I am also sure that a lot of people will read this post and immediately dismiss it.   Some will consider it to be controversial.   It’s okay.   I understand why it would be dismissed or controversial; I’m at the complete edge of both science and theology with these thoughts.   But if life on other planets is a legitimate possibility, which it is, then these questions are legitimate theological areas we need to start to think about.

For those who do not think this is important to think about at all, just give it a century or two (but probably less); it will be staring the Church directly in the face by then.   And of course, we may also end up discovering that there is no other intelligent life on other planets; although, I find that idea to be highly unlikely.   And like I mentioned before, this is one area where we as the Church don’t want to be caught completely off guard in, especially if the discovery of intelligent life is only a decade or two away!