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Postmodernism: Friend or Foe?

There is a great deal of consternation and, I might add, confusion over the nature and impact of postmodernism. Many Christians immediately assume that all things postmodern are the source of pernicious moral relativism and that postmodernism is sure to destroy all truth.

I often hear evangelical leaders speak of the "threat of postmodernism" or the "challenges of living in the postmodern era" as if some new malevolent force is overtaking Western civilization. In short, most Christians tend to assume that postmodernism is completely opposed to Christian faith, but I would argue that this is based more on a popular and uninformed notion of postmodernity than on a critical analysis that seeks to truly understand the complexities of culture and human knowing.

Make no mistake; there is indeed a malevolent force that has overtaken Western civilization, a force that has undermined authentic Christian faith. I'm talking about modernism. Postmodernism offers the first serious challenge to modernism since its emergence from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; thus postmodernism warrants serious consideration as an ally to Christian faith.

It was the Enlightenment emphasis on autonomous reason that ushered in the modern era and with it a rejection of Divine revelation as a legitimate source of truth. Messiah College professor of English and film studies Crystal L. Downing points out in her book, How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, "Truth for the modern thinker is objectively perceived by the unaided human brain. Reason begins to take precedence over revelation; rational analysis starts to supersede the authority of the church. … While the premodern Christian says that belief precedes understanding, the modern era began to switch it around, saying, ‘I must understand in order to believe.'" Professor Downing adds that, "once reason is turned into the preeminent source of knowledge, it erodes reliance on faith, which is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.'"

This is not to say that Christian faith is unreasonable or that the Christian does not employ reason. Certainly not. It is simply to say that the "enlightened" modernist attempts to separate faith and reason as two distinct and separate categories of knowledge, a trap that many professing Christians have unwittingly fallen into. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer clarifies the cooperation of reason and faith well: "I believe in reason. Reason is a God-designed cognitive process of inference and criticism, a discipline that forms virtuous habits of the mind. I reason in belief. Reasoning—giving warrants, making inferences, analyzing critically—does not take place in a vacuum but in a fiduciary framework, a framework of belief."

On the other hand, modernism (or the Enlightenment) elevated human reason to the "supreme object of human devotion … worshipped in the name of progress" according to Dorothy L. Sayers. The modernist falsely believes that his or her reason exists in an objective and therefore perfect vacuum apart from any external influences. As such, modernist epistemology teaches that all truth is exclusive to the comprehension of human reason and thus any knowledge, which does not come by means of empirical facts processed by "perfect" human reason is inadequate.

But in fact, we all posses certain presuppositions based upon our contextual experiences that inevitably shape our interpretation of the facts. Our presuppositions often only rely on reason up to a point from which we all employ a form of faith. Thus human reason alone is limited. So according to the postmodern, both the Christian and the atheist hold to beliefs that ultimately rest on faith. This is true. Postmodernism has the potential to restore faith (revelation) as a legitimate source of knowledge. The Enlightenment project limits knowledge to only scientifically provable facts. This condition would naturally inhibit the reception of the gospel and so its destruction would be helpful to the church.
Though they may deny it, modernists do presuppose certain "truths"; therefore they, too, depart from reason at some point, employing faith in their assumptions. This is precisely what postmodernism challenges: the belief in autonomous reason apart from faith, which ultimately gives rise to the myth of the autonomous self. The "autonomous self" taken to its logical conclusion creates its own unique meaning, defines its own morality, and then attempts to live it to the best of his or her ability. In other words, life is all about you, your feelings and your desires. You and you alone remain the ultimate authority in your own life. This is a purely modernistic notion that has infected the contemporary church in ways too numerous to count. I think this could explain, in part, the growth of the American mega-church at a time when the total number of adherents to Christianity is in decline. Small churches are closing at an alarming rate in this country and yet mega-churches are being built every day.

Of course this makes sense if too many Christians believe in the autonomous self. The mega-church offers a dynamic church experience often designed to entertain and excite the participant. The emphasis can unwittingly tend toward the attendee, rather than the worship of Jesus Christ. There is less direct accountability and few people are actually known by the pastor. People are able to "hide" in the crowd and church discipline is rarely heard of; accountability becomes less stringent and one is better able to maintain his autonomy. We Americans, especially, like it this way.

However, as my friend Dr. John Armstrong points out: "We evangelicals have a ‘low church' theology, often because of our reaction against Catholicism. We need to recover both a high Christology and a higher ecclesiology, or doctrine of the church. The New Testament is replete with the emphasis that God saves us as part of a body of people, a family, and a community. We are not lone rangers when we pray. We are members one of another."

I'm not saying that postmodernism is the answer to all that ails the contemporary church. But as John argues (and I agree), "it does offer a new challenge and new kairos moment for the mission of Christ that may be used by God to open a new generation up to the truth that is in Christ alone, known both incarnationally and relationally, not rationally as under modernism."

As to postmodernism's alleged contribution to the "all truth is relative" philosophy, this is not entirely accurate. Downing points out that "no thinking postmodernist denies the reality of facts. Instead, postmodernism calls into question the immediacy of our access to facts, suggesting that prejudices, presuppositions and other constructions of culture tint (but not obscure) the glasses through which we view facts …"

Such an understanding might make Christians more humble, less dogmatic, and more earnest in their own efforts to know the Lord, since they might more properly balance faith and reason. Recall Paul's concession that "for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV).

Lastly, by recovering a more Christian epistemology, we might abandon the autonomous self and instead properly integrate ourselves into the community of believers, which was the compelling testimony of the first century church.

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.

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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org