Modern and Postmodern Christianity
A while ago I was talking about stuff on WikiGodPod, a podcast out of the Greater Toronto Area (I live close to the GTA in Kitchener) centred around our stories and how that shapes how we understand God. I’m not somebody who speaks well without preparation, so the potential questions were sent in advance and I spent a few hours the night before and morning of planning. I figure since I already spent those hours writing notes, I may as well clean them up a bit and publish them here.
You write that the decline of the church is happening because of our obsession with possessing the “truth;” “The message sent by the modern churches view of truth is that it is more important to assert opinion as absolute truth than it is to actually connect and share Jesus with the world.” Why did that work for so long but no longer today?
It worked because that was the modernist epistemology that was the world was primarily operating under. It aligned well with nationalism that taught our nation was better. It aligned well with colonialism based on one culture being better than another so you justify forcing that better culture on them by any means necessary. And that epistemology was not entirely negative, of course. We owe the scientific revolution to this approach to knowledge.
A few factors have moved us out of that modern mindset. I’m not particularly well-versed in philosophy, but I know philosophers were questioning this long before it became popular. The first half of the 20th Century with two world wars and the Great Depression also took a lot of wind out of the sails that we were really this enlightened people. Women’s rights and civil rights in the US started the way for other voices to be heard, although we still have a long way to go there.
On the popular level, I’d go back to the interplay with technology. There is no denying the democratization power of the Internet. Previously, if people who wanted to push their understanding as absolute truth on their followers, they could more or less get away with it. That isn’t possible anymore. If somebody tells me that the truth is clearly that men have authority over women, for example, and I have access to the Internet, I can learn why a lot of people think otherwise. Then I can decide for myself what I think and I am more than likely going to be upset at the people or institutions that tried to restrict me to encountering one point of view.
You say that today’s postmodern churches need to be 4 things: Jesus-centred, ecumenical, contextual, and nonfoundational. I love that you’ve given us a map; can you elaborate on those 4 things?
Jesus-centered isn’t necessarily just a postmodern idea, but there might be a difference in that the modern framework would be centered around what you believe about Jesus. To borrow an analog from the Alpha program, imagine 7 years ago before I met Emily somebody gave me a book with lots of information about her. I read it and I think she sounds amazing. Somebody asks me if I want to meet her, maybe date her, and I say “oh, there’s no need, I already know all about her.” While it is still important that I know things about Emily, we would normally think that was odd to never want to actually know her. I think that’s the difference there between a modern and a postmodern perspective on “Jesus-centred.”
The other three all tie together and I do think are where we can really learn from postmodernism. Ecumenical means we listen to the entire Church. Like Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, we can’t continue to say “I don’t need you” to large parts of the Church if we don’t like what they’re saying. We need what Catholics and Orthodox and Anglicans and Pentecostals and Anabaptists and evangelicals and mainliners and any other big category I’ve missed have to offer.
By contextual, I am speaking primarily to those like myself who have held a lot of the power demographics. In the book I cite one of my professors who pointed out that when we just say “theology” we usually mean theology done by white, male, straight, middle to upper class, probably Protestant and either European or North American. If we want to talk about anybody else doing theology, we add an adjective to it: Black, feminist, Catholic, etc. That language betrays the way we usually think that those of us with cultural power are the objective default. We are the ones doing pure theology. That’s something we need to repent of, and part of that is simply acknowledging that everything is contextual. We speak from what we know. Sometimes that helps us get to a healthier theology, sometimes an unhealthier, so we need to listen to people speaking from other contexts in order to help determine which is which.
A foundational epistemology would be the modern framework which usually begins with a few key ideas that are considered undisputable. Once somebody starts to dispute these ideas, they’re usually shuffled to the margins or out of the community entirely. In one sense I’m still saying theology should be foundational, but that foundation isn’t a proposition or a set of propositions. Our foundation is a living obedience to our King Jesus. That gives us freedom to debate things that might have previously been considered undisputable, as a family united by Jesus.
After all your thought and writing and journeying with the Scriptures, what is the Bible for you?
The Bible is the story of God and God’s people which invites us to join in to the story by pointing us to the person of Jesus. Some would be offended to talk about the Bible as a tool, but that’s exactly what it is. All 2 Timothy puts it, Scripture is useful. I don’t really have that much interest anymore in debating abstract terms like inerrancy and infallibility. What I care more about is how are you using the Bible to help me be a better disciple of Jesus. If you’re using it to hurt somebody, I don’t care if you’re right about the literal historicity of Jonah or whatever other silly thing we argue about, you’re still using Scripture wrong.
Citing N.T. Wright, even the phrase “authority of Scripture” only makes sense if it is shorthand for “the authority of God as exercised through Scripture.” God, ultimately revealed in Jesus, is our authority. The Bible is useful in helping us encounter Jesus, but it should never be put on the same level as Jesus.