prevailing ethos of an age provides a lens through which even the
most conscientious and diligent Christian interprets the Divine.
During a transitional period, when a new ethos and thought
challenges the prominent mode, it benefits the Christian to consider
both how and if the new thinking helpfully adjusts his or her
mindset and, at the same time, to also consider how one should
respond or even strive to effect the new order. The current
transition from modernity to postmodernity in both popular and
scholarly culture demands both Christian engagement and
Postmodernityís saturation of popular culture is too pervasive
to be ignored. While in North America there may be the occasional
Christian ghetto as yet untouched by the emerging postmodern ethos,
such isolated communities are surely the anachronistic exception
rather than the rule.
As the name implies, postmodernity must be understood against the
backdrop of the modernism out of which it developed. Jim Campbell
summarizes the heart of modernity:
"In the 18th century thinkers became optimistic that by
using the universal values of science, reason and logic, they
could get rid of all the myths and holy ideas that kept humanity
from misery, religion, superstition, all irrational behavior, and
unfounded belief. Humanity would thus progress to a state of freedom,
happiness and progress."
What then is postmodernism?
There is no one authoritative thinker who by his or her work
encompasses the entire breadth of postmodern reflection. But some
summary comments can be made that move us toward a better
understanding. We will focus on just three strands of postmodern
thought: the inadequacy of language and paradigms, the way that
paradigms serve oppression, and truth in community.
The Inadequacy of Language and Paradigms
In postmodern thought, language is represented as being
inadequate to the task of representing reality.
Nietzsche has been called the "patron saint of postmodernity."
He highlighted the way that we use language and thought categories
to conceptualize reality. However, Nietzsche viewed these mental and
linguistic efforts as being entirely arbitrary and not accurately
reflective of reality.
Jacque Derrida is the contemporary postmodern writer most
commonly associated with similar assertions in connection with his
rigorous critique of what he terms Western logocentrism. Derrida and
other postmodern writers emphasize the symbolic nature of language.
Language is not reality but only re-presents it. However those who
use language tend to equate it with reality.
Paradigms exist to exercise power.
The artificial edifice set up by manís arbitrary structuring of
reality using the tools of mental concepts and language systems
create a "paradigm." "Paradigm" - in the phrase
"paradigm shift" - increased it currency in philosophical
circles by Thomas Kuhnís justly famous The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept reached
popular culture more recently in Stephen Coveyís The
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. So when I step up to
the ticket booth with my wife to get two tickets for The Matrix, the
attendantís paradigm leads her to expect me to say, "Two
adults" and not "Can I have this dance?" Her
paradigm leads her to expect certain verbiage. That is her mindset.
One of the concepts associated with postmodernity is that these
paradigms can be used to exercise power over others. The
postmodern thinker most associated with this strand of postmodern
reflection is the late Michel Foucault. An example of this
paradigmatic oppression would be the Naziís racist narrative of
Aryan superiority which they used to systematically implement their
Truth in the Context of Community
A third component of postmodernity is its emphasis on the
intrinsically symbiotic relationship of truth and community. One
thinker associated with this strand of postmodern thought is Richard
Rorty. Rorty contends that it is impossible for an individualís
portrayal of truth to transcend his connection with his community
and his time. The knowledge of the individual is inextricably tied
to his time and societal context. But rather than mourning the
limitation, Rorty embraces this situation as a means by which we
appreciate the degree to which we rely on our community for
Two Opposite Responses
Two antithetical responses to postmodernism have prevailed among
Christian leaders. Many leading thinkers have assumed an adversarial
stance: postmodern thought must be demolished as a pretension that
"sets itself up against the knowledge of God" (2
Other influentials have embraced postmodernity to such a
passionate extent that nothing less than a wholesale reengineering
of Christianity is implied.
The traditionalists accuse such Christians enamored of postmodern
thought of being addicted to novelty. Postmodernism is portrayed as
nothing more than a fad of the intelligentsia. They argue that a
church redesigned along postmodern lines will find itself irrelevant
when postmodernity is inevitably eclipsed by the next philosophical
The revisionists counter that the traditionalists are hopelessly
trapped in the grip of a modern church, with an outdated and
unfounded trust in the ability of manís mind to apprehend and
communicate the One who transcends manís finite categories and
inadequate linguistic symbol systems.
With such respected lights lining up on both sides of the
question and in light of the cogent, persuasive and articulate
argumentation marshaled by both sides, itís not difficult for
those of us following the controversy to find ourselves with
prevailing sympathies in the direction of the last book or article
read! What to do??
Toward a balanced conversation
In work Iíve done over the years as a conflict resolution
consultant, mediator and trainer both in and out of the church, Iíve
observed that when individuals are embroiled in the heat of dispute,
they have a tendency to absolutize - even demonize - the opposite
party. "Absolutizing" is a term I use for arbitrarily
narrowing the person with whom youíre disagreeing to their
position. It involves a simplification of the otherís position -
and ultimately of the other person - so that the issue is viewed as
what I call "relentlessly binary." Itís black or white,
on or off, 0 or 1, right or wrong.
Demonization occurs when the otherís motives are negatively
construed. This narrowing of the other person results from several
factors. One is the need to create a paradigm to handle controversy.
In the short run, it is more simple and convenient to cast as
adversary those with whom we disagree. The dispute becomes black and
white and our role is well-defined and well-rehearsed. We marshal
arguments supporting our thesis and our "opponent" can
feel thusly cornered into doing the same.
Skillful conflict mediators aid those locked in the death-grip of
thesis-antithesis by aiding each party to
1 - listen and fully focus on the other; and
2 - gain a fuller understanding not only of the reasons for the
otherís position but - most importantly - of the presuppositions
behind those reasons.
When this is done properly, the end of the process brings two
1 - the revealed complexity of concerns on both sides often
shatters the myth of black and white, thesis-antithesis that had
devolved the issue into mere power struggle and
2 - ironically, this very complexity provides a rich tapestry of
creative alternatives as to how the "conflict" - or
seeming incompatibility of positions - can be resolved.
The original precipitating conflict is sometimes shown to be
hopelessly simplistic in its two-dimensionality. Resolving the
conflict is now revealed to require the much harder work of
addressing all the concerns represented in each disputantís
In short, it can seem easier just to argue than to do the hard
work of addressing everyoneís concerns one by one.
Similarly, addressing the constellation of issues raised by both
the emerging postmodern culture and by postmodern thinkers
themselves is much more complicated than a simple thumbs up or down
to postmodernity. Our task is far more difficult.
Itís not my purpose here to stake out a position or to
establish firm boundaries. It is my intention to do two
things: First, I want to suggest what would be antithetically
extreme responses to postmodernity - that we should neither embrace
it as the final corrective to the imbalances of Christianity, nor
despise it as the enemy of a Christian paradigm. Secondly, I wish to
suggest to both the traditionalists and the revisionists some ways
in which they can move the conversation forward in a way that
benefits both. It is my hope to suggest one outline of how that
dialogue might proceed. I wish to strongly encourage both the
traditionalists and revisionists to do the hard work of truly
listening to each other and asking questions that are not just
rhetorical or accusatory.
[To be continued]