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They Say It's Just a Phase

October 2000

September 2000

August 2000


By Brian McLaren, author, The Church on the Other Side, Finding Faith

qb1.gif (2901 bytes)I know some -- including some people I greatly respect, such as Os Guinness -- say that the postmodern transition that some of us are so intrigued by is just a mirage. It's just a phase, a media event, not a big deal. And of course, I partly agree ... it is a phase (meaning it's not the eternal state), and it is getting a good bit of attention from some media, which is usually a dangerous thing; but it is a big deal, in my opinion, and shouldn't be lightly dismissed. At least, that's how I see it.

Os has suggested that since postmodernism is essentially a negative philosophy, it can not last. My sense is that on the philosophical level, where Os focuses his energies so astutely, that's more true than on the popular level. And while the philosophers often get balls rolling, popular culture, the arts, and even religion often turn the rolling snowball into an avalanche that takes on a life of its own, a life beyond anything the philosophers would have anticipated, or even desired. Sometimes that could be for better, and sometimes it could be for worse, a case of Frankenstein's monster, an experiment run amok.

Sleep or Wake up?

In this case, I think the postmodern transition unleashed by philosophers as far back as Kierkegaard and Neitsche could go either way. Here is my sincere belief: If we people of faith in Christ would arouse ourselves at this critical moment, and engage ourselves for the next hundred years with rare passion and purpose during this time of transition, the world of 3,000 AD could be a vastly different and better place than it will be otherwise. But if we people of faith sleep on, calling this transition a minor phase, failing to rouse ourselves at this hingepoint in history ... I fear for our descendants, and I know we will have to apologize to the Lord for our ostrich- like indolence.

That's why I want to beat the drum pretty loudly, perhaps to the point of being obnoxious, and say, "This is a big deal! This is significant!"

The guardians of modernity will not want to accept this. Since all of our theologies (Calvinism, Arminianism, Pentecostalism, etc., etc.) and all of our religious structures are modern phenomena, of course there is a tendency to want to conserve the modern foundations on which they were build, or preserve the modern atmosphere which they breathe and in which they thrive. To take seriously the idea that a postmodern revolution is taking place -- a revolution no less dramatic than the shift from medieval to modern times -- would imply that perhaps cherished structures and theologies are in for cataclysm. Guardians of those institutions don't want to think about that.

bq3.gif (7226 bytes)

No wonder people heavily invested in those structures want to deny the transition. And no wonder less invested people like me and many of my friends are excited by the transition, since we've not been all that satisfied with our modern versions of Christianity of late.

Looking at the future with hope

Os Guiness raises a really valuable question: is postmodernism a negative philosophy? In true postmodern fashion, I guess I'd have to say that depends. If you're a modern, it sure looks negative. But from the other side, I find it opening the door to some very hopeful possibilities. Let me outline, very briefly, a few dimensions of the hopefulness I see in the emerging culture of postmodernity (I say culture because I don't mean a slavish or fundamentalist adherence to postmodern doctrines of Derridas or anybody else):

  1. Instead of having to see ourselves in rationalistic, reductionistic terms, as modern machines or determined stimulus-response organisms in a closed environment of cause and effect, we get some fresh air again. We can talk about spirituality. We can talk about mystery. We can say, "Yes, science has given us wonderful things, like Claritin and appendectomies and Velcro (and Viagra?). But there's more to life than what science delivers or explains, and it's a relief to be able to breathe freely again as spiritual beings, not just biochemical organisms, machines in machines." That's pretty hopeful.

  2. Instead of being obsessed by analysis (the breaking down of wholes into parts, or effects into causes), we can explore synthesis and systems thinking, where we look to bigger wholes, and purposes that pull from ahead, not just causes that push from behind. These are very exciting enterprises, and lead us to spiritual vistas!

  3. True, we have lost our modern sense of control, power, and certainty in this transition. But since the fruits of control, power, and certainty (from paving over wetlands -- because we were sure that parking lots were better than swamps, to ethnic cleansings -- since we were sure that our people were better than theirs) haven't been entirely salutary, maybe there's something better than control, power, and certainty out there. Maybe that something is love, stewardship, faith. And maybe we'll find some ways to create a kinder and gentler world (truly, not just as a slogan) on the other side of this transition, in an atmosphere of love, stewardship, and faith.

Necessary change

To those of us on the postmodern side of things, there's no doubt ... the process of leaving modernity has been hard. It has been a true disillusionment -- unsettling, full of grief and fear. Qb4.gif (2182 bytes)We feel like refugees, forced to leave the comforts of the only home we've known. But it's only the earliest stages of disillusionment that are depressing and negative. After you've marinated in the disillusionment for a while, and let go of the past, it's strange ... you look toward the future and see some new things, some new hope. You find out that your new homeland has a lot to offer.

Now my hunch is that among my generation (I was born in 1956), about 30% of us leaned toward postmodernity (although we didn't have that word for it): this was the spirit of the counterculture, the hippies, etc. Counter-culture meant counter-modernity. That's why we valued flowers and eastern religion and peace and love and music and poetry and all the rest -- because we were sick of pavement and western religion (that had become arid and rationalistic in both its forms, liberal and conservative) and conquest and manipulation and noise and "facts" and all the rest.

Backsliding Hippies

Most of that 30% "backslid" into basic modernism in the 1980's, because who can resist a good economy? But under the surface, under the modern masks, I think that third of my generation (they're being called "cultural creatives" today) is still postmodern. (By the way, all the excitement about baby boomers returning to evangelical churches in recent decades probably really only meant the modern baby boomers. My guess is that evangelical churches still don't understand the cultural creatives, 99 out of 100 of the churches anyway.)

Qb5.gif (8500 bytes)Meanwhile, I think the figure reverses for the next few generations -- 70% postmodern and 30% modern.

Everywhere I go, among young and old, I sense the same malaise, the same feeling that something is wrong -- not with God and Jesus and the Bible, but with our take on them, our "use" of them, our posture in regard to them. Most people don't see the "something wrong" as our modern take, modern use, or modern posture ... but give them the language, and they say, "Yes, that's it. You're articulating exactly what I've been feeling."

Close your eyes if you want to...

"How do you want to posture yourself for the spiritual re-formation that is about to occur?

Do you want to study the fine art of inquisition in order to repress the emerging culture?"

So, ignore this transition if you want to, and treat it like a phase if you want to. I think you'll miss one of the most exciting times in anyone's memory.
Here's how I think about it: Imagine yourself a Roman Catholic monk in say 1510, in Germany or Austria or England or Switzerland. The world is about to change. The institutions and theologies that have sustained and nourished your faith are about to be challenged. Jon Huss has already been burned at the stake, and a fellow named Martin Luther is beginning to think some dangerous thoughts. Your institutions are bastardizing themselves (if not through indulgences, then through TV/radio evangelists, the religious right, and other fear-based fundraising machines). How do you want to posture yourself for the spiritual re-formation that is about to occur? Do you want to study the fine art of inquisition in order to repress the emerging culture?
Or maybe simply observe it, uninvolved? Critique it, feeling smug, as if only "they" are in danger, and not also "us"? Tame it, trying to neuter it and co- opt it into a gentle, incremental evolution (and so preserve our modern structures, etc.) instead of a radical, energetic innovation? Or help lead it, passionate, involved?

Something to think about. You can guess where my heart is.


Brian.jpg (5024 bytes)Brian McLaren is the author of "The Church on the Other Side" and "Finding Faith". He is also the pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Washington area.

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