Western evangelicalism and ‘postmodernism’
June 4, 2010
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
<![CDATA[I understand the normal apologetic narrative of evangelicalism’s standard engagement with contemporary culture, and by and large agree with it. Typically, we are told, that we now live in an age where ‘modern’ scientific certainty has given way, or is in process of giving way, to more ‘postmodern’ relativistic assumptions about the meaning of life. Along with this shift, and at its root, is an epistemological issue, which impacts how our language, conversation, preaching, evangelism and truth claims are made, or heard to be made at the least. And connected to it is a different attitude towards morality, whereby the queen of moral achievement is a tolerant society where there is freedom to think and be whatever you want, as long as you also accept that anyone else can think and be whatever they want. This is not a free society in the ‘old’, ‘modern’, sense but relativistic pluralism, where truth is dependent on perspective and whereby there is nothing worse than saying or thinking that someone else’s behaviour is wrong, or even suspect. Such a restrictive morality is viewed—ironically—as immoral, in the postmodern mindset, because it arrogantly appropriates to an individual or community what is impossible, and is really a species of power move designed to control other people through ideological moves.
More recent shiftsIt feels, in fact, very fin de siécle; yet for all the lacunae of such an analysis, and its undoubted accuracy with regard to the basic gut relativism of your average ‘man on the street’, there have been some shifts lately in Western society which are not fully able to be categorised under ‘postmodernism’.
Like the 1920sI write this reflecting on some reports on conferences held recently on this side of the Atlantic that seem to be employing rhetoric about epistemological postmodernism that I remember from the mid-1990s, if not earlier. Yet, since then, our consumer society—an implicit part of much of this fin de siécle mindset—is facing up to an economic crisis the likes of which we have not seen since the 1930s. I wonder whether the roaring 20s (with their own version of decadent modernism) is giving way to a great depression set of issues, as we move similarly from the roaring 1990s to a post-bubble West, a West laden with massive economic debt. Similarly, we are also now not in an increasingly globally peaceful society where relativism seems to be paving the way to halcyon days, but in a post-9/11 society, where massive ‘modernistic’ (‘medieval’?) forces of ancient religion are creating havoc around the world. I also think, purely from the academic point of view, that it is interesting to note that the main original force of postmodernism (architectural) has given way to a new modernism in style. I’m not sure what that means, but I’m pretty sure it means something.
Another postmodernismI’m not saying that there is nothing to epistemological non-foundationalist shifts, the new hermeneutic, relativistic mindsets, and more. I’m just saying that a postmodernism that is also post-9/11 and post-economic credit crisis, and post- postmodern in the original academic circle that first gave birth to the nomenclature, is a series of moves that should nuance our approach. It is not by accident, perhaps, that while we are still thinking in ‘postmodern’ terms nearly exclusively in some circles, the great attacks on Christian faith in recent years have not come from a relativistic standpoint but from the ultimately modern, and epistemologically modern, assumptions of scientists like Dawkins and authors like Hitchens. And it also needs to be taken into account that globally speaking the whole genre of postmodern discussion feels nearly meaningless to a sub-Saharan African and the like. I’m not saying we should abandon all our attempts to deal with (post)modern relativistic pluralism. Nor am I saying that we should only engage with traditional evidentialist apologetics in counterbalance to Dawkins and his kin. I’m just saying that a post-9/11, and post-credit crisis, world is at the very least a different sort of postmodernism. Josh Moody, Wheaton, Illinois
Glossary of terms
- Epistemology—the study of knowledge and belief.
- Postmodernism—is a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the rejection of objective truth.
- Lacunae—gaps or missing parts.
- Fin de siécle—relating to or characteristic of the end of a century (especially the end of the 19th century).
- Postmodern relativistic pluralism—seeks to give place to the ‘local’ nature of truth, beliefs are held to be true within the context of the communities that hold them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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