The tension is heating up; the rancor is getting louder. Evangelicals are fighting each other again—this time over postmodernism. There are some churches that have embraced elements of postmodernism, while others are holding the modernist line against this evil intrusion. I want to quickly take stock of some of the basic issues.
Years ago, I attended a regional Evangelical Theological Society conference where postmodernism was the topic of a panel discussion. Those discussing it were philosophers and theologians. For the most part, they were extremely nervous about it, arguing that we needed to first â€˜convertâ€™ someone to Aristotelian logic before we could convert them to Christ. I was shocked. There seemed to be a sense of desperation on the part of these scholars that their jobs were in jeopardy because all they knew was how to argue! They had no concept of loving a person into the kingdom. I wonder what they would think of Dan Kimballâ€™s new book, They Like Jesus, but not the Church (Zondervan, 2007). I highly recommend this work as a book by an emergent church pastor who has the pulse of American culture. He knows how to be a Christian in todayâ€™s world. And, by the way, Kimball holds to absolutes and even calls himself a fundamentalist! In the least, he shows that itâ€™s possible to be in the emergent church and hold to absolutes.
What is often unreflected in Christian condemnation of postmodernism is that the one doing the condemning subconsciously embraces modernism. What is not recognized is that modernism is not completely compatible with the Christian faith either. Here are some things to consider.
First, postmodernism puts at least as great an emphasis on relationship as it does on knowledge. Or to put things biblically, love is just as important as truth. To be sure, many postmoderns think of truth as relative. This is not an essential part of postmodernism (any more than denial of apostolic authorship for Ephesians is an essential part of higher criticism), but it is a common element. Postmodern Christians, however, need not (and I might I say, dare not!) embrace relativism as an epistemological necessity. But modernism puts far more emphasis on truth than on love. That, too, is imbalanced.
Second, postmodernism puts emphasis on community and service far more than modernism does. To be sure, the emphasis often collapses at the level of actual cooperation because of imbalances in postmodernism (e.g., the general lack of emphasis on truth also means that there is a lack of confrontation when necessary, leaving community and service at the mercy of the most assertive individuals rather than at the mercy of what is right).
Third, postmodernism puts an emphasis on a holistic view of man, while modernism dissects man into body, heart, and mind, while prizing the mind above all else.
We could chart the differences this way:
At a glance, we can see that there is both good and bad in postmodernism and good and bad in modernism. And this brings me to my fundamental point: The Imago Dei or image of God, as theologians are fond of saying, has not been erased but it has been effaced. Itâ€™s not destroyed but it is distorted. All sinners are born in the image of God, but we immediately distort that image. Normally, we think of such distortions as only individual. But it also occurs on the societal, historical, and cultural levels. There is a modernist distortion of the Imago Dei just as there is a postmodernist distortion of the Imago Dei. It is for this reason that Christians should exercise some discernment and should not embrace either modernism or postmodernism lock, stock, and barrel. At the same time, since the Imago Dei has only been distorted, we need to seek what is good on the societal level that we can embrace. The problem I have with many apologists is that they all too often subconsciously embrace modernism as though it embraces only Christian values. These same apologists attack anyone who even smells like a postmodern, quickly labeling them as denying absolute truths and being too soft on non-Christians. I think a little more discernment and theological reflection are needed before such pronouncements are made. But then again, since I have been labeled as a relativist who doesnâ€™t hold to absolute truth, I could be wrong!