For the last six years I have been studying, wrestling with, evaluating, and teaching what has become popularly known as the “postmodernism” movement. Recent events have led me to write this plea in response to the reactions that the Christian Church is having with regards to this movement, both positive and negative.
The postmodern movement is notoriously difficult to define. Much has to do with your personality, generation, and traditions in which you have been educated. One can define postmodernism from a secular standpoint and be much more objective. But in Christian circles, your definition will depend greatly on which side of the fence you tend to be on. I was recently at a local “emerging conversation” in my home city. Christian “emergers” most basically are Church leaders who sympathize with many of the promises that postmodernism presents to the Church as a whole. I go to these meetings to see if I might “emerge” with them. When asked by the group which side that I agree with, I told them with all sincerity, “When I am around postmoderns, I am a modernist; when I am around moderns, I am a postmodernist.” In other words, I tend to root for the underdog and the underdog is relative to the situation. If that is not a postmodern statement, I don’t know what is!
Unfortunately, the allusiveness of the movement in Christian circles compounds the problem. When dealing with the issues one has to distinguish between what we might call “hard postmodernism” and “soft postmodernism.” Hard postmodernism might be defined as those who have had a philosophical shift with regards to the nature of truth. The key phrase here is “nature of truth.” Hard postmodernists would see truth as being relative to the time, culture, or situation of the individual. In other words, truth does not exist beyond the thoughts of the subject. For example (and let me dive right in!), homosexuality, to the hard postmodernist, is right or wrong depending upon the person’s situation. The “wrongness” of homosexuality presented in both the Old and the New Testaments is only wrong because of the primitive understanding of the time and culture in which the dictates were given. But today it is not wrong since we have a “greater understanding” of the physiology of sexual orientation. Therefore, the morality of a persons sexual orientation is not defined by some so-called “eternal principle” to which all people of all times must adhere, but by the situation in which the person finds themselves. Hard postmodernism, then, is defined by its denial of the concept of the correspondence view of truth—that truth is that which corresponds to objective reality. The reason for this denial is that, to the hard postmodernist, there is not an objective reality. It is an absolute denial of all eternal principles that might come from an eternal Creator. This would include ideas such as who and what God is. Any definition or belief in God, to the hard postmodernist, is purely a subjective endeavor. We can believe in God if it helps us, but that does not mean He actually exists outside of our own relative experience.
Hard postmodernism is a logical outcome of atheism or pantheism. Since both atheism and pantheism deny the existence of an eternal personal God, then there is no reason to believe in eternal truth that is mediated through the dictates of a personal agency. This type of postmodernism is explicitly evidenced in our culture in many higher education institutions, whose philosophy is clearly articulated in such a way. It is also evidenced implicitly in our culture when God is left out of the equation in matters of fact and science. For example, kids are brought up in schools that in their silence and by their silence, implicitly say that God is not part of education, since education deals with reality. When creationism (a belief in intelligent design as opposed to secular evolution) is denied an articulated avenue in the schools, this tells the students that God is not part of objective reality, but what we are teaching is. Therefore students learn that believing in God, while okay if it helps you, is in reality nothing more than a “blind leap into the dark.” And if believing in God is a blind leap into the dark, it does not deserve the time that true “education” warrants. This communicates nothing less than saying that the existence of an eternal God with eternal principles and mandates that are to be followed by all people of all time is fool hearted. The existence of objective truth is therefore impossible to truly believe in beyond blind (ignorant) hope. Sure, they may not explicitly say it as such, but this is the inevitable intellectual result.
Now, having explained hard postmodernism, it is important to note that this type of belief is decidedly non-Christian. It has no part in a biblical worldview. It cannot be advocated by a Christian, since to be a Christian necessitates advocating of its antithesis. Christianity has as its foundation the atoning work of Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection that was brought about by the eternal counsel of an triune God. This atonement was necessary because man had broken God’s eternal law. Now, if Christianity’s confession is that an eternal God has eternal precepts that time bound man has broken, then Christianity is about a belief in an eternal objective truth, not a “truth” based on your own subjective experience, and is decidedly not on the side of a hard postmodernist. In other words, to be Christian is to deny hard postmodernism and to be an advocate of hard postmodernism is to deny Christianity. There is no way around it: hard postmodernism cannot be advocated by a Christian. If one claims to be a Christian, yet advocates hard postmodernism, he or she does not comprehend either what it means to be a Christian, or what it means to be a hard postmodernist—it is that simple.
Soft Postmodernism and the Emerging Church
But how many in the “emerging church” claim to adhere to a philosophy of hard postmodernism? Not many, if any at all. Then are they postmodern in the proper since? This is a difficult question and the answer is “yes and no” (there I go again evidencing the conflicting influence of the postmodern mind!). It is safe to say that emerging churches have been influenced by the postmodern culture (as we all are) and sympathized with some of its concerns (as we all do). Well then, what makes this group different? If they are not hard postmoderns what are they? Good question. Let’s call this group of “emergers” “soft postmoderns.” Soft postmoderns are different than hard postmoderns. In general they are suspicious of all truth claims. Their suspicion, however, is not rooted in a denial of the existence of truth, but a denial of our ability to come to terms with our certainty about the truth. In other words, the soft postmoderns believe in the existence of objective truth, but deny that we can have absolute certainly or assurance that we, in fact, have a corner on this truth. To the soft postmodernist, most truth claims must be held in tension, understanding our limitations. We can seldom be certain that we have the right truth and are expressing it the right way. Therefore, there is a tendency to hold all convictions in limbo. “This is what we believe, but who is to say that we are right” is the common confession of the soft postmodern. Again, it must be stressed—for this is where great misunderstanding exists—soft postmodernism is not built upon the denial of truth itself (a metaphysical concern), but with our ability to know the truth (an epistemological concern). The emerging Church, for example, would believe in an eternal God who has laid down eternal precepts that time bound man has broken and therefore needs restoration through Christ. But attempting to define exactly who God is, what exactly He requires, how redemption is accomplished and applied is something that may be held in tension considering our own limitations. Interestingly, these limitations are the same limitations that the hard postmodern has lain down. People are limited in their understanding, being bound by their time, culture, and situation. The result is that, in the emerging Church, because of their soft postmodern tendencies, all distinctions are minimized or ignored. The issues that were the center of the controversy during the Reformation are no longer important—certainly not enough to divide over. In other words, the Roman Catholic-Protestant theological distinctions are irrelevant to the emerging church. Why? Because, while there may be a right answer, who is to say who’s right? More than likely, both are right and both are wrong. As well, the Arminian-Calvinist divide is no longer significant. In fact, to the soft postmodernist, both sides arrogantly act as if they have the right answer, when the right answer may not be available with certainty.
The emphasis in the emerging church is not on what divides, but what unites. “Can’t we all just get along” is the motto. Christianity’s uniting factor is limited “mere” Christianity. Now, mere Christianity cannot be articulated in too much detail or the cycle of division starts all over. Beliefs about non-essentials issues should either not be held or, at the very least, not spoken about with too much conviction. “Christ the Lord died, was buried, and rose again for mankind. That is it. Now let’s just love each other.”
This type of theology in times past has been called apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is theology that is done in negation. The Eastern Orthodox Church has traditionally adhered to an apophatic method of doing theology. The key to apophatic theology is tied up in the word “mystery.” Much of who and what God is is a mystery to us. We are finite and we cannot define an infinite God without misrepresenting Him by our limitations in thought or language. Therefore, the best thing that we can do is refrain from our temptation to define Him—we just worship him.
According to the emerging Church, we don’t go to church to learn about God; we go to worship God. We don’t go so that we can better understand, articulate, and defend our faith; we go so that we can commune with fellow believers. Our goal is not to confirm our beliefs, but to deconstruct our “unfounded” beliefs so that we can truly worship God in mystery. Here is how the emerging Church might answer divisive questions of Christianity past and present:
Question: Is justification by faith alone?
Answer: Wrong question; Love Christ.
Question: Is God eternal or time bound?
Answer: We can’t comprehend such a question; Love Christ.
Question: What about those who have never heard the Gospel?
Answer: Don’t place God in a box. Love Christ.
Question: Is the Scripture alone sufficient for our faith?
Answer: Not relevant. Love Christ.
Question: What is predestination?
Answer: A mystery. Love Christ.
Once again, we are left with a paradoxical situation where just about the only thing that can be said with certainty is that we cannot be certain. It is for all of these reasons that the emerging church is often accused of anti-intellectualism.
Can we define the emerging church as Christian? Better put: Does the soft postmodernism of the emerging church necessitate a denial of any essential elements of the Christian faith? We must be careful with our answer because like so many other new traditions the emerging church is by no means monolithic. There is no one pope or creed that we can go to in order to ask pivotal questions and the history of the movement is too short to look for consistency. But from my experience in and reading of the emerging church, there is no reason to assume that emergers deny any essential doctrine of the Christian faith. Remember, the soft postmodern mindset of the emerging church does not deny the existence of truth or the sinfulness of man or the atoning work of Christ. Hard postmodernism is necessarily antithetical to Christianity, but the soft postmodernism of the emerging church does not have any confessional or philosophical bent that would prevent them from being truly Christian.
An Evaluation of Soft Postmodernism and the Emerging Church
Having said this, let me give the positives and negatives that I see with the soft postmodernism of the emerging Church.
Soft postmodernism recognizes the need of mystery in the life of the Christian. Let’s face it, we are not as certain about many our beliefs as we would like. We will all have some surprises when Christ returns. God’s revelation is clearer on some points than others. From this we can learn a great deal. It is important for Christians to hold many of our beliefs in tension, following by the reformation principle of semper reformanda—“always reforming.” If our beliefs were not semper reformanda, then we have arrived at a perfect understanding—this we know is not true as Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.” We all know in part. This ought to allow us to have some tension in our beliefs. It is also important for us to recognize that we don’t have a corner on truth as individuals. Unfortunately, this maverick method of theological studies—all I need is me, my Bible, and the Holy Spirit—is something that we inherited from the humanism of the enlightenment. We exist in a community of believers who all have different circumstances which contribute to the truth which we seek. God is not working with us as individuals, but people who exist in a body of believers. This body of believers is made up of those who are alive and dead. The contributions of the saints of the past are still vital to our understanding. God did not start working this century or at the building of your local church. These are all positives that the emerging church— that soft postmodernism—can teach the Church.
As well, soft postmodernism has brought focus back to our method of doing theology. With its distrust in tradition, it has made the church look with suspicion upon unfounded traditions. Fundamentalism started as a good thing and then became pharisaic with convictions preached from the mountain tops that are not found in Scripture. “Don’t drink,” “don’t go to movies,” “don’t smoke,” and “don’t dance” became what being Christian was all about. Postmodernism unmasked these negative aspects of the fundamentalist church. Postmodernism is in rebellion against traditionalism, and this is not such a bad thing.
The soft postmodernism of the emerging church is continually on the brink of compromise. As we said before, soft postmoderns are unwilling to stand for things of which they are uncertain. While this sounds good and noble, there are always going to be many things which we are less certain of than others. Where does one draw the line of certainty? How certain does one have to be before he or she can hold and articulate their beliefs with conviction? I, for example, am not certain with mathematical certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. However unlikely, there could be outside variables that I don’t know about that will cause the earth to stop its rotation. Does this make me irresponsible and arrogant to believe that the sun will rise? Not at all. In fact, it would be the very definition of insanity for me to demand mathematical certainty about the rising of the sun. I have good reason for believing the sun will rise because of the amount of evidence. Therefore, I have a moral obligation to believe and plan according to the evidence. The evidence itself determines the level of certainty about the issue. It is the same with our beliefs. We don’t have to have absolute certainty about something before we can act on and preach those convictions. There are very few things in this life that I can claim with intellectual honesty to be one hundred percent certain about. This overblown view of the need for absolute certainly or nothing can easily lead to moral anarchy. Many, when given the choice, will choose “nothing” since there is nothing which they can be absolutely certain about. There is a formal name for this: nihilism, which translated means “nothingism.” Once nihilism is adopted, anarchy is the inevitable result. This is the problem that hard postmodernism produces. It is important for Christians to hold many of our beliefs in tension, but these beliefs must be limited to those on which the Bible does not speak emphatically and clearly. Views about the nature and work of Christ do not qualify for this type of uncertainty. Views about predestination, while there is legitimate room for disagreement, do not need to be sacrificed in the name of love or creedal unity. One wonders if these were not important, why did God bother including them in Scripture? What is to prevent people from ripping out certain portions of their Bible?
As well, while soft postmoderns seem to evidence humility with regards to their ability to come to know truth, this humility can often be misleading. While this could evidence a respect for the fall and its resulting effects upon the mind (noetic effects of sin), it could also be because of the postmodern tendency to seek acceptance even when the cost is compromise. Let’s face it, the less you stand for, the more people will like you. The stronger your convictions, the more chance you have to be rejected. At the very least, let’s not jump in bed with soft postmoderns in order to have broader acceptance. As Christ said, “If they hate me they will hate you.” We don’t need to intentionally seek rejection (as some people attempt to do thinking it evidences more spirituality—another story), but we don’t need to prevent it either, especially if the Gospel is at stake. Soft postmodernism has few convictions, and this is not necessarily a positive. As the country song goes, “You have got to stand for something, or you will fall for anything.” It is interesting to put all this into perspective and see that convictionless churches are usually empty churches. Most postmodern churches, from what I have seen, are not attracting as many people from the culture as you might think. The ideology of compromise is not that attractive. Why go to fellowship with other believers under an umbrella called “few convictions.” On the other hand, churches that have strong leaders with uncompromising convictions are full churches these days. This does not mean that we don’t show grace in the non-essentials, it just means that we don’t have to place all non-essentials on the altar for the sake of unity. We can have strong conviction about non-essentials as well as unifying under the essentials.
As well, the Church needs to have balance with regards to the role of tradition. While tradition can be a bad thing when it becomes baseless folk theology, it is also a good thing that needs to be embraced as a mouth piece of God. Not in the Roman Catholic sense, but in the sense that God is a God of history. He can be found in tradition many times. Tradition, kept in check, can be a beautiful thing. The emerging Church needs to be careful that it does not have an overly selective use of tradition, either. Often times emerging churches can be found jettisoning certain traditions without consideration. This is especially the case with the traditions brought to us by the Reformation. The emerging church often uncritically accepts the earlier traditions of the church fathers, yet denies the Reformation a place. I guess the Reformation is too divisive. All history must be taken into consideration in the development of one’s theology.
In sum, hard postmodernism should be seen as a threat. It is not possible to be a hard postmodernist and be a Christian. Soft postmodernism on the other hand presents the church with many lost virtues of grace and irenics (theology done peaceably). For this we can be thankful. But we must guard the truths of Scripture with the conviction that the evidence has presented. Our traditions may or may not be wrong, but that is for the evidence to decide. There also are non-essentials that need to be spoken about with conviction, even if we might be wrong in the end. In short, let us be balanced in our understanding of the issues on the table and let us not lose the conviction that the truths of Scripture produce.
To get a more extensive treatment of this subject (more than you could ever need!) see our Theology Unplugged broadcasts concerning the Emerging Church.