So far we’ve looked at how our Western culture has shifted into what has been named postmodernism, characterized by an understanding of truth only through interpretation, a distaste for self-authenticating narratives, and a lack of trust in institutions. This may be new and daunting to us, leading to questions of how we can move forward, especially as people of faith. This question shouldn’t come out of fear, but rather an honest effort to meet our society where it’s at.
I’m personally surprised by how much I’ve been influenced by postmodernism in my adult years. In some ways, I am a product of it as I have, without much study, already considered the claims of Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault to be self-evident. My epistemology and faith have been shaped by these claims, which have often been disputed by others for whom modern ways of knowing are still reality.
Specifically when debating ethical or moral issues, I squirm when I hear people say, “I just read the Bible and this is what it says.” Without giving much thought to translation or context, they claim to know exactly what God intended to say through a biblical author. The postmodernist in me wants to convince them that we all, no matter what translation we use or how much study we’ve done, interpret scripture through our own lens.
Modernism’s claims have shaped Christianity in specific ways in the last few centuries. For one, we have been convinced that we need to rationalize our way to faith. We have turned what is supposed to be an incarnational faith into doctrines and dogma that simply need to be believed with certainty. Many of our churches have lost the experience of faith in their search for the proof of faith.
For example, the creation story is presented by modernists in such a way that requires scientific evidence to prove that Genesis 1 and 2 are literal. This kind of Christianity is based off the modern claim that we can all universally discover the true meaning and intent behind scripture with the right rational proof.
Postmodernism takes away that claim and instead opens scripture up to multiple readings, interpretations, and conclusions. It’s here that scholars, like Grant Osborne, suggest that we can get closer to the original meaning by following faithful hermeneutical processes. “The key is context.” Osborne’s image of a spiral (rather than a circle) invites us to dig deeper into the text, using reading, study and interpretation (along with all the hermeneutical tools) to lead us to gradual conclusions.
The beauty of Derrida and Lyotard’s claims is that they once again make room for faith as a legitimate way of knowing. By pointing out that all world-views and narratives require belief, Christianity can once again be brought into the same arena as science and rationalism when talking about truth. Postmodernism makes room for a Christian confessional faith that finds its roots of authority in the eye-witness accounts of Jesus of Nazareth (1 John 1:1-4).
This can be an attractive change, especially for people who are tired of the constant, repetitive debates of faith and belief. But I also understand that we must proceed with caution. Foucault’s analysis shows us how easy it would be for us to value autonomy over community, where we are free from institutions and allowed to make our own decisions. But true moral relativism isn’t a faithful Christian response to modernism. There’s a danger for us to forget that our faith does demand our allegiance to a God who cares about what we do (James 2:14-26).
Postmodernism has openly embraced the selfish invitation to autonomy, freedom, and relativism, through which we can do real harm to our society. We can see this in a specific example in our current context. Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) became legal in Canada in certain cases in 2015. Autonomy has become one of the biggest arguments in favour of MAID, claiming that everyone with a certain illness has the right to determine how to end their lives.
In this situation, postmodernism falls short of its claims. Granting autonomy to patients to decide when to die ultimately binds medical professionals and our institutions to comply with a patient’s wish. In other words, it gives prioritizes patients’ autonomy while limiting the autonomy of the medical professionals. Legalizing MAID shows us that moral relativism is a farce. It doesn’t play out practically; true autonomy and relativism cannot work for a civil society.
It seems that neither a moral, hermeneutical, or faith approach based solely on modernism or postmodernism is wise. Rather, what postmodernism does is provide an opportunity to come full circle to rediscover a kind of faith before the influences of modernism. James K.A. Smith calls this Radical Orthodoxy, which is characterized by a confession based on faith, the importance of scripture as the tool that shapes our narrative, and a humble submission to our role in the universal body of Christ.
We are invited back into liturgy and tradition, participating in practices that not only teach us, but allow us to live in the gospel. This becomes our witness, as an alternative community living out our faith together with all other believers throughout time and space. It’s an exciting prospect for the church and for Christians in the Western world. Postmodernism frees us to live a more authentic, communal, practical, and experiential faith by relieving us from the bonds of modernism and allowing us to unapologetically believe, live, and share the Christian story.
The final thing we need to realize as we try to answer this question is that postmodernism is a critique and reaction to modernism. Postmodernism is new and might enlighten us in different ways, but if history tells us anything, it’s not here to stay. We are already seeing reactions to postmodernism which will once again change our cultural landscape. With this in mind, we must remember to be agile, remaining flexible on all kinds of epistemological terrain, ready to engage, challenge, question, and grow.
We can’t escape cultural change. But as it comes, may we trust in the unchanging, eternal God to guide us through the kinds of change we have yet to see.