As I write this blog, I’m sitting in the living room of the house in Germany where my family and I used to live 24 years ago. Whenever I come here to visit our Opa, I take a trip down memory lane, especially because nothing about the house has changed. The chairs, tables, beds, appliances, and pictures on the wall are just like they always were.
But change for us in Germany has come in different ways. Our only aunt on our mother’s side passed away a few years ago and our Opa currently struggles with dementia. Although I’m used to it now, it feels strange having to remind him who I am. Whenever I visit, I feel like I’ve entered a time capsule, but even still I am not able to keep change out. Whether by choice or through time, change comes.
Our world is always changing.
In many ways this seems like a moot point. Of course it is. It always has and always will continue to evolve. For some of us younger people who are experiencing large scale changes for the first time, this can be a cognitive challenge. But whenever I meet with older folks, I realize that their lives are stories full of change and adaptation.
Every few months we hear of new technology that seems to be more and more like something from a science-fiction movie. Our natural world changes as resources get depleted and new forms of energy are sought. Our scientific understandings change and affect everything from education, the church, and government.
One of the changes that Western culture is currently living through (and has been for the past few decades) is the shift from modernism to postmodernism. This one hits us hard because it has to do with values, beliefs, and ultimately, how we know truth. This touches us at the core of our being and for many of us has threatened everything we hold dear.
This change is at the centre of many other shifts we are seeing in our society today. Our understandings of family, sexuality, human rights, God, the Bible, and different religions, are all affected by our shift into postmodernism. But it’s not that we are simply changing what we think. We are changing the way we think. We aren’t just changing our beliefs, we are changing our concept of belief.
Although societies and cultures continue to evolve, there’s no question that we often come full circle to the same questions again and again. As we continue to evolve, we change as a reaction to the status quo, but sometimes without even noticing. This seems to be the case when examining modernism, postmodernism, and our Western epistemology (ways/study of knowing).
Questions around how we know or think about truth and knowledge are just as relevant now as in ancient times. Even Pilate, the Roman governor, asked, “What is truth?” when Jesus claimed to be on the side of truth during his own interrogation (Matthew 18:28-40). Creation stories like Genesis 1 and 2 wouldn’t exist unless the author and the communities that shared them believed they had knowledge and truth to pass on about God, creation, humans, and the relationship between them. These creation stories are meant to answer questions of why we are here and what we’re meant to do, and in turn, determine what and how we think about life.
In the New Testament, everything about God’s plan hinges on whether or not Jesus truly is the Son of God, the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20, John 11:25, Matthew 14:31-33). In Jesus we have new, eternal, and resurrected life as we make Jesus lord and trust in the grace of God for us through faith (2 Corinthians 5:17, 1 Corinthians 15). If this is true about Jesus, then we are to follow Him with our lives (Matthew 28:16-20). However, if it’s not, then Jesus can’t even be called a good teacher, but, as C.S. Lewis suggested, a “lunatic” who should only be ignored.
The question before every person in making the choice to follow Jesus is ultimately one of epistemology. The life of Jesus, as recorded in the Bible, requires a response of faith and allegiance from us, but how can we know that the message of scripture is true? If we’re to stake our whole life on it, is there a way for us to ensure our decision isn’t based on a delusion or myth? In the end, it comes down to a question of trust. In whom or in what can we put our trust in order to answer the worldview-shaping questions that we all have?
And so we are left with a conundrum. The world is changing. We are shifting more and more into a postmodern society. But is this a good change? Should we follow suit or hold our ground in our former ways of knowing? Can we even prevent this change from happening? How will it affect the church, faith, education, jobs, and social infrastructure? And what does postmodernism mean? What makes modernism different?
These questions have shifted many times and taken multiple forms over the last few centuries. As scholars critique and assess the way we approach knowledge, they provide feedback by pointing out the flaws or gaps in certain ways of thinking. Their critique provides an alternative way forward for study that seeks to reflect and influence current society and culture. It’s a process by which we can never claim to fully arrive, yet it allows us to continually learn from the past to help us in our quest for knowledge.
James K. A. Smith, in his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, explores the critiques of three influential philosophers on modernism and the shape they believe our postmodern era is taking. Through his analysis of Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault, Smith outlines the ways in which our cultural epistemology is changing in the Western world. And his conclusions may surprise you.
The way our culture is changing (postmodernism seen through the eyes of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault) is the topic of next week’s blog.
This is the first of a 3-part series of blog posts on the topic of postmodernism. Feel free to contact me if you would like to read my full review paper or bibliography.