“Post-modernism” is a somewhat negative word in conservative Christian circles. The term itself can be confusing, since it’s used in a variety of ways. One of those connotations, one which should concern believers, is the philosophy that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that we call “truth” is relative to each person. You can have your truth and I can have mine and it doesn’t matter if our “truths” contradict each other as long as they work for us as individuals – “You’re a Christian? Glad that works for you. I’m a Hindu. That works better for me.” This perspective casts orthodox Christian beliefs and biblical claims into doubt. More about that in a moment.
You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this – what does it have to do with my spiritual beliefs? Well, it depends on where you take post-modernistic insights. For some people, they cast doubt on whether or not common spiritual belief is even possible. Can we share any absolute truth as believers? Does a doctrinal statement mean anything if we all see it from different angles shaped by our personal lenses? The wife of a well-known Midwest preacher, coming from a more post-modern view, once said, “I know more and more about less and less.” In her case, she meant that she was becoming less certain about her biblical beliefs. Her husband, echoing her sentiments, began letting go of some evangelical doctrines; becoming more “open-minded”.
This is the heritage that our children are facing as they head into adulthood, wondering what doctrinal beliefs, if any, they can hold with confidence. Is there such a thing as absolute truth that can be shared by believers or are we each marooned on our own subjective little theological island? Is it even meaningful, for example, to say that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” and that no one comes to the Father except by Him?
My sense is that post-modern thinking has been helpful in some ways, but that like most correctives, the pendulum tends to swing too far in the other direction. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
What’s good about post-modern thinking?
1. Post-modernism reminds us that our subjective filters affect our beliefs
We’d all like to think that we simply see life and truth as they actually are, without being influenced by our filters – filters like our upbringing, education, culture, denomination, and so on. The truth is, however, that we are profoundly affected by our filters – some of which we’re blind to. Realizing this allows us to step back, become more conscious of these, and either embrace them, reject them or retool them. I grew up, for instance, acquiring the assumption that good Christians were always happy regardless of the circumstances. Since I wasn’t always happy, I often felt a sense of guilt and failure. I’ve since refined that point of view and gained some space for godly emotional struggles.
2. Post-modernism humbles us
It’s humbling to realize that my thinking and reactions are more controlled by outside factors than I was aware of. I’m a product of my environment and genes to a significant level. A lot of this is subconscious, too. I come to my faith (and all of life) with a lot of untested assumptions. Knowing this can make me more open-minded and teachable. I can work to widen my world-view to a more balanced perspective.
3. Post-modernism makes me more sympathetic and skillful in my dealings with others
Others too are affected by the same subjective factors that I just mentioned. Knowing this makes me more patient in dealing with our differences. It gives me the insight to ask them questions that they may not have even considered. And it allows me, to some extent, to just accept a lot of our differences. Others will approach life from a different perspective than me and, often, that’s okay, or, at the very least, unavoidable.
What problems can be caused by post-modern thinking?
1. The implications of post-modern thinking can be exaggerated
To acknowledge subjectivity is one thing. To say that it eliminates all objectivity is another. We may not be 100% objective but, in the real world, subjectivity doesn’t mean that we can’t share a lot of reasonably common understandings about life. If I owe you $100, for instance, we both know what that means. If class starts at 9 a.m., we’ll both be there at the same time. Even regarding more abstract concepts, like treating one another with respect, we share considerable, though not complete, overlap in our understanding.
2. Post-modern thinking casts doubt on the existence of universal truths
Is the existence of God dependent on whether or not we decide to believe in Him? Or is right and wrong simply what we choose to make it? I would argue that, while our perceptions are colored by our filters, we don’t create reality. The fact that I think something’s true doesn’t make it so. I can be mistaken. There are objective universal facts out there, even if we don’t perceive them 100% objectively. Some of these are relatively trivial (how many #1 hits Elvis had), but other objective facts are incredibly important (if the substance I’m drinking has poison in it). The objective facts about spiritual truth, though harder to prove than physical facts, are especially important if, as they claim, they affect both our present character and, ultimately, our eternal state.
3. Post-modern thinking can be a crutch for avoiding personal responsibility
When asked by a fellow convict, “Where did we go wrong, Tim?” Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people, is said to have replied “I didn’t go wrong.” If everything, especially metaphysical and moral issues, is said to be relative, then it’s easier to make excuses for personal actions that common sense tells us are right or wrong. Few of us, of course, are psychopathic killers, but all of us, Christian or not, have an internal sense of right and wrong, much of which we share with one another. Furthermore, we all fall short of our own standards. Post-modern thinking, taken too far, can be taken as a rationalization for doing whatever we feel like doing. It becomes easier to turn off that internal guide, called the “conscience”. This, in turn, creates destructive patterns, in our lives, our relationships, and our society. Some of our impulses and desires need to be curbed by boundaries; need laws and limitations. Without these, anarchy exists. Furthermore, if the Bible is true, we must also answer to God some day for our obedience or disobedience to His laws.
So postmodern thinking, although to some extent, a useful corrective to the overreach of modernism, has also created certain problems by its own overreach. This overreach can have a negative effect on our Christian faith, removing some of the proper confidence that has traditionally been part of our beliefs. Christianity can easily become whatever we wish to make it, rather than what it actually is. It’s one thing to become a little more humble about the subjective aspects of our beliefs, and another altogether to allow those subjective aspects to erase all biblical confidence and certainty. More about that next time.