Postmodernism and Spiritual Formation part 1

Anyone who has spent anytime around me or reading this blog will know that I do not fall into the camp of those who despise everything postmodern. In fact, I believe that our culture’s shift of thinking (which we can call “postmodern,” “post-postmodern,” or whatever) has provided the Church with a great opportunity. The world is shaking its collective head clear of the Enlightenment’s refusal to acknowledge the spiritual component to reality – and we have an opportunity as a people indwelled by the Holy SPIRIT to provide reconstruction for their deconstructed paradigms.

And in one way or another it seems that many people are trying to do just that. Here in the blogosphere there is no shortage of forums, blogs and websites dedicated to postmodernism in one way or another. For many in the conservative camp, POMOPHOBIA rules the day. Anything deemed unorthodox is labeled “postmodern” or “emergent.” If a condemned postmodern does say something useful is often either ignored or heralded as remnants of “modern” virtues.

These pomophobics can themselves vary greatly on their response. Many are honestly seeking to engage in dialogue bent on discerning truth and expect the other side to respond in kind. Others have reacted so violently and responded in such an extreme way that they are now posting articles highlighting how God killed Kyle Lake at University Baptist in Waco as a message to the Emergent Church. (I don’t despise people who condemn postmodernism, but that little article was vile and completely devoid of anything useful or holy…well this is a whole other post) Still others, it seems, are simply distrustful of a group who appear to be filling the category where “New Agers” and “hippies” have previously dwelled.

However, critique is healthy during the formation of any philosophical viewpoint. In this case, there is indeed much need for a critical assessment rather than a wholesale endorsement of all things pomo.

POMOPHILIA seems to be another popular mindset these days. Some people, also in reactionary mode, are ready to accept anything labeled postmodern or emergent in a desperate attempt to escape the Church of the Enlightenment. A friend of mine is fond of warning us not to throw out the baby of reason with the bathwater of the Enlightenment. He is absolutely right. Pomophiliacs that quickly discard reason and logic are going to find themselves without a leg to stand on…if they aren’t already feeling it. For Christians, the use of narrative has long been an important approach to sharing the Gospel. That narrative, however, ceases to function as the Gospel when it is disconnected from Jehovah’s interaction with mankind through the Judeo-Christian metanarrative. This does not imply that there is nothing to be gained from conversation with other metanarratives; in truth, we have much to learn from the ways that God has been moving in the communities of all humanity. But when we place all metanarratives, explanations of the human condition, and understandings of the Divine on the same level; when we deny the distinctive character of Christ – even if our motive is to heal the damage done by previous generations of pain inflicted in Jesus’ name – then we have made a mistake equal to or in excess of those from whom we are trying to distance ourselves. Putting candles in a room and practicing Lectio Divina are themselves neither proof for or against the authenticity of a community’s worship or faith.

There is at least one way in which both extremes (phobia and philia) are making what I feel is the same mistake. POMEOSTASIS is defined by Bretster’s Dictionary as the fallacious assertion that the phenomenon currently hailed as postmodernism is a finished, static or stable product. In truth this term is fluid.

For some (usually adolescents and those who oppose pomo) it is defined almost exclusively as a rejection of absolute truth and defense of relativism. For others it has to do with the acceptance of the spiritual realm as one which is at least equal to the physical world in its relevance to the human condition. In addition to its varying use across communities, postmodernism is also being formed and reformed across time. Before we label it as something void of substance, let’s be honest and acknowledge that modern and pre-modern thought also had to go through formation…they did not fall from heaven, no matter how much some of us would like to think they did.

While I don’t claim to be able to see into the future, I predict that absolute relativism will phase itself out eventually. It will become a paragraph in the chapter of the history books referring to this age. First of all, relativism is a self-defeating ideology…it is itself an absolute statement. If you punch a relativist they will deny that you have the right to claim that as appropriate action. Life is directed by absolute truths. This is evidenced by the similarity of communal life across time and geography. Sure all cultures have differences, but there are also so many similarities to human interaction that we must admit that there are things going on below the surface. I believe that the rejection of Absolute Truth often stems more from a suspicion of human ability to comprehend Absolute Truth. If we are again willing to be honest with ourselves it becomes necessary to admit that most groups, Christians very much included, have used a convenient understanding of Truth to justify their abuse of other groups. Were the Crusades a display of Truth at work? The problem with absolute truth is that it can be used as a trump card by who have power and want to keep it or don’t have power and want to take it.

Is this a reason to reject the existence of absolute truth? No, absolutely not. Is it a good reason to be suspicious of claims regarding absolute truth? Maybe. One thing is surely true, if those who defend truth do so with anger and malice the wedge of suspicion will only be driven deeper. I realize that for many, speaking with compassion and humility has become equated with spinelessness…that too is a post for another time.

One of my friends – who doesn’t really seem to be for or against postmodern “stuff” – has told me on several occasions that he thinks this whole deal is simply the usual rejection and rebellion that one generation displays for the previous. In some ways I think he is right. The problem is that we look at everything that is going on and try to place it neatly in one category or another. Sure, there are normal rebellions going on…many people claiming postmodern thought are, after all, young adults. There also seem to be some legitimate paradigmatic shifts occurring simultaneously which make this whole debacle something that will be much more easily sorted out in a couple hundred years. Until then we should argue against relativism without resorting to hyperbole and bashing all things postmodern. In truth there are some great things happening. Great stories of life are being told, people are realizing that they should no longer compartmentalize their faith, and whole groups of previously disinterested persons are willing to hear the Gospel.

And yet we may have a typical American tragedy in the making. My final thought on this issue is our penchant for marketing and consumerism. I have told my friends that when I write a book I’m not going to put a catchy title on it. If I do, and people read it, they may use my title in conversation. This title may become a buzzword. This buzzword may become a fad. And then everyone will hate me.

I realize that this is my own little hyperbolic statement following my admonition against such things. But we are a culture of locusts (another hyperbole…well not really, I think this one’s pretty accurate!). We consume and consume and consume until we have gorged ourselves and begin vomiting out the very thing we couldn’t get enough of moments before. We are already experiencing this “death by marketing”.

I’m not sure how we stop this juggernaut; I don’t know that we can. I do know that both sides of this debate are guilty of blanket demonizations that are not only unhelpful and inaccurate, they often provide the very fuel that the other side needs for its next barrage. In this way we ensure perpetual fighting and insure ourselves against any hope for healthy dialogue.

To be continued…


Posted on February 8, 2006, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Bret,
    Well said and with a lot for me to chew on.
    I’m glad all is well with Micah and family.

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