Every thought you’ve ever had, every experience you’ve ever interpreted and every desire you’ve ever had is, for all intents and purposes, not your own.
I just got off the phone with my friend James, who has influenced many of these Systems posts, and every single conversation with him is like drinking straight from a firehose. There is no ‘gentle’ switch, and it’s fantastic.
Today’s conversation was sparked by a relatively simple question from me to him via text: “What’s the difference between modernism and postmodernism?”
The firemen arrived and busted the cap off the hydrant.
I put my headphones in while James talked and attempted to type up every single thing we talked about as we went. Now, my burden (as I always feel it is) is to take the philosophical jargon and ideas and present them in a digestible and accessible way to the internet. So, in this post, I’m attempting to answer three (relatively, but not really) simple questions: What is modernism? What is postmodernism? How does this affect our Christian theology and faith?
If you’re to attach a face to each of these movements, Descartes is the figurehead of modernity. You know his line: cogito ergo sum. Or, I think, therefore I am. That line in itself is earth shattering, but out of context is somewhat useless and meaningless. It’s not so much where Descartes arrived as much as how he got there. He began asking “How do I know what I know, and how do I know it’s accurate?”
Now, when we talk about knowledge, it’s much broader than you may imagine. How do you know red is red? How do you know what a doughnut tastes like? How do you know another human?
Descartes wanted empirical, unadulterated truth and accuracy in what he knew, and wanted to know that his experience of the world was true and authentic. (All this reasoning led to him realizing that the one reason he knew he existed is because he was capable of conscious thought; therefore, I think, therefore I am. By thinking, he empirically proved his own existence. Maybe it doesn’t hit you very hard, but this is the nutshell edition.)
As James put it, Descartes wanted a tool with which to do philosophy which he could trust to be accurate. It’s as if you had a telescope which was set to 94x magnification, but you thought it was set to 100x. All your measurements would be off because the tool you are using is off. If you can doubt someone’s tool or method, you can doubt their knowledge.
Modernists were after solid, universal, concrete truth.
This line of thinking led to two camps: Rationalists, spearheaded by Descartes; and Empiricists, which was led by Locke or Hume. Rationalists asked the question about knowledge, and Empiricists provided (what we call modern science) the means of experimentation in order to find the answers.
Kant was the first to synthesize the two camps, but the two who sent real shockwaves through modern philosophy were Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. They came along and said ‘You guys are fools; it’s nice that you want to have sure knowledge, but the fact of the matter is, we’re human beings and the ways in which we produce knowledge fundamentally make it so that it’s not universal, so it’s always couched in human desire and experience. No matter how good your method is, your desires are always informing your methods. All your data stems from presuppositions.’
The whole postmodern school is about reorienting away from a search for universal, unimpeachable knowledge and toward local, varied, diverse expression that’s constantly changing and being rewritten.
Put simply: Modernists assume and pursue one knowable, universal and concrete truth. Postmodernists realize that, because we are human and are shaped by our culture and desire, knowing this truth in its entirety is foolish. Both extremes have consequences, especially in how they relate to Christianity.
Philosophy in Faith
Most conservative, fundamentalist-type Christians (including many Evangelicals) tend to lean toward modernism. After all, don’t we believe that there is one universal truth which is absolute and knowable? The problems with resolutely modern thinking is that it leads to things like the African missions of the 19th century: White missionaries believed that, because there is one, knowable and absolute truth (and they knew it), they not only had to tell native Africans about Christ, but also conform them to a degree of ‘whiteness.’ The truth which they knew exceeded society, culture and religion, meaning that if an African were to become a Christian, it also meant adopting the modern white man’s culture as well.
That’s a synecdoche of the issue with a completely modern approach to theology.
A postmodern approach would mean that the gospel becomes contextualized to every tribe or individual and they can understand it and interpret it as they please. Taken to its extreme, this methodology would say that nothing is wrong, and humans can live as Christians however they want to read the Scriptures. We could dismiss many of the instructions of Paul, saying that was simply for that culture, and doesn’t apply to us. Taken to its furthest extreme, postmodern readings of Scripture render it utterly meaningless and its interpretation is left to the whims and desires of the individual.
Don’t like Jews? Yank some of Paul’s writings out of context and use them to exterminate 6 million of them. Don’t like Paul’s teachings on homosexuality, premarital sex or gender roles? Just write them off by saying that they were only for his culture. This is postmodernity.
Modernists fear that a postmodern claim that there is no knowable, universal truth suggests that people will get carried away, modifying the gospel from society to society until no more truth remains. The fear is real and it is valid, but a balance in the middle must be found. The modern extreme is to construct an idol of truth and knowledge and bow down to it.
However, postmodernity is not all negative. Postmodernity suggests that Christianity can, in fact, be understood as a native African without conforming to colonial ‘whiteness.’ It can also be understood and applied as a white American, and as an Asian rice farmer. It is read with different eyes by each individual, but is no more or less true based on who is reading it.
So which camp is right and how do we read the Bible? And how, then, shall we live?
A professor of James’ and mine, Michael McDuffee, says that the best way for the average Christian to read the Bible is literally. Pick it up and read it. Learn and grow as you go, of course, but if there is no literal reading of the text, then it ultimately is meaningless.
James basically summed up the Christian tension thus:
Modernist theology is largely bunk because it’s remarkably arrogant. It’s saying that absolute truth exists and we have access to it and can describe it beyond the shadow of a doubt. Unchecked, it’s a recipe for exploitation and oppression. However, the ramifications of an unqualified postmodernist theory is equally as dangerous. Because where do you get off the train? How much can we qualify scripture before we’re just reading our own desires and interests into what we see in the text?
It’s a hard and nearly impossible task, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying to grapple with it and understand the Bible we hold in our hands. I think understanding these philosophical backgrounds really help us come to understand how we (how I, Ethan Renoe), read the Bible. How we comprehend our faith and apply it to our lives.
Yet, until our knowledge is completed and our blinders are removed, we ask, Maranatha! Come hastily, Lord Jesus! Make our knowledge full and our comprehension accurate.