The Effects of Postmodernism: Overcoming the Challenges of an Un-churched Society, Part 1
The shift from modern to postmodern thought has opened the doors for Christian evangelism on a scale that has not been seen for several centuries. Modernistic views that have been held since the latter half of the nineteenth century have given way to postmodern thought, calling the Enlightenment principles of reason and rationality into question and re-opening the door for belief in an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient Creator. However, the postmodernists have not simply received Christianity without question or without posing challenges. Postmodern thought has been based on an attitude that not only shows no interest in finding truth, but has called the very existence of truth into question. Many churches and church leaders have responded to this problem by simply ignoring it; brushing it aside without considering the ramifications of ignoring this growing philosophical view. These churches and church leaders are missing out on an opportunity to regain a lost generation. There is a need for a church that will reach out to this postmodern generation. Church leaders all over the developed world are charged with overcoming such challenges. While some have chosen to completely ignore the postmodern movement, others are searching for ways to reach this un-churched, postmodern society. This study will draw attention to not only the problems of this postmodern society, but also call for the church to follow the lead of those who are reaching out to this new, generation. Can this be accomplished? And if it can, what specific strategies should be implemented to accomplish this daunting task? As a result, this study will be divided into three subtopics: 1) Pre-modern, Modern, and Postmodern Thought (an overview of the shift from pre-modernism to modernism to postmodernism, and the effects this shift has had on Christianity and society in general); 2) The Postmodern Problem (the problems posed by an attempt to reach and accommodate an un-churched, postmodern society without distancing the church from God’s truth); and 3) The Postmodern Solution (proposed strategies to address the postmodern problem). This study will conclude with the finding that due to the emergence of postmodern thought and the exponential growth of an un-churched society, today’s Christians must find new methods of reaching the un-churched.
Pre-modern, Modern, and Postmodern Thought
The postmodern world is not easy to define. Scholars have yet to agree upon one clear and comprehensive definition. J.P. Moreland describes postmodernism as, “a loose coalition of diverse thinkers from several different academic disciplines.” Since postmodernism is so loosely defined, and since it is a reaction to modernism, and modernism is a reaction to pre-modernism, it is imperative that postmodernism’s predecessors are explained in order to give a more coherent description of the postmodern view.
Although the time periods of these worldviews can not be assigned to any specific dates, most would agree that the pre-modern period consists of the time prior to the European Enlightenment, modernism started with the Enlightenment and lasted until the end of the Cold War, and postmodernism has been the dominating worldview ever since. According to Millard Erickson, the pre-modern worldview could be characterized by a “belief in the rationality of the universe.” Dualism in the universe is a common characteristic of pre-modernism, as is the notions that reality is not confined to nature and that God is working out his purpose through his creation and that history is moving toward a goal that is outside itself. Pre-modernism also included the concept of basic realism, which states that there is an “objective existence of the physical world. The world exists independently of its being perceived by anyone.” Also included in pre-modern thought is the correspondence theory of truth, which states, “propositions are true if they correctly describe the realities they purport to describe, false if they do not.” Until the Enlightenment, these concepts constituted a worldview that had been accepted for centuries.
As the scientific revolution gave way to the Enlightenment in the 18th century, modern philosophers began to attempt to apply natural law and the use of reason to humans, society, government, economics, and philosophy. Scientists and philosophers alike began to seek absolute truths in their respective fields. Although this search for absolute truth will eventually lead to many stark differences, pre-modernism and modernism share the ideas of an objective reality of the physical world and the correspondence theory of truth. Erickson explains,
“It is, however, when the reason or explanation for these conceptions is asked that the differences between the two views emerge. Although the transition between the two ideologies was prolonged and gradual, these differences became increasingly apparent. Basically, modernism retained the conception of the world but removed its supernatural or at least extranatural basis. Thus, the vertical dualism was replaced by a horizontal dualism, in which the meaning or cause was found within or behind the natural world, rather than beyond it.”
It was this attitude that inspired philosophers like Rene Descartes to doubt everything previously held as truth, and Immanuel Kant to declare that God was and object of human faith that cannot be proven by human reason. B.E. Benson explains that modernism is,
“defined in terms of three closely related elements. First, modern thinkers place a great emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, assuming that human beings both are and ought to be free to define themselves. The result is that modernization is often characterized by a general repudiation of tradition and authority. Second, modern thought tends toward a strong confidence in the powers of reason in general and the rationality of the specific individual. Third, reason is usually taken to be pure and objective. One might not always reason in an objective way, but the objective reason is taken as an achievable goal.”
These concepts, combined with the new scientific concept that real knowledge came only through empirical research, led not only to a worldview that believed God could not be proven to exist, but would eventually lead to a society that will ultimately decide that since he cannot be known through human reason to be an absolute truth, God does not exist.
Postmodernism arose from a growing discontent with modern thought. Postmoderns have called the very foundations of modernity into question, including a scientific and philosophical challenge to Darwinism. Some would actually say that postmodern thought is a development of modernity, working toward greater relativism in truth and reality. Regardless, the adherence to modern thought began to drastically decline as “reason lost its infallibility, science its authority, and progress it credibility.” Several failures of modernity have given rise to this new, postmodern movement. Among those are the failure to prove that the universe is self-contained, its failure to find a basis for morality and society, a reduced optimism in progress, and the neutrality of knowledge and its dependence on those who possess it. Postmodernism may be best-described using Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. In his work, Nietzsche, who is considered the first postmodern thinker, questions the ability to know universal truth and “thinks that the claims of philosophy to give us truth have been pretentious and unfounded.” In order to better explain the views of Nietzsche and other postmodern thinkers, it is necessary to describe some of the principles of postmodern thought. Erickson describes three tenets of postmodernism. Deconstruction in literary criticism looks to differentiate writing and speaking. While speaking looks to identify what is real or rational, known as logocentrism, writing “does not attempt to mirror some external reality. It deals with signs, which in turn refer to other signs, and each instance of writing supplements that about which it writes.” Another tenet of postmodernism is neopragmatism; a counterargument to the correspondence view of truth that states that truth is only what is beneficial for humans to believe. Also termed objectivism, humans, or “truth-seekers,” look for truth by placing their lives in either the context of the impersonal or the context of the community (real or imaginary). The third tenet is the new historicism, which shifts away from the modern and pre-modern notion that history has a meaningful pattern in which pre-moderns believed to be God’s will, while moderns found it to be in the historical events themselves. The postmodern worldview believes there is no meaning to be discovered and that the interpreter places meaning. Although this summary of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern thought is very brief, it will provide the foundation needed for the study at hand.
This was written as an assignment for THEO 525, Systematic Theology I, at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.
1. J.P. Moreland, “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48 no. 1 (2005): 79.
2. Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 159.
3. Ibid., 160.
5. Ibid., 161.
9. Ibid., 162.
10. Benson, B.E. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 940.
11. Erickson, Christian Theology, 162.
12. Douglas Groothuis, “Why Truth Matters Most: An Apologetic for Truth-Seeking in Postmodern Times,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 no. 3 (2004): 449.
13. Robertson McQuilkin and Bradford Mullen, “The Impact of Postmodern Thinking on Evangelical Hermeneutics” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40 no. 1 (1997): 69.
14. David Wells, “Christian Discipleship in a Postmodern World,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51 no. 1 (2008): 25-26.
15. Erickson, Christian Theology, 165.
16. Benson, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 941.
17. Erickson, Christian Theology, 166.
18. Ibid., 166.
19. Ibid., 166.
20. Ibid., 166.
21. Ibid., 166.