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Scott Green, Elder and Senior Minister, is writing a regular column entitled: “Disputable. Matters”
The Truth About Postmodernism September 9, 2011
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Be Afraid. Be very afraid.
But not of Postmodernism.
Be afraid of the tyranny of Modernism in the church.
Let me explain; breath deeply:
Modernism is one of three great worldviews in the history of (recorded) Western civilization, holding sway since the Renaissance and Enlightenment up through most of the 20th century, depending on whether you lived in Europe or the Western Hemisphere. Colloquially, we might call Modernism “The Age of Reason”—an era that followed “The Age of Faith”—that is, Pre-Modernism. The Modern worldview has been a great blessing to the material world, begetting empiricism, rationalism, the scientific method, the medical, industrial and technological revolutions, and most academic disciplines, including evolving (and we assume improving) economic, social and political “sciences.” Without Modern thinking, we might still be dying routinely from influenza, stuck in primitive bartering (and shockingly poorer) economies, and, most importantly, bereft of our smart phones, cars, air conditioning, ipods, & Facebook (OMG!)
But I want to suggest today Modernism is not so useful in the spiritual world; in fact, I want to suggest it can be hazardous to your Christian spiritual health. The hazard lies in Modernism’s obsession with rational certainty—the assumption that we can, with enough time, effort and study, know the complete truth, the “true-whole-Truth” about God and all He has created. This way of “knowing” includes processes such as dialectical reasoning (debating); the assumption of logic (reveals truth) being superior to emotion (obscures truth); and a relentless search for the one best way of doing something or being something. I suspect this appeals to us not only because of its practicality in the world of science, but also because of pride—“…you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5)—and because of our fundamental insecurity (Genesis fig leafs).
Don’t get me wrong. Context really matters when we’re talking about worldview. For example, a more Modern obsession with certainty is my friend when it comes to building a safe nuclear reactor, relying on my bank balance being in the black, my Mini Cooper’s fuel gauge, the training of an airline pilot, the intent of Bible writers to record faithful history, including the life and resurrection of Jesus, and the clarity of sin boundaries and identifiable spiritual ideals so worth striving for (Galatians 5:19-23).
But obsessing with certainty is not my friend when it comes to, for example, resolving most church conflicts, mediating marriages and family disputes, detailing best practices of the art of leadership, measuring the maturity and “success” of a church, practicing tolerance for disputable matters (Romans 14:1), or understanding Grace. It is often not my friend in parsing what is “Biblical”—a term applied too broadly in an attempt to justify opinion, and, of course, when it comes to determining who was better: Renoir or Van Gogh, The X-files or Doctor Who. These understandings call for a different kind of knowing than the kind Modernism offers.
We may call such knowing Postmodern, with some crucial caveats: by Postmodern, we do not mean “anything goes;” we do not mean “moral relativism;” we do not mean reality is inaccessible; and we do not mean reality is invented by the human mind (a radical position George Berkeley advanced in the 17th c. and popularized in part by The Matrix). These are common misunderstandings of mainstream postmodernism, radicalized by cynical quarters into a bogeyman of obdurate skepticism in the name of deconstruction. This kind of skepticism, ironically a thoroughly Modern sentiment, can be found in and out of the church. (In fact, by deconstruction, Derrida originally meant simply taking a keen look at one’s assumptions, definitions, and contexts of meaning-making).
By Postmodern, we do mean chiefly this: reality is ineluctably interpreted (but again, not invented!). Each of us brings our own unique and complex weave of background, experiences, education, and emotion to each relationship and discussion. This interpretive element is probably self-evident to most of us, but bears illustrating. Some useful examples, then, of postmodern thinking, and how it matters in the church:
Interpretation & Freedom
- When you say “car” you may have images and meanings quite different from mine, based on your experiences. Our interpretations of “car” will certainly have differences, but not wildly so—the car is really there and a host of human beings (our community) have helped you and me contain our interpretations—neither of us will say “car” while envisioning a tomato (by contrast, without the same cultural experience as you and me, Ariel & Scuttle interpreted a “fork” as a “dinglehoffer”—a comb).
- When you say “Preach the Word!” you may have a collection of interpretations and meanings different from mine, both in content and in style. This interpreting is as useful as it is normal. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is lots else (though probably none of us chooses a warthog!). Diverse understandings of scriptural values and ideals makes Romans 14:1 practical, necessary, and even enriching to the work we all do.
- Acknowledging the reality of interpretation, including of one another, and the richness it brings keeps us from totalizing labels like “you’re a bad-hearted person” (well, maybe on Tuesday you kind of were!) and “that church is old-school”—whatever that means.
- Embracing the role of interpretation allows us to see our metaphors more clearly, enabling us to freely choose them, or put them on the shelf. For example, a war veteran, NFL player, or Depression survivor may elevate the value of “getting tough” (a metaphor of crisis) over “getting real about your grief,” (a metaphor of authenticity) whereas an artist or actor may often have that priority reversed. In a postmodern stance, it’s okay for both to be “right” without lording it over the whole population. A “really tough leader” is not better than a “really authentic leader” or vice-versa. A trainer operating from a Karate Kid metaphor is not more like Jesus than one working like a Phil Jackson.
Perfectionism & Precision
- Surrendering Modernistic Perfectionism and Precision (very useful in airplane building) changes Discipleship in important ways. It allows us all to strive to imitate Jesus while accepting this will likely look different in each case. It depressurizes personal growth and allows for Grace in evaluating “maturity.” Abandoning an obsession with Precision moreover allows for variety in training one another to be more like Jesus—perfecting one another in Christ (Colossians 1:28) does not mean making each other Perfect, but rather Mature (a goal, that’s right, that is open to individual, community, and contextual interpretation). Surrendering such perfectionistic training gives us space to be faith-centered, rather than deficit-centered with one another; in this, we Gracefully shift away from fault-finding and begin to call what is not as though it were. Hallelujah.
- Moreover, giving up Modernism’s fixation on science and formulas (again, because of its obsession with nailing everything down) frees us from “rational-only” Bible-reading: reading the Bible not for all its worth, but only like a scientist. Instead, we can read the narrative for what it is, rather than feel compelled to make lists of insights out of every scriptural encounter in the name of “scriptural knowledge.” Again, this does not preclude being clear about the historicity of the Bible, the central facts of Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection, the way people found salvation in the first c. church, and more. But it does help us see most of God’s Word as descriptive (experiences and exhortations we can interpret and apply in our local church contexts) not prescriptive (teaching that tells us exactly how to do something). It also allow us to experience the Bible more richly, as a relational experience, and allows us to embrace mystery (Ephesians 5:32). When I sit down to talk with my great friend and brother Doug Arthur, I don’t make lists about the rational knowledge I derived from the time—it’s meaning is clear to me in a non-Modern way. Such a friendship includes Reason, but far-transcends it.
- With this in mind, “Precise Teaching” is no better than “Total Commitment” as a Christian panacea (though I believe in both). In some contexts, precision of teaching brings growth and freedom. In many other contexts, a more relational understanding of events, and the Grace that comes with that, gets us closer to truth and Love which builds up. Ironically, admitting just how imprecise so much of life is allows 1 Corinthians 1:10 Unity to finally come true.
The Richness of Experiential Knowing
- Experience renders a kind of knowledge, just as Reason does. I’ve yet to meet a marriage in crisis that doesn’t get this point in profound ways. Couples (and sometimes churches) experience events in their lives differently and wind up arguing about “who said what” and therefore “who is really right.” I have found it far more productive for couples to acknowledge, “I’m having a different experience of this than you,” and to vulnerably invite, “help me understand yours better.” When Modernism persuades us Reason is the only game in town, intimate relationships suffer greatly. When both members of the marriage can acknowledge they have subjective interpretations of events, including fights, humility that brings unity can prevail.
- Experience may shed different light on our worship than does Reason. Our worship tradition is firmly in the camp of Reason, but is there more to worship than Reason? Surely. For 15 centuries before the Reformation, when followers had virtually no access to the Bible , worship was chiefly experiential and sensory—Catholicism wasn’t just privileging Tradition, it was also communicating the gospel narrative and truth in terms followers could hold on to. What would it be like for us to take the best of both stances—the strengths of pre-modern (and postmodern) worship and the strengths brought by Reason?
So let’s open up the conversation on Postmodernism, and challenge the tyranny of Modernism-only, with its sclerotic effects on the church. Let’s dive in unafraid of bogeymen and labels. Can we perhaps see Postmodernism differently? Modernism has a lot of appeal, I admit, and in some contexts, it’s extremely useful. But I challenge us to consider carefully the consequences of our worldview(s), and whether or not it sufficiently describes what we most hold dear in our spiritual lives. I have come to believe that postmodern/pre-modern ways of being are the ally, not the enemy of Christianity. The Scientism wrought by Modernism plagues our culture, our educational system, and our media, which condescends to our faith as being “unscientific,” or “irrational.” I wonder if we often take the bait in this, trying too hard to get Modernists to “see” the Reason in being a Christian or even the Science in it (Intelligent Design).
I like these appeals as much as anyone, but I speculate we underestimate the experiential truth of our faith—our Christian Grace and Truth faith experience of life can go toe to toe with any truth claim out there and emerge with confidence. In fact, it’s probably the way most of us became convinced of the truth of our faith: Christianity works in real life like nothing else. Pre-modern believers, who had little or no exposure to Modern science or the Age of Reason, knew that too.
A few resources for the hungry on this topic:
- Smith, James K.A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?
Scott Green graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Boston University in 1983 and an M.S. in Marriage & Family Therapy from Seattle Pacific University in 2010. He serves as an elder and senior minister for the Seattle church of Christ and also conducts a part-time private practice as a therapist.
Why I Look Down on Condescension July 27, 2011
(Skip down a few paragraphs if you want to get straight to the discussion of Condescension…)
Today I begin a column I hope to update every 2-3 weeks—we’ll see. Though I’ve always loved writing—I originally majored in Journalism at the University of North Carolina ages ago—the past few years have been so overwhelming (graduate school, kids in college, cancer in our family) that putting deeper thoughts together on a page has seemed as gargantuan as paying off the national debt. Or even my debt.
But in the spirit of Carl Weathers, “Here we go!”
The column’s name itself is probably disputable, because it separates the words “disputable” and “matters” (Romans 14:1) with an “unscriptural” period. That’s a chance I’ll have to take. I did this to highlight the idea that the “disputable” part of that sentence really, really “matters” for the sake of our future. I want us to embrace, even celebrate, the indisputable fact of our church culture being full of disputable matters. It matters that so much can be and is in “dispute.” Here’s how it matters:
Our old, pre-2002 culture tended, among many other things, to optimize everything: we sought the best way to lead, the best way to follow, the best way to worship, organize, evangelize, train, purify, obey, raise excellent kids, make wives radiant, and so forth. Was anyone else out of breath from this endless compulsion for “excellence?” This kind of mania springs, believe it or not, from post-Enlightenment Modernism, which assumes we can acquire certainty about everything—that we can know everything there is to know about something, including following Jesus and building a church. This kind of knowledge-lust leapfrogs beyond what God has said: we have everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3) and reminds me of the lure of original temptation (Genesis 3:5).
Such a withering pursuit has made me certain indeed about this: we cannot know it all, we cannot describe it all, we cannot nail it all down, we cannot find “the best way,” to be like Jesus or build a church. Rather, we must struggle, as Israel, to be certain of a few things—like the historicity of Jesus (Luke 1:4), the plan (at least as we piece it together) of salvation, the ideas of sin and righteousness as revealed in scripture, and the judgment to come.
Can we get more comfortable with all that’s in between? Can we admit just how much room there is for interpretation in applying God’s Truth? Can we, for example, be comfortable with one man’s definition of “boldness” being different from another’s? All this really matters if we want a unity that stands the test of time. The more we insist on identical details, the less unified we will be. The more freedom we allow, the greater the hope of being securely unified on essentials. This of course was the wisdom and passion of our Restoration forefathers.
And if you disagree with me, I’m OK with that. My conclusions are disputable.
Now onto the Trend of the Day: Why I look down on Condescension.
In the US, we are living in the most disrespectful era of my 51 years. Children disrespect their parents in ways unimaginable even 20 years ago. Parents have been tricked into believing Authority is bad and should never be called upon. Current TV shows make Roseanne look like Ozzie and Harriet (look them up). Our music is full of profanity and hostility (not just that of course), and our government is led by a White House and Congress who routinely mock, scold, and belittle one another. Ugh.
How about us? In our own family of churches, we developed (and accepted) over many years a culture of bravado based on limited metaphors, often taken from Hollywood, which we assumed were “true.” Think, for example, of Rocky III when Adrian & Apollo are yelling at a numb Rocky to “awaken” his convictions—and hey, it worked! Think of General Patton slapping a shell-shocked soldier (well, that didn’t go so well), or Morgan Freeman slapping Denzel in “Glory.” (A lot of slapping going on).
Yes, there’s a time and place for slaps, for intervention, and that’s what such scenes depict. But if use our heads for a minute, we’ll see those kinds of encounters are rare. They should be rare. Interventions are rare. Discipling influence was never meant to resemble Major Payne. Or corporate culture. Marital life, family life, best friend-life, and church life, by colossal contrast, should be full of encouragement, gentleness, vision, faithfulness, protection (and everything else in 1 Cor 13), and especially, Respect. Let 1 Peter 2:17 sink in for a few days: show proper respect to everyone.
God honors us (Isaiah 43:4). He does not disrespect us, even though he has the moral ground to do so. He does not mock us, despise us, belittle us. How much more are we to honor one another above ourselves (Romans 12:10)? Humility about ourselves and respect for others should be humming in the background of every conversation, every conflict resolution, every critique, every appeal, every “challenge” and every sermon. A restoration of mutual respect would breathe new life into the fellowship. How, then, are we doing in this vital area? Some test areas:
- If you’re an elder or evangelist, how do you treat your ministers? Do they feel your belief and respect? Do you like and need to hear their voice, their opinions, their experiences, or are such times of expression just kindling for argument, anger, disapproval, or even dismissal?
- If you’re in the ministry, how do you treat God’s people? Do you look down on their struggles or admire their resilience? Do you assume the worst or the best? Do you see the glass always half-empty? Do you delight in or lament your congregation generally?
- If you’re a member, do you look down on ministers (full time)? Do you assume they are “out of touch” because they don’t have “a real job” like you? Do you tend to think they have blinders on while you see the “real scoop” about the church? Do you regard their role as having value as great as yours? A job as valuable as yours?
- Do we honor and admire pace-setting churches, leaderships, and missionaries, or seek to denigrate their experiences and explain away past miracles of collaboration with God? What insecurities are speaking there?
- Do you totalize the past of our churches as a series of terrible mistakes (if only we were as wise and prescient!), or do you see the good that was done, the sincerity of heart offered by most, and deeds/sacrifices worthy of respect? Can we honor the whole story even while diligently learning from dark chapters?
- When a message (or article, like this one) doesn’t resonate with you, do you assume there must be something wrong with it? What if it helps many?
- If you are an older Christian, do you look down on the young? Paul told Timothy not to let that happen, but sometimes it does. Do you dismiss them as zealots who “have a lot to learn”? It’s a splendid way to guarantee they’ll tune you, the wise, out. I speak from experience on both ends.
- If you are a younger Christian, do you look down on the older? Do you find yourself criticizing their limited schedules, how early they go to bed, how little they find time to evangelize, how preoccupied they seem to be with career and kids? Do you vow never to be like them when you are older?
- If you’re a male leader or husband, do you look down on women? I used to look down on my wife, and I regret it every day. My own insecurity talked me into thinking she needed to “pipe down.” Now I have found the more I want to hear her voice, the more she is sensitive to my leadership responsibilities. Respect breeds respect.
- Do we look down on teen parents whose teens struggle? Assume we know better? Assume our kids would never “have those struggles”? Declare that we can “struggle-proof” our kids we “proper” parenting?
- If you’re a bible scholar, do you look down on those who prefer a storied approach to preaching, in which life stories occupy a great deal of the sermon (kind of like Jesus’s parables)? Do you hector the movement about “Deep Bible Study”? What about ordinary Bible Study?
- If you’re a more storied preacher, do you look down on intellectuals and scholars as “unrelatable”? Do you scoff at “Deep Bible Study”? Is there a place for that?
- Take the Myers Briggs test as expressed on humanmetrics.com. If you’re a “Guardian” type leader, do you think of Idealists as impractical and dreamy? Does everything have to be nailed down? Do we have to have everything under control? Is this a biblical need or your need? Does everyone have to be rallied to the same event, same cause?
- If your are an “Idealist” type leader, do you think of Guardians as being obsessed with detail while missing the big picture? Does everything have to spring from ideal motivation or its no good? Does everything have to spring from principle or it’s suspect? Is that a bible need or your need?
- When disciples are fearful, are they in sin? What if they’re working on it? Should they just “get over it” and “move on”? Does struggling with fear mean they are disobedient to God? When my young son was wrestling with fears, I can’t remember thinking it was an issue of him being disobedient to me. Is there a respectful, life-giving way to come alongside people in fear?
Respect is Christianity 501. And here’s the hardest part: this whole discussion fails if what we take away is a determination to make sure we’re respected. If we go to church, go to meetings, and read articles looking for whether or not we’re respected, then we are in holy trouble, because Respect is a gift from God, and a gift we give rather than demand. In fact, demanding respect, or looking for disrespect with a chip on our shoulder is itself disrespectful. Let’s vow today to be people who give Respect.
If I’m on the right track with this, you’ll likely have a hard time respectfully disagreeing.
Scott R Green
Seattle church of Christ