Progressive, Postmodern Christianity Part 1: I Remain Incredulous
|“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” ― Harold Pinter|
“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”
― Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
My mom was a terrific cook. She started sharing her skills with me when I was very young and she began simply, with scrambled eggs. Throw some eggs in a dish, beat them up, cook them and voilá, delicious food!
Of course, a couple of cooked eggs isn’t that exciting. Once I got the hang of not overcooking them, Mom taught me how to add seasoning. Salt and pepper always make a dish more interesting. Then, I started to add chives, salmon, different types of cheeses. I still add a little milk and then beat them fluffy. As I gained experience, I took ideas from different recipes I discovered and mashed them up into something new and delicious.
Postmodernism is like that. Postmodernism takes all sorts of ideas, from an endless array of disciplines—theology, sociology, history, physics, medicine, education, the arts, etc.—and mashes them up into new things.Then, it takes those new things and mashes them up into other new things.
Postmodernism is a batch of scrambled eggs that is never finished, to which we’re constantly adding stuff.
We talk a lot about being a “postmodern” congregation but what does that mean? As we discuss postmodernism over the next few weeks, you’ll begin to see that the question is itself absurd, for the truly postmodern rejects absolutes, core beliefs, and meta-narratives. However, having a round-table discussion about postmodernism is very postmodern. One of our goals is to break the Modern era paradigm of “Leader/Follower” and instead enable everyone to share their unique and valuable perspectives so we can learn from each other’s knowledge.
“Truth” is largely subjective. The idea that there is a single “truth” for all society has proven patently false, and been revealed as profoundly physically, psychologically, and socially damaging. One need only consider the treatment of the LGBTQ community over the past century to see how inhumane it is to think there is just a single, universal normative for human behavior. In our Postmodern era, the idea that anything can be boiled down to a single epistemological (the theory of knowledge) or ontological (the study of the relationship between being, becoming, reality and existence) truth is ludicrous.
The quest for a universal norm developed because for millennia, “normal” has been defined by those in power. Whatever someone in power did was normal, anything another person did contrary to the norms of those in power was labeled abnormal. Michel Foucault famously pointed out this systemic flaw when he wrote, “knowledge is not objective, it is distorted by power.”
Postmodernism formally developed in the mid 20thCentury as a reaction to the Enlightenment era idea that all questions, no matter how complex, have a singular solution common to everyone in society (often called a metanarrative). That view developed because a similar concept had led to the development of the scientific method. Intrinsically this is a brilliant attitude that has led to centuries of discovery about the workings of the universe and still serves us well today. Science has been the foundation of the progress of civilization since the Industrial Revolution. The Enlightenment led to practices that taught us how to harness the universe’s natural resources to take advantage of electricity and magnetism, the foundations of our current technological, Postmodern era.
Enlightenment era thinking, and the quest to find the final key to every puzzle, enabled scientists to peer ever more deeply into the structure of matter, revealing a microcosmic quantum reality that has made us question the very nature of reality itself.
However, that same scientific method cannot be applied to society as a whole. The idea that all the world’s problems could be distilled down to universal solutions comes from a privileged power perspective. For the majority of the Modern era, non-white males were treated despicably. So, any fundamentals being sought were inherently flawed because they were only fundamentals for a very narrow segment of society.
Now, we are starting to understand that what is real and true is much more subjective than we thought. Maybe there are nouniversal, objective truths. Perhaps reality is perceptionand is different for every observer. Therefore, no two of us can possibly share any foundational universal truth. We can agree on subjective truths—be kind to each other, don’t kill, gravity makes things fall (on Earth), but we cannot ever agree on the meta—the objectivetruth, if such a thing even exists. Which I doubt.
In The Gospel of John,a wonderfully mystical and deeply thought-provoking tale, Jesus and Pilate have a terrific discussion about this idea of objective truth (the Bible is a lot more postmodern than it’s given credit for).
This is a bit of a mashup from John 18 and 14, in reverse order. Who says we can’t make new narratives from pre-existing biblical texts? It’s exactly what the authors of John did!
John 18.33-38a (NIV)
33Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
Well, earlier in John, Jesus has already answered this question, but in a way that allows for subjective interpretation, even today:
6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really know me, you will know b my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
What Jesus means by this answer is a matter of much debate, which again underlines the idea that truth is subjective. Jesus was so ahead of his time he was postmodern! In fact, one could claim that Judaism was postmodern before the modern world ever came to be, as the only absolute truth in Judaism is that God loves unconditionally and so too should we. Everything else is commentary. That’s a pretty postmodern outlook.
Unfortunately, the eons of time passed have eroded our ability to live with the uncertainty of fluid truth or even accept more than one opinion about a subject! (Within reason: the Earth is provably not flat).
The Enlightenment, and all the exciting scientific discoveries Enlightenment era thinking enabled, inevitably led us to a 20thCentury that was all about chasing the elusive purple dragon of objective truth—democracy is the best form of government, for example. That’s not a universal truth. Postmodernism is more subjective. Where modernism sought a singulartruth, postmodernism seeks a multiplicityof culturally sensitivetruths.
Still, that definition of postmodernity adheres to the ancient subject-object paradigm that underlies much of the world’s racial, gender, and economic inequalities. It’s in that area I believe postmodern, progressive Christianity can be helpful, because Jesus attempts to teach us how to view the world not as subject-object, but simply as God, This God, in everything. This is God, that is God, and God is all there is. God is subject, object, and beyond. God is within us. Therefore, we, too, are beyond subject-object relationships. Or can at least strive to so be.
The implications of postmodernism for people of faith are game changing. Sharingknowledge and experience is vital. There is always more to learn from one another. We understand we do not have the answer,we only have an answer thatleads to more questions, to inventive and imaginative interpretations of the magnificent intricacy of being, becoming, reality and existence that is just This moment, This person, This era, This idea, This God.