by Steve Cornell
Awareness of cultural context is vital to effective ministry. Missionaries have known this for many years. Exploring the underlying ways people think and especially the way they view truth and reality should be required preparation for ministry. Those who minister in western cultures have recently recognized some significant shifts in the way people view truth and reality. This shift has been identified as movement from a modern to a postmodern culture.
Admittedly, there is widespread misunderstanding and disagreement about the label ‘postmodern’. In his article, The Dangers & Delights of Postmodernism, D. A. Carson wrote, “The meaning of postmodernism is not transparent. Moreover, its range of application (it has been applied to literature, art, communication theory, architecture, epistemology, jurisprudence, the philosophy of science, and more) means that its associations for one person may be very different from its associations for someone else. (Modern Reformation Magazine, 2003, July / August Issue, Vol. 12.4).
In his book, The Way of the (modern) world Or, why It’s tempting to Live as if God doesn’t Exist, Craig M. Gay, observed that, “There is very little agreement as yet as to what ‘postmodernity’ means. While the term occasionally simply denotes dissatisfaction with modernity, it is increasingly used to suggest that we have entered into an entirely new cultural situation in which none of the old ‘modern’ rules and habits of mind need be taken seriously anymore. All such suggestions are mistaken and misleading. …the ideals of the modern project are still very firmly embedded in the central institutional realities of contemporary society. Although modernity may well be passé in certain intellectual circles, typically modern ideas and assumptions are still quite effectively communicated within contemporary culture by many of the institutional realities that surround us and by many of the ways we do things today. …postmodernity represents only a kind of extension of modernity, a kind of ‘hyper-modernity.’”
Along similar lines, British sociologist Anthony Giddens suggested that, “rather than entering a period of post-modernity, we are moving into one in which the consequences of modernity are becoming more radicalized and universalized than before.” Accordingly, it could be said that we are living in most-modern times instead of post-modern.
Whatever label one chooses, western culture in particular has experienced some significant changes that effect gospel ministry. For the purpose of this article, these changes will be explored in relation to modernity.
Pre-modern to modern to post-modern
- Pre-modern: Religion is the source of truth and reality (God’s existence, attributes and revelation were givens in the culture)
- Modern: Science is the source for truth and reality (religion and morality are moved to the subjective realm)
- Postmodern: There is no single defining source for truth and reality beyond the individual—not even science or history.
Modernism brought relativism and individualism into the realm of religion and morality. Science (and to a degree, history) remained bastions of objectivity.
Postmodernism radicalized relativism and individualism and applied it to all spheres of knowing—even science. In relation to this shift, a mood change has settled into western culture.
A mood change: from optimism to pessimism
Postmodernity has brought with it a shift from human optimism (based on scientific certainty and technological progress), to a pessimistic mood of skepticism, uncertainty and even angst. The people who fill our Churches have been affected by this shift—especially the young people. The postmodern mood is basically one of disbelief.
Contrasting modern and postmodern
The following contrasts between modern and postmodern offer another way to consider the mood change.
- Modernity was confident.
- Postmodernity is anxious.
- Modernity had all the answers.
- Postmodernity is full of questions.
- Modernity reveled in reason, science and human ability.
- Postmodernity wallows (with apparent contentment or nihilistic angst) in mysticism, relativism, and the incapacity to know anything with certainty. (from, Graham Johnston, “Preaching to a Postmodern World” Baker,2001)
Postmoderns on truth and reality
Postmodernity rejects individual autonomy, universal reason and absolute truth. Truth (under postmodernity) is completely perspectival and situational. History, social class, gender, culture, and religion all control the way we understand truth and reality. They shape the narratives and meanings of our lives as culturally embedded, localized social constructions without any universal application. Claims of universal meaning are viewed as efforts to marginalize and oppress the rights of others.
The most important value of postmodernity is the inadmissibility of all totalizing ways of viewing any dimension of life. Postmodernity, as a theory, refuses to allow any single defining source for truth and reality.
Kevin Vanhoozer illustrates the way postmoderns understand reality: “We do not simply look at a rose and evaluate its intrinsic beauty, fragrance and design, we consider ourselves as we look at the rose. The temptation is to think that the color of the rose is a product of our optical nerve, and its scent of our noses, so that in the end there is no rose left.” (emphasis mine) (Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: six views, ed., Myron B. Penner).
Challenge to gospel ministry
Applying this shift to gospel ministry, D. A. Carson wrote, “Initially, the removal of transcendent truth or values led to a restlessness that was seized for the gospel. Now, the restlessness is moving toward a carefree attitude. Postmoderns seem to have a striking capacity to endure groundlessness and incoherence calmly –to live as ironists with equanimity.” (From: Telling the Truth, ed., D. A. Carson).
Kevin Vanhoozer believes that many of the people we desire to reach with the gospel “reject unifying, totalizing, and universal schemes in favor of a new emphasis on difference, plurality, fragmentation and complexity. Postmoderns are suspicious of truth claims, of ‘getting it right.’” (The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology).
The ethic of pluralistic civility is the social expectation. Tolerance is required of all. Lessons on good arguments and detecting error are unnecessary. Those who promote such things are suspected of imperialistic motives aimed at oppressing the weak and less fortunate.
Elements of absurdity in postmodernity
People committed to a postmodern outlook profess to care little about consistency, but it is wise to expose the significant logical inconsistencies in postmodern theory. Consider the following:
- Postmodernity is the worldview that says no worldview exists.
- Postmodernity is an anti-theory that uses theoretical tools to neutralize all theories.
- Postmodernity demands an imposed uniformity in an effort to resist uniformity.
- Postmoderns often use propositional statements to negate truth based on propositional statements.
Discovering and exposing these kinds of logical contradiction often invites the postmodern smirk that says—“poor soul, you are so bound by modernity.” It is perhaps best to express these concerns as sincere questions. Our goal in evangelism is never to win an argument. It is always to lead a person to truth and freedom.
Postmodernity: A benefit and a danger
“The introduction of postmodernity has proved of some benefit to Christian faith. The Enlightenment sought to relegate matters of faith to the rear of the bus as either insignificant or nonexistent. Postmodernity returns value to faith and affirms the nurturing of our spiritual being as vital to humankind. Unfortunately, with the loss of truth, people will now seek faith without boundaries, categories, or definition. The old parameters of belief do not exist. As a result, people will be increasingly open to knowing God, but on their own terms.” (Preaching to a Postmodern World,” Graham Johnston).
Understanding the shift to postmodernity will become increasingly important for those called to minister in Western culture. In changing times, we must be willing to make changes in the way we do evangelism and ministry. But we must never make concessions to postmodernity that compromise the integrity of the gospel or diminish Scripture as the authoritative, univocal divine revelation for humanity. If the gospel is held hostage to the restrictions of postmodernity, it ceases to be the good news that humans so desperately need.
Steven W. Cornell
More resources on postmodernity
- Preaching to a Postmodern World, Graham Johnston, Baker,2001
- That’s Just YOUR Interpretation: Responding to skeptics who challenge your faith, Paul Copan, Baker, 2001
- The Truth about Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity, and the culture wars, Brad Stetson, Joseph G. Conti, IVP, 2005
- Talking about Good and Bad without getting Ugly: A guide to moral persuasion, Paul Chamberlain, IVP, 2005
- Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a concept, James W. Sire, IVP, 2004
- Engaging God’s World: A Christian vision of Faith, Learning and Living, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Eerdmans, 2002
- The Way of the (modern) world Or, why It’s tempting to Live as if God doesn’t Exist, Craig M. Gay, Eerdmans, 1998
- Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern times, ed. Millard Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Justin Taylor Crossway, 2004
- Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of postmodernism, Millard Erickson, Baker, 1998
- Truth or Consequences: The promise and perils of postmodernism, Millard Erickson, IVP, 2001
- The Gagging of God: Christianity confronts pluralism, D. A. Carson, Zondervan, 1996.
- Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism, Douglas Grouthuis, IVP, 2000
- Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge of Christian faith and mission, Harold Netland, IVP, 2001
- The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge, 2003