Thy word is truth. John 17:17.
David Wells, in his book Above All Earthly Powers [Eerdmans, 2005], observes that postmodernism has done in one generation what evangelicalism has not been able to do in one hundred years, and that is to dismantle modernism. For those of you not familiar with these terms, please allow this brief, rather elementary, definition of both. Modernism is the belief system, born from the European Enlightenment, running approximately from 1789 to 1989 (the storming of the Bastille in Paris to the tearing down of the Berlin wall), which believed that modern science gives us all the knowledge we need to live in this world. Basically it said that if the five senses cannot experience something, then it does not exist. Therefore modernism was highly skeptical of any sort of faith system, whether Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or animism. So, if you were a non-Christian in college in the 1960’s or 1970’s and some well meaning Campus Crusade for Christ staff member sought to share the Four Spiritual Laws with you, then you probably said, ‘Christianity is a myth. You cannot prove its existence, and if I cannot see it, then it is not a viable belief system.’
The practical result of modernistic thinking was the 19th century Transcendentalist movement of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, teaching that man is the measure of all things. Not long after that we had Friedrich Nietzche put forth his Ubermensch, superman, idea, which meant that due to cultural Darwinism and the survival of the fittest, some men are more equal than others, that some races are superior to others. Hitler imbibed deeply from Nietzche’s teaching. So by the early 20th century there was unprecedented confidence in man, many believing we were soon to usher in a Golden Age of peace and prosperity which the world had never known. This was to be fuelled by modern industrialization and education. However in June, 1914 Franz Ferdinand of the Habsburg Austrian-Hungarian Empire and his wife were assassinated by rebel Serbians in Sarajevo and the Austrian-Hungarians were intent on gaining revenge, demanding that they try the murderers themselves, by-passing the sovereignty of Serbia. Within weeks Austria-Hungary moved against Serbia and Russia came to the aid of their Serbian allies. Germany came to the aid of Austria-Hungary. France and Russia had an agreement that they would help each other if the one was attacked by another nation, and England and France also had a similar alliance. By early August, 1914 Europe was in a horrible war of, until that time, unprecedented death and destruction (ten million died), coming on the heels of supreme confidence in the virtues of mankind. Then twenty-one years later Europe was in another war where another fifty million people died.
After two world wars, the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb, and untold millions dying under the Communist regimes of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot many thinkers began to lose heart in science, technology, and social engineering. The more skeptical of them, men like the French thinker Derrida, said that there is no truth, that all people are biased, that everyone has their own angle, pushing their own agenda. I believe it was Derrida who said that there really was no difference between Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, that all of them craved power.
It is within this historical and philosophical context that postmodernism was born. It says that no overarching truth system exists, that everyone is biased, that science and technology is not our saviour. This is one reason we see a resurgence of spirituality in the west. The spiritual dimension of life has always been there but it was severely suppressed by modernism. Now, due to world wide terrorism and a loss of confidence in science and technology as the solution to our problems, people once again are seeking for spiritual answers to life.
Due to the fragmentation of modern life (the breakdown of the nuclear family, the fast pace of life, people living long distances from their family members) young people, in particular, want to ‘get back to their roots’. People are looking for stability in the sea of uncertainty. Many church leaders are understanding this and are designing worship services which make use of ancient creeds, old hymns with new tunes, and the mystery of the sacraments (weekly communion, for example). There are many good things about postmodernism. All of the new baseball stadiums (replacing the modern Three Rivers, Riverfront, Busch, and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadiums) like Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, and Turner Field are post-modern, welcome additions to our culture, not to mention the return to the old Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies uniforms which replaced those hideous uniforms of the 1970’s and 1980’s. But more importantly than baseball stadiums or uniforms is the now welcome openness to spiritual things. It is very easy for Christian ministries, for example, to gain access to public universities today. Today at Trinity College in Hartford or Yale at New Haven, a RUF worker can share the gospel with students who may say, ‘That’s cool. I don’t believe it. I am into Buddhism, but I welcome your right to believe whatever you wish. If it works for you, then it is true for you.’
Obviously this does not go far enough and still leaves the person outside the pale of saving faith, but at least there is a willingness to interact on spiritual issues. In the 1970’s many saw no point in spirituality or religion. Today most embrace some sort of spirituality.
I suggest we have unprecedented opportunity to seize the day for Biblical faith. People have never been more spiritually hungry than they are today. People are terribly fearful, fragmented, and fractured. How shall we reach what many now call the post-everything culture? There seem to be three options today. We can continue as we are in the evangelical church and that includes the seeker friendly or traditional approaches to ministry. In other words, we can maintain the status quo. Many, within the seeker friendly movement, already know their tactics to reach the twenty somethings are not working. There are two other philosophies of ministry, what some are calling the post-liberal and post-conservative approaches to ministry. What are they and do they have merit? We shall consider these at a later date.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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