Radical Postmodernism might be Killing Us, but a Retreat to Modernity isn’t the Answer.
By Justin Rossow
I just got off the phone with a pastor I haven’t spoken to in awhile. We don’t know each other all that well, but I asked him how ministry was going, and what he found both good and challenging about ministry in an age of COVID.
He thinks their expansion into online worship and Bible study is here to stay, and he sees that as a positive extension of their ministry. And he’s had it up to here with an internal debate about wearing masks. November brought the height of the tension, and things seem to have settled down a bit with the promise of a vaccine on the horizon, but you could tell, this pastor was done with the warring factions in his congregation.
I couldn’t help but notice how this pastor described the debate as an all-in, either/or, zero sum game: “Either you think we are called to love our neighbors and it is unchristian not to wear a mask or put people in danger by coming together to worship, OR you think we are called to faith and not fear, and canceling worship or wearing masks is simply unchristian.”
For both sides, the truth is simple and obvious. And if you disagree, you are either evil or stupid. (You can imagine—or perhaps you know—how frustrating it would be to shepherd sheep who are at each other’s throats.)
What I can’t quite figure out is whether these two sides are more Modern or more Postmodern in their framing of The Truth. On the one hand, radical Postmodernism sees all truth as personal, individual, subjective, and even multiple: there is no such thing as a capital “T” Truth that is true for everyone at all times. Truth is what is true for you.
That doesn’t sound very Christian, but the way some Christians have tended to assert personal, subjective realities (and even ignore what seem to be fairly well-established facts) makes me wonder if some of us haven’t given into a radical Postmodernism where I know what’s true for me because I just know, and you shouldn’t try to persuade me with anything as trivial as evidence or facts, because your “facts” are just as subjective as mine, and I just know you are wrong.
While the reliance on my personal sense of the truth and the sometimes arbitrary decisions on what to count as valid evidence does seem strikingly Postmodern, the way the debate plays out inside the Church feels like more of a retreat into Modernism to me. Here’s why.
For Modernism, universal, Capital “T” Truth is not only knowable, it can be known in objective and reliable ways. The Modern is thoroughly convinced they know the Truth, and would be able to adapt their view of the Truth if more objective and reliable data came to light. That’s the kind of confidence I see on both sides of most debates in our country right now, including the disagreement over whether religious freedom or love of neighbor should frame the mask/no mask, in-person/virtual only worship debate.
Both sides are implicitly claiming immediate access to Capital “T” Truth; therefore, both sides see the opposition as either evil (they know the Capital “T” Truth, but reject it) or stupid (they can’t even see the Capital “T” Truth that is so obvious to anyone with a shred of objective reason.)
Both sides also seem to be exercising authority or control over the truth; they know it, possess it, are able to grasp it, and use it (and even beat other people over the head with it). But whether your control is subjective or objective, when you put yourself over the Truth, I think you have turned the world upside down.
As followers of Jesus, we know Truth as a person—eternal and infinite yet born at a specific time in a specific human culture to a specific mother (named Mary). The Truth learned a particular human language, and laughed and cried and ate and debated with real, particular human beings. The Truth said things that were freeing, and challenging, and at times, downright confusing. The Truth suffered under a particular Roman Governor (a guy named Pilate, who once quipped, “What is truth?”), died a time- and culture-specific death (by Roman crucifixion) and was raised from the dead on a specific day (the third one).
All of that culturally specific baggage means we don’t get unmediated access to Ultimate Truth. The only Truth we receive comes through means: human language, human understanding, culturally specific yet somehow how transcendent promises tied to water, or bread, or wine.
While there is a subjective experience that is integral to my faith, my feelings don’t make my faith true or false. While I can have confidence in the Truth, that confidence stems not from my own objectivity, but in the object of my faith: let Him be true, and all the world false.
I see pastors struggling as they watch people they love draw up battle lines and claim the morally superior ground of Obvious Truth. I see pastors trying to shepherd flocks with sheep who think other sheep in the same pen must be either evil or stupid. It’s no wonder we have trouble reaching out to people not like us: we can’t even get along with the people inside the fold!
We could ask how we got here, but I think the more helpful question would be: how do we get away from an unhealthy combination of radical Postmodernism and Modern confidence and back to following the Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life?
I have three suggestions for preachers and other church leaders. They might not all be right, or might not all be right for you in your context, but maybe they are a place to start. Let’s keep talking and see if we can figure this out.
1. Embody Faithfulness to Complex Truth
In your preaching, in your teaching, at congregational meetings and staff meetings and in personal conversations, display a nuanced and complicated understanding of truth.
It’s good for faith to be simple; following Jesus is also really complicated. Say that. Live that. Let people see that you see more than one side of every issue. In fact, do your best to show more than two sides to every issue. Faithfully proclaim the Truth in ways that lead people into considering more than one answer or experience. Train them by example to think about any issue from multiple perspectives. Be willing to be wrong.
Practically speaking, use sermon structures like Paradox Maintained, or Question Answered, or a narrative structure with Multiple Perspectives, or Andy Stanley’s Relational Structure to help people practice processing multiple faith perspectives.
2. Allow the Bible to be Difficult at Times
When a pastor or Bible study leader gets asked a question, we love having the right answer. It feels good. It makes us look good. And it helps establish trust in the knowledge base of the leader, a treasure of wisdom they worked hard to amass. Having the right answers was valued highly in Seminary classes and tests and papers. And we tend to speak with authority, even when we don’t know.
I think giving an answer with confidence can be good, but it can also be misleading. Try saying, “I don’t know.” Or “We don’t know for sure …” Or “That’s a pretty complex question; let’s take some time to explore that later.”
Let the Bible be difficult to understand sometimes (because sometimes it is). Be comfortable with ambiguity and seeming contradiction. Don’t resolve every tension or try to harmonize every Gospel account. The theological statement of faith that everything needed for salvation is clearly presented in Scripture does not mean that everything in Scripture is presented clearly. Help your people see that not understanding a particular verse is OK, and they should keep reading.
3. Show Empathy for People You Disagree With
When you need to correct or rebuke or debunk or even condemn actions or beliefs or sins in our lives or in the culture around us, love those you correct and rebuke and debunk. Love the people whose lives need to be called back to the Truth, whether they are inside or outside of the Church. Present even misguided beliefs and actions in a sympathetic light; help your people see how the disciples could get it so wrong, how the Pharisees could think they were being faithful to plot against Jesus, how the rich young man who went away with his checkbook but without following Jesus could have been any one of us.
If you preach a clear, sharp division between US and THEM—if everyone who gets it wrong in your sermons is either evil or stupid—then your congregation will model a mentality of US vs THEM, IN or OUT, TRUE or EVIL. If you cut every sinner some slack from the pulpit (except yourself)—if you imagine how easily you could get to a place where that unbiblical view makes sense, if you speak with compassion and invitation and humility and respect for people you disagree with—from the pulpit as well as in staff meetings and Bible studies and congregational voters assemblies—then your people might catch those attitudes, as well.
Or maybe they won’t. We are surrounded by a culture that frames everything as obvious, black and white, US vs THEM. In that kind of culture, following a real, human Jesus who is both the embodiment of Universal Truth and embodied in human culture, words, and language may seem almost impossible.
I think it’s the adventure of a lifetime! And that’s the Truth!