Postmodernism and the Renewal of the Reformed Faith

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 20:2 (Summer 2002)

Postmodernism and the Renewal of the Reformed Faith

Evangel 20:2 (Summer 2002)

Over twenty years ago, I examined carefully the doctrinal standards of the church where I was in leadership. Several rather strange turns of phrase proved, after further examination, to reflect theological debates during the middle quarter of the nineteenth century: the era in which the church was founded.

  Unfortunately, hindsight revealed that the congregation had opted for conclusions which subsequent theological discussion proved erroneous! Nevertheless, passionate concern for what was believed to be accessible truth clearly characterized the period: as it usually has in evangelicalism.
 
  Similarly, recalling the early years of my own discipleship in the 1960’s, emphasis was placed upon an integrated life of faith-commitment and praxis. If the teaching sometimes tended to the legalistic, the need to relate faith and practice was self-evident.
 
  However, pastoral encounters over recent years have suggested that a major sea-change has taken place. Today emphasis no longer lies upon objective truth but subjective experience. Thus, recent discussions on a church merger in which I was involved were dominated by discussions of worship preferences, little or nothing about theological truth. A nodding acquiescence to doctrinal standards is substantially side-lined in the pursuit of ‘personal truth’ recognized by its meeting self-determined goals of self-esteem and self-fulfilment.
 
  Equally, there is an increasing failure to relate faith and conduct. ‘Baby-boomers’ like myself may have been birthed into a spirituality which emphasized ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ and failed to major on the dyiiamics of spiritual renewal. Nevertheless, such reflected the laudable aim to conform to what was believed to be a biblical lifestyle. Today not only has that legalism collapsed but, all too often, a Christian lifestyle has largely disappeared.
 
  It is, of course, easy for ‘baby-boomers’ to be strong on condemnation in such circumstances. However, perhaps we need to step back and seek to diagnose this situation: an analysis which may offer insight into a more effective and pro-active response.
 
  In fact the above description is symptomatic of the major move in the western world from modernism to postmodernism. Modernism believed in both truth and integration (even if the many different versions cast a signal suspicion over such claims). Evangelicalism reflected this. Objective truth was accessible through the use of appropriate biblical tools which provided access to objective truth: truth which was to be applied to life.
 
  With postmodernism, however, these convictions have collapsed into a subjective morass. In the now famous words of Jean-Francois Lyotard postmodernism has an ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’. Thus Truth has been replaced by truth. Further, metanarratives have been seen as attempts at power-legitmation, determined by various faith-communities (within which alone truth seems self-evident) and meaning viewed as endlessly deferred. In the absence of truth, image has become everything (just watch the current crop of TV adverts) and the human desire for rootedness determined by embracing current sub-cultural fashions. Moreover, life has become characterized by fragmentation: discrete ‘virtual’ realities in which the possibility of integration has been abandoned. In the face of such sweeping cultural change and an increasingly biblically illiterate church (in part the encouraging result of effective evangelism among unchurched young people) it is not too surprising that we face the contemporary problems noted above. Perhaps, we should be more sympathetic than condemnatory in the way we respond.
 
  But how can this situation be creatively countered? A comprehensive answer cannot be developed here. However, it will not be, for example, by reaffirming the cliches of modernist evangelicalism. Such no longer ‘resonate’. Thus, it will not be by bald affirmations of truth. Such claims today are met with profound suspicion. We need, therefore, as never before, to live the truth and offer a reality that challenges the ‘virtual’ realities on offer and awakens a recognition of a profounder truth. Similarly, in a world which finds its security in the relational and the felt, it is vital that caring relationships are established with those outside the church and characterize those within it. Equally, evangelism and proclamation is going to need to commence with meeting people where they are. I have, for example, found it necessary to change my teaching-style. The discursive theological and exegetical discussions of my early ministry have been increasingly replaced by interactive studies and by commencing my exposition by emphasizing the importance of a text to the experience of the listener. This is then undergirded by an appeal to truth. Only thus are we likely to win a hearing for the truth. Also, in ‘worship’ it is important to lead people to a sense of divine transcendence but this will often need to be accomplished through creating a feeling of corporate intimacy.
 
  Such developments will need to be re-enforced by a thorough-going critique of postmoderuism. It is encouraging to note that such are increasingly available. However, I have deliberately placed this after the previous discussion. My experience is that philosophical critique is often seen as irrelevant in and of itself… the pursuit of truth has, after all, been deemed impossible. Thus, it is only within the context of what has already been suggested that such a voice is likely to be heard.
 
  Thus, we face a major challenge. It is easy to criticize. But perhaps the problems of the past are, in part, the consequence of our failure to be ‘church’ and offer and attractive model of holiness. Certainly, the contemporary challenge demands that we ourselves model a winsome, involved Christianity ready to ‘be’ the truth amid a confused and troubled generation.

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