A Postmodern Unity
“That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” John 17:21a
Jesus’ vision for the church is unity. But as one looks out onto the present landscape of Christianity, one sees a patchwork of competing claims and ideologies: different factions and groups that all claim to embody Christ in this world (and some claim to be exclusive in doing so). How far have we come from our Author’s vision!
These divisions have been caused by modernist epistemologies, or modern understandings of truth. These truth claims are the Enlightenment-era search for unquestionable, objective truth claims. But in the present era, there is a shift away from the tenets of modernism towards post-modern epistemology. I will hereafter define postmodernist as the recognition that the very categories and names that one gives things can limit what one can know. Or to put it a different way, postmodernism is a recognition of one’s own subjective view on truth and reality.
Most Christians vociferously challenge post-modernism (and most of the time rightly so1) but what some have failed to realize is that postmodernity is not entirely wrong. Modernism’s totalitarian and absolutist notions of what consists of truth have led to grave errors in modernist system: world wars, genocides, imperialism to name but a few. And in these things postmodernism astutely objects to modernist claims. However, in critiquing modernity, postmodernity has sometimes overstepped its bounds and plunged into the tricky waters of relativism.2
That being said, postmodernity has not yet fully taken hold of our society. We live in a time of limbo where modern institutions and norms abound but are being pushed back by postmodern claims.3 Not one system of truth has full control of our society. Now many Christians fail to see the advent of postmodernism as a gift from God: the fields are ripe for the harvest. As the Body of Christ we have the advantageous perspective of joining in with postmodernity in its critiques of the modern system, but we sit at a far enough perch where we can in turn critique postmodernism when it oversteps its bounds. Human knowledge and discourse are up for renegotiation and we have an obligation to step into this discussion to redeem these philosophies by the power of the Holy Spirit and in accordance with the Word of God.
In theology, adapting modernism to doctrine has taken the shape of a systematic study of scriptural truths. We take doctrines and we look at them throughout the whole of the Bible to see what God’s word has to say on that specific issue. I want to note that this is not wrong in and of itself. But what has happened more often than it should is that we have exalted these doctrines to the same status as the Bible itself. We all too often find churches who call themselves “Bible-believing churches” when what they actually mean is a church that believes in its own certain set of doctrines that they claim is based on the Word of God. We ask our own questions of the text and seek answers that it is not actually giving.
This systematic and truly totalitarian view on how Christians do theology has been the cause of much of the Church’s disunity. I will elaborate in two ways. First, the Bible was written in a particular context and tradition so the very truths that it states are phrased likewise. The “literalist” tradition of biblical understanding is entirely wrong and untenable for it brings its own presuppositions to the Biblical text, presuppositions that the Bible does not address in that way at all.4 As different people come from different socio-historical contexts they would necessarily come to different understandings over what the Bible says.5 Secondly, modernism has hurt the Church by producing an overconfident attitude towards particular truth claims. If Christians believe their particular concept of Biblical truth to be universally applicable in the very manner they present them, they ignore the fact that their brothers may not necessarily perceive the categories used and doctrines articulated in the same way due to a different socio historical context shaping their views. Therefore Christians holding fast to their particular interpretation and expression of doctrines can easily be overly demanding and inconsiderate of their brother’s context. The way Christians frame doctrine and truth may be good for one context but may be completely irrelevant for our brothers’. Furthermore, due to contextual limitations Christians may fail to see how the Bible speaks to particular realities of which they are completely unaware.6
God primarily relates to humans personally, not propositionally. What I mean is that the way we experience God is not as a compendium of metaphysical laws but as a Being whom we know. He has communicated to us through a narrative. To take an anecdote from Nick Nowalk,7 if I were to describe my brother to you as friendly, kind, gentle and loving, you would have an idea of what he were like, but it is only when I tell you stories about my brother that you will more fully feel as if you know him. So it is with God. He has revealed himself through stories, the Scriptures, and ultimately through the person of Jesus Christ. Now the thing about relationships is that one’s own particularities and context bring out different aspects and qualities of another person. And so as one relates to God, one’s experience of God is going to be different than someone else’s experience. It is not that of two people who describe their experience with God slightly differently, one must be in error. Rather, the nature of one’s experience with God will be different. But the great majesty of God is shown that in each individual relating to the person of Jesus Christ we gain a more comprehensive understanding of God. God is known to some extent individually but the Body of Christ is not one person, it is the Church; Christ is made manifest and truly known only in community.
In conclusion, as the Christian community encounters postmodernism it has an opportunity that it should not squander, an opportunity to engage the culture from a new perspective but also an opportunity to move past previous disputes and towards a regained and renewed unity in Christ. He should be shown in the Church’s love for other Christians and for the world. Christians should be more willing to discard a literalist hermeneutic imbued with modernist overconfidence and instead embrace a hermeneutic of humility in which Christians recognize our subjectivity and defer to Christ as the Word become flesh: the embodiment of objective Truth.
David Paiva ’16 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House and a staff writer for the Ichthus.
1 Postmodernism’s biggest fault is that it is often used to defend relativism—the idea that truth exists only in subjective experience. I argue that each person’s understanding of truth is shaped by their objective experience. See Carson, D. A. The Intolerance of Tolerance. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2012.
2 See footnote 1
3 A quick example from moral philosophy by philosopher Alastair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue where he postulates that we still talk of morality in terms of absolutes, “you should do this or you shouldn’t do this.” But what we actually mean is a more relativistic notion of “I don’t think you should do this.”
4 An example of this is the head covering passage in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 where most Christians would agree that this imperative is not applicable to our present context.
5 An example for this one would be Calvinist versus Arminian debate on the question of the Biblical usage of pre-destination and election.
6 Liberation theology, a topic which I will defer for a future article, deals with how the liberating aspects of Christ’s work on the cross applies to certain experiences which North American white Christianity does not have with the ability to understand because they have by in large not been oppressed and so cannot understand liberation.
7 My friend and teacher Nick Nowalk, who is also writing for this issue of the Ichthus.
Alastair MacIntyre, church, history, liberation theology, literature, love, philosophy, postmodernism, relativism, theology, truth