There is a postmodern theology. Although the term ‘postmodern’ might be overused, it still mean something. Modernity has passed. Not all elements of modernism has left us, just as not all of Medieval left Enlightenment Europe, or tribal/traditional culture left the developed Asian countries of today. Yet, postmodernity has arrived. Whenever the overarching, over-confident meta-narrative of the Enlightenment project is in doubt, modernism fades and postmodernity arises. It is in politics, society and arts. There is a certain ‘postmodern’ culture which defines its own meanings and symbols. The very reactions towards the failed Enlightenment confidence, coupled with a world dominated by free-market capitalism, allows an ultra utilitarianistic and narcissistic culture to emerge. This culture only sees individuals. Blinded to the need to submit to governments and authorities, partly due to market forces and self-interest, this generation of postmoderns are also pragmatic – ”meaning’ means very little to them apart from what meant to be of their own interest. There is no need for a universal truth or value.
How does this affect theology in the 21st century? It is certain that systematic theology will suffer (it has) as it is suited more for a modernist mindset than a postmodern one. Yet the more crucial question is how can we theologise if the modern category is faulty? This is not new. The discovery of various cultures worldwide and the missionary encounter with them have confirmed that the Western categories or methods of theologising is limited. Western Christianity, it was discovered, was modernist, especially when compared to the various contextual theologies in the Third World.
Mission theology, informed by the Liberation Theology and other contextual theologies, should take prominent role in theologising in the 21st century. If the modern project was Western, postmoderns represent a multitude of cultures and peoples. If theology was at a time (from Enlightenment to the 20th century), a Western and systematic exercise, today it shall be a ‘postmodern’ exercise for Global Christianity. Thus, mission theologians equipped with the skills of contextualisation and training in classical theology, history, biblical studies and practical ministries, must set the pace for this age. To the postmodern, a proper exegesis of a biblical text means very little unless it means something to him or her. An all encompassing, structural, and theoretical, and authoritative tone suited to the big meta-narrative claim has given way to the cry for meaning of the particulars and individuals. It will take a missionary of the 21st century whom can decipher cultures to communicate with them. Just as the residues of modernity still linger around, and their values not to be undermined, a postmodern way of doing theology does not deny the classical and modern ways of doing theology. Yet it takes the bull by its horns by asking relevant questions about this age, while reinventing and evolving itself to be relevant to the present era.
p.s. There is no denial of a core – or a constant in context of Christianity. Just how this core can be discovered and discerned is a continuous debate. Suggested readings:
The April version of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research has a number of interesting articles. Articles are available for free at the website after your subscribe to its email newsletter. Among articles which are relevant to faith, culture and mission in the postmodern context are:
In his introduction:
Several recent studies have focused on emerging adults in the United States, considering the spiritual and religious lives of high school teens (ages 14–18) or of twenty-somethings (ages 19–29). Two works helpfully draw out the implications of this research for the spiritual formation of high schoolers and of twenty-somethings, but so far little attention has been given to the implications this research holds for mission. It is evident that shifts in the emerging generation (especially twenty-somethings) will have profound consequences for the recruitment, formation, training, deployment, and retention of the next generation of missionaries and thus for the shape and sustainability of mission itself, as this generation will practice it. What do we know about emerging adults, and what are the implications for the future of global mission?
I start by exploring two broad interpretive ideas that enlarge our understanding of the spiritual lives of today’s emerging adults. Then I examine more closely the cultural and social forces that have shaped the spiritual and religious trajectories of teens and twenty-somethings. Finally, I draw out implications for cross-cultural mission in the twenty-first century.
2. “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct”: Thinking Back and Looking Ahead by Indunil J. Kodithuwakku K.
Though it may not be the chief purpose of the author, this article depicts the typical postmodern phenomenon of the increase of sub-cultural groupings manifested in the form of various religious entities struggling to find an identity in the postmodern multi-religious and pluralist context. The author highlights the need for proper Christian witness in the midst of religious tension.
3. Evangelization and the Tenor of Vatican II: A Review Essay by Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder
This is a book review for Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization by Ralph Martin
Excerpt of the review:
‘The focus of this book is an investigation as to why contemporary Catholics, despite encouragement from Vatican II and from Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, evidence a certain hesitation or lack of enthusiasm for evangelization and ad gentes missionary work. Martin argues that such evangelical lethargy is due to two causes. The first is a lack of attention to the teaching of the Council on the urgent necessity of mission, despite its teaching “about the possibility of salvation outside the visible bounds of the Church, or of Christianity” (6). The second is a “culture of universalism” or “practical universalism” in Catholicism that presumes the salvation of all humanity (196).’
I wrote about the challenge of the church in the postmodern age. One of the key changes in the postmodern age is the increase of interest in spirituality and the reluctance to be limited by organised religion.
Other reports have confirmed this:
Over one-third of churchgoers attend services in more than one church. One in four attends services in different faiths, according to another Pew survey. More than one in five Christians believe in astrology, reincarnation, and spiritual energy in trees and nature. Seventeen percent believe in in the “evil eye” (casting curses on others). Over the last twenty years, rising numbers of Americans say they have felt like they were in touch with someone who was dead, according to Gallup data discussed in the Pew report. A rising number also say that they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost.
By referring the phenomena above as the Americans’ eclectic taste for spirituality, it is asked if ‘rising eclecticism’ could ‘erode the religious foundation of the church’. This is especially pressing considering the context of the U.S., where there is a ‘mix of peoples and beliefs’. The bottom line, is whether organized religion able to ‘co-exist with the mix-and-match tendencies of the American people.’
I believe the reason people are going to more than one churches is due to their consumerist habit. They are used to exercise their right to choose. Their move is also often utilitarian in nature, picking whatever that suits their needs at various places. They downside of this is the lack of commitment and discipleship. The quality of fellowship and sense of belonging in a community will then be eroded. So to a certain extent, the assembly – the gathering or the church – is eroded.
Of course the church, as an organisation, needs to take a hard look at herself. Again I believe the church, especially the evangelical churches are still largely too ‘modern’, hence losing touch with the postmodern people of today.
So further questions remain – ‘how can the church reach out to those who are eclectic?’ In what way can we engage with them? Can we still expect them to find their answers in the ‘modern’ church? We may think that our churches do have the answers but can we expect them to be responsive to the ‘modern’ way of doing church or ‘teaching’? How would the church deal with a member who believes in astrology? Do we attend to her needs, form a genuine relationship and dialogue with her or do we just teach her and command her to stop? There is no clear answer as each case is unique, but the question remains – as the church, how do we surf and soar in this wave of increased interest of spirituality?
An Atheist Church – Atheistic Culture Coming of Age
I heard about this new Atheist Church in Britain a few days ago and wondered how would a Christian feel when attending the assembly. My questions are answered by this post, which is an actual account of a person experiencing it on one Sunday.
There are two things mentioned in the post which strike me. First, the talk by a physicist, which reminds me of how my little venture into science years ago actually brought me closer to God. So if the report of the above blog post is accurate, the talk by the atheist church has strengthened my faith for God! This brings us to further questions. Why is it, that I am not experiencing such awe when listening to an ordinary preaching in an ordinary Christian church? I suspect this is due to the way I am wired. I think I am scientific in my thinking, and I am naturally a skeptic So the scientific method of inquiry suits me. However this method is normally not employed in the Christian church. This in turns, also shows how narrow a Christian experience can be at this age. A typical evangelical, for example, has been accustomed to only a certain ways of thinking. A book which I reviewed, ‘Pagan Christianity’ has much to say about how this come by. Again a study into how modern evangelicalism come into being will also help. With the understanding that the way we worship can actually be richer than what we have experienced so far, the church will be able to look into various ways to redeem the meaning of a Christian gathering and the various creative ways we could worship the Creator.
The other thing which strikes me is how far a certain atheist culture has formed. The video above specifically mentions the cross – the symbol of Christianity, which in the atheist church can only be observed at the first aid box. (Of course the very reason why the cross ended up at the first aid box will again bring us to its Christian root) But one could only be sensitive (read ‘hostile’) to another symbol when one feels that his culture is under threat. It is common knowledge that atheism has been active in Britain in recent years, and as some atheists imply, the movement has become a religion itself. Apparently an atheist wrote to the leader of the atheist church, relating their assembly in a church is akin to Jews in the concentration camp! Thus, this is a clear statement, that here we have a meta-narrative, a set of symbols (or lack of it), a certain ritual and worldview – all summing up to form an emerging (or rather, to some, already matured) culture. So when an assembly like this takes place, it shows how a certain philosophy has finally move out of the arena of ‘thinking’, into the arena of ‘being’ and ‘doing’, and ‘doing it together’. The ‘atheistic culture’ has come of age.
I have read a number of Brian McLaren’s works in the past as I did my postgraduate dissertation which includes a research on how Emerging Churches implement the idea of inculturation (interaction between faith and culture).
Brian McLaren has been vocal on the need to find new ways for Christians to relate to people from other religions. He has been critical towards the way Christians behave and how the somewhat unnecessary ‘fusion’ of the cultural elements into Christianity has caused problems. By looking back, he sees Christians had been time and again, causing various tensions with others due to their lack of judgement – which in turn was due to an uncritical mix of political and social intentions and motives with a Christian outfit. In short, if anyone is to take the blame for religious hostility, Christians should have a hard look at themselves, especially as they claim to live for and according to Jesus.
In this video he highlights the need for Christians to begin thinking about conversing with others with a new attitude. Instead of finding or defining our identity via looking at the differences we have with others, he proposes for us to first be critical to ourselves. He begins, by referring to history, as mentioned earlier.
McLaren then refers to how various doctrines have been used as ‘weapons of hostility’ towards others. The Doctrine of Creation for example, is often used to attack others. The same applied to the Doctrine of Original Sin and the Doctrine of Election, which he sees is often used to show ‘who’s good guy and who is not’. McLaren wonders what if we use them differently – not to show that are we special, nor to exert supremacy?
Next, McLaren refers to the way which the West seems to side the Israelites over the Palestinians, and questions if Christians should be more hospitable. To illustrate, he mentions the plight of some of the non-Christians whom have Christian neighbours who never seems to enjoy them – the only interest they have is to convert them, making them feel like being persuaded to be the down-line of certain network marketing! He then turns to baptism. Again he sees the tendency of Christians making the ritual a way to alienate Christians from others, forgetting that John the Baptist actually performed this rite outside of the exclusive religious establishment – the temple.
After a brief mention of the Eucharist McLaren proposes that Christians today must work closely with others to face the vast challenges which the whole of humanity is facing – environment, political and social problems, etc. He calls this the Missional Challenge. According to him, due to the magnitude of the challenge the only chance is for everyone to collaborate and work together, and this includes Christians working with others. McLaren believes that the Holy Spirit works through everyone and every religion. So he has taken a more friendly stance towards the others, in particularly, he mentioned how he speaks kindly about the Muslims, so much so, a Muslim commended that he is ‘saving Muslim’s lives,’ and told him, ‘you are a true Christian.’