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:
People today often identify themselves as spiritual but not religious.
Of course much can be said of the actual definitions of being ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’, but in general, people take that by being spiritual but not religious means they do not need to associate themselves with an organised religious body. My reading of various sources seem to cause me to conclude that this is a necessary reaction towards the religious institution or organised religion in the postmodern age, by people who reject the institution due to their ‘modern’ outlook and modus operandi.
Like many others, I have become convicted that people who are having a low view on the institution which we call the church are blinded by their postmodern sentiment. This is due to a lot of factors apart from the ‘Mcdonaldisation‘ of the church. One of them is a diminished ecclesiology.
Schmidt helpfully wrote about this in his post, ‘Spiritual AND Religious? Yes! – Reason #1 why we can be both spiritual and religious: Church is not just a gathering of like-minded people.’ An excerpt from the post:
If churches were simply a matter of sitting alongside like-minded people who share similar spiritual commitments, I can think of easier ways to get that done. One way that religious people try to do it is by handpicking the like-minded people with whom they spend their time and practice their religion.
That option isn’t open to us and, if it was clearer to the world around us that we can’t do that, it might be easier to connect the spiritual and religious dots.
I think Schmidt has a point. Coming from a purely enlightenment point of view, where humanity takes the centre stage, church is nothing more but a gathering of men and women. However not only this view is relatively new, it fails to capture the essence of what a church is. Schmidt mentioned Paul and his teaching about church being the body of Christ, and he summarised it into three points:
- The church is the instrument of salvation.
- It is part and parcel of the spiritual destiny of its members.
- And it is an inseparable part of the individual’s experience of God.
Combine the above with Newbigin’s missional ecclesiology where he argued that the church’s existence is for mission, I think we have a much better definition of what the church is. In other words, no Christian can be spiritual but not religious if he or she is definitely a part of Christ’s body, saved to belong to it and is destined to live in love with the other parts of the body.
Yet the question remains, that how many of us do experience such church? Or all we see is an institution which, as my earlier post suggested, is seriously flawed in its ability to make spiritual seekers feel at home? As much as people wants to be considered as both spiritual and religious, I think they will find it hard – not because of the absence of the kind of church which is depicted in the Bible and mentioned by Schmidt, but because it might not be easy for them to find one which they can connect to meaningfully!
My previous review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices highlighted the need for works like this to be aware of the cultural context of the historical period involved before making any judgement. One of the mistakes in which ‘Pagan Christianity’ made is to draw conclusion on the effect of the revivalist movement in the 18-19th century America without providing a balanced view. Viola mentioned in ‘Pagan Christianity’ that ‘Frontier-revivalist’ movement has contributed to the emergence and acceptance of individualism within the church. In his own words, ‘the goal of the Frontier-Revivalists was to bring individual sinners to an individual decision for an individualistic faith. As a result, the goal of the early church – the mutual edification and every-member functioning to corporately manifest Jesus Christ before principalities and powers – was altogether lost.’
Firstly, I am not sure if the early church has a single goal of mutual edification, or in fact there is more to a church than merely corporately manifesting Christ before principalities and powers. Secondly, it was the Reformation and then the emergence of Enlightenment and America Independence which set cultural context in which these revivals occurred. The churches in America by the time of Finney were under tremendous challenge from various ‘secular forces’, namely Enlightenment philosophies (some of which later were grouped and generalised as secularism) and were losing their members. Influenced by the need to find an identity after the American Independence, believers embraced the new American ‘popular democracy’, fuelled by an Enlightenment sentiment of appeals to self-evident truths, inalienable rights, and equal creation of all.1 If there were ‘principalities’, they were colonists, who were no more. Meanwhile, they have already accepted the Reformation belief which call each individual to come to salvation by personal faith. The very reason revivalism thrived during that period of time is due to its ability to relate to the people at that time. Finney’s methodology, for example, is the very language that Enlightenment thoughts speak – mechanistic, purposeful and causal. If there were laws governing the physical world, as demonstrated by Newton, there will be ways which governs the making of revival. As much as the means of revivalism – or man-made methods used to create revivals – is questionable, its motive, and subsequently success in engaging a whole generation of Americans to the matters of faith, should not be overlooked. Instead of seeing the revivalist’s method as overwhelmingly pagan, perhaps we could also see it as a form of contextualisation suited for the ‘mission field’ of a new Enlightenment-infested, individualistic age. 1. Noll, M.A. (1992) A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 148.