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:
There is a post at the Read the Spirit site entitled ‘Rediscover John XXIII, a Pope who stunned the world!‘ Many have thought that the new pope, Francis I, brings a refreshing aura with him into the office. So it would be natural for one to look back curiously for past popes with similar ‘aura of change’. John XXIII was one of them. He was the pope whom brought the Roman Catholic Church and the world a revolutionary change through the initiative of Vatican II.
Excerpt from the above post:
MORE THAN 1 BILLION CATHOLICSaround the world are wondering: Can a new pope revive our deeply troubled Church? Millions of those Catholics also wonder: Is it possible that another pope could “throw open the windows of the Church”? That’s a reference to Pope John XXIII, the pope who stunned the world by opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962—the historic global gathering of Catholic leaders that finally set the Mass in common languages, moved altars forward to make parishioners feel that they were a part of the Mass, changed countless other church structures and, most importantly, ushered in the modern era of interfaith relations.
Also, a book on John XXIII is also introduced in the post. The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church–The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II (Kindle version) costs only $3.99.
Students of mission studies will no doubt remember documents which are the results of the Council. For example, Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes. Through these documents and other efforts, the council set the pace for inculturation of worship to happen in the global church and contextualisation to take place for evangelisation.
And, in his own words,
In these days, which mark the beginning of this Second Vatican Council, it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord’s truth is indeed eternal. Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations. Pope John XXIII: Opening Speech at the Council, October 11, 1962
Engaging yet not compromising. A mission-minded pope indeed.
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!
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?
In an article titled, ‘Crisis of Faith Statement‘ from Christianity Today, the issue of a certain tension between theologians or biblical scholars and the theological institution or bible colleges was highlighted. Apparently some professors or lecturers of certain theological colleges were having some tough times manoeuvring between freedom of academic expression and adhering to the faith statement of the institution they serve. One example is Michael Pahl, whose new book had caused him his job.
After reading Pahl’s basic perspectives on the Genesis Creation account, one could not help but to be more certain that his dismissal is not merely due a disagreement of a certain ‘faith statement’. It is bigger that that. Others have bemoaned over the issue, citing the problems as ‘narrowness defined by institutional power and a quest for absolute conformity on everything.‘ However, it appears to me that there are deeper issues here.
Firstly, there is an intellectual gap between the institution’s decision makers, stakeholders or policy makers and the theologian(s). For example, anyone who has been actively doing serious biblical or theological studies in the past twenty years would find Pahl’s basic perspectives on the creation narration in Genesis agreeable. In particularly, when he mentioned that the Bible was not written to fit into our modern, scientific worldview. This is crucial – one cannot ignore the vast cultural gap between those in the past and us now. Language and literary forms have changed. The biblical writers and us live in very different times and cultures. Furthermore, once the above are acknowledged, it is also clear that in the cause of history, different people (including the Roman Catholics!) have had different ways of interpreting the biblical texts at different stages – mostly influenced if not dictated by the challenges or needs of their times. However, regardless of whether the policy or decision makers are aware of these differences, as long as they do not wish to take into consideration the aspect of cultural difference in the interpretation of the biblical account, there will be a gap. The result – faith is reduced to a statement and all that they will do is to refer to it. Often, such ‘theological position’ is said to be the backbone or core beliefs which determines the identity of the institution. So it is not surprising that when one infringe the ‘identity’ one should be questioned of his loyalty to the institution. This is reasonable and acceptable. So this is not the problem. The problem is, do we notice that there is actually a cultural gap in between and what do we do with it?
Secondly, it seems that the Conservatives are still reacting to the Liberals. Certain Christians are still fighting an old war. Some simply defined Fundamental Christianity as a reaction to Liberal Christianity. If so then both are the products of an age which we now call ‘the modern age’. In the modern age people believe that they can, with their own scientific method, know the truth. This confidence was in turn a result of the Enlightenment, which call humanity to replace reason and their own ability to make life and the world better, and embark on a truth-finding project. Man replaced God as the centre in all areas of life – even in religion! So there emerged the liberals who exercised the very criticism methodology which was employed in science with the Bible – not to help with the interpretation of it per se (that’s exegesis!) but to approach the scriptures with a certain modernist assumptions. Did God create the world in six days? If so what are the evident? How can we trust the source of Genesis? So as the liberals, with, their fondness of reason, asked these questions, others have reacted to it. Fundamental Christians, in their quest to protect the church and the truth rose and defended them against the onslaught of the liberals. They have done so with many means, and theological institutions are among them. And in order to guard their institution against the liberals many of these colleges or universities developed a faith statement which outlines their beliefs, distinguishing themselves from the liberals. This is especially true in the America. If we are careful enough we will also find that the Fundamentalists were also using modernist methods to counter the liberals – logical arguments, apologetics which utilises evidences, etc.
Our interest here is not to comment on the tension between the two camps but to note that as a result of modernism and its reaction from the church, we have institutions which has statements which are fighting an old war and live in an old world with its old culture. As a result, the theologian finds himself or herself having to face not just a set of rules but a certain cultural gap between them and the institution.