Over the last week, I’ve encountered the idea - or rather, an idea - of postmodernism in a Christian context. And on both occasions I’ve thought, “Hmm, I’m really not sure that’s how I understand postmodernism.” One reference came in church, when my vicar took the defining feature of postmodernism to be the belief that there is no truth (something I’ve heard him to more than once). And one came in this article on Piety and Desire, which is about how unbelief is less of an enemy to piety than a weak belief that does not interfere with personal desires:
“This disenchanting work on behalf of sovereign desire, a work that defines postmodern culture as postmodern, is an enemy of piety….”
Musing on this, I decided to ask the people who follow me on twitter what they think defines postmodernism, because they represent a pretty broad swathe of opinion.
To me, this matters, because I like postmodernism - I find it helpful in thinking about the way the world, and I tend to identify my thinking as postmodern in its tendencies, despite my occasional longings for the simplicity of modernism and empiricism. And because I don’t believe that that position precludes being a Christian, precludes thinking that desires aren’t necessarily sovereign, or precludes believing in the existence of truth. So there's a personal thing, you know - don't do a thing that shames people who tend towards postmodernism, church. I already have enough baggage.
But there's also a non-personal thing.
For me the essence of postmodernism (aside from it not being modernism, thanks OED) is about subjectivity of perspective and thus the practical-impossibility of accessing objective truth - which is not the same thing as saying objective truth does not exist. Postmodernism is helpful because it says humans aren’t gods, they’re not omniscient, and that things are complex and messy, and sometimes contradictory. It encourages us to question and to doubt - which leaves a door open for change and newness. A belief in absolute truth is possible, and desire can be sacrificed (which is different to it being repressed), but they have to be chosen - and in the case of truth, the chance that you might be wrong accepted.
This might not be a simple definition, but I think it explains why I think postmodernism is a much better representation of the real world than modernism - and by allowing for a plurality of voices, it has the potential to make the church feel more open and accessible to people who aren't familiar with Christianity.
I was listening to James K. Smith giving a lecture at Theos a couple of weeks ago, where he was arguing in favour of an understanding of the secular age as one not of unbelief, but of believing differently - where the discourse about God and faith has fractured and diversified, leaving people finding their way through it in search of the meaning of life. Yes, it makes holding onto faith harder, makes the church feel more fragile at times, but it means it matters more to the people who take it up and hold onto it, while being challenged can make us into better, more considered and considerate, witnesses.
Smith talked about the way that a lack of doubt can lead to insularity – and that this is a challenge for the church. I think it might go better for the church, if, rather than retreating into a need for simplicity and clarity, we became more comfortable with doubt.
Acknowledging that holding on to faith is hard not just in the face of much of the rest or the world, but often despite ourselves, might help us seem more available to people outside the church, who are seeking something bigger than them. It's not that we need to abandon a belief in truth, or that doctrine has to change – but we need to acknowledge that approaching this kind of eternal truth is a journey from darkness towards a light that we know we're not going to be able to absolutely prove is true until after the end.
And for all I'm often an ideas-person, I really liked Smith's suggestion that doctrines and ideas might need to take an initial step back to incarnation - to being with people - as the church shows the seekers what it looks like to live the Christian faith: to be an option that people can imagine choosing.
The more we dismiss the tools that allow us to understand our world with subtlety and complexity, the harder we make it for a lot of people to imagine that Christianity has meaning to offer.