Christianity in the Post-Modern Era
by Keith P. Dyrud
Without ever thinking about it, I would have estimated the "modern era" began sometime in the last century, or maybe with the invention of the automobile. So as a history student, I was shocked to learn that the "modern era" began back in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, maybe with the Reformation or maybe with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. With that time frame for "modernism," it is understandable that terminologists have run out of terminology for the contemporary era. So I guess, "post-modern" is the best term for the world of the late twentieth century.
These eras are identified by prevailing "world views." The medieval world view placed the Earth in the center of the universe and included a specific location for heaven and hell. The modern world view is essentially scientific. The Enlightenment codified that world view, and that codification was only slightly modified by Einstein. The Enlightenment knew there was a Reality, with a capital "R," knew that reality was discoverable, and declared that discoverable natural law regulated that Reality. Einstein removed some of the certainty from that reality. He suggested that humans had only indirect knowledge of that reality (reality for him had a small "r"), and(relative)perspective was an important element in describing that reality.
The post-modern world view is incapable of discovering reality directly, or indirectly. Some post-modernists will insist that there is a reality but humans are incapable of finding it, and other post-modernists will argue that there is no external reality. The "external" is in reference to the human brain (mind?). Both will agree that"reality" as humans know it is a construction of the thinking mechanism.
Theologian, Joseph Hallman, at the University of St. Thomas suggests that one of the implications of this post-modern world is the death of philosophy. He says,"philosophy as we have known it is dead except, perhaps, as a historical study." Ironically, theology is not dead. A hundred years ago, many philosophers would have argued that theology was dead.
Whatever your evaluation of this post-modern world view, it does have some value in analyzing Christianity. Throughout the centuries, Christian thinkers have argued that Christianity is timeless. It is as applicable today as it was in the first and thirteenth centuries. If that is true, Christianity can flourish in the post-modern world. Without extensive proofs, I would like to examine some of the implications of post-modern thought.
Ideology is dead. All ideologies claim to have discovered reality. Ideology claims that its principles explain reality. If humans accept an ideological explanation and use it as a guide for their lives, then they believe they can, in some measure, control their destinies. Understanding the principles governing reality and acting in harmony with those principles are fundamental to the nature of an ideology. Science, Marxism, the Enlightenment, philosophical systems, and many Christian theologies should properly be called ideologies.
Post-modernism identifies ideologies and exposes them for what they are, philosophical systems based on a transient world view. Post-modernism can be an excellent tool to analyze Christianity. It can separate the ideology from that which is timeless. For those whom Christianity is an ideology, based on a view of reality founded on a transient world view, post-modernism is an enemy to be ignored or condemned. (Ironically, the ideological versions of Christianity are not alone in condemning post-modernism. For several years, The Humanist has carried articles condemning post-modernism. Apparently "humanism" recognizes that it is an ideology and vulnerable to the scalpel of post-modernism.)
The post-modernist can usefully examine Christian theology and doctrine (or more accurately, interpretations of doctrine) that are based on ideology. The theology can be rewritten and the doctrine reinterpreted so that only the timeless elements of Christianity are retained as its "fundamentals." I was always taught that doctrine was a guide for faith and life. I have reexamined that statement and concluded that my concept of "faith" is neither volitional nor volatile. It is not something that I can change nor is it changeable. That concept seems to be good Lutheran theology but, alas, Lutherans also suggest that doctrine is a guide for "faith."
I will agree with the latter part of that statement: Doctrine is a guide for life, or more specifically, ones behavior in life. At that point, Christianity can escape the post-modernist scalpel. Everyone has a guide for their behavior. Everyone has some sort of goal for their lives. Sometimes the guide is the unquestioned cultural norms. Sometimes that guide is cunningly engineered self-interest. The guiding force of Christianity should be different from both of those impulses. In fact the theological statement, "crucifying the flesh daily" should be interpreted as consciously resisting those guiding impulses.
As I survey the Gospels, I realize that Jesus gave explicit guidelines for separating the temporal from the timeless. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus described the final judgment. He used the world view of his day when he indicated that the righteous should "take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." (34, New International Version) The cursed will be sent "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." Those destinies are understandable within a specific world view, but Jesus did not focus on those destinies. Jesus focused on the behavior in this life that determined the destiny.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty
and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited
me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you
looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (35-36)
Of course Jesus explained: "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (40)
In this case, Jesus did not argue with the world view. He simply changed the focus of attention away from the temporal world view and focused on the timeless message. The message is clear, Christians are to treat fellow human beings as if they are Jesus.
In Matthew 12, Mark 2, and Luke 6 the evangelists report Jesus' response to the religious ideology of the day. In these passages, his followers were violating the current interpretation of the doctrine concerning activity on the Sabbath. Among other things, Jesus' disciples were walking through grain fields stripping off some grain and eating it. The Pharisees condemned him, not because his disciples were stealing grain, but because they were harvesting it on the Sabbath. Jesus responded by directly attacking and condemning the foundation of their religious ideology. He completely reversed their law. He said: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27)
Again Jesus made the central message of Christianity explicit: Christianity is concerned for humans often at the expense of ideology. These attacks on religious ideology did not go unchallenged by the religious leaders, however. They did what religious leaders have done for centuries: "Then the pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians [government officials] how they might kill Jesus." (Mark 3:6)
My third favorite example of Jesus' teaching, unfortunately does not bear the textual critics' imprimatur of authenticity. The first eleven verses of John 8 are not in"The earliest and most reliable manuscripts." (NIV) In this case Jesus is challenged to support or condemn social custom. The Pharisees placed a woman before Jesus saying:"Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" (4-5) Jesus responded with the famous quote: "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."(7) In this case Jesus did not directly condemn the ultimate double standard or the inhuman social custom, but he turned the underlying rationale for the custom, sinning, against everybody. Rather than condemn the social custom, he nullified it by placing every one in the same culturally understood category, as sinners.
I find Jesus' message and methodology in these three examples to be timeless.
1. The Christian message must be framed in the contemporary world view. In the ancient, medieval, modern, and post-modern world, the timeless central truths should be presented in such a manner that they will be understood. That is what Jesus did in"The Final Judgment."
2. When a Christian is confronted with an ideology, religious or secular, that dehumanizes people, the ideology must be attacked directly. That is what Jesus did in the Sabbath episodes: ideology must conform to human needs. Human beings must not be molded to conform to ideology. Jesus' attack on ideology convinced those with power that they must get rid of him. Ideology is the most powerful enemy of the timeless message of Christianity, and it is placed in the hands of the most powerful people. Bearers of the Christian message risk becoming victims of the ideologists.
3. Finally, Christian messengers may loose their effectiveness if they directly attack broadly based social customs. It is better to encourage "the people" to look at the situation in an other way. Perhaps there is a humane social custom that can be used to counter the inhumane custom. That was the message of the stoning incident.
Contemporary Christian leaders should understand the basic principles Jesus gave us. They should recognize the temporal nature of world views, they should be willing to accept the consequences of challenging ideology, especially religious ideology, and they should be ever sensitive to cruel social customs so that they can develop a strategy to defuse them. And finally,they should focus their attention on the timeless message of Christianity; all humans should be treated as if they are Jesus.
Christian theology can be consistent with post-modernism if it focuses on the message that provides guidance for living. Theology may also have a negative role that can be clarified by post-modern analysis. Missouri Lutherans are fond of talking about"Law and Gospel." Law generally means,"thou shalt NOT. . . ." It is entirely possible that the "thou shalt not"can also survive. In the light of post-modern analysis, theologians can also expose the false foundations for Christianity. For example, "fear of hell"and "promise of heaven" has always struck me as being an odd foundation for Christian living. Yet it is one of the most commonly used tools for coercing someoneto adopt the ideology of Christianity. Perhaps post-modern theologians can proclaim"thou shalt NOT use terror and self interest to trigger the faith mechanism (a very cynical definition of faith) as the foundation for acceptance of Christianity."
Post-modern theologians can also expose the ideological foundations
for "Christian crusades." Those Christian crusades always
have enemies and those enemies are always represented by real human
beings. In the name of Christ, those real human beings are often
killed or ostracized. We are familiar with the victims of the crusades
of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. We are also familiar with
the more recent"Christian anti-communist" crusade that
conned Christians into supporting the Viet Nam war. Christians
are now being asked to participate in a Christian anti-homosexual
crusade. Perhaps there will be many other "Christian anti-.
. . crusades." Post-modern theologians can very usefully expose
those crusades as based on ideological Christianity not timeless
The following essay was Professor Hallman's "extemporaneous" response to the initial draft of my essay. The miracles of modern technology make these electronic exchanges possible while sitting by my desk, either at home or in my office.
#17 12-JUL-1993 10:17:58.54 MAIL
Subj:RE: Provocative Essay
I think your essay is quite provocative indeed! You are a closet theologian as well as a Roman Catholic. Many of your thoughts struck home with me. As I see it you are trying to 'recover'some notion of Christian faith which escapes the anti-foundationalism of post-modernism.
You are correct in how you see the post-modernist program. I would add the basic humanitarianism which is at stake. You do this but I would emphasize it even more. At the root of every ideology is persecution - identifying the non-believer and scapegoating him/her to form a tight-knit community. Rene Girard is terrific in his analysis of this. See for instance his books The Scapegoat which I am using next semester; and Job The Victim of his People.
He has written many other books as well and is himself a very devoted Christian. He argues that the bible partially and Jesus fully exposes the scapegoating which is part of all ancient religion and modern ideologies of the right or left. Jesus proclaims himself to be innocent, yet it seemed necessary "that one man die" for the people. I saw the most ruthless instance of this scapegoating in the Duff affair. I saw its implications and workings first hand. There is something basically wrong with the formation of most communities, perhaps all communities. We need to persecute to belong. Post-modernism and decent religion should aim to reveal our own scapegoating tendencies to ourselves so that we can begin to act humanely toward the other, i.e., that other whom we feel we must exclude. I think the best lesson is what I call (I am still searching for a word for this) parallelism, or similarity: when you confront an alien other that you feel you must exclude, you discover that he or they are just like you! This destroys the mechanism and I believe that this is the foundation of true Christianity.
As far as the truth-value of religion is concerned, it has none on the absolute level. Traditions are vast arrays of symbols, doctrines, liturgies, etc. reaching out for the beyond. But to participate is a risk on several levels. Once I talked about evil to a very bright group of students at a Torah/Talmud school. They asked: in the light of the evils committed by members of your faith, how can you continue to practice it, teach it, hand it on? I answered that up to that point at least, I think the good done outweighs the evil, and gave several historical examples. But if I come to the point of reversing that judgment, I certainly cannot continue to practice as I have in the past. I would leave with great regret, like a divorce, but I certainly, I hope, would have the courage to leave. Hence good religion, good Christianity promotes the humane treatment, the love of the other who seems like an enemy. Good religion questions a foreign policy which constantly must find new enemies; good religion questions itself when it sees within its own membership the persecuting mechanisms which Christianity condemns.
As you can see you got me going! I hope we can have a seminar soon. There is talk here of putting one together.