Facing up to postmodernism.
Western Christendom is not in a healthy state. Everywhere the world is looking at the churches and assessing how we deal with it’s problems, and especially with the deep division caused by the homosexual debate. The world has largely made up its mind about whether gays are to be accepted in society and in the Western world at least they seem to now have their proper place in society. Homophobia still occurs across all the western countries - but such cases only confirm to the rest of the population that such hatred of gay people is wrong.
Opposition to homosexuality can stem from a variety of causes. Perhaps the most difficult to remove is the way those of the older generation were brought up. Most of us - certainly those over forty, were raised in a society that shunned homosexuality and condemned it. It was also seen, of course, as shameful and dirty. Not only the churches but also schools and individuals - all went along with the general attitude which was one of unreasoning aversion to homosexuals and all things homosexual. At best they were sick, it was thought.
Slowly, over the last decades, that viewpoint has become less and less fashionable. The mental climate in society has changed. Indeed, among the young there has grown up a totally different attitude: there is an acceptance that we are all different and that room must be made for those of a different sexual orientation. Slowly, ‘being gay’ has become not only respectable in the eyes of the young people, but positively desirable. Indeed, you might almost say that for some young people it has become fashionable to be gay. For some it is perhaps another way of differentiating themselves from their parent’s generation.
There are, however, still pockets of strong resistance to the idea that being gay is acceptable. There was a murder in London very recently of a gay man. Then, too, of course there are the Christian churches.
Ah! The churches! Yes, well here we have a problem. It is slowly being turned round, but there is still a hardcore of Christians who believe that being gay is wrong, evil, unnatural, twisted or whatever. I think that is partly a generational thing, and the average age of churchgoers is quite high! Many of the older church members find not only homosexuality but also the whole tenor of modern life to be a burden!
And I know what they mean. To those who can remember way back into the last century, life has changed so very radically that it is understandable that much of the innovation is seen in a negative light.
Crime figures are up - many people are afraid to go on foot in the towns and cities at night time. The television news shows us pictures of the crowds of drunken young people exiting from the pubs and clubs of town centres. And then there are drugs. Every few days it seems there are pictures of elderly people of eighty or even ninety who have been attacked for drug money. They are robbed and beaten for the few pounds in their handbag.
Add to all of this there is the threat of terrorism hanging over us all. We don’t think it will happen to us - no one ever does! But nevertheless we are aware of it as a flashing red light at the back of our minds. We find that we notice bags left unattended in public places. We pay attention to the people who walk near us on quiet streets in the evening.
Maybe the problem is deeper than what is apparent on the ground - maybe the problem is also that we are failing to understand what is happening within our society. Maybe we are trying to find solutions to the separate problems at the micro level when the real problem is at the macro level. Maybe we need to stand back and try to see what is happening overall.
One rough and ready way to do this is to compare a snapshot of society fifty years ago with the situation today. There is a vast difference. Changes have happened gradually week by week, year by year and have often gone largely unnoticed - or at least we haven’t connected the changes with each other and so we have not realised the cumulative effect. Maybe, if we understood our overall position better we would understand the direction in which society is now travelling, and hence why it is that people have deserted the churches.
So what have been the main changes in the last fifty years? What are the main differences between life in, say, 1950 and today?
In my opinion society was more ordered and more orderly fifty years ago. It is perhaps best described by saying that people were generally more prepared to live within the accepted framework of society than today. They had more respect for the Law. They listened to authority more. Many more attended church and had some sort of belief in some kind of a God. There was more respect for other people. There was also a lot more paternalism, and authoritarianism. People felt constrained more to obey the rules of society.
That may sound rather vague and may even be unintelligible to a young person of today. But almost any older person would recognise straight away what I am trying to describe. Society ran more smoothly along orderly lines. There was less challenge to authority and fewer dropouts. The years immediately after the second World War was time of deprivation. Bread and food rationing, clothes rationing, and a pervading drabness in so many areas of life that lasted through into the fifties. In succeeding decades came the rebellion against all that had gone before.
Of all the changes, perhaps, it is the ditching of the well established values and standards that puzzles and pains older people most. They ask why there is all this extraordinary ‘art’ these days? Why are buildings constructed to such odd shapes these days? Why is modern music so dissonant?
The reason of course is that in these fifty years we have experienced one of the great transition times, when our civilisation is turning on its axis and a whole new way to looking at the world is beginning to be adopted. The shift which is still happening is a change from modernism to postmodernism. Now I am no expert on this subject - please consult the books for an authoritative explanation of postmodernism (I recommend ‘A primer on postmodernism‘ by S J Grenz, which inspired me, in part, to write this article!)
As I understand postmodernism, in order to grasp its nature we have first to understand what is meant by ‘modernism’ - what its values and principles have been. This is not difficult for older people who were brought up within modernism, although it needs a certain objectivity.
So what is this modernism that postmodernism rejects?
Modernism might be said to start with the Enlightenment several centuries ago. The Renaissance embodied the values and principles which imbued all areas of human endeavour and which spread across Europe. These conveyed a sense of confidence and optimism and a belief in the future progress of the human race. These principles and this confidence in progress served the world very well indeed for several hundred years. The Renaissance has been described as the flowering of the human spirit. But the time of modernism as the dominating world view is coming to an end. Postmodernism is the transitional phase that follows the rejection of the values and principles and optimism of the old modernism.
Modernism had faith in progress. It saw the success of the industrial revolution which provided unparalleled benefits over the last few hundred years. It gave confidence in eternal values. It provided a framework for a whole world built up on logical certainty and the inevitability of cause and effect. And why not? It worked extremely well for Britain and provided a modern state structure with a high standard of living for most of its inhabitants.
That faith in progress and in reason was paramount. Logic and reason held sway. But all of that has led us into horrific world conflicts. The two world wars in the last century sapped our belief that man was progressing. The values of capitalism came to be seen as also having a negative side - and a dark downside it is if you take the world wide picture, where millions work for the benefit of the rich western countries. Communism was seen as an inadequate system. Totalitarianism was recognised as bankrupt.
At the same time the consequences of the work of scientists on Quantum Theory began to be known and understood. Relativity became an in-term. Scientists showed us that the old Newtonian model of cause and effect was being overtaken - applying only on the macro scale and not on the micro scale. It had served us very well - but now the experiments being done proved that reality behind everything was nothing like what we had imagined. In fact it became apparent that at the base of everything was not certainty but uncertainty. There were no clockwork immutable laws - instead we were in a cosmos we did not understand and which did not conform to the modernist values and principles that had under girded our society for hundreds of years. Thinkers reached for a new basis on which to build, but first they had to reject decisively the old: modernity and its trust in cause and effect. Thus postmodernism was born.
And so in the middle of the last century, following the end of the war, a new approach emerged. It started with a few people questioning the very basis of our society.
This new attitude began to filter out into society. Architects began to design buildings that were not based on the order and symmetry shown in Greek temples, but rather that appeared to be higgledy-piggledy and discontinuous. Artists forsook the tradition of oil paint and began to create things like a pile of bricks, an unmade bed or a concrete cast of the inside of a house. To some the art world seemed to have gone mad - but in terms of the new thinking it all made sense - in a postmodernist world the old ideas of order and cause and effect were decisively overthrown. It undercut the old certainties. It opened up our thinking to a totally new approach, based on the rejection of the old ways of thinking and observing. To those brought up on Modernism it seemed madness. It was not madness - it was postmodernism.
The old certainties are obsolete for today’s generation. That is what postmodernism is saying. That is why the churches are emptying so quickly. That is why the nature of society is shifting as it is. That is the trend that is going to go on advancing.
Young people of today don’t actually choose postmodernism, any more than people chose their world view fifty years ago. Brought up in a lively society that demonstrates its values and ideas everywhere all the time, they simply absorb the postmodernism that is all around us. The old people don’t like what they see of this brave new postmodernist world. The youngsters are only aware that older people are not with it, are not ‘cool’, and live in a different world located somewhere in the past.
Now we can see why various initiatives by churches have not worked. Some may have had some temporary success, but they all suffer from the same defect - they are out of tune with the spirit of the age. The churches will continue to empty, until there is just the faithful remnant, and most of them will be over forty-five!
Attempts to jazz up the worship or to change the times of services or to interest young people don’t work because, eventually, they are out of tune with today’s values and thinking. Of course you will always get some young people to come to church. You will always have the odd charismatic vicar who through his personality and perhaps superb organising powers builds a thriving church. But generally it is against the trend.
The success of places like HTB and celebrations like Green Belt or New Wine are simply evidence that there is still a basic hunger in people for the spiritual. If a lively Christianity is offered there will always be crowds who will attend. There will always be counter movements of this sort. That does not disprove or counteract the general trend operating in Britain today.
So what? Where do we go from here? What is to be done?
The Christian Faith is one of certainty - that there is a Creator God and Father who in Jesus Christ seeks us and to whom we can respond by making a definite choice of commitment and lifestyle. That is out of tune with the postmodernist refusal of absolutes, denial of hope for progress, rejection of all the values of modernity and discontinuity with the past. While Christians can join in with the postmodernists in the rejection of some of the values of modernity, it cannot deny itself. It cannot change its message away from the positive. Hence the struggle of the churches to come to terms with the postmodern world.
That may (or may not) be an accurate diagnosis. However, it is not easy to prescribe - partly because, for one thing, it is not at all clear where this postmodern society is going. Will it turn into cynicism and despair? In which case we may see the drug culture, alcohol and gambling taking hold in a deeper way than at present. Or will some new positive come into the picture?
I would suggest that the destructive phase of postmodernism will merge into a second phase. Postmodernism is presently in the pulling down phase. It is disposing of modernism. But the human spirit cannot idly sit around in the rubble of collapsed buildings for ever - it must up and build by its very nature. Christians have an essential role in that rebuilding because theirs is a message of hope and belief in a humanity redeemed by God. Rebuilding must follow destruction sooner or later or the human spirit would deny itself. Postmodernism will transform into a new initiative or it will eventually be bypassed and overtaken by a new movement. That is where Christians are needed. Not to try to bring back the past (always an impossibility), but to testify to the eternal.
In the last paragraphs let me suggest a possibility. Suppose, just suppose, that Christians for once got ahead of the game. That they got together to study, to open their minds and to understand the reason for what is happening to the society around them. What if they refused to take refuge in the past of their religion. What if they did not react with the old stereotyped answers and methods and attitudes and slogans. But rather they actually began to mould (note: mould, not change) their gospel to meet today’s people where they are in their postmodernist beliefs. Suppose they took the essential truths of the gospel and held them up in a postmodern way, so that they spoke the language of ordinary postmodernist people. These postmodernists - our neighbours - could then see, hear and understand the gospel which transcends both modernism and postmodernism. That would present people with a real choice. Then we might have a chance of changing our society.
Change our society? Change into what? If we are thinking of returning to something in the past, then we are still in the old modernist thinking. We have to divest ourselves of the old modernist thinking if we are to be there for the people of today’s world. If we try to go back they will not follow. We have to forsake the old modernist ideas. When we are prepared to think in postmodernist terms then the Holy Spirit will guide and lead us in a new way. He longs for us to become fully relevant to today’s generation. Not in an old fashioned modernist way, nor in a stand-offish accusing manner or with even a scintilla of superiority - but rather in a listening and caring attitude of love that mirrors the attitude Christ had towards those who came to him enquiring for the path to life. He spoke a language that the common man understood - they heard him gladly. So must we.