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Postmodern Evangelicals?

August 27, 2018


I first heard the term “postmodern” more than thirty-five years ago when I was a doctoral student in systematic and philosophical theology.  It was associated with continental philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.  (There were also, it was said, postmodern trends in art and architecture.)  Even in university settings, not one person in a hundred could give a coherent explanation of what it might mean.  Today, we throw the term around with a knowing air, but do we have any more idea of what it means?  And whether we do, or don´t, so what?


Essays on this site are meant to be straightforward, topical and opinionated.  But please indulge me for a moment while I spin a broad brush lesson in intellectual and cultural history.  I grew up in the glow of all things modern.  “Live better electrically.”  Labor saving appliances.  Lifesaving vaccines.  Transcontinental air travel.  Color T.V.  The dawn of the computer revolution. 


All of these technological developments and the lifestyle changes that emerged from them are expressions of modernity.  And modernity, though it has deep roots in, among other things, Aristotelian philosophy and Roman jurisprudence, emerged in the Enlightenment, the European intellectual and cultural revolution that began in earnest in the seventeenth century with the scientific ideas of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, the political and economic ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith, the critique of religion by Voltaire and Paine, and contributions by a host of others.


The Enlightenment elevated the rational individual over all ideologies, authorities and traditions, grounded the sciences empirically – that is, upon observation and data – and assumed the human capacity to organize society rationally and manage the forces and materials of the natural world for our benefit and well-being.


The response of conservative, evangelical Christians in the United States to modernity has been complex and fascinating.  On the one hand, Evangelical Christians share with Enlightenment thinkers a strong view of the power of reason and the worth of the individual.  Every individual is responsible before God to make the choices – “I have decided to follow Jesus” – that shape our destiny, and to apply the tool of reason to “the evidence that demands a verdict.”  There is a strong conviction that “Truth” exists, can be accessed and can – at least as far as our limited data and cognitive power can take us – be known. 

On the other hand, Evangelical Christians diverge from Enlightenment ideals on at least two important points.  First, “truth” is embodied in a unique individual other than oneself.  “I am the way, the truth and the life…” And second, there is indeed – Enlightenment skepticism toward authority notwithstanding – an authoritative source of knowledge that transcends every human discovery and data base, Holy Scripture. 


It is exceedingly odd that Evangelicals typically claim to have a reasonable, “provable” religious commitment, along Enlightenment lines, but inject the “strange body” of scriptural authority, in clear violation of Enlightenment norms, into their hybrid world view.  Mining this contradiction would take us far beyond the confines of this brief essay.  I´ll offer just two brief comments: 1) Subsuming the complex welter of biblical narratives, visions, saga and divine directives into a reasonable and consistent “blueprint” for living is a heroic (or foolhardy) endeavor; 2) the illogic at the heart of the standard evangelical world view is fertile ground for the glorious illogic at the heart of postmodernism.  Which brings me to my point.

Given that Donald Trump is currently the hero and champion of the vast majority of self-identified Evangelical Christians, followers of the one who “is the truth,” who could have foreseen Rudy Giuliani coming to his defense by echoing the words of Pontius Pilate?  Pilate: “What is truth” (John 18:38)?   Giuliani: “Truth isn´t truth” (“Meet the Press,” August 19, 2018). 


By mixing a premodern appeal to (biblical) authority, a modern insistence on a consistent worldview constructed from a provable set of facts, and cultural commitments – the free enterprise system, American exceptionalism, a solely instrumental view of the natural world – not derived from either of the preceding two sources, many American Evangelicals have proven vulnerable to the seductive ideas of postmodernism. 


Postmodernism has as many alleged characteristics as it has interpreters.  But common on the list are:  the absence of binding authority and absolute truths, the illusion of the substantial self (we are welters of feelings, urges and contradictory goals), the relativism of ethical and cultural norms, the pursuit of experience for its own sake.  When Christians fall victim to the scattering effects of postmodernism, perhaps due to the incoherence of their core convictions, they (we) become vulnerable to the most empirically verifiable of traditional Christian affirmations: the universality of sin. Our pronouncements come marinated in self-interest.


Traditional Christians, to the extent that they are aware of such a thing as “postmodernism,” are usually highly critical of its intellectual and moral relativism, and in particular, of its scorn for God´s norms.  When we defend the most untruthful and amoral of presidents in order to further political and cultural goals that may or may not be integral to the Gospel, but in any case are more often culturally rather than evangelically derived, we make a devil´s bargain.  And we become guilty of world class hypocrisy.


My Baptist theology students are, without exception, committed to biblical authority.  But they are educated enough and reflective enough to be aware of the “texts of terror” and the inconsistencies woven through scripture.  I recommend to them a “Christocentric” hermeneutic: evaluating and situating the confounding richness of scripture in light of the teaching, the ministry and the cross and empty tomb of Jesus.  When I dialogue with postmodern folk who have little knowledge of scripture and no sense of obligation to it, I find they almost always are looking for loyalties and goals commensurate with the great gift that is their life.  For secular people, recovering Christians, and people who are still trying to define and live out a “Christian worldview,” I can give no better counsel than simply following Jesus.


                                                 Dr. David L. Wheeler, August, 2018

                                Adjunct professor of theology, Palmer Theological Seminary; 

                                      Formerly Senior Pastor First Baptist Church of Portland, OR,

                                      Professor of Theology and Ethics, Central Baptist Theological Seminary

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