Back in the last century, lots of churchmen were intimidated by modernism with its triumphant science, dogmatic rationalism, and trust in progress. They figured that if Christianity is going to survive, it has to adapt to the times and to the new cultural climate. So modernist theologians jettisoned the supernatural claims of Christianity, from the miracles of Scripture to the resurrection of Christ.
Such teachings, they assumed, were old, the products of a less-enlightened way of thinking, and were not credible to “modern man.” Thus, Christianity needed to be updated, recast so as to accord with modern science and progressive ideas. After this modernist makeover, Christianity looked pretty much like what non-believers believed in. Churches taught the same things the non-Christians taught. Since there was little difference between the church and the world, “modern man”, far from flocking to these newly relevant churches, decided, quite properly, that since these churches had nothing to offer other than what he already had, he might as well just sleep in on Sunday mornings.
Those who opposed the modernist theologians were the “fundamentalists”, those Christians who defended the fundamentals of the faith. The modernists did manage to give the term “fundamentalist” a negative connotation. But in reality, the fundamentalists won. Supernatural Christianity did not die out, as the modernists assumed it would. Though the fundamentalists had their missteps and insecurities, they transmuted into “evangelicals”, who have come to reign ascendant in American Christianity.
Today, the very tenets of modernism that gave it vast authority, are now thoroughly critiqued and ridiculed. Science? A cultural construction that rapes the environment. Rationalism? An illusion, based on the assumption that there is only one truth. Objectivity? Impossible to achieve, since all meaning is slanted. Progress? A claim of cultural imperialism made impossible in light of our modern wars and systems of oppression.
Postmodernists counter with the claim that truth is not a discovery, but a construction. Our thoughts are determined by our culture, and since there are many cultures, and even more individual constructions, there are many truths. To try to persuade anyone is to impose one’s own construction of reality on someone else, which no one has the right to do.
Postmodernists also dislike “fundamentalism”, but not for the reasons modernists did. Postmodernists dislike fundamentalists not for believing in the supernatural, holding to irrational notions, believing in things they don’t understand, or living in the past. Postmodernists are against fundamentalism for “believing in only one truth.” Thus, postmodernists often accuse modernists of being “fundamentalists.”
Here is the great irony: Many of today’s evangelical theologians, the heirs of the fundamentalists, are now embracing postmodernism. Why? Because they think this new ideology will free them from the challenge of modernism. Not realizing that particular war is over, many evangelical theologians are enlisting postmodernism as an ally. In doing so, of course, they also have to reject, though for a different reason, the fundamentals of orthodox Christianity.
The desire for God to be “open”, the insistence that Scripture is indeterminate and open to infinite interpretation, the teaching that no one is damned, that there are multiple paths to God, that followers of other religions can be saved, are all manifestations of postmodernism in contemporary evangelical theology. Elsewhere, evangelical feminists cry out to tone down biblical morality, and “the emerging church,” teach the notion that our positive thoughts can create a new reality.
The most common assertion of postmodernist evangelicalism is that “postmodern persons” (they can’t say “man” anymore) are unable to accept ready-made religious doctrines. The emphasis on believing objective Christian doctrines is too “modernist.” Rather, Christians are to be encouraged to cultivate their own subjective spirituality, based on their personal experiences of the “mysteries” of faith.
In capitulating to postmodernism, these church-people are ending up in the same place as those who capitulated to modernism. They preach an eviscerated Christianity that is incapable of changing lives or saving the lost. Trying to be relevant, they make themselves irrelevant. Trying to get people to come to church, they only succeed in giving them reasons to stay at home.
Believers in Christianity’s fundamentals can agree with the modernists that reason, science, and objectivity have their place. They can also agree with the postmodernists that reason has its limits, that human ideologies are tainted not so much with other political ideologies as with sin, that mysteries do abound.
Christians dare not succumb to either rationalism or relativism; rather, because of our mind’s limits and our sins, we must be dependent on revelation. The Word of God breaks into our narrow, human minds with God’s judgment and His grace, confounding both the modernists and the postmodernists, as well as whatever will come next.
Gene Edward VeithSee More Essays
Dr. Gene Edward Veith is provost and professor of literature emeritus at Patrick Henry College and director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is the author of Postmodern Times and Modern Fascism.