Postmodernism: Still Important for the Church to Understand?
Discussions of a postmodern world have faded in recent years, but the Rev. Trevor Potter of Emmaus Anglican Church in Montreal says missional churches should still pay attention. To be the Church in postmodernity, we must intentionally seek to understand its tenets, become aware of its effects and connect people to God’s true story.
by Trevor Potter
I became a Christian in the early 2000s, and postmodernism was all I remember people talking about. For some it was going to be the golden age of Christianity; for others it was the sign of the beginning of the end. By the time I finished university I was sure of at least one thing: I never wanted to hear the word postmodern again.
Thankfully, since university, these conversations have dissipated. Postmodernism is not the buzzword it used to be, in part because postmodernity is so hard to pin down. James K.A. Smith makes the point that, “Postmodernism tends to be a chameleon taking on whatever characteristics we want it to” (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, 19).
But postmodernism is also so hard to define because it’s so closely connected to modernism. So much so that “postmodernity is often an intensification of modernity” (Who’s Afraid, 26). But even with that in mind, we must ask: Is postmodernism still important for a missional church to understand, and why?
The simple answer is: Yes. Yes, postmodernism is still important for a missional church to understand because these are the times, and this is the context in which we live. We live in postmodernity; we serve in postmodernity; we are the Church in the postmodern age.
But the emphasis in seeking to understand postmodernity is never for the sake of that understanding in and of itself. We want to understand the age in which we live so we can faithfully be the Church today. So that Jesus can continue to do and teach (cf. Acts 1:1) in the ways that He wants to right now. So I will start with a very basic assessment of postmodernity, consider the effects that it is having on people (especially young people, as they are the ones who have been most fully formed in postmodernity), and then offer a few suggestions as to how the Lord might be calling us to faithfully be the Church today.
Like a good Anglican, let me begin with confession: I am not an expert on postmodernity. For a more formal introduction to postmodernity, I would encourage you to read James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? In that book, Smith outlines three characteristics of postmodernity, each associated with a French philosopher:
- “There is nothing outside of the text” (Derrida)
- “Incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard)
- “Power is knowledge” (Foucault)
Following that same order, I will simplify those categories, rightly or wrongly (you can address that in the “comments” section below), as follows:
These, to me, are the main characteristics of postmodernity.
As Charles Taylor masterfully outlined in A Secular Age: Imminence is the primary characteristic of the modern and postmodern age. We live in a time in which all meaning, purpose, and significance are found within the imminent framework (i.e., within the natural world), causing our view of the world to become disenchanted.
Hans Boersma says it like this: “[The] (post-)modern point of view disposes us to insist on the value of creation in and of itself rather than to recognize that its goodness stems from its sacramental sharing in the mystery of Christ” (Heavenly Participation, 53). What Dr. Taylor (and Dr. Boersma) is arguing is that the conditions for belief have changed. It’s not that postmodern people believe any less than premodern people, or that they don’t still seek transcendence. It’s that the conditions for our belief have changed – all of our longings can be met, supposedly, within the imminent frame.
As a short aside here: This is why I, humbly, think Dr. Cavanaugh’s critique of Dr. Taylor’s work, which he shared at the 2018 Intersection Conference, was flawed. Yes, we are still, and always will be, believing creatures, and so we all still, rightly or wrongly, worship (or seek transcendence). But it’s that the conditions for that belief have changed. Idolatry in the modern and postmodern age is different from idolatry in the premodern, enchanted age. Now, I may have misunderstood Dr. Cavanaugh’s critique. (I was too chicken to question him about it in person), or maybe I became deaf to its truth when he dared to question the work of my fellow Montrealer, our patron saint Charles Taylor, so please feel free to set me straight.
Nevertheless, imminence is a primary characteristic of postmodernity.
Relativity, of course, tends to be the most obvious of postmodern characteristics. Postmodernism is a shirking of the ‘certainty’ that defined modernity (cf. Who’s Afraid, 17). Jamie Smith sums it up with Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives.” The inability to believe that one story fits all and that all things can find their place within one overarching narrative. This incredulity toward metanarratives has become so commonplace that one of the clues in a recent New York Times Daily Mini Crosswordwas: “Hey, that’s not my thing, but go for it.” To which the five-letter answer was: DOYOU. “You do you,” or, “Speak your truth,” have become ingrained pop slogans in our postmodern age, which can all be traced back to the shirking of metanarrative.
The third main characteristic of postmodernity is experience: A turning away from abstract truth claims a desire for something “lived” and “felt.” Foucault’s “Power is knowledge” could be expressed in less Nietzschian terms as one’s feelings being the greatest barometer of truth. Postmoderns aren’t looking for abstract facts; they have to feel something. This, of course, has been tapped into mercilessly by marketers and advertisers. There is no clear telos in the postmodern age, no commonly shared vision of the good life, and so marketers get to pitch one to you 4,000-10,000 times per day.And each one of those advertisements is geared to make you feel a particular way.
As I already mentioned, I am not an expert on postmodernity. I am not a philosopher, a sociologist, or a psychologist. I am a parish priest. But the most common effect of postmodernity I see in the lives of the people around me is a general increase in anxiety, especially among younger people. In 2014 Penn State University published a study that stated anxiety was “the leading mental health issue facing college students.”Since then, more and more studies have been done, and in 2015 the National College Health Assessment Survey revealed that over 20% of college students in the United States deal with anxiety; 34.5% of students said they felt so depressed it was difficult to function; 47.7% said they had the feeling of being hopeless; and 56.9% said they felt overwhelming anxiety.
Now, I am aware that many factors are contributing to the rise of anxiety, including the advent of the smartphone.But what I want to suggest is that the characteristics of postmodernity I have outlined above are the context, or the soil, in which anxiety grows. The soul yearns for transcendence, which cannot be satiated within the imminent frame. The soul knows that it belongs to something greater than itself and longs to be tethered to the true story of the world and its Creator. The soul cannot bear the weight of determining its own telos based upon the fickleness of its own feelings, and cries out for an experience of the Good, the Beautiful and the True. It’s no wonder anxiety is dramatically on the rise.
I am sure the living God, who is rich in mercy and abounding in steadfast love, can and will inspire His Church to care for the postmodern world in all sorts of creative and beautiful ways. But let me simply posit three suggestions, based upon the postmodern characteristics I have outlined above:
- People need to be drawn more deeply into forms of worship, both corporately and individually, that are more ancient and liturgical. These practices graciously draw us out of the imminent framework and give us eyes to see, ears to hear, mouths to taste and imaginations to cultivate a sacramental (transcendent) understanding and experience of the world.
- People need to see, hear, and experience the true story of the world—the story of the living God’s love for all things and all people—and be drawn into that story, and into what God is doing in and for the world. Not an invitation to align one’s life with abstract truths, but to follow Him who is Truth and to find one’s life in Him.
- People need to be formed in the way of Jesus. We need to cultivate, both corporately and individually, habits that are deeply formative in the way of the Kingdom, and richly charismatic, that we may experience the living God’s power and presence.
As you can see, I am not calling for anything radically new—quite the opposite in fact. This is simply a call to thick, formative worship practices, both corporately and individually, paired with liturgical and doctrinal catechesis for the sake of knowing and experiencing the grace of God and being the Church. We need to understand the postmodern world in order to be able to diagnose, by the grace of God, what people need, and how the Lord is calling us to be His people in and for the postmodern world.
I will add one last thing: All of this takes people who not only know how to talk about these things, but people who have been transformed, and are being transformed, by them. People who live as non-anxious, peaceful presences in their neighbourhoods (please note the proper Canadian spelling there) and in the lives of the people around them.
Postmodern people don’t need stressed-out, efficiency-obsessed, anxious people telling them how to live. They need non-anxious, quietly confident people who will show them the Way.
Trevor Potter grew up in Montreal, and became a follower of Christ at the age of 19. After years of discipleship and mentoring he sensed the Lord’s calling to ordained ministry. He did his undergraduate work at Tyndale University, College and Seminary, and his graduate studies at Concordia University. In 2006 he began working as the Youth Director at an Anglican church, and thus began his journey on the Canterbury trail. Trevor and his wife, Kim, have two boys, Jacob and Elliott, and are grateful to have been a part of Emmaus Anglican Church since 2011.
Oct. 16, 2018
See the Boston University article sited above.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/. For a response to The Atlantic article you may want to read Sarah Rose Cavanaugh’s post from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/once-more-feeling/201708/no-smartphones-are-not-destroying-generation