Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Architecture of the Post-Modern Mind, Part III

If you visit a Borders or Barnes and Nobles bookstore these days, you are more likely than not to find a new section called Spirituality. This is a catchall category for all sorts of things, most of which are not directly connected with traditional religions of any sort, much less with what Christians call ‘spiritual formation’. In a post-modern situation you find any number of people saying, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”, though what one or another of them means by that will vary. So much has post-modernity infected and affected even Christian discourse it is seen as a good thing when someone says “I’ve learned how to be Christian without being religious.” In modernity, statements like that would simply have been viewed as either: 1) non sequiturs or 2) oxymorons; or 3) just sheer nonsense. No more. Many Christian today would gladly wear a button that says “I’m Christian, but not religious.” This is a signpost pointing to an intellectual and a cultural shift having various dimensions. And of course one of the other signs which most clearly points to a definite paradigm shift is the over-reaction or even allergic reaction many ultra-conservatives have to post-modernity, especially when it shows up on their church doorstep, or even (God forbid) in their sanctuaries and pulpits).

Post-modern spirituality is many things (indeed it can be called a many splintered thing) including the following at various times and to various degrees:

1) it is anti-traditional. It likes to see itself as something new, avant guarde, cutting edge, different, although in fact it is retreading a lot of stuff that is traditional;

2) it is synthetic and syncretistic.
For example, I once had a girl call me up on a radio talk show that was stuck in traffic on the Santa Monica freeway. She asked via cellphone “I’m sitting here stuck in traffic and holding my crystals and just wondered what is the connection between these crystals and Jesus” (the radio show had been about the historical Jesus). My reply? “There’s no connection between those crystals and Jesus, except Jesus is the solid Rock, and they so are not the solid rock, nor are they means to get in touch with Jesus.”

One of the reasons post-moderns are more prone to the sort of historical nonsense churned up in the movie Zeitgeist is because they are inclined to accept the premise that one religion evolved from earlier religions, or cannibalized ideas from previous religions in order to build its own. In other words, the evolutionary paradigm is applied not to the development of sentient beings, but to the development of intellectual ideas, including religious ideas. Alas for this history of religions (or religionsgeschichtliche approach, to use the German term), both history and human ideas are messy. They don’t usually develop in that sort of evolutionary or linear way.

3) there is a strong anti-historical bent in much of post-modernism. The way this affects the discussion about Christianity can easily be seen in the recent strong interest in Gnostic Christianity. There indeed we have a disembodied form of Christianity, not interested in the historical basis and foundations of the Christian faith in the life, death, resurrection, miracles of Jesus, but only interested in Jesus the conveyor of gnosis, insider spiritual knowledge, Jesus the talking head. In that system of things, it’s not who you know, but what you know that saves you, and if you do not have sufficient wattage to be in the know, you can’t be saved. It’s an early form of self-help religion. Post-modern spirituality treds lightly on the notion that history and historical events matter, when it is not busy trampling on such ideas altogether.

It is no surprise to me that the very same Gnostic Gospels which were studied, debated, over-analyzed and dismissed in the 70s as being of no relevance to the discussion of the historical Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Philip, Thomas or Judas, are today touted as new revelations of the new and true Christianity—Gnosticism. This is not just because the culture is more Biblically illiterate now than then, or because we are more open to various revisionist ideas about the past than then, though both of these things are sadly true. It is because the modernist deconstruction of disembodied spirituality is no longer seen as compelling and people are more open to a religious or spiritual smorgasbord of their own creation. In other words, to paraphrase the words of the Doobie Brothers--- ‘what once were (viewed as) vices are now seen as (favored) habits’. In other words, there is a strong narcissistic and self-centered element in post-modernity. You can also see post-modernity’s finger prints in the loss of allegiance to one or another denominational form of Christianity.

Now, not all of post-modernity is a bad thing. As I said in my last post, in a global world, we need to become closer to being global Christians. The rabid re-pristinizing of one or another sort of blind nationalism should not be allowed to supplant this growth towards every Christian having a more all encompassing world vision, a vision that actually puts teeth in the belief that Jesus died for everyone in the world, and he loves them all—red and yellow, black and white. There is a wonderful Christmas song, on the James Taylor Christmas CD. It has a beautiful poignant lyric by a gentleman named Alfred Burt. It’s lyrics are as follows:

Some Children See Him
By Alfred Burt

Some children see Him lily white
the infant Jesus born this night
Some children see Him lily white
with tresses soft and fair

Some children see Him bronzed and brown
the Lord of heav'n to earth come down
Some children see Him bronzed and brown
with dark and heavy hair (with dark and heavy hair!)

Some children see Him almond-eyed
This Saviour whom we kneel beside
Some children see Him almond-eyed
With skin of yellow hue!

Some children see Him dark as they
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray
Some children see Him dark as they
And, ah! they love Him so!

The children in each different place
Will see the Baby Jesus' face
Like theirs but bright with heav'nly grace
And filled with holy light!

O lay aside each earthly thing
and with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant King
'tis love that's born tonight!
'tis love that's born tonight!

We all have a tendency to see Jesus as being like us. It’s normal and natural. And actually there is something divine about that, because Jesus is for us all. There is something deep within us that says we ought to be living in a world where we are all one in Christ, a world where what unites us in Christ is more significant than what culturally divides us.

Post-modern Christian spirituality involves a variety of diverse elements including: 1) a love of praising God at length, hence the rise of a whole praise music movement; 2) a love of liturgy, mystery, candles, and in general things that create a sense of wonder akin to that which one finds in Tolkien’s trilogy or the Chronicles of Narnia. It is no accident that these books have been made into movies in the last ten years; 3) a flexibility in regard to some doctrinal matters (see e.g. Rob Bell’s definition that doctrine is like a trampoline which has clear parameters or boundaries, but some flexibility in the middle), and some ethical matters as well (notice the changed attitudes of various post-moderns about homosexuality); and 4) interestingly enough, rather than a pure retreat into fantasy or narcissism, a concern for the poor and for other social issues has emerged. This reflects the flexibility of post-modernism, which tends to adapt to circumstances and shows signs of real concern for neighbor, enemy, and the least, last and the lost.

Post-modernity, with all its faults and at its best, does allow room for a new sort of Christian spirituality. Not one which denies the past or its importance, but which builds on that past and focuses on the future, our shared eschatological future in Christ. I am not talking about na├»ve optimism based on human ability or possibilities. I am talking about an optimism based on and in the grace of God which can actually change human beings, and the course of human history. I actually believe that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a whole new creation, the old has passed away.” How about you?


Rob Penn said...

I like this series of posts. My mentor once told me that I'm more post modern than I think. The thing is, I really haven't got a clue what to think of post-modern Christianity because I only have a tiny idea of what post-modernity actually means.

It's hard for me to define. Because at the end of the day, a "post-modern" person can say "Well, that's what it means for you, but for me it means this..." Ambiguity just isn't a problem with post-modernity. That's why you get things like "Friends with Benefits," and that distinction between Religiosity and Spirituality that lots of people believe exists but have a hard time describing.

Ben Witherington said...

You are right of course Rob. It is more like a soup than a block of hard cheese that has clear boundaries and definite shape. And partly this is because of its questionable epistemology under girding it. If you don't think you can know anything for sure about anything, then of course one wouldn't be prone to be dogmatic about anything either, except of course the inability to be sure!


Don said...

This was a famous book when I was a teenager, IIRC. So the idea of being a Christian without being religious has been out there some time.

bhuston said...

This is dead on, Ben:

"This is not just because the culture is more Biblically illiterate now than then, or because we are more open to various revisionist ideas about the past than then, though both of these things are sadly true. It is because the modernist deconstruction of disembodied spirituality is no longer seen as compelling and people are more open to a religious or spiritual smorgasbord of their own creation."

Steve from the Alice said...

Thanks, Ben, for another thoughtful blog. I do want to take issue with one point, early on, where you say, "And of course one of the other signs which most clearly points to a definite paradigm shift is the over-reaction or even allergic reaction many ultra-conservatives have to post-modernity, especially when it shows up on their church doorstep, or even (God forbid) in their sanctuaries and pulpits)." I guess I could be guilty of such 'over-reaction' to post-modernity as it has unfortunately muscled its way into my church here in Alice Springs, Australia. I am fighting something of a rear-guard action against this trend, and have been for quite some time. I am sure I come across as an extreme over-reactionist. I view the matter differently. If I saw someone about to tread on a rattlesnake, would it be an over-reaction to scream rather loudly to give a warning? Or should I instead, dialog with the snake in order to better understand its point of view?

Steve Swartz

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Steve: Alice Springs is a good place. I think you're critique is fair dinkum :) And we all remember what happened when there was a dialogue with the snake in the Garden. Here however is what I would counsel--- one of the features of post-modernity is openness. Now my granny used to say "Don't be so open minded that your brains fall out", but openness can be used in a way that allows one to make one's points about a solid substantive commitment to Christ and his Gospel. So, I would say, use the window of opportunity in his service, and remind them, if need be that a posture of openness must include an openness to your views.


Ben W.

dbarber59 said...

Wow! Good write! That is true. Spirituality is a mix of so many things - most of them have nothing to do with Christianity.

Dave Barber

matt gallion said...

I've really enjoyed your posts about post-modernity, but I have a few ideas I'd like to tinker with.

In your earlier post, you said two things that I'm a little unsure of. First, you said that post-moderns are necessarily visually based as opposed to any other pedagogy. I find that post-moderns are instead more interested in learning on their terms, rather than through any defined medium. For example, I work in a campus ministry and find that my students enjoy listening to sermons via podcast more than they like anything I have to say in person (maybe I'm just a lousy preacher). It doesn't seem that they are necessarily more visual, maybe they simply enjoy the freedom to define their own journeys.

Secondly, you mentioned that they prefer virtual reality (which I seemed to have alluded to in my previous point). I think, though (as someone mentioned in an earlier post) that they are more in touch with what they believe to be reality, but they simply don't seem to find it in the real world. By reality, of course, I mean authenticity. Post-moderns just seem to enjoy authentic people, and they don't seem to find many in a consumeristic society with car salesmen and churches with evangelistic hooks and gimmicks.

Which brings me to the ideas of this particular post. You mention that post-moderns are "anti-traditional." Again, I'm not sure that I would use exactly those terms, but might see the same ideas in their need for authenticity and meaning. Perhaps they are only "anti-traditional" insofar as those traditions don't mean anything to them. I think particularly of the emerging ideas of "ancient-future." It seems that some of these traditions are being rediscovered so that we see post-moderns engaging in things like the Eucharist and even some liturgical practices and readings in new ways that embrace both the ancient tradition and the current context of their own lives.

At the same time, I think you're right. There are good and bad things about both modernity and post-modernity. I just find it refreshing to hear someone blog about post-modernity in a way that doesn't automatically condemn it out of the shoot.

Of course, now that we've "explained" some things about post-modernity, all of those things will change. We better be prepared to start the research all over again in the morning. :)

Jc_Freak: said...

Well written. Post-modernism is nortoriously difficult to define, but you are doing an excellent job at presenting an honest and accurate reflection of the movement.

I find the appropriation of the term "spiritual" rather significant. Etymologically speaking, it is a Christian word first used by Paul. He used it to mean those who live by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.

However, the word eventually came to refer to one's own spirit. This occurred within the Christian tradition itself. Thus, 'spirituality' meant the health or condition of one's spirit.

Post-modernity has further turned the meaning from the condition of one's spirit to the experience of one's spirit. So now, spirituality means however you personally experience those things which are beyond the boundries of the physical world. This is because the nature of post-modernity required such a term, and 'spiritual' was the most natural word to choose.

This is, of course, similar to the gerneralizing in modernity of the Christian term "salvation" which was turned to mean "the acquisition of a positive eschatological destiny" instead of "the intervention of an external force to remove one from a baneful and insurmountable fate".

Ashley Biermann said...

Have so enjoyed this series Ben.

It is interesting what you say about the denominational boundaries, for me it is rather seemless, with disciples of Jesus everywhere in all manner of denominations, but what I have found is a strong rejection of this view by established denominations within Australia, when a trained pastor happens to "move" among the denominations.

It would seem that despite acceptance by the congregations, the older leadership still struggle to understand the barriers that have long been left behind by the Gen-x and Gen y's. I can forsee some significant changes within the australian religious landscape as these next generations begin to be the leaders within denominations.

Thanks again Ben.

jabre said...

I remember the book How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious that Don mentions. I was probably aware of it in elementary school (early '70s). The declaration that "I like Jesus, but not the church" has been around since the
'60s, hasn't it? Is some of today's attitude retro or has it never really left the culture?

dhornsby said...

Thank you for such a fine series of articles on the Post-Modern mind. I have been attempting to help others (especially young people) to understand the challenges (and the few benefits) to this type of mindset. One of the challenges in helping older individuals to understand they are influenced by these things as well.