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a foot in each world: postmodernism

As I’ve said earlier, I think most American Christians (fundamentalist, evangelical, and Protestant, mostly) live with a foot in each of two worlds: a premodern world where we take things on authority and see ourselves as deriving our identity from various groups, and a modern world where we believe things on the basis of evidence or reasoning and see ourselves primarily as individuals. That’s the best I can do so far to sum this up, anyway; this is still a work in progress.

James White has in a couple of recent episodes of his podcast The Dividing Line mentioned a tendency of people at a certain point in history (he hasn’t really nailed down which one, so far I as I’ve heard) to think ahistorically: to assume that the world that was ancient to them was just like the one in which they lived: he mentions in particular modes of dress, I think, and a couple of other superficial things, but I suspect once he’s done with his current heavy debate schedule he’ll get back to this topic in earnest. I hope so. He’s one of the few people I’ve heard attempt to put the Reformation in a historical context. Most Reformed folks I know sound like they think the Reformation was the fixed high point of history, where systematic theology reached its zenith, and from which the last 500 years have been a steady depressing decline, either back into old darkness or onward into a new (possibly worse) kind of postmodern darkness.

I really don’t know. I’m more inclined to say that the Reformation was a valuable part of the Early Modern Era, one for which I’m grateful, but that on balance it’s hard to tell whether our current period in history is better or worse. As a modern person I tend to assume there must be a way to measure these things; as someone with postmodern tendencies I suspect there are several, and it’s often hard to choose confidently among them.

When I say “postmodernism” I want to mean something in particular [link], but tend to find a range of points on a “postmodern spectrum” or a set of symptoms on a “postmodern diagnostic inventory” instead. So yes, probably a loss of a central narrative starting from a firm foundation of absolute truth, and almost definitely a focus on the difference between the language by which different parties refer to a given thing and the thing itself, but not necessarily all the other stuff. I tend to suspect that postmodernism doesn’t really stand on its own; it needs modern concepts with their firm definitions and linear arguments to refer to, mostly because it doesn’t (can’t) offer any of its own.

So when I talk about having a foot in each world, I really only mean two worlds. I don’t think there really is a postmodern world.

As Christians, particularly as Christians who (want to) take Scripture seriously, it’s important to remember that the people we read about in Scripture were real people, just like we are, but they weren’t like us in every respect. By they same token we are not like them, and we need to be careful about taking our questions to Scripture and expecting answers that fit them neatly. Scripture is after all our final authority (premodern), but it has a primary meaning (modern) that we may or may not understand perfectly.

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