Welcome to the third article in the Faith and Postmodernism series! In this series of articles we are wrestling with what it means to meaningfully engage an increasingly postmodern culture with Christianity. Whether we like it or not, this cultural shift is here to stay, and like every human culture the Holy Spirit is at work within it to bring people to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Here is what we have covered so far:
- Hey Church, Meet Postmodernism: How postmodernism came onto the scene, and how we don't need to fear it anymore than we did modernism (what came before postmodernism).
- Postmodernism and Truth: Postmodernism approaches truth by trying to take seriously our ideological "reference point" and attempts to search beyond our reference points to something deeper.
With these aspects in place, it might be a good time to consider a huge question that many people are wrestling with: what do we do when someone starts picking up postmodern ideas?
This is a massive faith question, and we've all seen this process play out: someone starts listening to someone who is working to wrestle with this cultural landscape seriously - perhaps a spiritual teacher or a friend who is proposes a different way to look at a certain issue, dismantling certain Scriptural references and suggesting that we need to think seriously for ourselves and not just accept what has been taught to us blindly. At first the listener feels frightened, but the more they listen they do realize that most of what they believe has been handed to them without too much criticism on their part. They begin to look more deeply at what they believe and why about any of a host of issues (the afterlife, sexuality, inspiration of Scripture to name a few), and they start to use the "d-word": deconstruction.
Any of us who have had people in our lives engage this road know that it can end in lots of different ways, and some of them can look pretty concerning from the outside. What are we to do when someone starts heading this direction?
Inadvertently Reinforcing Deconstruction
Many of us feel a sense of loss over prior friends we have who have walked the deconstruction path; they started on fire for Jesus, then they started deconstructing and wound up somewhere where we honestly fear for their faith. Once we've experienced this a few times, when someone starts heading down the deconstruction path, it's easy to have alarm bells go off in our mind and be tempted to try and prevent this person from walking that path ourselves. It's easy to take the stance, what this person is doing is dangerous, and I know the solution is for them to stop taking this road. We may be hands-on about it, actively trying to warn them and discourage this trajectory - or we may have our concern and keep it to ourselves, but either way as soon as we see deconstruction as a "problem to be solved", we're just about guaranteed to push the person into deconstruction more enthusiastically.
The reason for this is because of the way emotional systems work. (For an introduction to some of these ideas, see the article and accompanying video The Source of Our Nation's Chaos) According to family systems and leadership guru Edwin Friedman, when we take the posture that someone's behavior is a problem to be solved, we form an emotional triangle with the person and their deconstruction process. This type of triangle - the triangle a leader forms with a person and some belief or habit the leader perceives as unhelpful or unhealthy is one of the most important ones to learn to navigate as a leader. Here are a few of the rules of emotional triangles according to Friedman:
- The relationship of any two members of an emotional triangle is kept in balance by the way a third party relates to each of them or to their relationship.
- If one is the third party in an emotional triangle it is generally not possible to bring change (for more than a week) to the relationship of the other two parts by trying to change their relationships directly.
- Attempts to change the relationship of the other two sides of an emotional triangle not only are generally ineffective, but also, homeostatic forces often convert these efforts to their opposite intent.
Anyone who has a friend or child who has had a romantic relationship they have tried to interfere with has probably seen this play out: rather than our desired effect, we usually wind up driving them into the arms of exactly who we feel concerned about. Applied in this context, any posture we take with a belief someone else has that we are opposed to is more likely to reinforce their belief than undermine it. Rather than changing their trajectory, we are more likely to push them forward further into it. The most unhelpful thing we can do is begin to walk in nervous energy or open opposition. I see this happen all the time, and I've yet to see it result in an outcome other than the person sharing their concerns being labelled as "another of those people who don't think for themselves."
What's More Helpful
What would a more helpful response be then? How can we engage with people who are beginning to trend towards these postmodern ideas and work them out in the context of faith? Rather than undermining their efforts, it's better to reinforce them and encourage the person to treat them seriously and responsibly. What needs to happen is the person needs to grow from a Christianity framed by a Modernist set of mental categories to a Christianity framed by a Postmodern set of categories. It's not that they have to leave Christianity or faith behind when someone starts grappling with postmodern ideals, it is that there is a new framework emerging that Christianity needs to be worked out within the context of a migrating value system.
What postmodernism grapples with is that human belief systems are inherently human, and subject to all the subjectivity and flaws that humanity has. Realizing this isn't a problem at all, if I truly believe that the Christian story isn't a human belief system; it is something that has been revealed from outside our human belief systems. Our tactic is to encourage people to wrestle with the other-ness of our faith. Let's look a little closer at how this could play out one of the common areas of deconstruction:
Is the Bible really Inspired?
One of the more common sentiments expressed when someone begins to engage postmodernism is a questioning of the legitimacy and authority of the Bible. I mean the Bible has been passed down by humans; how do we know this isn't just some record of their culture, history, and beliefs about God at the time? Furthermore, if we do believe the Bible is inspired, how do we know where the cultural sentiments of the ancient world end and the parts that apply to me today begin? I mean let's go even further; how do can we even claim that there is truth that is universal enough to apply to me at all? Maybe this is just a good storybook of a lot of people who did some good things a long time ago.
A Modernist Response
The person thinking in modern categories is likely to feel uncomfortable by the questions themselves. There will likely be concern about the undermining of the idea of (absolute) truth and the sense of authority the Bible carries for us. The Bible is the foundation that gives our life stability and the blueprint to build upon; these are dangerous questions to be engaging. Throw the Bible away and you're likely to wind up with a mess of your life.
(Note how much of this response plays into the emotional triangle issues discussed above.)
A More Helpful Response
We could also consider by responding by asking some questions in response. Questions that encourage them to actually search through to find something worth believing in:
- I'm glad you're wrestling with the issues of where the Bible comes from. Have you ever looked seriously into how we have the Bible we do? Where it comes from and how it has been passed down through history? If it's actually God's book I wonder if we could see God's hand at work in history around it?
- I think you're right in asking questions about the culture of the ancient world and understanding what parts of the Bible are connected to that. Can I ask a question for you to consider? Why do think it is that God spoke in that cultural context? I mean he could have given the Bible to us in any of the cultural contexts throughout all human history, but he chose this particular one, what do you think that might mean?
- The question of whether there is universal truth is such an important one. I mean you're right that as humans we carry our reference point and read it into what we believe, it's impossible not to. What if the Christian claim wasn't that "these people believed right", but rather that God isn't confined by the same subjectivity and this is his record of revealing something to us that isn't limited by our human finiteness? What if the point is this isn't a rulebook, but a revealed book? A book from another world that can speak to us from outside our limitations?
Each of these questions doesn't push the person away from deconstruction, but pushes them through it. It isn't a bad thing to take a serious look at what we believe and why; a solid conviction of why we believe what we believe is a good and important thing - the issue is whether we're willing to do the hard work to find something worth actually believing, or if we will just dismantle what we used to believe and stop there. It's easy to just take potshots at "what we've always been told" and tear down what we used to believe without doing any serious work to construct a coherent belief system on the far side of that process.
From what I've seen and learned, there is a tremendous amount that points to the actuality of Scripture being inspired and watched over by God (see my recently posted message People of the Word), and understanding my faith as revelation from another world rather than the right thing to believe is a massive upgrade. The issue is whether I'm willing to do the work to actually look into what is worth believing in this area. Christianity is true, and it stands on its own. It is there for someone who is really working to understand God, the world, and what reality is. What our friends trending postmodern need is not a warning sign that they're on a dangerous road, but encouragement to take the whole journey and not quit halfway through because they got tired or found themselves somewhere they didn't have a map.
If they do take the journey, they will wind up with something precious and beautiful: a faith that is based upon what they believe and have searched out for themselves. How much more vibrant and alive with their journey with God be at that point? I don't think deconstruction needs to be something we see as a threat, but rather as an opportunity where someone's faith has an opportunity to grow up and become more their own than ever before. Why would we want to discourage that? Rather we need people who are championing and encouraging that process, as well as challenging them if it looks like they're getting lazy and giving up before they do find something worth believing.
Doing Our Homework
One of the critical takeaways I want to highlight from the above is that we as believers, and especially so if we are leaders, need to be willing to ask ourselves the hard questions and do the hard work to really know what we believe and why. Postmodern culture doesn't think of truth as something objective and external - but it values our personal journey immensely. That means as we engage with people around us, there isn't a lot of value in things where we outsource our conviction: it's not enough to know that some expert somewhere believes this is the right answer; if we don't have that conviction for ourselves we aren't bringing something of value to the conversation with the person in front of us. So I suppose in closing I'd like to turn the issues we find postmodernism trending towards and ask each of us how strong our convictions are based upon our own work in these areas:
- The Bible: Why do we believe this book is from God? Why should we take it seriously and why do we believe it has things to say to our lives?
- Morality: Why do we believe that some sense of universal morality exists? Where does that belief come from and why does it matter?
- Sexuality: Why should I believe there is some pattern that sexuality is meant to conform to? Why does it matter if someone's sexuality doesn't match that pattern?
- Salvation: Does God really have an in-and-out club? What is that about? What happens if your life is out of order with God?
Many of us could quickly spout answers to what we believe on these issues, but we may need to supplement those whats with whys. If we do, our faith will be greatly strengthened! Not only that, we won't be threatened by the trajectory towards deconstruction because we will know there are great answers to the why questions and we can encourage others to find and live from conviction of the truth God has revealed in this thing called Christianity.