Paradigms lost – Christianity and post-modernism

I’m afraid this post is going to be like teaching granny to suck eggs to both readers of this blog, but I wanted to include it for completeness.

So far I’ve looked at the idea that faith has a life-cycle and that fundamentalist evangelicalism can be seen as fitting into a particular pre-critical stage of that process. (I must correct the impression I may have given that later, more mystical stages of faith are better than early, more prescriptive ones – like saying that it’s better to be an adult than a child. Adults have just as many flaws as children, but their faults are just of a different nature.)

I’ve also looked at faith streams and the idea that evangelicalism is just one of several equally valid (and equally flawed) expressions of Christianity, which people often adopt and defend as much for cultural and personality reasons as for anything more ‘spiritual’.

In this post I’d like to look at the way in which much of (modern, western) evangelicalism has let itself become unconsciously locked into a particular paradigm which I believe constrains and hinders it from necessary growth and change.

Paradigms and worldviews

We all think and make sense of our experience from within the matrix or paradigm of a particular Weltanschauung (worldview). It’s the complete mental and epistemological architecture which governs our thinking, our language, our analysis, our evaluation and understanding of everything. We can’t escape this any more than we can escape physically relating to the world through our bodies.

What we can do is be aware that we function within a particular paradigm, and that each paradigm has major flaws and limitations. It can only provide at best a partial working model of the universe and our place in it.

Culturally, we can identify broad eras with their own overarching paradigms such as the medieval, the modernist, and recently the post-modern era. The medieval paradigm saw the universe as highly-ordered and hierarchical, like a complex clockwork model in which everything – including God – had its proper place and function. (I have a suspicion that sections of the Catholic and Orthodox church still operate largely within that paradigm, making them seem alien and antiquated to modern eyes.)

Evangelicalism and modernism

Modernism can mean different things – it’s used in some quarters to mean the Enlightenment model and in others to mean the 20th-century reaction against the Enlightenment’s certainties. For convenience I’m using it here in the broad sense of left-brain, rational, logical thought, clearly-defined categories, and scientific certainties. It’s a paradigm that’s confident of its own abilities to discover, label and analyse everything; in some ways a masculine, even chauvinist and imperialist, paradigm. It likes to classify and conquer. Its logic is linear and binary; B follows from A and if x is true then the opposite of x is false.

However you label it, it seems to many commentators that much of the western evangelical church has become locked into this particular predominant paradigm in its theology and practice:

  • The Bible becomes an inerrant divine textbook from which to read unequivocal instructions, definite promises and clear truths
  • Mission reduces to evangelism, which equates to persuasion by logical argument and rational apologetics
  • Conversion becomes a matter of ‘praying the prayer’ and signing up to a set of doctrines
  • Holiness becomes a matter of personal morality and obedience to a set of principles (e.g. avoiding drunkenness and fornication)
  • Prayer is systematised into Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (or a similar model)
  • Christian beliefs can be neatly formulated into doctrines and tidy systematic theologies, and disseminated through propositional preaching
  • People can be divided neatly into binary categories of Christian and non-Christian, saved and unsaved; doctrines are either true or false; eternal destiny is heaven or hell.

All these are of course stereotypes, and more open evangelicals take a more nuanced, balanced approach. But it seems to me a reasonable description of a major wing of the evangelical church.

Christianity and post-modernism

Small wonder then that evangelicals are often suspicious of post-modernism, which seems to threaten their orderly world of polar opposites, absolute certainties and systematic theologies. They misunderstand post-modernism as an anything-goes undifferentiated chaos, where absolute and objective truth is replaced by total relativism and overarching meta-narratives such as those of Christianity are scorned. They sense an attack on their whole structure of thought and rally their defences. But it seems to me they’re building sandcastles against the tide. New overarching paradigms can only be resisted for so long; and in submitting to the death of our old model we can find the rebirth of a new way of being Christian. We break out of the chrysalis and find we can fly.

Post-modernism is by no means as hostile to Christianity as evangelicals imagine – it’s only hostile to the particular model of Christianity that evangelicals hold dear. I actually believe post-modernism can form a more natural environment for a particular kind of faith – the more mystical-communal type – to flourish in.

One of the key po-mo insights is that reality is not just more complex and mysterious than we currently understand, but perhaps than we are capable of understanding. In science, ideas such as quantum physics, chaos theory and superstrings have shown us an infinitely surprising and complex sub-atomic world that makes neat Newtonian theories look like a child’s ABC.

Poets and mystics of course have known this deep down all along. The universe is not just mysterious because we don’t yet understand it; it’s mysterious because we can’t fully understand it. And if this is true of the universe, how much more so of God? The Trinity is not a logical puzzle to be solved but a poetic paradox to be embraced. So much of the core of Christianity centres on paradox, parable and poetry – Jesus the God-man, the cross of death being the wellspring of life, the last being first, giving up your life to gain it.

These ideas make far more sense in a post-modern paradigm than they do in a modernist one. We start to sense that they are not just clever word tricks but a glimpse into how the universe really works at its deepest level. It can be mind-blowing if we let it.

One of the other important insights from post-modernism is that truth is not primarily a matter of propositions, but rather something which is intensely relational and which is best worked out and fleshed out within a community.

Of course, post-modernism itself is just a paradigm (albeit one that is inherently suspicious of paradigms!), and one day its chrysalis too will break open.


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Emerging, Post-modernism, Stages of faith, The faith journey and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Paradigms lost – Christianity and post-modernism

  1. Julian Staniforth says:

    In the face of post-modernism, is there a risk of Christian post-modernism that is unduly wary or at worst dismissive of ‘doctrine’ which is seen as a straight-jacket rather than something that reflects ‘faith seeking understanding’? After what we think of as ‘doctrine’ resulted from the early church father seeking to understand their experience of Christ in a spiritual market place of ideas, because it was essential for the understanding the economy of salvation. In fact the ‘heresies’ of the past have not disappeared but remain very much alive in each generation as the same questions come up each time (have a look at ‘Heresies and how to avoid them – Why it matters what Christians beleive’ by Quash & Ward). For example if Christ was not both divine and human, if the Word did not become flesh then there is no salvation (in the widest sense of this word). So systematic theology is actually essential in continuing to understand the significance of the person of Christ and so a thing of beauty as it seeks to draw, to picture, to imagine the nature and truth of the triune God through metaphor as human language can only do. So doctrine does not need to limit but rather provides a framework for expressing that experience but rather like the scaffolding or frame of a house that remains to be completed. For example the Chalcedon declaration defines that Christ had two natures – divine and human – but not how because that then is mystery.

    So in the face of post-modernism it is arguable that what is needed is Christian orthodoxy, which is not the same as an arrogant outlook that acts as a hammer (as it has been and is used for sure) but rather as Hauerwas puts it in the foreword to the above-mentioned book “orthodoxy is expressed as an act of love that takes the form of careful speech……the hard discipline of learning to say what needs to be said and no more……shows why what we believe cannot be explained but can only be prayed’.


    • harveyedser says:

      Thanks Julian – it’s good to have a note of caution sounded! I’m probably still in over-reaction against “stage 2” evangelicalism and maybe in danger of throwing a few babies out with the proverbial bathwater.

      I’m not completely turning my back on doctrines or credal statements – you’ve seen mine – but I’m inclined to view them as provisional and inevitably flawed human attempts to express the ineffable. And I am suspicious of systematic theologies, perhaps because the only one I’ve read was by the ultra-con Wayne Grudem, and I heartily disagreed with every sentence of it! And I’m afraid anything with the title ‘Heresies and how to avoid them’ isn’t likely to appear on my reading list at the moment, though I’m probably doing the book a grave injustice. 😉 I know it’s important to guard against heresy but I tend to find that heresy-hunters are worse than the heretics they’re hunting!

      Of course, we do need some solid framework to hang our faith on; of course, it does matter whether we believe Jesus was just human, or just God, or for that matter an alien or a talking sardine in disguise. And it matters what he did and taught, and what the cross means, and what happened at Pentecost, and so on. However, for me systematic theologies and doctrinal statements are not the best way either to make sense of these things or to flesh them out – incarnate them – in the reality of day-to-day life. What a better way might be is part of what I’m trying to explore.

      I also wonder if we sometimes spend too much time trying to understand things that we simply can’t – and don’t need to – understand. There’s a great Chesterton quotation about poets who have their heads in the sky being more sane than rationalists who try to fit the sky into their heads. Which probably has no relevance at all to this discussion!

      Bless you


  2. harveyedser says:

    Thinking about it some more, I certainly agree that as humans we can’t do without a framework of doctrines and belief statements, however much we feel that they miss the mark and don’t manage to encapsulate the whole reality they’re trying to approach. Not having this framework in place is like a child growing up without boundaries – which is why I think that what I call ‘stage 2‘ is a very important stage of faith development. But once the rules and boundaries have been properly internalised, they can start to be teased apart and transcended. We don’t have to stay at the ‘A is for apple’ stage forever, vital though it was at one point in our development. And then perhaps we will find that the doctrines themselves are just the first way-markers of a long, long road of discovery.


  3. dsholland says:

    Liked the thread, with a nod to
    “There’s a great Chesterton quotation about poets who have their heads in the sky being more sane than rationalists who try to fit the sky into their heads.” which is relevant.


  4. David Riley says:

    Hi, I was just doing some research and came across your post. I couldn’t help but notice your confidence in your own reflections, based on some presuppositions. You seem to be able to grasp quite a bit.

    Even though I disagree with you (I think your philosophical effort will prove to be fruitless), I couldn’t help but point out a particular fault in your text. You seem to have a high regard for post-moderity. Well, “post-modernity;” what is that? I like Staf Helleman’s title, “reflexive modernity” for it sees modernity more clearly as a continual process. It has not ceased. We have not entered a new “post-modern” phase. Whatever you wish to call it, it is nothing new. It is just the same old tenets of modernism. You say am insight from post-modernism is that the world is far more complex than we though we knew. I say this is no new insight, but a reality-check, (made in part by globalization), to modernism, which places so much faith in the human mind. Post-modernism is just a logical conclusion of those who have this great faith in the mind.

    Where I believe you are deadly wrong is to think this is some new kind of insight. Scripture is opposed to this kind of hyper-faith in humanity. Scripture also contains “all one needs for life in godliness.” If this is what truly matters, and it’s all in Scipture, where’s the mystery? Compared to Scripture, what’s quantam physics? I think just another expression of modernism; reflexive modernism.



    • Dear David,
      Firstly, thanks for your comment – it’s always encouraging to find out that people are stumbling across old blog posts! Can I ask how you found it?

      I’m interested that you feel I’m over-confident in my opinions – this particular post is probably the one I’m least confident about! I wrote it because I felt it was an important subject, but at the time of writing I didn’t really have enough depth of knowledge about post-modernism and its relation to Christian theology to do the subject justice.

      However, I do wonder if you’ve slightly missed the point I was trying to make – which may be because I wasn’t making it very well. I wasn’t disputing whether or not the Bible is sufficient, nor was I trying to replace the Bible with post-modernism. The problem is not the Bible but rather how we as humans interact and engage with it, how we interpret and understand it. We can only do this through our current thought paradigm or mental framework – our overarching worldview and set of assumptions which frame and govern how we think, analyse, interpret etc.

      So, many evangelicals today understand and respond to the Bible through what I’m calling a modernist framework. This manifests itself in the attempt to turn the Bible into a set of ‘truths’, answers, commands, promises and so forth; to tame the messy complexity of the original text into a neat set of doctrines, systematic theologies and moral propositions which can be preached from the pulpit.

      I have no particular allegiance to post-modernism; I merely think that it may offer alternative and perhaps better ways of approaching and interpreting the Biblical text, ones which do more justice to the complexity and paradoxical nature of the original.

      No paradigm is perfect, but the human mind can’t function without a paradigm. One day we shall see face to face, but now it’s always through a glass darkly – and that glass is our thought paradigm, whether it be Hebrew, Hellenist, Medieval, Modernist, Post-modernist or whatever comes next.

      Bless you,
      Harvey (The Evangelical Liberal)


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