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.