Postmodern and Wesleyan
Not long ago, I was asked to prepare a lecture on postmodernism and the Wesleyan theological tradition. After reflecting on the two, I proposed ten ways in which revisionary postmodernism coheres with Wesleyan theological concerns.
Not surprisingly, I first attempted to be clear about what I meant by “postmodern.” “Postmodern” is a word I both love and hate. On the one hand, the word stands for and beckons us to break from negative precedent. To be “post” what is modern suggests transcending what was unhelpful in modernity. In many ways, postmodernism offers hope.
On the other hand, “postmodern” is a word abused and over used. It sometimes stands for whatever is new, different, or faddish. Other times, it suggests extreme ethical and epistemic relativism. And there are some who use “postmodern” to mean returning entirely to worldviews prevalent before the rise of science.
In previous blogs, I have identified four dominant postmodern traditions. The tradition I find most helpful I call “revisionary postmodernism.” This postmodern approach calls us to be reoriented in our worldviews without becoming disoriented. It deconstructs and then reconstructs a theology helpful for our time.
Revisionary postmodernism offers ways of thinking and living that I think should be attractive to various theological traditions. In this essay and a subsequent one, however, I argue that revisionary postmodernism fits the Wesleyan theological tradition very well.
I am not saying John Wesley was “postmodern before postmodern was cool.” Nor am I claiming that all who embrace the Wesleyan flag are rightly regarded as postmodern. But I do think the theological themes emerging from Wesley’s influence complement key tenets in revisionary postmodernism. Furthermore, Wesleyan ways of thinking might promote well revisionary postmodernism in our day.
In the remainder of this essay, I sketch out five features of revisionary postmodernism and their relationship with Wesleyan-holiness theology. In a subsequent essay, I offer five more features.
1. Respecting past, present, and future
Both revisionary postmodernism and Wesleyan theology have respect for and glean from the past. And yet both also engage the present and actively anticipate a better future. The past, present, or future are important for making sense of God and life.
Respect for past and present means that revisionary postmodernism should not be regarded as anti-modern. Unfortunately, some Christians so criticize the modern period and praise premodern times that one would think nothing of genuine importance emerged in recent centuries. By contrast, John Wesley and Wesleyans generally do not privilege or denounce any one period of history.
How we regard the influence of contemporary science can shed light on the extent to which we think modernity was helpful. Some so embrace science and the reductionist metaphysics thought to be required of science that they allow no place for spirit, freedom, value, and purpose. We should reject such scientism. But the science baby need not be thrown out with the scientism bathwater. Modern science has provided important information and insights that must be accounted for in a robust postmodern worldview.
John Wesley understood the vital role of science. He read the leading scientific works of his day. Some scientific theories he embraced; others he rejected. He allowed the sciences to play a role in the shaping of his theology and understanding of existence. Like Wesley, revisionary postmodernists neither worship science nor condemn it.
2. Blurring sacred and secular
Some have suggested that premodernity was absent any sense of secularity. All life was God-created and controlled. I think this argument overreaches. But I do think one could make a strong argument that many premodern Christians did not think humans acted in any way not already preordained by God.
I’m reminded of the Orlando Bloom movie of a few years ago, Kingdom of Heaven. The movie is set during the Crusades, and characters in the film describe virtually every event with the simple phrase, “God wills it!” Most premodern people thought God controlled all things.
It is common to define the modern period as promoting a contrary philosophy that the world is all we have. The Renaissance revived Protagoras’ words, “Man is the measure of all things.” Theologically, this meant either that no God exists or that God acts upon the world from the outside, periodically intervening in creaturely affairs.
Recent atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris represent the atheist bent. The words of Isaac Newton represent the other view. Newton wrote that God “governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; … Deity is the dominion of God not over his own body, as those who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants.”
Revisionary postmodernism and most Wesleyan Christians have been uncomfortable with a hard distinction between sacred and secular cultures. These traditions seek to speak of God and creatures in relational/synergistic terms. The world is always sustained by an ever-present, active, but noncontrolling God.
In contrast to Isaac Newton and atheists, John Wesley called God “the Soul of the Universe.” Wesley envisioned God as an empowering and creative Person. “God is in all things,” said Wesley, “and we are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature, and we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical Atheism.”
3. Experiential and abstract knowledge
A chief criticism of modernity is that it reduced knowledge to only what could be confirmed by logic or our five senses. To adapt to this reduction, modern Christianity argued that we best account for knowledge of God in propositional sentences cognitively affirmed.
Some postmodernists have called for a return to mystery and the importance of lived knowledge. They stress the importance of truth that emerges in lived relations with others.
Revisionary postmodernism draws from both experience and logic. It affirms that truth can be discovered in relations and propositions. While revisionary postmodernists stress the importance of practices and the developing of habits of virtue, it also calls for rethinking and affirming the structures of what should be considered rational. Revisionary postmodernism affirms Charles Wesley’s desire to unite knowledge and vital piety.
In my previous exposition of revisionary postmodernism, I stressed the significance of experiential nonnegotiables for overcoming extreme relativism. Experiential nonnegotiables are beliefs that we inevitably affirm in our lived practice. David Ray Griffin calls these “hard-core commonsense notions,” and Jürgen Habermas calls them “performative contradictions.” The point is that we should draw upon both our deepest experiences and our best reasoning to make sense out of life.
In the Wesleyan tradition, this drawing from multiple sources is linked with the Wesleyan quadrilateral. The quadrilateral is a conceptual took that says the Bible, reason, Christian tradition, and personal experience all help us understand something about God and existence. Both revisionary postmodernism and the Wesleyan tradition, then, draw from multiple resources for discovering truth. And they appeal to both head and heart.
In recent decades, it has become common to criticize modernity for stressing the ultimate importance of the individual. Modernity neglected the vital role of the community. It presupposed that individuals are isolated, essentially unrelated, and autonomous.
Less commonly known is that modernity stressed individual freedoms largely in response to the stifling authoritarianism that characterized many premodern societies. Modern philosophers, theologians, and scholars of various types sought to escape the domination of oppressive authorities. Galileo is often cited as exhibit A of one who endured a ruling community’s tyranny.
At a recent global theology conference, I was struck by the contrast of concerns of those living in the so-called “West” and those living in the so-called “two-thirds world.” Westerners were worried about individualism, and many called for return to the authority of the community. Two-thirds world theologians worried about the authority of the community, and many called for space for personal freedoms.
Revisionary postmodernism emphasizes the value and integrity of both persons and communities. Rather than thinking of persons as isolated individuals, it considers them as interrelated persons who have arisen in large part from their relations with others. Working of the common good often entails seeking the good simultaneously of individuals and communities. Life is rarely a zero-sum game.
The Wesleyan emphasis upon personal responsibility to the call of God and social holiness fits well with the dual emphasis of community and persons in revisionary postmodernism. Wesley saw the need to work with persons, small groups, and governments to seek righteousness. Today we must affirm a role both for personal and corporate authority.
5. Salvation begins now
Many premodern people were preoccupied with the afterlife. Of course, just about everyone considers the issues of death. But premodern people – especially Christians – seemed overly concerned with the next life. More than one atonement theory, for instance, was concerned with immortality to the virtual neglect of accounting for lived experience in the here and now.
One modernist, Karl Marx, said Christianity was an opiate that kept people pacified. Marx would agree with my mother, who criticized one woman in my home church as too heavenly minded for any earthly good.
Twentieth century Christians stressed the evangelistic question, “ Are you heavenbound?” Many neglected the holiness question, “What does it mean to live a life of love now?” All important was getting one’s name written on heaven’s book of life. Seldom well considered was living the abundant life Jesus said he came to give.
Revisionary postmodernism agrees with Wesleyans that salvation is concerned with both the present and future. The “eternal life” that God provides in Jesus (Jn. 3:16) is primarily an issue of the quality of life now not the quantity of life later.
In his sermon, The Scripture Way of Salvation, Wesley writes, “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness…. It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world… It is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of.”
Revisionary postmodernists and Wesleyans agree that salvation pertains to the good of persons, communities, and societies. Salvation can even be extended to the nonhuman world of animals and environments, for God cares for all creation. God wants to provide abundant life now and in the life to come.
I will offer in a later post the remaining five ways I think revisionary postmodernism coheres with a Wesleyan theological vision. As I said earlier, revisionary postmodernism may also cohere with other theologies. But my focus has been with the Wesleyan tradition, because I think it fits well with general principles of revisionary postmodernism.
Footnote: I thank Jay Akkerman for extending the opportunity to hone these ideas in preparation of the conference he directed, “Furtherness: Reorienting Holiness in a Changing World.”