Theology for a Postmodern World

December 8th, 2009 / 5 Comments

We live in changing times. We are changing people. Postmodern theology – rightly understood and discerningly appropriated – can be a resource for Christians in the midst of change.

We know that the times and people change, of course.  Each generation differs from the previous.  We always dream up something “new and improved.”  The teacher was wrong: there is something new under the sun.

Many of us sense something uncommonly different today, however.  What we sense occurring isn’t the same thing in a different color.  This is a whole new animal.  This change is more than simply new and improved. 

This change entails a radically different way of looking at life.  A whole new paradigm seems to be emerging.  The most common word to describe this is “postmodernism.”  It’s a word we both love and hate.

We love postmodernism for what it opens up.  The word teems with possibilities.  It invites us to go beyond what presses, depresses, or oppresses.  Postmodernism beckons us to break from negative precedent, while simultaneously reclaiming the good from yesteryear that has lately been ignored.  Postmodernism offers hope.

We hate the word postmodernism for how it’s used, abused, and overused.  There’s postmodern art, postmodern philosophy, postmodern architecture, postmodern literature, postmodern music, and postmodern culture.  Prophets in the church promote postmodern worship, postmodern liturgy, postmodern preaching, postmodern evangelism, and postmodern theology.  It seems everything new under the sun gets labeled “postmodern,” at least for a time.  It becomes hard to distinguish what’s merely “new and different” for this generation from what is a genuinely new way of looking at life.

But what does it mean to be postmodern?

The way the word gets tossed around, one might think its meaning is well-established.  It’s not.  Far from it.  What postmodern means depends at great deal upon the one speaking.  One of the greatest obstacles to talking coherently about postmodernism is the diverse meanings the word carries.

What one person describes as postmodern is often not what another person means by postmodern.  Very few explain well what they mean.  And people often speak of the postmodern way of looking at some issue when, in fact, an assortment of postmodern agendas exist.

Some in philosophical and theological circles, however, have taken time to describe carefully what they mean by postmodernism.  Diversity reigns here as well. 

Fortunately, however, four dominant uses of the word have emerged.  These four views share at least one thing in common: they seek to go beyond what each deems modern. 

“Modern” and “now” are not synonymous, of course.  Modernity refers to various ways of living, assorted ideas and beliefs, or particular paradigms of thought.  Postmodernism has something to do with getting beyond what is modern.  The deep-seated intuition that change is in the air — felt by peoples of diverse visions and convictions — lies at the heart of the contemporary interest to move beyond modernism to postmodernism.

In a series of blogs, I plan to provide an accessible introduction to these four dominant understandings of postmodernism.  I will focus primarily upon how each addresses big questions of theology and philosophy.

I find something valuable in each of the dominant postmodern visions. But there are some forms of postmodern theology that I find more fruitful than others. My hope is to give a postmodern account for the hope that is within me. For in my heart, I have set apart Christ as Lord (1 Pt. 3:15).

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Comments

Ronda Seward

Tom, perhaps one of your posts could include your thoughts on what doesn’t change, which markers are not subject to new thought.  I would be interested in your perspective. R


Paul Willis

Largely a defensive posture at this point, postmodern thought is an attempt to engage 21st century culture by moving beyond modern thought – a belief that we need to transcend modernity.

At the core of who people are there is unsettling, something deeper that aches to define truth in ever increasingly relational terms. I think a rather sizable piece to the puzzle is the distinction between postmodern worship and what I call the modern-contemporary church. We still understand the two as the same, they are not. Nevertheless, throughout this process we want to create unity and explicit theology, not drive wedges that lead to a double life.

I affirm Diogenes Allen, “Many people today find they cannot ignore their religion’s claim to be true, and yet they are aware of various difficulties in affirming its truth. The modern world has driven a wedge between the mind and the heart, forcing people to lead a double life.”.  pdw


S. Matt Stark

Just the other day I was asked what “postmodernism” meant. And it appears I answered correctly; I stated that nobody really knew. From what I’ve read in your post, you believe that postmodernism should be accepted in theology, and you go on to define some different views of postmodernism. For postmodernism to exist do you have to believe in the further evolution of humans? Is postmodernism based on the assumption that humans are ever changing and advancing?


Josh Myers

Tom, I look forward to reading these blogs. It is a good point you bring up about the miss use of the word “postmodern” it has been thrown around as loosely as love and has in the process become so convoluted and watered down it is hard for people to have a real understanding of the concept. This in turn has lead to a lot of conflict in the church and a war has begun over whether postmodern is real and if the church should do anything to respond to it. It would serve the church well to have a solid, clear, definition of what post modernity means, how it affects us as a church and how we can respond.


Steven Larrabee

You bring up a great point on the term postmodern.  People use the word so frequently that it gets hard to understand what they really are meaning.  It is even harder here in the midwest part of the U.S.A. because the idea and understandings of postmodern and emergent church is not vary common to most of us yet.  Most of what is heard or know is through gossip and hearsay or by those who are interested and are studying it. 

People need to be cleared on what they are talking about so that those of us who do not know a lot about postmodernism can understand what is being said when a person uses such a loader term as postmodern.


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