[Note: this piece is more overtly Christian and theological than other posts on this site. It asks how Christians ought to behave and engage others in our postmodern context for the purpose of cultivating healthier dialog.]
Ever been taunted for worshipping a donkey-god? Believe it or not, bullies once mocked a young man named Alexamenos for doing just that. At the Palatine Antiquarian Museum in Rome, one can see a graffito (the singular word for graffiti) from a plaster wall in a Roman boarding school. It’s one of the oldest images of Jesus we possess today (it is probably from the late 2nd or early 3rd century). By depicting Jesus as having the head of an ass, it mocks both the Christian messiah and also a boarding-school student, who was a follower of Jesus’ movement. Beneath the image is the phrase “Alexamenos worships his god.”
What advice would you give someone like Alexamenos? And what should we say today to young people when others deride their faith in similar ways? The stories of young people in our era have a lot in common with those from the first three centuries of Christian history. In both periods, multiple cultures bumped into each other in big cities, with diverse languages and ethnicities, competing philosophical perspectives, and a dominant culture marked by excess and decay. Advice to Alexamenos will, therefore, help us think creatively about ways to equip young men and women to be faithful in the twenty first century.
Should Alexamenos try and “fight” back? Should he become a bully himself and scratch a picture of Jesus stomping on his enemy’s favorite symbol? (We do something like this today, by the way, when we have car emblems that depict Christian fish chomping on Darwin fish.) Should he pray for a Christian emperor to arise with armies to root out blasphemous acts of vandalism? Should he leave his school and stick to institutions where everyone believes the same thing and encourages each other’s worship of the true image of Christ? There aren’t easy answers to these questions.
Our Alex, as I imagine him, shows some signs of growing up in a postmodern age, but also has far more traditional grounding than his peers. This goes against the thinking of many self-appointed pomo gurus, who make sweeping statements about the postmodern wiring of members of Generation X or the Millennials. For instance, despite the postmodern condition of fragmentation and rootlessness, this particular Alex has a solid family with a stable church that has been around for at least a few generations. Thus, let’s think of him as someone who straddles the old and new, but someone who often steps into radically different contexts when he engages his friends. There are, of course, thoroughly postmodern Christians, but our unscientific survey didn’t reveal we actually had many in our churchy midst; at least not yet. In my attempt to provide advice to Alex, I hope to suggest helpful ways for people like him to negotiate the odd but potentially fertile context of postmodern context in which we live, outside our communities and institutions of faith.
Identity and Relevance
Before helping Alex figure out how to live out his Christian story faithfully, he must have a basic knowledge of key aspects of the church’s story and its encounters with various worldviews. The point of the following historical outline isn’t to give a full account, but to show how Christians have tried to balance their orthodox Christian identity with their call to be relevant witnesses within each chapter of the world’s story:
• Growing out of deep Jewish roots, Paul brought the Gospel of Jesus to an increasing number of communities, including Greek culture, where he used his knowledge of philosophies, religious practices, and Greek poetry to “translate” the Gospel into a particular culture (Acts 17:16-34). In not forcing his audience to become Jews before becoming Christians, he encountered resistance from some in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:11-14) who thought he was compromising too much of the old Jewish identity.
• Later, Augustine (354-530) joined other church fathers in bringing Christianity into conversation with a philosophy known as Neo- Platonism.
• By the middle ages, thinkers like Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) used the language of Aristotle—whose writings had been recovered by way of the Muslim world—to make a case for Christianity.
• Martin Luther (1483-1546) criticized the church’s dependence on Aristotle, and used philosophical ideas from William of Ockham (1288-1348) to turn to Christ alone as our approach to the knowledge of God, rather than speculative reason.
• Meanwhile, humanists (humanities scholars who spent time learning the classical languages and reading the original sources of Greek and Roman culture) like Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) used Renaissance movements to challenge the cumbersome academic ideas of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
• Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) drew from other radical Lutheran pietists to criticize rationalistic and state-church ideology and developed a Christian existentialism.
• In the twentieth century, apologists (those who make a public case for Christianity) like Lutheran theologian and lawyer, John Warwick Montgomery used a dominant modern perspective known as analytic philosophy to make a historical case for the Resurrection of Jesus, and thus for the Christian perspective.
In each of these cases, the story involved an attempt to balance identity and relevance, perhaps the most important skill needed in a postmodern culture. Through history, Christians tried to locate and make a case for their identity, by either criticizing or incorporating popular ideas and themes. Each was relatively successful in influencing a generation or more of thinkers, and these ideas have trickled down to various elements of culture and church practice.
Apparently, every time Christianity met culture, the story also involved three phases. 1) Christian thought was threatened by a new set of ideas. 2) A bright and creative intellectual leader found a way to witness to the culture, borrowing from elements of the new ideas, but also meeting anger and resistance from others who thought they were compromising too much of the historic faith. 3) The ideas of the creative intellectual leader eventually became so effective and popular that the church changed from being hostile to the thinker’s ideas to making that thinker’s ideas the virtual definition of orthodox Christianity.
To make sense of our chapter in the Christian story, we can’t ignore this historical trend whereby the church has moved from utter fear and rejection of intellectual trends to a synthesis of Christianity that accidentally mistakes those trends for Christianity itself! Take the work of Aquinas. At first, his use of Aristotle to make a case for Christianity was considered a betrayal to the Neo-Platonic Christianity with which the church had grown comfortable. By the time of Luther, Latin speaking Christians (at least in what was called the via antiqua) had become so addicted to Aquinas’ synthesis (or blending of two traditions) that Luther felt the need to state that in the universities of his day “the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” [Martin Luther, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. Luther's works, vol. 44: The Christian in Society I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 200.] For Luther, to be a true Christian, one needed to scrub off the Aristotelian corrosion of the prior era.
While higher-order work in theology and philosophy remains a complicated process for a few called professionals, advice to Alex can be rather straightforward: know the language of Christian faith well, share it through translation to the culture, and then avoid making an idol out of the translation.
If Alex looks at books published by Christian writers today, he will find some that react vehemently against thought that is called “postmodern”. He will also find writers who try to present a case for postmodern Christianity. Traditionalists often dislike this postmodern Christian movement, especially the movement called the “emerging” church, sometimes in rather ungracious ways. Caution is in order here. We have already seen that every new “translator” of Christianity experiences resistance. To be sure, there are some today that seem to be so attracted to postmodern thought that they lose core aspects of their faith. But Christians are also free to glean important insights from every age and thinker, so long as they approach them with a deep grounding in the revelation about the world and reality disclosed through Scripture.
Therefore, Alex must work hard to balance identity and relevance, avoiding knee-jerk reactions to conversations in the marketplace of ideas, while also avoiding addiction to intellectual fads. German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s description of his situation several decades ago remains helpful for us today:
The Christian life of theologians, churches and human beings is faced more than ever today with a double crisis: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. These two crises are complementary. The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own Christian identity. The more they attempt to assert their identity in traditional dogmas, rights and moral notions, the more irrelevant and unbelievable they become. This double crisis can be more accurately described as the identity-involvement dilemma.
(Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, Fortress Press, 1995, p. 7)
Fortunately, there are elements of postmodern society that can clear the way for cross-centered Christians to share their story. Indeed, the a theology of the cross is perhaps the best way to navigate the postmodern condition because of its rich language, biblical center, comfort with paradoxes, and theology of the cross. We will address each of these in this long post.
Alex knows the basics of the Bible, and has gone through a confirmation process. He is active in his high school group and leads a small group study for his fellow believing students. During one event at a coffee shop, his group decides to invite several non-Christian friends to share a conversation about a biblical text. The friends include Sophia, a “spiritual but not religious” young woman, and David, who attends a local synagogue and is interested in some traditional teaching, but is not very active in his community. They all agree to bring their thoughts and some background research regarding Psalm 22 to the discussion.
A postmodern context is apparent here. It is a context that tries to honor diverse perspectives, and the students rightly recognize that people come to every conversation with unique background perspectives. There is no official referee at the coffee shop. No authority figure gets to decide whose interpretation is the right one. The setting is cosmopolitan, and the ethos is conversational.
As they arrive and sit down with their warm drinks, they get right into a discussion about the psalm. Alex invites Sophia to begin by sharing her reflections. She is ready: “Honestly, it surprised me how much this made sense. This psalm is like some of the poetry I write when I’m depressed. It’s also a little pathetic. Here’s this guy who’s suffering. He remembers old stories of God rescuing his grandparents. He still clings to this belief in God’s intervention to help him get through. Fine for him! His faith helps him make it through the day. But it’s still kind of sad. When I read it, I think, ‘Sure, it makes him feel better, but no one is really coming to his rescue.’ He’s on his own. We all are. So, we need spirituality to help cope with the stress of life. I think he was right in the first verse: God forsook him. Or better, the God he imagined isn’t there or isn’t a person who answers prayers like that. So, it’s sad, but I can relate to his situation.”
Perhaps you are thinking that students don’t actually have conversations like this in the first place. Based on my nearly two decades of experience with adolescent and college education, I think you’d be wrong on this point. To be sure, many young people spend their time with video games or doing the normal eating, drinking, and being merry. But I find that the generation born after 1980 can be far more interested in the deep conversations about life and meaning than they get credit for, and perhaps they are more interested than the Baby Boomers or members of Generation X. They just don't speak the same old language. Moreover, they can be confusing to older cats since they don’t typically care about are institutions, labels, and surface-level discussions. What they do find interesting are people sharing their traditions.
Alex, says, “Thanks for sharing, Sophia.” But he sees something totally different here. He never thought of it as a desperate psalm. “For me,” he says, “this is what believers do when they are in trouble. God promises us that he will be there when we need him, and we cry out in prayer like this. There’s also another part of the story, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. How about you, David?”
“I sort of cheated,” David confesses to the group. “I asked my uncle, who’s a rabbi. He didn’t have a simple explanation though. He went on and on, listing rabbi after rabbi, and they didn’t really agree on the interpretation. I wrote down in my notes that some thought it was about Messiah, but most of his friends think it’s about the exile of the Jews. I’m not sure it matters who is right, but it is interesting that we’re reading this, because we read this every year as a family, during the holiday called Purim. The translation is different, but I recognized it as soon as I started reading.”
Hoping to share more about his faith, and feeling like he has an exciting twist to reveal, Alex moves straight to his Christian interpretation. “This psalm is about Jesus. In fact, it’s a prophecy that gets fulfilled in the New Testament. Alex then hands out to each group member a detailed chart showing how Psalm 22 and Mathew 22 correspond. Even the phrase “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a prediction of Jesus’ actual words, he notes.
“What are you talking about?” asks Sophia. “If Jesus actually said that, he would have been quoting the psalm. And the psalm seems to be about the writer’s own life, not some future execution. He never calls it a prophecy. You are making a pretty big leap, Alex.” At this, the other Christians boldly jump in, often pointing resolutely at the photocopied chart. Ready with his own materials, David pulls out some notes from his uncle that show how the English translation “pierced my hands and feet” should actually read “like a lion, my hands and feet” and isn’t about crucifixion, which didn’t exist in ancient Jewish culture. The conversation breaks down like languages after the tower of Babel. Finally, Sophia says, “I’ve got to go. Let’s just agree to disagree. Maybe we are all right in our own way.” Alex feels he lost a good opportunity and is discouraged as he heads home.
What just happened? To understand this scene, we need to understand the good and bad of postmodern life. The good is that, in the postmodern context, there is room for the Christian voice. In the (old) modern era, an educated person would appeal to objective historical principles and rule out any supernatural interpretation—like prophecy—as gullible superstition. That didn’t happen much at the coffee shop, and the postmodern commitment to diversity allowed the Christian voices to have a place in the conversation. However, the bad, or more precisely the naïve popular application, of postmodern thought left the young adult participants with the conclusion that there are so many competing voices that there is no truth to be found in the matter, or the odd idea that all perspectives are true.
A postmodern observer might also note that, while it seemed to be a fair field of play, there was an implicit power imbalance at work. Sophia and David were welcomed, but they were also set up. Most of the dialog participants were Christians and were using this conversation to convert their non-Christian friends. They didn’t really listen to their perspectives, and everyone kept talking past each other. Why? They never addressed the root problem: they were speaking different languages. That is, they were approaching the text with different methods and background assumptions that affected the way each participant spoke about the text.
Perhaps they might have gotten off to a better start if they began by discussing the music video “Hurt” by Johnny Cash (popular culture is an important “text” in postmodern conversations). This would have helped set the stage for the issues that were at the root of the conversation. In his rendition, with only a few lyrical changes, Cash covers a song by Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails.
I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that's real The needle tears a hole The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
What have I become?
My sweetest friend Everyone I know goes away In the end
And you could have it all My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
I wear this crown of thorns Upon my liar's chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time The feelings disappear You are someone else
I am still right here
If I could start again A million miles away I would keep myself I would find a way
Regardless of the singer and the singer’s lyrics, Christians believe that there is a meaning to this song, and to everything. The alternative to this belief in meaning is called nihilism, the belief that there is no inherent meaning to be found in the world. We each wake up in the morning and must engage the world after making an implicit primal decision about an important question: is there meaning or not to this life? We are all theologians, therefore. Not all are professionals, but we all ask and attempt answers to the question of God’s existence and relationship to the world. More precisely, we are either theologians, or a-theologians (as in a-moral), all trying to interpret our world in light of our approach to the primal decision. These two perspectives affect everything humans interpret and encounter.
Many Christians enjoy the security of believing that there is objective, absolute truth that we can cling to. Let’s set aside whether this is possible for the moment. Note for now that this song demonstrates two approaches to one song and two approaches to life itself. This is the state of the world in which we find ourselves.
The tradition of Jesus is one in which Jesus and prophetic voices from his followers often present ironic interpretations of others. For instance, to the rich young ruler, Jesus says (Luke 18:19), when called “good” that “no one is good—except God alone.” He takes someone’s misguided words, and points to a greater truth. Something similar is done with Caiaphas in John 18:14, where the priest suggests that one man should die for the good of all. What did Caiaphas mean? Probably that there was a utilitarian value in Jesus’ death. But why is it included in the Gospel? Probably to show the irony and greater truth in this statement: that Jesus’ death brings about good for humanity.
To return to the song, Christians like Johnny Cash have the freedom to interpret even misguided sentiments. This doesn’t mean that they do violence to the original text. Rather, they shed the light of Christ on the original text, and give it new meaning. Thus, for Reznor, the song speaks of self-mutilation and drug abuse and an attempt to jump-start his bleak life (or a fictional life that he means to represent). For Cash, we can see the same lyrics (with one change from a “crown of shit” to a “crown of thorns”) in light of Christ’s suffering. Cash suggests that all our attempts at glory are nothing in the end; just as we see in Ecclesiastes, all these things are “vanity” or “meaningless.” What remains is the Christ who suffered alongside us and provides a deeper hope than that which the world offers. This makes sense, given what we know of Cash. (I heard him share his conversion story at a Billy Graham crusade at Angel Stadium, in Anaheim, when I was five years old, and heard his story about how he went to die by getting lost in a limestone cave in the Appalachian mountains but repented and sought God and life in that dark moment. He may have been rough around the edges, but he confessed belief in Christ.)
Now think about Psalm 22. How shall we interpret the psalmist’s intent? Christians often read it through the lens of christology. They must recognize that the historical context and original author’s intent may well have been one of frustration over an immediate situation. But Jesus’ words on the cross immediately give the song new meaning. In light of Christ, Christians cannot help but read the psalm with the image of Christ in their minds.
This doesn’t mean that any (and every) reading goes. It does mean that it is fruitless to get frustrated with non-Christians who don’t see Christ in the psalm. They don’t have Christ who is the fulfillment of and sanctifier of the despair we see in the psalm. For Alex, he can show that there are several viable interpretations of the psalm. His job isn’t to win the debate over interpretation; his job is to invite his friends to consider the psalm in light of the hope that he has. They cannot see unless they have the light, but they can hear a case that the light of Christ is the best lens through which to see the world. Christ’s identity may be established through solid empirical evidence, by the way. More on that later; for now, note that the postmodern reading of tests is understandable in a world that has no inherent meaning or, as Christians assert (with Romans 1) contains people who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. This is not identical to saying that people don’t see the truth because there is sin in their lives; rather, the point is that sin involves a disconnection between creation and the creator, imposed by the human Fall. This Fall has the inevitable consequence of hindering people from seeing rightly, which would entail seeing creation in light of the Creator.
Suppose people are playing chess. I see queer problems when I look into the rules and scrutinize them. But Smith and Brown play chess with no difficulty. Do they understand the game? Well, they play it.
(This quotation, taken from a lecture by Wittgenstein is cited in Ray Monk, Duty of Genius (Penguin, 1991), 356)
With respect to the logic of a particular game, if I only know checkers and try to play with a chess player, using checker rules, things will break down. I need to be aware of the game I’m playing. For Wittgenstein, to understand a language, it must be used. The idea of some eternal, abstract reality behind the words we use was heavily criticized as far back as the late middle ages. For Christianity, words have meaning; but they aren’t just statements of belief, they do things: they deliver forgiveness, prophecy, affirmation of faith, ethics, and prayer.
Paul seems to understand the concept of language games in 1 Corinthians 1:18, where he says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being save it is the power of God.” Likewise, in 5:12, he says he doesn’t judge those who are outside the church. The business of theology is to keep watch on the language of faith and practice, not to govern outsiders. I wonder if Paul’s sentiments here would lead to accusations that he is a postmodern relativist. Clearly, however, he isn’t saying that his truth is just one of many truths. Rather, he is saying that the Christian ethic requires a Christian way of thinking and speaking for it to make sense.
How does all this matter to Alex? In conversations, or in college classes, he might get ridiculed for not following some secular belief system. Fortunately for him, postmodern thinkers rightly reject the modern idea that there is an absolutely neutral vantage point, or a “view from nowhere.” Alex can use this observation to show that Christian thought and practice plays by an alternative set of linguistic rules. He need not abandon hope of translation or any intellectual common ground, he need only recognize the difficulty in the initial process of communication.
Wittgenstein said that when we try to talk about language games “There is no outside; outside you cannot breathe.” (Philosophical Investigations, 45e). In other words, there it isn’t a way of talking about language without using language. We are bound by our stories and contexts. I believe that Alex can eventually make a case that his language game is a good one—and even the most serviceable one on the market—but for now, it is important to note only that there are different language games and that Christians need to pay attention to the language game they actually use. Is it truly Christian? Or, is it secular with religious language thinly painted on? Alex needs to focus on this question, and let Scripture and Christian teaching set his agenda, before trying to invite others into his language game.
If what I’ve just suggested seems too complicated, remember that there isn’t space here to explain the nuances of postmodern deconstruction or hermeneutics (the science of interpretation). For now, the takeaway lesson is: one can’t simply point to data to prove a point. We interpret all data (whether texts or observations of the natural world) from a perspective. Scientists call these “paradigms” or networks of beliefs. Realizing this makes postmodern observations helpful for Christians.
Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924-98) famously described the postmodern mood as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” At first, this sounds like an attack on Christianity too, since Christianity seeks to provide an overarching story about the human condition and the story of the whole world. However, what he seems to mean is that thinkers tend to assume a narrative about the world that is implicitly assumed to be universally clear to any rational person; it is this particular power-move that is criticized by postmoderns.
I think, that the church father St. Augustine would have agreed with Lyotard on this point. In his Commentary on Genesis, Augustine suggests that there are multiple, viable interpretations of the creation account in Genesis. He favored the idea that the six-day creation story actually reflects the mind of God from all eternity, but that the actual creation may have occurred in an instant. The problem is that there are many texts and situations that have multiple possible interpretations. There are some silly interpretations, of course. There are others that are so far-fetched that they aren’t worth our time. But it is a joy in life to dig deep into the texts and natural world that God has given us, in the quest for understanding. We cannot have absolute certainty about our interpretations, of course, until the “beatific vision” or the experience of God directly in the next life.
Consider a crime scene. Alex and his friends come across an act of vandalism on their campus: the science lab equipment is duct-taped to the ceiling of the lab, with a spray-painted tag linking the act to the soccer team. The students, encountering the scene, come up with two main interpretations. One is that the soccer team was angry about losing funding from the administration’s budget, and boldly disrupted the learning space. Another interpretation is that the golf team has been angry at the soccer players getting better funding and that they tried to frame the soccer players to tarnish their reputation, and get their funding reduced further. Suppose no other evidence comes to the surface. What certain conclusions are there? To arrive at an informed opinion when looking at the scene, Alex can’t simply point to the text on the wall that reads “Soccer rules!” He must bring other beliefs into play. What does he know about the character, integrity, and honor of his peers who play soccer? What motive makes the most sense? Did soccer players have access to the lab? These and other details may help him come to a strongly held conclusion, but he may also have to suspend his judgment.
In science, this phenomenon is described as the “underdetermination of data to theory.” It suggests that there are often multiple possible theories to explain sets of data. An interpreter of any situation thus must recognize that other interpretations could be right, even while holding passionately to a particular interpretation. In this case, many on the soccer team are close friends of Alex, he knows them to be ethical and too mature to be the sort of people to vandalize property; he is convinced, and wagers without hesitation that the soccer team is innocent.
We see, then, that there are many cases in which we don’t have absolute certainty. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a stable truth about what actually happened, just that there are times when we can’t know for certain which interpretation is the right one. We can get beyond a reasonable doubt, but we can’t often get beyond any doubt whatsoever. Christians add to the fact of our finite knowledge, that humans (see Romans 1) have minds that are negatively affected by sin. Christians, therefore, can respond favorably to the idea that we should be humble about what we believe, even when we are convinced that we are on the right track.
There is something particularly helpful for Christians in all this. In our secular age, intellectuals present their beliefs as if they are a straightforward interpretation of facts about the world. Non-Christians often point to data to show that Christians are anti-intellectual, gullible, or flat out wrong. Alex should learn from his coffee-shop conversation that the world of ideas isn’t as easy as that. Moreover, he can use Lyotard’s attack on metanarratives to clear a space for a Christian interpretation of the world. If a professor should comment that Christian ideas don’t fit the data, Alex can call foul. Who says that the paradigm with which a nihilist professor evaluates data is the universally agreed upon paradigm? Nobody. This is because the empirical fact of our present reality is there are no universally agreed upon paradigms. During the modern era, following the so-called Enlightenment, people tended to believe there were many self-evident truths. This has fallen out of favor as cultures mingle in the marketplace of ideas and are surprised to find that there are very different assumptions about the world out there.
Thus, Alex can’t yet prove that his belief system is the right one, but using a tool from the postmoderns, he can at least establish that he is within his intellectual rights to view the world from a Christian paradigm. He still bears the burden of explaining why he affirms his paradigm, but he doesn’t need to become immediately overwhelmed that an educated instructor approaches the world with a different paradigm, which in this case can be called the “Myth of the Secular.”
The Myth of the Secular
A loosely affiliated group of scholars, called the Radical Orthodox, has paid special attention to the way that the West has made big assumptions—or presented metanarratives—about the world that infect most elements of public life, education, and theology. While Lutherans are more concerned with the Incarnation, cross, and biblical revelation than the Radical Orthodox, their criticism of secular nihilism is insightful and in line with theology of the cross. This Myth of the Secular is important for Alex to understand as he navigates college and life in general.
The myth is rarely explicit, but is evident in grade school textbooks, newspaper editorials, and global politics. It suggests a metanarrative according to which human society improves as it progresses from mythos to logos. That is, it evolves from a world dominated by superstition, myth, and religion to a world ordered by reason, science, and logic.
The irony is, however, that this narrative about progress and the West’s overcoming of superstitious mythology, is itself a myth. A myth, as scholars use the term, is not a falsehood. It is a way of giving meaning to our cultural stories. To be sure, some myths involve outlandish beliefs. But every culture has a myth. Every culture tells the story about itself in a particular way, and the way it tells its story is related to its intellectual paradigms.
Alex may not know that most of his “secular” professors assume a modernist paradigm about religion that assumes that, as a culture matures, it sheds its need for religion. This is true even of many professors who go to church, because the methodology they inherit in their studies is itself often heavily dependent upon this secular myth.
The most obvious examples of this myth in action are psychologist Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) belief that God is a projection of our neurotic wishes, and political philosopher Karl Marx’s (1818-33) belief that religion is like an “opiate” for oppressed people who use belief in an afterlife to make the difficulties of this life easier to bear. But it is evident even in the story some scholars tell about the development of religion in general. The basic outline of the secular myth assumes the following progression:
1. Animism: people believed that there were spirits all around us
2. Polytheism: people believed in multiple gods who were in charge of the various phenomena in the world
3. Henotheism: people began to worship only one of the many existing gods, perhaps because this was a chief god or creator of the others
4. Monotheism: people then thought that there must be one god only, the source and sustainer of the whole universe
5. Deism: rational people began to shift from belief in a personal God—the kind found in the Bible—for a belief that God created the world, set its laws in motion, but has nothing to do with the world anymore, leaving humans to the natural laws that God established
6. Atheism: as people start to explain the world through science, they no longer need the “crutch” of belief in God
There is, of course, some evidence for this trajectory. There are more vocal atheists today than during the Middle Ages, for example. And many pre-industrial societies are—even today—animistic. But this belief in progress is nonetheless a myth in its own right, and we can also point to cultures that add gods to their pantheon as they encounter new cultures, or to religions that start out as non-theistic, like Theravada Buddhism, but incorporate local animistic customs in popular contexts.
Therefore, as Alex confronts these assumptions in his studies, he might point to anthropologist of religion Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954), who suggested that there is evidence that cultures also tend to move from a primitive monotheism, to more “accessible” religious practices related to local deities and ancestor worship. But that isn’t really the point here. What matters is that there is a myth at work when thinkers investigate their world, and these myths need to be examined, not simply assumed.
Moreover, Alex should be careful not to accidentally assume the methods of a nihilistic myth. It is hard to overestimate the importance of the myths we accept on the way we handle even day-to-day issues.
Consider the controversies surrounding abortion, for example. In this public debate, language is key. If Alex opposes abortion as birth control, and wants to defend his position, he should watch terminology carefully.
If he and a peer are talking about “terminating” a “fetus” or an “organic mass” his position is weaker than if they are talking about “killing” an “unborn child” or an “expected baby.” The terms used here are the products of paradigms about ethics and human life. As a Christian, he will want to be charitable and gracious in all things, but must also openly discuss the assumptions behind the terms used. For, if he happens to be having a conversation with Sophia back at the coffee shop, it will be more profitable to start by discussing the terminology and the underlying assumptions behind them than just shouting over peers with whom he disagrees. This is both human and also a way toward developing a healthy public ethic. The alternative is the painful standoff within the culture wars the Baby Boomers bequeathed to the “X” and “Millennial” generations.
Practically speaking, if Alex wants to find and live according to the truth, simply pointing to biblical passages or restating positions does little good in cultural debates. Let’s say Alex and Sophia truly care for their friendship. If so, their conversation about abortion should involve an ethic of listening. In the old modern days, Alex and Sophia might have had only three options:
1) see who can shout the loudest
2) agree to disagree and make no progress toward deeper understanding or creative approaches to an ethical life
3) argue until there is a winner and loser in the debate
But another way presents itself. If Alex listens to Sophia, he will discover her unique story, and her personal—rather than abstract—encounters with the subject. Moreover, he will also learn that Sophia’s story leads her to champion several values that Alex shares. Sophia cares about protecting young women who have been abused, deplores suffering for any sentient being, and wants desperately to limit the number of young people in foster care. This is because she has, for several years, been working with a local nonprofit that provides Christmas gifts to children without stable families. The stories she has heard from these children are sometimes so hard for her to bear that she supports any policy that will limit the number of “unwanted” children in the world. Maybe this will come through thinking of all children as, in a sense, our children.
Alex, learning this, realizes that he shares many of Sophia’s values. He disagrees with how to live out those values in terms of public policy. In particular, Alex has a sister who was misdiagnosed in the womb as having a genetic disease; doctors counseled the family toward abortion; he has a great relationship with his sister and is very glad his parents chose to continue with the pregnancy.
The postmodern condition is evident here. Alex and Sophia bring different stories to the conversation, and it isn’t an easy conversation. But sharing the stories, they come closer to areas of agreement on key issues. More importantly, they realize each other’s humanness. This resonates with the postmodern thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95):
To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught. The relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation; but inasmuch as it is welcomed this conversation is a teaching.
[Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Duquesne, 1969), 51.]
When operating in the ethical style Levinas advocates, shared listening draws people closer to the truth and ethical humanness, and also provides a space to confess beliefs about truth. For Alex and Sophia, therefore, they may not leave a conversation in agreement, but they will be free to share their stories, and invite each other into deep conversation about tough, complex issues. If either wants the other to change their opinion, this is the best method. My advice to Alex, though, is that he need not hide his story. Graciously, he is welcome (or should be by the standards of the culture) to have his voice heard, just as he listens to others.
Healthy Christianity in the postmodern age shouldn’t be afraid of “the Other.” Indeed, Christians in the first few centuries were notable for their attention to the Other, including orphans, widows, slaves and even infants left exposed to die because they were undesirable. Does Sophia know this: that she shares with the early Christian tradition a concern for the wellbeing of children? Does this change her understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus? Alex would hope so. In any case, the postmodern context isn’t about everyone leaving with a generic ethical sense; it is about understanding how a greater context and story informs how we interpret situations and public ethic.
The upshot is that Alex and his church should practice the art of being humbly but thoughtfully committed to various beliefs and practices, while maintaining respect for and listening to people with different stories. Naïve postmoderns tend to ignore the commitment part and often dabble in goofy relativism. Nonetheless, that approach seems to be an unfortunate misappropriation of key ethical insights that some postmoderns have raised. All will do well to keep in mind that postmodern insights often came from thoughtful individuals who were horrified by the absolutism of National Socialism and Soviet Stalinism. Whatever its flaws, postmodern thought surely closer to the teachings—in this regard—of Jesus than twentieth-century totalitarianism.
Theologies of Glory
If I haven’t been clear enough thus far, Christians can and should offer the culture a critique of postmodern perspectives, especially when they lead to relativism. After learning to listen, honor difference, and the rest, Christians still need to maintain their identity and develop prophetic voices that provide critiques of culture, even when unpopular. This, for instance, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906–1945) vocation during the Nazi move to absorb the church. However, the way Christians approach their voice in the community is important. I find myself defending postmodern thinkers and ideas more than I otherwise would, primarily because I’m uneasy about the reasons why other Christians resist them: implicit theologies of glory.
Theology of glory is the unhealthy kind of theology that Luther contrasted with theology of the cross. Glory Christians value winning, cultural dominance, self-righteousness and authoritarianism. Christians of the Cross recognize that winning comes through recognizing we are lost, wisdom comes through the foolishness of the cross, holy weakness overcomes power, and God’s gift of righteousness is offered to sinners, not those who have already cleaned up their act. Here’s how Luther put it:
He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” [Phil. 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.
[Martin Luther, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds., Luther's works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 53.]
Followers of Christ resonate with assaults on human-constructed religion. The way of Jesus is a way that overturns the moneychanger’s tables, and heals on the Sabbath. If our language about God is not based on Christ, but rather is, as Feuerbach suggested, idealized humanity, then we are not talking about the true God: we are talking about an idol. Likewise, Foucault helps us realize that “authorized” knowledge in the secular world is only the official consensus through a power play. Christians don’t need to go and try to reinstate Christendom or a state-church coalition. Nonetheless, they can recognize when power—rather than clear thinking—is at the root of attacks on Christianity from outside the faith.
The theology of the cross is able to absorb the goading of the world. Think back to the graffito that mocked Alex's spiritual ancestor, Alexamenos. I asked if he should fight back. This is an instinctual option. But note one interesting historical reality: when Christianity was seen as a humble scandalous religion, it began to grow in all sectors of society. Once it became identified with the system throughout Europe—and especially when it became associated with the state in modern Europe—it not only began to lose its effectiveness, its membership began to wane.
Beyond this pragmatic consideration, if Alexamenos were to try and fight back against those who were mocking him and his savior, he would be missing something important: his attackers have a pretty good idea of what Christian discipleship is about. It is about becoming despised, noticing those on the margins, and traveling the way of death and resurrection to meet God. Alexamenos’ mockers may not have the same appreciation for the Crucified God, but they are at least closer to the truth in their rejection of an arrogant falsehood. If Alexamenos fought back, he may have to do so at the expense of a theology of the cross, where God meets people in their brokenness and humility. Postmodernity, if nothing else, helps Christians repent of addiction to power, cultural popularity, and affluence. Hopefully it will turn churches toward the call to attend to repentant discipleship, as well as intellectual perspectives that are more productive than relativism. The two step process is thus: 1) recognize our need for humility and 2) offer an alternative way that provides better help in living in the world than nihilism.
What is our hope for Alex, by the time he graduates from college? We expect he will continue to be challenged by difference. He will meet people with wide-ranging sexual identities, political philosophies, religious convictions, and ethnicities. He will encounter experiences and data that challenge his paradigm about the world. This is the state of things in the postmodern condition.
Hopefully, Alex will have a quality education and strong church mentors that will help him navigate a three-part process outlined by V. James Mannoia Jr., [Christian Liberal Arts: An Education That Goes Beyond (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 13.], drawing from the developmental psychology of William G. Perry (1913-98). These stages are as follows:
1. Naïve Dualism: When first coming to college, Alex saw the world simplistically. Everyone he met was either right (like him) or obstinately wrong. He trusted too much in the ability of the human mind to be certain about the truth.
2. Cynical Relativism: After experiencing cognitive dissonance (the experience of anxiety when having to wrestle with evidence that may oppose one’s core belies) and having to encounter instructors and peers with different worldviews, students have a tendency to resolve the tension through relativism. While this alleviates friction between people, this immature reaction does little to equip students with lives of positive leadership.
3. Critical Commitment: Graduates of college should learn to articulate their own, thoughtful perspectives on important issues. Because of their encounter with difference, they are humble in their perspective, and realize that they might be wrong. Nonetheless, they have a confidence and passion for the truth they discover. They develop prophetic voices in the culture, because they are able to become thoughtful advocates of virtue in their community.
This isn’t a rejection of doctrine or dogma of the church as such, but rather of a simplistic way of arriving at dogma. As Alex seeks to live faithful life, he should remember that for all paradigms, or worldviews, people experience cognitive dissonance and anomalies on occasion. In other words, there will always be data that is difficult to fit into any way of thinking. The postmodern mindset is, like Martin Luther, playful when it comes to paradoxes. While rationalists (and some Calvinists) were extremely uncomfortable with information that was difficult to fit into a system (like human choice and predestination, or the power of the atonement and the biblical idea that Christ died for all), Alex can rest easy with difficult experiences and knowledge. This doesn’t mean he can ignore overwhelming evidence that his worldview doesn’t work, should such evidence come to light. Rather, he must recognize that ways of viewing the world are complex, and do not stand or fall on a single piece of data. That way of thinking was unique to mode to modernity, and it is good that people are questioning it.
Alex should always remember that the cross provides a helpful perspective on all of knowledge. It marks the reversal of human expectations. It shows that God is known through incarnation, not through rational speculation. He is found in humility; not in the brutalities of the current, fallen world. The cross is, therefore, a potent challenge to the world’s many Towers of Babel.
Alex, perhaps instinctively, was on the right track back when he invited peers to the coffee shop for a discussion of Psalm 22. He recognized his generation’s emphasis on genuine relationships. He made use of the postmodern era’s emphasis on the importance of community in the service of seeking knowledge.
Let’s call this process the “common conversation.” In this setting, each individual gathers around a common text. Each of the participants approaches the common text from different vantage points. Participants need not ignore their commitments as they enter the dialog. They can be willing to listen, and even change their minds, but they don’t pretend that they have no dog in the hunt.
The positive aspect of this particular setting is that it lets God set the agenda, according to Christians. The Word does amazing work on people. It sometimes confronts pet issues held by conservatives. It sometimes offers a correction to the ideas of liberals. It even invites a response from people who don’t believe the Bible is God’s special revelation. This challenge requires a critical commitment of some sort. Everyone must reckon with and develop an informed response to biblical teaching. The common conversation assumes that there are claims to truth about the real world. Those who are called postmodern thinkers do not all share this wager that there is actually truth “out there”, and some postmodern Christians avoid attention to propositions, focusing on story only. But even that isn’t a problem here, because the setting is an opening to the possibility that someone might be warranted in their belief that God’s self revelation comes to us in Scripture.
Alex is a Christian who is trying to be faithful in a “secular” program at a state university. He doesn’t control the “game” and thus can’t create a safe place to dialog about faith and Scripture in classrooms. He can, however, invite others into common conversations he facilitates. By doing this, he can share the biblical story about humanity, where we went wrong, and where God wants to take us. He doesn’t do this by forcing others to accept his language game or his narrative. But neither does he have to be “polite” and pretend that he doesn’t confess his particular convictions. Moreover, experts on the subject of the younger generation share a consensus that young people from various perspectives appreciate honest conversations about ultimate meaning.
A conversation isn’t just about being polite and listening to other perspectives. To participate in a conversation, we need to have something to contribute. The Christian perspective is that it has a message of hope to share with the whole world.
Jeffrey Stout said that too much attention to sophisticated methodology is "like clearing your throat: it can go on for only so long before you lose your audience.” [Jeffrey Stout, Ethics After Babel (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 162.] This can be applied to postmodernity as a whole. The biggest criticism of its fruit is that, while it has been good at confronting modernist biases, postmoderns tend to have a hard time saying something constructive. Thus, the main thing to remember about postmodernity is that it provides an antidote to modernist mistakes but cannot provide any substantial way forward on its own. For that, the postmodern context requires faithful voices from the Christian community to present a compelling explanation of things.
Alex the Faithful
In addition to the Greek graffito mocking Alexamenos, archaeologists also found a Latin inscription that reads Alexamenos fidelis on a nearby Roman wall. That’s all. There isn’t a retaliatory picture mocking the bully who depicted Alexamenos worshipping a donkey. We might interpret this as the graffiti equivalent of “I know you are but what am I?” that is, an uninspired jab back at the non-Christian students where Alexamenos studied. But I like to think that it was from a Christian friend of Alexamenos who, recognizing his character, humility, and virtue, needed only note one important point about his friend: Alexamenos—even in the face of teasing—was ever faithful. Without fighting back aggressively, Alexamenos remained steadfast and held out a better way for his peers. Who knows? Maybe some were amazed at his character and convictions, and joined in the ranks of Christ’s followers.
To present-day Alex, I suggest the following advice for living faithfully in the postmodern context. This will provide a summary of my meandering advice:
1. Be clear about your identity. In the postmodern context, no one is granted a culturally-privileged position to say that one identity is better than another. You have the freedom, therefore, to make your voice heard, and to tell your story.
2. Translate your tradition so it is understood in our world. The work of translation to a new cultural context isn’t a form of faithless compromise. It is the Great Commission: to make disciples of all groups of people. Remember that your identity is in Christ, who you believe to be the Incarnate God. This identity is one that involves mission— engagement with the world around us. Thus, your identity is all about being engaged in the world around you. Don’t be afraid, then, to have lots of conversations with people who hold different beliefs. The postmodern world is marked by fragmentation and meaninglessness. Help be the antidote: share meaning with a broken world.
3. Don’t be surprised when people are speaking a different ideological “language.” Instead, try hard to listen and understand different language games. Then, try to invite people to join your language game, if only to understand the joy you find in your worldview. You don’t have to be a jerk to boldly commit to the view you hold, and you also have the right to assert that you think Christianity is true, and true for all people.
4. Don’t be surprised when people who remain in the mindset of modernism and the ability of science to explain everything can’t accept the divine reality you see. Postmoderns rightly note that science can’t explain every facet of human existence, but that doesn’t stop many secular intellectual environments from sticking to this old idea. Suggest to such people that they probably suspect that we humans are more than the sum of our parts. Share your perspective that life is restless until it finds rest in the God who created us.
5. Don’t be too addicted to intellectual fads. Postmodernity has cleared some space for Christians to set their own agenda, but postmodern thought (even if we could pin down exactly what such a thing might be) isn’t identical with Christianity. Evangelists and apologists learned to present Christianity to the modernist mind, but some started to confuse modernity and pre-modern Christianity. Don’t make the same mistake with postmodern thought. Instead, use what works, but avoid what is unbiblical.
6. Continue to share good news without always trying to “win” arguments. As James (2:19) notes, even demons believe that God is one, but theism isn’t the main point of Christianity. Invite friends to encounter Christ himself, and the light he sheds on all we experience in this life.
7. Repent of the church’s addiction to power. If friends criticize churches for their hypocrisy or persecution of others, confess that this is an unfortunate part of human history. But note that the true teachings of Jesus resist power plays, just as postmodern thinkers try to do.
8. Expect to run into tough evidence that challenges your faith. This cognitive dissonance will help you develop a lively, honest, and effective faith. Remember that no paradigm in this world is immune from tough evidence to interpret. For Christians, the toughest is the problem of pain. But note that despite all this, faith in God is founded on his empirical evidence found in the history of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
9. Postmoderns value community, so create opportunities for respectful common conversations. Consider using popular culture, art, literature, or film (all important media in postmodern culture) as starting points for dialog. In many cases, you might even find conversation about biblical texts to be a fruitful starting point for the rich conversations about life and meaning.
10. Be careful not to confuse your ethnic or national identity with the catholic (universal) Christian message. One reason people distrust Christians is that they too often present their faith in terms and with values that are strikingly similar to their cultural values. If you find you are offended at an attack on your beliefs, ask yourself whether your reaction this is something that should be defended as central to Christianity, or whether it is simply an element of your cultural baggage. Missionaries do this all the time; so should you, at coffee shops.
11. Once we’ve called foul on those powerful unbelievers who once sought to enforce an implicit atheism under the guise of secular neutrality, call those around to return to truth, as suggested in the Christian perspective. The world needs it.
If even this summary is as confusing as it is long-winded, dear Alex—whoever and wherever you are—at least remember your unique challenge is to traverse a pluralistic context, with diversity as the cultural norm. You also live in a post-Christian world, despite cultural vestiges of the old faith. Lament or wax nostalgic if you must. But also take heart; you are now free to participate in God’s mission, as a witness to the gospel to those around you. Learn your story well, and remember that, as the Creed says, you are part of it: you are among the communion of saints. Share this story, learn to make a case for it as the best explanation of the world around us, and be gracious to all. Precisely because you rest in the promises of the ultimate, you need not win ever debate in you penultimate world. Your confidence and stability will be a witness to your trust in the ultimate, even as you speak penultimately. So, don’t focus on being the ideal liberal or conservative; instead, focus on being faithful to the Word and confessing the truth in our postmodern wasteland. It can be much more beautiful than its arid landscapes suggest, though it remains as perilous as any desert.