24 June, 2009

Essay - Postmodernism and the Church

What follows is an essay/reflection on Postmodernism and its effect on the Church. This paper was produced as part of the Christian Witness in the Contemporary World course.

This brief study about Postmodernism and its influences on Christianity is structured in two main parts. The first one will give the reader a broad understanding of the social theories at the heart of the ‘postmodern era’ and of some of the related issues facing the Church. In the second part of the essay there will be an opportunity for addressing these concerns and for envisaging a viable response to the challenges of the ‘contemporary world’. Inevitably the response of this essay to the postmodern conundrum will be conditioned by the writer’s own understandings of historical events and values that lead up to the dawn of ‘postmodern era’. A helpful explanation for this last caveat is found in the words of Charles Lemert: ‘Whichever position you prefer in the Postmodernism debate will depend to a large extent on your historical interpretation of the present age.
What is Postmodernism?
A good example of postmodern manifestation is found in Art. Postmodern Art is filled with a sense of fashionable and up-to-date trends which seem to reject the value and nature of those artistic expressions which went before, be them modernist or older still. Undoubtedly Postmodernism finds in this rejection a common stylistic or ideological theme for all fields: from Art to Literature, from Philosophy to Architecture. Yet, apart from a few common denominators, Postmodernism is in itself a complex social theory; seemingly real but altogether too ineffable to be proved.
On one hand, Postmodernism is some kind of convoluted mixture of contradictory elements of culture which would not normally belong together without conflicts. On the other hand this lack of consistency is appealing to many individuals; in fact this is the fundamental concept of the globalised world where one is allowed to live according to contradicting standards and without serious commitment to an ideology or a cause.
Wariness for the modern era seems to be the main cause that brought Postmodernism to flourish. Some social theorists point to the beginning of the Postmodernism in the 1960s when modernity ‘started visibly to come apart even though some ‘forerunners’ of this phenomenon are found in the late Nineteenth century and in the period between the Wars.
The Twentieth century witnessed disastrous events and large scale wars as the World had never experienced before. The two World Wars not only brought destruction to vast areas but they will also be remembered for the atrocities committed by several regimes on both sides of the divide. Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the Somme are just some of the darkest moments of the past century. Other conflicts followed even after the dramatic collapse of Euro-American colonialism like. With the crash of the colonial system and the manifestation of atrocities perpetrated in the name of ‘totality’ also went the trust in the values of the Modern society – blamed for the rise of dictators, failure of monetary systems and discriminating ideologies.
Delusion and rejection of the past stand at the heart of the ‘Postmodern era’ as the post-war generation grew distrustful of their parents’ values. The students’ riots of the ’68 were a proof of that generation’s discontent. However, as previously mentioned the 1960s were only the visible starting point of this new phenomenon. If Postmodernism was a simple, generational movement its impact on contemporary society would be very limited. On the contrary, even though the clamour of large scale insurrections didn’t ceased at the end of the Twentieth century and the dismissal of the antique mores continues to permeate every aspects of Western culture advocating in many cases the complete destruction of those Modernist values and institutions which remain. Therefore, Postmodernism should be understood as the ‘settling period’ after the rapid collapse of the previous social order rather than a social trend per se. Due to the substantial areas of influence of Postmodernism, this ‘settling period’ might look like a chronic state of Western civilization; yet, the fleeting nature of this phenomenon points towards a future time when new values and ideologies will be shaped for better or for worse.
Postmodern thought can be broadly divided in three categories. This classification testifies about the inherent inconsistency of the ‘Postmodern era’:
a) Radical Postmodernism believes that the Modern Era is no longer part of our contemporary thought. The Modern ‘agenda’ has failed to deliver peaceful uniformity and economical stability and it must be regarded as part of an obsolete past.
This particular strand of postmodern thought has been greatly influenced by the advent of television, the internet and globalised culture. In extreme cases reality and ‘hyperreality’ are mixed up in such a way that it is not possible to discriminate between one and the other. Furthermore, specific convictions – religious, political and what else – cannot be considered ‘more real’ than others. Therefore, Globalisation can be seen as both cause and effect of Radical Postmodernism.
b) Radical Modernism does not deny the evil which came forth from the Modern Era. However, the Modern world – corrected in the light of these dramatic experiences – contains in itself values and principles capable to criticise social evil.
For Radical Modernists, the Modern Era expresses values which are fundamental for humanity even though in some cases they failed to deliver. This thought is in diametrical opposition to the previous, but far from being reactionary it advocates core, undisputable principles which would be impossible to uphold in the melting pot of Radical Postmodernism.
c) Strategic Postmodernism poses itself in between the two previous strands. It believes that changes are happening and that the Modern Era is rapidly coming to an end. However, strategic Postmodernism seeks to work on the basis of Modernist ideas whilst implementing globalisation and deconstructionism – the latter being understood in the positive sense of working with present culture in order to modify it.
The majority of postmodern expressions are influenced by Radical Postmodernism. However, one could argue that this trend is inherently destructive and it contributes to a loss of identity and sense of belonging in every sphere of society. Consecutively, many social groups have started to claim back their identities, as it were, in a negative sense – that is, over against other groups. This is particularly visible in the rise of ethnic separatist movements over against nation-states and campaigns for sexual liberation. Remarkably radical Postmodernism appears inconsistent even in this case: by advocating globalisation it has sparked an opposite reaction which envisages clubby and exclusive groups of society.
The Church has not been immune from the postmodern ideologies. For example, the Anglican Communion is witnessing the formation of groups which claim their identities by stressing the supposed doctrinal errors of others – neo-puritans and liberal are just but two examples of this phenomenon.
On one hand, the Church’s prophetic ministry was ready to acknowledge the sign of the times; examples of this are Karl Barth’s fideism and the pontificates of Pius XII to John Paul I. Yet, on the other hand, the Church seems to fail in responding in a credible manner to the contemporary fleeting culture. Questions about ecclesiology and mission are now raised both within and without the Church. Ultimately, for many preaching salvation through Christ in a ‘spiritual marketplace seems ineffective if not out of touch. Christianity has to answer claims from for the new religious movements, deinstitutionalised religion and fundamentalist secularists.
Consecutively, the issues facing Christianity in the postmodern world can be summarise in two – closely related – categories:
1) The wider Church’s loss of identity, particularly in the Western World.
2) Apparent lack of confidence in the uniqueness of the God’s revelation in Christ and in the redemptive power of the Incarnation.
A possible answer to the postmodern challenge
Charles Lemert illustrates the current anxiety of Christianity towards Postmodernism with an effective vignette at the beginning of his book. He narrates of a ‘not-unfriendly-monster’ settling in a village and demanding – without harm or real threats – to be fed by the villagers. In a little time the entire community revolved around feeding the enormous creature. Lemert proposes a comparison between the villagers and Western civilisation, but this cameo is particularly relevant for a Church who is franticly trying to find new ways to come to term with the postmodern culture. ‘Mission-Shaped Church’ and ‘Fresh Expressions’ are just two fruits of this cultural struggle.
To undervalue the crisis facing Christianity would be a mistake, but similarly to overestimate it would bring forth ineffective responses and this seems to be the case particularly in Church environments. The Church has failed very often to diagnose the true nature of the present crisis and has fretted about reinventing herself or broadening her understanding of God in order to accommodate a watered down version of Salvation.
When examining Christianity from this perspective one can refer to Isaiah’s call upon the king of Israel: ‘If you do not stand firm in the faith, you shall not stand at all’ (Isa 7:9b). The means for reaching the contemporary humanity can be devised in accordance to local necessities. However, the Church should act as an appealing pattern for society and she can only achieve this goal by reorienting herself.
i) Return to the original Gospel values in the light of our Modern experience. By returning to the Gospel teachings with an informed, contextualised perspective Christians should be able to rediscover their identity.
Quite often the Church has exasperated particular aspects of the Christian Doctrine or has found herself drowned by the loud arguments of Radical Postmodernism. Nevertheless the Radical Modernist approach could be helpful in understanding the mistakes committed in the past and inspire the Church to draw confidence from her long, cherished history.
ii) Reaffirming the supremacy of God and the Gospel. The life of the Kingdom is a present reality inaugurated by Christ as the rule of God on Earth. Humanity is called to participate at the price of conversion and life-changing decisions. God’s rule advocates justice and equality yet the Kingdom of Heaven is centred on and around God, not mankind or social work.
iii) Care for humanity and creation flows directly from accepting the invite to be part of the Kingdom. This duty of care has been part of the Christian experience of the last two millennia.
Marxism, Fascism and ‘anthropo-centred’ ideologies have failed but Christianity can still claim a model of fair society. This should guide the efforts of the Church in advocating social justice, equity, peace and awareness for the environment.
For example, the contemporary society is sharply divided between an extremely wealthy minority and deprived masses of people; poverty is a reality of Western civilisation even in countries like USA and Russia where political ideologies should have eradicated it. Christianity can answer to these problems by setting the example, caring for the poor and being a sacramental mean of reconciliation between individuals.
There might be a few overall caveats about what has been expressed so far, the biggest of which is to do with the term ‘Christianity’ itself. This has become a loose word capable of grouping various and contradicting types of religion. Postmodernism is in great part responsible for this misuse of the word. Therefore it is extremely difficult to draw up a more tangible action plan if returning to the Church is not envisaged.
iv) The Church – intended as an organised, historical community of believers – has to play a vital role in an authentic revival of Christianity. The Catholic Church has moved a long way since the time of Unam Sanctam and a broader understanding of her role in the World was envisaged by the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately, she is quite often regarded as ‘not credible’. Therefore questions about Ecclesiology should be addressed carefully as both the Church and the World are in need to hear a new generation of Christian apologists.
Postmodernism, particularly of the radical kind, has created uncertainties and nourished fears for the future. Its inherent inconsistency is problematic for contemporary society and it could spark virulent rise of neo-fascist movements for the reasons previously mentioned. The Church’s mission should be a practical one in setting the example of a fairer society as well as pointing towards God’s coming rule, as part of her prophetic ministry. However, Paul VI famously referred to the ‘smoke of Satan’ which entered the temple of God and Pius XII denounced the possible darkness of the age dawning towards the end of his pontificate. Therefore, the Church should strive to restore a positive sense of identity, bringing herself out of the darkness of doubt and uncertainty. This is the fundamental presupposition to a coherent and effective mission in the World.

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