Quite a few Christian leaders are actually encouraged, seeing the postmodern world as one where Christianity will fit in much better than it did in the modern, rationalistic, science-as-god worldview. No one needs to prove that the dominant modern secular worldview was utterly skeptical of ‘spiritual experiences,’ or ‘religion’ for that matter. While spirituality fell out of vogue in the modern world, except as sort of an upscale hobby for people into that sort of thing, the postmodern world is unapologetically spiritual. Have you noticed? Name a type of spirituality and it’s probably growing.
My favorite summary of why postmodernism could be a good thing for Christianity comes from Baptist Reggie McNeal in his book The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. If I can sum up his description, drawing from some of his colorful turns of phrase, it is this: ‘God took a beating in the modern world’, relegated more and more to the edges of the universe. Church leadership migrated from being about otherworldy insight and spiritual rites to being a scholar of antiquities and eventually a CEO with organizational science being the chief qualifications. Science and technology increasingly shifted the modern practice of Christian faith to focus around head-knowledge. As a result ‘the North American church is largely on a head trip’. ‘We have a rational faith. The test for orthodoxy typically focuses on doctrinal stances, not character and spiritual connectedness to God and others.’ Consequently, most modern discipleship is heavily unbalanced: revolving around acquiring facts rather than following Jesus.
Just about the time the (evangelical, in this case) church had thoroughly imbibed everything modern, the culture went looking for God. We scrubbed sanctuaries of religious symbolism while the culture started searching for sacred space. About the time we adopted business models the culture is searching for spiritual communities. After we erased the mysticism that was at the heart of most of Christian history for a head-oriented fact finding mission, the culture rediscovered the deep human thirst for spirituality. And so, McNeal contends, much of the modern church is less spiritual than the culture around it! We need to get back out in the culture, he says, because room for God is growing in, (and increasingly even central to), the postmodern worldview. We no longer have to argue that there might be value to spiritual life. Postmoderns already get that.
One of the laments of the church in the modern world was that people were obsessed with materialism and consumerism and not interested in matters of the spirit. But in postmodern culture we find a renewed desire for meaning and purpose beyond materialism and consumerism. Methodist Robber Webber saw these shifts as well suited to Christianity and welcomed the responses emerging from the church (see his books The Younger Evangelicals and Ancient-Future Faith).
So some older evangelicals are heartened that the ancient Christian faith finds itself once more in a cultural milieu where it thrives: surrounded by other gods and competing faith claims, Christian spirituality can point people already interested in ‘spirit’ to the one who made their spirits: Jesus.
New Testament Scholar NT Wright has said it like this:
“We Western Christians mostly bought a bit too heavily into modernism, and we are shocked to discover that it has been dying for a while… the answer to the challenge of postmodernity is not to run back tearfully into the arms of modernism. It is to hear in postmodernity God’s judgment on the follies and failings, the sheer selfish arrogance, of modernity and to look and pray and work for … Christian mission in the postmodern world… and enabling our world to turn the corner in the right direction.” (NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 168).
In the postmodern worldview which deconstructed, and no longer buys into, the meta-narratives modernism had sold, Wright (one of e/E/p folk’s favorite theologians) calls us to living out the true metanarrative of Scripture’s story of God, Israel, Jesus and the world.
Part of the point of postmodernity under the strange providence of God is to preach the Fall to arrogant modernity. What we are faced with in our culture is the post-Christian version of the doctrine of original sin: all human endeavor is radically flawed…. And our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear, and suspicion. (NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 183-184).
Many Christians believe the cultural milieu of postmodernity is fertile ground for people to hear the gospel – more fertile, in fact, than the modern era was. Which brings us to the subject of what street-level postmodernism is NOT.