In order to discern whether or not Christians can be post-modernists, we must first decide what post-modernism is.
We could simply say it is what comes after modernism, but I doubt that that would be very helpful, so let’s back up and take a quick look at the way people have thought about faith in times past.
In pre-modernity, people tended to believe in God or at least in gods. It was assumed that most everyone believed in some form of higher power–even if that form was impersonal. As such, nearly everyone was a person of faith. What is less certain is how big of a role faith played in the everyday life of many individuals. Regardless, because it was assumed that God or gods existed, there were standards of right and wrong, and standards of truth. Not everyone agreed on the absolute standard, but people agreed that a standard did exist. Proving truth was less important than believing it.
In modernity, many people began to turn away from faith and in its place they looked to science, reason, and progress to understand truth. In modernity, seeing was believing. Religious experiences were only valid if they could not be explained away by natural events/circumstances. Instead of looking to the sky for answers from God or gods, people looked to experiments and to themselves do derive the answer. Humanity was capable of explaining all things. What could not be explained, need not be believed. Humans believed that wisdom had finally arrived.
In post-modernity, absolute truth was called into question. People recognized personal truth, but saw no need for an over-arching explanation to right and wrong and the standard of truth was relegated to personal taste. People believed what they wanted and one could say, “well this is true for me even if it is not true for you.” Science began to lose its foothold on western culture and proof was no longer required for something to be considered a valid belief.
Now we are are beginning to approach a post-post-modern world. In this new world we are still figuring out what will be king. Will it be personal taste? Will it be scientific evidence? Will it be a mixture of both?
People are recognizing that 2+2=4 and that it cannot equal 4 and 6 at the same time. Something cannot be true for one person and false for someone else. The question Pilot asked Jesus still proves itself valid, “What is truth?” While people recognize that it exists, defining it is not so easy.
So can Christians be post-modernists?
It would seem that we must be unless we want to live according to the worldview of an earlier time. Many who are leery of Christians being post-modernists are afraid that claiming to be such means that we are becoming relativist and that we no longer believe that the Bible is our standard of truth. But this is really not the case.
I believe in absolute truth, but I recognize that I do not always understand truth as I should. We have all been there. Someone tells us some information and we think it true and later we realize that the person lied to us. We believed a lie and misclassified it as being a truth. But in reality every day we are presented with truth claims and we must constantly classify and reclassify those claims as we learn more information.
Christians believe that the Bible is God’s Word and that as such, it is true. But we must seek to understand what the Bible actually claims and what we mistakenly think it claims based on our own reading of the text. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the savior of the world and that he is the only way to salvation. But we must determine how much one needs to know/believe in order to be saved. Christians believe that science has good information to offer; information that helps us better understand our world, God’s natural laws, and order of the universe. Christians also believe that genuine religious experiences are possible, even when they seem to be explained by natural causes. After all, God can use natural circumstances to interact with humanity.
Where we must be careful is making truth a matter of taste. A Christian is not a relativist. A Christian does not see truth as a matter of taste. Rather, truth comes from God. God is absolute truth. But no Christian fully comprehends God. As a result, we cannot say that we know everything that is true. What we can say is that the Bible is clear on some teachings and it is less clear on others. When the Bible is less clear, we make educated guesses about how to understand those passages.
Christians should not be afraid of post-modernism. In many ways it is our friend. It allows us to say that we don’t need evidence to justify our belief in God. It allows us to say that others can experience what we have experienced when they believe in Christ. It allows us to appeal to personal testimony. But make no mistake, Christianity stands firm under the toughest scrutiny. It is philosophically and scientifically sound. But the element of faith that transcends human reason is also necessary for it to make sense. Christianity does not fit into modernity or post-modernity wholesale. But it has a place in both worldviews.
Christians should be about the business of redeeming all that is in this world. With a proper understanding of the post-modern worldview, the Christian can calculate what in it needs redeeming and what is already in line with the Truth given to us by God. As Christians work and breathe and live in post-modern society, we can present the Gospel in new innovative ways that will appeal to taste and present absolute truth.
Dr. Scott Shiffer has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute and has been teaching religion classes since 2006. He leads Transformation Media Ministries, an organization to help believers think biblically about culture in America. Scott has given numerous presentations including one at Oxford. He has spoken at church retreats, youth retreats, conferences, and has taught discipleship classes for over 10 years. Scott is married and has three children. He has a heart for helping believers draw closer to God and for aiding them as they are faced with new challenges in America every day.