“Find your truth.”
I see something along these lines all of the time on graphic t-shirts and Instagram pictures.
The statement seems innocent, right? But this postmodern idea that truth is a subjective, personal discovery rather than an objective, independent reality is fairly new in human history.
Postmodern thought is everywhere in our culture. Once you see it, you cannot un-see it. You will not read in what follows an outright rejection of postmodern thought because, although I do not fully embrace postmodern philosophy, it has exposed some blind spots of modernism both in our Western world and the church.
Our postmodern context becomes more of a bridge and less of a barrier when we understand it in light of the Christian worldview. Here are five practical ways to build bridges of ministry in our postmodern culture.
1. Ask good questions.
Postmodernism rejects the modern view that objective truth exists because people cannot possibly possess all knowledge. Truth is then redefined as an individual or community’s set of beliefs rather than a universal set of beliefs. This explains the correlation between postmodernism and cultural messages to find and live “your truth.”
But everyone holds some convictions they believe are true and transcendent of time, space and people. That is why it is important to ask really good questions about the nature of truth. If objective truth exists, then an objective reality authored by a God who is knowable through Scripture is possible.
Christians must be generous, not only with our love, but also with our empathy.
2. Be aware of your fallibility.
Postmodernism has correctly diagnosed a misconception of modernism that people can possess perfect knowledge. They credit this in part to our “social situatedness,” or factors like gender, ethnicity, location, time in history, nationality and so on that influence the way we think and act.
I say “amen” to this! As Christians, we believe our sinful nature and limited knowledge certainly affect our reason. Although God’s knowledge is perfect, our finite minds are susceptible to fallibility.
In a postmodern world, we as Christians who have a robust understanding of our ability to be wrong can enter conversations with humility as our guide. Sure, we will hold tightly to certain convictions more than others, but we can loosen our grip on those secondary and tertiary issues of the gospel because we understand that we are socially situated to an extent.
We can expose ourselves to different viewpoints without defensiveness. In fact, we need different perspectives from those inside and outside of the Body of Christ to inform our beliefs. We can ask God to help us to discern truth from falsity, as we agree with Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now [on Earth] I know in part; then [in Heaven] I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
3. Grow in empathy.
My Facebook feed was filled with opposing views about football players taking a knee in protest during the national anthem following President Trump’s remarks on the matter last fall.
These posts proved to me the postmodernists’ point that different communities understand events in different ways. As I watched people pick sides on social media about this means of protest, it became clear to me that we could all grow in our ability to empathize.
In order to build bridges in a postmodern context, Christians must be generous, not only with our love, but also with our empathy — without sacrificing our commitment to the essential truths of the gospel.
In his book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, Soong-Chan Rah compares this to moving to different seats in a ballpark:
The [baseball] game itself is the same. In the same way, the gospel message remains the same. There is only one gospel message that is being revealed to us. However, we are privy to a particular angle on the gospel message, based upon our seat in the stadium… The best way to understand the full complexity of the gospel message is to learn from others who are seeing the story from a different angle. The necessity of mutual learning cannot be overstated. To assume that one seat in the ballpark… has a superior knowledge or perception is to fail to appreciate the value God gives to other cultures.
We have a better understanding of the gospel when it is a shared understanding between different communities and cultures. We also begin to better “look to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4) and “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).
4. Evaluate your use of power.
Postmodernists argue that those with power determine and define truth. Postmodernists, again, have brought light to the dark reality that people abuse power, even within the walls of the church.
Many postmodernists want to overturn all existing structures of power, but power is not inherently bad or good. Power is neutral. Who has power and how they use it are what determine whether power is good or evil.
Evaluating the ways we wield our power for evil or good is an important action for Christians in a culture that is justifiably skeptical of certain institutions.
Jesus challenged the Pharisees and scribes’ abuse of power when he said,
They preach, but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their fingers. (Matthew 23:3-4)
Peter urged church leaders to shepherd those entrusted to them without “pursuing dishonest gain” or “lording it over them” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
Checking our power and repenting of the ways we have individually and collectively abused that power in the church is biblical.
In a postmodern context resistant to power, we serve a Savior who used His power to reconcile the world to Himself through the cross. When we check our positions of power and reject temptations towards manipulation, secrecy or personal gain, we begin to build trust and credibility with those we serve.
The gospel has the power to bring a plurality of stories together.
5. Weave stories together.
Finally, postmodernists resist the idea of a metanarrative. In Understanding Postmodernism: A Christian Perspective, Stewart E. Kelly and James K. Dew Jr. write that a metanarrative includes “claims about what reality is, what knowledge is, how we should live, what is most important, and so forth.”
Christianity is a metanarrative or overarching story that makes such claims. In a pluralistic culture, individual or communal narratives take center stage. These “mini narratives” are an important part of our identities but can often conflict with one another.
For example, maybe you came from a small conservative town in the rural Midwest but attended a liberal university in a large city on the East Coast. Both of these mini narratives inform who you are today.
New York Times journalist David Brooks put it this way: “Pluralism, remember, isn’t just living with difference or tolerance. It’s the weaving together of different life commitments.”
Mini narratives are important, and these stories should not be minimized in the Body of Christ because God gave them to us. But people begin to feel splintered without a unifying metanarrative to make sense of our many life commitments. There is nothing to keep us at bay, unless there is “a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul” found in Christ (Hebrews 6:19).
This is the hope of the gospel. The gospel does not deny differences in ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, education and so forth, but it also does not deny unity between those differences. There is no part of our lives that the gospel does not inform, and it has the power to bring a plurality of stories together.
My church’s tagline is “a mosaic community,” which is a helpful picture of Christ’s bride. In Christ, our mini narratives come together like colorful stained glass in a mosaic. Each piece is still distinct, yet they form a more beautiful picture marked by unity than they ever could alone.
This mosaic is the greatest apologetic in a postmodern context because it fulfills Christ’s vision for the Church: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Image Credit: Vita Vilcina / Unsplash