content top

Post-Modern Theology

Posted on: November 27, 2016

Category: Theology

Post-Modern Theology

This past week I was privileged to attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Approximately 10,000 scholars from mostly North America and Europe meet each year in the context of the AAR. The meeting is highly stimulating, but it struck me how it is also very "postmodern"; I thought a word on what postmodernity is and why it matters might be in order.

We ,of course, live in the modern world (modern means "now"), but in the academic world, ours is a postmodern age. Technically, modernity ended in the 1960s, and since then the world we live in is postmodern. Modernity was about themes. In modern thinking, everything can be reduced to an underlying principle or theme. In Freudian psychology, all human activities eventually reduce to the underlying motivation of human sexuality. In political studies, the movements of history eventually reduce to the underlying motivations of power. The temptation to make one single principle the foundation (and essential explanation) of all other problems is the modern temptation. It was the way questions were raised and answered until sometime in the 1960s.

Since the 1960s things changed. Singular or fundamental answers were replaced by multiple and diverse answers. Instead of one final and isolated explanation, there are several co-existing and simultaneous explanations. There is no single reason why human beings are the way they are. Any single human being acts out of a complex set of related factors. One factor cannot be understood in isolation from another. All the factors together form, out of a complex relationship, the experience of reality. If we stick to Sigmund Freud as an example, his act of isolating human sexuality as a fundamental factor did not adequately consider how human sexuality is a complex mixture of cultural and social factors that cannot be separated from the picture. Reducing a human being to one, single motivation very much misunderstands what it means to be human.

The move from modernity to postmodernity, then, was a move from singular or systematic thinking to plural or complex thinking.

Now comes the big question: why is this important? When we think about it, it's incredibly important. Postmodern thinking is a move away from prejudice, colonialism, white privilege, and violence. Since modern thinking insisted on singular answers, any one "answer" was never just an answer but THE answer. In the North American and European contexts, THE answer was a white, educated (heterosexual) male who held all the power and made all the decisions. This mythical "white educated male" set the standard for the interpretation of the world. The "normal" world was the white educated male world and everybody else was measured by that singular standard. Those who were not white educated males were inferior, less rational, and sometimes not even considered human. The modern world gave us many technical advances, but it offered no favours to the human family as a whole.

Postmodern thinking is about equality in a radical way. There is no standard anything. Every experience we have is relational, not hierarchical. There is no such thing as a standard human being. Everybody is involved in the makeup of being human. In place of discipline descending as punishment from the (white) authority occupying the top rung of the ladder, postmodernity talks about responsibility that is shared throughout society and among all members of a democracy. We are all responsible for each other, and we are all responsible for the kind of society we make together. In postmodern thinking, we are co-creators.

This shift from modern to postmodern thinking matters because it is a shift away from the violence of trying to make everyone conform to one standard. It is a shift toward understanding that there is no such thing as one standard. Any standard that exists is something that we have created together, and we should always ask if it is a good standard or a harmful one. If harmful, we need to create something else in its place. However, for many people, postmodern thinking threatens to upset what was always assumed to be true and authoritative. To some, postmodern thinking appears to be arbitrary. The result is that some people return to modern authority to counteract what appears to be the threat of postmodernity. In religion, we see this in fundamentalism, which is a return to the authority of the Bible or the Church against the threat of postmodern theology that denies that such authority exists. In politics, we can see an equal form of fundamentalism, which appeals to a mythical golden age when a select group defined a single "truth" for everyone else.

The difference between modern and postmodern thinking can sound very academic, but when we consider how this difference plays out in religion and in politics, it's not just academic. The difference affects our world and how we live in it. It affects how we relate to others different from ourselves and how we decide what is important, what is worthwhile, and what needs to change.

We have now past both Canadian and American Thanksgiving, and we turn to Advent and Christmas. These two Christian seasons are about announcing a change. Our question always concerns the nature of that change: modern or postmodern?

wrapper background