“The postmodern world is a world which understands itself through biological rather than mechanistic models; a world where people see themselves as belonging to the environment rather than over it or apart from it. A world distrustful of institutions, hierarchies, centralized bureaucracies and male-dominated organizations. It is a world in which networks and local grassroots activities take precedence over large scale structures and grand designs; a world in which the book age is giving way to the screen age; a world hungry for spirituality yet dismissive of systematized religion. It is a world in which image and reality are so deeply intertwined that it is difficult to draw the line between the two.”
--Dave Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical
So, you’ve heard people use the word, “postmodern.” And you’ve said to yourself, “No, they probably aren’t talking about contemporary fences.” And then you applied your high school etymology knowledge, and you decided that “postmodern” must mean “after modern.” Well. That clears everything right up. But, no… wait… after modern what? Well, both “modern” and “postmodern” are words that describe a type of worldview--the set of beliefs, assumptions, and values that people use to help them make decisions and to interact with the world around them. When a worldview is dominant and shared among many people in a population, we commonly call this an “age.” Until recently, the modern age was dominant, at least in the West. Recently (like roughly post-WW2), the postmodern age has begun emerging, and replacing the modern set of beliefs and assumptions with its own set of beliefs and assumptions. Oh. OK. Well, that explains it then. Hey, waaaiit a minute… Just what the heck exactly IS “postmodern” anyway? What ARE those beliefs and values?
Let’s go back a few hundred years…. Say, back to the 1470s, or so. Johan Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press. And a few years later, Martin Luther defaced a church door with a couple of nails. And a little later, a little something called the Reformation showed up (in the West… I’m just talking about the West here). And all this ushered in what we now call the modern age. And then there was the Industrial Revolution, which moved us along higher and deeper….
So, in the West, the last 300-400 years or so (it’s hard to pinpoint the date and hour when an age “officially” begins) have been dominated by a modern worldview. Modernity has valued logic, linear thought, hierarchy, institutions, external sources of authority, order, control, and predictability. Modernity separated people’s various spheres of reality into clearly defined boxes: one’s emotional life, one’s business life (“nothing personal; it's just business"), one’s secular life, one’s spiritual life, etc. The modern age valued abstract thought, expository and propositional argument, rationality, individualism, a focus on the written word, efficiency. Just off the top of my head… one might consider the assembly line to be a good modern approach to manufacturing, and McDonald’s to be a good modern approach to prepared foods, while giant agricultural farms might be the epitome of modern agriculture, and megachurches might be THE ultimate in modern religion.
Now, what a worldview values, it encourages. What it doesn’t value, it discourages, belittles, and sometimes persecutes. People who hold to beliefs and values that don’t fit into the dominant worldview, often have a real hard time of it. But the folks who hold to the dominant worldview have a hard time too, because as they belittle the stuff they don’t value, they are pushing themselves further and further away from a balanced life, and way out into logical extremes. Which is what has been happening to modernity. As people saw the inherent failings in the extreme version of modernity, they began to feel disillusioned and unfulfilled, and they began to react. And to look for something that felt more rewarding… just like the seekers of 400 years ago brought in the modern age from an age whose name I do not know.
And so, now, we are on the threshold of a new age…. the postmodern age. Just what exactly it will be known for is kind of up in the air right now… check back in another 300 years and we will be able to see more clearly what is an enduring value of postmodernity, and what was just a passing fancy or a misinterpretation. Personally, I kind of hope they will have come up with a better name for it by then, too… “postmodern” is a tad on the clunky side, in my opinion.
Anyway, as things are currently shaping up, postmodernity values the symbolic, the mystical, and the experiential. A postmodern person has a worldview that is organic, matrixed, holistic, and spiritual. They value intuition, fluidity, subjectivity, mystery, narrative, pluralism/diversity, community, ritual, beauty. The postmodern person is comfortable with ancient practices and paradox, and prefers to think of things in a both/and paradigm instead of the either/or dualistic paradigm of modernism. The postmodern worldview integrates the spheres of life: all aspects of a person’s life are entwined. There is no sacred/secular split… one’s business is as holy as the form that one’s worship takes. This integration also includes the senses… postmoderns want to include all of the senses in life, as well as the whole body (rather than trying to focus life up in the head the way modern philosophy tended to do). Think fractals, chaos theory, probably anything from Einstein… And, perhaps the thing that the postmodern age is currently most famous/notorious for: radical relativism. Radical relativism states that there is no ultimate knowable Truth, that my truths are as equally valid as your truths, whatever they may be. My own opinion is that there is too much made of this particular aspect of the postmodern age; I suspect it is a combination of a really bad hangover from the bad effects of extreme modernity, and of a misunderstanding on the part of modern people about what postmodern folks are trying to say (But I could be wrong; we’ll have to check back in 300 years). The postmodern worldview looks very messy to someone with a modern worldview…..
When people try to apply their postmodern values, beliefs, and assumptions to their spiritual lives, the result is what is currently called the “emerging church” (sometimes “emergent”, but I think that is actually a specific name for a specific group, not a general term). People with a postmodern worldview tend to be spiritual people, with a deep sense of connectedness to the Divine (definitions of the Divine may vary). They have no problem believing in God. But they are disillusioned with institutions, and with outside authorities, and with what they see as the “non-spirituality” of organized religion. They see modern organized religion as irrelevant to their spiritual journey. “Church”, as it has come to be defined in the modern sense, just doesn’t speak to them of God. And yet they yearn for both the Divine and for community, and so they are experimenting with ways to be The Church (a community of believers journeying together) that are meaningful to them. These emerging church experiments vary quite a bit from location to location, because each group is trying to develop something that is local and authentic and uses all the gifts they have available. However, they all try to heal that secular/sacred split… Church isn’t just for Sunday; it’s all the time. And they all try to live as community in varying ways. And they emphasize the life of Jesus… the narrative of Jesus over the exposition of Paul. At least one emerging church says what they are trying to do is “follow the way of Jesus.” The words “Christian” and “Christianity” have become awkward words for the emerging church, because they are associated in many people’s minds with modern authoritarian creedal structures and subcultures. So the emerging churches try to emphasize with their phrasing that they are talking about a way of life, not a creedal set of beliefs.
Which brings us to the Quakers. When we are at our best, we are postmodern (when it is at its best). But we have been influenced by modern thought, too, almost right from the beginning. Just for example, the early Quakers denied the arts. Artistic expression was frowned upon, and got people disowned for hundreds of years. Was this really a valid expression of worshipping in Spirit and in Truth? Well, not in my opinion…. In my opinion, the denial of the arts was an unconscious accommodation to the modern worldview. And then there was the removal of all outward symbol/ritual… in essence stating that we cannot worship God in Spirit and in Truth unless we deny our senses and our bodies, and contain our spiritual lives solely in our heads. Another accommodation (again, in my opinion.) And, of course, our tendency to rely solely on spoken ministry in meeting for worship, is a very modern position… sort of a box that one must fit into or be rejected. (I am writing from the point of view of a Conservative Friend… other Friends may be able to pick out assumptions from their own traditions and from our shared foundation that seem to have more of “modern” in them than of “Truth”.)
Which brings us to convergent Friends, which seems to be a term that the emerging church has taken on within the Religious Society of Friends. Convergent Friends love Quakerism. I mean, they love it, deeply. They don’t want to go anywhere else; this is their spiritual home. And yet they don’t see Quakerism as a finished work. They think that Quakerism has more growing and developing and healing and emerging to do, in order to speak to pilgrims and seekers of the postmodern age. We Quakers have tried to live out a lot of the best ideals of the postmodern age for hundreds of years. Convergent Friends want to hold onto our best ideals, while learning how to channel the fire of the Spirit out into the world in a way that shines for this day and this place. Today is the day the Lord has made.
So, to make a short story very long, That is what “postmodern” is. We are living at a threshold time. Values are shifting. Old beliefs are being challenged. God is at work in exciting and scary ways. The Spirit is blowing us onto paths that we don’t know where we’re going, but the Way looks green. And The Mystery is walking beside us, and dwelling within us. Intuition, fluidity, mystery, paradox, beauty. Messy, maybe. But definitely hopeful.
[Some guys named Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger wrote a book called Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures that I “borrowed” a lot from for this essay. Also, a guy whose name I don’t remember wrote a book called The Emerging Church that was also very very helpful… I remember he lived on the West Coast and had the most amazing multicolored hair.]
P.S. In case you haven’t noticed, I am not an academic, or a history scholar. So some of my facts might be a bit muddled. I hope that people will feel free to let me know where I have gotten my story wrong, or where my words have been more confusing than helpful. Thank you in advance for your patience with me.