Thursday, April 17, 2008

Postmodernism 101

“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.


Robin M. said...

Wow. I'd say this was pretty clear and un-muddled. Thank you.

One of the things that is interesting to me is that even when one model seems most dominant, the little sprouts of something new are already coming out from around the edges, like the new stems of a cactus I have.

Just when the evangelical megachurches got huge, the emerging church groups were starting, some to sneak out the back door and some slamming the front door on their way out.

Just when liberal unprogrammed Quakerism seemed to reach a point of standing for nothing, these little groups started to make claims of what is really important to them - both non-theist and Jesus-following.

What I don't know is whether some of these groups will turn out to be like the suckers coming up from the roots of a fruit tree that will eventually be pruned away, or like the daughters of a redwood tree, that grow up in a circle around the tree that has died in the middle, just as strong as their mother. Maybe some of each.

Allison said...

Wow, maybe we are on the same wavelength because I just posted on my blog "WTF is postmodernism?"

Maybe if I'd read it first I wouldn't have had to write the post!

Shawna said...

Robin: Probably some of each.

Here's another tree metaphor:

In the rain forest, there are big huge trees, and there are little trees. The little trees live in the shadow of the big trees, and eke out a humble existence. And then a big tree dies, and the little tree shoots up into the light. The official name for those little trees are "emergents".

Allison: Just read your post... Oooh, "the univocity of meaning"! WTF, indeed! Well, offhand, I would have to say that you inhabit the postmodern world, in ways that older generations (like me) do not. When I first read about "postmodern" I got this rush of relief... you mean it's ok to be intuitive and to be unconcerned about seeming paradox and chaos? All this time, I had been trying so hard to be logical.... and doing a lousy job. So I adopted postmodern, for me.... it fits much better. You didn't have to adopt it, cuz you ARE it! Both/and...

Allison said...

"they are pushing themselves further and further away from a balanced life"

Did I tell you that before I came to Quakerism I used to "hear" a voice? The voice said, "The world is out of balance. Balance will be restored."

Part of the reason of why I stuck to Friends is that no one made fun of me when I told people about this. The voice told me some other stuff too, don't worry, none of it bad, but I will talk about that later.

Shawna said...

Quakers aren't usually surprised when they are told that someone hears a Voice. Cuz a lot of us have.

Before I came to Quakerism, shortly after I became a Christian, the Voice said to me, "In everything you do, ask yourself: is there a light at the center of it?" So when I found Quakerism, I felt right at home.

"Balance will be restored." That's a good promise to hold onto.

Raye said...


Thanks for the post. It pointed out some details about the terms postmodern and emergent that were helpful.

What caught my attention most was your statement that we are living in a threshold time. The phrase, "this is a transition time" keeps coming back to me these days, as I consider how things are going and what it is I am called to do next.

Bless you for joining the ranks of bloggers - I can check in on you now, even when I am not in Ohio.

Until Eighth Month,


cath said...

Indeed, I do think this is a threshold time. And I value those who take on the task of unpacking certain aspects of the threshold time intellectually.

I tend not to live my faith intellectually (having to use those brain cells so much in the rest of my life) so I appreciate this post of yours very much.


Shawna said...

Hi, Raye! I'm glad to hear from you...

Hi, Cath! Thanks for posting.

It's like that old curse, "May you live in interesting times." Things are changing. Sometimes I almost think I can see through the doorway, and see glimpses of possible scenarios... but we'll have to step through before we know for sure whether it's the Lady or the Tiger. (Hmmm... that's a little more pessimistic than I usually am about the future; I think maybe I better go eat some dinner!)

James Riemermann said...

I recently posed the questions/comments below on a post Robin wrote on her blog, and she pointed me here in response. And on coming here it occurred to me that convergence is a very different sort of move from a conservative Quaker context, than it is from a liberal Quaker context. From a conservative context it moves toward postmodernism; from a liberal context it moves away from postmodernism. It is conservative Friends calling for less authoritarianism, and liberal Friends calling for more. And "converging" somewhere between the two.

Anyway, here is my question, which perhaps makes far less sense posted on the blog of a member of Ohio Yearly Meeting, than on the blog of a Friend from San Francisco Yearly Meeting. But perhaps you have some thoughts on it nonetheless

I'm a little perplexed about the fairly common use of the label "postmodern" by convergent or conservative-leaning Quakers. Postmodern is certainly a slippery term, used in many ways, but in my reading the most essential aspect is a broad-based, almost universal rejection of authority; the view that all truths are socially constructed, and therefore no one truth is privileged above any other.

I don't subscribe to the view myself (though I am a big fan of challenging authority), but it seems to me that most Friends calling themselves convergent tend to be even further from that view than myself. If anything, it looks to me like convergent Quakerism is a reaction to the postmodern impulse in liberal Quakerism, rather than an example of it.

David Male said...

James - Shawna suggested I have a look at your question and see if anything in the way of a response comes to mind.

I was a little perplexed myself when you seemed to equate, "convergent" with "conservative leaning",but I read on.

I suspect that Robin may have led you here to broaden your understanding of the essence of post-modernism. Shawna describes a world-view that rejects MODERN interpretations of authority and truth, i. e. rational, linear thought and hierarchical institutions. One doesn't have to be a particularly deep thinker to recognize that, "the view that all truths are socially constructed, and therefore no one truth is privileged above any other" is, if true, internally self-contradicting. Convergent Friends are seeking the baby that modern liberal Quakerism has thrown out with the bathwater of rigid, hierarchical religion.

Meanwhile, conservative Friends should not be confused with what are commonly referred to as conservative Christians. What conservative Friends seek to conserve are the holistic, anti-modern beliefs, values and methods of the original Friends, pre-divergence. These Friends didn't reject Truth, they rejected the priest and the presbyter's right to define Truth. What makes Jesus so attractive to convergent Friends and post-moderns alike is his embodiment of the connectedness of all things as well has his rejection of the short-sighted, self-interested interpretation of Truth propagated by the religious and political authorities of his day.

It's a beautiful thing! You can have your Truth and reject authority, too!

Shawna said...

Hi James,

Thanks for your comments. You have good questions. I'm sorry that it has taken so long for me to respond. I was at QuakerCamp all last week, and had very limited access to computers.

Thank you David, for being willing to lend a hand while I was away!

You are right. Convergence is different from a conservative perspective than it is from a liberal perspective. But it is not us moving towards postmodernism and liberals moving away from postmodernism. It is both of us moving towards a more authentic, "whole" Quakerism.

Postmodern thought is not limited to "rejection of authority". It contains a whole range of ideas that include a rejection of dualisms, of either/ors. Postmodernism includes an attempt to understand the world in terms of organic metaphors and matrixed relationships, rather than hierarchical ones. In this sense, both "liberal" labels and "conservative" labels are modern holdovers. We don't have to be either/or, we can be both/and.

As far as authoritarianism goes, postmodern thought rejects outside authority that has not proven itself. One must have experience of the reliability of the authority oneself, rather than relying on someone else to dictate who will be your authority. In this sense, both conservative and liberal Quakers have been ahead of the game for years, because we try not to allow someone else's opinion to dictate our own beliefs. We look to our own experience of the Divine for understanding.

Looked at in one way, postmodern thought says that "all truths are socially constructed." Looked at in another way, postmodern thought says that none of us is capable of knowing everything there is to know about the Truth, and that we need to be willing and open to the idea that there are places where we may have it wrong and someone else may have that bit right. Convergence involves being open to that possibility... sharing what we know, and listening to what other folks know, and discovering the commonalities, and honestly considering the differences... in the hopes that us blind men will find out more about the elephant if we share our discoveries with each other.

I don't see convergence as a reaction against the postmodern impulse in liberal Quakerism, partly because I don't see liberal Quakerism as being inherently postmodern. Some aspects of Quakerism have been thoroughly postmodern from the very beginning, 350 years ago. But liberal Quakerism still buys into dualisms and hierarchies that postmoderns have a hard time with. I am meeting a lot of young people, just for example, who come from liberal backgrounds, or FUM backgrounds, or evangelical backgrounds, who are willing to walk upon each other's turf and get to know each other as simply individuals, than I have experienced among older Friends. The younger Friends tend to be less interested in labels, and more interested in getting to know each other on their own merits... a postmodern tendency that looks messy to moderns, who like to know where a person is coming from.

I hope some of these thoughts have been useful to you. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Thank you again David, for your help. I appreciate your insights. I like the words "holistic" and "connectedness." You make conservative Friends sound pretty good!