TWO - CHARACTERISTICS AND VALUES OF SECULAR POST-MODERNISM
While my experience is primarily with North America, the principles in this portion of the Life Development guide apply equally well to the situation that Europe in general and Great Britain in particular find themselves today. Most indigenous Britains fall into the category of secular post-moderns, and Adventists have had great difficulty reaching this group. Clearly we need to be doing something differently and a good place to start is to gain a basic understanding of what the phrase "secular post-modern" means. In the following attempts at definition, I am not so concerned with scientific precision as I am with practical usefulness. What does it mean to be a "secular post-modern" in everyday terms that affect the way we have to share the gospel?
It is important to recognize, at the outset, that secular people are not consciously so on the whole. They are not atheists. The secular person may well believe in God, but is not conscious of God's involvement in the practical matters of everyday life. The typical secular person is not hostile to religion, but makes little or no reference to God in the everyday decisions and actions of life. Secular people do not pray before meals, go to church–except perhaps on major holidays–or watch religious programming on television. They do not think about God very often and rarely read Bibles or other religious literature. The vast majority of indigenous Westerners believe in God, but only a small minority attend church on a regular basis. The practices of religion have simply become irrelevant at the practical level of everyday experience.
The following summary of the world view of secular people was
first presented by theologian Langdon Gilkey in his book Naming the Whirlwind,
and was later popularized by Tony Campolo in the book A Reasonable Faith.
While the four-part summary is helpful, it needs to remembered that the following perspectives are not conscious on the part of the average person on the street. These principles of thinking have been handed down as an unconscious legacy. It should also be kept in mind that the following is a general perspective. Secular people certainly do not think exactly alike, but there are some general patterns.
(1) Contingency or Naturalism
The word "contingency" describes the belief that everything in this world happens by natural cause and effect. Everything that happens is the result of some other event within history and experience. For example, if I am a bitter person, it is because of the way my parents raised me. If I am rich it is because my parents are rich or because I worked hard. Nothing is to be ascribed to divine intervention. Another term for this way of thinking would be "naturalism."
Although we would be slow to admit it, many Western Adventists function as though God did not make a significant difference in their lives. We may say otherwise, but in practice most decisions are based more on science or common sense than on what we perceive Scripture or God to be saying. In practical terms, then, secular people live out their lives within the boundaries of reality as their five senses experience it. They are naturally skeptical about claims of supernatural intervention or miracles. The problem with such a view of reality is that there is no inherent purpose or meaning in life.
The second major aspect of secular thinking is called autonomy. If God is not available to direct them people must take charge of their own lives. Autonomy is based on the Greek words for "law unto oneself." Autonomous people sense little or no need for God's direction. They retain for themselves the rights and privileges in decision-making that people once assigned to God. Meaning does not come down from heaven, neither do the answers to my questions or the solutions to my problems. It is up to me to decide what meaning my life is going to have.
A person may decide, for example, that meaning ultimately resides in how I am remembered after I am gone. Others may reason that if they found the right kind of job, or married the right kind of person, or raised beautiful and well-behaved children, their lives would be filled with meaning. Still others seek meaning in art, music, travel, or literature. In the grand experience of great art or musical composition they feel transported into a higher plane of existence. By contrast lives that are centered on drugs, crime, or the selfish pursuit of personal pleasure at the expense of other people, are considered to be meaningless, wasted lives.
Very closely related to autonomy is the concept of relativity, the third basic aspect of the secular mindset. If there is no supernatural, and if human beings basically decide their own destiny, then meaning, values, and truth depend on the situation. What is right for one person might be wrong for the next person. Morality is a social contract--whatever the group can agree on becomes the basis for judging all behavior within the group. Homosexuality could be wrong for one generation yet acceptable for the next. Sex between consenting adults is fine as long as no one is overly shackled by guilt as a result of some quaint notion of morality. If something is useful or enough people practice it, it can be allowed or even encouraged.
On the other hand, relativity denies that there are objective morals and principles that should control the development of society. There are no absolutes. Rather than speaking about "truth" or right and wrong, secular people like to talk about whatever is "right for you." Once a person begins to question, even unconsciously, God's active involvement in human affairs, many personal standards of behavior lose their primary reason for existence.
The fourth and final principle of secular thought and behavior is called temporality. Temporality expresses the concept that this life is all that there is. To the secular person, belief in the afterlife is an attractive concept, but is only wishful thinking, conjured up by those who cannot face the fears and anxieties related to death and dying. It would be nice to be able to genuinely believe in life after death, but the secular person mourns the lack of any solid scientific evidence for it. Since this life is all that such a person can be sure of, it is advisable in this life to "get all the gusto you can." This concept is strikingly expressed in an athletic shoe commercial on television, "Life is short, play hard."
Temporality means that we arrive on this earth, we live for a short time, then we pass on. There is no lasting significance to anything that we do, there are no rewards or punishments after the close of earthly consciousness. If temporality is valid, then ultimately whatever a person chooses to do is all right as long as he or she doesn't seem to hurt anyone.
Summary: The Five Senses
Taken together, contingency (naturalism), autonomy, relativity and temporality make up a world view dominated by the five senses. For the secular person, reality is limited, at least in practical terms, to whatever human beings can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. Reality is limited to what people can tangibly experience. For Christians, however, truth is bigger than reality. Christians believe that beyond what the five senses are capable of experiencing is a wider reality that is equally true, but not usually detectible through the five senses. The post-modern form of secularism, interestingly, accepts the secular principles of autonomy and relativity, but remains open to the possibility of the supernatural and the trans-temporal.
The Rise and Fall of Modernism
The terms "modern" and "post-modern" and their impact on life today are largely rooted in the observations of science over the last few hundred years. Originating in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, "Modernism" is (or was) based on the certainties of Newtonian-style physics, where the universe was seen to operate along the lines of stable and predictable laws. From the motion of the stars down to the tiniest atom, everything seemed to operate in observable and consistent fashion as recently as fifty years ago. With a careful scientific approach, therefore, the modernist believes it possible to attain intellectual certainty about many things.
Because of its trust in science, modernity lost interest in the supernatural, which was not subjectable to scientific verification. Thus "secular thinking" was a natural outgrowth of scientific modernism. Rather than submitting itself to the authority of churches, or sacred texts like the Bible, modernism was confident that individuals, applying scientific reason, could find all the truths they needed to guide them through life. Science, not the Bible or church authority, was the primary source of truth.
Modernism was also confident in ongoing progress. Science would provide the knowledge and technology would provide the power to assert human control over the environment. Through education and diligent effort, the human race would become more and more knowledgeable, more and more able, and more and more prosperous. The end result would be a paradise of affluence, fulfillment and security. The human race needed no God to create that paradise and no religion to provide guidance for life. Thus modernism and secularism are closely entwined. This secular/modern philosophy dominated the Western world through the middle of the twentieth century.
More recently, however, science, history and philosophy have gotten in the way of this vision of confident progress. The butchery of World War I (1914-1918), the brutalities of Stalinist Russia, the horrors of the Holocaust, the nuclear threat and the rise of terrorism have all shaken people's confidence in the progress of humanity. Events like September 11 sap confidence in humanity's ability to cope with evil, no matter how much science or technology might be applied toward solutions.
Even before these events began the philosopher Nietzsche (1845-1900), the "prophet" or "grandfather" of post-modernism, challenged the confident systems of 19th century modernism. He believed that the "systems" of modern thought lacked integrity, since they were always based on "self-evident" assumptions. He predicted that Europe was headed for vicious wars as soon as secularistic modernism succeeded in ridding Europe of its adherence to the values of Christian faith. Progress and security would give way to brutality and uncertainty. Rather than upholding Christian values, however, his answer to a valueless universe was essentially "get over it!" The "superman" would be the person content to live without meaning in a godless universe. While his post-Christian philosophy of meaning is repugnant to Christian thinkers, the power of his "prophecies" lends continuing credibility to his critique of modernism. Philosophically, the "post-modernism" of Nietzsche still has no compelling successor.
Equally significant, Einstein's theory of relativity (1905) followed by the discoveries of quantum physics altered the scientific equation. The universe of the sub-atomic world has turned out to be very different than the macrouniverse observed by Newton and his successors. At the microcosmic level a particle can be in two different places at the same time, two particles could occupy the same space, or something can be a particle when observed one way and a wave when observed another way. While I don't fully understand what I just wrote, I do know that quantum physics raises serious questions about the Newtonian view of reality.
In the latter part of the twentieth-century a rising tide of post-modernism challenged the confidence of modernism in the public square. Our current understanding of science calls into question the stability and predictability of the universe, the very foundation of modernism's self-confidence. Rather than a clear-cut vision of black and white, science today is filled with gray areas that resist neat categorization. It no longer seems a reliable source for a big picture view of reality. A younger generation sees science as just one of many possible avenues toward truth.
The shine is also coming off technology as well. Tools that lighten both mental (computers, internet) and physical (labor-saving devices, automobiles) exertion have proven to cause as much harm as good. The environment has become polluted, we are drowning in our own waste, and networked computers have increased stress and enabled many new forms of addiction that waste time and distract people from useful effort and social interaction.
History and experience also discourage the idea that the human race is on its way to a better world. It has become obvious that a rising standard of living as the ultimate goal of life and the source of personal happiness is a tragic myth. Wealth has proven to be no shield against dysfunction, addiction, and crime. Increased affluence has led to increased stress and anxiety. Instead of a New World Order of peace, stability and security, the world seems a far more dangerous place than ever before. What used to be ordinary decisions, deciding who to marry and what to do for a living, are suddenly fraught with huge anxiety, and a whole generation is "putting off adulthood" as a result.
The human autonomy of secular modernism no longer seems to be a life-enhancing freedom. It looks more and more like a sad mistake, a "false god" that has destroyed hope and led the human race into existential angst. The result of modernism is a loss of meaning and purpose. "The old answers and the old stories are no longer convincing, and ultimate worldview questions that once had some form of ultimate, faith-committed answers are reopened. Such reopening is usually experienced as terrifying."
The fundamental insight of post-modernism is that the confident claims of modernism are nothing more than a historically-conditioned construct, of no more value than the narrow-minded "certainties" of pre-modern or non-Western cultures. Just as "primitive" cultures were confident due to ignorance of the larger global picture, so modernism gained its confidence by limiting the base of evidence and the hermeneutic by which it allowed evidence to be examined. Post-modernism is like a traveler from some rural backwater discovering that customs and beliefs that seemed true and right were merely local conventions, assumed to be universal because they were comfortable and familiar. Now that the bigger picture is in, there is the strong sense that modernism betrayed us with a false view of reality. And to the degree that churches have incorporated modernistic confidence into their belief systems, they will face similar charges of betrayal. Following is a brief summary of some of the transitions society has undergone in the shift from secular modernism to secular post-modernism.
From Confidence to Suspicion
The result of this sense of betrayal is a general transition from confidence to suspicion. Science has betrayed us, so don't trust science to solve our problems. Governments have betrayed us, so don't expect them to solve our problems. Religious institutions have betrayed us, so don't look for answers there. What we often call knowledge is nothing more than theories, human constructs. It is considered healthy to question everything and fully trust nothing and no one, including one's self. Post-modernists are highly suspicious of anyone with "all the answers."
From Stability to Disorientation
Post-modernism acknowledges the loss of any secure sense of order in this world. If reality or morality is merely a human construct, there is no solid ground on which to stand, no basis for meaning. And if the worldview of modernism was a social construct, then it was not a view of reality, but more like a dream, or perhaps better expressed, a nightmare. The collective Western hunch that science and technology were the answer have produced environmental disaster, inequality, oppression and terrorism. Those waking up from a nightmare tend to feel rather disoriented for a while.
From One Truth to Many
The sense that there is no single, reliable construct for reality has led to a focus on "many truths." There is the sense that everyone has a handle on some truth and that no one and no group of people has all the truth. While we are unable to grasp the big picture in its fullness, we are capable of grasping truth at a more limited level. Instead of being demonstrated or imposed, worldviews today need to be marketed in the context of many competing smaller truths. Tolerating a diversity of world views is, therefore, considered healthy in the post-modern context.
From Individualism to Identity Crisis
If everything is a "social construct" it stands to reason that even one's own perception of identity is flawed and/or self-constructed. The self-assured, unflappable "cowboy" of modernistic myth has given way to a plastic self that can take on whatever identity may suit the moment, but has no clue which identity is real. The positive side of this identity crisis is the sense that one can be whatever one chooses to be. The negative side is that image is king and no one can be trusted. There is a hunger for authenticity but pessimism about achieving it.
From Religion or No Religion to Spirituality
The reaction to modernism includes skepticism not only toward modernistic religions and religious structures, but also toward the assumptions that undergirded a triumphant secularism. In a world of many truths and few certainties a generalized spirituality is considered superior to religion with its denominations and top-down authority structures. The replacement of secular modernism by a renewed spirituality, therefore, is as much of a threat to traditional religious structures as it is a benefit.
From Atomistic to Wholistic
Modernism analyzed everything in detail, from the properties of matter to Scripture texts, but had a great deal of difficulty seeing how things fit together. With post-modernism we find a tremendous hunger for wholeness, for seeing the relationship between objects, people and groups, for attempting the big picture, even though there is great doubt whether anyone can discover exactly what the big picture is. The independence and individualism of modernism is giving way to a desire for interaction, for relationship. The concept of "family" is being redefined in terms of "families of choice;" family is where the meaningful relationships are, not necessary lines of blood connection. The younger generation is more interested in "being together" than in "being successful." The community, whether that means a neighborhood, a club, a Sabbath School class, an ethnic group, or a social class, is the place where wholeness can be experienced.
From Exclusion to Inclusion
This emphasis on community means that post-moderns are especially appreciative of "peace-makers," people who build bridges rather than walls. For example, they have great respect for any endeavor that unites people of different ethnic or religious backgrounds. They prefer to treat others with tolerance and respect rather than showing how they are wrong. They are fed up with religions that define themselves by exclusion of others. They are fond of interfaith activities and seeing the best in others and in their viewpoints. They are accepting of gays and lesbians even when they are personally repulsed by the idea of attraction to their own sex. In other words, post-moderns are suspicious of anyone who markets his ideas in terms of "us against them." Adventists need to be very careful here.
From Knowledge to Experience
Modernism prized "objectivity," the ability to know things as they are, apart from the way one perceives them. Post-modernism, on the other hand, prizes "subjectivity," presuming that there is no truly objective knowing, that everything exists according to the way we experience it. Truth is not so much a list of propositions to be believed as it is an honest and authentic perception of reality as it has been experienced. "Truth" has become "what works for me." At the same time, experience teaches that what works for me may not work for you, so an experience-based truth will lead us to many truths, rather than one truth, as was noted above.
From Truth-Telling to Story-Telling
The combination of wholism and experience as bases for truth leads to the concept of telling the story rather than stating the truth. The story is an attempt to tell the big picture, or a part of it, from where one stands. The search for truth in a post-modern world involves the hearing of many stories, each of which captures a piece of the whole picture, each of which is flawed yet each of which is valued as a necessary part of the search. So while the Adventist story, for example, was of no interest to the skeptical Bible scholars of modernism (who listens to them anyway?), the Adventist story is now a welcome part of a larger scholarly quest.
This aspect of post-modernism actually points the way to a clearer understanding of the Bible. In the modern era, people treated the Bible as a mine, rather than as a story. It was a mass of extraneous material from which one could mine "proof texts," or nuggets of timeless theological or moral truth, which could then be "assembled" into coherent systems. In reality the Bible is a rather messy narrative, which contains a multitude of stories that offer glimpses of God, but fall short of the kind of black and white certainty that many Christians have required. There are many passages and teachings of the Bible that are less than perfectly clear. Rather than critiquing post-modernism as much as we might like, a narrative reading of the Bible asserts the presence of God even in the midst of uncertainty.
The Values of Post-Modernism
Where most of us encounter post-modernism, however, is not in the subtle, underlying philosophy, it is in the day to day values that we may take for granted. The characteristics we have noted above set the foundation for the way most people live today, particularly the younger generation. We will list some of these values briefly here. More extended treatments can be found in the suggested literature that is part of the Life Development Notebook.
One of the values retained from modernism is relativity. At the practical level this means something like, "I'm OK, you're OK." All viewpoints, ethnic groups and lifestyles are to be treated with respect. The one exception to this rule: religions with a strong sense of "us against them," rightness, and the mandate to evangelize others as a requirement for membership. The practical reason for post-modern uncertainty is not scientific relativity, but the conviction that the worst atrocities of history were perpetrated by people who were absolutely sure of themselves. Many traditional Adventist approaches cut against the grain of this sense of relativity.
Since all people are respected for who they are and the story they tell, those who have lost out due to misfortune or oppression are worthy of compassion. Post-moderns are willing to invest time, effort and money in practical ways to help people. Agencies like ADRA and Habitat for Humanity are examples of outreaches that appeal to post-moderns.
Living in an age where image is king, post-modern individuals place a high premium on integrity and authenticity in interpersonal relationships. It is considered better to be honest about one's weaknesses and handicaps than to craft an image or "play the audience." The tension becomes particularly interesting where people craft an image of authenticity to use as a political or interpersonal tool. So while true authenticity is prized, post-moderns are usually suspicious of personal claims to authenticity.
There is a strong drive in post-modernism toward personal freedom. This is not a new form of individualism, but involves personal freedom within relationship. Post-moderns don't like to be put in a box, they resist structures that would limit their freedom to make choices in beliefs and relationships. They prefer open-ended situations to ones that are heavily structured. This is one reason post-moderns are usually in no hurry to get married, nothing structures your life like getting married! Post-moderns are also reluctant to tie themselves down to a single, lifelong career. In some ways, this drive is a continuation of the secular concept of autonomy.
Secular moderns pursued individualism to the fragmentation of families and traditional community structures. Post-moderns are much more communal. They are more likely to stay close to the nuclear family, often living with their parents well into their twenties and even beyond. With technological tools like email, they are more likely than moderns to stay in touch with childhood friends and more distant relatives. They value friendships and are more likely to sacrifice career and travel opportunities to spend time with friends.
In a sense, this drive for community is more of a reaction than a purposeful action. Post-moderns have felt burned by their modernistic parents, who sacrificed community and relationships on the altar of prosperity and success. On the other hand, the identity-less self of many post-moderns makes it difficult to enter into commitment or attain intimacy in relationships. So community often becomes a wistful goal that is worth striving for, but rarely achieved. Genuine Christian community can, therefore, be very attractive to secular post-moderns.
Moderns prized objectivity, knowledge and the trappings of success. Post-moderns are much more likely to appreciate the right-brained side of life. They are creative and value music and creative arts like painting, sculpture and movies. For example, they use new technologies to create music CDs of their own favorites in preference to collections put together by others. It is not an issue of paying for fair use, in their way of thinking, they just love the creative process of selecting and ordering the tunes in a way that is unique to them.
Global, Environmental Consciousness
Growing up during the peak of modernist concern with over-population and pollution (think Earth Day), post-moderns have developed a global consciousness that transcends the parochialism of their parents. They feel a loyalty to the whole human race and its survival. They don't appreciate people who make judgments about others on the basis of things like skin color, dress and cultural differences. They are very concerned about the consequences of technology and over-consumption.
In a world where everyone sees everything differently, where everyone lives according to differing theories or world views, it is considered far better to practice tolerance and appreciate diversity than to stir up controversy. In the modern era, nations fought massive wars, killing millions of soldiers and civilians, in the name of ideologies. Denominations split apart over the interpretation of a single word or phrase. Politicians chastised each other's stupidity while often acting like two sides of the same coin in practice. Post-moderns watched their parents divorce over issues that seemed small in relation to the pain the split-ups caused. So post-moderns are tired of conflict and seek ways to build bridges of tolerance.
What interests people of faith in the above trends is how
secularism seems to be undermined by the spiritual, altruistic and global
concerns of post-modernism, yet in many ways post-modernism has not abandoned
the relativity and the suspicion of religion that characterized secular modernism. In other words, while post-modernism leaves people more open to spirituality and to hearing the spiritual stories of others ("testimonies"), it is a personal, eclectic and independent spirituality that offers no more encouragement to traditional religious structures than secular modernism did. Post-modernism is a turn to God, but it is not a turn to "religion" in the sense of authority structures and defined belief systems.
So secular post-modernism opens up both opportunities and challenges to Adventist faith. We will not be able to survive on business as usual. Old ways of expressing faith and "doing church" continue to turn off today's generation. At the same time, there is a renewed hunger for God, especially in the wake of September 11. A faith that is willing to meet people where they are, listen to the stories of others, and exercise creativity in the use of Scripture has a legitimate chance to make a major difference in today's world.