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Article No. 88

How to approach a postmodernist - Part One

This is going to be a bit wishy-washy! You will have to forgive me my uncertainty and be tolerant as I try to feel my way forward in what is for me an unfamiliar subject. I am no expert on these things - but then, who is?

If, as a gay Christian, I want to talk to a postmodernist and get to some point of real communication I am going to have to adjust to some extent to the way he thinks. Paul did it in Athens. We all do this all the time. To take an extreme example, if you meet someone from far away you start by trying to ‘make conversation‘, as we say. You look for matters of common interest. We even do with each other here in Britain! For example, how many conversations start with talking about the weather!

So how do I start to talk the language of a postmodernist? Well, I first have to recognize that there is a problem about our communication. I have to see that we need to open our thinking out so as to meet in conversation. Let me illustrate by taking a common saying that has some popularity these days. Have you noticed how all sorts of people use the phrase ‘talking (or thinking) outside the box’? You meet it in all sorts of areas of life. Why is such a saying so popular - why has it caught hold of people’s attention and stuck in their mind? Simply because it fits where they are at. Many people today - indeed, probably all of us to some extent - are adjusting ourselves to the practice of ‘thinking outside the box’. We have to. If we didn’t we would perceive ourselves as old fashioned, stick in the mud, not going with the flow of life today. In other words, we have all become accustomed of having our thinking challenged and having to change the way we look at things. It is the common experience of us all.

So why is it that we are all in this state of revising our ideas on all sorts of matters from gay sexuality to whether we should have smaller cars? It is because life has changed radically in the last x years (I can never decide whether to say ‘fifty years’ and encompass my own life time, or a hundred years which is a nice round figure, or three hundred years which takes us back to Renaissance times! I leave it to you to fill in which ever figure appeals to you!) It was not like this in olden days. Although change was always in course, it was much slower and people were more set in their ways. Read the novels of Trollope or Dickens. Life was accepted as static. For many people change was seen as a threat, not an opportunity. People wanted to maintain the status quo at all costs. The Lord in his manor, the Clergyman in his church, the Squire in his mansion, the poor man in his hovel - that is how life went on and woe betide anyone who rocked the boat!

We live in more exciting times. Change is built into the very fabric of our lives. And so we are all more or less accustomed to accepting it as part of our normal life.

This is why we are all accustomed to the idea that we have to get outside the old fixed ways of thinking - we have to learn to think outside the box. There is nothing strange about it - it simply means that we are accustomed to have our basic beliefs questioned and overturned.

When it comes to religious beliefs, the same applies. People are thinking outside the box in their ideas about God too. They turn away from the old musty and dusty ‘pews and hymnbooks’ concept of religion. They just cannot and will not accept all the old ideas passed down from generation to generation about not only God but also how one should behave, what is important, our attitudes of guilt before God etc.

But in addition to this major change in our overall attitude to life and everything, there is also a new very important factor. It might be summed up in one word: uncertainty.

It is apparent on the surface of our lives - our ideas have had to change on so many things taken for granted by previous generations. I suppose Galileo was in at the start when he reversed popular ideas by asserting that the world circled the sun and not the other way round. Uncertainty now applies to almost everything. The old morality has been largely overthrown - not by revolution but by evolution - people seem to just ignore the old precepts these days. The old conventions - you text nowadays rather than write a letter. The old ways - the family seldom if ever gets into one room for a meal together - unless, perhaps, on trays while they watch television.

But there is a much deeper uncertainty that is beginning to percolate to the grass roots of society. It has been known in the scientific world for many decades but now, through articles in the press and books and television, it is being disseminated everywhere: the idea that what we thought we knew about the very basic structure of our universe was wrong. Instead of the usual cause and effect we are so accustomed to in everyday life, we are discovering that there is not the same certainty in the basic structure of things. In fact we are puzzled and lost for an explanation. This filters into the popular press in articles about whether this world is a computer game and we are all just puppets. Or whether there is an infinity of universes which ‘split off’ (whatever that means!) from our own universe at each new departure. Or whether there are actually eleven (or nine or whatever) universes all curled up together at the same time - some so small that we have not yet discovered where they are. Or that time may actually be flowing backwards and not forwards as it appears to do to us. And so on ad infinitum.

There is a ferment going on about our concept of the universe in which we live. And there are very few answers - just more questions.

At a deeper level we are even unsure whether we can understand all these new things - maybe they are beyond us and always will be. After all, we now all believe that we are the latest product of evolution and so maybe we will have to wait another thirty thousand years before humankind can really understand.

So all, sorts of ideas and concepts are flying around - and they all challenge and eat away at the foundations of belief. Is it any wonder? We live in turbulent times and it is exciting - except to those who want to adhere to the old ways and for whom change is a threat and not an opportunity.

And who are included in this group? Why, religious people. Or at least, many of them. Those who have not yet come aboard that all the ideas and concepts of yesteryear are really going to have to be thrown out of the window and a whole new way of living our religion is called for.

In other words, religious people are going to have to think outside the box.

And this applies to all people of religious conviction. We all have to reassess our faith to decide what is important, what is vital. And then we are going to have to dispense with the rest. Junk it! It takes courage!

We are into a huge subject and it needs a book rather than an article! But let me try to address the question I started with. How do I start to talk to a postmodernist? I start by examining my assumptions and my whole frame of thought and I start by jettisoning everything that is not

A essential for my basic faith, and, insofar as possible,

B comprehensible to the postmodernist.

and the first thing we have to recognise is that modernism is old hat to the postmodernist. He sees it everywhere (because it is everywhere) and he rejects it. He is dead set against it. He may not always see it quite as clearly as that yet - but that is where he is coming from. If I refuse to adapt to that then he just won’t hear my message.

So if I just trot out the good news of the gospel in the same old way, he won’t hear me. It is as difficult as talking gay sexuality to my grandmother! The two minds just don’t meet.

The traditional attitude for Christians is to challenge and confront people with the challenge that they are sinners and need the salvation of Jesus Christ. Sometimes is stated baldly; sometimes it is expressed gently and in a more acceptable manner. We have become well used to having that message rejected - but at least those who heard it understood (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to some extent what we were talking about. Not any more. Now we are in a much more difficult situation, where our traditional world view - our set of ideas about how the world works and what it is for - is like one tectonic plate grinding another tectonic plate labelled ‘postmodern ideas‘. We are finding ourselves unable to ‘get through’ to younger people today.

We must start by reassessing not how we speak the gospel but what the gospel is. I don’t mean change the gospel; I don‘t want to trim the gospel to make it attractive. That doesn’t work anyway! To address the manner of our presentation is not enough because it fails to deal with our own modernist ideas - those ideas founded on the now out of date concepts of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. The assumption that man is master of his fate and in control. That war and poverty are only blips on the screen and that man will progress in due course to a much better state and time where he is able to deal with things like hatred and fighting and starvation of the millions. That there is a settled order to things and that we can ignore all this stuff about uncertainty and different universes. That we just need a return to good old fashioned values - ‘family values’ in fact!

It won’t do! It just won’t do! We are in a much more radical position. Take sexuality as an example of what I mean. It is absolutely absurd to pretend that we can ever get back to the ’good old ways’. In order to do that we would have to ignore what has been painfully learned through the past century. Life is never going to get back to ‘normal’. We are on a bumpy helter skelter of a ride and we cannot get off, no matter how much we would wish that.

How does one approach a postmodernist to communicate the gospel? Only after much self-reflection. Only after one has re-examined one’s own views and submitted oneself to rigorous self examination to see how much of the modernist outlook and values have taken hold in our lives. Then we re-assess how to approach him. That must be the subject of our next article.

Tony Cross

January 2005

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