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Article No. 86

Engaging with postmodernism

Every generation of Christians has to interpret its faith for its contemporaries. So why is this proving so difficult in the present postmodern environment?

The reason why there is such tardiness by Christians to adapt to the postmodernist generation may be that many Christians today are themselves still deeply immersed in the old modernist outlook. That is the same modernist worldview that is rejected by postmodernists! These Christians find it very hard to reverse their previous thinking to connect to the postmodernists, and the postmodernists reject the obvious reliance of Christians on the old modernist ideas and values. That is why the churches are failing to connect with the young people of today. That is why church membership is shrinking, with the consequent financial stringency and shortage of trainee priests.

As young people grow up they are deeply affected by the ambient world view. It shouts at them from television, hoarding and film. Every newspaper is its mouthpiece. It is in the very atmosphere we breathe. As children and youths we accept it uncritically and don’t even realise that we are imbibing the assumptions implicit in it.

The task of Christians is the same as it ever was - to try to disentangle ourselves from the prevailing world view and to live by the values of the Kingdom of God. These should be the base of our lives, not the values of the kingdoms of this world.

So maybe what we are talking about is how, as Christians, we need to examine more carefully our own world view before we try to interpret our faith for others.

Lets get this clear. As Christians we should have a Christian world view. If you like, we can call it the “other-world” view! But we live in a society that is deeply in thrall to the current world view. As Christians we therefore have a twofold task:

Firstly, to ensure that we ourselves are not contaminated too deeply with the ideas and values of the current world view, and

Secondly, to live by the true values and to interpret our other-world view for those around us, so that they may hear the good news. If we ourselves are too infected with the ideas and values of the current world view we shall never be able to challenge our contemporaries with the world view that applies to the Kingdom of God.

What has become painfully apparent is that our churches are deeply entrenched in a world view (called modernism) that is now increasingly being rejected by society.

Certain issues are good indicators of where people stand in all of this. The gay issue is one of these and I want to now examine how this is so.

As gay Christians we do not believe that being gay is acceptable simply so that we can be in accord with postmodernists, nor because we are living in a postmodernist world. Nor do we believe it because it makes either us or our message acceptable to the postmodernists around us, for whom being gay is no problem. We are accepting of homosexuality because we have experience of it in our own lives and, as Christians, we have had to reconcile the reality of our own sexual nature with the reality of God in Christ. As a result of our moral and spiritual struggles we have eventually reached a deeper understanding of the meaning of the gospel. We would venture to suggest that we have, perhaps, seen deeper into the nature of God’s grace and loving acceptance of all kinds of humanity than those Christians who see homosexuality as evil, sinful and only want to banish it from their churches.

If we, as Christians, accepted gay people simply because of postmodernism then it could be truly said of us that we were culturally conditioned! And we would deserve all the obloquy meted out to us by some old-fashioned Christians. But if, instead, we are moving in the Spirit of Christ to a new understanding of the grace and love of God, and of the acceptance by God of our human diversity, then we are not motivated by a desire to conform to our culture. Rather we are motivated by the love of God.

Postmodernists may accept gay people - the reason being that they throw out the old modernist attitudes and values, with its rigidity and black and white values. But we Christians accept gay people for a different reason: because we see and understand that God loves us (and all peoples) just as we are. To be gay is, for us, to be just as we are. That is how we are, deep within us - a situation which we are incapable of changing. The new light we have received is that the old limitations on homosexuality, imposed through centuries of ignorance, are gone. No longer is every homosexual thought, feeling or act to be seen as a move into sin - instead we recognise that God has made us that way and that we are meant to be that way.

We find ourselves living in a strange new world - it is as if we have moved into a different dimension! There are no Christian guidelines here! There is no Christian tradition applicable for homosexuals! We have to invent it as we go! We are into a new situation and, while the churches bicker about whether homosexuality is acceptable or not, we must get on with living our lives as best we can.

Thank God that we are not on our own! There is the Bible. There is the Holy Spirit, who is our Guide, Mentor and Friend and who illumines the way ahead. We learn how to interpret the gospel in our new situation. We talk with other gay Christians and try to hammer out the principles applicable to gay Christian living. We don’t have to uncover new principles - they are all there in the Bible. They are simply the old principles of the Gospel to be applied in new circumstances.

It starts right at the beginning - what is to be my relationship with another gay man when we are strongly attracted to each other? How far do we take that relationship when one of us is not free or where we don’t want to commit to each other for the rest of our life? What about when one of us has another partner or is married? In what sense, if at all, is a gay relationship parallel with the marriage relationship? Can one have a gay relationship and be married at the same time? Can a gay person survive, even when married, without gay companionship? These are just some of the initial questions and there are plenty more following on behind!

Postmodern gay people who are not Christians are adrift in an amoral world, on their own. What value morals where there is no reliable yardstick for anything? If uncertainty rules then you may as well try anything out to see if it works. In effect you can become a hedonist. The ‘postmodern-friendly’ gay Christian, on the other hand, still believes that behind all things there is a wise Creator who is love. We have ditched old-fashioned modernism with its crass certainties and standards and embraced the God behind the God of Religion.

Too much of Religion has the old modernism clinging to its tattered garments. It will die if it cannot, with a great heave, get back to its core fundamentals. We need to seek this God behind the God of Religion. We need to seek God together with other Christians who are also free from the old constraints. We need each other for fellowship, worship and service. But we also need to go inside ourselves, because that is most surely where we meet our Maker.

God has his secret stair into each heart. Do we really think that God limits his availability to those attending church? Do we really put so much trust in creeds and doctrines and dogmas? Life is for living and it is in the midst of living life that we meet God. And that means everyone, not just religious people or mystics. The job of the Church of Christ (comprising all those who love the Lord across all the churches, and outside them too) is to share with others their living experience of the God behind the God of Religion.

I look for the rise of the ‘postmodern-friendly’ Church in Britain. It will not yield up any of its firm belief in a Creator God of holiness and love. The Cross will still be central. Unfortunately, that church will be probably be opposed by those who have a vested interest in churchy matters. It will be opposed by conservative churchmen concerned with the correct doctrine and dogma. It will be opposed by all who have invested their self worth in militant evangelism or triumphalism. But it will be welcomed by those who have tired of modernism, and those who have seen through the emptiness of postmodernism. That will be a real church. It is going to be an exciting few decades while this starts to be worked out! It will be a challenge! Are you up for it?

Tony Cross

January 2005

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