How to believe in a postmodern world

How to believe in a postmodern world

People say we live in a postmodern world where there is no truth and everything is relative. How is it then possible to believe that the world has a meaning ? And how should Christianity adapt to these new issues?

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false,” the British dramatist Harold Pinter (1930-2008) said.[1] This quote sums up well what the philosophical movement of postmodernism can be, first born in France with Jean-François Lyotard and then spread to other countries (with Wittgenstein in Germany, for example). Postmodernism is the critique of truth and of the great discourses of modernity.[2] It praises difference by looking at minority discourses. Moreover, it gives more place to individuals with the search for their own happiness more than a common project for humanity (that existed in modern thought).[3] However, for Christians, as for other religions, this way of thinking can be highly problematic.

The problems for Christian believers
First, saying that there are no objective and universal truths but that everything is depending on the people we are talking with, denies the existence of an only truth that Christians find in God. For them, it makes no sense because Jesus is the only truth (John 14,6).

Secondly, saying that everyone is free to act as he or she wishes if they can argue in favour of their behaviour, denies the existence of moral standards that are binding on everyone. This conflicts with Christian ethics.[4]

Thirdly, maintaining like Lyotard, that people today live in a society where “meta-narratives” (big stories) have no sense for humankind anymore, is deeply against the authority Christians see in the Scriptures. Moreover, it puts in danger the tradition of the Church and the importance of the Church Fathers.[5] We can understand a lot about Christianity by reading the Bible or learning about its tradition. If no value is seen in these sources anymore, it will be much harder to apprehend it.

Fourth, modernity and then postmodernism are the cradle of individualism. Today, everyone can choose their own religious way: to come to church or not, to be in different parishes at the same time, or even to mix religions (being a Protestant Buddhist as an example). This process is very confusing for historical Christian churches. Furthermore, the idea that all religions lead to the same God or are equal is also against a big debate in Christianity.[6]

Finally, the postmodern way of thinking has also led to pessimism and to dismissing the role of revolutionary or idealist people (because if there is no universal truth and no sense of life, what is the point of living?). But a life without ideals and without hope is opposed to a Christian way of life.

What Christians can learn from postmodernism
But postmodernism is not only negative, and has also brought new ways of thinking to Christianity. In this way, postmodernism, by refuting the claim of modernism that humans can always discover the truth through reason, has allowed Christians to recognise that not everything is strictly rational and that some things are also “mysterious” in a good way.

Moreover, it has helped people to rethink the way the Bible can be read (hermeneutics) and to recognise that other world views can also lead to other interpretations of the Bible. Not all will interpret the Bible the same way and that is okay.[7]

Thirdly, it can help Christians to celebrate cultural and other kinds of diversity. First, they can have a more accurate view of history by being more aware of the history of, for instance, women or people of colour in the Church.[8] Then, it can help them to understand that Christianity does not look the same everywhere on the globe. In this way, a postmodern thinking can remind Christians to be more open-minded and tolerant towards “the other”, even if he or she does not have the same culture.

Finally, in an individualistic world like ours, Christian Churches can be a place where relationships and communities are celebrated. Churches have to stay places where people can gather and help each other to not lose hope.

In conclusion, looking at postmodernism, we can see where the intangible limits of Christianity are in relation to the evolution of society. Because people also need rootedness and stability to live in a time full of anguish, Christian churches have to cherish their traditions and roots. However, this research also makes it possible to see where it would be possible to adapt so as not to remain an institution stuck in another time.[9]

Juliette Marchet

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[1] Harold Pinter’s Nobel Lecture
[2] Postmodernism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
[3] Postmodernisme (Encyclopédie Universalis)
[4] Christian Ethics
[5] A Christian criticism of postmodernism (French)
[6] Are all religions the same? (French)
[7] Dr. John Oakes conference on “Christianity in Postmodern World”
[8] Not just wives and mothers
[9] Christianity in the face of modernity (French)