11/28/2004

Mo' Pomo Mojo

Continuing on from the previous post

After mentioning the first characteristic of the post-Modern age (it’s a transition phase out of Modernism, not an age in and of itself, hence not a finished product), let me digress a little before getting to point two (or maybe this is point two…).

Pretty much none of the work I’ve read on postmodernism and the church mentions the scientific side of the equation at all. This is probably because the debate is driven by philosophers and theologians. Once upon a time those same fields would have been closely linked to science, but the Modern era divorced the two and I think that’s yet another unfortunate development of Modernism.

Scientifically, the modern era was triggered by the work of Copernicus and the realization that the earth was not the center of the universe. From Wikipedia:
Copernicus’ theory about the Sun as the centre of the solar system, turning over the traditional geocentric theory (that placed Earth at the centre of the Universe), is considered one of the most important discoveries ever, and is the fundamental starting point of modern astronomy and modern science itself (it inaugurated the scientific revolution).

Remember people were burned at the stake for believing and teaching Copernicus’ theory, and Galileo was tried and convicted by the Inquisition (however, he was expecting it) and only evaded being burned at the stake by essentially recanting. Old and frail he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. The parallels with today’s Fundagelical church and creationism are, um, interesting and instructive. It’s a good thing it’s just not that easy to pull together an Inquisition these days (although the religious right gives it a shot once in a while...)

The second characteristic is the questioning of authority (hmm, which I guess does go nicely with the digression above). Much authority is wrapped up in knowing “the answer”. If we don’t think there are absolute answers (or, more accurately, that we won’t be able to understand or articulate them purely and accurately), then authority is undermined. This also helps to explain why those that hold authority in the Modern era (in fact any era, as seen above for instance) are extremely threatened by the transition away from it. We can generalize this to say that change is bad for any authority, because it undermines the foundation upon which the authority is built. This may be a "Well, duh!" statement on the surface, but it bears repeating and remembering, especially when we see said Authority lashing out.

These characteristics (allied to some of the new scientific principles like relativity) create secondary effects. One of these is relativism. If mystery is back, certainty is gone, and authority is to be questioned, then everything is relative. Taken to extreme, objectivity is out, subjectivity is in. My opinion is no worse or better than yours, no matter how much it may appear to be. Even if there is something like absolute truth out there (which we might describe as God in some way shape or form), we question our ability to discern it accurately. Again, at the extreme, (what Brian McLaren calls absurd postmodernism – the bogeyman of today’s conservative church establishment) this looks like anything goes. But looked at more realistically, that’s not true, it’s simply an acknowledgment that life’s a lot more complicated than the Modern era supposed. It makes our lives harder, not easier, as the desperate adherents of Modernism suggest.

This drives some people crazy. That’s too bad, because this is a cat that can’t be put be put back in the bag. Postmodernism is not (just) a philosophical school or construct. Scientific discoveries have shown us that the certainty of the Scientific Modern era are not as certain as we believed. Modernism has been done in by science even more surely and certainly than it has been strangled by philosophy. Change is happening, there is no going back, and it serves us best to acknowledge it and deal with it. Sure, there is going to be kicking, screaming and footdragging. After all, it took centuries to convince the church world that the Earth was not flat, and that it wasn’t at the center of the universe. And that kicking, screaming and footdragging? That was some poor people being hauled off to their deaths.

So what are the implications for the church?

The early years of the church were characterized by the mystery of God. The Modern era killed off a lot of that and brought an implicit faith that God could somehow eventually be understood and codified by logic and science. While this is an attractive notion on some levels it is patently absurd. God doesn’t fit in a box of human making. Not that anyone was saying this explicitly, of course, it just seemed in the Modern era that scientific advances would eventually reveal God. All of this was in parallel with the blossoming of secular humanism which was pretty much intent on debunking religion as outdated superstition. Religion was intent on proving God exists, Q.E.D., just as the secularists were aiming to prove that there was no God at all.

As we move forward, there will be challenges to hierarchical authority. This doesn’t mean that existing church structures will disappear. Some will, especially the ones that can’t adapt. Some will manage to preserve their current structures and beliefs, but they will be the 21st century Amish - quaint and isolated, living in a kind of absurd church zoo.

The fact is that most people like structure (especially, for instance, Myers-Briggs ESTJs - and there are a lot of them) and so structure will arise or adapt, but it won’t necessarily look like it does now. Change is driven by the creative types - but they are in reality a small fraction of the population at large. To be implemented, change needs to be accepted by a much larger group.

Think of this in marketing terms. You have the innovators, who will support new ideas at any price. In product marketing this can be faddish, but in terms of ideas this can be very powerful. Small in number they will respond positively to innovation (in fact, in emergent church terms, these are probably the people driving it). Then there will be the early adopters who see value in the new ideas. If not actively involved these people will certainly be interested and supportive. The early majority will follow when the ideas have been proven somewhat, and the late majority when it seems everyone is doing it (whatever “it” is.) Finally, there are the laggards – those who may never adopt the new idea, and if they do it is long after the fact.

Now, the correspondence with marketing terms is imprecise, and may even be distasteful to some in the church, but human nature is, well, human nature, and how people respond to a new type of carpet cleaner has a lot of parallels to how they respond to philosophical and theological innovation.

More later...

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