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Postmodernism and You: Religion
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Jim Leffel and Dennis McCallum, contributors

Religion has sustained over a century of attack from modernists. Yet, people today are as interested in spiritual things as ever. Recently, sociologists have shown that 95% of adults believe in God or a Universal Spirit. Books on angels, near death experiences, New Age, Christianity and the occult top the best seller lists. While people are still interested in spiritual things today, the kind of spirituality commanding interest has changed vastly in recent years.

Today spirituality means mystical experience, not truth. We can seek and savor any experience we please, as long as we remain inclusive and tolerant.

The Two Cardinal Sins of Postmodern Religious Culture

Sin #1. Intolerance

Not too long ago, intolerance meant rejecting or even persecuting practitioners of other religions. Not any more. Now, intolerance means questioning the validity of any aspect of another's religion. To the majority of Americans below fifty today, questioning the truthfulness of another's religious views is intolerant and morally offensive. This prohibition against differing with other's viewpoints is postmodern.

One Exception

Strangely, it turns out that one exception is allowed to this universal prohibition against intolerance. For some reason, it's okay to question and even denounce religious views when dealing with what is pejoratively labeled "fundamentalism." Today, when people refer to "fundamentalists" they no longer mean just religious extremists like the Shiites waging holy war against the West. Today, fundamentalism may refer to anyone who claims to know truth or who charges another religion with falsehood. Fundamentalists are in the wrong because they subscribe to universal truth claims (metanarratives), and are therefore "totalistic," or "logocentric," in their thinking.

Sin #2. Objectivity

Postmodernists argue that modernists use reason to exclude people. When people apply reason to religion, before long, someone's reality is being branded "false." This is not inclusive, and it is also harsh and naive, because:

  • First, questioning another's beliefs implies that we can refer to an external objective reality, when in fact, reality is a social construct. By trying to apply rationality to religion, we are really trying to impose enlightenment European culture onto others.
  • Also, by challenging the truth claims of another's religion, we devalue the person who is the source of his or her own truth.

Thus, under the banner of inclusiveness postmodern thinkers actually include all but one group-- those of us who are committed to biblical authority. According to postmodernists, fundamentalists are those who believe religious teachings are true or false, not just within their own paradigm, but over all paradigms. "Fundamentalists" view religious truth as objectively true, and therefore subject to rational scrutiny. Evangelicals certainly fall within this circle because we believe that if something is true, its opposite cannot be true at the same time, regardless of what paradigm a person holds.

Postmodernism and Eastern Mysticism
Borrowing or Coincidence?

Observers of religion are aware of an intrinsic relativism in eastern mystical traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. As Monistic faiths, these religions teach that everything is part of one essence. All these traditions not only reject reason as tool for discovering truth, they even utilize contradiction on the rational level to drive learners to a deeper or higher plane of understanding. For instance, Buddhism describes the Tao as the sound of one hand clapping. The Hindu Brahman is "always and never." Such paradoxical thinking, with its rejection of rationality, is naturally compatible with postmodernism.

Also, neither eastern religion nor postmodernism accept the reality of the world we observe in an objective sense. In Hinduism, the material world is Maya, which means illusion. What seems real to us (the material world) is an illusion. We have already seen how postmodernism holds that reality is a social construct.

Although it is tempting to think these two outlooks have borrowed, one from the other, this is apparently not the case. Instead, they are compatible outlooks which have made common cause in popular culture, often blended with native spiritualities and New Age consciousness. Remember, tribal nature religions also make no use of reason in their paths to knowledge of the world. These religions rely on tradition and intuition for know spiritual things, none of which can be tested in any way by reason.

Other contemporary movements have proven to be compatible with postmodernism as well. Some aspects of the recovery movement are strongly suggestive of postmodern thought.

What do we suggest when we urge group members to give themselves to "God as you understand him" or to their "higher power?" Ultimately such vague and subjective formulas suggest that the content of belief is irrelevant. A higher power could be the God of the Bible, but it could also be anything from the recovery group itself (which is often encouraged) to a New Age concept of "the god within" to the gods of Buddhism. [AA's cofounder, Bill W., states, " . . .the designation 'God' [does not] refer to a particular being, force or concept, but only to 'God' as each of us understands that term." AlAnon's Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, (New York: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1981) p. ix. Alcoholics Anonymous doctrine also teaches explicitly that the support group can act as one's "higher power." See Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 25.]

People might have a religious experience with such a higher power, but one thing is discounted: The importance of propositional truth. Or, to put it differently, postmodern worshipers are like postmodern readers; they are the source of truth, not the discoverers of truth.

The literature of the recovery movement teaches that it is inappropriate to question another person's higher power, because recovery is tied to their belief in the power of the God of their understanding. When you think about it, Twelve Step spirituality is distinctly postmodern in the way personal interpretation or experience and personal empowerment are substituted for truth about God.

Consciousness and Reality

Postmodern thought also dovetails neatly another feature of New Age Consciousness: The way consciousness can create or alter reality. In New Age religion, mental imaging can create new realities, not unlike the way affirmative postmodernists hope to create new realities. Although New Age thinkers have not thus far demonstrated the fascination with political power seen in postmodern circles, they also favor oppressed tribal peoples as more pure than western culture.

Experience and Authority in Religion

Of the several religious leaders we profile in The Death of Truth, most explicitly say that personal experience is the key to understanding religion. Most also call for dissociation as a preface to the religious experience. Dissociation is the loss of conscious awareness of the real world. Specifically, postmodern religionists call for people to leave all rational categories behind before ascending to the godhead. Thus, they see one thing as the supreme barrier to deep religion: Reason, and its handmaiden, truth.

Whether it's Joseph Campbell, John Bradshaw or Fredrick Turner, all agree that we must first take leave of our senses before trying to know spiritual things. How similar they are to some calls within the evangelical church!

The Rest of the Story

In The Death of Truth, our chapters on Religion and Evangelical Imperatives, and Practical Communication Ideas cover:
  • How specific leading postmodern religionists think in their own words
  • How postmodernism has also crept into the evangelical church
  • Practical ways we can communicate with our postmodern culture without losing our grip on truth

Copyright 1996 Xenos Christian Fellowship.
All Rights Reserved.

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