Postmodernism and You: Religion
Jim Leffel and Dennis McCallum,
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.
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
- 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
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
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,
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
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
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
- How specific leading postmodern religionists think in their
- 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.
the contributors a comment or question.
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