The world in which we live is changing. For the past three hundred years we have been part of an age called modernity.
The modern age is now giving way to a postmodern age. This transformation will change how people view the world, how they understand reality and truth, and how they approach the fundamental questions of life.
This will have a tremendous impact on Christianity. The church has its roots in an ancient pre-modern Mediterranean worldview. Slowly it has accommodated itself to the modern world. But many critics wonder whether it will be able to survive the shift to the postmodern age.
the pre-modern worldview
The pre-modern worldview developed during the time of the ancient temple-state, in which an alliance of king and priesthood closely intertwined religion and political power. Religion’s role was to legitimize the king’s rule by providing a moral and religious authority for his decrees. The king was viewed as God’s representative on earth. He was sometimes spoken of as the “Son of God” (as was ancient Israel’s King David), and was sometimes seen as divine himself. To these ancient societies the ruler and the social order reflected the will of God on earth.
The pre-modern worldview is thus characterized by an unquestioning acceptance of authority and a belief in absolute truths. Pre-modern people believe what they are told by authority figures, both religious and secular. They trust religion to provide the answers to life’s mysteries.
The Bible is a product of two pre-modern societies. The priests of ancient Israel produced the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament, and evangelists of early Christian communities produced the New Testament. The pre-modern view of the world represented in these documents was accepted without question by the audiences to which they were written.
the modern worldview
The modern worldview began in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Modernity was founded on the pursuit of objective knowledge and the scientific method. It is characterized by a questioning of authority and tradition. Modernity believes that truth is based on facts. In the modern worldview, people should believe only what they can observe. Modernity trusts the power of reason and critical thinking to solve the world’s problems. It looks to science, and not to religion, to provide the answers to life’s mysteries. Modern people have often developed an optimistic faith in the progress of humanity through knowledge, scientific inquiry, innovation, invention, and rational thought.
The rise of modernism led to the rise of secularism. The two go hand in hand. Secularism is defined as a system of ideas or practices that rejects the primacy of religion in our corporate life. In its hard form, secularism is atheistic. It denies the reality of God. But in its softer, more widespread form, it accepts God’s reality but rejects the church as a controlling force in the life of the national community. It believes that the church and state should be separate entities in modern life. This doesn’t mean that individual faith cannot inform our politics; it simply means that the state should not sponsor a particular religion and give it preferential treatment and power. In this sense, the founding fathers of the United States were secularists.
As modernity developed and spread, an intense reaction developed among religious traditionalists firmly entrenched in a pre-modern worldview, primarily within the religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Beginning nearly 300 years ago, European biblical scholars began to question the literal truth of the biblical accounts, both in the Old and New Testaments. Nothing was considered sacred. The virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, and his resurrection were all subjected to scrutiny and question. The doubts posed by modern philosophers, biblical scholars, and theologians threatened traditional religious dogma.
As a result, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reactionary religious movements tried to reinforce traditional religious fundamentals and re-establish belief in the literal truth of the biblical stories.
If modernity wanted to deal with factuality, the fundamentalists responded in kind. They were not content to simply say that the Bible expressed eternal truths or that its stories were metaphorically true. Now they demanded that Christians accept scripture as factually and literally true. Even texts that for centuries had been regarded as metaphorical, now assumed the status of factuality.
By the 1920s, the pre-modern worldview of the fundamentalists came into increasing conflict with modern secular thought. The clash between the two sides created a crisis in the church, particularly over the theory of evolution and the literal acceptance of the creation account in Genesis. The 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” was a public battle between these two competing positions and marked the transition point at which modernity became the new majority worldview in American society. Over eighty years later, Christian fundamentalists continue to demand that public school districts teach the parable of creation as “creation science” alongside the scientific theory of evolution.
the church in the global south
The modern worldview is not in the majority everywhere. On a worldwide basis, Christianity continues to embrace a pre-modern worldview. In the Global South (the areas that we often call the Third World) huge and growing Christian populations—currently 480 million in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, and 313 million in Asia (compared with 260 million in North America)—now make up what the Catholic scholar Walbert Buhlmann has called the Third Church. It is a form of Christianity as distinct as Protestantism or Orthodoxy, and one that is likely to become the dominant Christian faith on the globe.
There is increasing tension between what one might call a liberal Northern Reformation, in which many U.S. and European churches have embraced modernity, and a conservative Southern Counter-Reformation, in which the Third World churches are staunchly pre-modern. The church in the Global South is unfortunately dominated by the pre-modern institution of patriarchy with all of its negative implications, including subjugation of women and abhorrence of gays. An enormous rift seems inevitable and global denominations spend enormous effort and time calling for unity while seemingly irreconcilable theological differences drive the two factions apart.
In the twenty-first century, Christians are facing a shrinking population in the “Liberal West” and a growing majority of the “Conservative Rest.” During the past half-century the critical centers of the Christian world have moved decisively to Africa, to Latin America, and to Asia, and the balance will never shift back.
The growth in Africa has been relentless. In 1900, Africa had just 10 million Christians out of a continental population of 107 million—about nine percent. Today the Christian total stands at 360 million out of 784 million, or 46 percent. And that percentage is likely to continue rising, because Christian African countries have some of the world’s most dramatic rates of population growth. Meanwhile, the advanced industrial countries are experiencing a dramatic birth dearth.
Within the next twenty-five years, the population of the world’s Christians is expected to grow to 2.6 billion (making Christianity by far the world’s largest faith). By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent will be in Asia. Those proportions will grow steadily. By about 2050 the United States will still have the largest single contingent of Christians, but all the other leading nations will be Southern—Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. By then the proportion of non-Latino whites among the world’s Christians will have fallen to perhaps one in five.
The vast majority of Christians remain divided into pre-modern and modern camps. Yet, while these two worldviews continue to spar, a new group of people in the industrial West has declared them both irrelevant.
the postmodern worldview
A new historical epoch is unfolding before our eyes. It began about the middle of the twentieth century and is continuing to develop today. For lack of the better designation it is being called postmodernism—the successor of modernism. We are not sure how it will play out in the long term, but some initial observations are being made about its nature.
Postmodernity is a different reaction to modernity. Postmodern people are essentially disenchanted modernists. They are convinced that human reason and cleverness cannot achieve the happiness we seek. They have witnessed the environmental ravages of the industrial revolution, the bloody history of the twentieth century, and continued misery, poverty and hunger around the globe. None of these problems were solved by scientific knowledge. On the contrary, the by-products of science and the industrial revolution exacerbated many of our human problems. Science has provided cures to disease, but it has also created the threat of global warming and nuclear annihilation. In fact, the bombing of Hiroshima and the resulting nuclear arms race may have been the spark that marked the demise of modernity and ignited the rapid rise of a global postmodern culture.
But, unlike fundamentalism, postmodernism does not seek to return to an earlier time. Nor does it see a return to authoritarian religion as the answer. Postmodernism is characterized by the belief that both religion and science have failed us. Neither can be trusted to provide the answers to life’s mysteries or to solve life’s perplexing problems.
truth and experience
Postmodern people reject the notion of absolute truth. They no longer trust authority and they reject any institution that claims to have a claim on the truth. They have become highly suspicious of facts. They believe that all truth, even to some extent scientific knowledge, is subjective, biased, and socially constructed. Truth depends on what one’s culture regards as truth. Therefore the truth is not really true.
In the postmodern worldview, people become their own authority and accept only what they personally experience. There is a sense that feeling is all that counts because, in the end, feeling is all there is. The postmodern attitude is, “If I can feel it, if I can touch it, then it must be true.”
Among postmoderns there is a pervasive cultural pessimism that is cynical about political and ideological grandstanding of authorities and institutions. In a century of bombs, holocausts, and ecological disasters, many people have become disillusioned with their inherited faiths, the institutional church, political parties, and the political process. In the United States, Watergate and the Vietnam War created a pervasive anti-institutional mood among Baby Boomers, and it has spread to their children. As a result, voter apathy is on the rise and church membership is on the decline.
Generation Xers are deeply suspicious of grand claims. They see life as complex and they distrust simple solutions. Churches which claim they have the last and final word on everything will find it very hard to attract this generation who cannot believe that there is just ‘one way for all’. They will look at Christianity as one of the many options that can be considered in a world in which they see each person as finding his or her own truth and meaning.
In the 1990s, the TV program “The X-Files” contrasted the modern and postmodern paradigms. FBI agent Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, was the epitome of the modern scientific approach to life. Agent Mulder Fox, played by David Duchovny, however, was a postmodern person who cautioned us to “trust no one” in authority and to believe that, although we do not yet fully comprehend it, “the truth is out there.” Whereas Scully trusted her head, Mulder trusted only his experience.
the roots of postmodernism
The movement from modernity to postmodernity in America began with the Baby Boomers. Born between 1946 and 1964, this was the first generation raised under the threat of nuclear weapons. Boomers knew in their guts that science had created a demon that could destroy the world. They saw their school and church basements filled with civil defense emergency supplies, they practiced ineffective “duck and cover” drills in classrooms, and they listened to their parents discuss the need for backyard fallout shelters.
In the 1960s, they observed the unmasking of the entrenched racism, sexism and militarism that pervaded American culture. And they reacted to it with protests and social action. The only authority figures that they trusted were assassinated—first John Kennedy in 1963, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968.
In all of these issues they saw the traditional church as a complicit conspirator with the prevailing societal powers in a culture of rigid moralism, oppression and violence.
The Baby Boom generation began a search for a more authentic faith, away from authoritarian religion and toward experiential spirituality. Their suspicion towards pre-packaged truths of religious institutions led them to seek spirituality in many new forms—charismatic Christianity, Eastern religions, and New Age spirituality.
When the Baby Boomers had children, their sons and daughters exhibited the same characteristics—but to an even greater degree. The attitudes and traits that are attributed to Generation X, born between 1965 and 1981, are often precisely those that researchers have identified as typical of the Baby Boomer generation. The difference lies in that the young men and women of Generation X have held these values from childhood. Generation Y, born after 1982, are carrying these ideas even further.
Observers are discovering that this shift in attitudes is indicative of a fundamental change around the globe. In many respects, Europeans are ahead of Americans in the move to postmodernity. The abandonment of traditional Christianity is certainly much stronger there.
Historical epochs are not neatly separated. They are not lined up end to end. It is possible to continue to live in an era that is essentially over. While one era prevails, its successor is already forming, and its predecessor continues to exert influence for a very long time.
These three worldviews—pre-modern, modern, and postmodern—coexist side-by-side today in all parts of American culture. But it is particularly apparent in our churches. Some Christians accept what they are told by religious authorities. Others question authority and use reason as a guide. Still others reject institutional religion and trust only their own spiritual experiences. But regardless of generation, culture, or attitude, we all are moving together toward a postmodern world. And the movement is rapidly accelerating.