Post-Modernism: Our 21st Century Context
Once, while sitting at Starbucks talking with another believer about spiritual things – specifically the Word of God – another man, someone in his early 40’s, chimed in. He said he heard us talking about the Bible and he wanted to know if I believed the Book of Job was inspired. I responded in the affirmative, as I believe all of Scripture is inspired. He then began railing against the inspiration of Job, saying things like “God would never do that to somebody.”
This began a hearty and heated conversation about many things related to the Christian faith. Benny (not his real name) told me he was a Christian, but didn’t believe Job to part of Holy Canon. In fact, he didn’t believe any of the Bible to be God’s Word except – are you ready – 80% of Jesus’ words in the synoptic (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) gospels! This “Red-letter Christian” was making me red in the face!
I must admit my blood began to boil a bit and I did say to Benny that I thought it rather remarkable that he believed any of the Bible to contain truth!
As we went back and forth, I was trying to understand why he believed the way he believed. And it occurred to me while we were able to converse using similar terms, at the same time we had much different definitions for those same terms. I mentioned this dynamic to Benny and he concurred.
Salvation, the gospel, Jesus, truth, heaven, hell, common words in Christian lingo, may be defined much differently depending on who you talk to! Benny and I both believed in Jesus, the gospel, and the resurrection. And both of us claimed to be Christian. Its’ we just defined terms differently!
Welcome to our 21st Century Post-Modern platform!
I share that story to highlight our context for evangelism. Because understanding how people think today in 2023 is important, especially when dialoging over issues related to truth!
To understand the concept of “post-modernism,” let’s go back and briefly unpack the concepts of “modernism” and “pre-modernism.”
Pre-Modernism: Before the 1600s, people in the West generally believed that God (or the transcendent/supernatural realm) furnished the basis for moral absolutes, rationality, human dignity, and truth. This was the lens through which one could properly interpret reality and human experience. By having faith in God, the world could be rightly understood.
In short, pre-modernism held that there is absolute truth and God is the author and revealer of it. This was the predominant view in the world until the Age of Enlightenment.
Modernism (1650’s – 1950’s): Modernism held that morality, human dignity, truth, and reason rested on foundations other than God (reason, science, race, etc.). Philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), also a Roman Catholic, famously coined the phrase “I think, therefore I am.” His skepticism of Christian dogma (i.e. a pre-modern view of truth) and church authority removed God from center stage, replacing it with human reason as the starting point. His paradigm shift regarding truth reflected the beliefs of many people as the rationalism of the European Enlightenment (c. 1650-1800) came to the fore. Science now became the source for truth and reality, not God. During this period, religion and morality were arbitrarily demoted to the subjective realm.
In simple terms, modernism held that there was absolute truth, but it now could be discovered with certainty through observation and reason.
Post-Modernism (1950’s – present): In the present postmodern era, there is no single defining source for truth and reality beyond the individual. Postmodernism simply radicalized relativism and individualism and then applies them to all spheres of knowledge, even science.
In a postmodern world, truth and reality are understood to be individually shaped by personal history, social class, gender, culture, and religion. In other words, you have your truth, I have my truth, and Benny has his truth! Are you starting to see the confusion this context for truth creates?
When no universal foundation for truth, morality, and human dignity exists, you get chaos and pandemonium. And that’s exactly what we see today happening around the globe and in our culture specifically.
But take heart! Jesus said, “I will build My church.” And you know what? He’s continuing to do just that even in our time.
Be encouraged! There are still people today who are looking for answers. There are still people today who are searching for truth, The Truth! In fact, there are perhaps people in your own life who are searching for truth. And we have it. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
Evangelism in the 21st Century Post-Modern context requires us as His witnesses to listen actively and learn about the truth-paradigm of another. At the same time, just because we live in the 21st Century does not mean all people have a post-modern view of truth. It simply means we need to understand this view of truth so we can more effectively provide a “word aptly spoken” when engaging someone who does.
Many years ago I was conversing with a college professor friend around the topic of truth. He, knowing I was a Christian, stated, “I don’t believe in absolute truth. I’m a relativist” I calmly responded, “Is that an absolute statement?” With that retort, he had no response. Mind you, this was no “gotcha moment” on my part, as my intent was not to slam him. Rather it was meant to challenge him to think rationally about his statement of truth being relative. Because our faith in Christ is in part both rational and reasonable.
For “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Our faith is substantive and based on evidence, the primary evidence being that the tomb is empty!
In our 21st Century Post-Modern context, we therefore need to be more conversational, processional and relational. So take heart! Learn, listen, and love others, sharing the truth that sets men free!
Lord Jesus, please help me better understand and more effectively engage those in my sphere of influence, including people who adhere to a Post-Modern worldview. Amen.