Friday, April 28, 2006
What is Postmodernism?
On the eBay Atheist message boards I was asked to explain what exactly postmodernism is and how it affects who we are as a church. Here's the answer I gave:

Postmodernism has been defined as a "suspicion towards metanarratives".

So what is a "metanarrative"?

A metanarrative is an overarching story, or worldview, that claims superiority over all other worldviews. A metanarrative claims to encompass and explain away all other competing views of the world, thereby intellectually (and sometimes physically & politically) dominating anyone or any society that disagrees.

There are and have been many metanarratives in human history. Marxism is a metanarrative. Capitalism is a metanarrative. Fascism is a metanarrative. Democracy is a metanarrative. The Enlightenment view of science is a metanarrative. Christianity is a metanarrative. And there are many others.

All of these metanarratives have at one point or another in history been used as tools of domination and oppression against others. European and American Imperialists used the metanarratives of Enlightenment and Christianity to subjugate millions of natives in the age of Colonialism. Nazis used the metanarratives of science and Fascism to justify their Master Race ideology and their extermination of the Jews. Americans have used their metanarratives of Democracy and Capitalism to justify nuclear proliferation and preemptive foreign wars.

Postmodernism says that one of the big reasons for all the violence and oppression in our history is that we hold to our metanarratives with such absolute certainty that we begin to think we are justified in dominating anyone who disagrees with us. Thus the same cause underlies the atheistic oppresion of Maoism or Stalinism as underlied the Crusades and the Inquisition. It's the tendency of human beings to believe that their way of viewing the world is the only right way and that anyone who views things differently is an enemy to be crushed.

Postmodernism is not just a rejection of Enlightenment Modernism. It's a questioning of the very idea that one overarching way of explaining the whole world is even possible or desireable. Instead they would say that there are many ways to view the world. There are many possible perspectives on the same reality. No one worldview can claim to have the final word.

This is not a denial or a rejection of the validity of science. It is just a recognition that science (and reason and logic) are but one set of tools in the human repetoire. Science is a good way to discover truth, but there are other ways too. There is emotional truth, social truth, experiential truth, spiritual truth, cultural truth, etc. The Western scientist has many valuable things to teach us about the world, but so does the African tribes person who has never studied science at all. The scientist can tell me what kind of chemical reactions happen in my brain when I am with my wife, but he cannot thereby simply explain away what it's like to really love someone so much that your heart feels like it will explode and you know that you would die for that person. Some kinds of knowledge elude rational description. To understand them I'd rather turn to Shakespeare than to a scientist.

I consider myself a postmodernist. That's part of why I can't bring myself to embrace the atheist metanarrative. It's too absolutist. I don't think truth is confined merely to science and logic. (Nor do I think that science and logic are worthless.) There are multiple ways of viewing the world, and all have things of value to teach us.

I don't know that the differences in our church have so much to do with postmodern philosophy as they do with a different approach to theology and practice. For me at least, postmodernism simply provided the philosophical basis that led me to question and radically rethink all my previous beliefs.

I went through a process very similar to Ir's [a former Christian who turned away from her faith when the Christian answers to her tough questions stopped satisfying] in fact, except that I put the pieces back together differently than she did. Through the help of several authors and mentors (people like Brian McLaren, Stanley Grenz, NT Wright, Jim Wallis, etc.) I discovered that there was a different way of being a Christian. To put it in philosophical language, I discovered that being a Christian didn't require one to be an absolutist or hold to Christianity as yet one more oppressive metanarrative. I am free to embrace truth wherever I find it, even if it is outside the realm of my own faith.

That doesn't mean I reject the essential story of my Christian faith (the story about God coming to live among us as one of us and willingly suffering and dying at our hands in order to ultimately free us from all forms of oppression, injustice, and evil, and establish a new order of love, compassion, and joy). Being postmodern doesn't mean you don't believe anything is true. What it means is that I don't have to think that every other story is completely false in order for my story to be true.

In regards to how this impacts our practices... I guess we're more willing to try a lot of different things. We're not going to say that there's only one way to worship or one way to behave or one way to believe. One of our biggest values as a new church is diversity: in worship styles, in beliefs, in ages and races and lifestyles, etc. We want to learn from each other's differences and thereby gain a bigger view of who God really is. What we unite on is our common passion for following the new kind of life Jesus modeled for us, what we call "the way of Christ" - the way of love.


posted by Mike Clawson at 5:15 PM | Permalink |


At 4/29/2006 05:53:00 AM, Blogger dan

Nice post, Mike. It was good to visit with you (ever so briefly) at conference. Hope you and Emma survive Julie being gone. :)


At 5/11/2007 12:43:00 AM, Blogger Richard Wade

Thanks for this, Mike. One time you said one of my comments showed I'm very "post modern." I took it to be a compliment, but really didn't understand. I can agree with most of what you say about avoiding and questioning metanarratives. As a kid I used to wonder about the big, really broad assumptions we had that we were not aware we were operating in. (I was kind of odd) Now, along with "paradigm" I have a good term, as well as a philosophical framework with which to explore.


At 1/16/2011 05:06:00 PM, Anonymous Jose

Great Post!!!!! Thank you so much!! I have to write an essay regarding meta-narrative and this helped so much!!


At 12/27/2011 02:41:00 PM, Anonymous Andrew

Thanks for a very interesting post. I was just searching for basic definitions, not necessarily thinking in a religious context, but you've brought up some thought-provoking points and expressed them very well.