Guest blog by T. E. Hanna. T. E. Hanna is pastor of Highlands United Methodist Church in Florida. He is a full member of the Society of Biblical Literature and holds a Masters of Divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of Raising Ephesus: Christian Hope for a Post-Christian Age and used to write regularly on issues of faith and culture on a blog called: Of Dust and Kings. In addition to writing, he has served the church since 1999 in ministry roles ranging from youth pastor, to outreach pastor, to a senior pastorate.
He says of himself: “I’m passionate about reclaiming authentic Christianity in the midst of a culture that has lost its way.”
We’ve all faced our culture’s growing relativism in some form, be it ethical or spiritual. Many of our contemporary theologians and ethicists, as a result, go to great lengths to challenge the rising notions of post-modernism as a cultural philosophy that is a grave threat to the church. I’m not so convinced. In fact, not only am I unconvinced that this poses the threat that so many claim it does, I am willing to go so far as to suggest that this is actually a good development for contemporary Christianity.
Worldviews Are Important
I don’t think is controversial to point out that every cultural philosophy has brought with it certain benefits and challenges to Christianity as it has risen. We stand as recipients of a legacy born out of the Enlightenment, for example. On the one hand, this has resulted in the rise of Biblical scholarship as an academic discipline, the cultivation of a Christian apologetic built around reasonable philosophical conclusions, and even the birth of systematic theology as a centerpiece of Christian thinking. It has also had its challenges, however. It forced the church to square off against empiricist reductionism (the limiting of evidence to those things which already presuppose a naturalist worldview), it stripped much of scripture of its holistic unity (most Biblical study today is done in terms of dissection rather than wholeness), and moved the Christian understanding out of God’s story and into abstract theological principles.
We have gained a great deal; we have also lost a great deal. The Enlightenment shaped how we communicate the message of Jesus, giving rise to evangelistic avenues such as the famous “4 Spiritual Laws” and linear theological progressions such as the “Romans Road.” It also redefined theology out of a perceived spiritual crisis, and we are still recovering from such ways of thinking (such as the fundamentalist redefinition of scripture in the form of a scientific textbook). If we look back at the progression of Christian thinking, we can easily realize that the greatest challenge to the church is not prevailing cultural philosophies, but rather the way the church chooses to respond.
Here are 3 reasons why I think post-modernism is a blessing in disguise.
The Rise Of Meta-Narratives
The overarching relativism that shapes much of post-modern thought stems from one primary awareness: we define our world through story. In other words, everything we come to understand about our world, about ourselves, and even about reality itself flows out of the story we use to define our lives. We all have them, whether they are conscious aspects of our identity or hidden beneath our cultural expectations. Even atheistic naturalism has a story, though it is very different from what we cling to as Christians. The challenge we face today is that we have spent so long defining the Christian faith in terms of principles that many of us have forgotten that we are embedded within the story of God.
We face an incredible opportunity here: to reclaim the Divine narrative of a blessed creation, a painful fall from grace, a God who sought us out and sacrificed Himself for the purposes of redemption, a great and cosmic victory heralded by an empty tomb, and the fore-shocks of the coming kingdom lived out and put on display through a redeemed people. The story of scripture is replete with this from beginning to end, and it aptly explains the human experience in a powerful way. The beauty of Christianity is not that it is just one story among many, but that it is the Story which captures the human experience and is revealed in our present time through a restored people.
The Rise Of Globalism
Another reason that relativism has become so pervasive in post-modern culture stems from our exposure to the myriads of cultures and faith perspectives throughout the world. For the first time in human history, we are not isolated from one another. Currently, I am sitting on my patio writing this article from the sweltering humidity of Florida. As you read this, you are joined by others from around the world including Ireland, Australia, and even Africa. It is easy to lay claim to absolute truth when our conversations are limited to those who share our worldview; it faces a notable challenge, however, when we are suddenly joined by men and women from vastly different cultures who interpret human existence through a vastly different lens.
This, too, provides incredible opportunity, however. On the one hand, it forces us to really examine our faith, peeling back those things which are defined by scripture and the experience of God from those things which are simply handed to us by our culture. By way of example, I remember one conversation with a Christian who set out to prove to me why the kingdom of God is a democracy. This did not come from the pages of scripture, but rather from an American cultural embodiment that values democracy as a governmental ideal. We need to be willing to challenge the definitions that we cling to and be willing to separate “the wheat from the chaff,” as it were.
On the other hand, the growth of globalism also means that the lines of communication are open in ways that are historically unparalleled. The gospel can now travel to regions that it has never been able to fully infiltrate before, take root in these regions, and then grow and expand in incredible ways. In fact, while we may struggle with how we respond to post-modernism in the West, Christianity is erupting in the Global South in unprecedented ways. Christianity is no longer limited to the regions that have classically been seen as the centers of Christendom, and regions such as South America, Africa, and China are actually sending their missionaries to us. The growth of Christianity throughout the world during the past century has only been witnessed once before in recorded history, and its expansion can be read about in the Book of Acts. We are witnessing, in our lifetime, an event of Biblical proportions. That should give us reason for hope rather than fear.
The Rise Of Religious Pluralism
To coincide with globalism, we now see the influx of religious worldviews overlapping even in our own society. To some, this is frightening, as it is seen as a challenge to the Christian backbone of our nation and a threat to our way of life. Others, however, see this as a great opportunity as well. What this means is that we live in a time where we are surrounded by those with a deep interest in spiritual matters.
I am reminded of Paul who, in Acts 17:22-34 stood before the Athenians in their Areopagus and pointed to their own religious pluralism. In fact, the opening line of his evangelistic sermon began with this very recognition: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (Acts 17:22) From here, he began a conversation that utilized the very idols the Athenians worshiped as an entry point to proclaiming the saving message of Jesus. We can learn from this, if we are willing to shift the way we think about the proclamation of the Gospel. Rather than the modernist forms we are so used to, a willingness to engage in spiritual discussions that find a common ground and build from this will often find willing ears in a culture yearning for spiritual vitality. The religious pluralism of our day does not mean that we have less opportunity to communicate the Gospel, it means we have more. This should be very exciting to us as Christians.
Overall, the post-modern challenge facing Christianity today is not in the philosophy itself, it is in the way that contemporary evangelism seeks to engage it. If we strive to speak to a post-modern culture through modernist means, we are facing an uphill battle. Instead, if we come to recognize the opportunities that we are presented with, we may discover that the current era is uniquely suited to the Christian message: a message that speaks in Story, that transcends cultures, and that captures hearts yearning for spiritual fulfillment. To my way of thinking, this is a very, very good thing.