Postmodernism and the christian church

Introduction

Postmodernism has encroached into American society with a ferocity. Their insidious concepts of subjectable truth and institutional power corrupt the common good and further spread Marxist ideas of systemic corruption. This has seeped into American churches and distort the views of Christianity and theological doctrines. The postmodern claim that all institutions (including the church) are networks of power fails to understand the nature of the true church. This essay will tackle different aspects of this claim while illuminating the strengths of the Christian worldview. 

Analysis of Aspects of the Opposing Worldview

The inroads of postmodernism into the American culture began in the mid-seventies through the Yale University English department.[1] It is the new skin that old Marxism now inhabits.[2] Like its Marxist theorems, postmodernism pits social structures and organizations against one another under the guise of justice and equity. Marxism framed the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, but by the late sixties very few self-respecting advocates or academics could argue that Marxism was not a complete failure, due to the catastrophic fallouts of Stalinized Russia or Maoist China; therefore, postmodernism had to rebrand themselves as the oppressed class fighting the oppressors.[3]

Postmodernism begins with a deep suspicion of institutional power and the control they exert over society.[4] Much with the same theme that their Marxist forefathers before them scourged against the ruling class of the previous generation, postmodernists now categorized institutions, organizations, and bodies of government as the ruling bodies that oppress the less fortunate, establish fascistic policies, and subjugate the marginalized. This includes large based church organizations, denominations, para-church entities, and non-profits with enormous cash flow, property values, and political influence.

The predominant intellectual of the twentieth century who laid the foundation for this post-modern philosophy was Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984). He famously wrote: “There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”[5] To Foucault, knowledge, and justice reduce, in its purest form, to power.[6]  They share a parasitic relationship with power and therefore are presumptively questionable, subjective, and to be scrutinized. In a famous debate with Noam Chomsky, he argued: “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked so that one can fight against them.”[7] Churches in America, according to their tax-exempt status are required to be both neutral and independent of political power structures. Foucault is drawing the battle lines for postmodernists to scrutinize faith-based communities, and the organizations they create and support, by lumping them into broader power structures based on the manipulation of knowledge and justice.

To unpack this further, the logistics underpinning the postmodern thesis that all institutions (including the church) are networks of power is that “knowledge of the world is relational, and enabled/constrained by the linguistic constructions used to make sense of those relational encounters: this means that knowledge of the world is accomplished through limited encounters, and the limited knowledge structures society uses to make sense of those encounters.”[8] This cuts to the heart of the philosophy, that all truth is relative and interpretive. Truth, itself is unknowable and subjective; therefore, genuine objective truth and rational are unobtainable and an illusion. Institutions, themselves, are constructs built in this façade of the knowable where justice is distorted and potentially evil in its search and subsequent, execution of that knowledge. All of this is relative to the cultural, customs, and language of localities striving toward power.

Critique of Aspects of the Opposing Worldview

The postmodern claim that all institutions (including the church) are networks of power has three major problems with its thesis that find its theory problematic: deconstruction, distortion, and systematic analysis. The following section will outline, expound, and clarify these critiques of postmodernism concerning systems of power and institutionalism.

The theory that all institutions are networks of power propels itself at the whims of deconstruction. “While postmodernism proposes harmony and community, it is done at the expense of deconstructing established texts, structures, arts, and systems.”[9] The only way to sell this viewpoint is to tear down and misconstrue organizations and cultural norms. Much like Marxism before it, postmodernism works to discredit, deconstruct, and expand success to portray its value.

By tearing down current structures or established texts; i.e. the Bible, postmodernism makes the case that these norms are the power streams. For example; this aspect was launched in the sixties with the inerrancy controversy that ultimately culminated in the 1978 International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The attempt was to discredit the truth and compilation of the modern canon of scripture.

Postmodernism fails to credit major accomplishments in society as anything other than evil contributors to power structures. Rather than argue on merits alone, the postmodernist compels its view at the cost of others, by pointing to established successes and then discrediting its creation.   

The postmodern concepts of “knowledge” and “justice” miss the concept of wisdom and distort what that relation is. The biblical worldview is that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God” (Proverbs 9:10) which undergirds Christian views of knowledge and justice. The postmodern view of knowledge is a parasitic relationship to power and justice and relates all things to interchangeable, purely subjective, views on how these affect, and infect, our institutions. What post-modern theory misses entirely is the concept of wisdom concerning knowledge, power, and justice.  Like most secular worldviews, the concept of wisdom is almost completely void in the writings, lectures, and polemics of the intelligentsia. Knowledge, justice, and power are misrepresented in society without the universal need for wisdom to correctly gain knowledge, pursue justice, or wield power. 

Finally, the postmodern view on institutions regarding the Church is theologically wrong. It does nothing more than building a straw man caricature of corrupt church power. Although, in many situations, this caricature could be assigned to many church denominations and mega-church facilities in America; it fundamentally misconstrues the biblical view of the church. The true Christian church is the exact paradoxical opposite of the postmodern view of power and structure. The only true head of the Church is Christ, and His power is immeasurable. A true Church is both spiritually powerful and socially weak concerning institutional power.

Moreover, the postmodern theory has a false definition of what a church is. “The Church is the community of all true believers for all time.”[10] This being the case, the institution of the church, according to postmodernists is incapable of being networks of power. Church, by its theological definition, is not a solid institution with hierarchies of power. It is a brotherhood of believers who submit to the authority of scripture and Jesus Christ as the one authority by which the entire Global community of Christendom’s pledges their allegiance. That one authority is incapable of corruption.

Defense of Christianity

Christianity is branding incorrectly to the postmodernist. This is done intentionally to misconstrue Christian doctrines and principles. Their concept of truth revealed by a divine all-knowing, all-powerful, creator is diametrically opposite to that of their worldview. In the eyes of postmodernists: the human is to be worshiped, truth is purely subjective, and people are categorized in tribal communities. To the Christian: God is worshiped, truth is objective and revealed to all through Jesus Christ and His written word, and people are viewed as autonomous creatures in the image of God, each with their intrinsic worth. This flies in the face of postmodernism and underscores all its various theories.

To a postmodernist’s humanism is the rational and logical worldview based solely on Darwinian empirical science.[11] Therefore humans, the self, and human philosophy are all that can be claimed or given respect to. Concepts of higher powers, divine authority and eternal solutions are illusory. Therefore, they attempt to solve all the world’s problems by obfuscating responsibility and assigning blame. This cuts to the core of all postmodern philosophy. In Christianity, its hope relies on God. An all-loving, all-powerful God who is worthy of worship. Knowing that (all) men/women are fallible and potentially evil; Christianity promotes self-credibility and responsibility. As the postmodernist is naturally skeptical of institutions, a Christian is naturally skeptical of individuals. This blames the individual, for individual actions, without casting aspersions on broad organizations.

Christianity rests in objective truth. To the believers, God’s word is concrete and the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). This is much more logical and pragmatically useful in society. Subjective truth is ambiguous and ever-changing. The phrase “all truth is subjective”, is itself a philosophical fallacy. One could easily point out that the statement alone would have to quantify itself as subjective, and therefore open to interpretation; therefore, leaving itself open to be untrue and therefore self-canceling. Subjective truth, or the proclamations thereof; i.e. “my truth,” are self-defeating and illogical. Without a standard of truth, outlined in the biblical text, the truth cannot be used for either knowledge or justice.

Finally, Christianity views each person as individual disciples of Jesus Christ without casting people into tribal collective which is so much a component of postmodern thinking. To the believer, each person is cast into the image of Jesus Christ, looking to him for guidance, truth, and moral discipline. “The primary aim of discipleship is to create a certain kind of person who acts in a certain way, not someone who simply thinks in a certain way. According to the scriptures, knowing the truth is only instrumental in ultimately doing the truth (Jer. 22:16).”[12] This subverts the problems of postmodern theory and credits each person with his/her contribution to the institution as a whole. Instead of looking to the institutions and then contextualizing its power, The Christian looks to the individual and contextualized his/her character and influence on the institution.

Conclusion

Christianity and postmodern philosophy are not congruent and bare problematic contradictions when applying that philosophy to sound theology. A true church should not consider postmodern views on institutions as networks of power. This worldview could damage the heart of the Church by distorting the various messages of the biblical text in light of postmodern viewpoints. It is best not to attribute nefarious motives to historical institutions as the postmodern worldview tends to do. Holding all of Christianity, or the global Christian church, as one entity rooted in power is a misrepresentation of the historical Church.

Bibliography

Catorce, Isaias. “Post-Modernism and Its Influence in the Church.” Asbury Theological Seminary, January 4, 2013. https://asburyseminary.edu/elink/post-modernism-its-influence-in-the-church/.

Foucault, Michel, and Noam Chomsky. “Chomsky & Foucault Debate – Justice versus Power.” YouTube. Philosophy Overdose, June 26, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5wuB_p63YM.

Grudem, Wayne A. Making Sense of the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Kelly, Mark. “Michel Foucault (1926-1984).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Middlesex University, 2020. https://iep.utm.edu/foucault/.

Mease, Jennifer J. “Postmodern/Poststructural Approaches.” Wiley Online Library. American Cancer Society, June 8, 2016. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781118955567.wbieoc167.

Peterson, Jordan B. “Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism.” YouTube. The Epoch Times, July 6, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLoG9zBvvLQ&t=817s.

Smith, James K. A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.

Sommer, Joseph C. “Definition of Humanism.” American Humanist Association, October 6, 2020. https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/definition-of-humanism/.

Footnotes:

[1] Jordan B. Peterson, “Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism,” YouTube (The Epoch Times, July 6, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLoG9zBvvLQ&t=817s.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 84.

[5] Michel Foucault and Alan Sheridan, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of Prison (London, England: Penguin, 1975), page unavailable.

[6] Mark Kelly, “Michel Foucault (1926-1984),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Middlesex University, 2020), last modified 2020, accessed October 4, 2020, https://iep.utm.edu/foucault/.

[7] Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky, “Chomsky & Foucault Debate – Justice versus Power,” YouTube (Philosophy Overdose, June 26, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5wuB_p63YM.

[8] Jennifer J. Mease, “Postmodern/Poststructural Approaches,” Wiley Online Library (American Cancer Society, June 8, 2016), last modified June 8, 2016, accessed October 4, 2020, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781118955567.wbieoc167, 3.

[9] Isaias Catorce, “Post-Modernism and Its Influence in the Church,” Asbury Theological Seminary, last modified January 4, 2013, accessed October 4, 2020, https://asburyseminary.edu/elink/post-modernism-its-influence-in-the-church/.

[10] Wayne A. Grudem, Making Sense of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 34.

[11] Joseph C Sommer, “Definition of Humanism,” American Humanist Association, October 6, 2020, https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/definition-of-humanism/.

[12] James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 106.

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