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Modernity, Postmodernity, and the Gospel
Modernity insisted that truth could be attained through science. The good news for the Gospel is that postmodernity has rejected this premise.

We are told that we live in a postmodern age, but what exactly is meant by postmodern? Many seem to think that postmodern refers to some set of beliefs that offer an alternative to modernity. In fact, there is no consensus concerning a postmodern alternative, and its only unifying feature is a general rejection of modernity and the principles upon which it was founded. Modernity refers to the modern period of the 17th and 18th centuries which is often dubbed, the Enlightenment. The cornerstone of the Enlightenment was a belief in a new and enlightened form of science. This science maintained that not only was the world orderly, but that such an order was governed by mathematically precise laws that could be detected by the new science. Such a precise and certain understanding of the world, in time, became the great metanarrative and model for all right thinking. The Enlightenment vision was that as this new science acquired more and more knowledge it would eventual bring us to utopia.

The Enlightenment had failed to deliver what it had promised, and something else was obviously needed.

Of course, from the start, the Enlightenment had its critics. What brought about the end of Enlightenment science as the great metanarrative, however, was not the criticism of poets and philosophers, but rather the history of the 20th century. After 300 years of putting our faith in scientific progress, the 20th century turned out not to be the utopia that the Enlightenment had promised.

Quite the contrary, it witnessed over 100 million people killed in wars, and 35,000 to 40,000 thousand children dying each day from the effects of hunger and malnutrition. By the end of the 20th century the very existence of the planet was being threatened, and science did not seem able to do anything about it. The Enlightenment had failed to deliver what it had promised, and something else was obviously needed.

This presents a great opportunity for the Gospel.

Not only are people searching for answers today in a way they hadn't when science had all the answers, but with the end of modernity, we no longer believe that knowledge must be objective and precise after the model of mathematics. Thus, room has been made for the kind of knowledge of which the Gospel speaks. A Christian understanding of God will always be based in a personal relationship with the risen Christ, and never the kind of objective and precise understanding that modernity insisted constituted real knowledge. The Christian God could never be discovered through the methods of science, but He is faithful to reveal Himself to those who humbly seek Him.

Of course, Enlightenment science did give us a technology that we might not want to be without, but it was not capable of leading us to the kind of truth and meaning that lies at the base of the Christian life. It certainly was not an appropriate model for intimately knowing a personal God, for modernity told us that we should rid ourselves of all bias in order to discover an objective truth untainted by our prejudice. The Gospel, however, tells us that we are to bring the prejudice of faith to every circumstance. Modernity provided us with a method that gave us a confidence in our certain and precise understanding, but the Gospel leads us to an understanding founded upon a divine beauty that we behold in humble awe. The truth of modernity was something we could get a hold of, but the truth of the Gospel is something that gets a hold of us.

Fortunately, we now know that the scientific reasoning that modernity insisted upon is not the universal form of right reason it had claimed to be but merely represents one form of reason. With that understanding, we are now free to pursue forms of rationality more compatible with a Gospel that is personal and mysteriously beautiful rather than objective and mathematically precise.

Contrary to what some have led us to believe, a postmodern world is not one in which all order, meaning, and truth is lost. Rather, all that is lost is the kind of order, meaning, and truth that modernity had insisted upon. The good news of the postmodern Gospel is that, with the end of modernity, we now have an ever greater opportunity to order our lives, not based upon an understanding of some universal, objective truth, but rather upon an intimate understanding of a truth that is personal—indeed, a truth that is a person (see John 14:6).

Further reading

Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. Merold Westphal. Fordham University Press, 2001.

Eyes that Can See; Ears that Can Hear: Perceiving Jesus in a Postmodern Context. James Danaher. Forthcoming.

Dr. James Danaher is professor and head of department of philosophy at Nyack College, Nyack, NY.

Originally published in Verbum, World Evangelical Association Theological Commission, June 2005.




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