Bruce Epperly is the guest blogger this week for the on-going blog series called PomoChurch, which features a variety of people reflecting on the meaning of Postmodernity and its implications for the Church.
The Promise of Postmodernism
In his prophetic reflection, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, Douglas John Hall notes “we North American churches are now being pushed visibly to the periphery. And the question is: Are we just going to let this happen to us, or can we give concrete direction to this process of disestablishment? Can we make it work for good?” A few decades earlier, Alfred North Whitehead asserted that higher organisms originate novelty to match the novelty of the environment. That is the question: Will we be passive, impotent, or in denial about the cultural realities in which we live, or will we respond innovatively and creatively, exploring new pathways of faith, congregational life, theology, and spiritual formation?
I believe that the times cry out for creativity and novelty among Christians and other spiritual seekers in light of the impact of postmodernism on contemporary Europe and North America. Postmodernism is profoundly spiritually unsettling, especially as we see the movements toward institutional collapse in most mainstream Christian denominations and institutions. Life at the margins can be disorienting and frightening, especially to those of us, indeed, most of us, who are committed to institutional and professional survival. But, the margins may also be the frontiers, where lively personal and communal transformation may burst forth.
This brings me to what I describe as creative postmodernism. Creative postmodernism embraces the realities of pluralism, relativity, locality, and interpretation as media through which we may experience God’s call to abundant life in our time and place.
Postmodernism challenges universal stories, claimed to describe the experience of all persons and communities. While postmodernist thinkers do not deny the possibility of interdependent global realities that shape our collective experiences, they remind us that we can only experience the divine, universal, and global from the perspective of our constantly changing unique time and place. Postmodernism balances the apophatic and kataphatic approaches in its understanding of theological reflection and faithful mission. Nothing encompasses the divine or describes reality; yet, all things, experienced locally, can reveal the divine. This is good news! – We don’t need a universal vision in order to experience God right where we are. In the spirit of Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal’s comments on politics, we can embrace the postmodern recognition that “all spirituality is local.” This is good news! – It compels us to explore and experience spirituality and theology in concrete, personal, communal, and life-transforming ways. Purely analytic, head-religion, is too small and lifeless to respond to our need for vibrant, whole person, mind-body-spirit-relationship-concrete encounters with and reflections on the Holy.
Reality is pluralistic, according to postmodernism. While frightening to those who believe there is only one way to salvation or one pathway to truth, pluralism is also good news for the spiritual seeker. The creative embrace of pluralism reflects an innovative and healing wisdom that addresses each personal, cultural, and historical context intimately, bringing forth possibilities for spiritual growth unique to each time and place. We grow in spiritual stature by creatively embracing the many revelations of God in context of our “home” revelation or faith tradition. Spirituality is a matter of emerging creativity and perpetual transformation in the joining of tradition and novelty, self-affirmation and the affirmation of others, and constancy and change.
Postmodernism invites us to a dynamic process of polyvalent interpretation. Experience is creative. We can’t avoid encountering the world through the lens of our life experiences and spiritual values. This, too, is good news! This good news invites us to be creators along with the divine, to bring something into a world in which the God we affirm rejoices in our creativity, inspiring us to bring something new into the world. A polyvalent, many-faceted understanding of sacred texts and spiritual experiences opens the door for new experiences of the Holy and new revelations of the Divine. In a dynamic, creative, interpretative, and relational world, there is no competition between divine and creaturely creativity but an ongoing adventure of creation and new creation, call and response.
Postmodernism calls us to be faithful and adventurous for “just such a time as this.” And, this is good news! While new ways of experiencing the gospel will emerge in a constantly growing, receding, and transforming horizon of divine-creaturely call and response, postmodernism invites us to live faithfully in this day, in this time, in this particular planetary moment of crisis and adventure. There are no guarantees of institutional or planetary survival given to us, but in this lively, interdependent, adventurous world, we can be committed, creative, and conscious partners in God’s vision of tikkun ‘olam, mending, healing, and transforming the world. And this is very good news!
Bruce Epperly is a professor, seminary administrator, pastor, spirit person, father, husband, walker, and author of books on process theology, spirituality, ministry, Jewish-Christian spirituality, healing and wholeness, including his recent response to Rick Warren, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living.