Part 3: The Metamodern Christian

Philosophical thought is an interesting thing.  We all participate in it whether or not we use fancy words like “ontological” or “metaphysical.”  Each of us has a steadfast view of reality that is part of a larger cultural atmosphere. 

The stages of philosophical thought were:  premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism.  Each progressive era emerged out of the natural attempt to rectify the major blind spots of the one preceding it.  At our current point in history, humanity is once again recognising large-scale failure and seeking to be simultaneously logical, just and sustainable.  

Metamodernism is the name of this new “era.”  In metamodern thought the ambition is to work towards a higher quality of life for the world as a whole.  It will do this, by (for the first time) recognising the validity of each era of philosophical thought and seeking to integrate them.  Metamoderns are willing to uphold the best of premodernism, modernism and postmodernism simultaneously.  

What does this mean?  Everyday people are aware of the need for an integrity audit of societal deeds.  The questions is:  What is the best achievable outcome for the globe that is inclusive of all races, all genders, all cultures, in all places, right now?   And no one is necessarily demanding that we be “secular” about it, just accountable to logic, objective reasoning and transparent results for everyone.  

(The above section is a paraphrase of what I gleaned from this article by Hanzi Freinacht.  A word of caution, he uses language in the quote boxes which you can skip and simply read the body of the work.  In my post, I seek to transpose his assertions to a Christian worldview.  The ramifications of a concept such as Metamodern Christianity skyrocket out of the league of modernity’s notions of church, spirituality and truth.  We’ll take that ride in future posts.  For now, let’s get introduced.)

What does this change in philosophical thought mean for Christians?

Trends in thinking have shifted, and people are asking different questions than they asked when they embraced modernism, and even postmodernism.  This could be the most exciting moment for Christianity since Pentecost.  Though, not everyone feels as I do about the arrival of change. 

My first appeal is that the onus is on us to stay nimble, ready to engage change.  Fear arrises for those who have unwittingly married their Christian identity to their philosophical thought, rendering them resilient to transformation and unable to engage the world effectively.  

My second appeal is that our situation is dire.  Do you see power awakened and fully rousing the church to unstoppable action?  No.  We see people leaving the “church” in droves.  We see Christians pitted against unbelievers in hateful political arguments.  We see that Christianity has become nothing more authoritative than, “he said, she said,” in the ears of the world.  We see a Christianity that has become so dogmatic as to be odious to those outside it.  We even argue amongst ourselves.  Take a look at how this relates to philosophical thought – the big picture surrounding our perplexing behaviour:  

Christianity Married to Philosophical Thought

Christianity is fully involved in the cycle of philosophical eras.  Take how we approach theology.  The qualifier “systematic” before “theology” is every indication of its thoroughly modern character.  Modernism taught Christians to take a specific verse and use it as proof of why we believe something.  However, that verse was then interpreted differently by someone else (including a multiplicity of scholars) and they came to a vastly different conclusion.  In the end we had two (or twenty-two) different opinions about how to take the same verse (or passage) and apply it to our lives, or use it to teach authoritatively.

This “proof texting” arose from a love of axiom.  Each side felt confident in their ability to argue their point-of-view, and make their version of the truth the most plausible.  As a result we had myriads of “truths” being preached by a variety of groups/individuals all bearing the name Christian.

Was this the only approach to the discovery/dissemination of truth?  Well all of this arguing effectively opened the door for postmodernism and waved it right in.  The innumerable interpretations of Scripture (among Evangelicals alone!) actually lent validity to the concept of relativity.   It proved that there were about a million ways to understand the Bible and it could say whatever anyone wanted it to say.  The fracture of the institution of the church over doctrine undermined its claim that it possessed true, pure, undefiled doctrine at all.  

Postmodernism also unlocked the door leading back to the premodern notion of obtaining knowledge through direct divine encounter.  Personal experience and revelation gained authority – if only to the individual, making the truth even more allusive!  Now anyone who had a spiritual experience could knit that into their version of Christianity.  

Has there ever been a fundamentally correct way to approach truth?  I believe the answer is yes, and additionally that there is a way to approach truth that doesn’t depend on a single era of philosophical thought.  Let’s follow this segment on truth as we consider Metamodern Christianity. 

The Perfection of God’s Word

First, think about this, if God’s Word is perfect shouldn’t it be able to transcend every era of humanity’s reasoning (or even incorporate all of them)?  It can’t be tied down to one way of thinking, or by nature it would become subject to us.  We would dictate the relationship we want to have with God’s Word and we would have the final say on how it can be approached and understood.

But if we believe that these words came from God, and that they are able to be understood across all time – all of human history – even as humanity matured through eras of reasoning, then we know that philosophy will never outgrow it.  The Bible will be able to do more than keep up, it will have the capacity to speak powerfully to whatever philosophical era is current.   

I desire to compel the person who only feels safe within the confines of a modernistic approach to the Bible, that God is bigger and His Word is able to handle philosophical changes.  We might not like the change or even understand the change, but change is here, and Christians have a duty to contextualise.  What we proclaim, we do in service of the hearer.  We can’t do that  if we don’t take the time to understand where people are coming from  – or throw our hands up at the times we live in.  Instead, we are being invited to strive for a higher level of maturity in the way we communicate, so that God’s Word is esteemed through our testimony in the very midst of these times.  Here’s a verse of exhortation:

“At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” Hebrews 12:26-27 

God’s Word is unshakeable, but whatever reasoning man has contrived around its interpretation is subject to shaking.  

(As an aside, for the postmodern I am encouraging groundedness in truth.  Truth is not arbitrary, it is an anchor.  But while postmoderns dislike hierarchy, and thus have a complicated relationship with authority, even here the Bible meets you without being heavy-handed or dogmatic.  We’ll address that in the next post). 

Philosophy & Symbolism

We’re building toward how God’s word can be approached in a way that transcends philosophical eras.  Let’s pave the road a bit further by explaining how philosophy views symbolism & objective reality:

And the phenomenological experience of reality is always bound by social con­structions. You can’t ever reach the “real” reality by anything but the use of symbols: if you look at a chair, the moment you see it, you interpret it as a chair – which is a symbol, not an objective reality”.

Even an idea in physics, such as the hydrogen atom, is only access­ible to you through the use of socially constructed symbols. No matter how many university cred­its you get in physics, or if you win a Nobel Prize, you still only ever get to understand the world through symbols that others have taught you. And, again, those symbols are not a direct link to objective real­ity. It’s just that some symbols turn out to be more useful metaphors for describing the patterns of relations between other symbols. That’s it. You’ve been living the illusion that you’re beyond illusions. 

-Hanzi Freinacht (full article here).

If you’re a Christian, and more of a modernist than postmodernist, you probably hate that quote.  Yes, a chair is objective in the sense that you see a chair and I see a chair.  Everyone can use it as a chair, and its not going to dissolve into a heap of dust overnight.  However, in another sense, if you break that chair down to its smallest parts, what we see with our eyes does not fully comprehend the nature of the “chair.”  We aren’t thinking about the energies that bind that matter together and give us this temporary product and experience of “chair.”

Before you wave your hand as a Christian and state that, “‘God holds all things together (Col 1:17),’ and we don’t need to philosophise the concept of a chair because we accept in faith that God sustains its matter and energies,” Stop and consider one more time.

Philosophy is actually stating a beautiful thing.  Yes, man’s highest reasoning is foolishness compared to God’s.  We do not rely on the wisdom of humanity, but on God’s revealed wisdom.  However, this point about the symbolic nature of reality is actually compatible with the Bible…you just haven’t been introduced to the Bible from this lens because it wasn’t necessitated before now.

I realise the weight of what I’m saying here, and how much it disrupts the comfort many find in the modernist approach to the Bible, but remember the conflicts between Galileo, Copernicus and the church.  Its when we feel the terror of change that we need to beware of how staunch we are when we think we know something.  We just might be proved utterly wrong and end up in a heap of humility.  Ultimately, though, its not our humbling that matters compared with the salvation of people who need our message – a message that is not anchored to a past era, but the Living God.  

Modernist Christianity has lost its voice

At the same time we need to show the loving respect of being willing to think about things from the other person’s shoes.  You Christian, are surrounded by a world more and more concerned with accountability – with reason – reason that is founded on both justice & sustainability.  This is part of the shift from postmodernism to metamodernism.  In postmodernism we had a free-love relationship with relativity.  Now, in metamodernism, relativity is still welcome, but there is a greater demand of integrity from anyone who wants to hold their claim on reality in a way that affects others.

The Christianity of modernism does not hold up to that test.  For one thing, people are leaving the institution of the church in droves, and that tells us that something has shifted in the weight the religious institution carries (yes, even non-denominational evangelical churches are modernist institutions).  

Love of Tradition & Seeking to Control Truth

I’m inviting you to consider that the Bible continues to speak powerfully in this strange new world, but we have to adapt.  We are the ones who have to let go of tradition, once again.  After all, God has set a major precedent of testing His people in this way.  Both the sincerity of our faith and the hardness of our hearts are tested by how we handle our traditions when they are rightfully challenged.  This is a good thing!  Tradition is bound to build up, cocooning the truth into oblivion.  It is the old wineskin, which is tantamount to a living vine that has petrified into wall paper.  Tradition petrifies truth because it wants to control it.  

You and I are not called to control truth.  Truth is a person.  We are called to follow Jesus, and with that we need not carry the cultural baggage of philosophical thought or eras of reason.   At the same time, we can contextualise our way of communicating to the age in which we live.

After all, that is what God has done for us, and here is the connection we’ve been building to:  

God, Objective Reality & Symbolism

The Truth of Objective Reality is God – Who is so above us that we cannot and do not comprehend Him.  This is something modernist Christians espouse, but we need to apply this in a way that goes beyond the comfort zone of modernism.  

To illustrate, we can believe in gravity (Col 1:17), experience it, recite the laws of it, but we cannot fully comprehend it.  We did not lay the pillars of the earth on their foundations, causing them to spin on the perfection of that axis in its precise relation to the sun and all other galaxies (Psalm 75:3).  

We can read that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), but can anyone write the book that will exhaust the ways in which we are?  

Here’s my personal favourite: Jesus’ blood cleanses sin.  How did Jesus’s physical blood sprinkle the tabernacle in heaven?  We believe that it did, but how?  We have utterly, zero idea (verses on Jesus’ blood here).  

What I’m reaching for is humility.  That we be humbled by the fact that we already know that God is beyond us, so should it offend or even surprise us if He chose to communicate with us through symbols?  (Massive leap, I know.  Stay with me).  

Does it shift our sense of security to imagine that even our physical bodies, or the composure of the universe could all be symbols pointing to the Objective Reality of God (who He is, His nature, and the nature of what He has created)?  

Do we remember that He created with WORDS (Gen. 1:3).  Which are symbols themselves.  Or that Psalm 19 states that the creation is speaking (symbolising) day and night, pouring forth speech – even just as they were spoken into existence (Psalm 19:1-4).

Too abstract?  Here’s the core.  

God is spirit (John 4:24).

Think about that for a moment and answer this question:  If God is Spirit, then name one thing in the world that can represent Him, or reveal who He is, that is not a symbol.

I recently heard this from the Christian astrophysicist, Peter Taylor:  Anything material, that has come into existence (i.e. had a beginning) had immaterial origins.  This is an axiom of science, not philosophy or religion.

Spirit means immaterial, but we and our world are material.  So, how can we know God or understand the purpose of His creation?  He spoke, and continues to speak through symbols (not just symbols that are words, but a greater narrative of symbols housed within those very words) and secondarily, through the meta-symbols of what He created. 

Does that make what is created somehow less valid?  If the sea for example is a symbol of “the nations” (those without faith), does that fact invalidate all other experiences related to oceanic bodies – such as loving to look at them, or surf their waves or sail across them?  Of course not.  Those experiences retain value.  It just means that God also revealed something about Himself when He created a great big ocean in the world.  The ability of God to create something beautiful and epic and also spiritually meaningful, does not invalidate its other meanings, it just grounds them in His person and in His purposefulness.  It gives us a hint how big He is…how profoundly wise and foreseeing.  

While I am proposing that truth can be obtained through the symbolic nature of the Scriptures, I have not yet attempted to show that process to you.  In this post, I have only  pointed out symbolism as the powerful and timely approach to the Bible that we have missed until now.  I seek to stimulate your thinking around why we need a new approach.  

I don’t expect you to chew these postulates in one bite, but consider on them.

There is so much more to unpack.  Come back for the next post and we’ll take on the next giant – relativity & absolute truth. 

[this post was updated June 2, 2019 to reflect new research & more integrated thinking around this topic.]

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