modernism

On seeing… clearly (or “how I found out I had ‘presbyopia’ and used that as a metaphor for talking about the Presbyterian church)

My recent trip to the optometrist also included a routine check up, where, it turned out my eyes are aged the same age as the rest of my body. Older. And so, I have ‘presbyopia’ — which is a apparently very common condition, but brilliantly named given my occupation as a Presbyterian minister.

Presbyopia has the same greek root as Presbyterian — ‘elder’ — I have elder eyes.

Eyes that according to the diagnosis are suffering from a physiological insufficiency of accommodation associated with the aging of the eye that results in progressively worsening ability to focus clearly on close objects. Symptoms include difficulty reading small print, having to hold reading material farther away, headaches, and eyestrain.

Inflexible. Unable to focus on close objects. Tired.

Sounds like the Presbyterian Church alright…

I’ve written a couple of recent pieces about the pastor drought and what might be causing it in our neck of the woods, and about why I’m (still) a Presbyterian anyway, and in some ways I wish I’d had this diagnosis, and so, this language, earlier. 

We Presbyterians have presbyopia.

As a denomination we’re increasingly unable to recognise what we’re not seeing because we’re old, inflexible, and tired. Incapable of seeing what’s right before our eyes, and, like me, unaware of what we’re missing. We’re probably not good at reading small print either… 

For various reasons our denomination in Queensland is at something of a cultural crossroads. The ‘pastor drought’ is biting, so there are vacancies popping up all over the state, and filling those vacancies from within the state will perpetuate the problem. There are good things happening in some healthy churches, but some of our larger churches have grown beyond the size our system is capable of accommodating and beyond the size that most pastors are equipped to lead. We, as a denomination, have been wedded to pragmatism in our ‘business meetings’ and even in local congregations, outsourcing theological thought to committees who then deliver reports that most of us are too busy to read or engage with properly, and we haven’t made great business decisions because very few office bearers in the denomination, or members of the courts of the church have been trained or equipped to operate businesses — most of us have been trained to exegete the Bible, and some of us have vaguely relevant pre-Bible college experience that is rapidly fading in the rear view mirror, the elders who could be joining our business meetings as a denomination — those with business acumen — are excluded as a function of our meeting times, and our operating rules haven’t found ways to both affirm a theology of male eldership and broaden these courts to consistently include the voices and wisdom of the other 50% of the population. We’ve become stuck in our way of seeing the world, and the world is changing. We’ve lost focus. 

Presbyopia. 

Recent events have been a bit like the eye tests you do at the optometrist where you suddenly realise you’re not seeing what you should, and so we’re conducting ‘reviews’ and ‘think tanks’ and bringing in ‘fresh eyes’ to set ‘new directions’ (the previous ironic title of our denominational rag). But how can we be sure this won’t be a case of the blind leading the blind?

If, and let’s stretch the Presbyopia analogy just a little further for a moment, if the phenomenon of ‘old eyes’ kicks in at around 40 (you know, around my age), then seeing clearly might not just involve people in their late 60s (boomers) inviting people in their 40s (xers) to the table. It’s quite possible those ‘younger’ elders won’t just bring the wisdom of age and experience, but eyes that are already becoming inflexible precisely when we need to shift our focus. 

There are things that are good, true, and beautiful that come from having a denomination where age and experience are valued; elders are an essential part of any community (and family). But there comes a point in the life of a family not only where we don’t let grandpa drive the family car, but when a parent turns to their kids knowing that their eyes might see things with a little more clarity. 

Let me just make some bold assertions (propositions even) for a moment, and feel free to push back if you think these are unfounded. 

Pragmatism of the sort that is producing problems at a local church level and at an institutional level is wedded to a certain sort of modernism; especially a modernism connected to technology and technique. The cultural dilemmas facing our denomination are fundamentally an outworking of an uncritical adoption of modernity not just as a framework for assessing and talking about truth and morality, but for operating in the world. 

1. The shifting cultural landscape and the erosion of the church’s place in society is a product of both our uncritical embrace of modernism, and the failure of modernism to win the hearts and minds of the culture (and, perhaps even the failure of modernism to present a fully orbed understanding of what it means to be human, or to have meaning, or to know truth).

It’s not just that the culture has shifted way from truth (and by that we mean become post-modern and post-Christian), it’s that the shift to modernity was already a destructive shift away from truth and we didn’t see it while we were making the shift (think the disenchantment of Christian belief, where we’re blind to the spiritual realm, and our becoming wedded to pragmatism in our ethics, rather than, say, virtue or working from principles that might produce an action that was ‘right’ but less immediately effective).

An example of this is that modernism is big on authoritative institutional voices, so, we adopted this posture and voice as Christians, specifically as conservative church institutions (not just Presbyterians), when speaking to the world about moral, political and social issues. These areas of life are typically not reduced simply to pure rationality or propositions about science/nature/natural law (like marriage), but that’s the posture we adopted — and people were keen to take away our drivers license because we looked like the equivalent of a 95 year old escapee from a nursing home stealing a car and rampaging through the streets at 10 kph. We did this while simultaneously undermining our institutional credibility (around, say, institutional child abuse and even church finances). Then, as we realised the shift was happening we doubled down on pragmatism. The ‘culture wars’ approach to politics is this paradigm taken to extremes; where suddenly it doesn’t matter what action we take, so long as the outcome we believe is ‘good’ is achieved. Within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland this pragmatism plays out both in terms of how we typically talk about achieving ministry success (more bums on more seats in flashier buildings with better AV capacity), and in how we approach decision making in our courts where questions tend to be about methodology, resource distribution, and wisdom rather than about theological consistency, and where theological thought when it does happen is outsourced to an increasingly smaller group of experts because we don’t have time for that in our ‘business meetings’.

2. Pragmatism, as an outworking modernism, that mostly looks like finding the right lever or silver bullet or ministry model isn’t going to fix this shift.

It won’t fix our internal issues if our internal issues are, in part, that we are institutionally wedded to modernity and to pragmatism, and it won’t fix our external issues if we think the way to respond to the shifting culture is to simply present the unadorned propositional truth of the Gospel (or if we do adorn it, to think that the best way to adorn the Gospel is in pragmatic ways that imitate the ‘excellence’ we find in business and marketing manuals with good technology and technique). 

3. Embracing post-modernity, especially its suspicion of institutions and its paradigm of deconstruction of institutions where reconstruction work is typically aimed around the subjective experience of an individual, isn’t the answer either.

Institutions are good and necessary. Individuals suffer from presbyopia (or plenty of other conditions that limit true seeing of the world). There is truth at the heart of Christian belief that can be expressed propositionally (just not exclusively propositionally). Narratives are powerful, but not only subjectively so. This is where maybe a shift to meta-modernity (or post-post-modernity) would be an interesting step to embrace institutionally.

4. The children are our future (and also our present), and so are adults without presbyopia, maybe they should help set our direction, especially if they can see more clearly than we can.

Our church structures are set up to be conservative (and there’s some wisdom in that so long as we’re conserving the right things), but one way this plays out is that the ‘rooms where it happens’ to borrow from Hamilton typically exclude anyone at low risk of actual presbyopia, and probably also anyone at low risk of metaphorical presbyopia as well (not to mention, in the main, that they also typically (though not in all cases) exclude women of all ages).

There are now a couple of generations below Gen-X who’ve been grappling with cultural changes, and some people in these generations are exceptionally thoughtful and committed Christians who’ve navigated the challenges and tensions in their own lives that we’re now trying to recalibrate our denomination to respond to because we’ve realised we’re not seeing as clearly as we should. Any review process worth its salt won’t just include the next generation down — those who’ve been waiting patiently to become the establishment — but all generations. Instead of viewing these younger generations with suspicion, as though anybody not wedded to the methodology of modernism (propositions and pragmatism) has become worldly (without critically assessing our only ‘becoming worldly’ as an institution that is thoroughly modernist), maybe we could listen to them. One way this ‘suspicion’ plays out, like so much else, is when the modernist v post modernist thing kicks in in debates about sexuality and, for example, the language used to describe one’s experience, where anything ‘post-modern’ is dismissed as squishy or dangerous theological liberalism, when what is possibly happening is a shift in how language is used from prescriptive to descriptive. There are other ways too, but I feel like I need some evidence to support these assertions and one of the first places I think this modernist/post-modernist schism became apparent to me was in the furore surrounding a review posted here some time ago about a thoroughly modernist book tackling sexual ethics produced by another thoroughly modernist institutional Christian publisher.

We need grandpa no longer in the driver seat, and the fresh eyed learner driver to navigate this road trip and keep the car from breaking down or crashing.

5. If we’re serious about a cultural review and ‘think tanks’ and substantial institutional change we need to invite people who are clear eyed (and so under 35) into our processes, and these discussions.

Otherwise we’ll have the blind leading the blind to more of the same, but also, in my own actual (and metaphorical) experience, it’s energising to see the world through fresh eyes. The optometrist was right that my tired eyes were making the rest of me tired too. It’s invigorating both to get glasses that correct your vision and take up some of the strain, and to hear from voices younger than you who help you see the world with a little more clarity.

Two of my favourite parts of the last two years have been regular catch ups with my ministry trainee, Matthew, who consistently probes and prods me to see the world differently, and reading his blog as he’s ventured into publishing some of his thinking for a wider audience. I trust I’m also operating as ‘an elder’ for him, but he’s navigating a thoroughly different world to the one I knew in my twenties. For another eye-opening experience, get a hold of Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites for an account of the way the spiritual and cultural landscape has shifted past the kinda hard secularism and skepticism that so much stuff by people over 35 (me included) assumes is the default paradigm, into something quite different.

The meta-modern church: some thoughts about church in the post-post modern era

There’s a lot of energy being expended by Christian institutions fighting a sort of rearguard action against post-modernity. The assumption seems to be that to be Christian is to be wedded to modernism with its objective (propositional) truths, authoritative institutions, and an anthropology that thinks human change (and conversion) comes through rational argument and information, rather than experience or emotion.

One wonders if the energy being expended trying to fight not just for the Gospel, but for a philosophy and a cultural moment rapidly in the rearview mirror when it comes to how most western humans understand the world and themselves is part of the conditions producing the so-called ‘pastor drought’…

There are reasonable reasons to be suspicious of some forms of post-modernity. Post-modernity is built on the idea that we as humans are limited in our ability to know anything, and are always a product of the perspective created by our own personal experience, whether we know it or not. Some forms of post-modernism deconstruct institutions (like the church), and question absolute truth claims (like the Gospel) on the basis that authority structures are inherently self-interested in perpetuating an objective truth claim they can’t justify. Embracing post-modernity and its emphasis on experience, subjectivity, and the emotions, has led many to deconstruct themselves all the way out of Christianity. And yet, there’s much we should, and could, learn from post-modernity and its epistemic humility (the idea we can’t really come at things totally objectively, and are limited, is a pretty good starting place for figuring out our limits), we humans are wired to learn and be formed by experience and via our emotions, and we will expand our understanding of the world by hearing voices outside our own experience (or tradition) in ways that might help us get closer to the truth.

One of the things post-modernity ate, whether accidentally or on purpose, is not just the idea of objective propositional knowledge about lots of areas of life (perhaps with the exception of math and (some forms of) science) is the idea of a meta-narrative; a grand organising story underpinning reality. It left us with a fractured, pluralist, community made up of individuals and identity groups with many stories shaped by their own experiences. Figuring out how to be the church in a post-modern context, without trying to be a modernist institution wielding institutional authority and making the same old truth claims that nobody wants to listen to (unless they become a sort of archaic modernist themselves, trying to live as an outsider in a brave new world) has been tricky. We probably don’t need to convert post-modernist thinkers to modernists in order to convert them to Christianity; though sometimes it feels like it; instead, we might need to give people the experiential and emotional data that makes belief in the Christian story plausible (and of course, Sam Chan’s book on Evangelism in a Skeptical World is a great companion for this task). Trying to simultaneously deconstruct the church and its (modernist) practices in the face of the critique from post-modernity, and re-construct it as a community plausibly living and telling the Gospel story has involved a clunky gear shift for the church as a whole, and lots of institutional inertia is still pulling us in the opposite direction; this isn’t helped by those who are committed not just to Christianity, or Jesus as Lord, but to modernism itself, as the way, the truth, and the life.

The rear guard action hasn’t really worked by many measures of a healthy or flourishing church here in the west; and perhaps it’s because we’ve put our eggs into propping up a not super-effective construction of church, rather than putting our energies and efforts into deconstructing both the church and post-modernity; this is an area that Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer have been pressing into (explicitly at one point, Sayers says he got tired of his post-modern friends deconstructing their way out of Christianity and decided to shift gears not to deconstruction of the church, but deconstruction of society and re-construction of the church.

And maybe it’s time to stop the rearguard action, and, though it’ll be a massive headspin, jump straight to the vanguard…

The rearguard is the soldiers standing at the back of the army trying to hold ground while the rest of the army retreats to some sort of safety to regroup; the vanguard is those soldiers at the front of the army on a charge; those who blaze new ground for the people behind them to step into.

The thing about post-modernity is that while it has been helpful in a whole bunch of deconstruction work, and brought lots more voices to the table, it hasn’t done much construction. It hasn’t left us with a better picture for how to co-exist in communities of difference (say, the modern secular state), but has created an environment where opposing truth claims are grounds for conflict, where people play the politics of self-interest, and lobby to win not just protection for their own truth, but the eradication of any others. Post-modernity didn’t create the conditions for hope, but for cynicism. One place this is evident is in the TV comedies of post-modernity, and one way a shift in the fabric of society to a post-post-modern outlook, is the death of cynicism (or nihilism even), and the return of hope (often built around communities of difference, where people are joined together in a common purpose (think Parks and Rec, Community, etc); what’s even more interesting is that more recent comedic efforts from the writers who brought us this turn from cynicism have been grappling with the afterlife (in The Good Place, and Upload), and maybe probing a little around the edges of questions about the ‘eschatology’ of the west (will technology save us? How do we live well now given what we do and don’t know? etc). There are still artefacts of a more post-modern outlook (hey there Ricky Gervais), but a shift is happening.

David Foster Wallace made this case a while back in an interview with Larry McCaffery, when he said:

“The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.”

“All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.”

And…

The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. ”

He wrote an incredible essay on the issues with post-modernity and television in E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction, where he also said:

“There’s a brashly irreverent rejection of “outmoded” concepts like integrated plot or enduring character. Instead there’s a series of dazzlingly creative parodic vignettes, designed to appeal to the forty-five seconds of near-Zen concentration we call the TV attention span. Unifying the vignettes in the abscence of plot are moods — antic anxiety, the over-stimulated stasis of too many choices and no chooser’s manual, irreverent brashness toward televisual reality”

The art, or cultural artefacts, of post-modernity are entrenched in post-modernities defining characteristics; the death of metanarrative and the championing of experience and emotion over ‘integrated plot or enduring character’ — and of course, cynicism, irony, and deconstruction about institutional authority or tradition. The truly post-modern church is a sort of pastiche of the culture it apes; every moment of the service is curated to produce an emotional response, or experience, nothing is long or deep, the over-arching plot of the Bible, or even character formation understood as a long hard slog in the same direction, are replaced with the cultivation of ‘moments’; silver bullet and quick fix self-help sermons, coupled also with a cynicism about the Christian tradition and the practices of the institutional church one’s new ‘movement’ or ‘independent church plant’ is seeking to detach from as it ‘contextualises’ and re-imagines itself in the style or form of modern entertainment.

But there’s a shift. And maybe instead of fighting the post-modern seeker sensitive church, or the deconstructed ’emerging church,’ or trying to idealise (or idolise) some period in history — whether the modernist moment, or the medieval moment with its cathedrals, liturgy, and enchantment, or the halcyon days of persecution and nimble, subversive house churches of the pre-Christendom era — we should ask what we can learn from each era as we deconstruct not just the church with the lens society brings to us, but so that we can see where our churches and our forms, practices, and beliefs have been produced by particular moments in time, and seek to reconstruct ourselves not explicitly in contradiction to the spirit of the age, but explicitly in ways shaped by the Christian story. And if we’re going to get caught up in the war against ‘post-modernity’ — maybe modernism isn’t a great ally in that conflict (though there might be parts of modernity that resonate with us), and maybe meta-modernity offers a more hopeful ‘common ground’ for conversations with the culture and engagement with the form and content of Christian belief and practice, such that in our deconstruction of post-modernity and its truth claims we might help prod people towards this new meta-modern moment.

The shift from post-modernity is happening in those areas that most profoundly shape our view of the world, where once this was the task of philosophers, now it is the task of the TV comedy writer, even politics sits downstream from culture. It’s not just in literature where what David Foster Wallace described as post-modernity’s deconstruction or ‘patricidal work’ has been felt; it’s everywhere. Our literature — even our sitcoms — are part of the culture that shapes our outlook (where culture is at least, in part, a product of shared ‘cultural texts’ or artefacts). And the shift from irony and deconstruction is in full swing. One way this has been described as a movement is as the ‘new sincerity’… Here’s a video exploring how this is working in the world of the sitcom.

The ‘new sincerity’ has, in some quarters, merged into this new idea of ‘meta-modernity’ or metamodernism. Meta-modernity includes a return to a more hopeful outlook, and even to meta-narrative. This shift also accounts for the popularity of those figures who offer a grand, organising, account of life in the world — for example, the Jordan Peterson phenomena.

This isn’t ‘new’ or cutting edge; a guy named Luke Turner published a ‘Metamodernist Manifesto’ back in 2011; but it’s slowly (I think) becoming clear that metamodernity’s critique of the deconstructing, cynical, hopelessness of post-modernity, and the identity politicking world it creates, isn’t particularly sustainable, and that a metamodernist approach offers at least one way out of the void that doesn’t require a return to modernity (and a loss of the good deconstructing work that post-modernity was built on). Turner says, of metamodernism:

“Whereas postmodernism was characterised by deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives (to caricature it somewhat), the discourse surrounding metamodernism engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism.

Thus, rather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.”

From a Christian perspective this is not without problems; but there is lots in the Christian view of the world that ‘oscillates’ (to use a word from the manifesto), or resonates, with the goals of metamodernism.

The conflict between Christianity and metamodernity will kick off, as it does with any other philosophical outlook, with the claim that some ‘objective form’ of the Christian word, or truth exists; the claims John’s Gospel makes when calling Jesus not ‘a’ word, but ‘the word who was with God, and was God’… and that Jesus, the word, is both definitively ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ and the one we turn to for the truly good life, or, as Peter says in John’s Gospel: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” That said, because we live in a world where the future has not yet been realised — as people who live with the hope that eternal life will be found in Jesus and a new creation — Christians can, and should, recognise that we live alongside those looking for life, and truth and a ‘way’ elsewhere; and where post-modernity deconstructed truth claims in such a way that divergence has bred competition for dominance, metamodernism offers a more humble stance on the idea that we might, as people, pursue grand narratives as valuable and meaning making; and it invites us, as humans, to search for the grand narrative that both resonates with human experience and desire the most, and produces goodness and hope. It adopts a stance that is open to such truth claims, rather than ironic and cynical.

So here’s some ideas for what a church (or the church) for the metamodern world might look like; those who’ve followed along here for a while might recognise some of these qualities being aligned with the New Eden Project as an idea, and it’s true. These ideas are related.

So a church wanting to flourish in a meta-modern world would be a church that embraces and supports, and even, creates, ‘metamodern’ cultural artefacts; those that reject irony and cynicism and replace them with beauty, and a pursuit of something transcendent (even if that search often lands in humanism, community, and relationships, it will engage and critique that landing — resonating with what it can, like Paul in Athens, rather than simply rejecting such texts out of hand).

A church wanting to engage with this world will frame the Gospel as a grand story, or metanarrative, that we are invited to ‘live in,’ not simply a proposition (and indeed, will frame the whole Bible as a story); it will present this story as one that is more compelling than the others, and as the ultimate ‘true’ grand narrative, without adopting a sort of monotheistic zeal that leads to the destruction of all others and their gods (Deuteronomy with sledgehammers style), but will deconstruct other grand stories on the basis that they do not produce the results one hopes for (Paul in Athens style).

Such a church will see itself as a community built around that story to give it plausibility as we embody a certain sort of life together that has both emotional and experiential appeal because it is built on goodness, and hope, and beauty, and character (or virtue, and a rejection of cynicism and utilitarianism.

It will stop thinking that the answer to the shifts in western society is to bring back modernity, or to deconstruct post-modernity, and instead will set out being constructive; and so will move away from purely ‘rational’ propositionalising of the objective truth of the Gospel, and will instead try to match the truths of the Gospel up with people’s experiences and emotions; investing the time and energy of its people into culture making and institution building to produce the sort of cultural artefacts that work alongside the plausibility structure of Christian community to support the truthiness of the Christian story.

It will stop looking to the world of engineering, business, and marketing to shape ‘churchmanship’ and instead will value the arts, and the people industries, seeing church not as an event where a truth is propositionally proclaimed, but a community that lives out a narrative together.

And ultimately, it will engage the world with a posture of hope — in part because of how our story ends, but also because hope is what the world is looking for, rather than despair and cynicism — and even if that doesn’t work to reach more people, it would be a breath of fresh air for those of us already in the church. Wouldn’t it.

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