In the past, many of our neighbors could understand traditional Christian preaching even when they responded with disagreement or indifference. During the last 15 years, however, our message is increasingly met with dumbfounded incomprehension or outrage. Until a generation ago in the United States, most adults had similar moral intuitions whether they were born-again believers, churchgoers, nominal Christians, or nonbelievers. That has changed.
Many have characterized the change over the last generation as “the postmodern turn.” The “modern” era, we are often told, was characterized by confidence in rationality and science and the pursuit of a grand social order that would be mediated by institutions such as the academy and the nation-state. The postmodern era is marked by pluralism, a loss of confidence in the rational, a desire for experience, and so on.
Recently, however, I’ve been reading thinkers who believe that this way of describing things obscures much of what is happening. They say that the term “postmodern” overemphasizes the discontinuities with the recent past and fails to see the strong continuities. They propose that what we have today is not so much a departure from modern patterns of thought and life, but rather an intensification of these patterns as they have now penetrated further into our institutions. These thinkers prefer to talk of “late” modernity or even “liquid” modernity, and here is why.
The root idea of modernity (even more fundamental than confidence in rationality) is the overturning of all authority outside of the self. In the 18th century, European Enlightenment thinkers insisted that the modern person must question all tradition, revelation, and external authority by subjecting them to the supreme court of his or her own reason and intuition. We are our own moral authority.
Modern society nonetheless continued to be dominated by relatively stable institutions for a long time. People still were able to root their identities to a great degree in family and clan, in local civic communities, and in their work or vocation. Yet now even these institutions seem to be passing, worn away by the “acid” of the modern principle, namely individual happiness and autonomy must come before anything else. Marriage and family, workplace and career, neighborhood and civic community—none of these institutions can now remain authoritative or stable long enough for individuals to depend on them. People live increasingly fragmented lives, no longer thinking of themselves in terms of basic roles in communities (“Christian, father, lawyer.”) Instead, their identities constantly shape-shift as they move through a series of life episodes that are not tightly connected to each other. They are always ready to change direction and abandon commitments and loyalties without qualms and to pursue, on a personal cost-benefit basis, the best opportunity available to them.
Here’s an example. The new Christian Smith book, Souls in Transition (Oxford, 2009), profiles the beliefs of young adults age 18 to 23. In an interview with Ken Myers on Mars Hill Audio, Smith relates how he often interviewed people and asked them if their moral convictions (some of which were very strong) were mainly subjective feelings or really true to reality. He found that most had difficulty even understanding what he was asking.
The underlying thread that ties all this together is the inconceivability of a moral order based on an authority more fundamental than one’s own reason or experience. That was the founding principle of the Enlightenment, and that is the cornerstone of the most recent generation. So how can we say the Enlightenment is over?
We can certainly use the term “post-modern” to refer to many aspects of our life in the world now. There certainly are discontinuities with the recent past. But I conclude that an over-emphasis on the post-ness of our situation can lead us to celebrate the greater tolerance, the end of “Christendom,” the fall of Reason-capital-R, and the openness to the spiritual, without seeing that it is based on a kind of hyper-modernity that is perhaps more antithetical to Christianity than ever.
I am old enough to have seen both the “high modern” and the “late modern” / “post-modern” opposition to Christianity, and there are unique opportunities and difficulties in both situations. In the end, I don’t prefer ministry in one over ministry in the other, for I believe the continuities between these ages are more fundamental to ministry than the discontinuities.