Culture: How Confident are we in these Postmodern times?

One of my favorite "postmodern theologians" is Theodore Giesel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. In one of his lesser known stories, Dr. Seuss describes a precocious young boy who is learning how to spell. "The A is for Apple. The B is for Bear. The C is for Camel. The H is for Hare. ... Through to Z is for Zebra, I know them all well," said Conrad Cornelius O'Donald O'Dell." But the good Doctor has a surprise for the boy, such that "he almost fell flat on his face on the floor, when I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more, a letter he had never dreamed of before." Young Conrad learns of a world where we need a whole new alphabet to describe the things that can be discovered. "So on beyond Zebra, explore like Columbus. Discover new letters like 'Wum' which is for Wumbus, my high-spouting whale who lives high on a hill and who never comes down till its time to refill. ... So on beyond Z! It's high time you were shown that you really don't know all there is to be known."

Living in postmodern times is life beyond zebra where we no longer have the alphabet to describe the things that we discover. How does one preach in such a world? How do we "do church" in an environment where people are uncertain about their ability to know anything for sure? Do we have the right to stand up and declare truth for all times and all people? Can we be that confident?

Understanding postmodern culture requires that we focus on the question of confidence. How deep is our conviction about the things that really matter in life? How sure are we about God and life and eternity? Clearly, not every one of us despairs of the ability to know which way is up on questions of such consequence, but increasingly, average people are finding it necessary to be a lot more humble about questions they used to think were settled. We are just not as confident as we used to be and we have good reasons for our lack of conviction.

Confidence Busters

There are several things at work in the world that serve to lower our collective confidence. Among them are the following:

1.  Mystery

We used to believe that the world was understandable and that it could all make sense - just give us enough time to figure it all out. Now we know that this was overly optimistic. People placed great faith in science and technology as the things that would deliver us from our ignorance and lead us to a confident new future. That faith is no longer so robust. For every scientific study we read there is another, seemingly just as credible, telling us the exact opposite. We send our telescopes into deepest space and for every question that is answered we discover twenty or two hundred more that we didn't know existed. We tune our microscopes to observe the sub-atomic structures and discover fundamental paradox. Quantum mechanics tells us that there is uncertainty at the most elemental level of life. This has a profound effect on the average person. How can any individual speak with confidence about life and truth when all the facts are not yet in? The more we know the more we know we'll never know. To think otherwise strikes us as arrogance. 

2.  Plurality

We used to live homogenized lives, never having to deal with alternate cultures or worldviews. When I was a child, there was only one person in the whole school that looked different than the rest of us. He was, as I remember it, third generation Japanese. He was as Canadian as I was. That was about as much diversity as I knew except for the Sunday nights when the missionaries would come to church with their slide shows and curio tables. In those days it was easy to believe the Buddhists were wrong. They lived on the other side of the world. Of course they were wrong. But now there are Buddhists living on our own suburban streets, and Sikhs and Muslims too. What is more, these are good people who cut their lawns, give to the Heart fund, and who put their kids in Little League. All of a sudden it is a lot more difficult to reject their views without evidence. Life in the global village challenges our basic conceptions of what is and what should be.

3.  Technology

We used to be able to conduct our business at a steady and reasonable rate of speed. Now we have more information than ever before and the rate is growing exponentially. Further, we find that our allowable response time is shrinking.

My daughter recently wrote a school report on the country of Japan. When I was her age I might have read the relevant encyclopedia article, checked two or three books out of the library, and would have felt sufficiently informed to write a quality paper. Now we have the internet. My daughter did read the encyclopedia (on CD rom), checked the books out of the library, but then went online. She actually went to Japan (in Cyberspace) and even established relationships with Japanese people. This is wonderful, except for the fact that it never ends. When doing research, how does one know when to stop? In the past we knew there was more information out there, it is just that it was inaccessible. Now we no longer have that excuse. We live in fear that if we settle our convictions and write the paper, we may miss that one more piece that would change everything if we had only hung in long enough to read it. 

We have more information than ever before and we have less time to manage it. Do you remember when we used to send letters. Letters were great. It might take you a week to get it written, a week for it to arrive at its destination (I'm referring to Canada Post here), another week for the person on the other end to respond, and by the end of the whole transaction it has been a month before I have to do anything about it. Now we have e-mail and the communication is instant. People expect a thoughtful response within minutes. When you have too much information and too little time, you feel debilitated.The result is a chronic sense of tentativeness and uncertainty.

Key Questions

This breakdown in confidence requires us to face some simple, yet critical, questions:

1.  Does truth exist?

It is difficult to know how to even think about this question given the limitations of our humanity. Can we confidently assert the existence of an objective form of truth that exists independently of any human bias or opinion? Could such a claim be objectively established outside of any subjective reference point? I hope so. And that might be as far as we can go. It seems we need for truth to exist, but it is hard not to wonder whether the whole thing is just a case of wishful thinking.

2.  Can truth be known?

The difficulty with asserting the existence of objective truth is that we are subjective beings? How is possible for us to gain access to universal truth without staining it with our fingerprints? As soon as we "know" the truth, does it not become uniquely "my truth" without reference to anyone else?

Let me suggest an example. As I write this, I am sitting in a room in downtown Vancouver. Do I know what is going on at my home right now? Not with any confidence. It is 2:37 in the afternoon. I expect that my wife is getting home from work and my children are coming home from school. Soon they will have their snacks and practice the piano. They may even do their homework. Of course it is the word "may" that is critical. Everything I've just suggested is guesswork. It is possible that my wife was asked to stay late at work. The kids could be going to play at the homes of their friends. Worse, my house could be burning down. Thieves could be breaking in to steal this very moment! I don't know because I am not there. I live my life one moment at a time, one place at a time, and if I'm not there to physically observe it, I just don't know. The past is a blur (Quick: what did you have for breakfast last Thursday?), the future is unknown, and even my understanding of the present is warped by my personal bias.

There was at least one moment when the world world seemed to have gained consensus but it didn't last long. The hours after the death of Princess Diana may have been the only time when the whole world was thinking the same thing at the same time. Diana was probably the best known person on the planet and when she died everybody knew about it (they have televisions in the jungles of Papua/New Guinea). What is more, everyone was agreed in those first hours that the blame rested solely at the feet of the French paparazzi who hounded her to her death. Of course, just a few hours later we learned that the driver of Diana's Mercedes was drunk (three times the legal limit) and the consensus started to break down. A week later they discovered paint flecks on the bumper of the Mercedes (Fiat White) that seemed to indicate another car was involved. So then we were treated to the spectacle of the Paris magistrate and his men in the tunnel with their measuring tapes trying to figure it all out. Today we know we'll never know what happened. Why? because none of us were there with the God's-eye perspective necessary to know not only what happened, but why.

So then, how can we speak about knowing truth about the most confounding and difficult questions of life such as the nature of life, God, and the ultimate state of humans in eternity? We can guess, but can we know?

3.  Can truth be told?

If we establish not only the existence of truth but the knowledge of truth, it remains uncertain whether or not that same truth can be reliably transmitted to others. Transmission (communication) requires language and language is necessarily unstable. Language is the re-presentation of someone's interpretation through use of signs that may or may not communicate what we think they mean.

If I were to ask you to define the word "love" you might speak to me of commitment, passion, and various other relational mysteries. It may surprise you, then, to learn that I was talking about a score in tennis (40-Love; 30-Love). How would you know that I was talking about sports and not relationships? Context. Perhaps you might have correctly identified my meaning if we were at a tennis match. watching tennis on TV, or if I was wearing those white shorts and carrying a racquet in my hand. The problem with context is that it is contingent. Context, by definition, is about places and moments and personal intent. These things mitigate against our ability to describe truth in any transcendent sense.


The elusiveness of truth leads us to several less that satisfying responses:

1.  "Works for me"

Free from objective standards of truth, postmodern people are free to pursue whatever works. Postmoderns are looking for ways to express their individuality in a way that has inner integrity, that is to say "is true to one's self." Self becomes the standard for what is appropriate. "If it feels good, do it." If the effect is positive in my life and experience, then it ought to be affirmed outside of any transcendent sense of right and wrong.

2.  "Whatever"

This one word could stand for the whole postmodern problem in sum. Postmodern people don't make judgments. Aware of the limits of their knowledge they are content with contradiction, knowing that everything is tentative pending further review. They are willing to let others express their own values without imposing their own. Postmoderns are tolerant toward divergent and contrary perspectives. They hold their views loosely valuing diversity. Whatever you want. I've been trying to ban this word in my household, not to great effect. I can't even stop myself from saying it. It seems to be the most appropriate way of responding to so many of the things that I face.

3.  "Who cares"

Postmodern people live in the moment. The postmodern perspective has no confidence in any kind of stable or predictable future. There is too much mystery and complexity. You will notice that this phrase is not punctuated. That is because I see it both as a statement and a question. "Who cares" is a way of expressing a purposeful uncertainty or even disdain for the claims people make to us or the circumstances that we face. "Who cares?" is a cry for help. Many find themselves experiencing incredible levels of stress and anxiety as they contemplate a directionless future. Nobody cares because everyone is too focused on their own uncertainties. For many it is too much to bear.

Confidence Builders

So do we have any reason for confidence? Can we still speak with conviction, or is preaching an exercise in arrogance. It is common among preachers and evangelical theologians to downplay the question. We just need to preach the truth like we always have, we are told, as if by simple force of conviction, people will gain confidence and respond in faith. While I don't disagree I contend we can't afford to just sweep aside the questions. The questions posed by postmodernism are formidable and require a thoughtful response. At the very least they might lead us to a humbler tone in our preaching. That might be a good place to start.

Theologically we understand that we really are finite and we really are fallen. Do we have anything to offer or should we all just go out and kill ourselves? Francis Schaeffer, writing before we were using the term "postmodern," seemed to understand the problem. In The God Who is There he suggested that the best way to talk to people about faith was to take them to the end of their argument. He called it "taking the roof off." His wife was conceredn that people faced with such ultimate alternatives might choose to harm themselves. Well they might. Unless they know that there is a God who loves them and has a purpose for their lives.

1.  God Rules

The Bible declares that God exists regardless of our awareness or submission. He is independent of us yet he rules over us. The earth is the Lord's and everything in it (Psalm 24:1). There is purpose and direction to the world under God. I accept this as a matter of faith. I have to. If the claims of Scripture are not true, I have no reason to live and nothing upon which to stand.

2.  God Speaks

Not only does God rule, but God makes himself known. He reveals himself to his creation. The word becomes flesh as God reaches down. It is not up to you or I to be able to reach up and take hold of God in his perfect objectivity. We're not smart enough, strong enough, powerful enough, rich enough, or good looking enough. Good thing we don't have to be. I am growing to understand that revelation is God's project as he reveals truth to the world (and to me) for his own glory and for my own good. This is the best thing that I know.

In Genesis 11, people built a tower in the desire "to make a name for themselves" and to somehow become God for themselves. God was having none of it. He knocked down their temple and pronounced two acts of judgment upon them: (1) he scattered them, and (2) he confused their language. We contend with language and diversity issues because God made it that way. This whole postmodern thing? Take it up with him!

Still, God seems to hold us accountable to his truth and to his plan. He can do this because, despite the challenges, he is in the business of making himself known to us, sufficiently if not exhaustively so that we can obey him and receive all the good things he has in mind for us.

I am reminded of two Sunday school songs we used to sing. "Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so." The other one said, "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart." Hold those two together and we've got it, the means by which God makes himself known. He speaks objectively through his Word and subjectively in our hearts. Together we discover, much to our joy, that we can know him.

3.  God Cares

When God speaks to us, he tells us that he loves us. Those of us who have heard his voice have learned that he cares. He hasn't left us on our own. He has plans for us and he will bless us. We ought to tell each other about it. That's what preaching is.

We can share the message in the same way that it has been offered to us. We can care. We can love as we've first been loved (1 John 4:19). We have experienced the grace of God which has freed us to humbly offer it to others. The love of God is tangible and compelling in these postmodern times.

At the close of his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty raises the question of the Holocaust. What do we say about acts of barbarity if we believe that there is nothing essential or foundational? The best that Rorty could offer was a vague sense of human solidarity. Humans somehow will act to preserve themselves. We know better, he seems to be saying.

 He will have to forgive me, but I find Rorty's confidence in human nature to be surprising. Yes humans can act in ways that are loving and good, but they seldom do on their own terms. We're going to need a more substantial answer than this if we can face the future with confidence. That answer I find compelling comes from my confidence in the love of God himself who has made it his business to make his love known by me. I don't have a whole lot of confidence in my own abilities. My confidence is in the Lord who loves me. It is in that confidence that I am able to stand up and preach.

Titanic Confidence

Perhaps the greatest symbol of this breakdown in confidence comes to us via the saga of the Titanic. This ship offered the pinnacle of human scientific achievement and confidence. This "unsinkable" ship could conquer oceans at great speed in great comfort. It's sinking indicated that we were far more limited in our scope than we thought we were.

A key scene in the movie Titanic is when Leonardo DiCaprio stands on the brow of the ship with his arms spread, yelling to all who can hear, "I am the King of the world." He wasn't of course. The scene was unwittingly parodied at the Academy Awards when the movie's director, James Cameron tried to offer the same sentiment. He was ridiculed for it in the press the next morning. His wife soon left him. His "King" status was very short-lived. There is but one king of the world and it's not you or I. Postmodern thinking tells us that we have no choice but ascend the throne. The Bible knows better and so do we.

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