Christendom, Modernity, Postmodernity, and What Comes Next, Part 1

I’ve promised you loyal readers some elaboration on what I think are the characteristics of postmodernity.  I’m going to structure part of this answer by comparing Christendom, modernity, postmodernity, and what comes next (one possible periodization of the last 1000 years of Christian history; I’ll write a post on periodizing church history later).  I’ve structured this comparison in a series of questions, which owe a lot (even when the answers do not) to the writing of such emergent/emerging thinkers as Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, and Doug Pagitt.  I decided this post was long enough to break it into two.  This is part 1, part 2 will come on Friday.

Three caveats: 1. All of my answers for “what comes next” are just guesses.  Since it comes next, it’s only partially here now and thus hard to discern.  2. I’m using the definition of postmodernity from last week that sees it as a transitional period between modernity and what comes next (though the answers also draw on postmodernity as critique).  In many cases, there will be a lot of overlap between the answers for postmodernity and one of those other two periods.  3. The answers below are brief and therefore simplistic.  If you’d like to see me elaborate on a question, indicate that in the comments.

What are the important sources of authority?

Christendom: “Traditional”, hierarchical authorities such as kings, bishops, etc. along with tradition.  You do and believe what tradition or the authorities tell you to do and believe.

Modernity: Individual reason.  You do and believe what your own individual reason tells you to do and belief.

Postmodernity: Calls into question the universality of reason, but keeps the influence on the individual as the arbiter of authority.  You do and believe what you want to do and believe.

What comes next: I think the answer here is going to be communal norms.  You do and believe what those in your social reference group do and believe.

What are people like?

Christendom: People are part of a great hierarchy of being.  People are inherently sinful.  Individuals are less important than humanity as a whole.

Modernity: People share in universal human reason.  People are either good or perfectable.  Individuals have increasing worth.

Postmodernity: People are limited by their own context.  Individuals have ultimate worth and, to some extent, define their own realities.

What comes next: People are social beings and part of social networks.  Individuals have freedom to choose their networks, but are then shaped by those networks.

What is truth, and how do you know it?

Christendom: Truth is knowledge of the eternal and unchanging known through tradition and revelation.

Modernity: Truth is logical propositions about the laws of the universe known through reason and the senses (interpreted by reason).

Postmodernity: Truth is relative and known through cultural background and personal experience.

What comes next: Truth is understanding contexts correctly, known through individual selection of communities of reference and subsequent communal consensus (think Wikipedia or the birthers as instances of truth defined by communal consensus).

Who are theology’s important dialogue partners?

Christendom: Philosophy, to help recover truths that have already been known

Modernity: Physical sciences, to determine the true nature of the world through experience and reasoned reflection

Postmodernity: Cultural studies, to help identify cultural contexts shaping worldviews

What comes next: Social sciences, to make sense of human diversity and human connectivity

How should we read the Bible?

Christendom: Literally (to get the basic sense of the words), allegorically (to see what they have to say about the salvation narrative), tropologically (to derive moral lessons), and anagogically (to find what they say about the ultimate ends of life).

Modernity: As a collection of logical propositions that can be selected apart from context and arranged to create logical arguments on any topic, or as a collection of myths not literally true because they contradict experience, though imparting some deeper truth (depending on where you shake out theologically)

Postmodernity: As a collection of stories that we give meaning to based on the personal experiences and beliefs that we bring to the texts as readers

What comes next: It will be interesting to see – perhaps as a source for a shared set of languages and stories that help shape and define the Christian community


Tom posted on April 6, 2011 at 8:50 am

I’m just curious if you can trace the flaws of the conceptual frameworks of Christendom and Modernity and see how they were addressed by Modernity and Post-Modernity respectively? Instead of plotting out trends within our own society and projecting them forward, shouldn’t we see what our society lacks and assume that the future will address them.

David Wm. Scott posted on April 6, 2011 at 9:32 am

That’s an interesting suggesting. I certainly think that to an extent you’re right that subsequent historical eras solve the flaws of previous ones. Certainly, historical eras form in reaction to previous ones, and part of that reaction is a reaction against what are perceived as the flaws of the previous eras.
But I think it’s overly optimistic to say that this must happen, especially with our active participation in it. We are the future, so if the future is to address the flaws of our society, that will be because we can (using our historical and cultural senses) recognize these flaws and work to address them.
And on a deeper, more philosophical sense, if you take a Kuhnian approach to history, then subsequent eras don’t necessarily solve the problems of previous eras. Instead, they just discover new problems that replace the old ones. In this sense, what subsequent eras consider the flaws of previous eras that need to be reacted against may not be what were considered the biggest problems by those eras themselves. Furthermore, these problems may never actually be answered, but rather abandoned in favor of what become more pressing questions for a new way of looking at things.

Tom posted on April 7, 2011 at 10:53 pm

True, but if you take a Kuhnian approach, isn’t whatever is happening now not going to matter much in the next iteration of how and what we think?

Also, I want to just note the circularity of part of your argument – perhaps a strength which gives it cohesion, but a circularity none the less. Communally, we’ve decided that communal knowledge, either by a communal pool of individuals meting out truth to the masses (wikipedia) or a communal belief that if we really want something to be true it will be (the birthers), is the future. If the community wills it, and we agree that communities are the future, isn’t this to some degree self-fulfilling?

David Wm. Scott posted on April 8, 2011 at 5:43 am

Maybe you’re right that according to a Kuhnian approach, what’s happening now won’t matter in the next iteration. But it still matters now.

I’m still thinking about your second point. My first reactions are these: I think your portrayal might depict the process in more deliberative terms than I might (“Communally, we’ve decided”, and “the community wills it”). Second, even if it is self-fulfilling, that doesn’t mean that communal knowledge isn’t the future or we don’t have to think about how to respond to such a world.

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