Thoughts : Progressive Christianity (Theology) : Kierkegaard and a Prophet: Postmodernism’s Pros and Cons

On the first of March, 2004, a Korean American emailed me, saying that he had seen my webpage and wanted to meet up with me. Over the years, I had gotten to know many people through my webpage – some of whom remain close friends of mine. This person wanted to know if I was free to meet up with him on the 14th of March. And he said he wanted to share some stuff with me, which he believed the Holy Spirit wanted him to tell me. After exchanging a couple more emails, I met up with him on that day – a Sunday. We met around noon and he spoke to me for the next 6-7 hours. I have to say it was a very exhausting time for me, sitting through that many continuous hours. I can only imagine how it was for him to do most of the talking. At the end of it all, I would probably say that I was confused and it made me think through what I had heard from him. Supposedly, he was telling me things the Spirit wanted him to say to me. If so, I thought I would be wise to take a good note of what he had said, whether or not I felt it was from God. At least, I should reflect and pray about what my friend had said to me.

He started for the first few hours telling me about his life. He spoke of his church experiences and experiences with other Christians. He mentioned how all his friends would say that he’s the most perceptive person they had met in their lives and told me of stories in which his gifts were used to bless others – also of instances where many went against him because of his gift of being able to perceive what’s going on in their lives. I believe he did all this to prove or assure me that he had prophetic gifts. And this is probably to prepare my heart to receive what God would be saying to me through him. Throughout this time, though he was proclaiming/defending/proving his gifts to me, I found him very genuine and didn’t think he was trying to boast to me – although I’m sure a lot of what he said could be construed by others as boasting. I don’t believe just anyone and I would like to think that I am very careful when it concerns matters like this – especially when it comes to someone proclaiming to speak for God. I’ve been through extremities of charismatic practices and I’ve heard of enough abuses by those who claim to speak for God to be cautious about these things and not accept such ‘prophecies’ so easily. However, on the other hand, I believe in giving the person the benefit of the doubt and not being too cynical. Therefore, I was very open throughout this time of listening to him.

After his very long introduction to his prophetic past, he spoke for quite some time of the evils of postmodernism – saying the spirit of postmodernism is from the pits of hell. To understand why he spoke of postmodernism, one must understand that through our email exchanges before we met, I told him I was no longer what my webpage (the old one I still had up on the Net) says I am – a Reformed-Charismatic – just in case he thought I still believed in certain things then. Rather, I had moved away from Reformed (maybe even evangelical) theology and I told him that I would consider myself – at that point – what others would call a postmodern Christian, or a post-evangelical, or an “emerging Church” Christian. I also said that I’m interested in the social implications of the gospel and I think in a more postmodern way:

…not in the sense that there’s no truth or that all truth is relative. I believe the Bible is God’s Word, but we’re fallible. And in all our interpretations we need to be humble and not think we’re always right. And more often than not, when people claim to be right and this or that to be true, it’s actually not the case.

I also mentioned that I was leaning towards Universalism! Anyway, concerning Postmodernism, I don’t believe that a person could both be a Christian and a Postmodernist in an extreme sense. If so, the person wouldn’t truly believe that Christ died for his/her sins nor would the person believe that through faith in Christ, the person would be saved. The Bible speaks of a meta-narrative and no matter how Christians interpret it or whether they want to take God’s Word in a more literal or metaphorical way, the Christian still has to believe that a meta-narrative exist. To go postmodern in the extreme sense, embrace a form of radical relativism and to proclaim that no absolute truth exists is ultimately to deny God and Christianity. A Christian who claims to be a postmodernist most likely does not embrace postmodernism in the radical, extreme manner. And so when I say I don’t mind being identified with the term ‘postmodern Christian’, I do not mean I accept all things postmodern! I know I can’t do that and still be Christian. (This is not to say that all people who claim to be postmodern and Christian are not Christians. If they truly are Christian, they certainly do not think totally in a postmodern way. Even if they still insist that they are totally postmodern and think totally in a postmodern way, I would still venture to say that it is possible that they might still be truly a Christian. I believe a person can after all be Christian who consciously thinks that he thinks totally in a postmodern way, who yet unconsciously actually doesn’t do so.) So most likely when one says he or she is a postmodern Christian, it would generally mean he disavows the modern way of seeing things and has learnt and benefited much from postmodernism – without necessarily accepting everything that postmodernism is all about. (And anyway, one has to bear in mind that postmodernism means different things to different people and thus one’s definition of what it involves may differ from another.) That’s what I mean when I say I don’t mind being identified as being a postmodern Christian: I am a Christian who has learnt much from postmodern philosophy and even applied certain things of postmodern philosophy to the way I think yet I do not embrace everything that is associated with postmodernism. That means I see both positive and negative aspects of postmodern philosophy and I accept the positives while being weary of not going the full way because of the negatives. It’s probably a bit confusing to other Christians for Christians like me to still speak so highly of postmodernism and to even allow the term to define us if indeed we do not embrace totally what postmodernism stands for. Perhaps that’s true. But perhaps the reason that Christians like me still retain the “postmodern” tag is because we wish to be identified with certain positive aspects of postmodernism that many other Christians couldn’t be bothered with. In fact, we believe that there are a lot of positive things to be learnt from postmodernism and to refuse to acknowledge these positive aspects and to refuse to apply them to our Christian thinking will ultimately result in a Christianity that we abhor and wish to disassociate ourselves from. What I’ve found is that those who like to criticize postmodernism don’t usually learn much from postmodernism. That is, they think it’s all evil and there’s thus nothing to learn from it. I think a Christian who finds no benefits from certain aspects of postmodernism does not understand it at all. I say this while acknowledging that there are dangers in postmodern thinking. However, that doesn’t mean we have to throw out everything postmodern. We cannot afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater, nor can we afford to uncritically embrace everything of postmodernism. We need a balance. While Christians who have benefited in some ways from postmodern philosophy should think of making themselves clear about what it is that they embrace (perhaps even disavowing their attachment to the term ‘postmodern Christian’, describing themselves rather as Christians who have learnt from certain aspects of postmodernism), the Christians who are only critical of postmodernism should also look at themselves and acknowledge that there is much to learn from postmodernism.

So what positive aspects of postmodernism do I embrace and have I learnt from? Basically, the positives to be taken from postmodern philosophy would be the idea that we all see things and know things from our own perspective. And because of this, we ought to be careful to claim that our thinking is perfect and our claims to truth are perfect. After all, Baptists would swear by baptism for only those who confess Christ but Presbyterians and Anglicans believe it’s biblical to baptize infants and babies. Reformed Christians and Calvinists believe in the doctrine of predestination while Arminians, most Methodists and Pentecostals do not (or, rather, believe in predestination is a very different way). There are millions of Presbyterians as Baptists, millions of Predestinarians as those against them. All claim to be right and have biblical support yet not all can be right. But we’re still all brought up believing we’re right and that what our pastors say is biblical and true. What I’ve learnt through postmodern philosophy is that even if we try our best to be right and try our best to be “objective” and unbiased, more often than we care to admit, we don’t achieve this perfect state we hope for. Claiming perfection in one’s belief or interpretation is just not on! You can understand all this through postmodern philosophy or you may have already understood it through being a Christian long enough and noticing all the different denominations and beliefs. Or you can deny all this and adopt a fundamentalist attitude that such and such a belief (the one you hold, basically) is the right one and all other beliefs that depart from the right one are false and the teachers who promote them are false teachers, maybe even the devil in disguise. Hey, you get a lot of these websites on the net! Just type words like “discernment” or “heresy” into search engines. So postmodern philosophy has taught me what I already knew for many years of theological interest and being a Christian in a pretty messed-up and divided and many times fighting Christian world: we all see things through our own perspectives. Now, again I’ll say that while postmodern philosophy would say that all is about perspective and therefore no one can claim to be right or claim to have the truth, I, as a Christian, can’t totally agree with that. However, I do accept that a lot or almost all beliefs promoted in the Christian world are more about one perspective than absolute biblical truth. (Notice I’m not saying that truth is perspectival. No, truth is absolute but the important thing is that our grasp of truth is perspectival.) And thus we all need to be careful not to look like an idiot and claim to be right always. We need to be more humble and realize the roles that perspectives, prejudices, biases and the intellectual and social environments play in the formation of our beliefs.

Let’s get back to my prophet friend. He was basically against postmodernism. Overall, I felt he was leaning towards the side of most Christians who tend to criticize postmodernism as a dangerous philosophy while not being open to the positive aspects of it. I wouldn’t say he ignorantly threw postmodernism away; rather, he saw more negatives and dangers in postmodernism than he saw good in it. While for him, postmodern philosophy is definitely dangerous to the Church, for me, I see how it can actually help the church and Christians in a great way. Why two different perspectives here? I believe it’s because of our different Christian journeys and different environments we’re in. Perhaps also our different gifts. For me, my Christian journey has allowed me to see much differences and division between Christians of different beliefs and denominations – I’m thinking here of the charismatic/non-charismatic divide. Because of this, I tend to emphasize the positive aspects of postmodernism because I see divisions in Christianity caused by Christians who care only for what they believe and think they are right and have nothing to learn from those who differ from them. That is why there are great divisions in the Church – because Christians are not open to learn from others or to see things from another point of view. And thus because through my journey I have come to understand how so many Christians who believe in different and even contradictory beliefs stupidly think they are right and all others wrong, I have been attracted to certain aspects of postmodernism which basically say to these deluded Christians, “What you think is absolute truth is probably more of your perspective than anything else. Bah! Stop claiming you know everything!” For my prophetic friend, I would say that his Christian journey has caused him to be concerned about different issues than what I am concerned with. Through his talk with me, he pointed out his journey as a Christian with prophet-like gifts of great perception. He spoke to many people about issues in their life and how they had to change. Many of them refused to believe him and refused to believe he spoke for God. They were perhaps very threatened that here was a man who knew the secret things of their heart. I suppose that through such a journey, my friend’s main concern would not be that of mine. While my concern is that people think they are always right in their beliefs, his concern would be that people do not care when truth is spoken (as through him, a prophet and spokesperson of God) and thus relativize or ignore truth. Therefore, I believe that if Christians learn from the positives of postmodern philosophy – humility in one’s claims to absolute truth and thus openness to learn from the beliefs of others – the Christian faith would be more appealing with less divisions and quarrels within and more understanding and balance. Meanwhile, he believes that the negative aspect of postmodern philosophy – the tendency to relativize everything and not listen to truth – is what makes people disobedient to God and not take truth and his standards seriously. While emphasizing the positive aspects of postmodern philosophy, I do not doubt that there are dangers. I believe that my friend would also not doubt that there is much to learn from postmodern philosophy. The only difference is where our emphasis is and that, as I have written, is due, I believe, to our different Christian journeys and what has become important to us in our different Christian lives.

As I’ve already spoken of the positives of postmodern philosophy, what are the negatives? While I already knew that not everything of postmodern philosophy is good, the talk (and our Internet communication) with my prophet friend has brought me to confront more thoroughly the more negative and dangerous aspects. I can’t say I remember everything of our communication, but one thing that stuck in my mind was his appreciation for the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Now, I had heard much of Kierkegaard before. One of my first encounters of his name was when a pastor I was close to mentioned to me a couple of years back about Kierkegaard’s break-up with the lady he was about to marry, eventhough he loved her. I had also read much about him in many books (his name being linked constantly to Existentialism, a philosophical thought I had been reading up about in the past year) including the book “Mapping Postmodernism” by Robert Greer, which I read soon after my meeting with my friend. Furthermore, I owned (yet had not read) the book “Fear and Trembling” by Kierkegaard – a gift from a friend years back who was studying that book in the National University of Singapore (NUS). My curiosity about Kierkegaard and his thought led to such a stage that I decided to finally read the book by him I had. I bought an additional guidebook (Routledge Philosophy Guidebook) to “Fear and Trembling” and started my journey to understanding a bit of Kierkegaard.

Reading Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” (alongside the guidebook), I began to understand a bit more of what my prophetic friend was trying to get at about the dangers of postmodern philosophy. I don’t claim to be an expert on Kierkegaard nor one acquainted much with philosophy in general, however, I feel that Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” has much to say to Christians like me who revel in the positives of postmodern philosophy. (Not being an authority on philosophy, do not thus blame me if my portrayal of certain philosophical thoughts below should actually be more nuance than it is – as I’m sure such would be the case for those with an eye for the great art of philosophy!)

In “Fear and Trembling”, Kierkegaard uses the biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) to bring out various points. An important point in the beginning to note is that Kierkegaard was writing against the Hegelian (of Philosopher Hegel) system of thinking. A Hegelian philosophical premise that Kierkegaard seeks to overturn is that which equates the “ethical” with the “universal” – that is, a view which says that the ethical thing to do in any situation is the thing that the whole universe ought to do. This means that we as individuals should always disregard our “individuality” or individual convictions and never act on our own behalf – if such is in contradiction with the “universal”. Rather, we ought to act on behalf of the greater good and the universe. Such a belief system says that what is good for the whole universe, is good for you and me. Knowing the right thing to do in all circumstance is easy as it’s the thing that benefits everyone.

If one is familiar with the biblical story of Abraham, one will understand how such a system of thinking contradicts with what Abraham actually did – or desired to do. Rather than obeying a universally held principle which states that we should never kill anyone, Abraham went against such “universal” principles through his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. What he desired to do was to obey God. In doing so, he placed something or someone above the “universal”. In a sense he placed the “religious” or his understanding and conviction of the “religious” above the “universal” and the common good. For those who hold to the Hegelian system that the ethical thing to do in all circumstances is the “universal” thing to do, they would be horrified with Abraham’s actions. Surely what he did or sought to do, says the Hegelian, was absolutely unethical. After all, any act that contradicts “universal” principles ought to be regarded as such, for who or what is above “universal” principles and is there any higher duty than to serve what is “universal”?

What exactly do we mean by the “universal”? Perhaps we could look towards Immanuel Kant and his “formula of universal law” to understand this more. Eventhough Kierkegaard’s main sparring partner was Hegel, it wouldn’t hurt to quote a bit of Kant to illustrate what is meant by the “universal”. Kant’s “formula of universal law” states that: “I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” Thus what Kant is trying to say is a very logical proposition that unless you are prepared to act in such a way that you do not mind everyone in the world acting such a way, then you should not act in such a way! Should you lie? Well, are you prepared to face a world where others lie to you and everyone? If so, go ahead. If not, then don’t lie. Should you kill someone? Only if you don’t mind others doing the same to you and everyone else. Unless you are prepared to allow everyone to lie or kill, you shouldn’t lie or kill. It’s sort of like the golden rule of “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you.”

Such is one aspect of what the “universal” is all about. The Hegelian system of ethics is based solely upon reason. The concept of the “universal” is a result of reasonable, rational and logical thinking. After all, wouldn’t we all agree that it’s very much reasonable, rational and logical to formulate a principle which commands us never to do anything that we don’t want others to do also? Most people would say that such a universal law is fair and reasonable – something we can all say yes to and agree to abide by.

And yet Abraham of the Bible didn’t live by such a universal law in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac! But he was still lauded as someone to imitate and the father of faith. What gives? Who’s right? If the Hegelian system of ethics is correct, then Abraham’s act is clearly wrong and he ought to be considered an evil murderer (or at least a person with evil and murderous intentions). However, if the Bible is right and Abraham is truly the father – and an exemplar – of faith (partly described as such because of his willingess to sacrifice Isaac – Hebrews 11:17-19), then the Hegelian system and the concept of “universal” is clearly wrong. And that’s what Kierkegaard believes – that the Hegelian system of ethics is wrong and that Abraham is truly the father and an exemplar of faith.

Not wanting to get too far into Hegelian and Kierkegaardian philosophy and ignore the reason why I’m bringing us into all this, let me try and state how the above relates to the dangers of postmodernism through noting some precautions “postmodern Christians” like myself need to take in their embrace of some aspects of postmodern philosophy.

Christians like myself – who are sympathetic to the aspect of postmodern philosophy which warns us not to be arrogant in claiming our beliefs are always right and truth and which encourages us to view our beliefs as perspect ival – need to know that sometimes (maybe even many times) we need to stand up for the truth. Postmodern Christians need to know that “those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.” We can’t always refuse to commit ourselves to any belief, in fear of not getting it right. Sure, we don’t want to seem fundamentalist, arrogant and narrow-minded. And yes, we need to be careful of thinking we’re right and knowing the absolute truth when we know that it may only be our own perspective. Indeed, the more we study and read and grow, the more we know how little we know.

That being said, if we try to view the postmodern milieu we’re in now as a sort of a “universal” law or principle which everyone faces and believes to be right, then we can see where the danger of postmodern philosophy is for the Christian. We live in a postmodern culture and everywhere we’re bombarded with the message of tolerance and that of one which eschews radicalism, absolutism and extremism. And such a message has indeed become reasonable, rational and logical to everyone (I think many would argue that although postmodernism is about countering the rationalism and meta-narrative of the modern era mindset, the postmodern ethic of anti-rationalism, anti-meta-narrative has become a new dominant meta-narrativ-ic system – one which extols the reasonableness, rationalness and logicalness of the not being too quick in one’s claim to knowing absolute truth). And so if we follow Kierkegaard and his book, we will be cautious in accepting this new universal standard or law or principle (i.e. Postmodernism) as totally God-ordained. Just as the Hegelian ethical system of the “universal” was in contradiction with a higher standard – that of God’s – so also the postmodern’s meta-narrativ-ic “anti-meta-narrativ-ism” can often times be in contradiction with God’s higher standards. The question Abraham had to face was whether he would obey the “universal” or whether he would obey God. And sometimes God demands of us something that is in direct contradiction to all we and the world think is right and good. In our rational thinking, we may think that God would never ask of us something so unreasonable. Yet, in reality, if we think that God can’t be like that, have we not limited God to what we think He is like? Have we not made God in our own image and according to our own liking? Perhaps God transcends our description and our reasoning and our limitations imposed upon God. In fact, it’s fair to say that God would probably be like that – a transcendent God – for if God is not transcendent, is God truly God and in control? If God is not transcendent, He would probably seem to be more like someone created by our own thinking, with limitations created by us. That is, more like a figment of our own imagination, a person controlled by us, not One who controls us. If God is truly God, I believe He truly transcends all standards and all laws, for He is the lawgiver, the standard maker. He alone is in control, not us.

What all this means is that sometimes God requires us to follow and obey Him in faith. The word faith is the key here. We are sometimes called to obey and follow Him and do His will in faith because there would be times when we cannot understand why on earth God would ask us to do this or that. And there would be times when we cannot understand why God does this thing or that, and yet we still have to trust Him. It is important to note that sometimes faith and reason are at loggerheads. For Martin Luther, “reason is the enemy of faith.” How is this possible? It is very possible because in many ways, God’s ways are very different from man’s ways. What man thinks is reasonable, right, rational and logical, God may think very differently. For example, how can God choose to use the foolish, weak and lowly things (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)? Or how could it be that only when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:10)?

Kierkegaard believed that “faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.” Sometimes we can only get it right when we stop thinking the way the world does because God often times thinks very differently from the world too! Abraham became the father of faith because he had faith in God. One of the instances where his faith was manifested is when he obeyed God in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. This obedience was a manifestation of faith precisely because He trusted God was in control of everything and no matter how stupid and unreasonable and abhorrent a demand God made of him, he still trusted that God knows what He’s doing!

Postmodern Christians need to know that sometimes we need to trust what God says and does – even if it’s totally incomprehensible. We prefer to be humble in our claims of understanding God and absolute truth because we think that some stuff that the Bible says or God does is unacceptable to us. So we’d rather say, “Well, I’m not sure about this one. I want to be open and look more into it. I don’t want to take my stand now or state fully what I believe is truth because I could be wrong. I want to be humble here and not claim to be all-knowing and all-right like those narrow-minded Christians.” But perhaps we postmodern Christians need to ask ourselves whether in saying all this we’re really being fully obedient to and trusting of God. Could it be that God wants us to take a stand? That the stand He wants us to take is totally unreasonable yet He wants us to take it anywhere because sometimes “faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off”?

We need a good theology of mystery. God is mystery. Some stuff that the Bible says are totally mysterious, totally absurd and beyond our comprehension. The God of the Old Testament often seems an angry and vengeful God. He seems to lack compassion in the way He treated Israel’s enemies and even Israel herself sometimes. How does this God as portrayed in the Old Testament measure up to the “universal” view of compassion and love? Quite bad! Yet, we have to know that we ought not to make God in our own image of what’s good and right to us. Sometimes, we just have to accept God and His ways by faith, not trying to explain things away or change the way things are. We only desire to explain the unthinkable stuff away because we don’t want to leave room for faith. But as Christians, we have to leave room for faith. Sometimes, to do that, we just have to make room through throwing out some of our thinking.

(As a postscript to this section, I should say that my inclination towards Universalism ought probably to be rethought in the light of what I said above. Universalism is attractive to others and me because it puts God in a better light and measures up to a more universal view of compassion and love. Yet, the logical, the rational, the universal may not always be right or godly, as I’ve written above. This is one reason why I’m not a totally convinced Universalist.)

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

  1. My dear fellow postmodern thinking christian!

    thank you SOOO much for posting this!! Oh my goodness you just saved me a whole night searching in vain to find an answer to what I’m going through right now!! You see, I’m a strongly devout christian educated in the Fine Arts and through this course have been aqainted with some of the basics of postmodern theory. I have recently adopted a very very sublte (can’t stress the subtlety enough!) feminist position as far as my art and philosophical position goes. Basically, the feminism I refer to (I really actually dislike the word as it has many aggressive connotations) means that I am trying to find my own personal identity as a woman (Of God and as human) and rejecting contemporary popular cultural notions of what ‘woman’ means. I’m against the way the media exploits the psychology of women in order to make vast profits. Besides this I’m not feminist in the least. Perhaps if you’re a guy you won’t understand, but that’s ok, I can forgive you for that hehe! Anyways, over the past 4 years I have studied at art school and the postmodern theory never really bothered much untill now, (of course I knew as a christian I had to reject relativism, that was a nobrainer) but besides that I couldn’t see how it competed much with my world view……..untill…I started reading Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto, I don’t supose you’ve heard of her? She has a doctrate in biology and is an atheist but that’s not what bothered me. It was this: Her theory basically says that we don’t have to accept the dominant ideology of pop culture, we don’t have to let that mark us and forge our identity for us, we can take it upon ourselves to create hybridised ideologies and identities. I was beginning to feel as though this was a defiant act against God, but after reading your post, I no longer think that. Surely God allows for individuality within each person and if we all had to conform to very strict rigid ideological forms, well most of us probably wouldn’t last long as christians in today’s world. Not suggesting we should conform to the world either though!! anyways, hope that makes sense! God bless you and thank you agai for sharing, take care :)!!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *