What is Postmodern?

I use the term postfoundational and deliberately avoid the use of the term postmodern. Allow me to explain this choice. One of the biggest dualities we face in our culture today is the tension between the modern and the postmodern mindset. The term postmodern may not be the most helpful term for our discussion of spirituality in the missional suburban church. Many lay people in the church have associated the term postmodern with a negative, destructive attitude toward any form of tradition and have closed their ears to anything bearing the postmodern label. Therefore, it is important that we clarify our use of terms.

Post means after, so postmodern—in its most direct definition—means something that comes after the modern era. This begs two questions: 1) what is the modern era, and 2) has the modern era actually ended so that something can be considered to have come after it?

Mary Hatch’s language might prove helpful in refining these terms. Hatch provides labels for the two movements that come after the modern era.[1] The first she calls interpretive/symbolic. The second she calls postmodern. I agree with the two camps that she identifies, but I question her nomenclature. I would suggest that both of these movements are postmodern, in that they follow, chronologically, the modern era, and are concurrent.[2] I would like to propose that the two streams named by Hatch be reframed as constructive postmodernism—to replace interpretive/symbolic—and deconstructive postmodernism—to replace postmodern.

I would like to propose a further modification of the terms. Rather than modernism vs. postmodernism, it may be more helpful to discuss the hermeneutical shift in terms of foundationalism vs. postfoundationalism.[3] The modern dogma that dichotomized the Conservatives from the liberals was one of foundations. The modern assumption, stemming all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, was that there is a universal ideal that transcends the shadowy realm of the imperfect. Both sides of the divide were seeking a foundation. The Conservatives found their foundation on the authority of Scripture and/or Tradition.[4] The liberals found their foundation in human experience.

Footnotes

[1] Hatch discusses these terms within the context of organizational theory, but I think the clarification of terms is helpful in the broader conversation around the term postmodern. Mary Jo Hatch and Ann L. Cunliffe, Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3-22.

[2] One could argue that it is not helpful to speak of chronological sequence at all, but more of epistemological shift, since modern, interpretive/symbolic, and postmodern systems of thought are all currently functioning within organizations. It can also be argued that the term postmodern is incorrect. It denotes a definite, chronological break from one era to another. A better term might be late-modern, since most of the agendas of the so-called postmodern movements are still in reaction to the modern dogma and may or may not have yet created a new mode of being. Only time will tell when a new era has emerged.

[3] I was first introduced to these terms by LeRon Shults at Bethel Seminary. F. LeRon Shults, The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology: Wolfhart Pannenberg and the New Theological Rationality (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999). I have also found Grenz and Franke to be very helpful in this area. Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

[4] Protestants more on scripture, Roman Catholics more on tradition

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