Several years ago I went into a furniture store in Cambridge, England, looking for one or two items for the house. What I found were not pieces we could live with but an array of garish pictures, tables, chairs, lamps, and so forth that were ugly in the extreme, all shouting, Buy me because I am the height of fashion right now, and your home will be considered chic by those visiting you. That is a microcosm of what our culture has become.
Postmodernity has poked its nose into every aspect of contemporary life, from aesthetics to ethics, from politics to our understanding of history, and is built around cobbling together a new and individual sense of reality, each of us drawing upon our own insights (although there is simultaneously little individualism, since we are all being shaped by the same forces in society). We have been given permission not to think hard and use our reasoning and good sense, but to more or less make things up as we go along.
This trajectory has had far-reaching consequences. Amid all this confusion, Donald Trump, a man for whom truth is a fluid commodity, takes center stage. Egocentric to a tee, he is using all his skills as a negotiator and marketer to persuade us that his view of the nation and the world is the true reality. He intuitively seems to know how to manipulate, often by a process of divide and conquer. He is Postmodern Man, creating his role without constraint, loathing anyone who calls him into question.
Trump seems supremely cognizant of the fact that he is always acting. He moves through life like a man who knows he is always being observed. If all human beings are, by their very nature, social actors, then Donald Trump seems to be more so — superhuman, in this one primal sense.
The postmodern world has given birth to the Trump phenomenon while at the same time providing the set for his performance. Our culture is now ripe for facts to be twisted, lies to be hailed as truth, bullying and braggadocio to be taken as leadership, and for policies to be pursued both at home and globally that have unexpected consequences, with the potential for destruction. In one way or another, I suspect all of us have been complicit.
I am no political expert, nor a scholar, nor a sociologist or philosopher. I am merely a priest who has lived with the consequences of the last half-century of cultural drift, struggling to find ways to be a Christian in such a fluid world, struggling to communicate the gospel. Modernity has morphed into postmodernity and perhaps now something else, hurried along by a communications revolution that has far exceeded the dislocation caused by the arrival of the printing press more than half a millennium ago.
Like other thoughtful Christians, I am trying to make sense of what has been happening here in the United States during and after the latest election cycle. Politically, we seem to have arrived at the nadir of postmodernity. I find myself wondering whether this descent is the inevitable outcome of what has gone before. (Let me hasten to add that I have no formal political affiliations.)
With the wisdom of hindsight, I realize the preconditions for this situation have been clicking into place from at least the Sixties when I was in university and seminary. My theological education in both of those places was excellent, but, while well rooted in the past, it was hardly designed to speak the faith into the world that was being born. Even the former principal of my seminary, now an old but very active man, has admitted as much.
My generation of clergy have always been playing catch-up, always caught on the back foot as we have sought to communicate the faith into a world that was alien to our training, upbringing, and conditioning. The culture and its worldviews have been accelerating away from us so that it appears to be an incomprehensible foreign language to rising generations.
By the late Eighties the modern Enlightenment world in which we were “comfortable” was subsumed by an ever more pervasive mood of what is now known as postmodernity.
The Western world was moving on from empiricism and skepticism to a mushy subjectivism. As things churned, a yearning for spirituality resurfaced, and that looked encouraging. It could have been a great opportunity for churches, but our eyes were on a different ball. What emerged was a secular spirituality that has turned out to be no spirituality at all.
The Enlightenment mindset that I grew up with valued facts, thought in terms of absolutes, the scientific method, and seeking solid evidence that substantiates ideas. This has given way to an incipient subjectivism in which “it is up to me” whether something is right or wrong, regardless of facts. We have also become a culture readily manipulated by advertising and propaganda, regardless of the quality of the item being sold or the ideas being advanced.
This subjectivism has opened the door that the Enlightenment had as good as closed on the notion of spirituality and the spiritual life, but the umbilical cord with the Transcendent has been cut. A half-hearted devotion to every kind of god imaginable (or none) now envelopes the hearts and minds of millions. In retrospect, this could have provided churches with the opening that it has been seeking for decades. However, those of us in “mainline” churches were unhealthily fixated on sexuality, while in conservative churches many were busy marrying the zeitgeistthrough their political alliances.
My perception is that the Nineties were the decade in which the consequence of this cultural rot began to set in. The postmodern mood by this time had its thinkers and popularizers who were attempting to define what was going on. A leading analyst was West Coast guru Walter Truett Anderson. Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (HarperCollins, 1990) breathlessly set out to explain what was happening as a “seed of discontent” that undermined society’s core received values. We had grown out of the need, he said, for “a truth fixed and beyond mere human conjecture.” In his later books he repeats his thesis ad nauseam but never really says anything fresh.
Trump may think he can fix everything — a pure fiction — but the Lord God Almighty has not lost control. Peter’s counsel to first-century Christians suffering various kinds of trials is excellent: “Through him [Christ] we have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet. 1:21). We, like those to whom the Apostle wrote, are exiles and foreigners in what our own world is becoming, yet we are not without resources. Secular contemporaries may chortle at times regarding how weak and foolish churches may seem, but following the advice of St. Peter, our responsibility is to live into the faith that is ours by grace.
A year or two back Os Guinness, a wise friend of mine, addressed this situation, writing
that we are more sinful and more culturally shortsighted than we realize. … The evangelical imperative is the requirement that confronts all followers of Jesus, from the humblest layperson to the most brilliant scholar to the loftiest archbishop and megachurch pastor: We are called to define our faith, our lives and all we are and think and do by the standard of Jesus Christ our Lord, the precepts of the good news of the kingdom, and the authority of the Holy Scriptures. … The task of Christians in every generation is to be like King David and serve God’s purpose in their generation — always moving forward with our God who is always on the move.”
Postmodernity and Trump’s place within the present conundrum provide us with a doable challenge. We may be aliens and strangers, but by God’s grace it is obedient lives, faithful to the One who redeemed us, that will outlast the present foolishness and shortsightedness.