The Christian and the postmodernist

Postmoderns and the mind-body connection.

Gary B. Swanson is the associate director for Sabbath School and Personal Ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Relatively few writers appear to have asked the question, can we see postmodernism in the world around us?" comments Dominic Strinati in his book about popular culture. What he does find is "excessive attention given to the problem of defining the term itself."1

This observation highlights one of the countless ironies concerning postmodernism: We've gone about the task of defining some thing without first proving to everyone's satisfaction that it actually exists. In fact, Strinati's assertion is an apt demonstration of the changeable thinking of our times: Far more than ever before, we are comfortable with paradox. Increasingly our lives are explained by self-contradictions, and we're perfectly at ease with this.

We don't have to delve deeply into philosophy to recognize that we are experiencing profound changes in the way we think and act. However we care to label or define these differences, they are unmistakable. Our societies are not operating on the same basic assumptions or coming to the same conclusions they have in the past.

Among the basic shifts that many attribute to postmodernism, especially in the developed Western world, is displaying a distrust of organized religion. For Christians this presents obvious new challenges: How do we introduce God to someone who doesn't believe in absolutes, doesn't recognize the inspiration of Scripture, and just plain doesn't trust us?

And there are implications even for Christianity's nurturing and disciplining of the members of our own family of faith. Postmodernism isn't something going on solely outside our homes and churches. To varying degrees, it has even affected the way Christians think and act. Most of us, because we are influenced by the culture of our times, are simultaneously modern and postmodern.

A wake-up call

Though some aspects of postmodernism are definitely dangerous, there are others that are a breath of fresh air for Christianity. One of the most important of these is the growing recognition among people on the street that, "the solution to the most fundamental problems of human existence is not human achievement."2

Of course, this is something Christianity has been asserting for centuries. The apostle Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 1 of the difficulties that his ministry was facing, concluding that they had been allowed so that he and his companions would learn not to "rely on [themselves] but on God" (verse 9, NIV).

Abraham, Jacob, and Moses—all had to learn the hard way that analytical thinking, logic, cleverness, and even education are never to supersede our dependence on God.

Yet in the last couple of centuries, much of organized Protestantism has embraced certain misapplied principles of the Enlightenment. The temptation has been to emphasize reason, logic, and self-reliance to the exclusion of a real effective faith. Even in church boards, such stirring activities as decision making, debate, and the democratic process can make us forget that we'd often be spending our time better on our knees.

If postmodernism, even with its serious flaws, wakes us up from the delusion that "the progress of the whole world could be spear headed by the superior, more rational knowledge possessed by the Western intellect,"3 then let's acknowledge truth from wherever it comes.

The pagan sailors who traveled with Jonah recognized God's involvement in their frightful predicament before Jonah did (Jonah 1:5-7). Astrologers from the East, of all places, observed and announced the coming of the Messiah (Matt. 2:1-12).

Though at first it may appear that the worldviews of Christianity and postmodernism are in totally opposing universes, (and again, in many significant ways they definitely are) they do nevertheless have some intriguing commonalities.

It is at these intersections of thought that Christianity has the greatest hope of opening a dialogue that, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, could lead a postmodernist to a face-to-face confrontation with Jesus and what He can do in our lives. It is indeed true that "A church worth its salt in these times ... seeks to under stand the contemporary culture as intimately as it can, and then to enter into a constructive and prophetic engagement with it."4

"Spirituality," a promising intersection

Probably the most promising inter section of thought involves society's growing interest in the human being as a whole person. Any casual survey of today's lifestyle magazines, TV shows, or Internet Web sites confirms that popular thought is increasingly drawn to the idea that human existence is physical, mental, social, and spiritual—and that these are not discrete aspects of life, but are instead, a united whole.

Despite the fact that many people of our time are anti-religious, they are far from being anti-spiritual (another of those paradoxes), even though they may mean something consider ably different from the traditional Christian use of the word "spiritual."

The word "soul," for example, has gained such popular currency that it appears in countless book and magazine titles in the secular marketplace. This could never have occurred 50 years ago because science couldn't quantify or document the existence of a soul. But today spirituality is such a topic of everyday interest, even for those who have never stepped into a church except for the occasional wed ding or funeral, that the popular press cannot ignore it.

The growing interest in the relationship between the physical and the spiritual offers a challenge to the Church. "Modern thought was built on a fundamentally dualistic under standing of reality as mind and matter, and of human nature as soul and body.... This dualism has made its way into Christian thought, with a strong emphasis on 'saving souls' but with little concern for bodies, because we believe that the physical dimension of the person is of no eternal significance."5

The mind-body connection: an effective approach

Yet Jesus' three-and-a-half-year ministry certainly suggests otherwise. It may seem ironic to some in our day that in the short time allowed Him to impact the greatest number of people, Jesus expended so much effort on healing as opposed to other forms of what we would traditionally call evangelism. From what we can see of His priorities, they might be arranged something like this: healing, storytelling, asking provocative questions, and preaching-teaching.

In addition to His compassion for the obvious suffering in the world around Him, Jesus' care for the physical needs of others must have come also from His awareness of their worldview. This would have included the assumption that there is relevant connection between the physical and the spiritual. "Scripture seems to picture humans for the most part as unitary beings. Seldom is their spiritual nature addressed independently of or apart from the body."6

Today's postmodernist also sees a connection between mind and body. "It is no accident," writes Gordon Graham, "that Internet groups are sometimes referred to as 'communities of the mind,' often with [the] implication of a higher, freer form of exchange. But in fact I think the reverse of this sort of Cartesianism is true. Pure minds are impoverished persons."7 Graham here points up the tension that many are facing between dualist and postdualist. He expresses his preference for the latter worldview.

There is a great deal of misinformation regarding the relationship between the physical and the spiritual aspects of life today.

And herein is the opportunity. The world today is information rich and wisdom poor. Never before has society had access to so much knowledge without knowing how to make sense of it. It's time for the Church to step up and provide some answers. "We need to become Christian meaning makers.

Meaning-makers are people who make sense of life, people who make sense of God, people whose lives ring with clarity in the midst of contemporary ambiguity, people who have integrity, people who reside in today's world revealing with their living and their lips that Jesus' death is the source of vital life."8

What the church can do

In its efforts to make sense of the tidal wave of data regarding the physical and spiritual aspects of human life, the church can do several things to foster greater understanding and acceptance among its own member ship and among its neighbors.

Focus on perceived issues that affect the health of the person in the street. Become knowledgeable about society's everyday tensions and perceived inadequacies. Jesus often conducted His research into the needs of others by asking probing questions (Matt. 16:15; John 1:38). Then, in framing His response to these needs, He did not set out to answer questions that no one was asking. Nor did He nurture an atmosphere of crisis, in which He tried to frighten His hearers into change. Instead He sought to offer solutions to the concerns they were experiencing in their everyday lives.

Today programs and events that deal with fear, anxiety, grief, and family health provide unique opportunities to demonstrate the intimate connection between physical and spiritual health.

Involve participants more actively. To make learning more effective, Jesus used assignments and challenges (Luke 10:1-12). "Anything that might push a listener out of the role of audience member and into being a participant is to our advantage as communicators."9

Truth today is no longer totally dependent on propositions and proof; instead, it involves what people experience. And people are exploring experiences as never before. Despite dire predictions that the popular involvement in the Internet would extend "couch-potatoism" to new frontiers, we're seeing astonishing growth in all kinds of new participatory activity (e.g., karaoke, paint ball, historical re-enactment, and volunteer mission trips).

Seek to develop relationships. Trying to help others learn to make wise choices in health and healing isn't merely a matter of increasing the voltage of information till a light bulb suddenly illuminates. This is especially true in today's world. To meet people's needs, Jesus sought to make friends with them, to get to know them better (Luke 19:2-10). More and more, learning is a social activity. Jesus said, "Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples" (John 13:35, NLT). He didn't say, "Your scientific proofs" or "Your irrefutable arguments," although these have a place in our approach to people.

Utilize the current appreciation for playfulness and whimsy. This may seem an incongruous approach when we're trying to help others learn to cope with what we consider to be life-and-death issues. Yet even Jesus occasionally used humor and a light touch to impact on the worldview of His day (Matt. 19:24). Especially in the earlier exploration of the spiritual and physical aspects of life, keep it light, develop a sense of humor. This applies more to method than to con tent, but it can be a natural first step in communicating the joy and celebration of a relationship with Jesus.

Stay attuned to God's leading throughout any planning process. As we become more involved in ministry of any kind, the natural approach is to research problems, develop plans, and outline strategies. The danger is that in concentrating on these things we may neglect to rely on God's leading through these processes. As Jesus faced the impending end of His life on this earth, He prayed, "Not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42, NIV). The best plan is to seek out and surrender to God's leading.

How do we recognize God's leading? How do we know whether our concerns are not merely a pet issue? Certainly we must approach any subject prayerfully, seeking assurance from God that we are pursuing the right path.

Usually one of the most reliable ways to receive God's assurance is to submit our ideas to the body of Christ. Seek the counsel of seasoned, balanced, informed fellow servants of God. This commonsense discernment, what is called "the community approach to truth,"10 is another of the more positive approaches of post modernism.

Even though the human race may be operating on assumptions that are quite different from the recent past, each individual is still a son or daughter of God. Our task is to establish a common ground on which the post modernist can take the first faltering steps back to the heavenly Father.

1 Dominic Strinati, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1995), 223.

2 Fritz Guy, Thinking Theologically (Berrien Springs, Midi.: Andrews University Press, 1999), 244.

3 Glenn Ward, Postmodernism (London: Hodder and Stoughton Educational, 1997), 18.

4 Roy Adams, "In a Time of Confusion," Adventist Review, Nov. 2000, 20.

5 Millard J. Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 96.

5 Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 183.

6 Gordon Graham, The Internet: A Philosophical Inquiry (New York: Routledge, 1999), 145.

7 Donald Posterski, Reinventing Evangelism: New Strategies for Presenting Christ in Today's World (Downers Grove, III: InterVarsity, 1989), 15, quoted in David W. Henderson, Culture Shift: Communicating God's Truth to our Changing World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 202.

8 David W. Henderson, Culture Shift Communicating God's Truth to Our Changing World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 88.

9 Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism, 40.

10 Ibid.


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Gary B. Swanson is the associate director for Sabbath School and Personal Ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

March 2002

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