Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Postmodern Christianity: Experience

The rescent post by Fr. Jake has gotten me all worked up about postmodernism and its role in the changing face of Christianity. Now, I don't have all of the philosophical background to debate this completely academically, but I do have something to say. I rely heavily on Leonard Sweet's Postmodern Pilgrims here, though I'm not a Sweet fanatic.

Yes, experience is key to postmodernism and to postmodern Christianity. Whereas modernism relies almost solely on reason and rationality, postmodernism believes that nothing can exist outside experience. That's not quite true -- nothing can be experienced outside experience -- so we can't understand anything that is completely outside experience. We cannot speak about objective truths because no objective person exists to tell us what they are. No one can be objective. If we claim to understand an objective truth, we are dilluding ourselves. We are simply arrogantly claiming that our understanding is objective, whereas our opponant's perspective is clearly not. No one has a monopoly on the truth. To claim to completely know the absolute truth is dangerous, arrogant, and a heresy. If we understand our own humaness, we must admit that we just don't know for sure. This is not to say that universal, objective truths do not exist, at least in theory. It is to say that we could never know them in certainty.

Now, let's talk about what I like to call "the severed head syndrome." This is the general paradigm of modernism, and it is the system that is operating in many churches, especially mainline Protestant churches. The idea is that the church only serves the rational mind. From the moment that someone walks into a church service, they might as well be just a severed head, because that is the only part of them that will be served. They sit in a pew virtually motionless for an hour and don't do much except listen. Most Protestant churches think that the sermon is the high point of worship -- yes, a time when we get to sit and listen to someone make rational arguments about God and humanity (not all sermons, I admit, but many). Sure, we might stand up and sing a few hymns. But does the service usually reach our hearts? Does it speak to our guts? I'm pretty sure it doesn't do anything for our bodies.

These kinds of services are lacking the element of experience. They operate almost solely on the rational plane and completely ignore the possibility of symbolic and mystical experiencial truth. We are not just severed heads! Yes, rationality and reason are important. A faith without reason is a blind and groundless faith. But a faith without experience is a dead faith. A faith that leaves no room for mystery leaves precious little room for God.

I want to be sure to point out that not all Christian worship has fallen prey to the severed head syndrome. Orthodox and Catholic Christianty still maintain a strong sense of mystery and leave room for the worshipers to truly experience God. Anglican Christianity, I believe, tries very hard to develop a faith that is both rational and experiencial. Even Pentecostals leave room for experience. Some of the mainline Protestant churches are doing the worst. We worked toward the very worthy goal of developing a Christianity that could stand up in the new world of science. We've done a pretty good job at that. But in the process, we have cut out an essencial part of the faith: experience. Look to the mystics -- it's there. Look to the liturgy -- it's there. Look to the ritual -- it is there. Look even to the mythos in the biblical text -- experience is there. If we take experience away, all we are left with is pointless mind games. What is the point of a perfect systematic theology if it doesn't apply to the experience of everyday people? Why should we have great thoughts about God if we don't ever experience not understanding God, but still listening?

We don't need to be afraid. Admitting the importance of experience will not cause the faith to crumble. We don't need to worry about losing the unquestionable, unviersal truths. Did they ever really exist in the first place? We just need to experience -- even when we don't understand -- in order to understand more fully.


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