The 1998 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
Growing Up Postmodern:
Imitating Christ in the Age of "Whatever"
Descartes is history. That's the conclusion of postmodernity. Foundational truth is out, relativity is in. Trace it to Hiroshima, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Challenger explosion. Technology is not the panacea we thought it would be. Trace it to Watergate, liposuction, spin doctors. Truth is not an objective reality anymore. Trace it to institutional differentiation, Baskin Robbins, cable TV. Choice can paralyze as well as liberate.
Nobody knows this better than the young people whose coming of age coincides with the turn of the millennium. They live in a world where microchips are obsolete every eighteen months, information is instantaneous, and parents change on weekends. The one constant in the postmodern adolescent's experience is upheaval. Truth changes daily. The signature quality of adolescence is no longer lawlessness, but awelessness. Go ahead, youth say to the church. Impress me. When everything is true, nothing is true. Whatever.
It's true that we live in a world that considers truth too relative to specify. The comics brought us mutant "X-‐Men" and now "X-‐Women"; consumer thinking brought us X-‐brands and X-‐spouses; pop culture brought us X-‐Files and Generation X. The letter "X" is having a banner decade, labeling "whatever" we don't have the time or the inclination to explain.
Maybe the word "whatever" found its way into the contemporary adolescent vocabulary because "X" describes precisely the Truth they seek. In the early church, the Greek letter "X" (chi) referred to Jesus Christ. This generation of young people is neither the first nor the last in search of "X." Paul recognized this quest in the Athenians, who went as far as to erect an altar to "an unknown god":
What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. . .The One who is Lord of heaven and earth. . . made all nations. . . so that they would search for God. . . . God will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom God has appointed, and of this we are assured because God raised him from the dead. (Acts 17:23-‐31)
We all seek "X," God's Truth beyond relativity. We are here because we are called to imitate and obey and proclaim this Truth to all who worship unknown gods. The Truth is out there, for young people and for us. May you find grace to peruse the "X-‐Files" of your own life in the days ahead, as we grope for "X" together. Though, indeed, he is not far from each of us.
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
- “Communities of Faith for Citizens of a Postmodern World”
- “Just What Is Postmodernity and What Difference Does It Make to People of Faith?”
- “Who Is Jesus Christ for Us Today?" As Asked by Young People”
- “Youth between Late Modernity and Postmodernity”
- “Faithful Becoming in a Complex World: New Powers, Perils, and Possibilities”
- “Home and Pilgrimage: Deep Rhythms in the Adolescent Soul”
- “Global Issues Facing Youth in the Postmodern Church”
- “Imitating Christ in a Postmodern World: Young Disciples Today”
Just What is Postmodernity and What Difference Does It Make to People of Faith?
The theme "Growing Up Postmodern" provides an excellent starting place to move us toward putting youth ministry within a broader view of the culture in which that ministry takes place. "Postmodern" is a vague and often contested term that requires definition. To see what "post" modernity might mean, we really have to remind ourselves of how the modern world can be contrasted with the traditional world that came before it. We need to remind ourselves of the ways in which the modern world in which most of us are comfortable posed its own serious challenges to the faith of earlier generations.
Back when my daughter was considerably younger than she is now, one of her favorite Faerie Tale Theater videos was The Princess and the Pea. If you remember, the princess has to prove her worth by feeling a pea under her mattress. At one point the princess, played in this version by Liza Minelli, chides the prince, who seems to be stuck in quite a rut. "But Rupert," she says, "This is the sixteenth century!" It is a line that has surely been heard thousands of times since — with appropriate variations. For at least the last several centuries, those of us living in the western world have perceived ourselves to be living in "modern" times. Things were changing, after all. Tradition was old hat, and ideas that our parents had about the way things were supposed to be just would not do. What our parents saw as mysterious, we were sure we could explain. Ways of life they saw as alien, strange, and probably dangerous we were eager to experiment with. And things they assumed they could do for themselves at home, we were constantly taking to "experts" to fix. In the process, each generation of parents has been quite sure that these offspring of theirs have lost their faith.
And now here we are at the end of the 1990s, anticipating the turn of another century, and that modernizing process is still going on. In some places "tradition" has page 12 been gone for a long time, while in others it is still very much alive. Tradition seems to thrive best in places that are relatively small, relatively remote from others, where outside influences and population growth do not push the community along toward change. There are still plenty of places like that around the world. In such places, alien ways may remain alien, experts are not needed, and mysteries may remain. Faith in God and faith in the predictability of life in those communities seem to go hand in hand.
But not so for most of us or for the youth who watch MTV and surf in cyberspace. We have left that traditional world long behind and are trying to anticipate what it may be like to have our children say to us, "But Mom, this is the twenty-first century!"
And just as being a person of faith has changed with each generation, it will change again in the decades ahead. What might some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead be? First, three challenges along with the responses devised by the modern era. Then, the opportunities that may be present in the postmodern world.
The Challenges of Modernity
The first challenge that came with modernity is the challenge of continually disappearing mysteries. 1 From the earliest times, people seem to have turned to their religions to explain the unexplainable in life: Where do babies come from? Why does the moon pass through phases? What makes the crops grow and the rains come? What happens to us when we die? In the earliest days, priests and shamans offered solutions and cures, rituals and explanations for things people had no other way of understanding.
But beginning with the Enlightenment and modern science, priests lost their place as dispensers of approved knowledge about life's mysteries. If we want to know why we are sick, we go to a doctor. If we want to know about the moon, we ask an astronomer or even an astronaut. But more important than even this narrowing of the range of things people take to priests for explanation has been the shift in the way we expect knowledge to be obtained. What we learned in school and from the leaders in our culture was that knowledge is not revealed, or handed down to us, but discovered through careful scientific procedures. And we expect to be able to apply those methods to anything. 2 Give us a problem and we will tackle it; nothing is sacred. As we look toward the century ahead, we have no reason to believe that the probing light of rational science will not be directed at more of the world we live in, even areas once thought sacred. We have no reason to believe that we will not continue to be challenged to justify whatever faith remains in terms that can be understood by others who expect the world to be rational and explainable, page 13 not mysterious and subject to magical manipulation.
But science and rationality are not the only things that have characterized the modern period in western civilization. As our base of knowledge has expanded and as the size of our communities has grown, we have moved more and more to "specialization" to dividing up the tasks that once went together under one roof. 3 The second challenge facing people of faith is the continuing separation of religious concerns into a specialized compartment in the world.
We recognize specialization most easily when we talk about the kind of medicine we see practiced or what happens in business, but we do not often think about the fact that not long ago "business" or "medicine" did not exist as separate specialties. Business was what one did when one needed to trade crops for tools, and medicine was what one practiced with the remedies kept in a corner of the kitchen. Today, whatever specialized expert we need can be found in the Yellow Pages, and no single expert is expected to know very much about any other expert's business. And religion has certainly not been immune. A very long time ago, we began to see the benefit in limiting the power of religious institutions in public life, especially removing religions from their ability to command armies. But that has tended to leave religion solely as the shaper of private religious individuals, acting in the leisure or family sphere of their lives. 4
The result of all of this specialization, then, is that each person comes to occupy a number of domains, and the job of understanding the meaning of life rests squarely on each individual's shoulders, not on the culture at large.
The third challenge for faith in the modern era is the challenge of pluralism. Throughout much of human history, ways of being religious and membership in a group were coterminous. One might be more or less religious, more or less observant of the rituals, but to differ in any fundamental way from the cosmology or morality of the community was very unlikely. Today there are fewer and fewer places where such consensus exists. Most of us live in the midst of real differences. People believe in different gods or no god at all; they worship on Saturday and Sunday and five times a day. Some give up things for Lent, and others fast between sunup and sundown during Ramadan. Some ordain women, and others cover the bodies of women from the forehead to the toes. How is a person to know what is right? Even if we choose to adopt the ways of our childhood, we know only too well that those others are also adopting the ways of their childhoods and whose childhood counts after all? 5
The usual way we moderns have dealt with this dilemma is through "civility," granting at least a minimal presumed legitimacy to strangers and agreeing to carry on our public debates without bloodshed. Those are very important social skills, and civility is a very important political concept. As a social skill, it enables us to get page 14 along with strangers. As a political principle, it keeps us from excluding strangers from participation in our political processes. But "civility" has made being religious very difficult. It has reduced us to talking about our "personal" religious beliefs and encouraging everyone to attend the "church or synagogue of his or her choice." 6 It has made proselytizing seem impolite.
Being a person of faith in the decades ahead, then, means that we will continue to face the challenges of continually disappearing mysteries, of compartmentalization, and of pluralism. Ours remains a modern world that depends on reason more than on mystery, that looks for ever more specialized experts whose domains are kept quite separate from the concerns of faith, and a world in which an increasingly diverse population makes any given way of life seem like merely a matter of personal choice.
These are very real challenges that are themselves being challenged. Modernity is reaching its limits. So what does a postmodern era mean for people of faith? Whatever we mean by postmodern will surely not discard everything that the modern world has stood for. Rather, a new era is emerging that is building on modernity's gains and is beginning to transcend some of its limits.
What, then, about the modern world's preoccupation with rationality? Surely we are not about to abandon reason in favor of tradition, science in favor of magic. Probably not. However, we are beginning to see the limits of rationality. Perhaps they have been most visible to us since the holocausts of systematic Jewish annihilation and of atomic warfare. Or perhaps it was Rachel Carson and the growing awareness of the limits of our planet. We have seen what science can do. We have seen that the power is now in human hands to uncreate the world. And we know that somehow the only power that can counter the awesome, explainable power of nuclear destruction and ecological disaster is the awesome, unexplainable power of a human spirit that is redeemed and sustained by a greater Power from above. We are beginning to glimpse a future where mystery may be as important to our survival as we have believed rational explanation to be until now.
We are also recognizing that we have always depended on other ways of knowing, alongside our reasoned inquiry. We have always trusted tradition more than we ever admitted. Vast areas of our lives are still governed by rules that come to us through habit and advice and that have never been tested in any scientist's laboratory. We also know that sometimes our knowledge and insight come from sources we have a hard time explaining. Sometimes we call it a "gut feeling" or an "intuition" or a "healing" or a "vision." Sometimes all the pieces of something simply come together into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes some bit page 15 of wisdom from an earlier time suddenly makes sense of our current situation. Sometimes we see the beauty of something in ways we can't even really put into words. And for countless people around the world, knowledge is as likely to be sought from fortunetellers, astrology columns, and divination specialists as from government-certified experts. We have simply never been as supposedly "rational" as we like to think. We know that truth, understanding, and insight come to us from many sources — not just from scientists who have verified that truth as "safe and effective."
It is worth noting here that these sources of knowledge — art, wisdom, intuition, body, and spirit — are much more likely to be found among and practiced by people who have been outside the dominant culture of the modern, western world. These are sources of knowledge more likely to be found among women than among men, among peoples of color than among Euro-Americans, in the "Third World" more than in the "First." The claim that the modern world is characterized by rationality is primarily a claim about the world constructed, inhabited, and ruled by a small minority of the world's population. 7 As we see the limits of that rational world, the best place to look for alternatives is to the margins, to the people who have never fully been incorporated. It is here that we will find people attuned to a Spirit the modern world thought it had domesticated.
And indeed, today there are voices of protest on every side. There are rising Third World liberation theologies, there are feminists and womanists. All around, the silenced voices are speaking. To some it sounds like chaos, but to others it sounds like Pentecost. The Spirit has at last been unleashed, and all are hearing in their own tongues. A world that had no room for knowledge gained by faith is groping its way forward toward some new ways of knowing. Science is not about to disappear, but its claims have been humbled. At this critical moment, voices of faith dare not be silent. Rather than being preoccupied with making ourselves, our faith, and our Scriptures acceptable to a modern rationalist world — that is now under challenge — this is the time to speak forthrightly of the ways of the Spirit, of the knowledge that comes by faith.
Not only are we seeing the limits of old forms of knowledge, we are also seeing the limits of our drive toward specialization. The very awkwardness of all these hats we wear may tell us that such compartmentalization may have reached its limits. One of the great insights of the women's movement, it seems to me, is that human beings do not thrive on such calculated separation of one part of their lives from another. While we cannot soon expect to see the modern, western world giving up its propensity to create specialists, we may begin to see people experimenting with ways to put their lives back together again, to find a wholeness that makes room for faith in more than one of life's compartments. It will not be a wholeness page 16 that looks like the undifferentiated world of small towns and truly traditional families. It will not be premodern, but postmodern. 8
We are getting some hints of what that might look like from complex business organizations. Among the many things going on in business today is a massive copying from the Japanese of patterns of work, patterns that bring workers together into a "quality circle" of shared tasks and joint decision-making. Rather than each person doing one small piece of the whole, people work together to see how best to get the job done. This pattern has been made even more prevalent with the growth of high-tech knowledge industries.
Beyond what goes on inside factories, we are also seeing a massive shifting of work from large factories to small "out-sources," from fixed shifts to flexible work schedules, and from fixed offices to telecommuting and work at home. 9 The very pressure of vast numbers of two-job families has forced all of us to recognize a need for new arrangements between work and family. We have certainly not arrived in any sort of utopia, but we are beginning to put our lives together in slightly different ways.
And all of that means that the neat lines between each of those spheres of activity are giving way ever so slightly. For nearly two centuries, we have thought that emotion, caring, and faith belonged in a "private" sphere of home and church, while reason, competition, and the market define "public" space. Women belong in the first, of course, and men in the second. But just as gender barriers are breaking down, so are the barriers that define what concerns belong where. 10
One of the most eloquent statements of that argument is found in Steven Carter's recent book Culture of Disbelief. 11 He shows in minute detail the ways in which our culture "trivializes" religion by making it a private, personal, even leisure, activity. Our culture expects us to keep religion out of our public policy debates, out of the courtroom, out of the classroom. But, Carter argues, bringing one's faith into those public places does not necessitate an intolerant, theocratic perspective. To say that I favor feeding the hungry because I am commanded to do so by Christ is just as valid a position in the public policy debate as to say that I oppose feeding the hungry because my statistical model tells me it is not cost effective. The problem is not where our opinions come from — faith versus reason — but how we engage in the debate. There can be ample room for faith perspectives around the table. George Marsden's book The Soul of the American University makes a similar point about what happens in academic life. 12 What is remarkable about these two books is that they have been received with such public discussion and fanfare. As much as both books lament the constraints of the modern situation, both also herald the end of that era and propose new ways of living our public lives together. As the bits and pieces of a segmented life are being put back together, we have a window page 17 of opportunity. In these days of emerging change, we can reclaim for religion some of the territory ceded to the modern world in days gone by.
The thought of bringing faith perspectives into public debate raises, of course, the third challenge of the modern world — pluralism. What are we to do with all those different voices around the table? Doesn't the reality of pluralism demand that we find a universal, civil, secular language we can all share in the public arena? Don't we have to keep our various particularities to ourselves? This is certainly not an easy question to answer. The horrors of Bosnia, Rwanda, and South Central Los Angeles are reminder enough that people take their particular local, ethnic, and religious identities very seriously; and we desperately need ways to live together in peace. Yet each of those tragic situations could just as easily be interpreted as the result of a misguided universalism as to see it as the result of particularity gone mad. For much too long, national governments have tried to pretend that the ethnics were "meltable," that everyone would eventually recognize the nation-state as his or her primary point of loyalty, that the nation's language would be the universal form of discourse.
It seems to me that either repressive universalism or separatist particularity can be a problem, and that the same problem plagues religion. People of faith have acted as if the only two options were either an intolerant fundamentalism that claimed a truth so narrow as to be useless or a wishy-washy liberalism that claimed a truth so broad as to be meaningless. As we stumble toward a postmodern world, however, new strategies seem to be emerging.
The work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann is helpful in thinking about this problem. In a provocative article with a difficult title,"On the Legitimacy of a Sectarian Hermeneutic," he recounts the story of one of Israel's encounters with the Assyrians. 13 They are surrounded, and the enemy commanders meet Israel's commanders on the wall of the city. They begin to speak to the Israelites, in Hebrew, demanding surrender and setting out the terms. The Israelites, however, refuse to carry on the negotiations in Hebrew, insisting that their language be reserved for their own particular uses. They also insist that they be allowed to retreat behind the wall for a community consultation. There, behind the wall, they speak Hebrew, the language in which the story of God's actions in the world can be told. There they spend time coming to terms with what has happened to them and with how it fits into God's story. Only then do they return to negotiate, in Assyrian, having clarified, in their own language, what their position must be.
Brueggemann uses this story to argue for the need to be bilingual. We need both the language behind the wall and the language on the wall — both our own particular language, in which God's name is spoken, and the language of the realm, in which deals are negotiated. The modern world told us to forget the language page 18behind the wall. If everyone just learned the language of the realm, we would be fine. But what we have learned is the extent to which we need those special, local, particular places, those people whose accents we recognize, those stories that remind us of who we are. In the quest to be intelligible to everyone, we have discovered we have nothing to say.
As Brueggemann points out, there are dangers at both extremes. Our world is much too small for all of us to live exclusively behind the wall. We bump into too many strangers to make speaking only one language practical. We know we have to develop ways to talk to each other and manners that allow us to talk to each other "on the wall." But at the same time, to live only on the wall is not to have a home. To speak only the universal language is to miss the stories that form us. To the conservatives, he might say, "Come out of your enclaves occasionally; learn that the rest of the world isn't as fearsomely evil as you imagine from in there." To the liberals, he might say, "Go home; listen to the stories, relearn the language, find out who you are, and come back to the wall a much more interesting person."
The task of finding a balance between our need for rootedness and our need to get along in a pluralistic world is a task still painfully incomplete; yet, it is another of the tasks of an emerging postmodern world to which people of faith are invited. We are invited to reclaim the distinctiveness of our tradition, to let it thoroughly shape us; at the same time, we are invited to an increasingly crowded global village square.
What it means to be postmodern is yet emerging. We probably know more about the ways in which we have reached the limits of modernity than we know about the exact shape of the postmodern world that lies ahead. But this is a critical time for us as people of faith. The dilemmas we have faced as modern people are all being reframed. The either-or answers we thought we had to choose are proving to be irrelevant, and we are being challenged to help formulate new ways of living. We are invited to help the world figure out how to take spirit and body seriously, alongside the wisdom of the mind. We are invited to help the world figure out how to reknit "private" and "public" concerns. And we are invited to help the world find a new way to balance difference with common concern. More to the point, this postmodern world is the world in which our children will live, and if we are to walk with them into the future, these are the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.page 19