Postmodernity: What in the World is going on?

by Mike Riddell, Mark Pierson and Cathy Kirkpatrick
From their book The Prodigal Project

Feeling disoriented in today's rapidly changing world? Every now and again it helps to be able to see the big picture and find our own place in it. Hopefully this article will help you do that.

Many people these days are grieving the loss of a way of life that has disappeared. We feel nostalgic for something, even when we can't find the words for what it is that's missing. Like the characters in George Orwell's 1984, we have vague memories that things may have been different once. But even the future has become past for us.

For better or for worse, we have the privilege of living through one of those periods of history when the world really does change, substantially and irretrievably. The general sense of dislocation felt by so many is a valid indicator that the ages are moving under our feet.

The upheaval is such that, as the poet Yeats had it, "the centre cannot hold". There is a good deal of anxiety felt in our global society at present, as the things which once were fixed begin to betray our long-standing trust in them.

Over the last half of the twentieth century, the great ship of Western culture has been listing, terminally holed below the waterline. Why should a cultural synthesis which has endured for centuries suddenly begin to founder under our feet?

It's not hard to identify some of the causes, but in the end none of them is sufficient to explain the events. There is an essential mystery in the turning of the tide of the ages, which Christians might want to describe as the activity of God in history. It is something we must have respect for rather than attempt to control, much as seafarers learn to honour and read the ocean.

The fact that the mid-point of cultural transition coincided with the turning of the millennium has fuelled apocalyptic distress in the wider community. It is not necessary to be a social commentator or historian to be aware of deeply troubling disquiet. It 'feels', especially to those who straddle the ages, as if everything familiar has fallen around our ears, and we have woken in foreign territory populated by Barbarians. A great deal of the stress present in Western urban communities is due to this seemingly non-specific dis-ease.

The church, as one cultural vessel among many, finds itself in troubled waters. On the one hand, the ship of the church is itself foundering in the cross-currents of cultural transition. And on the other, it has become a sort of hospital ship, attracting refugees from a former era who find in it hope of return to more familiar waters. To employ a much-overworked analogy, there is a good deal of rearranging of the deckchairs, not to mention angry arguments on the bridge. Meanwhile, some distressed passengers are leaping overboard, preferring their chances in the open sea.

To be a Christian in these times is not easy for a Westerner. To be a churchgoer is even more difficult. There is something of a crisis of confidence, as previous modes of response to the world prove increasingly inadequate.

In such times, it is important that we as the body of Christ do not turn on each other, nor be too quick to allocate blame for the difficult waters we have encountered. There have been many attempts to locate the bogey: the failure of the clergy, the selfishness of the laity, the lure of materialism, the subversion of 'humanism', the activity of demons, the lack of evangelism or the absence of the Spirit.

None of these is sufficient to explain current problems. Rather, much of the malaise the church is experiencing is simply the result of its participation in the wider cultural shift occurring in society. We have woken to find ourselves in 'exile', despite having no clear memories of getting there. It is, naturally, a strange and troubling place to be.

It will be important to grieve, and to express the pain at that which has been lost. But it is also important to try to understand what it is that's different about this new place, and how we might learn to sing our songs in a foreign land.

The Back of the Whale

It is part of Maori wisdom that when one sees the back of the whale breaking the surface of the water, you can be sure that the rest of it is not far away. The whale which rises in our own historical seas is that of postmodernity.

The nature and advent of postmodernism is a topic which attracts much confusion and debate, and perhaps it is safer to speak about the emerging culture. While commentators are divided over postmodernity, most are in agreement that Western society is in the midst of cultural transition. If we were to suggest that a major movement such as the current one takes about a century to be carried through, and that the shift began in the 1950s, it becomes evident that the process is well under way.

In the present climate, it is easier to talk about what is passing away, rather than that which is coming after (ie 'post') modernity. It may well be that we are just beginning to see the back of the whale breaking the waters. It is too early to describe in great detail what this surfacing leviathan looks like, but it is too late to deny its presence or proximity.

Part of the difficulty of these times is that we live 'between the ages', when the previous culture of modernity still holds sway and power, but the emerging culture is present with vigour. The following discussion is an attempt to sketch both that which is passing and that which is coming-to-be, in order that we might understand the spirit of the times.

Behold, the Old

is Passing Away

Fundamentally, the earthquake which has generated the current cultural tsunami is a revolution in the way we 'know' things. As such, its roots lie in the area of philosophical discourse, and the particular field of epistemology.

Suffice it to say here that the work of thinkers such as Kuhn, Polanyi, Toumlin, Lyotard, Rorty and others has changed forever the structures of human knowledge. Most people will be blissfully unaware of the seminal writings responsible for the shift. But more recognisable are the cultural and social outworkings and symptoms of the revolution. Any listing of them is selective and open to dispute, but the larger picture will be more important than the detail. Here, then, are the signs of the old order.


There was a time, particularly in the 1950s, when it seemed that humanity had unlimited potential. This was the culmination of centuries of scientific methodology being applied to the structures of life. All problems were potentially solvable, given enough time and money, and the sustained application of reason.

Technology fuelled a 'Gee Whiz' admiration of the white-coated midwives of a new future, in which all would be clean and efficient. The Western world, long regarded as the vanguard of this coming age, was supremely confident and optimistic.

It is difficult to say how the balloon became punctured. The long shadow of nuclear annihilation made clear to all of us the dark side of technology. The Vietnam war demonstrated that the world's best-equipped and scientifically endowed superpower could not overcome a dedicated peasant army.

Ecological awareness grew as we began to take stock of the way in which our 'progress' had poisoned the planet on which we rely for life. Urbanisation created dislocation, poverty, racial tension and crime. AIDS made the gleaming gods of medicine appear impotent.

Together these forces and others deflated the sense of unfailing certainty that the world could be shaped and tamed in accordance with human desire. The doubt regarding our ability to relentlessly improve living standards extended to a new sense of uncertainty as to whether such a goal was even desirable.

'Progress' could no longer be assumed to be attainable, sustainable or worthwhile. In the late twentieth century, visions of the future lost their purity and became decidedly dark (eg films such as Bladerunner).


One of the key principles of science has been that of the impartial and detached observer, who takes careful precautions not to interfere with the results of his or her research. Since Descartes, 'pure' knowledge has been based on the disconnection of the knower from the known.

Objectivity was essential to the process of discovery and the reliability of the data gained. In the universe of science, both the possibility and necessity of objectivity were posited until comparatively recent times. There was a sharp distinction between the 'hard' facts of scientific knowledge gained through objective observation (Barometric pressure is 1005 and falling), and the 'soft' unreliability of other more casual means of human knowing (I don't like the look of the weather).

Recent developments both within and outside of science have eroded this distinction, and indeed the whole mythology on which 'detached' and objective knowledge is based. The possibility of observation in which the 'subject' has no effect on the 'object' has been thrown into doubt by developments with scientific disciplines such as quantum physics.

It is now generally recognised that there is no access to phenomena in their 'raw' state, ie unaffected by human observation. Thus there is no scrutiny of reality in which that which is analysed remains uninfluenced by the presence of the person doing the recording.

Another challenge to the 'myth of objectivity' comes from perceived results of such an approach to the natural order. When reality is treated as an 'object' for human understanding and manipulation, it seems that abuse follows. Environmental disharmony and tragedy is the apparent legacy of our industrial-scientific relationship (or lack of relationship) to the world. Adopting an 'I-It' attitude to nature allows a callous and exploitative interaction, to the detriment of ecological health and ultimately to life itself.

The function of the objectivity myth as a means of holding and wielding social and cultural power has recently been understood. Feminist critiques, along with other voices from the margins, have exposed the way in which 'fencing' knowledge is a way of excluding unwelcome groups and streams of experience. For several centuries, a largely white male academic heterosexual professional group has regulated admission to acceptable knowledge, and hence to social power.

This hegemony of truth has now been subverted well and truly by the insistence of the marginalised that they gain access and participation in the pursuit of understanding. They have succeeded in claiming the validity of alternative and seemingly 'subjective' realms of knowledge.


For much of recent history, to label an argument as 'irrational' was sufficient to dismiss it from consideration. In fact, the common lore of our chauvinist heritage at one time used this accusation to disparage the contribution of women.

The ability to be rational was considered the great achievement of modernity; the power which raised us from the mire of superstition and ignorance of earlier ages. Descartes' famous declaration, "I think, therefore I am", has been treated as something of an agenda which will rescue us from chaos. It has taken until the end of the second millennium to understand the limits of rationality.

It's not that rationality is wrong or unnecessary. However, there has been a growing understanding that it represents one approach to relating to the world, which on its own is insufficient to make sense of life. In particular, resistance has grown against rationalism: the elevation of reason to a position of authority which it has no right to occupy.

The Bible has always recognised that the mind must take its place alongside heart and strength and soul in the pursuit of God, and as we will argue, the overthrow of a narrow rationalism may be beneficial to the nurture of faith. There are important aspects of reality which the mind struggles to process, and at such points we may gladly confess its inadequacy, while not dispensing with its service entirely.


The dominance of reason has helped to produce a particular method of coming at things, which might be termed linearity. Probably a legacy of the printing press, this approach to life and knowledge gives the impression that everything has a beginning, middle and end, and that the correct means of approach is to move sequentially and in a linear fashion from start to finish. Everything in the West, from scientific dissertations to orders of worship, has been influenced by this way of reading and processing material. So much so that many people will feel profoundly disoriented if the 'natural order' of progression is tampered with.

Computer technology and the advent of the World Wide Web have contributed to the collapse of linearity, or at least its claims to universality. The ability to work with information in a more intuitive fashion has revealed both the excitement of working in that way, and the inadequacies of the more conventional approach.

Bypassing the sequential ordering of rationalism has been found to break up the tyranny of reason, and opened people to new possibilities and experiences. It has also demonstrated that people have the capacity to absorb data at many different levels concurrently, and are in some ways more at home in doing so.


For a couple of millennia, whatever philosophical or theological debates may have consumed the Western experiment, there has been agreement at one point. That is, that the truth is out there. The assumption seems to be that we have been consistently and progressively getting nearer to it with all of our debates and discoveries.

Now, for the first time, comes the suggestion that the truth does not exist at all, at least in the way that we have thought about it previously. Claims to possession of truth are now regarded as claims to power and superiority.

There are no 'truths' in the absolute sense available; instead we have socially constructed agreements as to what is true 'for us'. Preoccupation with overarching truths (metanarratives: grand stories which explain everything) or absolutes is an attempt to retreat from the essential tentativeness of human existence.

While the relativism of recent times does not necessarily discount the possibility of truth beyond subjective appraisals of it, the de facto force of encountering many different views has been to discount the validity of all of their certainties. Truth has not disappeared from the map entirely, however, but simply been reinterpreted.

The new understanding is perhaps best expressed in the title of a Manic Street Preachers' album: "This Is My Truth; Tell Me Yours". It conveys the personal nature of truth, together with the belief that it is possible for multiple truths to exist, even if they are contradictory.

Obviously such an attitude is regarded as anathema by many, including Christians, who have dedicated their lives to a concept of truth which is eternal, absolute and knowable. It is not surprising that they feel deeply distressed in response.


Even more disturbing is the loss of reality. Reality has been the solid ground which we shared in common. So much so that people who were regarded as having lost contact with 'reality' were often confined in institutions.

The scientific age in particular has reinforced the belief that reality is external, fixed and able to be perceived. It is something which we must encounter and adapt ourselves to in our journeys through life. Reality was something you could learn about, shape a little, but ultimately rely on.

Unfortunately, even this sacred ground has come under attack. People who were marginalised by the way the world was (such as women, blacks, gays) began to question the basis of reality. They were able to demonstrate that reality is socially constructed.

That is to say that what is commonly perceived as the outside world which everyone encounters, is actually a complex consensus of belief. So, for instance, the certainties of what men and women are 'designed' to do turn out to be quite different when viewed from other perspectives. Furthermore, this being the case, it must be possible to construct alternative realities which can claim just as much validity as those with deeper historical roots.


There have been certain prominent institutions which have regulated society in recent history. These include established bodies such as the monarchy, the military and the church, as well as entrenched patterns of behaviour - like marriage. The late twentieth century saw the erosion of many of these foundational structures of civil life. Even where they continue to exist, they have lost their power to constrain the lives of citizens by right.

The great historic institutions have lost the allegiance of the population at large, at least in the West. They stand as quaint reminders of a past era; monuments of a vastly different age. Unfortunately, for many people the Christian church is to be counted among these relics.

As the winds of freedom and personal choice have blown through the decades, increasing numbers of people have felt less inclined to allow others to exercise authority over them, or to tell them how to live their lives. Even where there is allegiance to the aims which a particular body seeks to promote, there is less willingness to offer subservience to the institutional structures of that body.

It is pointless for ailing institutions to berate their followers or even to seek to accentuate their own worth and importance; such attempts succeed only in further isolating those who do such things from contemporary culture.


Ethical principles have usually been a function of some deeper view (more or less religious) of how people fit in connection with the cosmos. It is not surprising, then, that when big visions (metanarratives) are failing, ethical certainty should also diminish.

The absolutes which at one time provided the foundations of moral behaviour are crumbling, causing a loss of moral confidence and a great deal of confusion about how one can establish the difference between right and wrong. Conservatives and fundamentalists of every kind condemn the apparently immoral behaviour of youth, and call for a return to 'traditional values'.

It is not only the loss of absolutes, however, that has engendered ethical bewilderment. Scientific and technological advances have meant that our power to achieve certain ends has outstripped our ability to determine the value of doing so. Many of the moral decisions which must be made are ones which are new and unprecedented in human history, and so ethical traditions are of limited help in making them.

Genetic engineering is only one realm where a great deal of expertise is necessary to even understand what the issues are. And certainly, without a common core of agreement as to central values, it is difficult for societies to legislate morality.

There may be a temptation for Christian people to blame the current societal discord on a departure from 'religious values', and to suggest that the world has 'gone to the devil'. However, this is a simplification which only leads to defensiveness and reactionary fear.

While there may be legitimate concern for the preservation of good in the face of evil, calling for a return to the past is as misguided and impossible as the wish of the people of Israel to go back to their captivity in Egypt, rather than face the unknown challenges of foreign territory. Our task, as theirs, lies in crossing the border and discovering God in a new place.


So . . . how might all of this change impact the new millennium church? Find out in part two of this article which will be published in the December/January issue of Reality.


Kiwis Mike Riddell (from Dunedin) and Mark Pierson (from Auckland) got together with Aussie Cathy Kirkpatrick to write the increasingly popular book: The Prodigal Project: journey into the emerging church, published by SPCK London, from which this article is reprinted with the permission of the publishers.

| Top | Home | Back to Index of Issue 47 |