Balancing Acts – Orthodoxy: Faith in the Postmodern Age

tom b

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns and appears the second week of each month.

by Tom Beutel

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.

(Matthew 23:23 NRSV)

Francis Bacon, according to Neil Postman (Technopoly:The Surrender of Culture to Technology, 1992), “was the first man of the technocratic age.” In Postman’s taxonomy of the ages of technology the technocratic age is the second age, the age in which a shift began away from making tools to solve specific problems to making tools because one could. It is the age in which science and technology were thought to hold the answers to all human problems and would “advance the happiness of mankind.”

By the late 19th century and early 20th century it was apparent that the promise of science and technology to solve all of humanity’s problems and supply unending riches was an empty one. Science and technology do indeed provide many undisputed benefits, but science does not always get it right. Some of its products – like the internal combustion engine, mechanized production, electronic communication, and others – can harm the environment and reduce the quality of life for humans as well as for other living creatures. Wars and conflicts continue despite advances in science and technology. Questions about and longings for true happiness and love are not answered by science and technology.

Not only did science and technology and their associated institutions – institutions of higher learning – not live up to human expectations, but other institutions seemed to fall short of their promise: governments could be and were at times oppressive, economic systems could fail to produce prosperity,   and the church as often as not seemed to be more preoccupied with itself than with the well-being of others.

Out of this realization, was re-born (it has happened before) an age of skepticism, of distrust in established institutions and beliefs, an age in which truth was to be constructed out of one’s own experiences, an age of relativism – the postmodern age.

Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality … postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid  for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into   being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually…. Postmodernism  … denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a    scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody.

PBS Faith & Reason: http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/gengloss/postm-body.html

It is obvious that postmodern thinking has taken root in the church as many question established beliefs and strive to re-interpret teachings and even scripture in light of their own experiences and experiences shared with others. Established hierarchies and ways of doing things are treated with skepticism. New structures and ways of doing things are promoted, (structures and ways that someday will be the  established ways!)

Postmodernism incorporates “acute sensitivity to the role of ideology” according to the definition in the Encyclopedia Britannica. We see this perhaps most obviously in our political systems, but also in theological positions within the church. Labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” not only apply to one’s politics, but also to one’s religious views. The gulf between these caricatures is wide and widening.

Perhaps a way to resolve the divisions that accompany postmodern ideologies is to re-embrace an old, and probably somewhat misunderstood, term – orthodoxy. According to the Believer’s Church Bible Commentary on the book of Jude, “orthodox faith surely manifests itself in a lifestyle that honors God rightly (orthos, “correctly”; doxazein, “to honor, magnify or glorify”).” While many of us probably tend to think of orthodox as traditional or conservative, in fact it simply means to honor God rightly.

Orthodoxy can be set in contrast both conservatism and liberalism (a third way?). Orthodox belief is not restricted to either and thus is not loaded with the ideological bias characteristic of postmodernism.

Even in the teachings of Jesus we see both “conservative” and “liberal” thought. For example, Jesus told His followers, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) and “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) These certainly have a conservative ring to them.

But, Jesus also told His followers, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 35:25) This teaching emphasizing social ministry seems to be more “liberal.”

The scripture at the beginning of this article is a good example of the “joining” of conservative and liberal ideas. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they should practice “justice and mercy and faith” (liberal) while not “neglecting” their attempts to fulfill the law (conservative). Othodox faith and practice include both!

So, perhaps as we encounter issues within the church which tend to divide, rather than aligning with conservative or liberal positions, we can together seek to understand the orthodox view, that which honors God rightly.

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