What are some of the mental habits of our postmodern fellow countrymen? Painting with very broad brushstrokes, we can characterize the postmodern mind as skeptical of certainty (which we explored in the first article in this series), rejecting of moral absolutes (which we address below), and on guard against control (our subject for next week).
"Whatever": Moral Relativism
In an increasingly pluralistic society, it is hard to find consensus on which social construction of reality to believe, so individual experience is the primary tool for moral decision making. Doubting the validity of empiricism, logic, and authority, the postmodern mind values intuition.
Perhaps linked to intuition, the postmodern mind is open to the spiritual world. Having rejected naturalistic dogma, postmodernists believe that something is "out there" which is supernatural, beyond nature. Roof calls the Baby Boomers a "generation of seekers," and this obviously opens doors for the gospel, but the Boomers' seeking is done with skepticism toward authority and tradition. Religion is out, but spirituality is in. According to a Newsweek series called "The Search for the Sacred: American's Quest for Spiritual Meaning," "Many searching Americans flit from one tradition to the next, tasting now the nectar of this traditional wisdom, now of that. But, like butterflies, they remain mostly up in the air." The self is the locus of guidance in spiritual and moral quests. Patterson and Kim summarize the state of moral decision making in America: "When we want an answer to a question of right or wrong, we ask ourselves." Even Evangelical seminary students depict spirituality as individual, private, and subjective.
To the postmodern person, right and wrong are tools that help us be happy, safe, and productive.
Rejection of absolutes is now part of the belief structure of evangelicals as well as of the broader population. According to the Barna Research Group, only 32 percent of adult born again Christians believe in moral absolutes (compared to 15 percent of those who are not born again). Only 9 percent of teenage, born again Christians believe in moral absolutes. Barna states, "The most common decision-making was doing whatever feels right or comfortable in a situation....The alarmingly fast decline of moral foundations among our young people has culminated in a one-word worldview: 'whatever.'" The results are predictable: "If the individual's self must be its own source of moral guidance, then...utility replaces duty; self-expression unseats authority. 'Being good' becomes 'feeling good.'"
A realization of sin is almost totally lacking today. We feel burdened by personal failure and mistakes, but we do not believe we are objectively guilty before God. In this sense, according to C. S. Lewis, our context is strikingly different from the apostles': "The Pagans...to whom they preached were haunted by a sense of guilt and to them the gospel was, therefore, 'good news.'"
Epistemological and moral relativism dictate that the supreme god word of postmodern culture is tolerance. Since truth is merely a tool, each of us is free to select which truths are most beneficial for us, and we are not permitted to judge another person's truth. The following excerpts from the new Phil Donahue show illustrate today's preaching climate. Donahue's guests were Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Judaism for Everyone, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, and Dr. Michael Brown, president of Israel, the Church, and the Nations Ministries:
Donahue: [to Mohler] Do you believe Jews can go to heaven?
Mohler: Southern Baptists, with other Christians, believe that all persons can go to heaven who come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And there is no discrimination on the basis of ethnic or racial or national issues....
Donahue: You cannot possibly look a person in the eye and say, "If you don't come to Jesus, if you don't change your faith, you're not going to heaven." Reeks of prejudice, and also stirs the soul to evil behavior, in my opinion....
Boteach: Reverend Mohler, however intelligent of a scholar he may be, is a spiritual Neanderthal with repulsive, revolting views....
Donahue: I'll respect your religion, Reverend Mohler, if you respect mine. But please don't tell me that you know what's good for me. There's an arrogance to that....
Mohler: Well, all I know is that the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ, and that all who are there come by his grace and mercy alone. There is nothing in us to merit salvation. And so humility has to be the Christian posture.
Donahue: There is nothing humble about telling me I'm [not] going to heaven if I don't believe in Jesus. That's not humility. That's arrogance.
Mohler: It would be if this were our message. But if that is what the Son of God said himself, if that is the truth, then it would be hateful and it would be intolerant not to tell you what we believe to be the truth. I can't compel anyone to believe in Christ, but I do have the responsibility, with gladness and joy, to share the good news of the gospel.
Boteach: We've been burned at the state [sic] because of your repulsive, nauseating views....
Brown: Listen, very simply, you want to respect my faith? The core of my belief is that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, and we have to go tell everybody....
Donahue: You can tell me about it. But you can't stand there righteously and tell me you know what's good for me. And you sure as hell can't tell me that there's only one way for me to get to heaven. Nobody is that smart, nobody....
Boteach: You should be ashamed of yourself, and it's time that you finally change.
To the postmodern person, right and wrong are tools that help us be happy, safe, and productive. Each person must decide right and wrong for him/herself in each situation.
How shall we preach an authoritative word to this culture? Before turning to that topic, one more word is necessary to describe the postmodern mind. That word is rhetoric, and that will be the subject of the next article in this series.
This article is an excerpt from Preaching to a Shifting Culture (Baker, 2004), edited by Scott M. Gibson. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright2004. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group (http://www.bakerbooks.com).
1. Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation (New York: Harper, 1993).
2. Kenneth Woodward, "On the Road Again,"Newsweek (28 Nov., 1994): 62, in Henderson, Culture Shift, 199.
3. James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1991), 27, in Henderson, Culture Shift, 163.
4. Jeffrey P. Greenman and Yau Man Siew, "Spirituality and Public Character: A Qualitative Cross-Sectional Study of Master of Divinity Students in Toronto," Theological Education 38/1 (2001): 18.
5. Press release "Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings," Feb. 12, 2002, in Preaching Now, 1/2 (March 26, 2002): 1.
6. Robert N. Bellah, et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Perennial, 1985), 77.
7. Lewis, God in the Dock, 95.
8. Broadcast on MSNBC on August 21, 2002. Accessed electronically August 29, 2002, http://www.msnbc.com/news/MSNBCTRANSCRIPTSMAIN.
Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.