From modernism to postmodernism: evolution vs. accommodation

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

A reader recently contacted me with a good question about a topic I address on this blog and in my book:  

“While reading, I noticed you made the correlation that Christianity has evolved from modernity and now must evolve again into post-modernity. I suppose I would question, ‘Why are we evolving from one cesspool to the other?; I think understanding our philosophical presuppositions is important when addressing Christian Theology, but at the same time I think it's time Christian's stopped playing by culture's philosophical rules. We have to realize we can't rewrite the scriptures (or even grossly re-interpret them in error) just to follow another culture's philosophical trend.”

This is a good question, which I attempt to address in the introduction of my book. 

Whether we like to admit it or not, whenever the world changes, Christians instinctively change with it, and my “theory of evolution” is that God actually created us that way. It seems that whenever followers of Christ begin to inadvertently fundamentalize things that are not, in fact, fundamental to the faith (like geocentricism, the church’s authority to sell indulgences, the separation of the races, etc.), God allows our environment to challenge us and force us to evolve. He might use a telescope, 95-theses nailed to a door, or a March on Washington, but the result is always a re-thinking and reassessing of what it really means to know and follow God. 

Evolution is just the painful process of distinguishing the true fundamentals of the faith from those we have invented along the way and adapting our beliefs and actions accordingly in order to survive in a changing environment. Sometimes we evolve because our environment disgusts us, sometimes because it challenges us, but always because the legitimacy of our faith depends on it. The same adaptability that allowed Paul to become all things to all people applies to the Church collectively. The ability of the Body of Christ to change-to grow fins when it needs to swim and wings when it needs to fly-is what keeps it alive and vibrant and relevant in this ever-changing world. 

Now when I talk about the influence of culture on the Church, my metaphor of evolution should not be mistaken with accommodation. Accommodation is the opposite of evolution. Accommodation happens when the Church simply gives up and gets eaten up by the culture, when it fails to evolve as a unique creature and becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the world. 

In the Middle Ages, when the papacy abused its power by waging the Crusades, selling indulgences, and issuing simony, church leaders had accommodated to a culture of greed and violence. Likewise, when Christians in America succumb to our environment of materialism, we risk losing the humble, Christ-like attributes that are supposed to set ups apart from the rest of the world. 

In times like these, true disciples may become endangered species, but by the grace of God, they have never become extinct. The Church is forever indebted to those prophets and prophetesses who have, at critical times in history, spoken out against popular accommodation, often sacrificing their reputations or lives in an effort to preserve the integrity of the Church. (I think of John Wycliffe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr., ) In fact, some of the greatest accomplishments in history, such as the abolition of slavery, resulted from counter-cultural action from the Church. Evolution can only occur when there is a distinction between allowing the culture to inform and influence us (as it inevitably will), and allowing it to control us. The trick is knowing the difference, and therein lies the struggle.  

When it comes to modernism and postmodernism, I don’t really think one is worse than the other or that they are inherently good or bad. They just are. 

Modernism brought with it great advances in science and technology. It helped Christians more reasonably articulate their faith, and provided a framework that supported  their efforts to abolish slavery and make progress on major human rights issues. At the same time, the Enlightenment’s emphasis on intellectual autonomy and rationalism has led to the assumption that in order for Christianity to be intellectually viable, God’s existence must be proven empirically. I think the evangelical community has gotten to a point where it is so steeped in modernism’s emphasis on rationalism that it is obsessed with apologetics, emphasizing orthodoxy (right belief) over orthopraxy (right action). 

The advantage of postmodernism is that it draws attention to the fact that all knowledge must be taken on faith. However, postmodernism, (though less defined), has its problems too, particularly as it is (mis)interpreted by popular culture. For example, when people say all religions are “more or less the same,” I worry that we’re moving to a point where we fail to recognize the unique differences between world religions and the things that distinguish the gospel of Jesus from other belief systems. 

The thing is, it’s pretty much impossible not to be influenced by one’s culture. To assume that, as Christians, we can stand outside of our own interpretive communities and interpret the Bible and our culture objectively is actually a very modern way of thinking. It’s just not that easy to “rise above” one’s place in time and history in order to render a judgment about it. 

I don’t think we are moving from one cesspool to another, just one age to another. There are things we can learn from the culture. There are things we should challenge about our culture. But I think it is inevitable that we will be changed by our culture.

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