Forgotten Blogs - What I mean by Postmodern (Part 1)
Sometimes I write blogs and then end up leaving them half-finished or choose not to publish because I think they need a little work. I’ve decided to start publishing those forgotten blogs that I wrote way back when. I wrote this one when I was still living at the Leisure Lodge where I stayed the first three weeks after my arrival last November. It was early days. I read it now and want to add things, change things, clarify a bit from what I’ve learned. But instead I’m going to let it stand as a means of seeing my growth in perspective over the years.
In related news, my podcast is coming along. In fact, I’ve just this week interviewed a published Sierra Leonean postmodern philosopher. In our conversation, we talked about some of these very topics raised below and his perspective is much more generous than mine. So stay tuned… I will let you know when you can start subscribing to the Postmodern Missionary Podcast!
So here it is, another forgotten blog.
I’ve been asked a few times what I mean by “postmodern”. Truth is that’s a complicated question with a long answer. It’s also the task of this blog to answer this question over time from many angles. However, let me give a first shot at an answer here at the beginning of my missionary service. This is a draft that is sure to evolve.
Modernism v. Postmodernism
Very broadly (and from my perspective), modernism holds the belief that truth is absolute and it is found through rationality, logic, and physical evidence alone. It transcends time, culture, race, and location. What is true one place is true everywhere for all time, regardless of context. Postmodernism holds the belief that all of life, including the pursuit of truth, is contextualized. There is no truth that is not colored by culture, time, race, location, even personality and personal experience. To be blind to context will naturally compromise the pursuit of truth. Some would say there is no truth outside of experience.
I believe that both of these perspectives are true. And there is the paradox. I do believe that there is truth outside of human experience and context. But I also believe that there is no way to know or access that truth divorced from human experience. I also believe that it is not possible to divorce thinking from feeling and being. Even thinking and rationality are bound to context.
The Modern Missionary Paradigm
When I was a teen in history class learning about the conquest of the Americas, the line that is seared into my memory is that the conquistadors brought with them three things. They brought with them "gold, guns, and God”. This is a direct quote from my history teacher. Each of these three served the purposes of the others in ways that those who brought them did not themselves always see. Even those missionaries who brought God with them lent their authority to the gold and guns as well. The fruits of this were messy to say the least.
Those responsible for bringing God to the people of the Americas (and the rest of the so called “global south”), I believe, did so in great earnest, with authentic desire to save souls and spread what they understood to be absolute truth across the world. It was a moral imperative. They believed that what they brought was truth outside of culture, time, race, and location. It was truth bigger than context. Unfortunately they did not see their own cultural assumptions and practices that were motivating them.
So while they were teaching about unfailing forgiveness and freedom in Christ, they expected those natives who chose to follow Christ to also give up their traditional clothing for trousers like the white man from across the seas. While they were preaching that God was their creator whose love surpassed all, they expected their converts also to give up their language for English or Spanish or French or Portuguese. While they compelled them to accept the loving and holy way of Christ they also expected that those they converted would give up their sacred practices—even those that were not in conflict with the Gospel that they were beginning to accept. While the missionaries taught that all are created in God’s image, they saw the people they were ministering to as fundamentally inferior. They were believed inferior because they did not live as their conquerors did, thus they must not understand truth as their conquerors did. It was a slow (and also sometimes abrupt and bloody) erosion of their dignity.
Many good things came from the missionary endeavors of generations past—education, medical care, a foundation of faith in a gracious and loving God. At their best, they offered the empowering and abundant life-giving message of Christ. Many died for that cause.
But along with the good, there was much harm perpetrated by their inability to see that God was already present in the cultures that they were trying to serve. At the 2017 United Methodist General Conference, we were led in an official “Act of Repentance" for the Sand Creek Massacre that was committed under the leadership of a Methodist clergy person. Nearly 200 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations were slaughtered that day. This is just an example of the harm that was done by many people who preached and lived in Jesus’ name. The church will continue to repent for the ways that we killed both in body and spirit during that period of human history.
Reading this today, it feels like a bad place to end a blog. It’s not particularly hopeful and it’s a heavy critique. I also notice that I didn’t give the other side of more of the good things that came out of modernism. Modernism rose out of a natural evolution of ideas and cultural movement. I believe every new era occurs in part because it is trying to solve the problems of the era before it. As the ideas of each new era are fleshed out, however, there are unexpected implications and consequences. All that to say, modernism ain’t so bad. However, we can learn from our mistakes in every time and place. So come back tomorrow to read about the ways I envisioned in my early days as missionary of how we’re learning into this new era. It’s exciting and creative to embrace the new thing God is doing!