I’m sitting in a religion class, trying not to tear my hair out or hold my head in pain, or both, one after the other. We’re talking about the grisly evils of postmodernism, how the slovenly postmodernists (pfft) believe objective truth isn’t a thing and are tearing at our shiny pillars of veracity (all 28) with their dirty postmodernist fingernails.
Adventism is like a global country in a way. We citizens (lay people) elect presidents and have congresspeople in our districts to deliver weekly speeches and represent us in governmental meetings. Like many countries, we do not escape without a touch of corruption or nepotism (see also: recent GC presidential elections), but, for the most part, we function smoothly, and our needs are met. For many of us, our Adventist citizenship takes higher priority than our American or other national citizenship; SDA is our homeland.
But I have a confession to make. Along with my Adventist and national heritage, I have another identity: I am a postmodern. I cannot change the fact that I was born into a postmodern paradigm. (I can try, but this is clinically referred to as “confabulation,” typically resulting from an injury to the anterior communicating artery.) I can change what I think about things, but I will always be in some ways dust in the parched wind of this despicable era — I am from a certain place in history. My church, however, was born in a different place than I was: Modernism.
Modernism in a super small snail shell:
A central tenet is Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking is the primary mode of consciousness and of being a human. There are many universal, eternal truths that are independent of the literal historical people who discerned them; real truth is objective and can be proven. This movement trailed in on the coattails of the Enlightenment and insists that undeniable certainty is possible.
Postmodernism in a super small snail shell:
Humans are more than brains on a stick, “thinking things.” Institutions are often met with more suspicion, particularly religious ones; individualized, freeform worship and spirituality are more naturally adopted. Postmodernists tend to like juxtaposition: mixed styles of art and architecture, old elements reframed in new settings, augmented reality. This frame takes history very, very seriously. People cannot be divorced from their times and places; this does not mean what they say is now inapplicable to us, but the whole picture must be considered as thoroughly as possible.
Interestingly, Adventism seems to have the capacity to fit into the current postmodern paradigm more easily than other evangelical denominations, and it would be greatly improved by leaning into this unique ability. Ancient practices such as Sabbath-keeping and Levitical food laws are seated in a 20th/21st century lifestyle.
We have a prophetess, a fact that is more aligned with postmodern relational reasoning than “scientific,” “logical” systems. A church that speaks a different language (such as Modernism) from those it tries to serve is undercutting its capability to love. We have nearly mastered the structured system that Adventists appreciated and advocated for in the first half of the 20th century. We would do well to expand also into the more postmodern appreciation of God being found everywhere, of watching His Spirit work even outside our jasper walls.
For postmodernists, it is very important to keep in mind the historical contexts of our founding fathers and mothers, such as prophetess Ellen G. White. They take into account the context of her 1894 bike races as satanic idolatry, “each trying to excel the other in the swift running of their bicycles.” They allow her room to be both inspired by God and a human of her time — not merely an emotionless, context-less conduit.
It kind of hurts when parts of my church insist on dwelling in an era of thought that does not reach my brothers and sisters around me; when they long so much for the bygone days of an era that ended before most of them were born that they miss the opportunity to live and breathe their faith in new ways. No philosophical era is better than another. But we miss so much when we, as a church, refuse to live in the present.