Know Your Ocean (or Keller on Why It's Not as Simple as Saying We're Swimming in Post-Modern Waters)

Know Your Ocean (or Keller on Why It's Not as Simple as Saying We're Swimming in Post-Modern Waters)

There was a time when it was very chic to announce that we’re living in post-modern times, and that modernity’s rule of reason had been toppled by the empire of experience.


From a Christian perspective, this reading could often be accompanied with a call for the Church to move on from dealing with the evangelistic question of evidence, and instead get our game on and start creating tangible religious experiences.

However, in a little text-box towards the end of his very impressive Center Church, minister and church-planter Tim Keller questions this commonly stated analysis. Keller tends to have a lot of very perceptive things to say, so I’m inclined to listen in here. Is it really as simple as saying we live in an age of post-modernity, and why does it matter anyway?

Keller observes:

“…[I]t is probably more accurate to say we now live in a climate of late modernity, since the main principle of modernity was the autonomy of the individual and personal freedom over the claims of tradition, religion, family, and community.” (Center Church, 381, my italics).

Now, ok, on the surface this could look like scruples over semantics. But I reckon there’s something in this.

Keller’s point is that if we over-emphasise the “post-” bit of post-modern, then we won’t necessarily see the connection between our culture as it is today, and Western culture as it was earlier in the twentieth-century (and even way before that). Rather than a complete rejection of one worldview for another, Keller suggests the transition we’ve witnessed is better described as an intensification.

And at the heart of this intensified continuity is the persistent trend of over-turning any authority outside of the self. Elsewhere, Keller has put it like this:

The underlying thread that ties all this together is the inconceivability of a moral order based on an authority more fundamental than one’s own reason or experience. That was the founding principle of the Enlightenment, and that is the cornerstone of the most recent generation. So how can we say the Enlightenment is over?

On one level it’s vital to be aware of this just for ourselves. If there are going to be currents at work in the waters around us, then it’s important to be conscious of them rather than naive to their effect.

But here I want to consider how hearing this note of continuity particularly shapes us as we consider the Church’s mission.

Or to put it another way: knowing the currents of the ocean better, how do we then try and swim?


I’d love your input, but here are three spin-off thoughts for starters.

1. Two of the characteristics often attributed to the “post-modern age” are an openness to spirituality held alongside a frustration with organised religion. Indeed, I’ve written previously on some of the striking apologetic opportunities of a cultural re-focusing on ‘spirituality’.

However, Keller’s point highlights that we’d be naive to embrace these emphases without examining their underlying presuppositions regarding authority. Late-modernity means that, though we might sense that people are “hungry,” we should also wonder and engage with what kind of god such people are hungry for.

2. We also can’t get away from the question of the ethics of authority. This is right at the heart of objections to the ‘pre-modern’ perspective of ‘traditional religion’. And so, ultimately, this objection needs to be engaged with: How can one hold to a God who is all-powerful and yet is still all-loving? Is authority intrinsically evil and corrupt? Are we answering these questions?

The history of the Christian church is littered with examples of religious authority becoming a mask for abusive power plays. Consequently our society will also be littered with those who bear the scars of this abuse. However, I’m convinced that seeing a God who comes to give himself in love is a persistent stone in the shoe of those who feel an authoritative God can be dismissed as a despot. Though Jesus makes big claims on our lives, he demonstrates he can be trusted. His love is genuine because its been shown in action.

3. Keller’s observation also impacts how we speak into the narratives of freedom in our culture. I recently heard my Bishop, James Newcombe (+Carlisle) speak on Christian discipleship. He made the point that the nature of our cultural landscape means there’s a pressing need to teach the true meaning of freedom. Again, as above, often the nature of freedom is equated with the rejection of all human authority outside of one’s self. The proper goal of human development then becomes autonomy, and so the ‘content’ of human freedom becomes choice and ‘self-actualisation’. God is consequently left to play the part of a kill-joy, either out to spoil our fun or, worse still, shackling us with dangerous propositions and truth-claims.

And so we need to speak into these narratives and question the notion that freedom is essentially found in the self, as if we could be our own saviours. An ancient Anglican prayer gives us a good starting point here when it captures relating to the God of the Bible as knowing One “whose service is perfect freedom”.

What do you think? Is Keller’s point fair? What are the implications for mission and ministry?

If you want to explore this more, there’s a single footnote on p. 383 of Center Church where Keller lists some key writers who draw out this continuity between modernity and late-modernity, in particular the works of Zygmunt Bauman, Ed Docx and Luc Ferry, amongst others.