Postmodernism and Synods

South River Winery, Geneva, OHToday at a clergy conference with Diana Butler Bass the subject of discussion was postmodernism. To be fair, the subject was really congregational vitality and the results of the three-year research project she has completed for the Lilly Endowment. But when she began talking about the axes along which folks may differ (one axis is the liberal-conservative contiuum; the second is the “cultural style” continuum between what she calls “establishment” and “intentionality”; the third is between a “modern” worldview and a “postmodern” worldview), the discussion focused entirely on postmodernism, what it is, where the generational divide is between those who are “modernist” and those who are “postmodernist”, and so forth.

Interestingly, the clergy present, as a group, seemed to be of a mindset that said: “OK. Postmodernism is where it’s at. How do we move our congregations into postmodernism?” And my question is, “Is that what we’re supposed to be about?” Are we supposed to be moving people to adopt a postmodern view of reality? Is the postmodern worldview closer to God than the modern? Or should we simply be aware that it is one of many viewpoints from which people may be called to move closer to God? I think we are not called to move people into postmodernism.

We are called to move people into relationship with God, to assist them to hear, acknowledged, and respond to the presence and call of God in their lives. They can do that from any worldview — premodern, modern, postmodern, whatever.

On another note, and not specifically connected to the first, our chaplain (former PB Frank Griswold) introduced me to a wonderful quotation from St. Gregory Nazianzan, whose feast day this is. After retiring as Bishop of Constantinople, to a friend Gregory wrote the following words:

From councils and synods, I will keep myself at a distance, for I have experienced that most of them, to speak with moderation, are not worth much.

And then he was invited to take part in a synod by the emperor Theodosius, and he declined with these words:

I will not sit in the seat of synods while geese and cranes confusedly wrangle. Discord is there, and shameful things, hidden before, are gathered into one meeting-place of rivals.

And it is to synods of bishops that the Primates, in the proposed Anglican Covenant, would have us primarily entrust the theological teaching of the church…..

At the end of today’s session, three colleagues and I left the conference location and drove the country roads of northeastern Ohio, visiting vineyards and wineries. I much preferred the afternoon to the morning. (The picture is of the Methodist Episcopal Church that South River Winery, one of the places we visited, moved to their site and turned into a tasting room.  It can be rented for weddings and one of our number had been there before to officiate at a wedding in the former chapel.)



Filed under Anglican Comment, Christian Stuff, Episcopal

2 responses to “Postmodernism and Synods

  1. Actually, I didn’t say that “postmodernism is where its at,” or say that the mission of the church is to move people into a postmodern world view. That misconstrues both my argument and my passions. The discussion on postmodernism was meant to help clergy understand that this is the direction that western and western-influenced cultures are moving–much like the movements of cultures into the Renaissance or the Enlightenment–and that it is the job of congregations, clergy, councils, and theologians to rethink and practice faith in the emerging context.

    Postmodernism is NOT “where it is at” any more than modernity was “where it was at.” As a professional historian, I do not privilege any historical development over another. Medieval Christendom issued forth both good and evil; the Reformation issued forth both good and evil; the Enlightenment issued forth both good and evil; Modernism issued good and evil; Post-modernism will do the same. History is just history; human cultures are human cultures. Our job is to try and understand where we are in history, its perils and promises, and the textures of the cultures in which we live. History and culture may be used for good or ill; violence or peace; evil or blessing. The call of Christian people is to participate in the making of history in ways that reflect the beauty of God and the justice of God’s kingdom–knowing all the time that God is with us in the journey and acts as a gracious guide on the way.

    The emergence of post-modernism is only what is–the potentials for the making of beauty and justice in a postmodern guise is up to us in that journey with God. Worldviews are shifting as cultures undergo massive technological, economic, philosophical, scientific, and artistic transformations. Those shifts call for heroic, faithful engagement with the world as it is–and as it will be. My greatest hope is that these cultural shifts will call out profound, spiritual, honest, and creative Christian thinking and practice that will enable the Great Tradition(s) with which God has entrusted us to not only survive this cultural moment–but to be lively and beautiful that my daughter and her children will want to embrace the Christianity honors both the past and the future.

  2. breadandwine

    Wow, Diana! That was fast!

    And please read my post again — I didn’t say that YOU said postmodernism is where it’s at. What I said is that that seemed to be the mindset of many of my colleagues. I agree wholeheartedly that such a characterization of your argument would be a misconstrual. But I think it is a correct representation of the discussion amongst many of the clergy present.

    I do think that many parish clergy are of a “quick-fix” mindset which says, “OK … this is the latest thing, this can make my congregation successful, so how do I do it? How do I move people to this place?”

    I found your presentation helpful as a picture of the current state of the church and as a lens through which to understand some of our current “crises”. As a somewhat older “boomer” than yourself, and parent of a couple of 20-somethings, I find myself moving more deeply into the “postmodern” quadrant, and it helps to be able to name and identify that movement. But most of the clergy there today are much older … for them, this seems merely to look like another possible “programatic” move … something they can “do” or get their congregations to “do” that will fix problems.

    It isn’t that, obviously. It will be a struggle to get them to see that it isn’t that.

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